Paduol Ater – From Refugee to qualified commercial pilot

Paduol Ater with a model biplane gifted to him by an EgyptAir captain. Photo: Paul Harris
A “Lost Boy” of Africa, a refugee and now a qualified pilot, Paduol Ater’s journey has been long and often life-threatening. And it’s not over yet.

The brightest thing in Paduol Ater’s austere Brisbane flat is a wall poster, positioned above his armchair, showing instrument lights glittering like jewels in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 passenger jet. Both pilot seats are empty, which allows Ater to visualise himself in one of them, guiding the beautiful machine around the globe. “That helps to keep my dream alive,” he says. “It has been a long struggle, but every time I look at that picture it makes me feel happy.”

Ater, 36, was just 10 when he fled his village in war-torn southern Sudan to escape a massacre. His parents and three of his four siblings were never seen again. Ater became one of Africa’s so-called Lost Boys, running for his life with thousands of others and ending up in UN refugee camps. Many boys died during their ordeals, but for Ater, fascinated by jet trails above them as they crossed the desert, the experience led to a singular ambition that set the course of his life.

[pull_quote_center]I have not lost my determination. Because I know that one day my dream will come true. [/pull_quote_center]

“That was my first inspiration to be a pilot,” he says. “I watched the planes and thought, ‘One day, I might be able to fly like that … but first I have to go to school.’ ” Ater excuses himself, goes to the kitchen and returns with a Coke and a bottle of water on a doily-lined tray, which he places before me. “I didn’t know which,” he says, hovering attentively.

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Sky pilot: Paduol Ater at the controls. Photo: Paul Harris

During his 11 years in refugee camps, my host learnt English, tore through primary school and began his secondary education. He arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2002, settled in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane, and completed his final three years of high school in record time.

He threw himself into pilot training, avoiding social distractions and working long hours at various jobs to save for flying lessons. By 2011, with financial help from a local benefactor, he had moved to Fortitude Valley in Brisbane and qualified as a commercial pilot.

Ater was elated, yet still he couldn’t relax. To become an airline pilot he needed to get work flying light aircraft and clock up as many hours as possible. So he began responding to advertised pilots’ positions in tourism, mining and charter work in Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

Air apparent: Retired scientist Bob McCown with Paduol Ater at Archerfield Airport in Brisbane. Photo: Paul Harris
Air apparent: Retired scientist Bob McCown with Paduol Ater at Archerfield Airport in Brisbane. Photo: Paul Harris

And that’s when his extraordinary “dream” hit an unanticipated obstacle: despite applying for more than 300 pilots’ jobs since 2011, Paduol Ater, a teetotal Christian with no criminal background, has yet to be granted a single interview.

Still alone – “I think about marriage and a family, but I can’t yet because it would distract me from my goal” – he remains astonishingly upbeat. He works at two jobs to support himself and his younger brother, Lazarus (who also escaped the massacre and is now in Kenya), and spends his nights studying advanced aviation subjects.

“If sometimes I feel frustrated,” he says, “I get in my car and drive to Brisbane Airport, just to be close to the planes. I have not lost my determination. Because I know that one day my dream will come true.”

Paduol Ater with a model biplane gifted to him by an EgyptAir captain. Photo: Paul Harris
Paduol Ater with a model biplane gifted to him by an EgyptAir captain. Photo: Paul Harris

Not long before fleeing his village of Akop in southern Sudan, Ater underwent a traditional Dinka initiation ceremony to mark his passage, at age 10, from boy to man. He sat quite still, reciting the names of his ancestors, while tribal markings were scarified deep into his forehead with a sharp knife. (A kink or bend in the parallel scar lines is indelible proof that the initiate flinched or moved. Ater’s lines are uniformly straight.)

“You then become an important member of the family,” he says. “You take part in decisions, and your father will always have you beside him.”

Sudan’s long and murderous civil war (between the Muslim-Arab government in Khartoum in the north, and the predominantly black African, Christian-animist south) had undergone several stages before Ater and his brother and three sisters were even born. Their father, who kept a few cattle and goats, hoped to find a way to send at least some of the children to school. “Otherwise, I would have become a survival farmer like my father,” Ater says.

"Every time I look at that picture it makes me happy." Photo: Paul Harris
“Every time I look at that picture it makes me happy.” Photo: Paul Harris

Then came the terrible dawn raid by government-backed militiamen, known as Janjawid (“man with gun on horse”). Ater woke to shouts and screams and realised their house was on fire. “Our parents told us to run and run and just keep running … outside, people were running in all directions. I ran beside many other children into the desert.”

