A childhood aspiration of wanting to become a pilot might sound like a cliche, but fulfilling that dream by becoming a pilot is certainly not !

Ashwin Sundaram, our next pathbreaker, Airline Pilot, flies a major commercial airliner based out of Asia.

Ashwin talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about commencing his flying journey while pursuing his BTech (Aeronautical) at Edith Cowan University (Australia) through a university-linked flying program and subsequently attaining a flying instructor rating and a commercial pilot license to explore the skies.

For students, inspiration can come from anywhere, but determination to achieve your dreams can come only from within!

Ashwin, can you take us through your background?

I was born and raised in Singapore until the age of 13, following which, my family moved to Australia for better educational opportunities for my sister and myself. After high school, I returned to Singapore to complete my National Service obligations in the army before moving back to Australia to complete my degree and flying training. My mother is an accountant and my father is a lawyer. My sister is currently working as a paramedic in Australia.  

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed a B.Tech (Aeronautical) in Perth, Australia at Edith Cowan University. During my degree, I was offered an opportunity to undertake flying lessons in my spare time. I accepted, and managed to attain a Commercial Pilot’s Licence, Multi Engine Rating and Instrument Rating (these ratings certify a pilot to fly an aircraft with more than 1 engine and to fly in adverse weather with no reference to the ground and with sole reference to the instruments) along with my degree. Following graduation, I undertook a Flight Instructor’s Rating and moved to Melbourne to work as an instructor for a few months before being offered an opportunity with my current airline.

What drove you to choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

This might sound a little cliché, but I wanted to be a pilot from a young age. It’s all that I ever wanted. International air travel was still a novelty in the 90s and growing up in Singapore, we used to drive to the airport to pick up family or friends that were visiting from overseas. Seeing my love for aviation, my parents would get to the airport early in order for me to be able to look out of the viewing window and see the aircraft. I was always awed by the majesty of these very large machines taking to the skies effortlessly.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

Realizing  no one in my family was from an aviation background, I had to rely on hearsay and limited information derived from the internet. I gathered that subjects such as maths and physics were highly important to shape analytical thinking. I attended various university open days and career roadshows (defence force road shows, flying school open days) during my high school days to keep myself abreast of developments in the industry and to shape my decisions regarding subjects to choose in school etc. I also retained contact details of flight instructors/airline personnel that I met at these open days and accepted any offers to further my knowledge via field trips/experiences.

A lot of my early technical knowledge was derived from the popular National Geographic series, ‘Air Crash Investigations’. Sites such as YouTube, Wikipedia have a host of information regarding aviation. I downloaded Flight Simulator on my computer at home and keenly played it during my free time.

I knew that getting into my desired course at university would be competitive. Hence, I strived to do my best in each subject in high school. This meant understanding each subject in depth and not just limiting myself to rote learning. Naturally, this opened doors to some scholarships during my academic life.

I really loved the content of my studies at university as it was mostly aviation related. It was in university that I felt as if my goals were truly coming to fruition. However, I soon realized that pilot jobs were few and far between, and there were many people graduating nationally and internationally every year. I chose to devote my time to truly understanding my studies. I also networked in my spare time to make and maintain connections. 

When flying training started, the workload was massive. I was expected to continue to maintain a high standard of academia at university and continue to apply myself to the degree program. However, I also had to undertake separate studies to pass 7 exams administered by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, a government body. Furthermore, flying training is competency based. Minimum standards need to be met for each flight in order to progress. I had to ensure that all my normal and emergency procedures/ aircraft knowledge and technical knowledge was top notch. I had to do all this whilst maintaining a part time job as a concierge at an apartment building! 

This meant strict prioritising. I had to have a weekly plan (usually drawn up on Sundays) and strictly adhere to it. Semester breaks were nonexistent as I would be busy catching up with flying training or theoretical studies. Due to the flying course being university–linked, we were only allowed to repeat up to 5 flights at each stage. If there were too many repeats by a single student, the student would likely be terminated. We started off with a cohort of 120 students. Approximately 30, including myself, achieved their licenses through this course. Some of the remaining students still went on to achieve their licenses through privately funded courses.

