MARK PILE, a consultant, has a Foundation Arts Degree in Security & Risk Management, and a background in counter-intelligence. His talents and hobbies include singing, playing guitar, dancing and acting. He’s been told he has a natural golf swing; and he enjoys photography and loves sailing and travelling. But he chose aviation as his dream.
A dream he only actively began to pursue a few months ago, at the age of 53.
Mark, how long have you been waiting for this dream to happen?
I’ve been waiting since my 30s. When I was in the South African Navy, I had the opportunity to do some flying with the air force pilots in a helicopter and I got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. I knew then: this is what I want to do.
You were conscripted – you had to join the armed forces – and you initially chose the air force, right?
Yes, I was nineteen. Even back then I wanted to be in the air: I wanted to fly jets. But I was short-sighted and they only took people with twenty-twenty vision. So I chose the navy.
When you were growing up, what did you want to be?
At one stage I wanted to be a lawyer. Mercantile law. Because it had to do with the sea, and sailing. I’ve always loved sailing.
Why did your dream of being a lawyer end?
My parents couldn’t afford to send me to university.
So, now that you’ve got the money to pursue your passion, why aren’t you pursuing a law career?
Because it’s not my passion. It was of great interest to me in my teens, but the moment I realised it wasn’t achievable, I put it aside, and I’ve not regretted it. A huge part of it comes from knowing your purpose, and I’ve always felt I’m called to do something other than a corporate job. I’ve never wanted a day-to-day ‘office’ job – something that’s the same every single day. With flying, I get to go up into the clouds, 3,000 feet, and that’s my office.
As this dream of yours is still in progress – you’re currently training for your private pilot licence (PPL) – what do you currently do for a job?
I’m a consultant, working for a large construction/engineering/facilities management company, Vinci Facilities, on a Ministry of Defence contract. That’s all I can say about that.
Ah. Or you’ll have to kill me.
When do you pursue your passion for flying?
On weekends and the occasional off day during the week. I have an amazing instructor – Iona Morris – and I’m just so blessed by her. I won’t fly with anyone else. She knows what she’s doing; her way of teaching is so effortless and flawless, it makes you understand clearly what you need to do.
And here’s a great example of how God puts you with people who will support your dream: I was chatting with Iona one day and I told her my plan – my big dream to fly aid into war-torn countries – and she was taken aback. ‘That’s what I wanted to do!’ she replied. ‘That’s exactly what I’ve wanted to do, but for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to achieve it.’ And then she floored me. She said: ‘You know, in a way, I’m achieving my dream through you. By getting you qualified and training you up in the most excellent way, I’m helping you to achieve your dream.’ I just think that’s amazing.
Sounds like an idyllic life. How long will this PPL take you?
It all depends. I have to get 45 hours in the air. Part of that is doing two solos, flying with an examiner, doing four touchdowns… The time I’ll take to achieve all this will depend on a number of factors: aeroplane and instructor availability, my availability, finances, my ability to study and pass nine extremely difficult ground exams…
I’ve given myself 24 months to complete my PPL because I’m taking the advice of some wise people who’ve gone before me, people who’ve achieved this dream. They say: take your time. Don’t rush it. Enjoy every moment. And that’s what I intend to do.
Have you completed any of the ground exams yet?
Yes, three of the nine. For the first two, I got 100%, and the third one: 87%, which I’m proud of. But I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this without the ground school I’m training with: Ash Holding, the PPL Groundschool owner, is an incredible trainer. He’s got 20+ years of experience, and I’m so grateful to him because I’m not a natural academic; I struggle with theory and the textbooks are thick. He’s a Godsend, just like Iona.
Once you’ve completed your PPL, what are your next steps?
I want to do an airline transport pilot licence (ATPL) – because only with an ATPL can I fly logistics, piloting various aircraft. I also want to get my Night Rating, so I can fly after sunset, and my Instrument Rating, so I can fly above the clouds and in low visibility.
