Get to know our Flying Operations Unit’s Safety Officer, Shaun Holmes who shares some deep insights into his earliest memories as a child and what drew him into aviation, his journey across different facets of aviation, how he got here and what makes him tick.
My dad built an aeroplane on a stick in the backyard, and I have this vivid memory of being only probably 3 or 4 years old and sitting on the seat of this aeroplane and spinning around and around, making aeroplane noises. I feel like that may have been the starting point.
I come from Tauranga – which is 2 and a half hours south of Auckland on the east coast of New Zealand. My dad used to fly gliders on weekends so I would go to the gliding club with my dad when I was between 5 and 7 years old. Being around my dad flying gliders in that environment, I became very interested in aviation. Because I am from New Zealand, I was originally interested in getting into the air force but at the time there were significant changes to aircraft in the NZ air force, so I made a decision to go into general aviation as soon as I left high school.
Going into aviation was something I always wanted to do. I never thought about doing anything else.
Mum and dad were always very supportive of me growing up. I grew up with an older and younger brother and my parents. Spent a lot of time in my teenage years on family outings riding motorcycles every weekend. My parents separated after I left home so now, I also have a younger half-brother as well. Definitely remember mum and dad being supportive and giving me good guidance and not letting me get too carried away with things, there was good structure for me as well. We all get a bit rebellious in our teenage years, but mum and dad were easy to talk to and they were good during those times as well.
Definitely, I looked up to my dad a lot when I was a kid in the fact that he flew when he could in his spare time, but when things got busier, he gave that up. Mum did the bringing up and I really appreciate mum for doing that, but I always looked up to dad in a way. He was a police officer. He did a lot of shift work and I saw the hard work, graft and effort he put into working life, so I think a bit of that has rubbed off on me as well. I think from mum’s side, she was always a very calm and controlled person, but I saw dad really putting in the hard work growing up and that had a big influence on me.
My wife has achieved a lot in her career and I think it is important to show girls growing into women that you can achieve that as well.
I think I do yes, I got in trouble for being a leftie. I remember being quite upset because I was being made to write with my right hand and I couldn’t do it.
I left high school at the tender age of 16 and started learning how to fly full time just after my 17th birthday in the kind of organisation similar to the way the FOU runs, so full time course. Govt funded arrangement so you could do everything in one go. Got my CPL and an Instructor Rating and I started instructing with the Flying School that I learnt to fly at straight away. Started learning to fly in 2006 and started working for them in 2007. Took me 18 months to complete my training. I was lucky enough to at the end of it all be able to start working with them as an instructor.
I don’t think I was old enough to think that far ahead, I just knew that was what I wanted to do with my career. Didn’t know if I wanted to fly an airline or what exactly, just wanted to fly. So I was just going with it at the time.
I was affected by the GFC in NZ in 2008 so it meant the flying school had to offload a significant number of staff to survive. So I was made redundant. Managed to get work at the same airport. Working at an Aircraft Museum which was also a café. It was called the AvGas Café. Worked in that environment for a year and during that time I still really wanted to get back into flying. I had a three-week holiday in Australia to get the feelers out and see if I could move to Australia and maybe get the flying kickstarted again.
I moved to Australia at the end of 2010 and got a job working as a flying instructor on the Sunshine Coast at Maroochydore Airport. Great experience. Australian system is slightly different to NZ so it was a good learning experience. Learning the new country, new rules and procedures, so enjoyed that time. In winter especially, absolutely beautiful.
In 2012 I moved to Wollongong to work at a Flying School at what is now Shellharbour Airport. That was based on more opportunity, more experience, starting to get management experience was the main reason for the move. Was a senior grade 1 flying instructor at that flying school, so I operated under the HOO there.
I was getting interested in management and experience in Queensland, so this was a good kickstart in management. It was a good opportunity for me to work under someone and gain skills and get used to my management technique and style and how I would do it, dealing with people, procedures es paperwork, policy and getting that experience.
That led into my next job – in 2014 I was approached by an operator at the Avalon Airport doing adventure flights in an open cockpit biplane, as I had experience in flying those aircraft from working in the Aviation Museum. He said we would like to start a flying school and asked me if I was interested in starting a flying school for them. I said "yes of course".
We were using American Champion Citabria, which is the word Airbatic spelt backwards! We were basically doing up to CPL training at that flying school with that aircraft and another aircraft we used for doing Aerobatic training which was a CAT10, and Cessna for the CPL.
Doing a lot of aerobatics, which was a big focus of the flying school, setting us apart a little bit, so flying aircraft with tail wheels rather than nose wheels, doing aerobatics and branching out into different things. It was successful and we ended up having some students that we picked up interested in doing competition aerobatics flying. I ended up doing that as well. I would accompany students to state and national aerobatic competitions. Would fly the competitions myself also.
I did that for 4 years until 2018.
In that time my first daughter was born in 2015 and we wanted a second, so we wanted to make changes to the way I was working. I wanted to be home more as I was working most weekends. Wanted to have a bit more of a family work life balance and be around the girls more.
