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Taking off on a new career – Part 2 Airborne

By: Stephen Williams

January 21, 2018

I’m Stephen Williams. In my previous post, I explained why I decided to apply for a role as Virgin Atlantic cabin crew at the age of 49. I’m now halfway through my training, and the pace is getting more intense every day. Thinking of joining me? Read on for a taste of what it’s really like to become part of the best team in the sky…

Learning to be assertive

It’s been hard-going. The daily exams are taking their toll, and lots of feelings are flying around, particularly during emotionally draining exercises like the emergency landing simulations. It’s one of my areas of difficulty, as they’re very intense and realistic. I’m finding it hard not to imagine what a real situation might be like. If I don’t totally forget what I’m supposed to do, my brain and mouth seem to be disconnected. Apparently, I keep saying ‘please’ when giving emergency instructions. You don’t say please! You must be assertive. I didn’t even realise I was doing it. Then, instead of shouting ‘heads down, feet back’, I was shouting ‘heads down, seats back’! I feel like I’m disappointing myself and doing stupid things.

conquering stage fright

As I go over things in my head, I cannot believe how much we’ve all learned in such a short space of time. We have a huge amount of revision and homework to do, and though I knew the training involved a lot of work I wasn’t prepared for quite how much there would be, and the ups and downs I would experience. Because of my background I thought I would manage fine. For anyone starting the training, my advice is to try and avoid feeling ‘over confident’. This is something totally new, and involves a very specific set of skills.

For example, I’ve become really worried about the practical tests, although I’m normally really good under stress. I was a nurse, I can deal with emergencies, yet doing the simulations in front of the rest of the group and tutors is difficult for me. I’m getting ‘stage fright’ and my mind goes blank, even though I know this stuff inside out by now.

And we haven’t even started the PELDS and Aviation Medicine (AvMed) yet. The PELDS, for those not in the know, is the location of each piece of equipment on each of the different types of Airbus. At first this seems like an impossible task, but after studying diagrams and then looking at the equipment in situ, it all starts to make sense. At least Aviation Medicine is more in my comfort zone. But even though I’m a nurse, I can’t rest on my laurels. Everything is slightly different to what I’ve been taught and it’s difficult to unlearn what I already know. But things are not the same at 35,000 feet as they are on the ground, and you’re tested on Virgin protocols, not anyone else’s.

I’m still finding the simulations a little stressful and being tested on life support protocols on dummies was not easy, but everyone does really well. In fact, I am one of the few who have to re-sit the tests, which is a bit humiliating. Nerves got the better of me as I put so much pressure on myself to get it right. I know I need to get over myself – if I was in a real situation I’d be absolutely fine. My issue is with the role plays and not the knowledge. I have to accept this and move on!

It starts to get real when you put on the Viv

We soon start our service training, and it involves wearing our uniforms for the first time. It’s quite an experience, getting the bus to training in our new work clothes. It’s a strange mix of self-consciousness and pride, but also knowing you look pretty hot! The Vivienne Westwood-designed uniform is quite cool and very smart.

This is the major part of what every flight will be like. The selling of duty free items; serving breakfasts, lunches, dinners, afternoon teas and drinks. Step by step we work through the stages of the services in-flight, along with what goes where and how to make sure it’s all legal. I’ve never worked in a bar or restaurant before, so this is probably the area of the job that is newest for me. The rest of the training is checks and scenarios that are hopefully not everyday events but it’s all starting to feel very real now. We have all received our first roster so know where we are heading to on our first flight, exciting! The realisation is finally hitting us that this is all just around the corner.

After we all pass the service section of the course, it’s straight into Boeing 787 training. Most of our training so far has been on the Airbus planes, so now we need to do our conversion to the 787. Yes folks, every plane is unique, just to make life interesting. The procedures, door operations, equipment and location of where things are stored are different, so we have to memorise these all over again. We get to visit an actual 787 in the hangar, which definitely brings the learning to life.

We’re on the final stretch now. Just a few extra bits of learning to wrap up, including Upper Class training and ‘Human Factors’, which relates to how we all need to watch out for each other and how the culture of the workplace can affect safety. The final day is also our ‘Wings Day’; the presentation where family and friends all come to see us presented with our certificates and ‘Wings’ badge. It’s a lovely way of celebrating the success and prestige of getting through the Virgin cabin crew training and being certified as legal to fly. We have passed!

Steve collects his wings from medical trainer Fiona Stewart

Steve collects his wings from medical trainer Fiona Stewart

Up and away to LA

Well, the day has come, and my first flight is the VS007 to LA. If I said I wasn’t nervous I’d be lying. But I’m trying not to think about it too much as I don’t want my nerves to get the better of me. I spent the previous night going over revision notes, so it was fresh in my mind. All of the training has led to this moment.

I feel like a child on his first day at school. I’m used to being confident and competent at work, but today I feel like I’ve forgotten everything I’ve learned. Even the logistics of getting to the crew check-in are stressful. I’m glad I took heed of a key piece of advice:  give yourself plenty of time to get to the airport and through security.

I eventually arrive and check my appearance. I’ve always been very conscious of how I looked when going to work, but this is a different level altogether. You have to look immaculate, as it’s part of the corporate image and the job. Also if I’m concentrating on what my hair and uniform look like I’m not thinking about what’s to come! As advised, I told everyone it was my first flight – you cannot be shy about this. But everyone’s reactions were fantastic: so supportive and genuinely concerned and excited for me.  No other organisation I’ve worked for has been so welcoming to the ‘new guy’.

I meet some of the crew who are going to be on my flight. They’re all very nice about the fact they will have a totally new crew member to carry. I introduce myself to the onboard managers for my flight, who again are really supportive and say they will look after me. That’s exactly the right thing to say to me at this point in time, as that’s what I feel I need.

What can I say about my first flight? Horrifying, exciting and lots of emotions, but the crew are all amazing. I could not have asked for a nicer bunch of people. They walk me through everything and do not make me feel stupid, even when I seem to forget some of the basics. This level of kindness and support lasts the whole flight and the flight back home again too. They all take me under their wing – pardon the pun – and make sure I’m ok when we’re in LA and not struggling by myself. Someone stays with me through customs in LAX and even makes sure I get my bag. I may be a mature 49 year-old man, but I feel like a naive teenager at times, and everybody’s fine with that.

LA itself is fantastic. The hotel is lovely, the weather is really warm and the crew are all great company. Sleep – well that’s another matter. The time change, the waking at 4am, needing to go to bed at 8pm, feeling just a little nauseous all the time due to jet lag – that will take some getting used to. But I know this is just part of the job and we’re all in it together.

So, first flight over, there and back again. I’m tired, grateful for a lovely crew and proud of myself! I made a very radical decision in changing my career at this stage in life but do you know what? Looks like its going to be one of the best gambles I have ever made!

Thank you Virgin for this amazing opportunity!


Fly behind the scenes in the back galley of our 787 flight to Los Angeles

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