Pilot shares story of grit, survival after virus gutted airline, travel industry. As told by Axyl Sia to Jay Hilotin.
San Franciso: The unthinkable happened. The coronavirus hit the travel industry hard. It was a major blow as commercial airlines were grounded. Pilots were furloughed, took unpaid leave, or fired. Then uncertainty crept in.
How can I cope with this huge setback? There was no set answer. I was not trained for it.
I started flying the Boeing 777 ER as second officer with Philippine Airlines (PAL) five years ago, in 2017.
The jet is one of the most reliable long-haul aircraft today. PAL is the oldest airline in Asia. I was lucky to get this long-haul flight duty. My position is something I’m thankful for.
I originally tried to join the priesthood, having spent 6 years in the seminary, starting from about age 12. I left after my second year in Philosophy. I guess my life was meant more for the cockpit, not the pulpit.
My father, Vicente, suggested that I should try flying. I would be lying if I say it is easy if you love what you’re doing. A pilot’s training is tough.
And there were times I saw my parents struggling financially to send me flying. My father had to work abroad and sacrifice years of separation away from us. My mother, we call her “Ma-Pa”, mama and papa at the same time. She was there to navigate through the difficulties of running our home.
My training and schooling were nothing compared to my parents’ sacrifices.
Back in the flying school, the curriculum is built over time to prepare you to be prepared. I was motivated to prepare myself. No excuses. It’s for my own good, not for anyone else. It was all about preparation.
Pre-COVID, the airline industry as a whole was in a soaring mode. I was on Cloud 9.
But COVID is not something I was prepared for. Even during difficult times, there were uplifting moments. I was picked to join the repatriation team.
We helped bring thousands of Filipino workers home from different countries. It was then when I met my grade school classmate again, after more than 10 years, when we fetched him and many other stranded Filipinos from Barbados back to Manila, a 35-hour journey, with three crew sets.
Until I was ordered to perform our repatriation flights, I was kept busy. Then all planes had been grounded. I was out of job.
The COVID lockdowns meant I was an on-and-off flying duty. Uncertainty set in.
Will I stay grounded? For how long? How can I compensate for my lost income? These questions bugged me constantly.
My pilot friends were talking about our “callback date”. When can we report for duty again? There were at least two straight months when there were no flights at all for me.
Everything that I had worked hard for has come to a stop. I didn’t know when I can have my job and salary back.
For us pilots, most of us are only trained to fly. We know of no other profession. There are very few commercial pilots who are also lawyers, or some other profession.
I love my job. I couldn’t think of any other line for me, at the moment. But I realise this job can be very volatile. The no-fly hours turned into days, and days turned into weeks. It seemed like forever.
How I coped
In fact, most of us who decided to fly for a living know by now that the aviation industry can be very volatile. I had to think of Plan B.
This meant taking up other jobs. I kept searching. Instead of waiting for a flying job that never came, I decided not to sit at home.
I tried my hands at carpentry, selling my creations online. These gave me only modest results, but also inner satisfaction.
I tried selling pre-cooked meals, too, distributing my Bicolano special dishes on my bike in our village (near Manila). My earnings were modest, but I was thankful. These kept me busy.
COVID brought me home
Earlier, I had opened a rice mill business back in my home province, so I decided to revisit. I worked at the mill with two employees, learnt the business along the way, set up the accounting system.
Until the lockdowns, I had already earned more than 3,000 hours of flying (3,500 as of today July 5, 2022), on at least five different aircraft.
In a way, after all those flying hours, COVID brought me back home, and made me realise how lucky I am.
I went home to my province. It was sort of welcome retreat for me. I had always expected things could get better soon. That it’s just a matter of time.
After many weeks of waiting, a got called up again.
I never entertained the idea that flying again, at least for me, would be a lost dream. But it’s the waiting game that was not easy.
Keeping a positive outlook
My advice to young people who face tough moments? I just have one: Know well where you are now, and where do you want to go.
If you look around, difficulties are always partnered with learning to equip you. Use difficulties as opportunities to adapt. If things go worse, stop. It is OK to rest for a while.
Around my Bicolano friends, we use this magic word or magic card — “Fight lang and Pirit (grit/pluck)“. Never give up to a tough, or given situation. If you face setbacks, take a rest, then “pirit” (pluck) towards your dream. Wag kang magpapa-apekto sa (never allow yourself to be affected) by outside energies, or whatever negativities.
Difficulties are just part of the journey.