Channel 4’s new documentary Worst Place To Be a Pilot will explore how young British pilots are moving to places with treacherous flying conditions in order to earn their wings. Indonesia’s beautiful, remote collection of 17,000 islands has one of the worst safety records in the world, with local airline Susi Air having experienced three fatal crashes in the same number of years.
While some of Susi’s young pilots live lifestyles they could never dream of in the UK – including having luxury apartments with live-in maids, and tropical beaches and exotic nature nearby – is their dangerous day job worth the risk?
Unpredictable weather conditions, runways cut into the side of mountains separated by miles of dense jungle, passengers carrying axes, and animals on the runway is just part of daily flying life at Suri Air. “You definitely never have a boring day,” says Surrey-born pilot Guy Richardson, who joined the company in 2011 to notch up his hours, so he could eventually graduate to a jet plane on a larger airline.
“I’ve seen crash sites on the side of the mountain. The highlands are a pretty crazy place. The high altitude means your aircraft isn’t going to perform as it normally would. The landing strips are unmade, and could be gravel, grass or mud, and the weather can just change within minutes in some places. It can make for some pretty hairy flying.”
The mountain pilots at Susi Air are just one mistake away from death, which Richardson believes makes them some of the best pilots in the world. “It’s the best place to hone your skills,” says Richardson who, despite the danger involved, has thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning to fly in varied landscapes. “When you first take off, when you’re first solo, it’s actually an amazing feeling. It makes you feel like you can achieve anything.
“I wanted to go and get some hands on, proper flying experience,” he says. “Many airlines now do a lot of button pushing, an flying in auto pilot. I wanted to get myself up to a really good standard, where I’m really in control and I’m making all the decisions… that kind of flying has just been awesome.”
For some pilots, Susi Air was not first choice, but the competition for the commercial airlines was too great. “When the economic crisis happened companies were going bust, and pilots were getting laid off,” says Richardson. “It was just one of those things. People were traveling less. Some of the corporate outfits really had to cut back and lay off a lot of pilots.”
Brits with little flying experience are willing to travel to the other side of the globe in order to get a job in the industry, and they soon find out that safety standards do not compare to the west. “In Indonesia they don’t have a safety culture,” says Richardson. “Everyone rides around mopeds, with their kids on the back, at fifty miles an hour, with no helmet on. It’s just something you have to get used to.”
Yet without Suri planes and their pilots, certain mountain tribes would suffer. Some rely on aircrafts to deliver vital supplies to these remote areas on a daily basis. “I’ve seen stuff that I’ll never get to see anywhere else,” says Richardson. Daily routes around Indonesia include flying over the sea, in between mountains, over volcanoes, across waterfalls and dense forests and visiting remote tribes. “Although there are lots of external dangers, I think the public will find it exciting,” says Richardson. Despite the name of the show, he thinks Susi will be inundated with CVs after the programme airs. “It is fantastic flying,” he says, “I don’t think you’ll find a better aviation job out there.”
Watch Worst Place To Be a Pilot at 9pm, 19th August, on Channel 4