Isn’t flying amazing? Imagine how much more amazing it would be if you were a Virgin Atlantic pilot at the helm of one of our planes. That’s been Captain Geoff Andreasen’s life for well over two decades now, but the time has finally come for him to hang up his wings. It’s always a sad day for us when a much-loved pilot reaches the end of their flying career, but we recently had the pleasure of catching up with Geoff before he retires to discuss all things aviation, what it takes to be a pilot and the best moments of his career.
The early years
As one of our longest-serving and most respected pilots, Captain Andreasen has been involved in many a Virgin Atlantic highlight since joining the airline in 1990, from flying a 747 jumbo in formation with the Red Arrows to transporting VIPs across the world on inaugurals and captaining our first ever bio-fuel test flight. But what got him hooked on flying in the first place? Growing up in Africa, Geoff certainly has his fair share of colourful travel memories and his on-board adventures began at a young age.
“I suppose my first experiences of travel, or of flying as a passenger, were in Central Africa; in Zambia – then Northern Rhodesia – where my dad had an import/export business,” he recalls. “We used to fly all over central and southern Africa and across to Madagascar and Mauritius in all kinds of different aeroplanes; old Dragon Rapides, and propeller-driven aeroplanes; DC4s, DC3s and DC6s.”
As a result of his dad being in the travel business Geoff gained a really strong interest in flying, helped along by the fact that he had quite a lot to do with Freddie Laker when he was flying out to Zambia in the early years. And after meeting Freddie a few times, the seeds of desire to become a pilot were well and truly sown. “I initially qualified as a private pilot, and I was spending my time flying around bush airstrips in Zambia and flying people on game safaris, that sort of thing,” he says. “But I did my commercial pilot training in the UK; in Perth, Scotland. I was lucky enough to be sponsored for training by an airline and I came over to the UK for that particular purpose – to become a commercial pilot.
“Training was expensive then but it’s a lot more expensive now, if you’re going to do a complete “˜residential course’ which lasts approximately a year and a half. The basic format is the same: it involves a year and a half to two years of pretty intensive study as well as flying. I suppose the main difference now is that it’s been sped up a little, because most of the schools in the UK will send their students overseas to where the weather is better so they can get the flying in more quickly than they can in the UK. Then they’ll come back to the UK and complete their flying in bad weather, because the UK authorities want you to be qualified in all kinds of poor and atrocious conditions.”
It’s one thing to train with the security of qualified instructors at your side, but your first commercial flights as a new pilot – and your first experience as a captain in particular – are something different entirely. Geoff’s early commercial career took him back to Zambia, where he mostly flew around game parks sometimes having to literally drive animals off the strips as they approached. “You’d occasionally get the Big Five on the dirt strips,” he remembers. “You’d have to buzz them to get them off so you could land.”
“And my first flight as a captain was when I’d come back to the UK, and I flew to Geneva on a skiing trip in the middle of winter, carrying lots of enthusiastic skiers. I think for any pilot the first solo flight in command as a captain is one of the highlights of your entire career. And it just happens in a bit of a whirl really. You’re obviously very well-trained, and it shouldn’t be anything terribly different to what you’ve done in the past but it’s still a huge feeling of satisfaction and achievement when you get back from that very first flight as a captain.”
Flights of fancy
Geoff has been with Virgin Atlantic for almost the entirety of our existence, so there are not many people better placed to give us an insight into flying our planes in the early days. “I came from a regimented airline so it was a bit of an eye-opener for me to see how relaxed and friendly – although professional – Virgin was,” he says. “And to be honest, although the airline operated to a very high standard, when I first joined it was – from the flying side – a little bit like a retired British Airways old boys flying club, in as much as most of the senior captains were old British Airways captains who’d retired, and it was very much a case of ‘I say, it’s Wednesday old boy, could you do the New York for me because I want to go and play golf’. It was as casual as that really, although it operated to a really high standard. It’s very different now, needless to say!”
It may be different now, but some things haven’t really changed at all. We still pride ourselves on our ability to throw an excellent party – if we do say so ourselves – especially when it comes to inaugural flights to new destinations. And Geoff has captained a fair few of those. “I’ve possibly had more than my fair share and probably just through good fortune!” But which stands out in his memory the most? Unsurprisingly, a certain US city is at the top of the list.
“The Las Vegas inaugural was a terrific trip. Sir Richard was on board, along with his mother and father,” says Geoff. “The flight was like a ‘mini Las Vegas’, with an on-board casino, croupiers and gaming tables, and bottle-throwing barmen. And that was followed by a three-day party in the desert around Las Vegas, which was tremendous.
“On the way back, Sir Richard’s mother – who I think must’ve been in her early 80s in those days – dressed up in cabin crew uniform and stuck on Elvis sideburns before serving the passengers with their food and drink, which was very funny.”
However, one of the most memorable experiences of Geoff’s entire career took place some years ago when he was essentially ‘off-duty’ from the day job. But when you have the opportunity to fly a gigantic 747 at the Biggin Hill Airshow in formation with the Red Arrows, you don’t mind putting in a little overtime. So how did it all come about?
“We thought it would be a huge thrill and contrast for this giant 747 jumbo to fly with the Red Arrows,” says Geoff. “And we just approached them and they were very, very keen to do it. The day was – still is – the highlight of my flying career, because it’s very unusual for an airliner to fly in formation with the Red Arrows.
“And it was a little difficult because we didn’t have a chance to practise it at all because they have such a busy schedule that they don’t have time for that sort of thing. So we had to do it all by remote control. Fortunately we had Richard Mackintosh, an experienced formation flying pilot and Jim Kloos, a Senior Training Captain on the team. We arranged it so that we met up over the middle of the English Channel, so that we were flying around in a sort of elongated circle. They flew over from an air display they’d had in France that morning, we joined up in mid-air and then flew along the Thames Estuary down towards Biggin Hill and did two low passes in a very tight V-formation.
“It was a tremendous thrill because obviously they’re one of the foremost aerobatic and formation teams in the world and to look out from a massive jumbo and just see a tiny little red fighter aircraft on the wing was a huge excitement.”
Don’t miss part two of our interview with Geoff, where we take a look at some more of the work our pilots get up to behind the scenes and find out what it really takes to fly a plane…