RFDS Pilot Alex Shearn

Taking flight later in life: Meet RFDS Pilot Alex Shearn

Date published

26 Apr 2023

Alex Shearn always dreamed of taking to the skies like his dad, who was a pilot in the Australian Air Force. But from a young age he was told he was colourblind, quashing his aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“I thought to be a pilot you had to have perfect vision,” he said.

“As a little tacker, that was devastating – it affected me academically and left me a bit lost with what I wanted to do.”

Alex's disinterest in school led him to drop out in Year 10. He found work at a local pizza shop, where he climbed the ranks, eventually being offered a managerial position.

However, deep down, he was still longing for a new challenge. So, in his late teens, Alex made the bold decision to decline a promotion and return to school to complete Year 11 and 12.

Following graduation, he embarked on a new career path as an apprentice mechanic.

“I met my wife and we opened our own workshop in Adelaide. I worked as a mechanic for years but eventually had to get out of the business due to an injury. We ended up buying a motel and started running that together,” he said.

“At that stage, I was spending a lot of money on remote control aircraft – I had model planes and helicopters that I used to fly, which provided my kicks.”

In 2007, at the age of 38, Alex's long-delayed aspirations for a career in aviation were unexpectedly reignited by a chance opportunity at his son's school.

One day, Alex crossed paths with a fellow father who had his pilot's license. He confided in him about being colourblind, but the dad urged him to experience a flight.

Alex booked in a trial introductory flight and was immediately hooked.

Despite his concerns about his vision, he took a punt and began pursuing his private and commercial pilot's licence, completing the required theory, exams, and flight training while managing his motel business.

But, before he could take his final flight test, Alex needed to pass an eye exam.

Disclosing to the doctor that he was red-green colourblind, he underwent the Ishihara Colour Blind Test, during which he struggled on one page and couldn't see anything.

“The doctor looked at me and said, ‘Well, son, there’s nothing on that page… and there’s nothing wrong with your eyes.’

“I was in complete disbelief, to be told I wasn’t colourblind.”

The rest is history. For the next decade, Alex worked as a charter pilot for various airlines across the country, building his hours and further accreditations, as he worked towards his goal of flying with the Flying Doctor.

RFDS Pilot Alex Shearn
Photo: Alex Shearn still pinches himself that he's flying for the RFDS.

"The RFDS has always been my dream. I've always been in awe of their pilots and the amazing work they do,” he said.

“So, when the chance to apply for a role arose last year, I didn't hesitate to grab it.”

It has been more than six months since Alex was recruited as an RFDS pilot and he still feels like he's living in a dream.

“Every time I walk through that front door, I still pinch myself. And at the end of each day, when we wrap up our last task and put the aircraft away, I glance back at the hangar and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this incredible opportunity,” he said.

“Our flight nurses are amazing and engineers are just geniuses – I’m a mechanic by trade, but I watch them put a new engine in a plane and just watch in admiration.

“The people we transport are always incredibly grateful – it’s a really special job to be part of getting them the health care they need.”

Despite not being able to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot earlier in life, Alex believes everything happens for a reason and is grateful for all the experiences that have come his way.

“My oldest brother and I often laugh about it, but that’s my story and it’s painted who I am. Thinking back, it probably taught me an important lesson at an early age of handling disappointment and building resilience, which has got me to where I am today.”