I wasn’t that kid flying toy planes around the school playground and dreaming of becoming a pilot…in fact, I’m not sure the thought ever crossed my mind growing up.
I fell into flying through a series of happy coincidences – and I feel so very lucky that I did. I still have to pinch myself sometimes. Absolutely nothing compares to the feeling of delight after I first take off.
Flying is addictive, and I’m a happy addict!
Well…that escalated quickly!
In 2010, I bought a ‘flight experience’ voucher for my husband (then boyfriend) J’s birthday. His Mum showed me a photo of him playing with a toy plane in the garden and told me he’d wanted to a be a pilot when he was little. I’d just been sent to live abroad with work, I felt a bit guilty to have left him behind and I wanted to give him something fun to do – an hour in a plane seemed to fit the bill.
J went up from Biggin Hill one evening in the summer, and from that moment on he was hooked. He spent every spare second either flying, trying to earn enough money to fly more or thinking about going flying. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d love it too!
Learning to love it – my first flight
I wish I could claim that the love came instantly, but that would be a massive lie…
Family holidays when I was young involved driving to see relatives in the UK and the occasional hop over to France on the car ferry – not a lot of flying required in either case.
I didn’t fly commercially until I was 19, and I can’t say that I enjoyed it. What I remember is that I didn’t like it when the plane banked, the steward tried to move me from the exit row seat because he thought I was ‘too young’ (14 and over was the requirement…grrr) and one of my brothers was sick. Not the best start for a future aviation addict!
My first flight in a light aircraft was, quite simply, awful. I was so scared! I spent it bouncing around in the back of a PA-28 [Piper Warrior – commonly used by flying schools as a training aircraft, like this one] during one of J’s early lessons. He and his instructor talked to each other and to some disembodied voices on the radio in a language I could barely understand whilst I sat in the back and tried not to throw up my lunch.
It was a reasonably straightforward training flight from Biggin Hill out to the grass airfield at Goodwood, but on the way back the weather turned suddenly and the instructor ended up having to fly an instrument approach through low cloud. We couldn’t see and it was really bumpy. Neither of them said anything to me during the entire return leg (in hindsight I imagine they were just concentrating), and I was absolutely convinced we were all going to die!
I actually said the words “never again” after that flight. At that moment, I truly meant it! But something made me keep going, and I could not be more grateful that it did. I became fascinated with everything you can see from the air (fun fact: from the air it seems that almost everyone in rural Surrey has a swimming pool and/or tennis court in their garden!). I developed coping techniques to handle motion sickness in bad weather, and actually came to prefer the movements of the smaller planes to being in a large commercial aircraft – at least I could see what the pilot was doing and predict how the plane would behave.
When J passed his PPL, he most certainly wanted to use it! We found ourselves flying almost every available weekend, and the more I flew with him, the more I wanted to understand what he was doing. Not a nice thought, but I really didn’t like the idea of him passing out at the controls one day and me sitting there essentially waiting to die! I started looking into safety/co-pilot courses so I could at least learn the basics of how to communicate and get the plane down safely in an emergency.
The more I read and the more I flew, the more I realised that I didn’t want to stop with a co-pilot course. These safety courses are fantastic for those who don’t want to get a full PPL themselves, and of course, some basic and rusty skill is infinitely better than no skill at all when push comes to shove. But currency is so important in aviation – whatever skills you acquire will quickly become stale. I find that if I miss a few weeks of lessons whilst training, I’m already rusty. I imagine adding significantly longer ‘gaps’ in training and some serious stress (a big factor if you only ever expect to take control in an emergency situation), and I feel that I really wouldn’t trust my abilities.
I decided I was going to go along whenever I could, whether J liked it or not. Luckily he does, mostly…
I knew I would need to train properly and get to a stage where I could keep myself current. I was incredibly lucky to be in the rare position of having saved enough from my first 5 years of work to be able to make that dream a reality. J and I don’t have typical spending priorities for people our age, but our shared love of flying is definitely one of them.
Besides all the boring, rational and safety-conscious stuff (which is kind of my thing – eldest of 4 children, sensible big sister, etc…), it’s EXCITING! It is especially satisfying to be doing it as a young woman when there are relatively few of us out there. I enjoy surprising people and challenging perceptions when they don’t expect it of me, and it’s fun turning up to General Aviation meets where people’s first assumption is that I’m a spectator, not a pilot.
The here and now
I finally finished my PPL training in April 2016 after a couple of years of really hard work. It was the most incredible feeling to complete my skills test and realise I’m allowed to just get in an aeroplane and fly myself pretty much anywhere!
A combination of the wonderful British weather and full-time work meant my progress was slow in the UK, so I took advantage of a break between finishing one job and starting the next to do some intensive training in France. I learned at Limoges Airport – at the Aeroclub Du Limousin with English-speaking instructor Roger Sprague. I will post separately about my training but cannot recommend Roger highly enough. The airport is also friendly and welcoming with great facilities and (in comparison to the UK especially!) really cheap landing fees.
Meanwhile, J has made incredible progress – he is now fully instrument-rated, which of course has greatly improved our hit rate for flights departing from this country! Shortly before he earned his PPL, we added ‘YC (a 1986 Socata TB-10 aeroplane) to our family, and we have never looked back!
Everyone has their story of how they got into aviation – that’s #WhyIFly
What’s your #WhyIFly story? Let me know in the comments below.