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Welcome to another episode of Airways Profile! Chris, thank you for taking the time to be with us. I hope you are ready because this is going to be a long afternoon. Let’s begin with the simplest of the questions I will ask you today – maybe not, but we’ll talk about it later. What’s your name and what’s your role in aviation?
My name is Chris Pohl, I am a Senior Airbus A350 Training Captain TRI/TRE (Type Rating Instructor/Type Rating Examiner).
Why a Pilot? Where did it all start?
It wasn’t until I was 12 that I first flew, it was on a TAA (Trans Australian Airways) Boeing 727. We were going on a family holiday to the Gold Coast, Queensland. As we walked up the aircraft steps my father pushed me in front of him and asked the flight attendant if “Christopher could see the flight deck.” The next think I knew, I was offered to stay in the cockpit and strapped into the jump-seat behind the Captain by the Flight Engineer for takeoff.
I was completely mesmerized and excited by this amazing experience and as we rotated into the sky, I knew at that moment, that I wanted to become an airline Pilot, I have no other memories of that family holiday.
That’s an amazing story. I know you are a Pilot for Virgin Atlantic (VS) that is based in UK. And you mentioned a family trip to Gold Coast, Queensland that appears to be in Australia. How did you end up literally on the other side of the globe?
My airline career has taken me all around the world. I began my airline career with Ansett Airlines flying the Fokker F-27 then the Airbus A320 as launch customer in 1989. I left Australia at the end of 1989 after an Australia wide Industrial dispute.
I arrived in the UK in 1990 and cleaned aircraft while converting my Australian ATPL to a UK ATPL then I flew for Air Europe on the Fokker 100, KLM F100 1991, Swissair F100 1991, Eurocypria A320, Larnaca, Cyprus 1991-93, Air Lanka (SriLankan) A320 1993, Virgin Atlantic A340-300 1994 to today, (Captain same year). 1998 Training Captain, and now: Airbus A330/A350 TRI/TRE 24,000 total hours. (20,000 Airbus).
That’s an impressive quantity of planes! I am going to ask you later which one is your favorite, but now I am more curious about your first impact on a wide body. You have just told me that you flew on the Fokker 100 and Airbus A320 for quite a while, and then you ended up in Virgin Atlantic on an Airbus A340. Where is the main difference between flying a Fokker 100 or a narrow-body compared to a wide-body?
I flew the F100 and A320’s around Europe and this was all short haul flying which means you normally end up back where you started at the end of the day. Short Haul flying is all about the flying, but Long Haul flying is totally different, it’s an adventure and a journey to somewhere very different.
The main difference is not so much the size of the aircraft, but the concept of flying hundreds of people across oceans and continents, sometimes to the other side of the world. I remember the first time I flew more than 7 hours and thought of the incredible distance I had travelled.
My longest airborne flight was 16hr, 15 min in 1995 from Hong Kong (Kai Tak) to London, the long way over Burma and India as we didn’t have Chinese overflight clearance. I had Princess Diana and her entourage on-board this A340-300 flight.
You mentioned the Kai Tak Airport in Hong Kong. This is – actually was – one of the most difficult airports to approach in the world for a pilot. What can you tell us about it? What passed through your mind when you were approaching the Kai Tak?
Because of the unique topography and population density of Hong Kong, there was very little space to build an airport. The Kai Tak airport was built into the Hong Kong Harbour, which didn’t allow a straight in approach. This airport was originally designed for smaller, slower turbo prop aircraft, but it became a major hub and soon, large airliners like 747’s flew in from all over the world.
The approach required pilots to fly down an IGS (Instrument Guidance System) towards the top of a hill which had a large black and white checkerboard the size of a drive-in theatre screen on it. If you didn’t see the checkerboard at a certain minimum altitude, you would make a go-around, by applying full power and immediately turning away from the hill.
