The story of my long journey to finally going solo in a glider.
I grew up in a flying family with both parents involved in aviation. My mother worked as ground crew at Staverton Airport in Gloucestershire, UK for Intra Airways flying to and from the English Channel Islands in the late 70’s and early 80’s in DC3 Dakota’s.
My father was a Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm pilot based on HMS Eagle flying Fairey Gannet’s in the late 60’s (footage of my Dad landing on HMS Eagle in 1969) and later a private and commercial airline pilot (despite always claiming he hated flying, which still confuses me).
I always dreamed of flying, built Airfix model kits, attended airshows like the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire (which is the largest military air show in the World, just 4 km’s down the road from where I grew up). My all-time favourite aircraft was (and still is) the BAe FA2 Harrier jump jet that I saw many times at air shows around the UK. Being a pilot was very important to me.
As my Dad was a commercial captain for for GB Airways, based in Gibraltar, we often flew down to the South of Spain and North Africa as family and got to ride the entire flight in the cockpit sat on the jump seat listening to air traffic comms on the headset and watching with great enthusiasm, the amount of routine thinking, skill and effort that goes into commanding an airliner.
At home I read US fighter pilot books filled with glorious photos detailing the life of a fighter pilot. I honed my stick-skills playing games like Microsoft Flight Simulator, U.S Navy Fighters, Descent and Combat Flight Simulator (amongst others) for hours on end on PC’s that I used to build with my Dad, complete with joystick and rudder pedals.
I first got into real world flying when I was 16, when I applied for a Royal Naval, Fleet Air Arm Officers Association (FAAOA) Gliding Scholarship (still available to apply for today) that I was very happily awarded at RNAS Yoevilton in Somerset, UK. This is an amazing program enabling young people to get into flying from any background at an early age. I was delighted to be trained and fly for myself with the Royal Navy, especially as I knew that RNAS Yeovilton was the home base of the FA2 Harrier squadron that I’d been obsessed about my whole childhood.
I had always intended to be a fighter pilot with the Royal Navy, but realised after four years of undergraduate study, that I had a creative, rather than numerical, analytical mind. This and the British Government decision to retire the FA2 Harrier fleet, meant that I took an entirely different route with flying through my life. I decided to do it for fun whilst I pursued a career doing something else.
During the ten day gliding scholarship we flew several SZD Puchacz gliders. I met some wonderful people including the infamous ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham who became legendary during WWII. He flew to the airfield to meet the young pilots to inspire us further into the armed services. We launched the gliders by vehicle tow using a stripped-down Ford F450 pickup truck around the 6 litre engine type, running on a gas conversion kit. Piano wire was then laid out down the 3km runway and we communicated to the truck with commands like ‘go left, go left’, ‘too-fast, too fast’ to make sure a good and safe laugh could be achieved. The acceleration of that truck was ridiculous.
At the end of the 10 days were all ready and approved to fly solo on our own for the first time after 38 training flights, but the weather created an inversion and we could not fly safely, so was decided none of us would make it to solo. I had to wait longer.
After the scholarship I returned to my studies at college, then several international universities, then working as a digital nomad for 3 years. All of which meant I was not in the same place for any great length of time time to be able to join a gliding club and continue my path to going solo. I did the occasional flight at clubs here and there (including powered flights in puddle jumpers), but not enough to build upon my previous experience sufficiently to make progress. I was always amazed at how learning at a young age, embeds the tacit, experiential knowledge to fly in the nervous system; so the coordination and muscle memory was always there to recall upon.
Someone described gliding to me as like learning to enjoy driving your car whilst the fuel indicator is at zero and the warning light is on. You never quite know when the engine is going to conk out and you only have one chance at getting it right. This is entirely true and has been a cornerstone idea in how I view the world. You have to be out of your comfort zone in order to stretch and grow.
After subsequently studying and living in the US, France and back to UK I did a little bit of flying with Imperial College Gliding Club at Lasham in the UK during my PhD studies, but again not enough to advance to solo.
