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A “Nemo” of the airways

Captain Matthias Grossen is a Swiss Air Force F/A-18 pilot. In this interview he tells us how he got his nickname, why those who want to become an air force pilot need plenty of patience, and what everyday life as a fighter pilot has to do with “Top Gun”.

06.05.2019 | DKW


Swiss Air Force pilots rely on data and maps from swisstopo in simulators and aircraft. One of these pilots is Captain Matthias “Nemo” Grossen. In our interview we talked with him about having a career as an air force pilot, the path to becoming a pilot and everyday life as an F/A-18 pilot.

Matthias Grossen, do all F/A-8 pilots have a nickname?
Yes, we all do. What type of nickname you have is determined by the class you graduate with from pilot training. Some classes choose nicknames based on their real names, but my class decided to do something different. We wanted special nicknames.

So, how did you come to be called “Nemo”?
I completed my airline pilot’s training with Swiss in the USA. There was a lot of rainfall there at the time, we were travelling in a hire car, and for fun I decided to drive through as many puddles as I could. Eventually the engine quit and we had to push the car out of knee-deep water. Since then I’ve had the nickname “Nemo”.

How long have you been an F/A-18 pilot?
I started flying in 2003, got my brevet in 2013, and then completed a one-year basic training course. I have been officially piloting F/A-18s since the end of 2014.

When you are asked to state your profession, what do you say?
The official designation is “professional military pilot”.

How do you become this?
You have to be between 17 and 23 years old, a Swiss citizen, in good health and have a higher school certificate or a higher vocational certificate. If you fulfil these requirements, you can register at SPHAIR, the air force recruitment portal. A selection process then takes place, and those who are approved can then start their training as a military pilot.

What happens after you have been selected?
First, you have to spend a day at the Aeromedical Centre in Dübendorf, where you undergo a physical and psychological examination to determine whether you meet the basic requirements. This is followed by a further two days during which you have to undergo a specific psychological assessment of your capacity to become a military pilot. This process includes group discussions and teamwork which allow the assessors to see how you interact with others and how you behave. This is followed by an interview with a military pilot. Afterwards, a five-day SIM selection process is conducted in the PC-7 simulator in Locarno. If you complete this process successfully, you go on to a one-year officer training course, though not necessarily in the air force. A six-week final selection process follows, again in the PC-7 simulator. You then get a final report on your performance and are informed whether or not your application has been successful.

Do you first have to qualify as an airline pilot?
No, you don’t need any flying qualifications. If your SPHAIR application is approved, you can, in fact, start from scratch. Airline pilot qualification is an integral part of military pilot training.

Does this mean you could now also fly a Jumbo?
In theory, yes. But I would still have to undergo further training for the specific types of aircraft in the airline’s fleet. This is referred to as a frozen airline transport pilot licence; it means you possess the basic know-how of an airline pilot but would still have to undergo the necessary supplementary training before piloting the commercial aircraft.

During training, when do you get to fly your first aircraft?
In the SPHAIR courses, this happens fairly early on. If you are between 17 and 23 when you register, you can already start flying light aircraft after six to twelve months. You only fly military aircraft at the age of 23 or 24, depending on when you signed up. I was a lateral entrant and only crossed over to military aviation at the age of 26.

Matthias Grossen
Matthias Grossen

Which profession did you learn beforehand?
I was a draughtsman, obtained a higher vocational certificate, and then started my training as a military pilot.

Why did you want to become a military pilot?
I first became really interested at the age of sixteen. At that time, not much information was available, so I had to use my imagination to a certain extent. I used to watch jet fighters as a child and was fascinated by their speed, and I often wondered what it would be like to fly one.

What were the biggest challenges for you?
The selection process is demanding, as is the training. But I persevered because I found flying so exciting. During preliminary training I learnt to fly a glider and after that I never looked back.

What is it that makes flying so enjoyable? How would you describe the feeling?
It’s difficult to describe the feeling of freedom you have in a military aircraft. In an airliner it’s more like travelling along a road and much of the time you’re on autopilot. Military pilots have a much broader scope. Of course, we also fly with instruments, but we have to perform many other tasks. When we’re on airspace policing duty and have to monitor other aircraft, we have to be there as quickly as possible. We fly faster than airliners and our aircraft are much more manoeuvrable. And we never stop learning. We constantly have to master new systems and carry out new exercises.

Have you seen the movie “Top Gun”?
Of course. Probably all of us have seen it.

Is it like that in reality?
Many things in the movie are exaggerated, of course. But it is something special when you can take off in an aircraft like that, and I still find watching from the ground is also quite fascinating. In “Top Gun”, there’s a lot of heroic action, but this is not the case in real life. We have to abide by numerous rules and we take debriefing very seriously. So, you don’t always have the freedom I mentioned earlier. We have to carry out many exercises that are clearly structured and we have to adhere to the script.