If you did see the checkerboard, you continued your descent and made a curved right-hand turn of 90 degrees until you saw and lined up with the runway. What passed through my mind each time I flew into Hong Kong was how unique and exciting it was to fly this pilot-renown approach. It felt like you were flying in-between the high-rise buildings. As you banked during the turn, you could look directly into the apartment blocks.
Because of the tropical weather in Hong Kong, I think most of my approaches were in the rain on the edge of a storm.
That is incredible. I watched some videos on YouTube about the Kai Tak approach and.. it’s quite impressive! You also changed a lot of Airlines during your long career. Can you tell me more about each change?
I left my Australian GA jobs (which I didn’t mention) each time to gain more flying hours and especially twin-engine hours to have the minimum 2500 hours required for an interview with the 3 main airlines in Australia (in 1987) TAA, Ansett and Qantas.
I was interviewed by Ansett and Qantas and was offered jobs with both. The Ansett job was direct-entry First Officer job flying the F-27 up and down the Northern Queensland Coast, whereas the Qantas job was 747 Second Officer.
However, in 1987, it was anticipated it would take 12 years to become a First Officer and I couldn’t imagine myself waiting until I was in my 30’s just to get my hands on the controls so I took the Ansett offer.
You mentioned that you left Australia after a “wide Industrial dispute”. What happened?
In August 1989, AFALPA, the Domestic Pilots Union which represented 1,647 Pilots for TAA and Ansett demanded pay rises and the Government became involved and the short story is that all Domestic pilots (1,647) resigned en-mass and 1,100 left Australia over a 6 month period as neither airline flew. I was one of those 1100, the remainder gave up flying or retired.
How did you feel when you had to left your home country? What was in your mind?
At 25 years of age, I naively thought that the Airlines and Australian Government would come to an agreement and I would return to my job with Ansett. The longer it went on, I realized this was not going to happen and I looked at how to continue my career overseas. I had originally treated it as a holiday and went surfing in Hawaii, Snowboarding in Colorado and ended up in the UK at Gatwick Airport, cleaning aircraft, airside when the money ran out.
Even though I was a qualified A320 Pilot with 3500 hours, I had to re-qualify for a UK ATPL and re-sat 14 exams and completed a UK Instrument Rating. This took me about 3 months while I earned money cleaning and I immediately landed an F100 job at Gatwick with Air Europe.
Six months later, Air Europe went into receivership and I found short term contracts on the F100 with KLM CityHopper then Swissair before the Europcypria A320 job became available. I was one of very few qualified A320 pilots available in Europe who wasn’t flying for a major European airline.
I lived in Larnaca, Cyprus and loved the flying but it was Long Haul that beckoned. One last adventure flying the A320 for Air Lanka (now Srilankan) based in Colombo flying around India, the Maldives and across the Singapore and Bangkok, my first semi-taste of Long Haul.
You became Captain the same year you landed (literally!) on VS. What is the main difference in being seated on the left or on the right?
When I first applied to Virgin Atlantic in 1990 after converting my Australian ATPL to the UK CAA ATPL, I was told that my experience wasn’t “appropriate” as I had mainly “glass-cockpit” experience and they only flew old Boeing 747-100 and -200 aircraft.
At the end of 1993, while I was in Sri Lanka, I read in Flight International Magazine (remember this is pre-internet) that Virgin Atlantic was to take delivery of some ex-Northwest Airlines A340-300s and I immediately contacted Virgin again, this time by phone to say I was now “very-qualified” to fly the A340 as I had even more“glass-cockpit” experience.
I made that phone-call on a Monday, by Thursday I was interviewed in London (and flew the 747 simulator) the following month I was sent to Airbus Miami on one of the first A340 courses.
Virgin had a requirement (still applicable today) of a minimum of 6000 flying hours to hold a Command. I joined Virgin at the beginning of 1994 with over 6000 hours. With the introduction of the first of eight new A340-300’s Virgin Atlantic’s fleet grew from eight (Boeing 747’s) to 16 long haul aircraft within 18 months.
