We were four young pilots…100 years of flying

By: Dave Gunner

June 10, 2019

Paul, Chris P, Robbie and Chris B at the RAF Club

Back in 1994 we’d just started flying to Hong Kong and were taking delivery of a fleet of the new Airbus A340-300 aircraft to fly the route.

As a result, we needed more pilots and were joined by four guys from very different backgrounds. Rob Barnes, the charter pilot, Chris Pohl, the Aussie bush pilot, Paul Lightbody, the RAF fast jet pilot and Chris Barton, the bizjet pilot. They were immediately sent off to do an eight-week training course in Miami where they learned all about flying the A340. It was work hard (apparently) and play hard for the four young pilots, and the beginning of a friendship that has lasted 25 years.

Reading Airbus manuals by the pool in Miami, 1995 and 25 years later in London studying the menu at Ziggys.

All four still fly for us today, now as captains, and to celebrate 100 years of combined flying for Virgin Atlantic they recently got together for an evening of celebration. As much as we’d love to repeat some of the stories from that epic night out, instead we decided to ask them some slightly more sensible questions.

What was your journey to becoming a VA pilot?

Rob: My first airline was Air Europe back in the beginning of 1988 and I thought my life was complete. I was just converting to the captain’s seat when the company folded. I had six months back in night freight operations which I’d done before joining Air Europe, then joined Emirates when they only had 8 aircraft (and flew to the UK three times a week!). After six months there I realised that I had to leave. Luckily, Virgin got 340s and were advertising for Airbus qualified pilots, and here we are 25 years later!

Chris P: I started flying at 18 in Melbourne and my first 2,500 hours were in Australian GA (Aussie Bush Pilot). I flew everything from scenic flights, flying instruction, live radio “Beach and Bay” reports and live target towing for the Navy, to repatriating dead bodies for a funeral company, night freight, and flying tourists in float planes to the Great Barrier Reef, before landing my first airline job with Ansett Airlines Australia where I ended up flying the A320 in 1989. Air Europe, KLM, Swissair, Eurocypria, Air Lanka followed before joining Virgin at the beginning of 1994.

Paul during his RAF career and now, as a captain flying our Boeing 787s

Paul: My journey started as a boy in the Jersey Air Cadets. I had always wanted to be a pilot: My father worked for BA and I travelled extensively with the family; add to that movies like the Battle of Britain and it seemed that the best flying job was to be a fighter pilot in the RAF. I applied to join while I was studying for my A-Level exams and was successful.

The RAF then sponsored my PPL (Private Pilot Licence) and I had a licence to fly a plane before I had a licence to drive a car! I joined the RAF in 1983 and went on to fly the F-4 Phantom and F-3 Tornado, seeing action in the 2001 Gulf War. Always wanting to fly, at the seven-year stage in the RAF I was looking at Staff College and a desk job so I decided to leave earlier than planned. It took me three years of part-time study to gain my ATPL (airline transport pilot licence) but on leaving the RAF I was unable to find a flying job and ended up working as a hospital porter for over a year while applying to all and any airline around the world. In early 1994 I was invited to an interview with Virgin and here I still am some 25 years later.

A long way from an Aussie bush pilot. Chris Pohl, now a training captain on our Airbus fleet, is working on our A350 entry into service. He’s seen here standing next to the Giant Rolls Royce Trent XWB engine on the A350.

Why Virgin Atlantic?…… 

Rob: An opportunity to fly the 340 which at the time was the most modern equipment flying, plus Virgin had a good reputation as an employer. I also wanted to fly long haul.

Paul: It was the small player taking it to the big boys: winning and having a lot of fun along the way! Sure, I subsequently had offers from BA and others but at Virgin, particularly back in ’94, it was like going flying and hanging out down route with your buddies. The airline was small enough that you knew everybody: almost like a bigger RAF Squadron. Working hard but playing hard too.

Chris B: From the age of seven, I’ve stared at aircraft (see pic of 1968 Biggin airshow with Uncle Freddie’s Dakota). I took flying lessons at 15, working in a hanger to pay for them. When Richard started up in 84, I knew that was the airline I wanted to fly for. Big jumbo, cool Varga girl nose art and a wallop of fun that shook up BA. To get there in the late 80s, I flew the Citation and Lear business jets around Europe. Looking after the plane, we did our own handling, loadsheets, and filed our own flight plans, sometimes refiling in the air when the boss changed his mind!

The airlines beckoned in 1990 with Air Europe, only to experience redundancy seven months later. I ended up flying wet lease 75s out of Bogota in Colombia for Avianca in 93. Though a beautiful country, it was hindered by the drug war, with gunfire in the city at night and inspecting the external hatch customs seals in case a kilo of flour was hitching a lift to MIA. Time to apply to Virgin!

Chris B at the 1968 Biggin Hill air show and, more recently, showing John Boyega around the flight deck.

What memories do you have of 1994 and those early days of your career?

Chris P: It started with eight weeks in Miami together, getting to know each other and the Airbus A340. After initial training to Boston, we began an incredibly hedonistic rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle back and forth to Hong Kong. It wasn’t until about my third year of flying to Hong Kong that I realised there was daylight in the territory.

Paul: FUN! FUN! FUN! It just couldn’t get any better – flying a (then) modern aircraft, travelling the world, and having an absolute blast downroute. Wherever you found yourself, you were among friends. Nobody stayed in their room on a layover; if there was something going on the whole crew were there, as a team, as a family. If there was something fun going on downroute it was Virgin crew at the centre! Other bigger, older airlines (you know the names) looked on enviously.

High jinks in Hong Kong. Early days of the route as Chris B emerges from the flight deck to see what Chris P and Rob thought of his landing.

What have you learned about each other in 25 years?

Rob: Proud to have joined with these guys, we don’t see much of each other but when we do it’s always like a family reunion.

Chris P: That we’re still the same lucky four young guys who joined a small ‘boutique” airline (with eight aircraft), wondering if we’d still all be in contact, let alone still here after 25 years. We’re all so lucky to have been a part of this incredible adventure.

Paul: Robbie is a wheeler dealer, a modern Del BoyTrotter. It isn’t possible to be more laid back than Robbie. Barty….well, he’s just Barty, a true gentleman. Pohly is larger than life, never quiet, never dull – just your typical loud Aussie. All fantastic guys, excellent captains and great role models for any new pilot.

Chris B: I’ve learnt that your crew mates are the most important. Friendships like Pohly, Robbie and Paul (and a cast of other chums) become family. When that door closes you are working for each other. Pohly, Paul and Robbie are great pilots and Virgin has benefited from having a mix of people from different flying backgrounds; everyone has something different to contribute. Virgin has become family for me and as I write this, my son Matt is waiting for his Commercial licence to hit the doormat. Guess which airline he wants to fly for?

The final word (as usual) goes to Chris Pohl:

“I love those three legends that I joined with. We’re all very different in backgrounds and personalities, yet our Virgin experience has made us the best of mates. Virgin has certainly given me the best years of my life and 3 lifelong friends”.

Congratulations to Rob, Chris, Paul and Chris. Thank you for being amazing pilots and for everything you’ve done for Virgin Atlantic and our customers during these 25 years of flying.

Dave Gunner

Dave Gunner

I love telling the story of our people, our planes, our places and our planet through Ruby Blog.

Categories: Our People