Fourty-two years and counting of flying more than ten different aircraft types, and roles spanning systems pilot, first officer, captain, training captain, chief training captain, and base training captain – that’s one impressive CV, and it belongs to Obet Mazinyi. It’s no surprise that @pilot_obet has a huge and loyal following on Instagram. He takes his followers right into the Boeing 747 flight deck and regularly shares nuggets of knowledge about the much loved jumbo. Here, he shares a detailed and fascinating account of his flying story, starting in a small town near Zambia when the six year old Obet stepped on board a DC-3 for the very first time.
When did you know you wanted to become a pilot?
I was about six years old. My parents and I had moved from Zimbabwe to a small town in Zambia. This is where I stepped on board a DC-3. As I grabbed hold of the seats and headed towards mine, I had a good view of the pilots making their preparations for the flight. The engines started and I knew right then that I wanted to fly!
What was your route into flying?
During high school I spent my weekends at Lusaka International airport in Zambia watching aeroplanes and recording their sounds as they started up, took off and landed.
After leaving high school, I faced the same challenges that many aspiring pilots face today, the biggest of which was trying to find a sponsor to fund my aviation training fees. In the interim, I enrolled at the University of Zambia intending to either study for a degree in Engineering or Medicine. I noticed at this time that a lot of pilots wanted to be doctors and a lot of doctors wanted to be pilots!
Then, in the second month at the university, there was a potential opportunity to become a cadet pilot at the Zambia Air Services Training Institute (ZASTI). I saw an advertisement in the local newspaper looking for ten pilots to be sponsored by the Government to train for Commercial Pilot qualification so I applied, hopeful that this could lead to the moment I had been waiting for.
The competition was stiff, with more than 3000 applicants for ten places. I prepared for the aptitude test and formal interview as best I could. The preparation paid off. I got in!
It was 1978 (I know…sounds so long ago but I remember it as if it were yesterday) and the world was at my feet. A month after being accepted as a cadet pilot, I left university to start my aviation journey at ZASTI.
I began by training for my Private Pilots Licence (PPL) in Zambia, and soon went solo for the first time. Six hours into lessons and I was set loose to take to the skies alone in a Cessna 150 from Lusaka International Airport, although I’d actually felt ready after four hours. After years of watching aircraft come and go at this very airport, it was an incredible moment when I did my first solo there.
I remember the instructor getting out on the apron at Lusaka and saying; ‘Can you taxi the aircraft back to the normal college parking area after you do your circuit?’ I was excited! Off I went and took off on runway 10 and completed my circuit. I smiled all the way until I landed and taxied back to our college parking. What can I say – it’s an incredible feeling. I couldn’t even drive a car!
After completing my PPL in Zambia, I got a scholarship through the national airline of Zambia, to train at the famous British Airways Flight Training school located at Hamble, Southampton in the United Kingdom. I arrived in the winter month of February and graduated with a Commercial Pilots licence in April 1981.
What was the most challenging part of becoming a pilot?
To be honest, I was such an aviation geek, that I didn’t find anything too challenging in terms of the training. The question of whether I would fail never occurred to me such was my enthusiasm and bravado at the time. Name any book about aeroplanes – I had read it, even to the point that when new concepts were introduced at flying college, I had already learnt about them. I couldn’t get enough of anything aviation related.
Which aircraft did you fly during your early training days?
After starting off flying the Cessna 150, I went onto the Piper Cherokee 180C/E versions, before moving to the DE Haviland DHC-1 Chipmunk which the college in England used for aerobatic training (such fun). My first twin engine aircraft was the Beechcraft Baron D-55 which took me to completing my CPL.
Once achieving your Commercial pilots License in 1981, how did you career develop?
To say my journey through aviation so far has been exciting would be an understatement! Upon completion of my training I was offered a job as a systems pilot on the Boeing 707-300 series with Zambia Airways. A systems pilot essentially carried out the duties of a flight engineer and operated the systems on the flight engineer’s panel.
It was common practice in those days that you started off as a systems pilot before becoming a co-pilot on the HS-748, then climbing your way up to the Boeing 707 again as a first officer, following this same cycle to eventually become captain.
As it turned out, Zambia airways secured a management contract with Ethiopian Airlines who at the time needed first officers for their DC-3 operation in Ethiopia. I quickly raised my hand as I longed to be in the co-pilot seat, so off I went to fly DC-3’s on Ethiopian Airlines domestic network. In those days, Ethiopia and Eritrea were one country so the network was extensive. The DC-3, the aircraft that first made me catch the flying bug all those years ago as a six year old was amazingly the one that also honed my skills for flying big aircraft.
