Do you want to become a pilot? Interview with our instructor, Derek Strangway

Pilot and instructor Derek Strangway

My name’s Derek. I’m a multi-engine and IFR instructor here at Pacific Flying Club, and I’ve been with the Club for a little over two years now, working in both the single-engine and the multi-engine department. But I’ve been at Pacific Flying Club between being a student and an instructor for about nine years. I started my flight training when I was 13, way back in 2014. And after I completed my private pilot license and my commercial pilot license, I was evaluating what my options would be. I’m also a full-time student at UBC. So it made sense to do flight instructing. It’s a job that’s busier in the summer and quieter during the school year. So I started working on my flight instructor rating with our flight operations manager and then started instructing in 2020. 

How old were you when you decided to pursue a commercial pilot career?

I have always had a strong passion for aviation. When I was younger, my earliest flying memories were from taking Dash 8 flights to Terrace to visit my grandparents during the holidays. As a result, I developed a keen interest in aviation. However, it wasn’t until I was entering high school that I truly considered it a viable career option. As expected, my teachers began discussing future aspirations with us, prompting me to repeatedly gravitate towards the idea of becoming a commercial pilot. Consequently, I made the firm decision to pursue this path.

At what age can you start taking flying lessons? 

You can begin taking flying lessons at an early stage. Legally, your first solo flight can be done at 14. Additionally, you can obtain a recreational pilot permit starting at 16 years old. The minimum age requirement to acquire a private pilot license is 17, and for a commercial pilot license, it’s 18. Therefore, it is possible to commence pilot training during high school, complete it shortly after graduating, and pursue a career in the aviation industry.

Tell us what were the reasons you chose PFC as your flying school.

There are numerous flying schools in the Lower Mainland area, making it convenient for aspiring pilots. I knew I wanted to operate out of Boundary Bay when considering my options. Upon evaluating the choices, I discovered that PFC has the largest fleet, which is advantageous as it ensures an alternative aircraft in case of mechanical issues. Furthermore, I had heard positive feedback about the professionalism of PFC instructors and the high-quality instruction they provide. Hence, selecting PFC as the best option was a straightforward decision for me.

Talk about the differences between taking the BCIT pilot license program and the self-driven program.

Pacific Flying Club offers flight training in two different formats: modular basis, where you pay for each license or rating as you progress, and partnership with the BCIT Commercial Pilot Program. As part of our collaboration, we provide the flight training component for the BCIT program. I pursued flight training modularly, as I am also a full-time university student. Both are excellent choices for individuals contemplating between the two options, but the decision depends on your specific goals. The BCIT program typically takes around 18 months to complete and grants a post-secondary diploma. However, if you already have prior post-secondary education, it is possible to complete the training relatively quickly as a private student in a modular approach. In both scenarios, you receive the same comprehensive flight education.

Derek, what do you mean by “Learn how to learn.” 

If you choose to pursue modular flight training, it is crucial to understand that it is a highly self-driven process. It is akin to the experience of entering a lecture hall during your first days at university, where you are faced with a crowd of 400 students and must determine how to prepare yourself effectively, relying on your own initiative. The most challenging part of this process is mastering the art of studying to become a pilot.

However, once you develop effective study strategies with the guidance of your instructor, you will notice that progress accelerates swiftly. Learning to fly is a self-paced and self-directed journey, requiring a willingness to invest significant effort in comprehending not only the practical aspects but also the theoretical components of aviation.

What aircraft are available for PFC students to use during their course?

As an instructor at Pacific Flying Club, I have experience teaching both single-engine and multi-engine aircraft. Our primary single-engine trainers include the Cessna 152 and the Cessna 172. For multi-engine training and, predominantly, instrument flight rules (IFR) training, we utilize the Piper Seneca one. However, if you’re interested in pursuing a single-engine instrument rating and prefer an aircraft that consumes less fuel and is more cost-effective on an hourly basis, we also have a few IFR-equipped 172s available. Additionally, if you require cross-country training for your commercial pilot’s license, you can rent the Cessna 172, which offers a faster journey and provides a more spacious and comfortable experience.

What are the advantages of taking the pilot’s license program at PFC?