He joined a ragged, half-starved group of boys marching across the desert in search of safety. “There were thousands of us. There were a few girls, but mostly boys aged from 10 to 20 who’d followed one another out of the [sacked] villages. The girls must have followed their mothers in other directions.”

They ate roots and insects, travelling only by night to avoid pursuing militia and aerial bombardments. Thousands died along the way of starvation, gunshot wounds, animal attacks, illness and drowning.

“A lot of us drowned crossing the Nile,” Ater says. “We made rafts from timber and grass for the young ones, but the current was so strong and the crocodiles were everywhere, waiting.”

By day, hiding where he could, Ater lay watching jet trails and wondering how people learnt to fly. “At first,” he tells me, “I thought pilots must have some special ability given to them by God. But later I realised it was a matter of opportunity.”

Ater and what remained of his group were eventually rescued by UN forces and taken to a camp in the Ethiopian border town of Narus. “Then I thought, ‘Okay, I’m alive. But what about the rest [his family and friends at home]?’ Those were my thoughts, over and over. But there was nothing I could do. There was no telephone to ring, no news, no nothing.”

In 1991, two years after he arrived in Narus, the Ethiopian government fell to a coalition of rebel forces, forcing Ater and his friends at the camp to again run for their lives: “We ran away back across the same desert!” The rebels, aided by Sudanese forces, were trying to drive boys who had been hiding in Ethiopia back to Sudan, where they would face a choice of conscription into the army or death.

“Knowing this, we headed towards Kenya,” says Ater. “We had no food, and more of us drowned crossing another dangerous river. And all the time the rebels were shooting at everybody and planes were bombing everybody. I was 12 then. I thought, ‘If planes are good, why are they killing us? What’s happening!’ ” It took three weeks to reach the Kakuma refugee camp on the Kenyan border.

The hot, windswept camp became Ater’s world for the next nine years. “We could not go beyond the perimeters, and there was so many people that the food was never adequate. But I could go to school, for the first time in all those years of chaos. I told myself, ‘Even though I am hungry I must keep studying to give myself a good future and become a pilot.’ ” Helped by a cousin who had left Akop before him and made it to Australia, Ater successfully applied to the Australian Embassy for resettlement.

Part of his journey here in 2002 was made aboard an EgyptAir 767, whose captain he met during the flight. “I spoke to him in Arabic [about] how I wanted to be a jet pilot like him,” Ater says. “He gave me advice, and then he said, ‘If you do it, Paduol, perhaps one day we will meet at the airport.’ For some reason, I always remember those words.”

On the crest of the Great Dividing Range, 90 minutes’ west of Brisbane, the “Garden City” of Toowoomba is home to a well-established Sudanese community. (More than 20,000 Sudan-born people now live in Australia. Most are in Victoria, followed by NSW, Western Australia and Queensland.)

There have been pockets of opposition to the Sudanese – typically, shouted racial abuse, or online propaganda from White Australia types – and some social problems within the transplanted refugee communities. But the newcomers have also met with warm welcomes and acts of remarkable generosity.

In Toowoomba, while completing his education at St Mary’s College, Paduol Ater got to know agricultural scientist Bob McCown, a long-time Africa-lover who became his unsung benefactor. Then based at the local CSIRO branch, McCown was so taken by Ater’s story he personally donated most of the roughly $100,000 it cost for him to get his commercial pilot’s licence.

“It cost a lot of money; more than I ever thought,” Ater says. “Bob made it possible, and whenever I think of my achievement, I think of Bob and give thanks for what he did.”

Now retired and living in Brisbane, McCown, 77, and his family moved to Queensland from the United States in the mid-1960s. Over the years, the scientist made a number of extended visits to Ethiopia and Kenya to work voluntarily on agricultural projects.

“Paduol is just so passionate about flying,” he tells me at his home in Kangaroo Point, “and I’ve always found it difficult to resist passionate people.” McCown is puzzled and frustrated by the lack of responses to Ater’s search for a job as a pilot. He thinks a downturn in demand for pilots in the mining industry might be a factor, but suspects there could be other reasons.

“I can’t help but feel there is a racial aspect to it,” he says. “I could be dead wrong on that, but if employers are being more picky, when it comes to the crunch a black face doesn’t help you get a job.”

