Faraz Sheikh Pilot Story
Faraz Sheikh Pilot Story

The Struggle of Becoming a Pilot – The Story of Captain Faraz Sheikh

Faraz Sheikh was born in London, but was partially brought up in East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. Like many others, he caught the aviation bug from a very young age. He boarded a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet with his father at the age of six, on his way to London for a family holiday. It was at night and the whole cockpit was lit up with those analogue dials and buttons. He stood frozen as he glanced at the Pilots doing their work. It was love at first sight. He was hooked and the next words that came out of his mouth were “daddy, I want to be a pilot when I grow up!”.

Below is his story and quest to become a pilot:

Throughout the years ahead, I would spend my weekends visiting the airports to see airplanes magically taking off into the skies. I was so amazed with the magic of flight and the fact that pilots were paid to do this job. I wanted it so badly that I even coloured four stripes on my school shirt, so I looked like a pilot. Little did I know using a permanent marker pen meant trouble with my mum later! I often remember having a career chat with my father and, no matter how many times I mentioned 'Airline Pilot' to him, he would jokingly respond by telling me:

“You can't be a pilot, you're useless in school! If you make it as a pilot, I will personally shake your hand one day!”

Faraz with his father before he was killed in the terrorist bombing of U.S. Embassy
Faraz with his father before he was killed in the terrorist bombing of U.S. Embassy

This was I guess his way of making me work harder at getting better grades at school. I remained focused throughout my years and just prior to starting my O-level equivalent college years, on August 7th 1998, a terrorist bomb explosion shook the city of Nairobi.

a group of men with dogs in front of a destroyed building

At the time, the entire city went into vast confusion and panic but, little did we know, the explosion was targeted at the US embassy; the embassy at which my father had worked at for all his whole career as an accountant. I, unfortunately, lost my father in this tragic event and my life changed completely.

Some months after the event, my aunt gifted me a few flying lessons to take my mind off things and, for the first time in my life, I took control of a Cessna 172. The experience was incredible and I couldn't believe I was learning how to fly for real!

A year later, we moved back to London, England where I was to start a completely new life. I lost all my focus for the first part of my year there and had given up on any career or life goals. I got plenty of help from my new school teachers and friends at the time, but at one point I remembered what my father had said to me; I knew I had to break free from my sorrow, I had to prove to him that his son was capable of achieving this dream of becoming a pilot. I started working hard in school again and I took a few flying lessons at my local flying club, I also started to visit pilot career shows at London Heathrow airport.

I had become very good friends with a British Airways B747 pilot, who I met onboard the aircraft when I revisited Africa for my father's US embassy memorial service. He was my new mentor in life and this truly boosted me so much, it helped to keep my focus and dreams alive. We would often talk and he would guide me throughout on what to work on, how to practice for my future British Airways sponsored pilot scheme. It was all going well until 9/11 happened in America. Then the whole world came to its feet and I was straight away taken back to my father's incident.

a black smoke billowing from a city

The airline/aviation industry suffered severely and the cadet pilot schemes were all stopped until further notice. I felt I was back to where I started my journey from, with my dream of becoming a pilot fading away. Terrorism was the blame for all this yet again!

I almost gave up entirely but realized that this meant that I lost and that the bad people who did all this win. I was not willing to live with that thought and regret in my life and every time I felt fallen, the words "If you make it as a pilot, I will personally shake your hand one day!" would echo in my ears.

As the industry was in financial crisis, I decided to temporarily pursue a bachelors degree in Airline Management. This would keep me in an aviation environment and with aviation interests, it would also mean that I had some sort of back-up education or career plan just in case.

Over the 3 years at university, I got back up and decided to continue my mission in becoming a pilot. I flew endless hours using Microsoft flight simulator to practice and learn, carried on visiting any career open days and exhibitions and networked with industry airline pilots to stay ahead of the game. Some airlines had started to re-open cadet pilot schemes but, due to the financial situation, you would now have to pay the full cost of flight training, even if successfully selected. The cost was more than $100k for a full-time integrated flight training course and I knew I didn't have even a fraction of those funds.

Despite that, I still applied to all and every scheme that was advertised; one thing I knew was that the selection itself was free, as long as I could pay for traveling and hotel costs. This was worth the experience because the competition to pass such schemes was immense as, after thousands of applications, the airline would only take a handful of cadets! I had 3 years until my university degree was completed and I attended several schemes in that period. I learned and developed so much after each one towards that the end, I was almost always reaching the final few candidates. Three months before my university graduation, I finally got accepted by two different airlines.

Despite not having the funds to train, I was in celebration because it was never about the money. It was more about achieving something and being able to prove to oneself; we as humans are capable of doing great things if we maintain the right focus, work on improving on our weaknesses and continue adding to our knowledge in life.

Believe it or not, during my first ever selection, the company representative called me and said to me I should re-consider a new career as the aptitude results never lie!

