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Meet the inspiring gay guy in charge of airfield safety at Heathrow Airport

Aerodrome Safety Investigation Manager Joe Audcent on life at Europe's busiest airport and why he's glad he's out at work

Meet the inspiring gay guy in charge of airfield safety at Heathrow Airport
Joe at Heathrow Airport | Photo: Joe Audcent

Sponsored: Growing up in Bristol, Joe Audcent – Heathrow Airport’s Aerodrome Safety Investigation Manager – lived near Bristol Airport’s flight path.

‘I loved it,’ the 27-year-old says. ‘Running to the window to see planes coming in, guessing which kind it was… I’d look on Teletext to see where it came from!’

Joe is giving me a behind-the-scenes tour of Heathrow, Europe’s biggest and busiest airport, located 15 miles west of central London. It’s fascinating. I’ve collected a piece of FOD (foreign object/debris) from the airfield, caught a glimpse of a dormant Concorde aircraft and spotted the little-known Royal Suite in Terminal 4.

Joe at Heathrow Airport

‘My parents nurtured my interest in aviation,’ the Maidenhead resident adds. ‘They brought me here, to Heathrow, for my 13th birthday treat. We went to the visitor center, and the viewing deck of the old Queen’s Building. It was exciting seeing Concorde landing. I never thought back then I’d end up working here.’

He’s now worked at Heathrow for six years. ‘Every day is different,’ he says. ‘I look forward to coming in. It’s in a constant state of renewal, change and growth.’ 

It’s hard not to share Joe’s enthusiasm for the airport. Especially upon entering the 285ft Control Tower, not usually open to the public. Here, air traffic controllers work tirelessly to oversee around 1400 aircraft movements a day. I’m lucky enough to take in its panoramic views, offering a unique insight into the size and scale of Heathrow. Truly, it’s a city: 76,000 people work here, and around 76 million passengers pass through yearly.

The view from the Control Tower

The Control Tower is also where Joe and his team of 12 are based.

‘There isn’t a typical week in my job,’ he says. ‘That makes it rewarding. I could be at my desk writing reports, compiling data, or interviewing staff involved in some sort of safety event, looking to understand what happened.

‘It could be looking at infrastructure or design layout. airfield signage and from human factors perspective, considering if somebody else make the same mistake if there was confusion about something. We want to make ourselves approachable and visible to our operational colleagues, so if they want to report a concern, ask a question or engage with us, they can do face-to-face.’

Here, Joe reveals all about his amazing job, how being out at work had a positive effect on his career, and how he got his pilot’s license…

Hi Joe. What did you want to be as a kid? 

I was interested in journalism. I did work experience at the BBC and local newspapers. But in the end I decided to follow my passion and pursue a career in aviation.

What did you study?

English, French, Business Studies and Psychology A Level. Then Air Transport Management at Loughborough University. I had a really good time there. I joined the Loughborough Students Flying Club. It was a great way of making friends. We’re still in touch now through a Whatsapp group and meet up when we can! Some have gone on to work at other airports, some are pilots, some have gone into engineering and maintenance.

What was your first job? 

At Luton Airport working for Monarch Airlines as Crewing Assistant. My job was to allocate flight deck crews, pilots and cabin crew for each flight.

What was next?

At Heathrow in the Airfield Operations department for three years. That mostly involved aircraft marshalling, leader escorts for aircraft, runway inspections, wildlife control, responding to incidents and emergencies. After a few years, though I enjoyed it, I was after a new challenge. An opportunity came up to join the media team on secondment. The job role was Filming Coordinator.

It was primarily working on the ITV documentary Heathrow: Britain’s Busiest Airport. It was the second series and I worked on that for about a year – it was good fun. I went to just about every corner of the airfield: the animal reception center, fire service, security, cargo, police service, behind-the-scenes and underneath the terminal buildings in future railway stations not yet in use… Really, really interesting.

The job was to facilitate access for the production and film crew, so they could record the stories they wanted, find the contributors they were looking for. A lot of planning in advance and communication. Then, making sure the filming was done in a way that wasn’t intrusive.

How long were you doing that?

About a year. Then, at the time the expansion campaign was in full swing. That was a huge piece of work for the airport and our public affairs team and media team. I helped facilitate stakeholder visits, including media. 

In the run up to the government announcement of which airport they’d expand following the Davies Commission, a lot of the broadcasters wanted to get up-to-date footage of the airfield. They wanted stories about cargo, or employment, or apprentices in the Heathrow Academy which I’d help them find.

Then you moved to your current role?

Yes, I returned to airfield operations and applied for a promotion. This job was vacant at the time and was something I was interested in. It was a chance to work in the Control Tower! My application was successful and I started in March 2017.

Joe in his office at the Control Tower

What are the key parts of your job?

Number one, embedding a positive safety culture, encouraging people to report safety issues openly and freely as part of what’s called a ‘just; culture. Secondly, learning and safety promotion. Where we’ve had an incident, instead of just investigating it and then reporting the findings back to a limited audience, we want our operational frontline colleagues to benefit from the findings as well and make sure they’ve got access to the learning they need following an incident.

