From the moment twelve-year old Christopher set foot inside a cockpit, he knew that becoming a pilot would be the best job in the world. He set out on a mission to get airborne, and boy did he reach altitude! With 38 years of flying experience behind him, and more than 24,000 hours in the air (the equivalent to 1000 days), Training Captain Chris Pohl (@Captainchris on Instagram) knows a thing or two about flying aircraft. Here, Chris shares how a boy from Australia with a dream went onto experience a multitude of adventures across the globe, now flying an aircraft he adores – Virgin Atlantic’s A350-1000.
When did you realise a career in flying was for you?
It was a slow realisation. My Dad had thought about becoming a pilot before I was born, but he was involved in an accident on a building site. A three-inch nail went into his right eye and blinded him. That was the end of his dream.
His huge passion for aviation never stopped though. We visited Melbourne Tullamarine Airport every now and then to watch the planes, plus every birthday and Christmas I received model aircraft or aircraft related books. Over time, my Dad’s love of aviation rubbed off on me.
Who or what inspired you?
When I was 12 years old, we went on a family holiday to the Gold Coast from Melbourne with TAA (Trans Australian Airways). As we boarded the Boeing 727 my Dad practically shoved me into the flight deck and asked if I could take a look. This was a ploy, as he actually wanted to see it himself!
The Captain asked if I would like to stay for take-off and my Dad said “Yes, Christopher would love to”. I was strapped into the jump seat behind the captain by the flight engineer and by the time we rotated I knew I was going to become a pilot.
After take-off the captain turned to me and said, “Well Christopher, what did you think of that?” I can remember saying (like it was yesterday): “Is this actually your job?” I couldn’t fathom that anyone would get paid to do something so incredible.
What route did you take into flying?
I knew learning to fly wouldn’t be cheap, so from the age of 12 (after my cockpit experience) I started saving for flying lessons and worked one paper-round before school and two after school – every day. I worked on construction sites each weekend and every school holiday.
At the age of 18 I finished my Australian HSC (High School Certificate – Year 12 A Levels in the UK), and had saved enough money towards half of the cost of a full-time CPL (Commercial Pilot License) course. My parents took a loan for the other half.
In 1982, and at 19 years old, I had a CPL and had passed all ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot License) subjects.
Give an overview of your career to date.
As a new CPL, nobody would hire me with such low flying hours, so I did an instructors rating and worked basic training at Moorabbin airport, near Melbourne, Australia. I then picked up charter work to pay for my IR (Instrument Rating). I flew almost every light twin that Cessna, Piper or Beechcraft made, flying charters, target towing (live targets) for the Navy, and even the repatriation of dead bodies for a funeral company.
I could fill a book with stories of the adventures I experienced while gaining my first 2500 hours.
In 1987 and aged 23 I joined Ansett Airlines on the Fokker F27 and in 1989 flew the A320 when the type was brand new. Later that year an industrial dispute meant all pilots resigned en masse and I decided to go on an extended holiday with my girlfriend. That was 30 years ago. I arrived in the UK with 3000 hours and although I was an A320 pilot, nobody in Europe except British Airways and Lufthansa had A320’s and they weren’t hiring.
I had to take ALL the ATPL exams again and pass an instrument rating. This took six months. At the same time, I worked airside at London Gatwick airport cleaning aircraft. One day I bumped into the chief pilot of Air Europe who offered me an interview the day I had my ATPL. I got the job, flying Fokker 100’s for Air Europe – until they went bust six months later.
I then took at six month contract with KLM City Hopper F100, followed by a contract with Swissair F100, before landing a job with a new airline based in Cyprus called Eurocypria. They were looking for pilots with A320 experience.
After two and a half years in Larnaca, I left for an exciting A320 contract with Air Lanka, in Sri Lanka, flying routes all over India, Bangkok and the Maldives.
My new name soon became ‘Captain Coconut’ as my last name, Pohl, means coconut in Sinhala – the language widely spoke in Sri Lanka (well, ‘pol’ means coconut).
While in Sri Lanka I heard that Virgin Atlantic were buying A340’s. I called the chief pilot while I was in Colombo, and was invited to an interview two days later in London. A few days after that I found myself on one of the first A340 courses at Airbus in Miami.
Less than one year later I was a 30 year old four engine long haul captain, and couldn’t believe it! I’m now a 56 year old TRI (Type Rating Instructor) TRE (Type Rating Examiner) for the A330/A350 with over 24,000 flying hours. How did that happen?!
What has been the most challenging time in your career?
Building my first few hours of flying experience to get work.. a catch 22 situation. Also, I have been unemployed many times and trying to apply for jobs prior to the internet, via telephone and fax machines presented its own challenges.
