Dassie Persaud-van der Westhuizen thought she wanted to be an architect – that is, until she discovered flying. She graduated as an architect from the University of Pretoria – and also made time to be the Rag Queen, before learning to fly at Wonderboom’s Loutzavia. She took a job as an air hostess with a middle-eastern airline to fund her flying lessons.
The clouds are grey and dense. A few small drops of rain slide off my windscreen and towards the Aegean Sea below as I scan the horizon for my destination. I see land! Syros Island grows larger... Tower calls me and I can’t help but laugh- despite English being the official aviation language they’re speaking to me in Greek.
Welcome to the island-hopping life as a pilot in Greece. I’m based in the small coastal village of Megara to complete the process of converting my South African Commercial Pilot’s License into the European equivalent. Like many South Africans before me, I’m here to broaden my opportunities by seeking employment in Europe. Two weeks of intense flight training around the beautiful Greek islands lie ahead of me, and I’m excited to start this next adventure.
The process begins on a chilly April evening with a 4-hour simulator assessment in which to prove myself to be a competent pilot. The rest of my training will be determined by my performance, so a lot is at stake. I keep my fingers crossed and take one last deep breath before starting…
Costa (a retired Greek Air Force pilot) keeps me on my toes from the get-go. He’s a reserved man – smelling heavily of smoke. Perhaps our conversation is brief because of his limited English vocabulary so we stick to the universal language of Jeppesen instrument plates instead, diving straight into DME Arcs, sector entries, ILS approaches, holdings, engine failures... Costa’s quick smiles of encouragement in between each scenario helps increase my confidence and I choose to hand fly the entire session. “You fly like the autopilot,” Costa informs me as we conclude the session.
I breathe a sigh of relief. I guess flying like the autopilot means I flew well so I won’t need additional training.
It’s late by the time my session ends so Costa waits with me for my pick-up. “It must be challenging being a woman and a pilot?” He tentatively asks me after some small talk. I smile. I didn’t have to prove myself as a female pilot to him during our session. “It’s not so bad in Europe. It’s far more challenging being a female pilot elsewhere in the world,” I reply. My transport arrives and we say our goodbyes. I don’t expect I will ever get to fly with Costa again.
Brief to Fly
Before I can fly in Greek airspace I have to complete hours of briefings about the differences between flying in Europe and elsewhere in the world, including measurement conversions and airspace regulations.
On top of that I have no experience flying a Diamond DA42 Twin Star so my school has to ensure my knowledge is up to scratch. Luckily, I diligently studied the aircraft POH manual before arriving in Greece so my instructor, Miklos and I challenge each other with in-depth questions of the systems, instead of having only a typical class. He’s also a retired Air Force pilot but his heavy frame, grey hair and joyful nature, make Miklos seem more like Santa Claus than a deadly fighter pilot.
In between classes local students introduce me to Souvlaki and we share stories to understand the differences in pilot training across the world. Having completed all my briefings, I’m allowed to plan my route for my first VFR flight and I spend the evening revising the school’s SOP’s so I can perform at my best.
I awake to blue skies and the ideal flying conditions that you expect in sunny Greece. Before my first takeoff Miklos peers at me with his watery blue eyes from the right-hand seat and reminds me of our objective one last time. “I know how you instrument rated pilots are, always trying to look inside the aircraft. But today I want you to look outside and prove to me that you can fly VFR.” He didn’t have to tell me twice – after takeoff from Runway 26L my eyes were filled with a view of the Aegean Sea parallel to the runway.
I turned out left over the glistening water on my first flight around the Greek Islands, almost reluctant to look at my instruments at all in my need to soak up the view. I fly from one sunny island to the next, looking down on the boats sailing across the calm waters while learning how to use the G1000 and getting comfortable with my new aircraft.
After practicing some general handling manoeuvres, such as slow flight at different percentage power settings and stalling in various configurations, I find myself back at Megara for touch and go’s. It certainly isn’t my best set of landings, but I have a few more flights to improve my technique before my final exam.
Miklos is care-free as we leave the aircraft. Enjoying retirement by instructing over the islands must be his reason for being so relaxed. While I’m concerned about my landings, his main concern is to find an iced coffee.