Military pilot is regarded as a dream job. Is it really, or do people have the wrong idea?
I think most people don’t know what it really means to be a military pilot. Training is a very lengthy process. In the Swiss Air Force there are many activities that do not involve flying. I am employed as an F/A-18 simulator operator and I also fly in the PC-7 team. There are also people who are responsible for the debriefing systems. Because we’re a small air force, each of us has to perform a variety of additional tasks, and this fills our working day.

What does the working day of an F/A-18 pilot look like?
A system in the computer tells me what is scheduled for me tomorrow. I obtain the data I need, then think about how I want to structure the exercise. If I haven’t performed the exercise for some time, I have to familiarise myself with it again. Pilots have a mission card that has to be loaded with data on the day before the exercise. During the briefing on the next day we examine the mission in detail and discuss any difficult aspects. Then we proceed to the aircraft via the tower where we are given the final details. After our return, a debriefing takes place and later on we examine the entire mission on screen and discuss options for improvement. So, there’s a great deal of preparation and debriefing.

For which types of mission do you regularly train?
Various types, for example “beyond visual range” missions, in which we detect foreign aircraft with the aid of radar and operate weapons with a range that is so long that we don’t actually see the adversary. We also train “within visual range manoeuvring” (also known as dogfighting), which was introduced in World War I. Then there is airspace policing, a service that is being expanded and for which we have to be on call round the clock. We also practice “air to ground” operations, in other words firing at objects on the ground. These are the main types of mission we regularly train for. We also invest a great deal of time in training young pilots. Then there are navigation flights too, and here, of course, the map material produced by swisstopo is a vital tool.

Is there such a thing as routine, or is every day different?
For personnel deployed as simulator operators for an extended period, work soon becomes routine. But this is not the case for pilots. We may have to often repeat certain missions, but the circumstances are never the same. Time and again we encounter different weather conditions, fly in different airspace zones, have different adversaries, different flying partners, etc.

How does your profession differ from other jobs?
For example, in terms of rest periods. If our work day lasts longer than twelve hours we need to rest on the following day. We have to be able to sleep at home for at least seven hours so that we can be properly rested. If we are not fit to fly (for example, because of a cold), then we don’t fly. It’s a question of balancing out pressure. I might be able to work in an office, but certainly not fly an aircraft. Or, if a child is unwell at home and I haven't been able to sleep properly, flying is out of the question on the next day. Safety is the utmost priority. So, it is essential to be sensible and say when I’m not fit to fly.

Flugplatzkommando Payerne

Under what circumstances do F/A-18 pilots have to go into action? What kinds of missions are involved?
We may be called into action if another aircraft experiences technical problems, such as radio loss where the pilot is still able to operate the aircraft’s systems but is no longer able to transmit via radio. Situations like this are detected by air traffic controllers, who raise the alarm. We then approach the aircraft to find out what the problem could be. To do this we can communicate with the aid of international signals. Our job is to provide the pilot with navigation assistance. He or she may no longer be able to receive instructions by radio. If this is the case, we fly ahead of the aircraft so that the pilot can see us; otherwise, we stay behind it if the pilot can still hear our instructions. In this way we guide the aircraft to the airport.

If an aircraft enters a restricted or no-fly zone, we are either already in the air or climb rapidly and accompany it out of the zone. Because Switzerland is a neutral country, a relatively large number of government aircraft pass through our airspace. These flights have to be registered in advance and our job is to ensure that everything is in order. We pass on our findings and if there are any discrepancies, diplomatic steps may be taken.

What do you find particularly demanding?
Things can be tricky when we have to handle situations close to the ground. This is extremely demanding because it means we have to fly at a much slower speed, which makes it even more difficult to focus on what we see around us and on the ground. A lot of things have to be done simultaneously: flying the aircraft, keeping visual contact with the others, transmitting radio messages and watching out for airspace structures. And, of course, things can get pretty tricky if there is a technical problem with the aircraft. I’ve never experienced anything really serious, but depending on what kind of problem you have, the pilot may suddenly have a lot of things to do all at once. “Beyond visual range” missions are usually mentally demanding because we have to keep track of data and imagine a lot of things in our head. Dogfighting within the visual arena is physically demanding because we are subjected to very high gravity loads. We don’t experience these in the simulator, so cannot train for them there.

Each year, between one and two thousand people apply to become military pilots. How many actually make it?
I don’t know the exact figures, but probably fifteen to twenty make it to the short list, and in the end the air force takes on five or six. Those who don’t make it can switch to the civil aviation sector or do something else entirely.

What would you advise someone who wants to become a military pilot?
You don’t need any specific know-how, but it’s helpful if you have a good all-round education. You need plenty of patience and stamina because training is a lengthy process. And if you drop out during training you still have to go through officer school, even though you can no longer become a military pilot. So, anyone who is interested in this profession needs to be prepared to embark on a military career.

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