The Other Side of The Airline Pilot

At the heart of the aviation industry are the pilots, whose role is indispensable to the operation of flights.

5 mins read
Cockpit [Photo: Blake Guidry/ Unsplash]

“Back in Koggala, the lake sleeps preserving its bucolic beauty. The solitary fisherman in his dugout canoe ripples the waters with his home-made oar. He does not know that once upon a long-ago time aeroplanes came from a faraway shore and landed in his beloved lake.

I am sure he also does not know anything about aviation world records

Extracted from Capt. Elmo Jayawardene: “ Lest such be forgotten -The ones who flew the Double Sunrise”

Recently, I received the aforementioned article penned by Capt. Elmo Jayawardene – the aeronautical legend, historian and philanthropist of Sri Lanka – where he writes of a gift he received from an unknown donor 40 years ago.  He describes the gift thus: “  an ancient flight computer that had flown in skies giving all the calculations that helped the airmen of a long-gone era in their rudimentary navigational calculations. The fascination of it all was the computer worked in perfect order with smoothly moving dials and pointers. This to me was straight from a treasure trove. The back of the computer was engraved that it was made in 1929. By the year 2029 this magnificent machine will be 100 years old”.

The story is about the QANTAS Kangaroo flight between Australia and England, which is famously flown on “the kangaroo route” where the pilot sees two sunrises during the long journey, hence the “double sunrise”.  Capt Jayawardene says in his article that the story of this flight computer goes back to the beginning of World War II, soldiers from Japan, known as the ‘land of the rising sun,’ set out from their islands with the aim of conquering Asia. Meanwhile, their Axis ally, Germany, was ravaging Europe. Japan successfully captured the Malayan peninsula and Singapore. As a result, the Kangaroo flight lost its crucial ‘pit stop’ in Singapore needed to continue to Calcutta. The essential link between Sydney and London was severed due to the Japanese occupation of Singapore. QANTAS now required a new refueling stop between Perth and Calcutta that was within British-controlled territory, out of reach of Japanese fighter planes, and within the flying range of their aircraft, which could travel non-stop from Perth to this new destination.

During this era of ‘Rule Britannia,’ Capt. Jayawardene continues, the British Empire controlled much of Asia, except for the regions occupied by the Japanese. The British diligently explored all possible options. As a dominant imperial power, they had extensive reach across multiple continents. They quickly identified an ideal solution: Koggala Lake in southern Ceylon – now Sri Lanka –  just 10 miles from the city of Galle. This location was about 3,100 nautical miles from Swan River in Perth to Koggala Lake. Qantas’s Catalina Flying Boats, with a range of 3,600 nautical miles, could make the journey from Perth to Koggala Lake with some luck and a prayer, allowing them to bypass Calcutta and proceed directly to Karachi.

My Take

This article – a gem in the annals of aviation history – got me thinking about the pivotal role the pilot has played both in peace time and during war. It took me away from the conventional way we think of the confident captain, as a means to an end that enables us to see far away places that we could otherwise not experience.  I realized, to my  embarrassment, that there was a hidden dimension to the airline pilot that had not occurred to me.

I am sure I am not alone in thinking of the airline pilot the way I did – as a person who occupied an enviable and exalted position, inspiring awe in our minds. But there is another side to this rare professional. He/she is an enabler: an enabler of world peace;  an enabler of world trade; and an enabler of global connectivity .

Air travel has revolutionized the world, altering how people connect, trade, and interact across continents. From its early days in the 20th century to today’s sophisticated aviation industry, air travel has not only made the world smaller but has also fueled economic growth, cultural exchange, and technological advancements. Central to this transformation is the role of the pilot, whose expertise and dedication ensure the safety and efficiency of air transportation.

One of the foremost benefits of air travel is the unprecedented level of global connectivity it affords. Within mere hours, individuals can traverse from one corner of the world to another, thereby fostering international business and tourism. This connectivity has been pivotal in the expansion of global trade, enabling the rapid movement of goods and services. Air cargo services have facilitated the transport of perishable items, such as fruits and pharmaceuticals, over long distances swiftly, thus enhancing international trade and bolstering global supply chains.

Furthermore, air travel has been a key catalyst for economic growth. The aviation industry makes a substantial contribution to the global economy, generating millions of jobs worldwide. Airports have evolved into major economic hubs, attracting businesses and stimulating local economies. Tourism, heavily dependent on air travel, has become a vital industry for many countries, particularly those with limited industrial capacities. By providing easy access to remote destinations, air travel has unlocked new opportunities for economic development and cultural exchange.

Air travel has also played a crucial role in promoting cultural exchange and understanding. It has enabled people to experience different cultures, languages, and traditions firsthand. Educational exchanges, international conferences, and cultural festivals have all thrived due to the convenience of air travel, fostering a sense of global community and mutual respect.

The ability to travel quickly across borders has also facilitated humanitarian efforts. In times of crisis, such as natural disasters or pandemics, air travel has enabled the swift deployment of aid workers, medical supplies, and relief materials. This rapid response capability has saved countless lives and alleviated suffering in many parts of the world.

At the heart of the aviation industry are the pilots, whose role is indispensable to the operation of flights. Pilots are responsible for the safe and efficient operation of aircraft, requiring a high level of skill, knowledge, and dedication. Their training is rigorous, encompassing not only the technical aspects of flying but also critical decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

Pilots must constantly adapt to changing technologies and regulations. The introduction of new aircraft and advanced avionics systems demands continuous learning and training. Furthermore, pilots play a crucial role in ensuring passenger safety and comfort. They are trained to handle a wide range of scenarios, from adverse weather conditions to in-flight medical emergencies.

Beyond their technical expertise, pilots also serve as ambassadors of the aviation industry. Their professionalism and conduct reflect the values and standards of their airlines and the broader aviation community. Effective communication with air traffic control, ground staff, and passengers is essential for smooth operations and positive travel experiences.

To sum up, air travel has transformed the world, creating a more interconnected and dynamic global community. It has facilitated economic growth, cultural exchange, and technological innovation, profoundly impacting how we live and interact. Central to this transformation is the role of the pilot, whose expertise, dedication, and adaptability ensure the continued success and safety of the aviation industry. As air travel continues to evolve, the contributions of pilots will remain vital in navigating the challenges and opportunities of the future.

According to BBC’s World Business Report, it is envisioned that by the end of 2024, 5 billion persons would have travelled by air. Without pilots, these 5 billion would be grounded. There would be no peace talks between ambassadors and diplomats; no multinational business deals; no technological development; and no expansion of the human mind.

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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