Sunday the 9th of June was the date of the Welshpool Airshow. A small, intimate affair featuring some big names – the BBMF gave a fantastic and moving display with the Lancaster, Hurricane and Spitfire in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Dambusters raid, the Vulcan made the earth move with some ear shattering and beautiful low passes, the Typhoon nearly made my ears bleed in a display of raw agility and power, and the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s Sea Fury made me long once more to be sat behind that behemoth of an engine, the Bristol Centaurus.
So why was this show so special for me? This sunny Welsh Sunday was my initiation into the incredible world of airshow flying! There I was, sat on the flight-line, waiting my turn knowing that this was really it – I was about to become an airshow pilot.
The day started the same way all of these days seem to start – slowly and with decidedly uninspiring crappy weather. Taking off from Little Gransden and climbing to the almighty height of…about 800ft didn’t exactly bode well, especially as the journey went on, the ground got higher and the cloud got lower. Just as I was contemplating giving up and going back home someone decided to brighten my world up a touch – the cloudbase suddenly started getting higher and around about Kidderminster I started seeing bright blue patches – the game was well and truly on!
My first inkling that something in my flying world was about to change was when I caught my first glimpse of the airfield – it was literally covered in people. Thousands of people. I admit now that the knot in my stomach noticeably tightened as I landed and taxied along the crowdline, too overwhelmed to dare really look over at all the smiling faces eagerly watching the display acts arriving.
The briefing was simple, effective and the Display Director amazingly friendly and encouraging. The other display pilots also managed to calm my nerves by so openly welcoming me into the fold, the feeling of camaraderie and mutual excitement was tangible!
So there it was, the sun was shining, not a cloud marred the beautiful blue sky and my time came around. Everything seemed both frantic, scary, serene and natural all at the same time. I prepared the aeroplane, strapped on my parachute and carried on as I always do, except this time people were watching. Lots of people. I don’t think I could help but grin like a lunatic as I taxied down the display line back to the end of the runway, hearing the commentator talking about me mixed with the bustle of the crowd, all over the top of the throbbing Lycoming as it gently settled into its stride. People were waving, smiling and staring as ‘KDR and I headed off into a new chapter of our lives together. I waved back.
Closing the canopy was like flicking a switch, we were back together alone – me comfortably revelling in my little bubble of noisy peace before pushing the throttle forward, feeling the wonderful rumbling growl as we surged forward, tail high, then climbing back home to the sky.
The sequence went past in a surreal slow blur – the maneuvers flowed into one another, the sheer joy of the speed and g-forces apparently on full display to the phenomenal crowd of spectators below. We chased our smokey tail, drew corkscrews in the sky, looped, rolled, turned, swooped and grinned at the crowd from every conceivable angle until it was finally time to land.
Opening the canopy during the landing roll to breathe in the glorious fresh air opened up my world to the crowd once more – I simply cannot express just what it felt like having just lived out my own dream to then return to taxi past a crowd of thousands of people all waving and cheering – loud enough that I could hear them even with my headset on and the engine still purring away. Emotions are often overwhelming and mine in that moment will stay with me to my dying day – personal, moving and more powerful than I ever imagined this could be. Nothing felt real, I didn’t feel real.
I climbed out of the aeroplane to be greeted by the smiling faces of my compatriots, to be congratulated and pointed toward the crowd who were still watching me, still waving and still cheering! None of them knew what I’d just lived through, that I’d just entered a world I’d never genuinely believed I was capable of reaching – they all simply enjoyed watching us do what we do, me and the Pitts together in harmony.
The rest of the day whirled past in a haze of hands shaken, faces smiling, words of warm congratulation and awe and even the occasional autograph signing. I simply cannot convey just how amazing and moving the day was, how grateful I am to the organisers, the other pilots and most of all to the incredible crowd of spectators – so many of whom have since emailed, Facebook messaged and Tweeted me (thanks especially to Adrian Brown and Misha Kucharsky for the phenomenal pictures I’ve included here) to congratulate me on being ‘an inspiration’ to so many people. Honestly I don’t know what to say, for me life has taken another very humbling turn, and I hope to keep myself moving ever forward, to keep inspiring people and to keep becoming a better pilot and a better person.
Thank you for reading.
