The Sky Is The Limit

airBaltic has started the new year with the grand opening of its Pilot Academy. The global pilot shortage has made a lot of airlines concerned, but airBaltic has taken matters in its own hands and has created a unique chance to give new pilots the most modern and professional training in the Baltics. airBaltic Senior Vice President of Flight Operations, Pauls Cālītis, and Managing Director of airBaltic Training Centre, Vilmantas Mažonas, both experienced pilots, have worked for over two years to make this project happen.

How did you come up with the idea to establish the airBaltic Pilot Academy?
Pauls Cālītis: From 2010 onward, we’ve both been running the business of the airBaltic Training Centre, which was formed by airBaltic. Its job is to train already qualified aviation professionals. Now, seven years later, we’re taking the huge step of creating the Pilot Academy within airBaltic Training, which will offer a unique and wonderful opportunity for students without any previous experience to be trained to become airline pilots and join the profession that we’ve been working in. This is not only something that we have envisioned; this is something that comes from us as pilots, as professionals, as people who have spent a long time in this business. It’s something more than just a business and a training concept – this is also something personal that we want to do.

What are the requirements for students who want to enter the academy?
Vilmantas Mažonas: It’s actually very simple – a candidate needs to have a secondary education, a sharp mind, proficiency in English, and the will to work hard. You also need to be in good health in order to fly and be a professional pilot.

Are there any pre-entry tests or exams?
Mažonas: Yes, it’s a complex pre-entry selection process, because we want to select people who not only wish to become pilots but who are also able to do the job. To check that ability, they go through a rigorous testing process, starting from a background check to physical, psychological, and psychometric testing. They also need to do mandatory health checks and be good in mathematics, physics, and English. Cālītis: Just because you’re qualified as a pilot doesn’t mean that you’ll automatically find a position in the airlines. That might not seem logical, considering that we’re always hearing that there’s a big shortage of pilots. But, in addition to a pilot qualification and experience, it’s also important for there to be the right fit between the company and the employee. We need to ensure that the skills, attitude, and personality match up with our needs. We’ll put a lot of effort into making sure that the people we’re selecting suit the company and that they’re the people we want to see here.
A lot of people also have a very romantic idea about flying, and undeniably there are such days and moments, like flying through beautiful clouds, seeing colourful sunsets, and looking smart in your uniform. But there’s a lot of the practical and everyday part of the job, too. We have to make sure that people understand that and can deal with it. In reality, those romantic things might turn into long hours, being away from home for many days, and many other issues that go with the job.

What would motivate people to choose this academy over others?
Cālītis: The unique thing about our pilot academy is that the people who are selected and pass are guaranteed a job as a pilot at airBaltic. When we select someone, not only do we want them to be successful pilots, but we also want to make sure that this person is someone who’ll be right as a future member of the airBaltic team. Over the years, our team has gone through thousands of applications and screening processes and selected hundreds of pilots who have joined airBaltic. Our Pilot Academy is one of the rare schools that’s directly related to an airline.
Mažonas: To stress what Pauls is saying, the idea is that from day one you will be in an airline environment. You will have to wear a uniform, you will have to be on time, and we will provide you a professional level of education.

The pilot profession is an appealing one, but it also takes a big financial investment.
Cālītis: Pilot training is not cheap. We’re trying to ensure that this dream is not denied to people who have the right qualifications and motivation but don’t have the funds. We’re working towards a financing method, so that banks can provide loans to such students. The pilot profession is not only an appealing job, but it provides a good salary, too, so this can be considered as an investment in the students’ education and future. The pilot academy is a commercial and professional programme that people pay to be a part of. Because the fees are significant, we’re also interested in finding a way that students can get financing for it.

How long does it take to go ‘from zero to hero’?
Mažonas: Seventeen years! (laughs) Our training course takes up to two years, but that depends very much on the weather conditions, which in Latvia can be challenging.
Cālītis: In the beginning, we plan to have two groups per year. Every year airBaltic has a need for new pilots, and it would be great to fill those vacancies primarily with people from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. We’re looking for people who want to stay with airBaltic in the future as well and value the opportunity to live and work in the region.
Mažonas: We also want to control the quality of those pilots who are coming in, because when you’re selecting pilots who’ve been trained by other organisations, you need to dig into their history. It takes about three to four months to research the actual qualities and abilities of those applying pilots. Our Pilot Academy will have clarity from the very beginning, because all of its data will be transferred to the airline, and there will be a constant record of the pilots’ professional growth and progress – from day one of training to the last day of the pilot’s career.

What will the training include?
Cālītis: For the first three months there will be just theoretical training, learning the basics of aviation theory. After that we start our practical training. We’re now just finalising our purchase agreement for our brand-new, most-modern training aircraft, which have the advantage of being very similar to the modern airplanes that we use at airBaltic. We want people to start training with the high-tech equipment they’ll be using at the airline.

Who is going to teach at the academy?
Mažonas: There’s a group of theoretical knowledge instructors, and another group of practical flight instructors. They will not only transfer knowledge from books but also bring their own practical experience to the classroom. For the practical training, we will use a mix of the most experienced flight instructors and pilots from our airline. We already have quite a big batch of pilots who’ve been flight instructors before, and they would like to combine flying and training.

For how long have you been flying yourselves?
Cālītis: I figured it out that we have more than 50 years of airline experience between the two of us.
Mažonas: That’s good, because otherwise we’d sound old! (laughs)

What do you like the most about your job?
Mažonas: Maybe this won’t be a popular opinion, but I like the positive stress that comes along with the job. I like to have this positive tiredness after the flight, when you’ve gotten all the passengers back home safely and on time. This profession always keeps you sharp and your brain working. It also requires you to be physically fit, so that helps a lot towards your lifestyle. Plus, the financial reward is positive and attractive.
Cālītis: We have a very practical, very regulated, specific, and goal-oriented process to do, and because pilots have high self-drive, we want to always do better and more – to be more efficient, to fly the best way, to ensure the best outcome. There’s something unique and interesting about this profession. You leave the ground, you leave the grey day behind you, you go up and enjoy! BO