Qantas captain Richard Champion de Crespigny saved a planeload of people with his safe landing of stricken flight QF32 in Singapore, but he couldn’t save his career from COVID-19.

He’s revealed, on the eve of the 10th anniversary of averting what could have been one of the world’s worst air disasters, that he is taking early retirement after 35 years with the airline.

“COVID-19 has terminated my 45-year professional flying career,” he said. “I am currently stood down and am in limbo, not having flown since March and will take early retirement effective November 30.

“I’ll look up to A380s overhead with memories similar to those of Neil Armstrong, when he looked to the sky and saw his footprint on the moon.”

Mr de Crespigny, now 63, was celebrated around the world for quick thinking after an engine explosion on board the Qantas Airbus A380 he was commanding forced an emergency landing at Changi Airport. All 469 passengers and crew were uninjured.

That momentous day changed his life, catapulting him to instant fame. His book about the ordeal, QF32, was a best-seller internationally in 2012 and his second book, FLY! Life Lessons from the cockpit of QF32, in 2018 was all about resilience.

As a result, he now also tours the world, presenting to governments and companies about the elements of personal, corporate and national resilience, is patron of two charities, and is the Ambassador for Quality and Safety at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital.

“I loved flying the remarkable A380 and walking the aisles, meeting the passionate passengers who loved and supported us,” he said. “I’ll miss the teams in the cockpit and cabin that together solved problems from bad weather and aircraft failures through to helping passengers in physical and emotional distress.”

Mr de Crespigny also answered some questions from Traveller on coping with the current difficult times:

In your second book, FLY! Life Lessons from the cockpit of QF32, you talk about resilience. How important is that today? 

With COVID-19, and the earlier bushfires, droughts and floods, there’s never been a greater need for resilience – the ability to absorb, or rebound from, adversity – than since the two World Wars and 1918 Spanish Flu. And disruption can be good for us, because those who adapt, survive, and disruptive industries have been growing and super-powering our economies. Rather than fearing continual change, we should fear not changing. So we need to be resilient and welcome change and failure as a normal human condition and as stepping stones to success, so we can grow from adversity and thrive in the good times.

So how do we develop resilience?

There are eight essential elements of resilience: knowledge, training, experience, leadership, teamwork, decision-making, crisis management and risk. We are not born with any of these skills so they must be learned. Australians need to be personally, corporately and nationally resilient. We must build windmills to harness the winds of change rather than walls to resist them. COVID also gives us a view into the thin veil of personal resilience. In a crisis, when the fear response of fight, flight or freeze sets in, and decisions must be made, 70 per cent of people will just follow the crowd.

How do you see the aviation industry today, and in the future?

The Australian commercial passenger aviation industry has been crushed with less than five per cent aircraft utility. I, and most of my colleagues, have been stood down with no airline income since April. Our 747 and A380 aircraft have been disposed of or hibernated in storage at Victorville, USA. I wasn’t offered voluntary retrenchment so I’m taking early retirement on November 30; COVID-19 has terminated my 45-year professional flying career. I think the current situation will not improve until borders open, a vaccine is developed permitting high-density seating, and the public’s trust in their destinations are restored.

What advice do you have for grounded/redundant pilots/cabin crew?

I’ve always advised people to develop their elements of resilience. In my book FLY! I advised pilots to welcome change as their careers, which started with piston engines, would transition through jets, rockets, composites, new fuels, unstable designs, hypersonic and space travel, and pilotless commercial passenger aircraft. So we all have to welcome disruption, commit to a lifetime of learning, and always have an alternate career at the ready in the event of losing your health or professional licence – or end up in a Victorville of your own making. I started my computer business 34 years ago when I joined Qantas, because I thought one day I might be made redundant or become medically unfit.

Will everyone always want to travel?

The human condition is designed for travel. Our brains evolved to geotag memories, initially to find or avoid predators, food and mates. When we recall memories of people, songs, dates or events, they are returned with their associated locations. While we normalise our oft-visited locations, it’s the novel locations that remain highlighted along with the travel experiences we had there which re-invigorate our interest in business and recreational travel. This is why we will never want to stop travelling.

What advice do you have for travel-lovers in general?

International travel will eventually return to pre-COVID-19 levels. In the interim, the pandemic provides Australians with the opportunity for domestic travel and to support their local environments. For example, my wife Coral and I planned two years ago to travel this month to Zimbabwe to be on the Rovos Rail train. Instead, we spent last weekend sleeping in century-old carriages at rail enthusiast Scott McGregor’s wonderful Ruwenzori Retreat on top of hills overlooking the Mudgee landscape.

How do you see the future of travel?

I expect aviation to continue to double every 15 years as it has since 1975. I expect a COVID-related bust-boom cycle of a similar type that followed the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. The backlog of weddings and delayed holidays will spur recreational travel when we have a vaccine, borders open and we trust others to be safe. Travel to smaller events may be alleviated by virtual conferencing but, in general, business travel, with the conference and exhibition industry, will also recover. Travel will rebound with blue skies ahead.

By Sue Williams, Traveller.com.au

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