Many of the of the Pilots joining Virgin around the same time as me, were from the military and generally had between 1500 to 4000 flying hours. So, when they needed more Captains, I was in the right place at the right time, with the right experience, for the first time in my 12 year career.
And I am pretty sure this was a hell of the first time. You are also a Training Captain. How so? Where you inspired by the possibility to teach something to new Pilots, or there is another motivation behind this choice?
When I was 19, I found it difficult to find flying jobs, so I did an instructor rating and found that not only did I love training, but I discovered that I had a knack for it, because I always maintained my empathy of remembering what it was like for me at different stages of my career and I still do that now training airline Pilots and Captains.
I even meet new Pilots at the front of the airport to show then how to navigate through to the crew-room and the aircraft on their first day. It’s always somebody’s first day at something when training.
The training almost started by accident. After 2 years in Virgin, living in the SE of England, near Gatwick airport, my (now) Australian wife didn’t like the UK weather, especially when I would return from the Caribbean in the Winter with a tan, so we moved to a warmer climate in SW France near Toulouse (the home of Airbus).
While living there, Virgin was sending Pilots to more A340 courses at Airbus, but asked if I could meet these crews and assist then with their SOP (Standard Operating Procedures) which had minor differences to Airbus SOP’s, This became an un-official training role, which led to a more permanent role of Line Training then simulator Instructing (TRI) and Examining (TRE) both roles and qualification I sill maintain.
I spend about 4-6 days each month in the simulator, training and examining and about 3-4 long haul flights each month. I only flew 1 non-training flight in 2020. Training will be even busier now that we’re retraining our A330 and A340 Pilots back from furlough onto the A350.
You mentioned that you are a Pilot for the A330 and the A350. I assume you need to be qualified to fly a plane. How does this work? And where is the main difference between a A330 and a A350?
The A330 and A350 aircraft are both large twin engine, twin aisle, Long Haul Airbus airliners, although technically the A350 is a larger more advanced/updated and more efficient version of the A330. What Airbus has achieved, is to build a new model (A350) which flies and operates the same as the (older model) A330, with the same procedures.
The equivalent would be like driving a top of the range 2021 Mercedes S Class when you’ve previously driven the same model from say 1990? They’re the same or very similar to drive, but they’re very different under the hood.
The A330/A350 is a unique Type rating known as a CTR (Common Type Rating) and is managed in airlines that have both aircraft as SFF (Single Fleet Flying). Although Airbus recommends that A330 pilots require an approved course to also fly the A350 and once checked-out, they can fly either or both types as a Common Type.
Virgin Atlantic was doing this until Covid-19, when we grounded both our A340 and A330 fleets. This meant that pilots not (common) type rated on the A350 were grounded. We are now in the process of completing CTR training to qualify these pilots onto the A350, to once again operate the A330 and A350 as a Single Fleet.
The A330 and A350 are very different aircraft when comparing them technically and engineering wise, although Airbus has gone to great lengths to make the A350 flight deck and it’s flying characteristic as similar to the A330 as possible to allow A330 pilots to easily convert to the A350 and fly both types safely in day-to-day operations.
The best way to summarize the differences between the A330 and A350, is that the Airbus A350 Pilot CTR course takes 10 days (including simulator) and the Engineers course takes 2 months.
Why you define your job with VS your “dream job”? Is not flying the most important part of a Pilot?
When I first arrived in the UK, I wanted to fly Long Haul and applied to British Airways and Virgin. BA weren’t recruiting and Virgin replied to say my “glass-cockpit” experience was not appropriate to fly their 747’s I wanted to fly Long Haul after 6000 hours short haul and pictured myself as a Long Haul International Airline Captain.
Virgin Atlantic always had the coolest image, still does. I joined when Virgin had only eight aircraft and I’ve seen it grow and been proud to be involved in it’s expansion from a niche airline to a Major World Airline, yet keeping it’s fun family feel. We call it “Virgin Flair.”
