The pilot who stays on the ground for the climate | Knowledge & Environment

Raised in humble circumstances on the outskirts of London, little was taken for granted except when his father urged him to choose a career he loves. Such a decision is a challenge for many, but not for Todd.

When he first saw a Royal Air Force aerobatic show, he knew his future was up in the clouds. “I was just absolutely blown away by these nine planes flying wing to wing. That was the beginning of my career.”

He was five years old then.

It was more than a fleeting childhood dream – his young mind was transfixed. When he was a little older, he started playing flight simulation games. At the age of eleven, he knocked on the door of the nearest Air Cadet branch and asked them to make an exception to the minimum age requirement and put him in the squadron. Amazingly, they agreed.

For years he went to training twice a week and although his enthusiasm was undiminished, at the age of 16 his dream of flying seemed a long way off as a career in the Royal Air Force (RAF) was out of the question and he didn’t have the £150,000 ($162,000) to fund his commercial pilot training.

“Getting your hands on a real jet was… quite frankly, there’s nothing like it.”

Raise money for flight training

Instead, Todd went to London, apprenticed as an electrician, and flexed from one job to another for a few years. None of these professions came close to flying. “I feel very comfortable in the air. It gives me this feeling of freedom and calm,” he explains in an interview with DW.

When he decided to take out a loan to earn a private pilot’s license, his family saw how important flying was to him and drummed up the money for commercial training.

His grandmother sold her house and moved in with Todd’s parents, who in turn mortgaged their house. This, combined with Todd’s own salary, funded his commercial pilot training for the next five years.

The examiner said to me afterwards: ‘You are an asset to aviation and you will go very far in your career’. My mother and father were there. It was really incredible.”

The last thing on his mind at that moment – or for the next three years as he flew holidaymakers around Europe and pursued a career in his job – was the annual greenhouse gas emissions from the aviation industry.

Todd Smith stands on one of the peaks of the multicolored Rainbow Mountain.

It was a bittersweet moment. The guide told us that Peru is one of the first places to be affected by climate change.

The climate injustice of flying

That was to change in 2018, however, when an intestinal infection forced Todd to take time off from the pilothouse. It was the last thing he wanted, and he was so “insane to get back flying as soon as possible” that he accepted a doctor-suggested challenge of becoming almost entirely plant-based and abstaining from meat.

During this time he watched a series of documentaries showing how animal husbandry harms the climate and environment.

“That really affected me.” So much so that he decided to go vegan and started doing climate research. When he contracted Lyme disease after a tick bite in a London park and was absent even longer, he began digging deeper.

As he researched, he recalled a bittersweet moment a few years earlier while standing on the colorful Rainbow Mountain in Peru. “People ran up and down there like ants. It was so beautiful, but we shouldn’t have seen it.”

The gorgeous colors had previously been hidden under a blanket of snow melted by global warming. When he saw the mountain, he “became a first-hand witness of the effects of climate change and mass tourism.”

Pilot Todd Smith at a climate protest

“Fighting climate change means going back to community, reconnecting with nature, and creating an economic system that prioritizes health and well-being over GDP.”

Dive into climate work

Todd could no longer deny what he had been repressing until then. That changed everything. He immersed himself in climate research and researched the CO2 footprint of air travel. He learned that the industry is responsible for more than 2 percent of global emissions and that of the 80 percent of people who have never been on an airplane, many are disproportionately affected by climate change.

“I was struck by the injustice that this all entails. Especially since half of these emissions are caused by just one percent of the population.”

He attempted to explain these new findings to his colleagues in the aerospace industry, but did not find many willing listeners. “At the time, Greta Thunberg was at the center of all this nasty abuse. I think the industry felt really threatened by her. She was serious.”

Todd now embarked on a path that led him away from the profession that had defined his entire identity. A sense of “responsibility and morality” kept him from returning to his former life. He joined the protest movement Extinction Rebellion, for which he is now a spokesperson, and began to “take climate activism really seriously”.

At the same time, he still owed his family a lot of money. But he was unable to fly to repay them. “I couldn’t even board a plane as a passenger – let alone as a pilot.”

It was not easy for his parents to understand his change of heart and conscience. It took time, empathy, a promise to pay off your debts, and an excursion into climate politics on your part. That spring, they attended their first protest event with him.

The Pilot Todd Smith

“We want to empower aviation workers to see the limits of technology to solve the problem”

“That was a really incredible moment. And they really got it now, so now we can join the discourse about oil companies and things like that.”

Trying to make the airline industry greener from within

Through his activism, Todd also met fellow aviation professionals who share his climate concerns. They started out as a loose group that has since grown into Safe-Landing, an organization that seeks to transform the industry from within by urging industry leaders to “learn about climate change and reject dangerous growth.”

“With the carbon budget we have left, we cannot continue to double air travel every 15 years as we have in the past. We want to help aviation workers understand that only then can we ensure a long-term future for the industry ‘if we fly less’.

He still loves to fly and misses being in the air. But he won’t return until the industry takes its commitments seriously. In the meantime, he is focusing on his own commitments: “We pilots are trained to think with an open mind, minimize risk and protect lives. So I’m just following my training and doing everything in my power to push the industry to to minimize their risks. After all, safety is our number one priority”.

Edited by Jennifer Collins

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