Student Spotlight interviews undergraduates, postgraduates and other academics about their schooling achievements, be it studying abroad, running a society or finishing a work placement.
Employers aren’t just looking for a degree and a good mark: work experience, according to UCAS, is sought out by two-thirds of employers when looking for graduates, to ensure they have a greater understanding of their chosen field. Some university courses even require it, so getting on top of it sooner rather than later is a must.
So, Tom Boon, a third-year Aerospace student at the University of Hertfordshire, did exactly that. In 2016, Tom headed to the iconic Los Angeles in the USA for his work internship, spending his days supporting the management of a General Aviation Airport. While the work was not what he had initially desired to do, he found himself enamored by the analytical nature of the job, and later realised it was exactly what he wanted to do.
After many months of hard work, and the occasional trip to Universal Studios Hollywood, Tom ended not only on the high of finishing a year of work experience, but the student even learnt how to fly his own aircraft! I sat down with him to talk to him about his internship abroad, his experience in America, and how it feels to actually operate a plane.
Tell me about yourself!
I’m studying Aerospace at the University of Hertfordshire. I clearly love aviation, but I also like photography, and uh… I’m really trying to sell myself here (laughs).
No need to do that! But, this placement you did: was it related to your degree?
Yes, it was a year in industry placement, and it counts as part of my course. It’s work-based, and there’s a little bit of coursework involved, but it mostly entails going out to work in the aerospace industry for a year. It really gives you an edge when applying for jobs, as they’re going to look for people with actual experience.
Too true: it’s almost a requirement you do some form of work experience while at university, now.
Yeah, it is. It’s interesting, though: I thought I always wanted to go right into aerospace engineering, but now that I’ve worked in the industry for a year I realised I preferred the management side of it. I loved the whole airplane management thing as I was managing a small fleet of six to seven planes, and I loved the problem solving I had to deal with.
Work internships can certainly spark an epiphany like this. What did the placement actually entail, then?
On a monthly basis, every 4th Thursday of the month the aircraft we managed required updates, and that was one of my jobs. I had to go into their systems, make sure all of the information for the pilots was up to date. Every day, I was making sure the aircraft were airworthy, and part of that was to ensure maintenance was done in time, and ensuring I organised it in line with the schedule. It was a lot of management, maintenance check-ups… a couple times I had to drive across LA to pick stuff up, but that’s just part of being an intern.
I helped manage a private jet: dealing with all the problems to get it airworthy, sorting out maintenance, which was a lot different as I was used to single-engine propeller aircraft.
I got to hang out with the promotions team a bit too, and we’d go out to airshows and we’d fly our promotional airplanes. We’d try and get kids into aviation, prospective clients would come up… it was a lot of fun. The parties before the airshows were definitely the best bit.
That sounds incredible! As you said, this was all in Los Angeles: why did you go there?
I was working for a flight school in Van Nuys airport — the busiest general aviation airport in the world. My dad was doing training with this company, as he’s a pilot, and he asked if they had any room for me for an internship. The company needed an extra pair of hands, so it all fell into place from there.
And in LA, of all things!
(Laughs) yeah, it’s definitely not a bad place to go for a year. If you get a chance definitely go.
But, I’m sure it wasn’t always so easy. What was the hardest part about the placement?
The toughest part was actually being away from the UK. My grandmother was actually very unwell while I was in the US, and she was my closest relative. My manager was very understanding and let me go home for a week to see her, back in October. The hardest thing to deal with was that I was in the US while she passed away.
I’m sorry, I know it probably meant a lot to her to see you. What do you think the best part of your work experience was?
There’s so many to name, but the best was passing my pilot exam.
Oh, I heard about this — congratulations!
Thank you. Every milestone of flying was the best part: I did my first solo-flight which let me fly the plane on my own. I am now legally entitled to fly without an instructor in the US not for hire, and I can fly in the UK if I do some extra exams.
When I passed my checkride my mum was actually there, and it was my last day in the US, and I said, “Right, we’re going flying” — she was my first passenger. She was nervous, and I think it was because it was a new experience for her, but she loved it and she couldn’t stop saying how proud she was that her son was a pilot. When she saw me going through my checklist she could see I knew what I was doing, so her nerves went away.
It’s so incredible you’ve been able to achieve this! Not many people can say they can fly a plane… what’s it like?
It’s like driving a car, but you get to go up and down as well. There’s no way to describe flying a plane by yourself, and while it’s not simple you can do it if you put your mind to it. This is going to sound really cliche, but flying makes you feel free.
The thing I struggle to wrap my head around is actually landing the plane.
The thing about that is there’s some things you can practice, but in this case you have to do the landing. But, 200 landings later, I think I’ve got it under control.
I don’t think I even need to ask this, but is this work experience you’d suggest students in your field doing?
Definitely. I’ve learnt so much, not just from the placement but from actually being in a different country, as while America’s another English-speaking country it’s so different.
What’s the experience taught you?
It’s taught me from a first-hand perspective how the aviation industry works, and it’s given me work skills like time management. It also given me an idea, from being abroad, how to interact with different cultures.