You basically flew the entire lineup of Airbus. Ever wanted to get on the A380? What’s your idea about the entire project of the A380?
At one stage Virgin Atlantic had orders for 6 A380’s to replace the ageing Boeing 747’s. However, 9/11, the UK Terror Attacks, the 2008 World Recession and other events, meant that the A380 was quickly becoming a “white elephant” airliner and I’m glad we substituted these orders for the world-beating A350-1000.
What is the path that a person needs to do to become a Pilot? What does a person need to become a Pilot?
To become a Pilot and stay employed you need to be self-motivated and always looking to the next step in your career. For a long and successful commercial career, you need Hours and Type Rating. Avoid flying old aircraft, always work to get hours (experience) on the newest and most modern airliner available to stay employable.
In 1989, when I was flying the F27 with Ansett, I was offered a place on the B727 (which I loved), but I bid for the A320 which I first flew in 1989 as I knew it was the future. When I joined Virgin Atlantic I wanted to fly the Boeing 747, but I stayed on the Airbus fleet to always fly the newest Airbus airliners.
Also, remember that flying is an international career, don’t wait for the “perfect job” to fall at your doorstep, be prepared to travel and see the world to gain flying experience and more importantly “life-experience”. I lived and flew from six different countries before landing my dream job with Virgin Atlantic.
What is the biggest fear for a Pilot?
Getting your first job to get the experience and the type rating to stay employed.
And what’s the biggest mistake a Pilot can make?
Thinking it’s an easy career and that all Pilots drive Porsches or Ferraris…some drive Lamborghinis…
Is there anything that makes you proud of being a Pilot?
I’m proud that I’ve achieved what I started when I was 12 and, although it wasn’t easy, I never lost sight of my goal, no matter how far it seemed at times. I’m proud that I have a job that never feels like work, it’s been an amazing adventure.
Why have you started an Instagram account? What was the idea behind this project of yours?
I began my @captainchris Instagram account at the end of 2019 at the recommendation of my teenage daughter to share my photos of the new Virgin Atlantic A350-1000. This time a year ago I had 2500 followers, these were mainly plane-spotters and young aviators keen to follow a career as a Pilot. I used my posts to inspire and encourage these people.
Due to COVID-19, I was grounded at my home in SW France from March 16 and unable to get to the UK to fly. During my 80 days on furlough, I treated my @captainchris posts on Instagram like work and I set myself three new goals for my posts;
- To promote Virgin Atlantic, by highlighting that we were still successfully flying, operating a cargo-only operation and to correct and counteract the negative press in the Mainstream Media.
- To encourage people to buy airline tickets to support the Aviation and Travel Industries with my now famous #buyairlineticketslikeyouboughttoiletpaper meme.
- To support all my grounded colleagues worldwide, by showing how we are operating during the pandemic and the safety precautions we were taking. I’m currently highlighting the re-training of grounded Pilots onto the A350.
How has COVID-19 impacted your life? And how did you live your days stuck at home?
I landed into London from Boston on March 15 2020 and was concerned to get back to France (where I live) as borders were closing, which they did. I then spent 80 days in Lockdown with my son, at our property in SW France. The first month felt like a holiday and I enjoyed the time at home, although as each day passed, I realized that this was more serious than anyone expected.
It was during this second period that I began contacting colleagues at each end of the seniority list and their careers, as we speculated our futures. I used my time at home to build up my Instagram account, to counteract the negative press about Virgin Atlantic, to encourage people to keep flying and to buy airline tickets, plus to post uplifting message to keep my colleagues (and me) feeling positive.
I also took up running 10 kilometers every day for 60 consecutive days to increase my health and therefore reduce my risk of catching Covid-19. I continued running throughout the world when I returned to flying and finished 2020 running a total of 1950 kms.