This includes safety initiatives and campaigns to encourage people to think about aerodrome safety. Maintaining positive relationships with stakeholders – we want to be in a position where we can openly share safety information. We’ve got a lot of handling agents here and they’re all competing with each other but when it comes to safety and best practice we facilitate cooperation.

At the heart of the job is preventing incidents in the first place, and looking at root cause analysis to find what a process may have failed, or why an individual was confused or misinterpreted information. We then develop safety recommendations or actions to address the findings.

Can you give examples of how you’ve captured a learning opportunity?

Any learning that has been captured has been shared. A runway incursion for example, which is the incorrect presence of a vehicle, person or object on the runway surface. We’ll try and find out what the contributing factors were. We’ve spent time with safety departments in other sectors like Network Rail and other airports to learn what we can from different organisations.

Invariably there are human factors to take into consideration. These are very important to be aware of because we need to appreciate that human beings occasionally have lapses. You can expect a human being to occasionally fail, so you need a number of other systems and layers of protection to make sure the human being isn’t the single point of failure.

So all the stuff we spoke about in terms of the procedures, the layout, the signage, the markings, the lighting, all of that will go into how we look at an incident. Where phraseology could be changed to make it clearer and simpler. 

Joe flying a plane with friends

What’s your proudest achievement?

Probably winning my flying scholarship from Prince Philip in 2009 which funded my Private Pilot’s Licence and Night Rating. There’s a fantastic charity called the Air League whose purpose is to encourage young people into aerospace and aviation careers. They give out thousands or flying scholarships and bursaries every year and I was lucky enough to win the Prince Phillip Flying Scholarship and meet him at Buckingham Palace during a reception to collect it. What a legend he is!

I’ve met loads of people through the Air League and there are lots of transferable skills from flying. It’s useful to have a greater understanding of how pilots think and how they approach operating their aircraft according to the scenario they’re in. Threat and error management and problem diagnosis for example. Obviously, there’s a difference between a 747 and the light aircraft I fly, but the fundamental principles are the same. I used to instruct every weekend with the RAF Air Cadet Organization but I now fly about once a month.

What’s it like to be openly gay at Heathrow?

By its very nature, Heathrow is a diverse environment. It’s always been that way. We’ve always been comfortable with diversity. In the last year-and-a-half, we’ve really started championing diversity as a concept and started promoting it. We’ve got a group for disabled people, BAME people, a women’s network and a group for LGBT.

Each group has its own areas of focus but there’s also a lot of cross working between those diversity groups which is fantastic. There’s support from everyone and the company is taking bold steps. It’s good we’re doing that. It makes people feel more comfortable. People can perform better if they’re allowed to be themselves, and not trying to hide something about themselves.

A photo of an Icelandair Boeing 757 taken by Joe

Have you always been out at work? 

When I first started, I wouldn’t say I was openly out, but I wasn’t trying to conceal my sexuality either. The subject rarely came up. After a couple of years I started feeling more comfortable with my role, my environment and colleagues, and decided to reveal more. I found that empowering.

Did you feel entirely supported by colleagues?

Yes. I was supported and I didn’t have any problems. Obviously there are some people who are more comfortable talking about it than others. That’s the reality of any big group of people. But what was important was having the freedom to not have to hide anything about my private life. My line managers have always encouraged me to do that. Actually, in many ways, it helped build relationships. People learned a little bit more about me. I didn’t purposely want to raise my profile, but actually in coming out I found my profile was raised without me even doing anything. People started knowing more about who I was.

Airfield operations is quite a large part of this business and we don’t have any openly gay men in the department. Looking at customer relations and service, corporate affairs or marketing HR, the airside operations team does not have as much LGBT representation. Inclusivity is the way forward so I’m committed to helping people just be themselves at work whoever they are. .

Joe with his family

Where have you traveled recently?

Cape Town for my birthday. I’ve been to San Francisco, Tel Aviv, Helsinki, Rome and Geneva in the last year. Next year I’m going to Athens with my boyfriend for his birthday, and maybe then a trip to the Caribbean.

What does your boyfriend do?

He works in the accounts department of a company in High Wycombe. He’s called Blake, he’s 25. We really get on and enjoy each other’s company.

Is he as interested in aviation as you? 

He’s not, but I think the fact we’re so different means it works! There’s a bit of a height difference. At 6ft 7 he towers over me so we do look slightly ridiculous together.  He’s from a large family with seven siblings and knows who to cook the best Caribbean food which he’s learnt from his Mum. We stopped off at Heathrow a few weekends ago so we could watch planes landing from the car park. I’m looking forward to taking him flying… if he’ll fit in the type of aircraft I fly!

Heathrow Airport

What’s the best thing about working at Heathrow?

The range of opportunities on your doorstep and the ability to develop your career here. Also to meet new people all the time, get involved in various committees, groups and forums. I really like how it’s changing and evolving. We’ve got a bright future with the expansion and I love aviation and traveling so being in this environment is exciting.

For more information about Heathrow Airport, visit the official website by clicking here.

With over 35 bars, restaurants and cafes, including the new Gordon Ramsay Plane Food outlet, and dozens of designers stores, Heathrow is the perfect place to start your holiday or business trip. To book your trip, visit go.heathrow.com.

Heathrow Airport is a partner of Gay Star News.

 


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