Third dimension. An interview with Wojciech Hildebrandt

He can talk about aviation on and on. Fascinated by technique and technology, he breaks through the third dimension but still remembers that where physics is used to its limits, there’s still a place for the great human dream. Lift-off has something mystical to it, connects the power of science which allows us to fly with romantic freedom – says Wojciech Hildebrandt, Senior Software Developer at Aspire Systems Poland.

This interview was originally published on the Olivia Business Centre blog. You can read the Polish version there.

Have you dreamed of being a pilot as a little boy?

Not necessarily, as a kid, I wasn’t sure who he wanted to be. From early years I remember going with my parents to an airfield picnic where I saw an iconic polish aircraft – PZL Wilga. But that was not the breakthrough yet. I believe I fell in love with aviation in 2012.

What happened that you fell in love with the sky?

I’ve been always fascinated by technology and technique connected to transportation. I was interested in mechanics that made it possible, but also the logistics of such enterprises. I think this led me to aviation, which – after space travel – is the second most advanced form of transportation.

What’s so special about aviation?

I see it as breaking through the third dimension. Historically it took a lot of time, effort and ingenuity to achieve it. I think that sometimes we’re not aware of what physics can do – aviation requires such understanding, so the pilot knows what’s going on. There is a saying that pilots must not allow for an aircraft to take them where their mind wasn’t five minutes before.

Have you tried to construct some equipment?

I’m only recreating some in a small size, as scale-models. I was attending training in Gdańsk Aero Club in Pruszcz Gdański, where student pilots use aircraft that are maintained by qualified technical personnel. Still, the pilot needs to run a pre-flight check to make sure everything works, there is the right amount of oil and fuel – and fill them up if needed.

Isn’t the number of gauges frightening?

Training aircraft is fairly simple, so equipment is not overwhelming. This is a completely different case than with airliners which take us to work or on holidays. They are different not only in size and appearance but also regarding systems’ complexity.

Is the responsibility also different?

In an airliner’s cockpit, there is a crew of two pilots. They are responsible for checking if everything works fine, like in smaller planes. There is a whole set of procedures, which are one of the main safety precautions. In an aero club, it’s a bit simpler, aircraft is not as complex, and student pilots are being taught lots of basic and most important rules from the very beginning.

How does it feel to lift-off?

It’s the ultimate “wow” moment! It can’t be obscured even by long preparation and anticipation. I was interested in it for long before starting the training. There was intensive ground training that lasted for 2 months, which allowed me to prepare for going into the sky. My first take-off brought me a feeling of moving through the third dimension. Suddenly I could feel the technology that allows doing that, but also there’s this romantic sense of freedom.

This is the famous freedom in the skies?

Indeed. But there is a trade-off between freedom of flying and what needs to be done in the aircraft regarding safety and surrounding traffic. Pilot in small aircraft feels much fewer limitations than in the airliner at 10-kilometre altitude.

Have you had a chance to pilot an airliner?

Only in a simulator. The pilot needs to go through a long training to get into a real airliner cockpit.

How many hours have you had to fly first, before the instructor told you “Wojtek, your turn”?

A student pilot flies from the very beginning of the training. We get the controls but instructor next to us is still of assistance. The first solo flight comes after some 10 hours of training – there are rules about how much time a student pilot needs to fly with an instructor, and how much solo.

Were you afraid before your first solo flight?

It was rather a tension whether everything will go smoothly. There was no fear that something bad can happen – previous hours of flying with my instructor showed me that I did my aviation homework well enough. It’s fairly easy to control the situation in a small aircraft since everything’s happening slowly and there’s plenty of time to react accordingly.

Without a glitch?

There are some emergencies or unpredicted situations. Let’s keep in mind that the pilot needs to learn to predict and prevent them from happening.

There’s no place for recklessness.

No, but sometimes emotions come to play.

Do you have nerves of steel?

I can’t let myself into too strong emotions, especially during some unpredicted situation. In such a case, there is time after landing to consider why things happened in a different way than they should have. It’s time for emotions then, too. Pilot in the cockpit needs to make cold and calm decisions. Are that nerves of steel? I guess I just can cope with the stress.

Aviation as an antidote for stress?

In a way, yes. But I’m also still considering whether I should continue my way to next licenses and ratings, which may result in professional flying.

How hard is it?

Currently, I hold a Private Pilot License, which is the first step in an aviation career. Training programs assume that now I need to fly around until I log 150 hours. Next step is to get into Commercial Pilot License training and examination, which would allow me to “fly for money”. For now, I’m strictly forbidden to e.g. take a passenger as an air taxi.

But could you give your family or friends a ride?

Yes, I can take a passenger with me. Holding a commercial license, I could get into some aviation jobs. At the end of this path, there is an Airline Transport Pilot License – pilots who hold it are the ones we meet flying on vacation or business travel.

Can you combine achieving next licenses with your job?

This is one of the reasons I’m not jumping right to it. But I have some friends who were determined enough to be able to combine everyday work by getting their ATPL.

How much does it cost?

To get to ATPL we need around 200 000 PLN. Pilots say the trick is to stop paying for flying as soon as possible. A good way is to get into a second pilot seat in an airliner – then the airline starts paying for your flying. After logging at least 1 500 hours pilot can become a captain, but hardly anyone can afford to pay for it themselves.

Were there times you had your heart in your throat?

Thankfully, they were only simulated ones. Like getting an aircraft out of incorrect configuration.

Anything else?

Flying with no visibility – which is meant to teach pilot what to do in such case, how to get back safely to good visibility conditions. Instrument Rating is something different and it’s not included in the basic license. Sometimes you can see in some photos or videos that a pilot flies with so-called foggles on – kind of blind worn on the head. These are used to train how to turn around when you accidentally fall in the clouds and have no visual reference.

Is this possible?

Sure, you don’t see anything outside of the windows, but you can still see instruments in the cockpit, such as artificial horizon and compass.

Are you now more critical when flying on holidays?

Definitely no. The easiest moment to tell pilots’ skills is take-off and landing. But I think that pilots are more tolerant – we know what’s what. Landing which may seem nice and smooth for passengers, may not appear as that good to someone with a license – aircraft need to touch down in a certain way. I don’t have enough experience to judge airline pilots, so I try not to give any hard opinions. 

What’s going on in the cockpit then?

Autopilot helps in a great way. But pilots are there not only to watch what autopilot does. Systems are so complex that two pilots are needed to coordinate and monitor the equipment. The skill is best visible during take-off and landing because these phases of flight are the least automated.

At Aspire Systems Poland, do you look at the sky when aircraft is passing?

I like to talk about my passion and share my knowledge. There is a good place to do it since we are working on a project for aviation customer. I talk about how aviation works, of course accordingly to my experience and knowledge. I’m glad a group of listeners grows, and I wish someone will start flight training thanks to that. One of my colleagues got convinced already! 

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