Variety is the spice of life for helicopter pilot James Geary, who combines flying pipeline surveys with instructing.
Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen
19 January 2022
Learning to fly has always been my childhood ambition. When I was a toddler, my parents took me to the local aerodrome. In 2010, I started flying lessons and obtained my PPL(A).
I’m a utility pilot and flight instructor for Helicentre Aviation in Leicester. Utility flying is hands-on and takes me all over the country. One patrol you’re dealing with the complex airspace around Heathrow, the next you’re mountain flying in challenging weather conditions.
Flying gas pipeline surveys are done at 500ft. We have an aerial observer in the helicopter who’s looking for anything that affects the pipeline, such as ground works, landslides, or flooding. Occasionally there’s a threat and we need to land immediately – for example if someone is digging right on the pipeline. Depending on the terrain, these immediate landings can be very challenging.
“If we spot an threat to the pipeline, we need to land ASAP to intervene…”
What I love most about this job is the variety and the stunning scenery, such as when flying in the Lake District, Wales or Scotland. Interpersonal skills are essential in this work. Although it’s a single-pilot operation, you need to operate well as part of a team. Patrols run from Monday to Friday and on location, the observer becomes your partner for the week.
As an instructor, I teach PPL, CPL and type ratings in the R44 and the Cabri G2. I most enjoy teaching the integrated CPL courses, taking students with zero flying experience all the way up to CPL and seeing them develop as a pilot. I usually do one week instructing, one week utility flying. They complement each other. If I only instructed, I’d miss having my hands on the controls, and if I only flew pipeline surveys, I wouldn’t get to practise emergency procedures and autorotations very often. Combining the two is a nice mix. In fact, I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living.
After obtaining my PPL(A), I became an Air Cadets instructor on the Vigilant motor glider which gave me a taste for instructing. In 2014, I joined Helicentre as a student pilot and obtained my PPL(H). Helicentre then offered me a fully funded CPL(H) scholarship, which was a really big leg-up. I spent a couple of years building my hours by doing wedding transfers and helicopter tours, and in 2018 I qualified as a flight instructor. There’s no special course for the pipeline work. After getting your type rating and having a minimum of 1,000 flying hours, you do line training, flying several patrols together with an experienced utility pilot.
A training flight in 2013, in a Vigilant motor glider. I was flying when we saw a Vulcan close by, doing a flypast of RAF Halton, the airfield we’d just taken off from. Not many people get to see a Vulcan in flight when they’re also in the air, it was quite a unique moment!
I’ll always have a soft spot for Headcorn Aerodrome, where I learned to fly. There’s always something interesting going on at Headcorn, whether it’s vintage aircraft, helicopters, or parachute jumps.
No. The type of flying I do is quite intense so I need something less intense, which is why I go sailing in my spare time.
There’s more than one way of getting a career in aviation. Some have their training sponsored and obtain their qualifications quite quickly, others work part-time, take longer, but eventually get to the same place. Aviation isn’t just about becoming an airline pilot. If that’s your goal, fine – but if it isn’t, do what makes you happy.
Helicentre Aviation’s Ground Operations Manager James Geary is a flight instructor on the Cabri G2 and the R44, as well as a utility pilot on the R44.
|Started current job||2018|
|Now flying||Robinson R44, Cabri G2|
|Favourite aircraft||‘Anything! Balloon, glider, helicopter, fixed-wing – if it flies, I like it.’|
|Hours at job start||Approx. 250|
|Hours now||Approx. 1,850|