Now, if you believe what she said and take it to heart, you will fail there on every selection because you have convinced yourself you are incapable. I was never willing to believe that, I knew I was meant to fly and that six-year-old boy meant what he said onboard that jumbo jet night flight! Don't let anyone ever discourage you in life, because negative energy spreads much faster and can shatter your dreams. If you believe in yourself and are willing to work hard, you can achieve anything in your life.

Although I had passed two different airline selection schemes, my next problem was to email them and reject the offer as I didn't have the money to train.

I had just over a month before the deadline for accepting the offer, for some reason I was just not willing to throw it all away after all that hard work. I spoke with many friends and industry people and after hours of head scratching, I realized that I could maybe get the funds ready in some way.

I made a business proposal where I (my career) was the product people were going to invest in. I realized it is much easier to ask 100 people for $1000 each than to try huge lump sum amounts at a few sources.

This strategy worked for me and if you want to know more on how, then here is the link to my blog.

I flew off to Spain to start my flight training course as a pilot cadet with ThomsonFly airlines. After 18 months of hard work, I graduated with my ATPL flying license.

It was the best day of my life, but a new problem was at the horizon. It was the year 2008 and the world was going into a global economic recession. The airline had dropped us from any possible job prospects; everyone knew it was going to be a long difficult journey ahead, with nothing but financial debt to show for it. Another down blow had come knocking on my ambitions and career, but I had seen enough in life to know to never let anything put you down. I knew the focus had to be maintained at all costs, so I went back to London and initially applied for simple everyday jobs in my home town.

Having some money coming in was the most important start, because then you can spend your time off dealing with re-building the necessary blocks. Some months down the line, I got an offer to train on the Airbus A320 with BMI airlines at London Heathrow. Unfortunately, the contract was such that pilots were to pay for 150 hours line training and I was against this scheme.

a blue and white airplane in the sky

I rejected the offer initially but then a week or so later, with a tiny miracle, came a phone call from the same scheme. One of the pilots who was meant to start this scheme had dropped out of the course for some reason. They were willing to offer me the line flying for free provided I paid for just the type rating, as this would mean they could still run the course and simulator slots as planned.

It was in fact saving them from a huge loss. I knew paying for a type rating was becoming the new normal anyway, even if I waited for better times ahead in the future. I accepted this and flew for a few months on the A320, operating out of Heathrow airport.

Ignoring the circumstances and flying without a salary was a bold and tough decision; but the moment I lined up on that westerly runway ready for my first take-off, I knew my father would without doubt shake my hand at the end of that flight. As you line up and see those runway lights blurring out at a distance, you set some thrust to stabilize both engines, you look outside and confirm with your captain if we're good to go and he confirms this.

You set take-off thrust and you know your neck and hands are sweating, because you have only done this in a simulator before this day, the aircraft accelerates so quickly that the lights become more blurry, you look ahead at the end of the runway and then the captain calls "Rotate". You slowly pitch the nose of the aircraft up and magically you start defying gravity and the aircraft lifts off into the skies.

That feeling, believe it or not, you will remember forever in your career to come. Never ever give up on those dreams, as I can tell you with one hand on my heart, you will not regret anything on that day. All the obstacles and falls you had during your journey there will disappear like vapour in your memory.

But wait, there's more to come. You thought the drama and obstacles were over. Remember, I was only at BMI airlines for a short time. Some months later, the airline was in deep financial trouble and we had no chance whatsoever of gaining a contract with them. I was jobless again and felt I was back to the bottom again; but the reality was, I was a fully qualified Airbus pilot with some flying experience. I knew I had put myself in a strong position for when the economic situation improved.

I was back in my home town, doing two different jobs during the day and spending my evenings and nights practising on flight simulator; I was also sending out my Pilot CV's to as many emails as I could find on websites and blogs. I never gave up for even a second and knew it would take time, but by now we know the secret right! It took almost a year this time, but I had three airline invitations for a job this time. This was my moment and I knew I had to do well, as you get one shot to impress the trainer in that simulator.

It is indeed very stressful and, after completing your selection, you go back home without knowing for several weeks what the outcome will be. Well, at least that's normally the case; but when I landed that Airbus, the instructor told me to stop the aircraft on the runway and set the parking brake on. We did a very quick self de-brief in the simulator and then he said these words to me:

“This was one of the best simulator selections I have seen over the last few weeks. Go home and have a big beer because you got the job. I'm the boss and I decide who to hire. Well done young man and welcome to Easyjet!”

The best part was that I was going to get paid to fly people as a First Officer, for the first time in my life. I have now been with the company for over 11 years and a Captain for the last 3 years. I am truly grateful to all those aviators and pilots who encouraged me in my journey. They pushed me to my limits, gave me the motivation and inspiration that gave me the drive to keep pursuing and working on my career. I intend to do the same for people like you, people who are the future of our industry in aviation. If you have that goal and dream, don't think about the issues that stop you today and tomorrow; think far ahead in life, because eventually the obstacles will get out of your way or simply disappear. It is the decisions you make at each step that will either become your regret or even better your success story.

Wishing you the very best at every stage in your life and career.

You can follow Captain Faraz Sheikh on his blog and Instagram.