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The day my career, set for takeoff, was forced into a holding pattern


2020 has been a year of unprecedented trials, tribulations and triumphs.  Each day this month, we will publish the stories of ordinary Queenslanders enduring an extraordinary year. Today, Qantas pilot Colin Steel recalls the day his high-flying career was grounded.



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And so, it begins. Sitting at the gate, I am ready to passenger down to Melbourne to begin my final seven sectors to complete my command upgrade on a Qantas Boeing 737.

Six months of relentless full-time study, seven full flight simulator check rides with more malfunctions then would occur in a lifetime of flying, twenty-three flying sectors with a training Captain analysing every-thing and criticizing everything.

I was mentally and physically ready for it. What I was not ready for was an email from head of Qantas operations just before I boarded, saying you are stood down without pay until further notice at the end of the week.

Shock is a strange word. As pilots we are trained to react to things happening around us: to gather information, review it, analyse it, decide what to do and to evaluate an outcome or GRADE as we call it.

Lots of thoughts went through my head. Strangely enough, the first thing I did was to cancel my Netflix subscription.

We are trained to focus, and it is part of who we are so after the initial shock I decided there was not much I could do about it, so I focused on the task at hand and put other thoughts behind me for consideration at a later date.

The next two days were a blur as I flew multiple sectors under the watchful eye of a senior training captain making sure I did everything I was trained for to the best of my ability. To say that my stand down notice was a distraction was an understatement.

The threat of job termination is always a very stressful event. This coupled with a command upgrade assessment was probably one of the most stressful periods in my life.

When the training captain gave me a smile and handed over my brand new four gold bar epaulettes signifying completion of my upgrade, I could almost not contain the smile spreading across my face.

Reality however has a way of bringing one back down to Earth as of course I knew that I would be lucky to even have one flight as a brand-new captain before my stand down came into effect.

Sometimes things do work out OK. The training captain was well aware of my situation and had organized for me to race up to operations control and have my paperwork processed ASAP so I could get at least some sectors in before I was stood down.

As he bid me farewell on my way to the lift, I did have an extra spring to my step. So much so that when an elderly lady was walking towards the lift, I held the doors for her as I was more than happy to wait.

She said a very nice thank-you in a friendly Canadian accent and asked me if I minded waiting for her friends to catch up. As the elevator filled to the brim with elderly people I enquired where they were headed.

When they replied they had just got off the Ruby Princess cruise ship and were headed back to Canada I tried not to crawl up the back wall of the elevator!

Fortunately, I did not catch anything!

Colin Steel joined Qantas in 2000 and flew Boeing 747 and Boeing 737 aircraft for the airline. He is married with two daughters.


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