In 2018 I started working for SkyDive Australia (now Experience Co) also at Wollongong Airport. They used me to start their own flying school as well. So, I went through that excitement again. They were an organisation that were training their own Skydive pilots looking for a mechanism to do the aircraft training themselves, and then train skydive pilots on top of that. So ran their flying schools so they could train pilots to fly the aircraft themselves and also train skydiving. So turned them into a one stop shop for people who wanted to get into the skydive industry. With that company I maintained what was called a Chief Flying Instructor from aerobatics to skydiving. Started getting into being Chief Pilot for a charter organisation, that skydive would use aircraft to fly people and freight. I started to get a bit of safety management experience, dealing with incidents, cause and human factors and that piqued my interest and I also enjoyed that.
I wasn’t at SkyDive for a massive time because an opportunity popped up that I had been keeping an eye on and that I wanted. I saw an ad for the NSW Police Force for pilots at Polair at Bankstown and it was always one of those jobs I would see in years leading up and thought I would really like to do that. So I applied and was successful.
Started working for NSW Police at the end of 2019 right before covid.
My role was a Checking and Training role, so a management role, which quickly culminated into a head of training and checking, being heavily involved in Safety, then Deputy Chief Pilot role as well. So I think the three and a bit years I spent there gave me that extra step in terms of management experience in a big structured, more complex operation where they operate helicopters and do more than what other operators do. Beneficial for me personally.
You get that feeling that you are genuinely helping people and the purpose of you being there is to make a difference. So different in a way to just normal flying. Once you have done flights you sit there and think I am actually helping out not only people within the organisation but also the general public as well.
I want to say that I probably only realised this in the last year or so, but I lost a friend early on in my aviation career to an aircraft accident. I didn’t think very much about it at the time as I was only 18 or 19 and I don’t think it was something I thought about at length. But in the last year or so, I have actually thought about how that event has somewhat structured the way I have led my career and why now I am so interested in safety and ensuring safe flight operations because I have seen the end result of what can happen when it doesn’t go well. I feel that has shaped my direction a little bit. I don’t think I would have gotten to the position I am now without all of those experiences that I have, the benefits of seeing a lot of different ways of doing things, a lot of different types of flying operations. So I am also quite proud I have been able to experience so many different facets of aviation.
Getting more and more interested in Safety and what I could learn and experience and add to my safety knowledge and I also in terms of family life, I wanted to make changes to family life. My wife has been a solicitor for the last five years and she has always wanted to be a barrister and go to the bar. So after some discussion, she decided to do a bar exam. She passed that in February last year. She did her course and was qualified as a junior barrister in September last year. Went from working full time to now being on her own, working for herself and having to build a client base. Big dynamic change is that I really needed and wanted to be around more so she can be a little more flexible with her work and what she is doing. Very difficult when you work for someone like the police, when it’s based on shift work, and you do travel and do go away. So it all came together – interest in safety, wanting to add experience, family life dynamics shifting, the ad for UNSW Safety Officer came at the right time.
From what I had heard, it was a great organisation with a great reputation, so I put in an application and got the job. I had always heard good things about the organisation, and as an outsider looking in, I have been very impressed, particularly with the health of the safety system in terms of communication of a positive safety culture, as well as the high standards of training.
After being in the job four weeks, I have been very impressed with the health of the safety system in terms of the communication of a positive safety culture, and positive reporting and that’s something I haven’t seen before to this level so it was really a positive and great thing to see that the staff and students understand what it means when we talk about safety management. They are invested in the SMS and everyone is happy to have conversations with me about safety. Everyone has been receptive to information I have put out so far in relation to safety. Is it perfect? No. There are areas we can improve like anything. I can see that there are a couple of activities I would like to have a bit more of a look at. Very impressed so far. Small steps to improve rather than overall significant changes to the safety system.
From a training perspective and management of students perspective – I have been impressed with how the organisation is managing students in that they are providing that direction to work, but where students are struggling, there is a lot of emphasis on making sure the student is aware of what their particular struggles are and what points they need work on and developing plans to keep them moving forward. So impressed in seeing ways that students are managed. All treated as individuals and managed really well. Not just a number.
One thing I guess – not negative or criticism but way industry is moving at the moment, always nice to have as much structure as you can, so having experienced instructors is ideal. There is a bit of movement at the moment in instructors, and always when you have staff turnover that can sometimes show up some minor issues. This is where I need to sit back and pick on those points and get proactive and predictive rather than being reactive. One thing I am really big on.
Family oriented activities because I have two young girls 7 and 4. We like to get out doing outdoorsy things, like walking and bushwalking, plenty of swimming.
Like to check things more than once.
Definitely, first born child coming home. Responsibility hit me.
We do the Sydney Morning Herald Quiz every Sunday as a family with the in laws. Get the biccies out and we do keep the scores.
Going back a long way, I was a teenager and tried to make Spaghetti Bolognese but didn’t have any tomatoes or tomato sauce. Had spaghetti and mince. Absolutely horrendous. It tasted like cat food.
There are many and can’t home in on just one.
Would always tell a white lie about staying at a friend’s house and where I was actually going.