Per ardua ad astra

“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

-Leonardo da Vinci

Saturday the third of May 2003 was a day marked little by humankind in general, other than by the good people who live near the site of “The Old Man of the Mountain” in New Hampshire, which collaped early that morning, but that’s another tale for another day. I mention this otherwise unremarkable day because it was the day I first had the opportunity to fly in one of the RAF’s Vigilant T Mk 1 Motor Gliders. It was only a short flight of twenty minutes and I was only allowed to use one set of controls, but it was my first time in command of an aircraft and as Leonardo da Vinci so eloquently put it, my eyes have been turned skyward ever since.

I was, over the course of my teenage years, very lucky when it came to my time as an Air Cadet and the multitude of opportunities that it presented. By the time I left school in 2007 and was discharged from the CCF (RAF) I had been able to undertake a Gliding Scholarship at 624 Volunteer Gliding Squadron in Devon, a Flying Scholarship at Tayside Aviation in Dundee, and become a Trainee Gliding Instructor at 624 VGS. Unfortunately only a year later my doctor diagnosed me with mild Asthma, which to this day remains a bar to flying with the RAF, and so my flying career ended rather suddenly during the summer holiday of my first year at University

A few years earlier when I was sixteen I had applied to join the RAF as a pilot, I remember the days after failing to get through RAF boarding to OASC. I spent nearly a week of my summer holidays laying on the family sofa feeling sorry for myself, knowing with the certainty of youth that I would never be able to afford to fly commercially, and that the RAF was my only chance, and I had blown it. Now, after being diagnosed as asthmatic, I cried for hours. Watching my dreams slip away with the prescription I then held in my hand. Writing the letter to my VGS commanding officer informing him of my resignation was the cruellest twist of the knife; while it was a fait accompli as soon as the doctor had made the diagnosis, it still fell to me to write that letter. It felt as though I was in a sense giving up.

Alas flying in the civilian world is expensive, and not being blessed with huge quantities of disposable income at university or sizeable bequests from long lost relatives, I put aside my dreams of flight for a while with the hope that one day I’d be able to scrape together enough money to get back into the game. Now some will say I could have applied for one of those “career development loans” that flying schools with “direct to first officer” programmes are so enamoured with, and indeed have friends that did that very thing; but I am very risk averse, and with a new asthma diagnosis which could at any time have become a bigger problem than it ended up being, it just didn’t seem like a good idea.

Skipping briefly over the intervening decade, I continued my studies in Geology at University rediscovering and deepening a love of that subject, and more specifically Palaeontology. I spent four years after my graduation in 2011 working at various museums in an appropriately Indiana Jones/Dr Alan Grant-ish capacity before moving on to a (Ahem.) “real job” in meteorology; in which I have been working ever since.

“Flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

– Douglas Adams

“Living your best life” is a phrase often used by the influencer generation, and if I’m totally honest it’s not a phrase I particularly like. It is the sort of phrase that conjures up a particular image that I don’t think of as being very positive. it also implies that anything other than the hedonistic persuit of ones own happiness is time “wasted”, but perhaps that’s more revealing of my biases than anything else.

However, in this instance there is an element of truth to the phrase, I loved working in museums, and were it not for a national lack of heritage funding and limited PhD positions in palaeontology I would have stayed in that profession, and you never know I may yet persue it again in the future. Were it not for my savings running out working in the heritage sector I may never have moved into meteorology, a job which for all it’s shift work and complications I do not dislike. All that being said I am where I am and thanks to moving out of palaeontology I can, just about, afford to return to the air.

So this year, a full eleven years after my last landing at RMB Chivenor, after my asthma diagnosis forced my resignation from the volunteer gliding squadron, I have at long last returned to the air as something other than a passenger.

I’ve never known an industry that can get into people’s blood the way aviation does.

— Robert Six, founder of Continental Airlines.

The most surprising thing so far has been how much I missed the thrill of flying, coming down from my third flying lesson I had the biggest smile of my face in years, grinning from ear to ear and practically punch drunk! I was happier than I have been in a decade. In hindsight perhaps it should have been obvious. By the age of seventeen I was flying a motor-glider happily around the skies of north Devon my own, then by nineteen I was earthbound once more and having to leave the sky behind. I don’t know if it was the stiff-upper lippedness of being British, the eleven years grounded, or simply that until last year I had accepted my fate, but until I stepped out of the aircraft after that third lesson, I simply had no idea how much my heart yearned to fly.

Now of course, there’s a long road ahead before I gain my Pilot’s Licence. While I can fly an aircraft well enough thanks to my teenage exploits, radio-telephony and aerial navigation are both new challenges, while human factors and the technical examinations beckon like Scylla and Charybdis, a menacing thunderhead of mathematics, medicine and psychology ready to rain upon my parade. These trials are worth the suffering and challenge to gulp the beauty of soaring above the earth.

The point, as much as anything I ever write has had, is that one should be very careful about giving up ones dreams. Perhaps if I had been more careful at a younger age it would not have taken me until I was passed thirty to begin again on the ladder to the stars, but time heals all wounds and most embarrassments, and the most worthwhile of goals are the ones which pose the greatest of challenges.

Or as the Royal Air Force’s motto says, Per Ardua, Ad Astra; Through adversity, to the stars.

Flying might not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.

– Amelia Earhart