The convenience of having our PPL, CPL, multi-engine, and IFR programs all available in-house makes it incredibly straightforward to obtain the necessary licenses and ratings to pursue a professional pilot career. Under one roof, you can progress seamlessly from zero hours to being fully prepared to enter the industry. This approach lets you maintain familiarity with a single set of school procedures and policies, streamlining the learning process.

Furthermore, if you aspire to become a flight instructor, we also offer the flight instructor rating within our organization. This means you can transition smoothly from zero hours to working as an instructor, all within the same institution. Drawing from my own experience, I can confidently state that this integrated approach makes transitioning into an instructing role much easier. With my already-established knowledge of the airspace, familiarity with the airport, and understanding of the school’s operations, the learning curve is significantly reduced.

What kind of simulators are available for students to use at PFC?

Pacific Flying Club offers several advantages, one of which is our extensive range of simulator options available to students. For private pilot training, we provide the Redbird simulator, equipped with full motion capability. However, as students progress to the multi-engine and instrument rating stages, and even some private pilot students if they opt for it, they can also utilize our ALSIM ALX or ALSIM 250 simulators. The ALSIM 250 is specifically designed for IFR training and is most effective when configured for multi-engine piston aircraft.

On the other hand, the versatile ALSIM ALX can be configured for either turboprop or turbofan aircraft, allowing for a wide range of training scenarios, ranging from PPL training to two-crew training for complex airplanes. Our diverse simulator options truly set us apart from other flight schools.

Talk a little about aircraft maintenance at PFC. 

During my training, while working on my multi-engine rating, I received valuable advice from my pilot examiner that has stayed with me ever since. He emphasized the importance of trusting the maintenance team as pilots, as they are responsible for ensuring our aircraft’s safety and airworthiness. He advised me never to fly for a company where I don’t have faith in the maintenance team. This principle played a significant role in my decision to join Pacific Flying Club (PFC). At PFC, we are fortunate to have a highly professional maintenance team led by our chief engineer, Jeff.

I have complete trust in their expertise and dedication. They not only excel at keeping our airplanes in optimal condition but also willingly answer questions and provide guidance to students and instructors. They serve as a valuable resource, allowing us to learn more about the aircraft and providing reassurance that when we step into an airplane, it has been meticulously maintained to the highest standards.

What are the benefits of having the largest fleet of planes in Western Canada?

Ensuring that students have the necessary tools for success within a flying school environment is of utmost importance. Some factors that can limit progress include the fleet and weather conditions. Regarding the fleet, Pacific Flying Club boasts the largest fleet in Western Canada. This means that in the event of a mechanical failure, there is a high likelihood of quickly securing another aircraft to ensure the flight can proceed as planned.

This becomes particularly significant during the winter months when the West Coast experiences a period of inclement weather, resulting in a decrease in flyable days over a three or four-month span. During this time, it becomes crucial to seize every available opportunity to fly, especially if you are striving to complete your training within a specific timeframe. The abundance of aircraft options allows for seamless transitions to a different airplane in case of any issues, enabling you to capitalize on those valuable flyable days.

In the summer, when the fleet is heavily utilized, it’s natural for mechanical failures to occur more frequently. However, with the availability of numerous aircraft, switching to another plane becomes a hassle-free process. The significance of weather cannot be overlooked, particularly for those training in Western Canada, where rainy winters prevail. To expedite your training and pursue a commercial pilot’s license, it is vital to take full advantage of the summer months. As a former student, I spent my summers devoted to full-time flying while attending school during the academic year.

This approach can easily be adapted to individuals with jobs by increasing [flight] work hours during the winter and dedicating more time to flying in the summer. Striking a balance between work and personal life is attainable, and with effective time management, it is entirely possible to obtain a commercial pilot’s license within a couple of years.

What would you say was your most memorable flight as a student at PFC?

One of the most remarkable flights during my flight training was my 300-nautical-mile solo cross-country journey. This particular flight holds significance as it is a requirement for obtaining a commercial pilot’s license. The task entails flying from the point of origin to an airport located at least 300 miles away. For my cross-country, I chose Vanderhoof, precisely 301 miles distant. Conducted in October, the limited daylight hours amounted to a mere nine, adding a sense of urgency to the mission.

