Eyes Skyward: Johann Johnson finds focus in the impossible career as a Jamaican pilot | The Light Series

8 mins read

When he was a boy in the Caribbean, Johann Johnson dreamt of his days commandeering airplanes. Though the journey arduous, he is one of the few Jamaican pilots in the UK. In an Ark Republic exclusive, this innovator pens his journey.

True story

On Tuesday, September 11, 2001, the world woke up and wept at the destruction of the World Trade Center. Over 3,000 people lost their lives, leaping to their deaths from the flaming buildings, or were burnt to cinders while trapped in a concrete inferno. At the same time, I woke up on September 11th and celebrated. It was my eighth birthday.

Up until that day, my life’s ambition was to be a fighter pilot. I was an 8-year-old Jamaican child with a passion to read about and explore the world around me. I read widely about the air battles of World War II and knew in detail about the dogfights in the air. I knew the differences between the British Hurricanes and Spitfires and the German Messerschmitt’s. 

The desire to fly was triggered by a trans-Atlantic flight from Jamaica to the United Kingdom (UK) in August of 1997. As a three-year-old child, I asked my mother to view the cockpit. After repeated requests, she finally relented and I had a transformative opportunity to visit and discuss the flight with the pilots. Unfortunately, this is an experience that is no longer possible. While September 11th changed the direction of my career ambition, it did not divert my goal to be a pilot.

In order to help me make sense of the catastrophe of war and to reflect on my career choice, my mother took me to meet a Jamaican ex-servicemen in the rural, mountainous Parish of Manchester. These veterans created and witnessed wide-scale devastation first-hand, having served during World War II. During combat, they worked as radio operators, aircraft technicians, and pilots. When speaking to them, I remember the passion in their voices as they described events of over 50 years ago, as if they happened yesterday.

In conversation, they spoke of their experiences in the desert and lying down in pools of sweat, as a result of temperatures of over 116 degrees. They told of sand so fine that it got into the pores of their skin. I recall the tears of these old soldiers, some of whom lost limbs, as they begged me never to fight in a war, or have anything to do with any organisation that produces weapons for war.  They implored me, an 8-year-old boy, to be a man of peace. At this turning point, I realised that I could never be a fighter pilot.

In this most clarifying moment, I chose the direction of civil aviation as my career path. Those same pilots who compelled me to live a peaceable life, then instructed my mother to take me out of our small island and show me the world, so that I could explore its great capitals and experience global music and culture. Within the year, I would depart my homeland to the UK for good, or so it seemed, and kept the words of those aged Antillean warriors with me.

Rivers of Babylon

After landing at Heathrow Airport, UK’s climate was the first shock and culture was the second. Over the years, I spoke to my grandmother about her experiences in the UK because she lived and worked there for many decades as part of the “Windrush Generation”.

The Windrush Generation are the thousands of Caribbean people from British former colonies who were recruited to migrate to the UK to rebuild the country after World War II. While in the UK, they faced discrimination. Now, they face deportation and other discriminatory treatment from the government.

I was somewhat aware that cultural differences and unmet expectations in the “Mother Country” were part of the reason for her eventual return to Jamaica. The first time someone expressed shock at my origins occurred when they told me that, “I spoke so well” or was surprised I could enunciate English clearly and without an accent. In this moment, I began to understand a little of what my grandmother meant. 

I’d been privately educated in Jamaica. My mother, a British born broadcaster and university lecturer, had ensured that I grew up with the ability to speak both English and Patois, and employ them as two different languages, which I still do.

After I initially arrived to the UK, I wanted to return to the Caribbean. School was too easy, and I was bored. Math and English, in particular, were taught more rigorously in Jamaica, with weekly spelling competitions and daily multiplication table memorisation. 

Whilst, I was fortunate to have some exemplary teachers in the UK who challenged me, it was still difficult to keep my focus in subjects such as science because it lacked the rigor I knew back home. In order to push me further and to fulfill my ultimate desire to live and study outside the UK, my mother encouraged me to study the International Baccalaureate (IB).

Money in my pocket

The career of a UK pilot is unique amongst other highly skilled vocations in having no or very limited government support for training. Funding for training is either through large airlines, or, via structured loans like Student Finance, what is considered student financial aid in the US. An exception to this is the recently introduced Apprenticeship scheme, which is similar to US for-profit, faster-timed certificate programs that provide an onsite training curriculum from the beginning. 

Before the financial crisis in 2008, more sponsored programmes did exist. However, the overwhelming majority of aviators who complete their commercial training in the UK do so either through personal loans, with family support, working as they study, or a combination of all three.

Given that the cost of training often surpasses £100,000, it is easy to see why finances could be the single greatest barrier of entry for our profession. Whilst flight training, both theory and practical, can certainly be challenging, money was the only factor that ever made me question whether I would successfully obtain my pilot licence. 