Two years later, after Zimbabwe had attained independence from Britain, I returned home and started flying with Air Zimbabwe, my country’s national airline. There, I flew the Viscount 700 and 800 series, Boeing 737-200A, Boeing 707-320 and then finally attained my command as captain on the Bae146-200. I soon became a training captain (instructor) on the Bae146-200 before moving on to the B707 again as a captain.
In 1989, I left Zimbabwe for a job with Air Hong Kong, initially flying the B707-338. I was soon promoted to training captain, then in 1991, I started flying the Boeing 747-132SF and B747-200’s as captain. A year later while still with Air Hong Kong, I became a training captain on the Boeing 747. Later, I was promoted to chief training captain of the B747 operation at Air Hong Kong.
In 1994, Cathay Pacific acquired Air Hong Kong and so began my career with Cathay Pacific on the B747-200’s right through to the Boeing 747-8 – the largest of the B747 family (aside from the Boeing Dreamlifter of course). For a brief period between 2004 and 2008, I was seconded back to Air Hong Kong to help start up an Airbus A300-600 operation as a training specialist. Today, I’m a base training captain on the B747-8 and B747-400ERF (Extended Range Freighter) and an authorised examiner for Instrument Ratings (IR) and Aircraft Ratings for new pilots with Cathay Pacific Airways. For 11 years, Cathay Pacific flew both the passenger and the Cargo versions of the B747 until end of 2016 when the passenger version was discontinued. I mainly flew the passenger version until that time.
What’s it like flying the 747?
The Boeing 747 is just one of those aircraft that somehow communicates to you that ‘everything will be alright’. I fly it without any apprehension, knowing that whatever it is, the B747 is just so comfortable and flies through the air so easily. It’s a brilliant aircraft.
Since 2016, you have flown cargo. What would you like to share about flying freight?
Firstly, there is no such a thing as a ‘Cargo Pilot’. There are Boeing 747 pilots or B777 or B767 or Airbus Pilots. Whether you fly an aircraft that carries cargo only or a passenger only type, you are a commercial pilot. A common misconception that commercial pilots are only those who fly passenger aircraft.
Flying a cargo only aircraft is interesting because you operate the aircraft to its limits most of the time due to the heavy loads being carried. I enjoy the variety that comes with flying freight. You go to different destinations and carry the most interesting cargo like horses, Formula 1 racing cars, general cargo and more recently, PPE’s, masks and medical supplies in the fight against Covid-19.
What are your flying goals for the future?
I would like in some way to help aspiring pilots gain an insight and encourage them to take up this great career even if it appears in the doldrums at the moment with the Covid-19 pandemic. It will bounce back tenfold! I can see myself in a consultancy or training role in the future after I stop active flying.
What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to be a pilot?
Don’t be discouraged by the current climate in aviation. Stick to your dreams but importantly, you have to put the work in to achieve them. Don’t be spoon fed – question, investigate and verify things for yourself but use professional advice for those verifications.
What do you think makes a good pilot?
Dedication. A good pilot does not confuse company issues or non-aviation inputs to cloud his/her focus in operating an aircraft. Constant review of technical aspects of the aircraft you fly keeps you at a good advantage when things go wrong. Maintain a strong knowledge base.
What’s the best thing about your job?
I love the variety, but for me as an instructor on the B747, the best thing of all is seeing the joy on the faces of new pilots when they first fly the actual aircraft they have been training on in the simulator, and do their first landing. It gives me even more motivation to help as much as I can with their growth.
Quick turnaround questions
Take-off or landing?
A tough one! I enjoy heavy weight take-offs but also challenging landings in heavy rain or strong crosswinds. The feeling you get when you do it right is out of this world!
Dream airport as a pilot?
Now, it’s San Francisco International airport but it was Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong before it closed.
Favourite place for a holiday?
Thailand and home – Zimbabwe.
Favourite aircraft of all-time?
What a silly question (chuckle)…The Boeing 747, all versions from the -100 to the B747-8.
What would you be if you weren’t a pilot?
A medical doctor.
The best thing about flying is…
Just being airborne is exhilarating even after decades of doing it. I still silently say ‘wow’ to myself as I manoeuvre for a landing.
Favourite inflight meal?
A good steak.
Obet, it is a true honour to share your story. When I discovered you on Instagram, it was clear straight away that not only were you a master of your profession, but a genuine, down to earth, all-round good guy. The kind of pilot that other pilots would want to fly with.
There’s no escaping from the enormous impact COVID-19 is having on aviation right now, but with the most difficult of times, green shoots will eventually grow, and I one hundred percent agree that the industry will emerge stronger. I am certain that aspiring pilots, and existing pilots will read your story, and find inspiration and motivation.
You can follow Obet’s adventures and get regular lessons on Boeing 747 and general flying topics on Instagram @pilot_obet.