A true trailblazer in the sky, Captain Robert Simms is one of the first Indigenous international pilots to fly with Virgin Airways Australia.

With over 35 years of experience, Simms has a passion for flying. However, due to COVID-19, Virgin Australia has entered voluntary administration and so has stood down many of their staff.

Simms himself has been stood down for now and said staff are likely to have an outcome regarding their employment at the end of June.

“It’s tough, there are thousands of people that work for us that are affected. Younger people and older people towards the end of their careers,” he said.

The pilot said the company has coped well and has managed to maintain a strong sense of community through this rough patch.

“There’s regular video live chats on our work platform and our boss is always positive … The company has a great culture and you can tell that in the support they offer,” Simms said.

“The company has support services within the organisation for pilots as well as other staff members, there are always support services available … they always want to ensure that we are okay and that is such a good part of the culture of the airline.

“You can tell that Australia is really behind Virgin too. They don’t want to see us struggle.”

For now, Simms is using his leave to step back from his busy lifestyle and indulge in a slower paced life.

“With flying, you are used to that state of being away and time changes and hotels so it’s good to have a little break from it for a while. But it’s also going to be good to get back into it as well,” he said.

Born in Sydney, NSW, Simms’ parents are both Indigenous Australians.

“My father is a Bidjigal man from La Perouse in Sydney and my mother is a Murrumburr woman from Darwin with our mob from Kakadu,” he said.

“Both are Aboriginal people and worked hard back in the day. They gave me a good education and I ended up going to high school in Canberra, as we relocated.”

It was during his early life in Sydney that Simms fell in love with aviation.

“There was a friend of the family who used to be a cadet, or apprentice engineer, with QANTAS who was learning to fly,” Simms said.

“He used to board at our house and he took me flying on weekends and that’’ when I got the bug.

“I knew from then what I wanted to do, and through school I stayed focused on that. I got the opportunity back in the mid-80s to pursue aviation and get my commercial licence.

“I got my first job up in the Territory flying small aeroplanes for many years.

“Then I moved onto a company called National Jet Systems, where I went onto bigger planes.”

In 2008, Simms joined Virgin Australia and has been flying Boeing 777s since.

“I was following the dream, I guess with study and education—and a bit of luck—you are going to get success.”

“In aviation you usually start through the military side or you start flying little planes out bush and then you work your way up and up and up until you get into the airlines. It has been a gifted career and I have thoroughly enjoyed it and hope it’s not over yet!”

From flying little planes across the bush to big Boeings across oceans, Simms has collected incredible memories throughout his career.

“There’s been so many [moments], I still remember my first solo flight. I still remember getting my first job, I still remember getting my first job in a big aeroplane, I still remember the first time I got into a jet and the first time I got a jet command. The first time I flew a big wide-bodied jet,” he said.

“I remember all those experiences. They have all been, each and every one … just as enjoyable as the other.

“It is always enjoyable, but it does take a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of study behind it and there is a lot of training behind it. Because you love it so much and you have so much fun doing it, you don’t really think about all the hard work.”

With a wealth of wisdom, Simms passed on his advice to those seeking to take to the skies.

“If it’s something you really want to do, just follow your dreams and have a crack at it. You can easily go down to any airport and do a trial introduction flight and see if you like it. Then go on from there,” he said.

“Pilots come from all walks of life; some start a little later than others but have always wanted to do it, so they had a crack at it. They put themselves in the right position, got the experience and then got that lucky break and kept going.”

With COVID-19 bringing uncertainty into many lives, Simms remains certain the day will soon come where he is behind the wheel again.

“I’m excited to go back to Virgin and keep flying 777 until I retire!”

By Rachael Knowles