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The Darwin Project: Heading north has its ups and downs

written by australianaviation.com.au | February 18, 2020

This story from the June 2019 Australian Aviation Magazine introduces Aero Circus, a group of Brisbane-based GA pilots dedicated to promoting safer flying through education and entertainment. In this, the first many opinion articles for Australian Aviation, Aero Circus looked at why many newly qualified pilots go north – and what it takes to crack a job.

Many pilots looking for their first job in aviation make the journey north to the Top End of Australia in search of fame, fortune and a dream career. Why? Because that is where most of the work exists for new CPLs with little or no flying experience outside their training.

Flight Standards director and CFI, Cameron Marchant

Until now it has been difficult for pilots looking to break into the industry to find reliable information. Most of the aviation training industry does not recognise where the fundamental training problems lie. There can be an abyss between what a pilot learns on the way to the commercial pilot licence, and what the industry needs a pilot to be able to do from day one.

The Darwin Project was conceived by Aero Circus to help new pilots find their first job in aviation without having to spend months (or years) working out what the industry problems really are, and to avoid failure before ever getting to first base on the job search playing field. We visited Darwin to check out all aspects of the job.

‘Going North’ has been a traditional passage for many new Aussie pilots, simply because there are more pilot jobs to be found in the Top End for two key reasons: climate and landscape dictate that aviation is often the only viable form of public transport, and few people want to abandon life in the big city to go live and work there.


We hear about a lot of pilots who go north looking for work but never find it. Given the Armageddon-like shortage for pilots that we hear about regularly in the mainstream media (you know, the ones who think everything smaller than an A380 is a Cessna), something must be going on.

Exploring the problem

In search of answers, and with limited available time on the ground in Darwin, Aero Circus headed straight for the only place we would feel at home (other than the pub). A flying school.

Flight Standards is the only flight training organisation in Darwin. They also own or manage a few GA and charter operations. Aero Circus asked Flight Standards director and CFI Cameron Marchant what he thought were the problems facing new commercial pilots looking for their first job.

“At best, a flying school would train a CPL to fly an aeroplane within the tolerances of the MOS. They might prepare the pilot with a set of technical skills but not necessarily a set of job skills,” he said.

Marchant says that the problem is worse for those coming out of the larger flying colleges that sell the course on the basis of offering the prospect of a job with an airline. Then, at the end of the course, tell the trainee he or she can’t be an airline pilot until they go into the GA industry. But they don’t prepare you for that.

“That’s what I see as being the core problem. That’s why a lot of pilots coming up (to Darwin) can’t secure a role because they have not been prepared well enough for them.”

Marchant says the industry is also witnessing a deterioration in general standards in GA. “This is because the various flying organisations must have pilots to function. They will progressively accept a lower standard, and that is elevating the risk to industry.

“Two years ago, we saw the wings ripped off a Cessna 210 and two young kids were killed as a result of that. Neither of them had been in the Territory for more than six months. That makes the industry look bad. It’s not really the industry that’s bad, or the aeroplanes within it. It’s a function of training and mentoring and supervision. That is the heart of the problem.”

Another perspective

Just down the road, Steve Bolle is the Chief Pilot at Integral Digital, a Darwin-based group whose core business is flying to remote areas to provide on-site computer support. Integral Digital only conducts private ops, so they do not need an AOC.

“The industry is a shambles. I don’t know if there is an answer at the moment,” said Bolle. “Unfortunately, the product that comes out of the flying schools is not very good. CASA have killed the small flying schools in the country towns and encouraged the ‘sausage factories’ in their place.”

Bolle also believes instructors are not paid enough with a subsequent reduction in the numbers of good instructors: “The industry needs to fill the gap between what the flying schools produce and what the industry needs.”

As an example, he said he would be happy if some of the newbies could give a proper taxi call. At Integral Digital they are often forced to teach the basics – like crosswind landings – to new recruits who have not been properly taught such fundamental skills.

Bolle also thinks that ageing aircraft is a growing problem. “The issue is that the new aircraft can’t do the job like the old classics such as the C206, C210, C310, Lances and Saratogas, even the King Air. There is nothing to replace this stuff.”

And one final point: “Training schools don’t have the aircraft that are used in the Top End.”

Other operators complained that a lot of little things don’t get picked up in basic training. For example, proper use of trim and rudder, flying over-sized circuits, and poor radio technique are far too common in the new CPLs.

With a fleet of 42 fixed-wing aircraft located throughout Central Australia, the Top End and Cairns, Chartair has been servicing outback Australia for more than 40 years and is the biggest provider in the country of the Federal Government-supported “mail plane” services.

Chartair Chief Pilot Michael Kohn

Michael Kohn, Chief Pilot at Chartair, believes a leading cause of the industry’s problems is flying schools employing instructors with no industry experience: “They cannot teach what they have not experienced. For example, there is no appreciation of commercial pressure being passed on from the instructors to the students because they have never experienced it themselves in the real world.”

Pilot shortage – fact or fiction?

On the subject of a pilot shortage, Kohn is fairly adamant. “There is no pilot shortage,” he said, “but there is a shortage of experienced pilots.” This echoed the sentiments of most if not all the operators we spoke with.