While I was locked-down in France with my son, my wife and daughter were locked-down in Melbourne Australia where my daughter completed her last year of High School online. They both managed to “escape” from Australia at the end on November. We spoke every day via FaceTime sometimes several times, no mater where in the world I was.
I went back to flying in June, just as soon as the French/UK border opened and have been commuting back and forth to Toulouse each week via Paris, Amsterdam or Madrid, as the 6 daily direct BA and Easyjet flights stopped. The current UK Lockdown means I can’t get back t France, so it’s the hotel life for me between duties.
What would you say to another Pilot that is currently on furlough, maybe for the first time, about how to deal with the situation?
Firstly, you need to understand that it’s Not Your Fault. A career in Aviation is all about timing, being in the right place at the right time with the right qualifications. Each time I’ve become unemployed, I’ve immediately searched the world to find ANY job available to keep me flying.
I never planned to go to the UK or Holland or Switzerland or Cyprus or Sri Lanka, I went where the flying was and each time, I had an amazing adventure, plus gaining flying experience along the journey.
I was told by an experienced Captain that “you’re not a real Airline Pilot, until you’ve been laid-off at least once” Don’t give up, just do something everyday to get you closer to your dream job.
You fly basically only on the long-haul. Any trick you want to suggest to people who suffer from jet-lag? How do you manage it?
Jetlag is real and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t affect them. My way to deal with Jetlag is to never wear a watch and never think about what time it is at Home. When you arrive anywhere in the world, if it’s breakfast time have breakfast, if it’s dinner time go out.
Live by the local time of wherever you are, and if you’re tired at 7pm, then go to bed, if you’re awake at 3am, then find something to do. One of the best things about Jetlag is the excuse for a “tactical nap” at any time of the day, on a layover or when you return home.
And now, let’s do a bit of back and forth!
Favorite plane: Airbus A350-1000
Less favorite plane: Don’t have one Any aircraft that I’ve flown, I’ve loved for the experience.
A330 or A350? Easy answer, A350.
A plane that you would have love to fly but you actually haven’t: Concorde.
Favorite airline (you can’t say VS!): If I can’t say Virgin then Air Europe for the fun or Air Lanka for the wonderful people and the amazing experience.
Favorite airport: Kai Tak. Today JFK.
Most chaotic airport: JFK
The phrase you say most to an ATC (callsign excluded): G’day (you can take the Aussie out of Australia, but you can’t take Australia out of the Aussie).
The highest number of planes in front of you before takeoff: More than 50 at JFK one Winter, we taxied for 3 hours before getting airborne.
The highest number of holding before landing at Heathrow: Approximately 20, in four different Holding patterns due to Low Visibility Procedures.
Two engines or four engines? Every Pilot like the feel of four thrust levers, although today’s efficient twins like the Boeing 787 and A350 are the future and I’m all about the Future.
There is just another question I want to ask you. You know, there is a saying that says “find a job that you love and you will never work a day in your life.” Is this true for you?
This is very true in my case, flying for Virgin Atlantic genuinely doesn’t feel like a job, it has it’s moments but it’s my life and if I didn’t get paid to do it, I’d have find a way to fund this lifestyle.
This is seriously the last one! Is there anyone you want to give a shout out to?
To my Dad, John Pohl, who follows me everyday on Instagram from his home on Phillip Island near Melbourne, for steering me into the flight deck and for supporting my dreams. Also Sir Richard Branson for creating a positive and open working environment within his Virgin Empire which focuses on its people before its customers.
Chris, that was amazing. Working on this interview with you was an incredible experience, made even more incredible by your stories and experiences. Thanks for your time, thanks for your patience and for your availability.
On behalf of Airways, a big thanks also goes to Virgin Atlantic for making this interview possible, and of course to all of our readers without whom this interview would not have even been conceived.
Thank you all for being here with us, for reading us, and for continuing to follow us. See you in the next episode, take care of yourself and each other!
Featured image and all photos courtesy of @captainchris and Virgin Atlantic.