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Virgin fires up its simulators to get pilots flight-ready

written by Hannah Dowling | December 3, 2021
Virgin Boeing 737s in Melbourne YMML, as shot by Victor Pody
Virgin Boeing 737s in Melbourne YMML, as shot by Victor Pody.

Virgin Australia has its flight simulators working around the clock to prepare its pilots to return to the skies after 18 months of border closures.

It comes after Virgin announced last month that it was preparing to stand all of its staff back up to their roles by December, and hire “hundreds of new roles” in preparation for an increase in flight demand, as Australia begins to ease its remaining border restrictions.

The airline is currently working hard to get all 915 pilots back up to speed, after many have spent months stood down from their position, or otherwise operating on significantly reduced schedules.

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Speaking with The Australian, Melbourne base manager captain Darren Gray said that keeping all 600 Melbourne and Sydney-based pilot current throughout the pandemic posed a “unique challenge”, particularly given that flights between Sydney and Melbourne – once among the world’s busiest routes – fell to just one return flight per day while both cities navigated strict lockdowns.

According to Gray, over the last 18 months, most pilots have seen their average annual flight hours fall from around 800 to just 250.

“It makes it very difficult to give them the amount of flying they need, so we’ve been putting them through the simulator more often than we normally do to make sure they have got their skills at the level the public expect,” he said.

Meanwhile, Melbourne-based first officer Tim Quirk is rapidly preparing to jump back in the cockpit after being stood down in the early days of the pandemic.

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“Your motor memory comes back very quickly, it’s so entrenched in you – it doesn’t feel like we’ve been away from the job for two years,” Quirk said.

It comes as Virgin prepares to dramatically increase its domestic operations as border restrictions continue to ease, and as the airline prepares to reinstate part of its international network, with flights to Fiji beginning on 16 December.

Virgin last month announced that it will soon welcome seven additional Boeing 737 Next-Generation aircraft to its fleet, and will be hiring hundreds of new staff to accommodate.

The industry has long been concerned about the logistical challenges of retraining pilots following nearly two years out of the game and doing so quickly enough to keep up with surging demand as travel restrictions ease.

In September, the Australian Federation of Air Pilots called on the government to introduce a Job Ready Pilot program to get unemployed Australian pilots trained and ready to return to their roles.

According to a survey performed by the union, there were over 1,000 pilots in Australia that were then without work, which could impede on the expected surge in demand for air travel once restrictions ease throughout the country.

Noting how critical it is for pilots to retain their skills and proficiency, and how fundamental the aviation industry is for the nation’s economic recovery, the union, in collaboration with Ansett Aviation Training, developed and proposed a three-tier training package, which includes medical and ASIC renewals, simulator training sessions and flight training, in order to return pilots back to operational status.

AFAP said that getting these pilots job-ready ahead of time will also work to save airlines costs on additional training and get the industry back on its feet quicker.

“As Australia progresses out of the pandemic, and the associated economic stress, there is a real risk that the time required to progress pilots back to being job-ready will lead to impediments to service provision and capacity,” AFAP said in a submission to the Senate transport committee.

“We refer to this as the pilot ‘training pipeline’, which necessarily can’t be rushed for safety and compliance purposes.”

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