In terms of pilot numbers, Cameron Marchant is not convinced that there is a pilot shortage as such. But he says the numbers of pilots walking around Darwin airport looking for work has dwindled. He believes this may be because the number of pilots coming out of the flying school courses has fallen, possibly due to the increasing attraction of alternative careers.

He also does not believe that the major airlines’ recent ventures directly into training will be successful, mainly because they will struggle to staff the new academies.

From within the gloom, something emerges

By now we were starting to see patterns forming. Not just from the operators we have quoted, but also from those who did not want to be directly quoted in this article for one reason or another. Clearly the industry believes that the current problems can be traced back to flying schools.

Underpinning that, the government has created an economic and regulatory environment where the schools are forced into a particular set of behaviours just to survive. In effect, they are being paid by either the government or the individual student pilots to meet a set of criteria created by the regulator.

The industry generally has no input into this system. There are no metrics gathered or published about how well each flying school’s products (graduates) meet the needs of their ultimate customers (employers). In any other industry, this system would be laughed out of town.

We think the current system is a little ironic. It was created by the regulator whose primary focus is on air safety. Yet the commercial pilots who emerge from it are not necessarily sufficiently skilled to move straight into the industry in a useful capacity.

Now we have some understanding of the high-level problems that face new pilots in aviation. But what can we do about it? What are the specific issues that the new pilot will need to address in order to become successful at finding that elusive first job?

DIY time

It is now up to the flying school graduates themselves to identify the problems and do something about them. Employers do not have the time or inclination to fix this problem. Nor should they be expected to.

It is an unfortunate fact that new CPL’s looking for their first job will be assessed and rejected, usually without ever knowing that the process has occurred. Rarely is any negative feedback provided by the potential employer in these situations. Therefore, hopeful employees cannot modify their behaviour or work on shortcomings before the next attempt. The cycle continues, and the serial-reject concludes that there is no work available in the industry.

Marchant says the ‘holy trinity’ of aviation training is skills, knowledge and attitudes. The flight schools may teach the skills and sometimes the knowledge, but almost never teach the attitudes associated with what is needed to succeed in the commercial environment.

In his experience, pilots new to the Northern Territory have usually never seen a dirt runway and have no idea how to handle it properly. Some have never even landed on grass. They often have never had to dodge around any weather or deal with a strong crosswind.

“Some pilots don’t know how to taxi properly or how to make a make an AIP-compliant radio call at a Class C aerodrome. They are expected to know how to operate in a Class C aerodrome when they are applying for a job at one.”

According to Marchant, many pilots take themselves out of contention during the initial flight because they don’t know how to get to the holding point. “That’s because they didn’t bother to look at the ERSA beforehand.”

When you are already under pressure and unfamiliar with the airport layout, you need everything on your side. That is not the time to be figuring out taxiway names and rules.

Steve Bolle says “some new pilots have never seen a Declared Density chart”. As you will soon discover in the Territory, using Declared Density is often the only legal way to prepare a flight plan when flying to remote strips.

In general, most chief pilots will think that if a prospective employee is lacking in knowledge in one area there is a good chance he/she will be ignorant in many others.

First contact – don’t stuff it up

According to Marchant, every pilot who goes up to Darwin will get looked at. The initial discussion will be a test to see what they know and their attitudes. This will tell the Chief Pilot whether they are worth investing in. Sometimes the discussion period will be less than a minute because of something that was said, done or conveyed. That may be all the time it takes to determine that a person does not have the right temperament and preparation required.

Due to unconscious incompetence (fat, dumb and happy to the rest of us), often a candidate will fail the test without even knowing that they have been sitting it.

So, what can a CPL hoping to break into the industry do about it?

For some time now, Aero Circus has been helping pilots to bridge that gap between what some flying schools produce and a safer, more competent and employable pilot.

Identify your weaknesses

Find out what your weaknesses really are. How do you do that?

You could ask your instructor, but they are not likely to admit to their own shortcomings. They can’t teach you what they don’t know.

You could ask a more experienced pilot. Probably better than nothing, but almost certainly not enough to get you to where you want to go.

You could try a different flying school that has a good track record with producing students that consistently and easily gain jobs. However, identifying these might be difficult without a massive amount of costly research.

At Aero Circus, we believe there is a better, simpler and cheaper way. We will be sharing details of this new concept in the coming weeks.

Aero Circus was formed by a small group of pilots with different experience levels from RPL to Grade 1 Instructor. Their aim is to bridge the gap between what the CASA syllabus teaches and what a truly safe or employable pilot needs to know. They achieve this by regularly publishing articles on various aspects of flying skills at aerocircus.com.au as well as providing detailed assessments of a pilot’s practical flying skills.

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Comment (1)

  • Rosemary


    I have just read this article and I think WOW! What the heck is a freshly minted CPL supposed to do? I have a son who got his CPL in March 2020…just in time for a global pandemic to all but decimate the travel industry. So he got his Night VFR and instrument rating in the meantime in an attempt to make himself more employable. Now he is in search of a job as a pilot wherever he can. He packed up his car and is driving from Sydney to Cairns to Darwin in search of the illusive first start. All self funded and all alone. I am shocked to read that his chances could all be over in a 1 minute “interview”. He is articulate, intelligent,damn hardworking, respectful, adventurous and obsessed with planes and flying. I hope that all those who are experienced remember what it is like to start out and give these newbies more than a minute and support,encourage and give ’em a chance when you can.

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