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was in instructing. This was mainly achieved through networking. I learned of the opportunity when a friend in flying school told me about it. I applied for the role when I received my instructor rating and was successful.

I also kept my friends and relatives abreast of my progress/ career status. My father was outside court one day when he met his former pupil. After a short conversation, he realized that his pupil’s husband was a chief pilot at a major airline. I made it a point to stay in touch with him and he updated me when a position became available. I applied for the position and went through the full interview process with HR and other members of senior management (the chief pilot had excluded himself to prevent conflict of interest). The interview process included a face-to-face interview, a computer-based assessment and a full simulator assessment in an aircraft that I had never flown! We were given some basic information (thrust and pitch settings) an hour prior to the session and were expected to perform various maneuvers during the session without using any automation. This tested one’s adaptability and ability to work under stress. Approximately a month later, I received the good news that I had gotten the role. This meant another 6 – 8 months of further grueling training before fully qualifying as an airline pilot 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Self-doubt. There were many times when I felt that others were doing better than me/getting places where I wanted to go. It was difficult to ignore these distractions but I chose to stick to the path.

Challenge 2: Others telling you that you cannot do it. I had various people (including some instructors during my early training days) tell me that I would never make it as an airline pilot. It was difficult but I chose to block out these negative words and tried to objectively take feedback. If I was not sure what they meant, I’d ask them to repeat themselves or substantiate their explanation. Don’t just give up because someone said that you can’t do it!

Tell us about your current role as a pilot

I currently work at a major airline based in Asia. The pandemic in particular has hit the aviation industry hard. However, resilience is key. Pilots are trained to be extremely resilient in the face of adversity. 

During the pandemic, I pivoted to roles in government organizations. I had no prior training for these roles which dealt with public policy dealing with the pandemic. However, a can-do attitude and willingness to learn will get anyone a long way.

With regards to flying, no day is identical. Not only are the destinations and routes different between each duty period but, different aircraft have different technical issues that we need to consider. Weather patterns can prove to be challenging on some days. Even passengers can sometimes prove to be challenging. Our primary goal is the safety of the aircraft and its occupants on each flight. Following this, we will try to maximize efficiency (by flying at optimum altitudes to minimize fuel burn and looking for direct routings to reduce flight times). 

One has to be analytical, be able to work under pressure with a clear mind and be intuitive in order to be a successful pilot. People skills are crucial as each flight involves fellow crew members of varying personalities. An approachable personality is best to ensure good crew cooperation and communication.

I love the variety involved in this job. Each flight is a privilege. It is a privilege being entrusted with such expensive equipment and the lives of hundreds of people at a time. Flying definitely keeps one on their toes and works their mind constantly. The added perk of exploring exotic destinations and staying in luxurious hotels cannot be understated either!

How does your work benefit society? 

The pandemic in particular has shown that aviation is a lifeline. It connects people and allows for the expeditious shipment of key supplies to communities. Aviation connects people from all walks of life and allows for loved ones to reunite and for people to take much needed breaks in exotic destinations. There is a certain humble awe at being to do a small part in facilitating this.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I always enjoy assisting younger, aspiring pilots. I have had many curious children ask to peek into the flight deck after the aircraft has parked. This culture of paying it forward needs to continue so that the next generation of aviators can be inspired.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

a) Put your 100% into whatever you do. Luck is when opportunity meets preparation. 

b) Don’t give up on your dreams. Stay relevant, abreast of developments and never be afraid to ask questions

c) Use the internet. The internet has grown to be a plethora of resources. There are many good, free resources available to augment one’s learning journey. Learning isn’t confined to just the classroom.

d) Be approachable, communicate well and help others. You never know how your selfless acts will come full circle to reward you one day.

Future Plans?

The recovery in the aviation industry has started but I am not choosing to stay still. I am pursuing my MBA in Aviation with an American university by correspondence to further my knowledge regarding the business and financial aspects of running an airline. I hope to someday be able to teach the next generation of aspiring pilots as I found instructing to be incredibly rewarding