Becoming a pilot for Virgin

Katie Simmonds is Senior First Officer - Boeing 747 at Virgin Atlantic. She spoke to us about her early inspirations and route to becoming a pilot.

What first triggered your interest in flying and aviation?

Ever since I can remember I’ve loved going to airports and going on holiday. But the most exciting part of the holiday for me was always being at the airport, getting on the plane and loving the flying experience! My mum started gliding as a new hobby when I was 12 and it was then that I had my first wonderful experience of flight and learning to fly. From then on, I was hooked - the feeling of freedom and the beauty of the English landscape from above took my breath away.

How did you decide that you wanted to become a pilot?

It actually took me a few years to say out loud that I wanted to become a pilot. I was quite shy as a teenager and it seemed to me that becoming a commercial pilot was almost too ambitious and out of my reach and not what people expected me to do.

The turning point for me and moment of absolute inspiration and certainty that I wanted to become a pilot came when I was lucky enough to sit on the flight deck of a Boeing 767 when I on a holiday aged 16. 

The flight deck enthralled me! With the huge expanse of switches and lights and amazing view out of the window. I watched how the captain and first officer handled the aeroplane and every other little aspect of the job. The crew were very kind and answered all my questions, giving me advice on how to become a pilot. I realised that it wasn’t black magic! It was something that I could achieve if I put my everything into it. But most importantly from that day, I had a role model - one of the pilots was a lady and that’s when I could imagine myself sitting there in my dream job.

Once you decided you wanted to follow a career in aviation, what steps did you take to turn this ambition into reality? 

I first learnt to fly at my local gliding club. I flew solo aged 16 and subsequently joined the Air Cadets. In order to build my experience, I organised my own work experience at Southampton airport, followed by an extra voluntary week at Boscombe Down airfield. I then started my Private Pilot Licence (PPL) aged 17. 

I decided to study Meteorology and Geology at university; it was my back up plan to work for the Met Office in weather forecasting if I couldn’t become a pilot. While at university, I joined the university Air Squadron and flew the RAF elementary flying programme in the Grob Tutor, including solo flying, navigating, aerobatics and formation flying. 

After university, I joined Virgin Atlantic as Cabin Crew. I gained so much valuable knowledge working for the airline. I took plenty of opportunities to sit in the flight deck for take off and landing where I learnt a huge amount from the crew and the flying operation. While at Virgin Atlantic, I completed my PPL and did my tailwheel conversion so that I could fly the tow aeroplanes at my gliding club. This was something I’d always wanted to do, but it also enabled me to build hours of experience for free.

I applied and was awarded a sponsorship from The Air League to cover the cost of my Night Rating. As a result, I left Virgin to start full time ATPL Ground School at Oxford Aviation Academy. I then enrolled onto the Modular flying course and completed my flying training in Phoenix, Arizona and at Kidlington in Oxfordshire.

18 months later, with a shiny new licence in my hand, I applied to every airline and operator in the UK for a job!

What advice would you give to aspiring pilots?

If you really want to become a pilot…. believe you can do it, have confidence and put everything you’ve got into getting there. It’s not easy but the rewards and feeling of satisfaction doing a job that you love are well worth the effort in the early years of your career.

Which aspect of your journey into aviation did you find most challenging?

The most challenging part by far was the pressure I felt and put on myself in the ground school and flying training at Oxford. I knew that to give myself the best opportunity in starting my career not only did I have to pass all the exams first time, but I wanted to do my very best! This meant that my social life was basically on hold for 18 months and the purse strings were extremely tight.

If you had your time again, would there be anything that you may have done differently? If so, why?

I am very happy with how everything has panned out for me. There really is no ‘set’ route to becoming a pilot. Everyone has a different story to tell. I always describe mine as the ‘scenic route’ to getting where I want to be, but I wouldn’t change a thing. The life experience you gain through different jobs is very important in helping you become a well-rounded individual. 

Which aspect of your future role and career are you most excited about?

I’m excited to be part of Virgin’s future as the airline moves forward and I learn to fly the new aircraft. 

I really hope that one day I can pool together all of the knowledge and experience I have gained in the industry, particularly from some of the fantastic pilots, cabin crew, engineers and ground staff that I have had the pleasure of working with, to become a captain for Virgin Atlantic.