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September 2019

“We run our own flight operation”

by Yardena Malka

365 days, 300 flying hours, one team and one aircraft. Martina Hierle (32) has been working as a system engineer and technical pilot at RUAG in Oberpfaffenhofen since October 2017. What kind of challenges does her job involve? How does she get the right work-life balance? And is it the job she always dreamed of?

“I was a late bloomer”

Even when she was still at school, Martina knew she wanted to do something technical and somehow aircraft and aviation have always been a topic in Martina’s family. She studied aerospace engineering at the Technical University of Munich before joining the German Aerospace Center (DLR) as an engineer. It was while working at the DLR that she obtained her first Private Pilot’s License in a small, single-engine, low-wing aircraft. “After discussing every possible aspect with my friends and family, I realized how great it would be to make my hobby part of my work life. So I was something of a late bloomer in terms of choosing to be a pilot!”

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Pilot Steffen Gemsa together with Martina Hierle in the cockpit. Both are connected to oxygen.

Martina acquired her Commercial Pilot’s License and began looking for a job that would combine her technical expertise and her passion for aviation. In 2017, she found the perfect position at RUAG in Oberpfaffenhofen.
Initially, she didn’t have the right type rating – the certificate that would authorize her to fly the Dornier 228. By August 2018, just one year later, she had that type rating under her belt, and was officially a member of the Oberpfaffenhofen flight team. This team consists of her colleague, who works as a full-time pilot at RUAG, plus an on-board mechanic.

The three of them make all their flights together. Over the course of just 12 months, they took the Dornier 228 to an air show in China, delivered a brand-new Dornier 228 to a customer in Japan, and as an aircraft in Bangladesh was ready for servicing, they did the ferry flight to Oberpfaffenhofen. So Martina has already clocked up 300 flying hours in only 365 days, together with her team and the Dornier 228.

Although Martina may have been a late starter, she clearly loves flying and is very much in her element now. As a technical pilot for an aircraft manufacturer, she experiences almost the entire life cycle of the Dornier 228 – from its first appearance on the runway and first aerial maneuvers right through to the hand­over to its new owner.

Office work still forms a key part of her daily work. Martina is a member of the engineering team that is responsible for overall technical maintenance of the Dornier 228, including type certification, approval work, modifications and corresponding certification.

Careful planning is crucial

Technical pilots also have to work through a detailed planning process prior to every flight: “The way we plan a flight is very different to how the big airlines work. Airline pilots have a home base or operations center that gives them all the help they need. We run our own flight operation, so we only have ourselves to rely on!”

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Sunset on the way to Malaysia.

“I never imagined getting a job that would allow me to fly so much!”

The challenging and complex nature of the flight planning process becomes clear when she explains some of the key criteria: “There’s so much to think about. For example, how long are we able or willing to fly above water? What alerts are in place for politically sensitive regions? And when is the best time to fly a particular route that is often prone to thunderstorms?”

Martina’s job as a pilot clearly involves far more than just flying. Working as part of an experienced, well-oiled team, she makes her own decisions and has considerable leeway, which comes with a fair amount of responsibility. She is assisted by a flight manager based in Houston, Texas (USA). He is in charge of all overflight and landing permits. “My job is to tell him exactly which route we are flying,” says Martina. “He gets me the permits I need for all the airports on that route. The thing we have in common with an airline is having to fly from A to B. But how we get there is up to us.”

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Pilot Martina Hierle in the cockpit of the Dornier 228, photographed by her colleague Steffen Gemsa.

Sturdy and sweet-tempered – the perfect combination!

Martina lands at intermediary airports between the departure and arrival airport, making sure to observe mandatory rest periods. Long routes – for example from Oberpfaffenhofen to Japan – involve multiple stopovers at foreign destinations. This can be challenging if even one permit is missing despite all the painstaking planning. With her flight manager based in the USA, a solution can take time and patience. Occasionally, she simply has to improvise – whether that means spending two and a half hours with her engine idling parked on the apron or waiting for a fuel truck.

Usually, Martina only catches a glimpse through the cockpit or taxi window of the places where the Dornier 228 and the team land to refuel. On missions such as the ferry flight of the Dornier 228 to Japan, these windows show a new country and a new culture every day. Flexibility is also paramount when it comes to the aircraft. There are different configurations of it, depending on who owns it and what purpose it is used for. The customer in Japan, for example, ordered his Dornier 228 without autopilot – so Martina and her team flew the entire route on manual. That is the kind of situation that makes her grateful to be sitting in a Dornier 228: “The Dornier is a tough, no-nonsense kind of aircraft. It is extremely stable to fly in side winds, turbulence, or ice in the air. And there’s no risk of me falling out of the sky if I decide to vary my speed! She’s a sturdy, sweet-tempered aircraft – which is just how I like it!”

“I have the greatest respect for what’s involved – and it doesn’t frighten me.”

Martina flies at altitudes of up to 18,000 feet, which puts her completely at the mercy of the weather. In practice, that means zigzagging around thunderstorms, dealing with iced-up propellers, and getting used to broken pieces of ice banging against the cockpit when she flies through colder regions. The Dornier 228 is equipped to tackle these kinds of challenging conditions and Martina says about herself: “I’m not some kind of daredevil! I carefully prepare for each and every flight, planning every last detail and considering every possible eventuality. That is the best way to ensure nothing is left to chance. At the same time, however, I’m perfectly aware that the flight might throw up unexpected challenges. I have the greatest respect for what’s involved – and it doesn’t frighten me.”

If she does encounter an unforeseen problem, she assesses the situation objectively and discusses all the options and potential solutions with her team. They make the decision together, a collaborative process that offers both support and reassurance. This supportive environment also extends to her personal life. She is accustomed to the fact that there will be birthday parties and other occasions that she will simply miss out on, and that is something her friends and family have learned to accept. Once again, Martina takes a refreshingly practical view of this situation: “There are plenty of people who face the same challenge of getting the right work-life balance – from nurses and sailors to workers in the hospitality industry. With the right support and the right attitude, you can make it work.”

“The journey is the best part”

By breaking down her goals into manageable steps, Martina gives a tremendously human feel to what is ultimately a very technical job: “My objective is to make sure the customer receives their aircraft on time and in one piece. The best moment of the flight is to approach the landing after several hours or days in the air. That’s when I gradually realize that someone is waiting for us – and that we have successfully completed our mission. All the stress disappears and I forget about the iced-up propellers, seven hours of flying over water, and thunderstorms over the Indian Ocean. That moment of arrival makes the meaning of the whole journey clear.”

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View over the Indian Ocean.

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