You’ve had quite a journey so far. You & your wife left South Africa – and everything and everyone you knew – in October 2001, and you came over to the UK and found yourselves at the bottom of the career ladder, right?
Yes, just before leaving SA, I was a full lieutenant in the navy, in the intelligence division – just six months away from being promoted to Lieutenant Commander. When I started over in London, I couldn’t get a job anywhere near my South African salary and had to start over as a security guard, on the night shift.
Why did you leave SA?
Apartheid. Or rather, a sort of reverse Apartheid. The ANC had taken over and they’d stopped all promotions of anyone not in the ANC. So they offered me a choice: leave, or remain in the navy at my current rank and go over to the Congo, where I would be in danger of contracting the Ebola virus, or die at the hand of a 12-year-old with an AK 47. So I left.
Both my wife and I had access to British passports, and we believed emigrating to England was our best option.
At that time, the internet was in its infancy in SA. Having never been to the UK before, and unable to ‘google’ as such, weren’t you fearful or worried about culture shock, or not having enough money, seeing as £1 would cost you about R11?
All of those things played on my mind, sure. But there was no future for me in South Africa. I was a 32-year-old white male. I believed there were better opportunities in England, and I’d contacted, via email, a few recruitment consultants in London who agreed with me. In their minds, I was an exciting candidate and they were sure they could place me in a fantastic job.
What went wrong? What were you hoping for in the UK and why didn’t it happen?
I was hoping to start as a manager, or senior manager, in the security industry – especially since this is what the recruitment consultants indicated I would be ideal for. But apparently I wasn’t skilled enough, according to the ‘powers that be’, and I had to start at the bottom: looking after construction sites at night for minimum wage. It was an extremely challenging time. I remember having to regularly wait outside in the snow at 4am, for a bus…
The first two years were the toughest. I was ready to pack up and go back to South Africa. The only thing that stopped me was that there was nothing to go back to. After that, it became slightly easier, but for the first five or six years in the UK, my wife and I were living hand to mouth. If we took a holiday, it was back to Cape Town, with one or two short-break exceptions – and we paid for every holiday with credit cards. We racked up a lot of debt. It took years for us to completely clear all the debt, but it taught us a valuable lesson: If we can’t pay cash for something now, we don’t get it.
After starting out as a security guard, how did you manage to get to the point where you could afford to start training to be a pilot?
Over the years I proved myself in various jobs, and I was blessed in that I kept on getting headhunted. I moved from job to job in the UK, each time a little higher up the ladder and with a great leap in my salary, until 2016, when I was headhunted again, this time to go to the Middle East. I would be a senior contract manager, running a Ministry of Defence site just outside of Dubai, for a fantastic salary.
Without ever having visited the Middle East, my wife and I packed up our most precious things, and our two cats, gave almost everything else away – furniture, appliances, you name it – and rented out our house (which we’d bought in 2007). Then we got on a flight to Dubai.
We stayed in the Middle East for four years, until the contract ended and I was offered a job back in the UK. During those four years, we managed to get out of debt completely, and we also sold our house. I now had enough money to pursue my dream of flying.
How does it feel to be pursuing your passion?
Amazing. There was a period of time after we returned from the Middle East where I had a few months off, between contracts. And it was great to not have to be concerned about finances during this time but just to enjoy my holiday – especially since I’d not had a proper long holiday for the four years we were in the Middle East.
I used this time to read/work through a book by Rick Warren: The Purpose Driven Life. For forty days, you read a chapter every day (you can also, optionally, listen to a daily online message, which I devoured). And the whole point/aim is to identify your purpose – the reason you’re alive right now, in this place, on earth.
Everybody’s created uniquely, with different skillsets, personalities, characters, experiences, passions/dreams, talents, gifts, and so on. You’re the only person at this time, in this place, able to do/be what God has planned for you to do/be – to make a difference in the world. This book helps you discover your purpose. It really does! It helps you realise what will get you out of bed in the morning, what drives you.