Leonie Redfern, Ater’s current instructor at the Royal Queensland Aero Club, has the same feeling. “Yes, it’s very difficult right now, with many pilots seeking work,” ventures the veteran aviator, “but I do think Australians on the whole are fairly racist, though they may not like to admit it.”

She’s quick to add that Ater himself hasn’t complained of racism: “Paduol never complains about anything, ever. He’s had so many knocks, yet he just keeps on going.” Redfern says most applications from inexperienced pilots seeking general aviation positions “go straight in the bin” in the current environment, and that to compete Ater needs to keep adding to his flying time – at a cost of about $500 an hour for a twin-engine plane.

During his last flight test with her a few days earlier, Ater, as usual, wore his freshly pressed black and white pilot’s uniform: “A lot of students try to avoid the uniform, but I think Paduol feels it helps him to fit in.” As they prepared to land at the end of the flight, the weather turned ugly.

“We could only just make out the runway, with rain and a crosswind. But Paduol just grabbed hold of the aeroplane and made it happen.” Redfern says she wouldn’t hesitate to recommend him as a pilot. “He’s hard-working, honest, and you can bet he’d put his heart and soul into any job he got.”

Depressingly, though, businessman-aviator Dick Smith told Good Weekend there were “hardly any” jobs for general aviation pilots in Australia. “Over the last 10 years the thriving general aviation industry has been basically destroyed by [successive federal governments allowing] incredible increases in regulations and costs,” Smith says.

Ater himself has little to say when asked if he thinks his ethnicity has played any part in the failure of his many job applications. “I can’t figure it out,” he tells me uncomfortably. “And because I’ve never [progressed to an] interview, it is hard to know what anyone involved might be thinking.”

What about the publicity generated by some young Sudanese men in Australia getting involved in crime and street gangs? Could that be a factor?

“The entire Sudanese community is worried about that,” says Ater. “There is good and bad in every community, but some young Sudanese growing up here haven’t had that set of moral orientations where they learn what is right and wrong. And in this country, where everything is lovely and good, some [don’t] take the opportunity to get educated and become better people. They are [distracted] by stupid things like drinking and smoking and fighting and making a lot of crimes.”

Even during his trainee days, when he shared a Brisbane flat with a group of other would-be pilots, Ater was too preoccupied by his goal to join the socialising. “Every Friday the others would be bringing beer home,” he says, “and I was the only one who didn’t drink. They were all disappointed, asking why. Most of the time when they were drinking I would lock my door and just keep studying, studying, studying.”

When he talks about flying, Ater’s shyness disappears and he seems almost to relive the experience. The happiest day of his life so far, he says, was the first time he flew solo in Toowoomba in 2006. “It was in a little two-seater Tomahawk. I did a few circuits with the instructor and when we landed he said, ‘Okay, you are on your own.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘I’m happy. You can fly by yourself.’ ” A smile spreads across Ater’s face.

“So I took off and flew and everything felt perfect. I told myself, ‘Now I am on my own! Now the dream is really coming true.’ ”

When he landed, the instructor gave him his solo wings badge, which he wore in a photo that appeared in the local paper. “That is the day I will not forget,” he says. Later, when he qualified to fly twin-engine aircraft, Ater criss-crossed the state on solo flights that lasted all day.

As he talks I try to imagine Ater as a child, the scars of his initiation barely healed, staring up from the desert at the mysterious vapour trails that became his only distraction from the horrors of war. “To fly like a bird,” he says when asked what he remembers thinking back then. “Like a piece of machine high in the air!” He laughs. “It’s unimaginable when you look at an aeroplane flying. How does it fly? That’s what I asked myself, over and over.”

Now he is the only qualified pilot in the local Sudanese community. “And when I see how [community] people address me, the way they perceive me, then I realise I have achieved something quite difficult and special. Since I qualified, everyone has come to know me. But I had to take some of them up for joy flights before they would actually believe I can fly!”

Before we part, he produces a red model biplane (a gift from the EgyptAir captain) and displays it proudly: “He also presented me with a little watch. It still goes now, and when the battery runs out I always change it.” The following morning, Paduol Ater rises early and drives to a farm at Gatton, en route to Toowoomba, to spend another back-breaking day picking tomatoes. The Lost Boy from Akop still has a long way to go to reach the hallowed cockpit of a Boeing 737, yet nowhere near as far as he’s already travelled.

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