In 2016 I decided to have my own Brexit, just before the vote I took at job in Antwerp, Belgium where I relocated entirely. I attended Ursel Avia Airshow in Belgium as I wanted to catch up with the Consolidated PBY Catalina crew whom I’ve been volunteering my digital technology and designs skills to, for over 10 years now.
Whilst walking around I had chat with a lovely fellow called Ronny, who was sat next to his sleek LS4 glider and immediately got my attention amongst all the other powered aircraft on show. He talked about a tremendously-friendly gliding club just across the Dutch border in a place called Axel that I’d never heard of. Armed with this information I went to go check it out a few weeks later in person.
I was immediately met by friendly faces and had a great chat with a guy called David Lindberg who explained how the club operated in great detail. The one thing that everyone kept saying was how it was all about the members and the community that made the club so special. After sitting observing operations for a while, David promptly got up and said: “right we’re going up, grab you’re chute!”. I had a lovely flight and I was sold on the place. Two years in as a member I find myself repeating this to potential members coming to visit. It is indeed a wonderfully welcoming club of around 80 members of all ages, backgrounds and contributing every kind of skill imaginable. Despite my lack of Dutch skills they are very accommodating in translating daily briefings and trainings, which I am thoroughly grateful for!
I’ve been flying there on average every 2-3 weeks and particularly enjoy the the ‘camps’ as they are referred to. Week-long flying sessions in spring, summer and autumn. My parents, both retired, live half the time in the UK and other half in the French Alps and I ironically see them more living in Antwerp than I did living in Zone 2 in Chiswick, Central London, where I had been living the previous three years. They frequently drive to and fro and they decided to pop by EZAC (First Zealand-Flemmis Aero Club) on their way down during one of the camps in July 2018.
David, who so openly welcomed me on my first visit to the club the year before, came up to me after I just re-strapped myself into our ASK 21 after a good flight and asked me: ‘do you want to go for it?’. I simply smiled and replied ‘yes’ with a great rush of adrenaline in my body. Just as I was mentally preparing myself for what was to come, I looked over to our eternally cool converted VW Camper van control tower and saw my parents pull up in their car by complete chance, luck or destiny which ever you choose to believe in. Either way it was a wonderful moment, but seriously added to my mental workload as they were about to witness my first ever solo flight after being ready for it 24 years in the making prior back in Yoevilton when I was 16.
The flight was amazing and I can’t describe the sense of longing and achievement that had been bugging me for so many years. The landing was just right and as I came to a halt and let go of the stick and airbrake lever, I gave out an enormous ‘yes!’ shout. It’s hard to describe the sense of exhilaration, accomplishment and satisfaction at being so far out of your comfort zone whilst doing something you love so much.
Once the canopy was open in the blistering heat, I was greeted by a fellow student pilot in a Gator tow buggy and was accordingly handed the ceremonial right-of-passage car tyre filled with the local airfield flora and fauna, as is customary at EZAC. I then had to ‘walk the wing’ back to the start point wearing the heavy tyre. I loved every minute of it. I was greeted by many-a-happy and smiling face, including mine and my parents, who had by utter chance and luck managed to arrive minutes before my first solo lift-off. My Mum had always said to me: ’just tell me afterwards when you do go solo, I don’t want to see you do it’. She had to watch me do it twice in fact, because I was immediately told to do it again to make sure it wasn’t down to luck! It really is true: what you focus on is what you invite in your life. I’d been focussing on flying my whole life and finally achieved a major milestone on my achievement bucket list. It is strange but life has felt quite different to me after going solo because it had been on my radar for so much of my adult life.
It is now a year later in September 2019, and I recently passed my VVO advanced training entry requirement to make five target landings in a row over two consecutive days. For me it was over ten days as I ended up going on holiday in between, which meant I was constantly thinking about it on my relaxing time away. It seems there is always an element of patience in my flying career! I’m now looking forward to the next milestone which will be taking my Mum and Dad up as passengers in a complete role reversal to where it all started for me as a kid.
I wish to thank all the wonderful people at EZAC who have welcomed me with open arms and who continue to make my weekends exceptional times to look forward to.