There are some days you know are just going to be stressful – you know, those days where you wake up knowing you’ve only got a half day in the office to get a week’s worth of work done and then you have to get all dressed up to head into town by train to visit St James’ Palace…
Ok so these days admittedly don’t happen too often, especially the being invited to reception evenings in Royal Palaces part. So what was it all about? Last year I was given a Flying Bursary by the Air League that went a long way toward my training for my first British Aerobatic Nationals, and also played a part in contributing toward my flying to gain my Display Authorisation. Receiving tangible financial support from fantastic organisations like these really does make a huge difference, and so it was with great pleasure that I headed down to London for the Air League’s annual reception to receive my Bursary Certificate.
Now I should just point out that I’m not entirely comfortable in formal scenarios – I’m a pilot, an engineer, an outdoors-woman. I don’t really do dresses! Hence I spent essentially the entire evening feeling mildly uncomfortable in my swish new dress and intensely uncomfortable in the heels I’d decided to wear – talk about painful! Little did I realise as I was drinking my champagne and nibbling away on the exquisite canapés that what I had assumed was the end of the certificate presentation ceremonies (where oddly I’d not actually been given a certificate – merely a handshake and a ‘well done’), was actually only half of the occasion. The reason I hadn’t been handed my paperwork became blindingly apparent when HRH the Duke of Edinburgh took to the rostrum to present a few additional awards – seemingly I was one of the ‘randomly selected’ five to be chosen to accept my award from the Duke himself.
I have to say all told, the evening was an incredible experience for me. Not only did I meet and shake hands with Royalty, but I met and talked with a large number of enthusiastic dignitaries, many old friends and also managed to drink half my own bodyweight in rather lovely champagne (I may be exaggerating slightly here).
For any of you who don’t know much about the Air League, I do encourage you to have a look at their website and perhaps become a member. They support youngsters in aviation in many ways every year, with scholarships for those wanting to learn to fly, to bursaries for flyers like me, who are looking to improve our skills and need the support to do so. There is also a tremendous social scene, with many exciting events organised throughout the year such as the Youth In Aviation Flying Day that was held at Bicester Airfield a few weekends ago (and where I did a bit of a display – take a look at the latest video on the videos tab).
This time next week (assuming the weather plays ball) I’ll be off over at Fenland Airfield to compete for the McAully Trophy – the last competition before the British Nationals. Of course, it’s always in the back of my mind that I’d like to actually do well. Ok, so maybe, actually, deep down I’m harbouring a desire to win, but the reality of things is that I’m young, inexperienced and up against a good number of very capable pilots who have been doing this aerobatics lark a lot longer than I have. As such, I’m more than aware that for me to have any chance of winning is going to take some real doing and some real effort, which is in essence what this whole project is about – I’m willing and able to put in the effort necessary for as long as I can find ways of affording to do so.
Every flight I take these days is targeted, pre-structured and prepared. As often as possible I’ll fly with someone on the ground watching me, radio in hand, telling me where I’m going wrong – what shapes I need to change, whether my lines look steep or shallow, whether my rolls are in the right places and whether I’m sinking or climbing where I shouldn’t. These flights are all short but very, very intense, and I love coming back down, climbing out of the cockpit feeling tired mentally and worked physically. I also love coming back to hear people tell me what needs work and where I can improve – the people who help me all know more than I do, are all better than I am and have a great deal more experience than I do, and yet are willing and keen to help me.
There’s something truly fantastic about the aerobatic community – we’re all wildly competitive, we all want to do well for ourselves and we all chuckle inwardly when we see one of our competitors mess up in training. Yet, everyone also wants everyone else to succeed – so whilst the competitive edge is there, in my experience the real competition is with yourself. The people around you who can, will help you put forward the very best performance you can. I’ve met some absolutely fantastic people within the community, and am regularly given help, guidance and advice by pilots who are in some cases, of a world-standard themselves – guys who, despite their status and standing want nothing more than to help those of us new to it all but working hard and enthusiastic.
I’m just at the beginning of what I hope will be a long and rewarding journey. Every flight is a learning experience, every piece of advice carries something that can help me, and every trip to the airfield makes me feel at home. The real competition is mine and mine alone – the only competitors being my own feelings, emotions and motivations. Maybe I’m a little over-confident at times, a little under-confident at others, but somehow, I think I can put forward a good fight, just you watch!
News and blog updates
- Living the dream and becoming an airshow pilot
- Support from the Air League: the day I met HRH the Duke of Edinburgh
- Another step forward – my first air display
- A fresh season
- News: Feature at Global Aviation Resource
- Testing the Smoke
- Modifying a Pitts in the UK: smoke systems!
- 2012 Year Review
- Competition vs Display aerobatics
- End of the 2012 Competition Season
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