After the forty days, I realised that the thing that gets me out of bed in the morning – besides being a musician in a worship band – is flying. I decided from that moment on, I would pursue this dream, despite my age. It’s been life changing.
The fact that I’m earning a salary that pays for my dream is great. Because we’ve got no debt (we rent a house and lease a car), we’re not paying any interest on a credit card, and we owe nothing to nobody… so any additional money we have after paying our bills and buying groceries (and after giving to our church and to charities we support, as well as to the odd cause we stumble upon every now and then), goes towards my PPL.
My dream to be a pilot gets me out of bed at 4:15am every day during the week. It drives me to get to work early and to give excellence, because I know my job is paying for my dream. I want to go to work – because it pays for my dream.
Do you ever worry about the fact that you only have about 12 more years until you retire? Do you ever think that maybe you should be putting any extra money into investments instead of into an expensive dream? And isn’t there an age cap on being a pilot?
No. I mean, I’ve got a bit of money in investments, and I’ll continue to keep adding to that investment pot. But my priority is my pilot licence. I’m not interested in traditional retirement, i.e. sitting in a rocking chair in my old age. I want to fly until I can’t fly anymore. I intend to fly until I die. Thankfully, there’s no age limit. As long as I pass my medical every year, I can fly. If I don’t pursue my dream, I’m not really living.
It’s never too late to start pursuing your dream. And the bigger your dream, the better!
The Rick Warren book says that you are the sum total of your talents and gifts, your unique abilities, experiences, etc. – this makes you the only person who can fulfil the purpose God has for your life. Right?
So what do you think is your Ultimate Purpose – your calling?
Flying for Jesus Christ. Flying aid into countries – and telling the world about His love, how much He cares for us, His promises for us…
Is that your ultimate aim – your Big Dream?
Yes. I want to join a group of Christian pilots who transport food, medical supplies, Bibles, etc. into war-torn countries that the UN finds it difficult to get into.
Aren’t you worried about the danger?
When God’s got a purpose for you, that’s it. Everything just falls into place. And it’s only my time to ‘go’ when God says it’s my time.
To be a part of this Christian group, you’ll probably need your own aeroplane, right? How will you afford to buy one?
I have no idea. An aeroplane costs big bucks. But I do know this: When God calls you for something, He’ll equip you; He’ll make a way. If that’s your purpose, He’ll make it happen. And I’m excited to see how God’s going to make it happen. I have no doubt He will because my ultimate goal is to bring people to Jesus.
In Jesus, I have a Best Friend who helps me through every part of life, no matter how difficult it gets. And I want everyone to experience this amazing Love.
I’m not talking about a religion – following a set of rules. I come from a Catholic – very religious – background; it didn’t work for me. This is a totally different thing. It’s about having a relationship with God.
See, Jesus said He came to give us life – in abundance (John 10:10), and I can testify to that: that’s exactly what I have. Making a decision to follow Him was the best decision I have ever made. It’s a night-and-day difference in my life. And I want to share this free gift with everyone.
And there’s another thing: many people are of the mind that Christians should be poor. But that’s not what the Bible preaches. God tells us in His Word (the Bible) that He blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others (Genesis 12:2-3; Zechariah 8:18-23). I’m not rich, not in financial terms, anyway, but I am ‘comfortable’. If we were still financially poor, I would not be able to afford my pilot training. Then how would I fulfil the dream God has placed on my heart?
Also, there are many instances in the Bible where God makes it clear that He provides all our needs. We should lack nothing. He tells us we should be lenders, not borrowers. We shouldn’t be in debt. Etc. I can give you so many examples of how God has used my financial situation (which He has blessed me with) to bless others: charities we support, international churches we’ve financially assisted, an orphanage, a Bible school, helping homeless people and underprivileged families get on their feet…
Being a born-again Christian (or Follower of Christ) is awesome. I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s changed my life.