Greek Coffee In Syros
I descend for landing while my passenger photographs the multi-coloured houses scattered across the hills. “Gear down” I call out, as I configure the DA42 for landing. The runway ends abruptly at the edge of a small cliff and I’m approaching from over the sea. It’s my first attempt at a landing under these conditions and I’m a young inexperienced pilot…
I cross the runway threshold and smoothly touch down for my first great landing! We hop out of the aircraft and drive past goats grazing in the green rolling hills and into the town centre. Having studied Architecture before moving into aviation, I admire the buildings as we casually stroll past busy cafes around the harbour with views of enormous ships. I feel the warm ocean air blow across my face. Since Syros is a popular tourist destination there is lots to see and my young dark haired passenger is excited to meet her boyfriend here for a romantic weekend away. I wish I could stay here too...
Miklos casually orders Greek coffee for the table. Learning how to fly in Europe is important, but so is learning about different cultures through their food and drinks. I turn my nose up when the black coffee is placed in front of me. “I can’t drink coffee without milk,” I announce.
“You can, but you choose not to. Everything in life is a choice,” Miklos replies, wisely as usual. He might be an easy-going character, but his insights into life are noteworthy. Apprehensively, I sip my black coffee and a large smile spreads across my face. It tastes wonderful.
After several days of flight training, I awake on the morning of the final test. My examiner, Demitrius, is a stern middle-aged airline Captain with intense dark eyes. His appearance and demeanour are in stark contrast with that of my instructor. Before we take-off Demitrius concludes his briefing by saying: “Don’t think of me as an examiner. Pretend you’re flying with your friend and just show me how well you can fly.” I nod, but I’m not entirely sure I believe him.
With just three flight hours in which to examine me, there isn’t a moment to spare. Instrument flying at high speeds, slow flight at 65 knots, stall recovery past the stall warning, steep turns… all while being questioned on various procedures to follow in emergencies.
“Do you see that open field there in the distance?” Demitrius asks me at one point.
“Yes” I reply. “Go land there,” he says as he kills both engines. Once certain I would safely make the field he returns my engines and we climb back up to our initial altitude again.
Eventually, after a gruelling couple of hours and already on our second flight of the day, we head back to Megara. But the exam isn’t over yet. I’m so focused that there’s no time to appreciate the spectacular view. I only have one engine producing power for my first approach and we still need to perform touch and go’s in various configurations. After my first landing I fly a typical circuit with both engines powered. Out of the corner of my eye I see Demitrius fiddling with what looks like an instrument but I need to focus on judging my landing. While completing my checklist I notice that my landing gear lights don’t indicate three greens, I’m therefore at risk of my gear not being in the correct position so I loudly call out “go around!” and abort the landing.
With no time to waste we proceed with various challenges such as an engine failure after takeoff, in the critical phase of flight, below 400 ft. Since our altitude is too low to safely search for a fault, I give maximum power to continue climbing while maintaining my desired speed and heading. Luckily it’s a chilly day and we’re flying at sea level so the dense air helps my aircraft’s climb performance… 200ft… 300ft… 400ft... I manage this problem okay.
Finally, after numerous circuits, Demitrius is satisfied and we do a full stop landing. With my legs shaking from the physical effort required in asymmetric flying, I climb out of the aircraft. It’s over. I have now qualified for an EASA CPL license with Multi-Engine and Instrument ratings.
“You’re the worst ‘friend’ I’ve ever taken flying. I’m never taking you with me again!” I joke with Demitrius and we laugh as I set off to the school for the very last time.
My EASA Dream
I am now a qualified Commercial Pilot in South Africa and Europe. With less than three months to go until I start my A320 job training in London for a European Airline, I decided to write about my experience to help others interested in converting their license to EASA. The conversion process is lengthy and expensive, but there are countless opportunities for exciting flying on this continent.
As a female pilot I should also add that the employment opportunities in Europe allow for a fantastic work-life balance, enabling us to advance our careers while having the means to start a family. This is mainly because it is the norm for newly qualified pilots (both male and female) to find jobs in the right-hand seat of Airlines without having to ‘pay one’s dues’ in the bush.
To those of you looking to convert your license, I recommend looking at schools in Greece or in other European countries with a Mediterranean climate for the practical training. I selected Greece because the prices are affordable and I knew that flying around the picturesque Greek islands would be an unforgettable experience.
If you choose to convert your South African license, then perhaps one day we will meet and you can tell me about the coffee you drank on your favourite Greek Island during your conversion process.
You can follow Dassie on her blog as ‘Aviatrix West’.- Editor