Meet the pilots

Tuesday, 22 June 2021 08:48 AM

As Mzansi's favourite green airline, we're famous for flying fans to some of the country's most beautiful places. But behind every big green machine are pilots equipped with exceptional skills to navigate our aircraft under wide-ranging flight conditions - taking our fans to their favourite destinations safely and efficiently. With such a demanding career, a typical day at the office is filled with excitement, challenges and spectacular views from the cockpit! So, we're giving these aviation heroes the shine they deserve with a colourful glimpse into the lives of some of our incredible pilots.

Tammy Beckley

Position: Senior First Officer

Years flying for 5 years

Activities outside the cockpit: Mom to a rambunctious 2-year-old, long distance road runner (have completed a few Comrades Marathons), flying smaller planes with my husband.

Muhammed Akhalwaya

Position: First Officer

Years flying for 2.5 years

Activities outside the cockpit: Hiking, squash, braaiing, spending time with family.

Mathys Kuhn

Position: Captain

Years flying for 20 years

Activities outside the cockpit: Flying a RV8 aircraft I have built myself over a period of 7 years and flying helicopters when possible.

What inspired you to become a pilot and how did you get started on your journey as a commercial pilot?

Tammy: From a child I was absolutely addicted to the series “Air Wolf” and I think that’s when the flying bug bit. I don’t think I ever really thought flying was an option for me as a career until the day I joined my brother on his Introductory flight. That 30-minute flight out of Rand Airport was life-changing for me - all I have wanted to do since that day was be up in the clouds, and nothing could ever compare.

Muhammed: When I was about 4 years old, I went to the airport viewing deck. It was the first time I was so close to aircraft and I was amazed that something so big could fly. About a year later, I went on my first flight - experiencing the take-off was exhilarating. From that day onward, my mind was set on becoming a pilot. It is the only career I’ve ever envisioned myself doing.

Mathys: When I was 16, my dad organised a flight for me in a security helicopter at the Vaal Reefs mine. That, combined with a television documentary on flying helicopters for the air force inspired me. I started flying at the local gliding club, working all day on the airfield and sometimes only flying for 5 minutes, as this was all I could afford as a student. However, my life took a detour and I could only start a flying career at the age of 36. I do not regret my choice to become a pilot for a second!

What do you love the most about being a pilot, and why?

Tammy: Not wanting to sound like a cliché, I'd have to say, our view is the best office view by far! But more than that, the amazing people and different types of personalities that we meet daily, is just so cool and never gets boring.

Muhammed: I enjoy interacting with different people, daily. I never wanted to be stuck indoors behind a desk. Also, when flying, we are treated to some spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Mathys: The sense of freedom and achievement. When the weather is challenging, the responsibility to look after the safety of everyone on board is especially rewarding. Just being in the air is a privilege.

What is your favourite destination and why?

Tammy: Mauritius. It’s such a lovely flight. When the weather is good, it is an absolutely beautiful approach over the mountains, looking at the beautiful ocean. Unfortunately, we get no actual beach time in Mauritius while on the job; and once we land, we fuel up and get back home.

Muhammed: Cape Town. Having Table Mountain as the backdrop when flying into Cape Town is stunning. Cape Town is also a great destination as it is picturesque, with lots of outdoor activities to keep you busy.

Mathys: George. The Garden Route is one of the most beautiful places in the country, and I enjoy the landings at George Airport.

What are the day-to-day challenges facing pilots, and what did you face when starting?

Tammy: Inclement weather makes our jobs a little more "interesting", but we have been thoroughly trained and prepared for this type of thing.

As for challenges, I’ve faced as a woman – I started flying 20 years ago, so it was still pretty new for people to hear that you were a young female pilot. I think there has always been an underlying pressure (self-imposed) to not fail at anything I do and try that little bit harder to prove that my place in the cockpit was earned.

Muhammed: The biggest challenge on a day-to-day basis is the weather. We might start at a sunny airport with clear skies and head to an airport with poor visibility and low clouds. This requires us to plan in advance, to ensure we have sufficient fuel and options, should we not be able to land at our destinations. We’ve always got to be thinking ahead. Summertime also presents a challenge in the Johannesburg area, with thunderstorms.

The challenges I faced when starting, was paying for flight school and finding my first job after getting my pilot’s license. Training is very expensive and most jobs require you to have some experience. However, being fresh out of flight school means you don’t have much experience.

Mathys: To remain professional and not become complacent, even if you do the same thing day in and day out.

How have you had to adapt to your job under the COVID-19 pandemic, and how has COVID-19 affected your job?

Tammy: We have all had to get used to the idea of wearing our masks for the whole day and taking a little extra time to sanitise the cockpit. I think it’s a compromise everyone is willing to make to keep us all safe and able to fly.
Unfortunately, the COVID-`19 pandemic has affected the whole airline industry, and so many amazing pilots have been left without work.

Muhammed: COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the aviation industry. The aviation industry was fairly stable, however, with travel virtually  coming to a halt due to COVID-19, many airlines have cut back significantly on flying. This had led to many people in aviation losing jobs. There is however an upward  trend, so things are starting to improve.

Mathys: Managing passengers in terms of COVID-19 regulations has affected day-to-day operations.

What are your career aspirations and highlights?

Tammy: One of my biggest aspirations is to one day be a commander at Comair. I think this will go down as one of my proudest moments.
The command upgrade procedure in Comair is extremely stringent and complex, and saying it is intensive is a huge understatement - anyone that wears the 4 bars for Comair is incredibly talented and accomplished.

Muhammed: I look forward to becoming a captain at Comair.

A highlight of my career was most certainly my first solo flight - the feeling of operating an aircraft for the first time by yourself cannot be described. My two other career highlights were the day I obtained my commercial pilot’s license and the day I operated my first flight for Comair.

Mathys: The highlight of my career is becoming an instructor on the Boeing 737 for Comair.

I have one aspiration left and that is to teach my son to fly a Boeing 737 at Comair before I have to retire in 7 years from now. He will complete his commercial flying license soon, and hopefully, we will be blessed to share the cockpit of a Comair aircraft one day.

If you were mentoring a future you, what career advice would you give aspiring pilots?

Tammy: I would say to myself “don’t rush”. No matter where I was in my career, I was always looking at flying bigger machines and working for bigger companies. Sometimes I got very impatient with myself as it wasn’t happening as quickly as I had hoped. However, now that I look back at my days flying "smaller" planes in not so "ideal” places, I think that it all just made me appreciate more and more where I am today and not take a single take-off in a Boeing for granted.

Muhammed: Never give up! At times the dream of flying may look unachievable however, if you continue working hard and giving it your best, you will eventually make it.

Mathys: No matter how difficult the path to success might be, Never Ever Give Up. My motto in life has always been: “If you can dream can be it”.

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