I hear you.
Now, you have a lot of talents and interests, as well as a ton of experience in various industries… What made you choose aviation as your dream above everything? How do you know for sure that becoming a pilot is God’s will for you? Part of His plan?
So many reasons. I just know in my heart it’s what I should be doing. It gives me joy; it fulfils me; and it fits into His Big Dream of reaching out to a broken world – which is proof enough. But I’ll give you an example of one of the confirmations I received along the way.
When I started training, I went to a different flight school than the one I’m currently at. After I’d done my research, I’d decided to go to that flight school as it had very good reviews and it was close to home. And that’s where I met my instructor, Iona. If I had started my training just four months later, I would never have met her as she would have already moved on to the flight school she’s currently at (to which I followed her). And as I previously mentioned, the fact that she has the same dream as me with regard to flying aid into countries, that was enough for me.
And you know what? I don’t miss any of those other things as much as I thought I would. I still get to do most of them, things I enjoy; but they’re hobbies that make life fun. Flying is my passion and I’m willing to work harder at this than I was at any of my other talents. Also, I know that I’m part of a fraternity that not anybody can or wants to do. It’s not easy.
It’s scary, too, right? Are you afraid whenever you fly – especially since you’re still pretty new at it and still being trained?
If you’re not scared, then there’s something wrong.
So you feel the fear and do it anyway?
Yes, you have to. And it gives you that edge that you need. That heightened awareness. It’s a healthy fear. Healthy nerves. Because if you become over-confident, that’s where mistakes happen.
What are your top three natural abilities that enable you to be a good pilot, in your opinion?
I’m process-driven, and everything is a process when you’re a pilot. Processes you have to follow in every situation. And I believe in excellence. I go over and over things to make sure they’re correct.
I’m a multi-tasker, which is necessary for a pilot. You’ve got to be able to keep an eye on your surroundings, your controls, your route, etc., all while you’re operating the aircraft.
The ability to think quickly, and outside the box. In an emergency situation, this is vital. To be able to think of alternatives and choose the best one.
What would you say to someone who has always had a dream, but they’ve given up on it because they think they’re too old now – and yet they’re feeling unfulfilled? They’re doing a job that doesn’t make them happy; they feel they have no purpose…
It’s never too late. Age is only a number. And if you’re got that drive and that passion… Yes, you are going to hit brick walls and you are going to stumble. It won’t be easy. But if you have that drive, you can do it. Take it from me. Take it from all the people who – for whatever reason – only started pursuing their dreams later in life. If you have been given the passion, the dream, the purpose by God, there is nothing that can stop you.
If it’s a dream and a passion, follow it. Make the necessary changes. Find ways of making it happen. It will be worthwhile. Find a path. Even if that path takes you off course before you can get back on it again, use what you learn along the way. Decide that nothing will stop you, and just go for it. Because you’re always going to be unhappy if you’re not following your dream or fulfilling your purpose; you’re never going to feel fulfilled. And you end up in those dark places where you might not be able to get out of. There are so many stories of people who ended up depressed, committed suicide… At the same time, there are many stories of people hit by Covid who were let go from their jobs, or who gave up their jobs because they decided to follow their passion. Success might take a while to arrive, but the journey is a very fulfilling one.
I believe that the greatest thing that God has put in any human being is the drive to succeed for a purpose that’s been given to you.
Mark, thank you so much! What an inspiration you are. I truly believe you’ll achieve your dream.
It’s never too late to start pursuing your dream.
Pursue your passion; make a difference.
If you don’t pursue your dream, are you really LIVING?
Better an OOPS than a What If.
If God calls you, He’ll equip you.
Feel the fear and do it anyway!
Just so you know…
I don’t receive any reward or commission for promoting any of the people or businesses on my blog. I just want to inspire & motivate as many people as possible to fulfil their purpose & potential.
If any other key points stood out for you, or you just want to let me know what you thought about this interview, feel free to comment below.