I arrived at the airport early in the morning, prepared for a 7 am departure. The sight of a breathtaking sunrise over the mountains set the tone for the day ahead. En route to Vanderhoof, I made stopovers at Chilliwack Airport and Williams Lake Airport, both to refuel and to stretch my legs. Spending an extended duration in a small airplane necessitates occasional breaks. The return journey mirrored the beauty of the day, with a stunning sunset illuminating downtown Vancouver before making the final turn back into Boundary Bay.

It was an experience that etched itself into my memory, marking the moment when I truly felt like a commercial pilot. While I had already completed the flight test, this particular flight represented a remarkable achievement. Navigating unfamiliar terrain, relying solely on paper maps and a mechanical compass, and completing the entire trip within a single day highlighted the progress and skills I had acquired.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of being a flight instructor at PFC?

As a flight instructor, witnessing the progress of my students is the most fulfilling aspect of my job. It holds great significance to me to see their hard work yield results, and it is truly rewarding to know that I am making a positive impact on the aviation industry. When I effectively fulfill my role, my students not only obtain their commercial pilot’s license but also develop a strong grasp of human factors, safety risk management, and a thirst for knowledge that will propel them forward.

I am aware that when I train students, I am not merely shaping their skills as students but also shaping potential first officers or captains. This realization underscores the importance of my role here at Pacific Flying Club. By equipping my students with the necessary skills to succeed, I am actively contributing to the continuity of the Canadian aviation industry as a safe and dependable mode of transportation. I always bear in mind that my students could be the pilots entrusted with the responsibility of transporting my own family during the holiday season. This realization fuels my sense of professionalism and guides me as I deliver instruction in the cockpit.

You are very passionate about flying. Could you tell us more about it?

One aspect of being a professional pilot that I am deeply passionate about is threat and error management in aviation. It is crucial to remember that every time an aircraft is involved in an accident, there is a reason behind the crew’s decision, and often, that reason is understandable. My passion lies in identifying methods to effectively manage and mitigate risks, ensuring that the actions leading to accidents no longer make sense to the crew.

In my instruction, I emphasize the importance of approaching risk assessment and mitigation with empathy. It is essential to recognize that everyone makes mistakes, including pilots. However, what matters is having procedures in place that enable us to identify, isolate, and contain threats before they escalate into incidents. This emphasis on threat and error management is not only applicable to my commercial pilot students but also extends to my private pilot students. It is an integral part of human factors and plays a significant role in professional aviation. Moreover, it holds immense value in personal aviation, ensuring that every individual returns home safely.

Is this a good time to be entering into the airline industry?

As you may have heard from news reports, Canada is currently experiencing a significant pilot shortage. This presents a tremendous opportunity for individuals looking to enter the aviation industry. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we witnessed students who completed their private pilot license, commercial pilot license, multi-engine rating, and instrument rating seamlessly transition into the right seat of a turboprop aircraft. Such career progression was unprecedented in aviation, and it is expected to happen again.

We are witnessing the emergence of new companies in Canada, including Flare and Lynx. Additionally, a new low-cost carrier is being established in the eastern region, while Porter is expanding its operations into Vancouver. Jazz Air Canada and WestJet, along with WestJet Encore, are also likely to continue expanding to compete against the growing low-cost carriers. For individuals considering a career in aviation, obtaining a commercial license and securing a position in the flight deck of an aircraft within the next five years can lead to a career trajectory that has never been seen before in Canadian aviation. This is an exciting time to embark on a career in this field.

What advice would you give students to complete the pilot license course on becoming commercial pilots?

For individuals interested in pursuing a career in the aviation industry, there are several attributes that consistently contribute to success. Intelligence and natural flying skills are not the sole determinants of success. What truly matters is the amount of practice and hours dedicated to honing your skills. Every aspiring pilot will have areas of strength and weakness. You may excel in piloting skills but struggle with navigation, or vice versa. You may find studying and memorizing regulations challenging but you possess a deep understanding of aerodynamics and aircraft mechanics.

To thrive as a commercial pilot, curiosity is essential. Asking yourself questions such as “Why does this work?” and “What would happen if it were done differently?” is crucial. Furthermore, envisioning the desired outcome and understanding what it entails is equally important. By embracing curiosity and asking such questions, you are already taking significant steps toward effective preparation for the demands of the industry.