Why did you choose to become a training captain?
After a few years of command (being a captain), I was living in Toulouse and Virgin Atlantic was sending new pilots to Toulouse for Airbus A340 conversion courses. They needed someone to check SOP’s (Standard Operating Procedures) and I was local – and spoke French which Airbus liked. They didn’t mind me correcting their instructors either. In fact, they welcomed my input and a training role me was created for me. I then went onto line training (training pilots while they fly in actual aircraft), then TRI at 35, and TRE at 40. Since then it’s been almost non-stop training. I have rarely had a non-training trip for the past 21 years.
What requirements need to be met to become a training captain?
One of the requirements to become a captain with Virgin Atlantic is to have a minimum of 6,000 flying hours, although by the time a Virgin Atlantic pilot becomes a captain he already has over 10,000 hours. To become a training captain, the hours aren’t so important. Knowledge and personal training history are a big factor. Most trainers are invited or apply when positions are advertised, then undergo an interview like any other job, where they are then selected on suitability.
Tell us about a typical month in the life of Captain Chris.
It’s variable from month to month, although a typical month with include six simulator duties in either blocks of two or four days, and a couple of trips on the A350 training pilots who are new to the fleet. The month also generally includes a three to six day Caribbean trip on the A330, to train a new captain on how to make (captain only) 180 degree turns at our Caribbean destination runways. This flying roster keeps me in check on both the A330 and A350 aircraft.
You train on the A350 and A330 – is it usual to train on two types?
No, it’s usual. Prior to the A350 I would train on both the A330 and A340 aircraft and simulators.
Tell us about some of the scenarios you test pilots on in the sim and during line checks?
There is a standard list of manoeuvres that the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) require all pilots to demonstrate annually as part of their LPC (Licence Proficiency Check) including; engine failure on take-off, a manually flown 3D approach ILS (Instrument Landing System) with an engine out, a missed approach with an engine out and a non-precision 2D approach and landing, plus various system failure and emergency procedures. Six months after the “standard” CAA check, we put our pilots through an LOE (Line Orientated Evaluation) where we get creative and test other, less frequent or random scenarios to check the pilot’s overall knowledge of situational awareness, decision making and workload management.
Is there a particular scenario that is challenging for pilots in general?
Anytime when you’re low on fuel, the weather is bad, and you encounter a complex technical failure is always a challenge, although this scenario is extremely rare. An example flight simulator scenario could be flying into New York’s JFK airport during winter in a blizzard with low fuel on the famous Canarsie (curved) approach, with the flaps becoming locked during the approach. This is always a good one to test in the sim.
You regularly share your love of the A350. What is it about this type that you love so much?
I’ve been flying Airbus aircraft for just over 30 years now and I’ve seen the development from the original A320 to the long haul A340 and A330.The A350 is the ultimate evolution of all these aircraft. Airbus has been designed by pilots and engineers, and with the A350 I believe they have built the perfect airliner.
What do you like most about being a training captain?
Meeting new pilots and introducing them to the coolest airline in the industry, but more so seeing these same pilots years later and training them as captains. That is certainly a highlight of my job.
What advice would you give to a pilot aspiring to become a training captain?
Be the best you can be, keep up to date with notices and changes to procedures and always put time aside to renew and refresh your knowledge. Be confident and believe in yourself. I know it’s cliché but without self-confidence, you’ll struggle to build a trainees confidence.
What advice would you give to someone with the dream of becoming a pilot?
Do what I did – never give up the dream, despite the setbacks – there will be plenty. Make small goals towards your career each day and stay focused even when you feel like giving up. If I can do it, you can too, but you need to believe you can. If like me you keep doing whatever you can to ‘get airborne’ and keep going, you’ll find yourself in my seat.
Quick turnaround questions
What’s your favourite aircraft?
What do you think? A350-1000 of course!
I love flying because…although it’s been very challenging at times, it never feels like work. It’s more like the best hobby in the world. I get paid to do something I would do for free (please don’t tell Sir Richard that).
Take-off or landing?
Both. Take-off means I’m going somewhere cool, and landing because every pilot likes the opportunity to “grease” it on, plus applause from the passengers and kudos from the pilot beside you is always good!
Favourite airport to operate at?
Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport for sure, and today – JFK as it’s always the most challenging.
Favourite location for a holiday?
Big Bear California in the winter snowboarding with my family.
Favourite in flight meal?
I don’t really have a favourite – we get a choice of meals from any class that has leftovers and it’s always very good. The proof is in my belt loops!
Captain Chris, what an absolute pleasure to interview you and share your incredible story so far. If this doesn’t inspire, I don’t know what will. You most certainly do need to write a book, and I will help you write it!