Ellie was lucky enough to interview her long-term friend Sam Ison who, at the time of interview, was undergoing intensive training in order to qualify as a commercial airline pilot. Since the interview, he has fully qualified and is awaiting the exciting “go-ahead” from Easyjet to allow him to embark on his flying journey and career. We think you, as a Notable reader, will love to hear more about how Sam left university to pursue his childhood dreams, how he put in the work to progress to success and what he would tell his younger self.
For the purpose of our readers, please may you tell us a little about you and who you are?
My name is Sam Ison, 20 years old and I am on the verge of qualifying as a commercial airline pilot flying an Airbus A320. I am also entering my third and final year of university studying Airline Management, which I do alongside my pilot training. I was born and raised in Redditch (England) but due to my training I have lived in Cardiff, Oxford, Gatwick and Arizona.
What did you decide to do when you first left school?
When I first left school, I was definitely guilty of conforming with the norm of going to university even though at the time I had no idea what I wanted to do or study. I accepted my place at Cardiff University to study International Relations and moved to the city in September 2018. I loved my short stint in university and made so many memories and good friends. I knew that this wasn’t my true calling which led to me changing to another training path just 4 months in.
How/why did you decide to become a pilot?
In December 2018, I received an email from my close friend’s Grandfather, with whom I shared a joint enthusiasm for aviation. The email said, ‘EasyJet have opened their pilot cadet programme, good luck with your application’. You could say my aviation journey started on that day because for weeks I mulled over my application, weighing up my dream with all the barriers to entry that there are with the profession.
The biggest and most obvious barrier is the financial cost of training being in excess of £100,000, but there are also maintenance costs during the training bearing in mind you receive no income during training. For me, the sole reason for being able to fund this came from my Mum’s passing in September 2017 and I have been lucky enough to have been able to put the majority of what she left behind for me to be able to fulfill my dream.
The other factors were that I loved university and had made so many new friends, gained my own independence for the first time in a new city that I loved. It was a lot to give up and a very big decision and commitment to make. They say that if you work in a career that you love, you never work a day in your life which led to me applying for airline backing as a guarantee before taking the big step to start the training and quit my degree.
I was lucky enough to secure backing from the airline Easyjet where my training would be tailored to them, ready for me to start my career with them upon completion. There are different ways to enter into pilot training, either with an airline tag where you will start with that airline after training, or without an airline tag where you would apply for pilot careers during or after your training. I was lucky enough to be one of several out of thousands of applicants to be tagged with Easyjet after a rigorous application process and obtained a Grant of £30k from them to put towards my training. It was an opportunity that I had to take, which led to me dropping out of University in February 2019 and starting pilot training the next month.
How have you found the process of training to be a pilot?
The training to become a pilot is very intensive. For the first 7 months in ‘Ground School’ I studied the theoretical exams, and had to complete 42 exams with a pass mark of 75%. We studied a variety of subjects including General Navigation and Flight Planning, to subjects like Human Factors and Air Law. Anyone considering pilot training needs to appreciate the rigorous academic aspect which needs to be completed before even sitting down in the cockpit – you need to be able to understand complex aviation theory and pass exams on the same.
Although it was tough, it was a very fond time in my life having bonded with most of my classmates who were all experiencing the same thing. To succeed at Ground School, I found that I essentially needed to put my social life on hold or risk failing due to a lack of preparation. Given all the sacrifices that I made and the financial contribution from my late Mum, there was no way I was going to fail and so everything – partying, relationships went to the bottom of my priorities.
After Ground School was over in October 2019, the same month I flew to Arizona to complete my flight training. This was the most enjoyable part of the course, where I trained on the Piper Archer and accrued approximately 50 flight hours. I made some great memories travelling around America – visiting California, the Grand Canyon, Utah to name a few of the awesome places I visited. The only downside was not being able to legally drink alcohol!
After completing 2 progress tests in the USA, in January 2020 I returned to Oxford to start the next phase of my flight training. I accrued approximately 40 hours of flight training in the Cessna 182 and the Piper Seneca. I did aerobatics flying to accustom me to unnatural positions and how to recover from them whilst in the air. Being taught aerobatics and moves such as inverted flying, barrel rolls by an 86-year-old RAF veteran was definitely an experience that I will take with me forever. After a few months, due to Covid delays, I finished my time in Oxford accruing 92 hours in the CRJ-200 Jet simulator to prepare me for jet flying. I am now completing the final few weeks of my training at Gatwick airport flying in an Airbus A320 simulator.
Overall, the process to become a pilot is very exciting and enjoyable, especially for me because of my passion for all things about aviation. However, to get through, you have to have a high level of self-discipline, passion and determination because of the challenges that you have to overcome. With all my efforts, when you get to the stage where you can fly an airplane alone, and by yourself and be able to navigate through all the different issues you face, it is the biggest feeling of accomplishment in the world.
What have you found the most challenging?
The most challenging thing for me was having to put my family and social life on hold during my training, especially during ground school. In order to pass, I had to put in a lot of hard work and determination. After spending £100k on flight training, I couldn’t afford to fail, so unfortunately it meant that I couldn’t party and socialise like I used to at university.
Also, you only find out your schedule for the next day the day before around 3pm, so there was no planning to see people in advance – this just wasn’t possible, otherwise you’d likely be letting down your friends or family if you did get called in. I found this particularly hard as I would love to see my uni friends, but it meant travelling and I couldn’t bank on travelling far to be called in. At the same time, it was tough not being there to see my baby niece and nephew grow up, something you can’t get back. So, striking the balance is so important, but yet so difficult.
What are you most proud of so far in your career?
The proudest moment for me was actually being offered the MPL course tag with Easyjet. I never thought that it would happen, people always said how difficult it is to get through the assessment centres, and going to the interviews, it was clear there was vast competition. I’ve always been in awe when I see airline pilots, and for me to become an airline pilot would be such a high in my life. To then be offered the MPL, I was the happiest person in the world. It was the hardest training route, but with the job with EasyJet at the end, it felt as if I stuck gold.
What did you want to be as a child?
I wanted to be a pilot, however, could never afford it. So instead, I wanted to become a Dentist and did lots of work experience shadowing a dentist. Sadly, I didn’t get the grades I needed, however in hindsight, this was just a blessing in disguise.
What advice would you have given to your younger self?
One piece of advice I would give myself would be not to plan too far into the future, and just to be happy now and take opportunities as they come. I think if I had just wanted to do nothing until the pilot opportunity came, then I wouldn’t have met all my friends from university that I still have, I wouldn’t have met my partner, I wouldn’t have been as successful with my exams. I’d say to live in the moment, and to not let anybody tell you to live clinically by having to have a long term plan which you feel you have to stick to, and if you don’t, then you haven’t succeeded. I was a bit like this when I left school because I thought that you had to have a plan, but in reality, it’s really not true. Do what makes you happy and what you think will make you the best version of yourself. Live free!