Success as a commercial pilot also requires perseverance. It entails acknowledging your limitations while continually pushing the boundaries of your knowledge and understanding. It is an industry that demands continuous learning and adaptability. If you are drawn to challenges and seek continuous growth opportunities, the aviation industry may be an ideal fit for you.

Talk about the aircraft students use at PFC and the aircraft they will fly once they are in the airline industry.

One of the disparities observed in aviation pertains to the variation between the aircraft used as primary trainers and those encountered in the industry. Many primary training aircrafts still employ analog instruments, whereas the majority of day-to-day aircraft operations utilize what is known as glass cockpits—computer screens replacing analog instruments. To illustrate the distinction, consider the contrast between an older car with numerous buttons and switches versus a modern vehicle like a Tesla, featuring a prominent iPad-like screen in front of the driver. 

Pacific Flying Club has commendably responded to this evolving aviation landscape. If you possess an interest in avionics, you will be pleased to learn that our Cessna 172 is equipped with the Garmin 650 display and the Garmin G5 horizontal situation indicator. This advantage allows us to introduce glass cockpit training right from the beginning. By choosing a career as a professional pilot, you will swiftly adapt to the types of displays prevalent in the industry.

Alternatively, if you are seeking recreational flying, the Garmin 615 and Garmin G5 provide excellent navigation functionality and enhance cockpit safety. Our Piper Senecas, utilized for Group One instrument rating training, are also equipped with glass cockpits featuring the Garmin 750 and Garmin 650. The primary flight displays in both aircraft are glass, differing based on whether you are flying Juliet Mike Golf or Foxtrot Echo Alpha. Familiarity with glass cockpit avionics proves especially beneficial during advanced training levels, as it offers valuable experience aligned with the avionics systems you will encounter in future employment. Moreover, many companies include glass cockpit experience as an asset in their job postings, making this training instrumental in effective career preparation.

What are some other factors in choosing the right flight school?

When selecting a flight school, it’s important to consider the type of aircraft you will likely operate after completing your training. At Pacific Flying Club, we provide training on the Cessna 152 and 172, which serve as excellent platforms for transitioning into jobs involving single-engine piston aircraft, such as a Cessna 182, De Havilland Beaver, or De Havilland Otter. These aircraft offer valuable experience for aspiring flight pilots. 

On the multi-engine side, our operation of the Piper Seneca makes it an ideal platform for transitioning into jobs involving the Seneca itself or possibly the Piper Navajo, which is a slightly larger twin aircraft manufactured by Piper. The similarity between our aircraft and those used in the industry is advantageous, as the experience gained at Pacific Flying Club will be highly relevant to your future employer if they operate aircraft from the same family or with a similar layout.

What are the benefits of being a flight instructor on your way to becoming a commercial pilot?

For individuals considering flight instructing as a career step, it offers numerous advantages. As a flight instructor, you gain valuable leadership skills that contribute to what we call “Captaincy,” the ability to lead effectively within an aviation environment. Furthermore, instructing expands your depth of understanding as you explain aircraft operations and procedures to individuals without a background in aviation. Flight instructing serves as an excellent stepping stone to various career opportunities.

Flight instructors are highly sought after by airline training departments, making it an ideal path for those interested in moving into management roles. Additionally, companies like Pacific Coastal Airlines, Jazz, and WestJet Encore often seek flight instructors for first officer positions, providing an opportunity for a relatively quick promotion to captain. This fast track to captaincy is crucial because becoming a captain on a two-crew airplane requires an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) with 1,500 hours of flight time and pilot-in-command experience. Flight instructing hours count towards the ATPL requirements, facilitating the attainment of the license once you reach the 1,500-hour mark. Acquiring an ATPL significantly enhances your career prospects.

Choosing to be a flight instructor with Pacific Flying Club not only opens career doors but also allows you to become acquainted with the Lower Mainland area. If you’re from the Lower Mainland, it provides an opportunity to stay close to home while making significant progress in your career.

Would you like to book a FAM flight?

Experience a 30-45 minutes flight from the right seat of a Cessna 152 or 172. You will take off from Boundary Bay Airport and fly over the White Rock area. And here is the exciting part — the flight instructor will let you take control of the aircraft to feel what it’s like to fly a plane! See the page What is a FAM Flight?

Call us at 604-946-0011 or email us at info@pacificflying.com.

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