While 2009 was the worst year of the global economic meltdown, it was also when I embarked on my first flight. At age 16, it was and remains, the best birthday present I’ve ever received. Moreover, the experience confirmed that I was born to fly.

Nevertheless, the central challenge of cost remained and while a flight every six months to keep my interest piqued was enjoyable, it would be insufficient to obtain even a private pilot licence, let alone the full commercial licence and instrument rating I would need to be employable.

However, I fully intended to complete a technical University degree and refused to be forced to choose between my career and my education. The experience of living with a great-grandmother, who had worked her entire life but, at 97, was still desperately trying to learn to read, had made that point clear. In particular, as being raised in a culture where education is seen as the difference between life and death.

For Jamaicans, education is how you raise yourself and your family out of poverty, while gaining the tools to fashion the world anew, then leaving it better than you found it. To have the benefit of living in a country where education is free, university courses are subsidised; thus neglecting to take advantage would have been utterly unthinkable. Furthermore, being a pilot is health dependent. Therefore, as a career insurance policy in the event of ill health as an aviator, I also pursued an engineering degree. All of this constituted the what and the why, which left the how unanswered. 

Initially, I hoped, after completing my International Baccalaureate (IB), to study at one of the aviation universities in Florida, such as Embry-Riddle. While investigating various university courses, both in the UK and abroad, my mother and I came to the conclusion that an EASA licence, issued by the countries of the European Union, would be more globally useful than an FAA licence, issued in the United States (US). In addition, to a much lower cost of training in the States, being based in the Caribbean basin would mean I could afford to go back to Jamaica regularly and winters would be far less punishing.

However, in the interests of long-term work opportunity, I decided to study in the UK, on a course combining a university degree with flight training. The flight course was modular, as opposed to integrated, meaning the costs were significantly lower and the completion schedule far more flexible. Rather than paying up front and being expected to finish at one school over, for instance, 18 months, my training was pay as you go, involving flying in the UK, Portugal, and Greece. This took more than five years, a time during which I completed my BSc, worked in London, and eventually with the help of family and friends, was able to save and borrow enough to complete my training. 

Africa unite

My story, while certainly unusual in places, is one amid thousands and, to gain a broader perspective on the challenges discussed, it is useful to hear another account. Eritrean alumnus, Filmon Andemichael, completed a joint flight training/university degree at one of the few universities in the UK offering such a programme.

He reflected on the challenges for a self-funding international student: I was studying very hard, I put more effort than my classmates, as English is my second language I had to [try] very hard but with the help of my classmates, I did get a very rewarding degree.” 

Describing the funding challenges,  Andemichael was candid: 

Well to be where I want to, I have to fight against all odds. The experience was quite tough. I had to fund my self for almost everything. Whenever I had University holidays, I was always working to top up my finances to be sure I had enough money to get me through.”

Nicholas Dunn, Managing Director of Aeros Flight Training based in the UK, detailed that some students had to dip into “family savings, re-mortgage houses, or work alongside their training courses.” Although the training make take time, like Andemichael, I saw through it.

Better must come:

Globally, there is a significant expansion of the aviation industry, especially for those willing to work in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Flight schools can make much of the pilot shortage, but, currently in the UK, that rhetoric remains unreflected in actions to make alternative sources of funding available for all avid aviators so that our field might become more meritocratic and less elitist.

Gradually, hope is beginning to glimmer for those without a house to remortgage or a rich relative to finance their pilot training. Thankfully, many within the industry are now aware of this issue and are working to remedy it. Wendy Pursey of the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), agreed that “this is important to open up the profession to all those who are capable and passionate about flying, not just those with the deepest pockets … We hope the new pilot apprenticeship programme will make that a reality for more people.”

With these steps and, hopefully, the creation of structured loans as for university studies, achieving a dream such as mine will be more than just a flight of fancy. What was an impossible wish can truly become an achievable goal for all who love to fly and refuse to let fear or finances restrict their flight paths.

Ark Republic is ending the year with a series of mixed-media stories of hope, empowerment, leadership, courage, brilliance family and affirmation. We want to enter into the New Year with a community collaboration called, “The Light Series.”

The Light Series is a month-long exploration of all things light and love. So, we invite you to walk with us. Even, we ask that you participate in highlighting those in your community who need some shine, or even yourself, your business or your superpower.

Our first week, December 1 to December 7, we will feature stories of innovators in our communities. Next, from December 8 to December 15, we share stories of inspiration from our entrepreneurs. Afterwards, from December 16 to December 25, we explore spiritual, religious and family traditions, as well as, winter rituals. Finally, from December 26 to January 1, we will end the series with stories of affirmation and forward movement in this next cycle, 2020.

If you would like to submit a personal essay, article, video, poem/spoken word or other media presentation of your work, just provide basic information and answer at least five of the questions. Once finished, send your answers and a high resolution picture(s) to the following:  thelight@arkrepublic.com.

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