Why Aerobatics? What got you into it?
When people ask me what I do, besides the day-to-day engineering stuff, I inevitably tell them that I fly aerobatics in a Pitts Special. I tell them this not to show off, but because I’m genuinely proud of what I do and how far I’ve come. Being able to tell people that I’m a pilot, flying competition aerobatics is pretty mad and usually opens the door to a whole load of questions, many of which are an absolute pleasure to answer. The main ones though, are the simple “why” and “how”, and those are what I feel the urge to write about this evening.
I’ve wanted to fly ever since I can first remember watching the airliners going over our house as a child. I can vividly remember a walk I took with my dad when I was about ten years old, watching a jet fly overhead and asking him if we could ever go on one. Now, I should just clarify something here – my background isn’t exactly one of affluence and as such the first time I ever experienced airline flight was when I was about twelve and my parents decided that we could take a flight up to Scotland to see my family, rather than driving. This was the first time either of them had flown and the only reason it happened at all was because they knew how fascinated I was.
My family are fantastic, they really are. My parents have always been supremely supportive, however financially it was never an option for me to train to fly, not unless I paid my own way, and hence I didn’t ever seriously consider heading down the commercial flying route as a career. I decided pretty early on that I wanted to learn to fly somehow though, and as such I also knew I needed a career. I left school at sixteen and went to college as an engineering apprentice.
To cut a long story short, by the time I was twenty-one I had a good job, a good wage and had managed to save enough to start taking flying lessons – I gained my PPL when I was twenty-two.
Learning to fly was an amazing experience for me. I can remember the first day I headed over to the airfield – I was terrified. I’m naturally a very shy person and meeting new people can be a challenge at the best of times, let alone walking into a strange building alone, to ask to be taught to fly an aeroplane. Somehow I managed to swallow my fears though and in I walked. My first real introduction to the flying club yielded a trip into the hangar where the aircraft I would be learning in were kept. In the back corner of that hangar was an aeroplane that quite frankly just looked like a toy, but a toy I fell utterly in love with at first sight. I had absolutely no idea what it was until I finally asked a few weeks later. The plane in the back corner of the hangar was a single seater Pitts Special…
At no point did I ever think about aerobatic flight with anything but awe – this type of flying looked incredible but was just insanity, there was no way I was ever going to try it, I simply had no interest as there was no way I could ever do that…
Fast forward to the end of 2010 and I was working a short-term contract, living down in Devon. I’d not flown since I passed my skills test (a month after I’d left my full-time job) due to lack of finance. I’d worked out that my contract was going to leave me with a bit of cash to spare at the end, and so I made the decision to get back in the air – many days spent gazing longingly at overflying Cessna’s had made me realise just how much I missed it all. As it happened my best friend had introduced me to a chap via Facebook who happened to instruct in a two-seater Pitts Special. On a whim, I decided that I’d go and see him, and have a flight in his aeroplane as my re-introduction to private aviation. I wanted a simple pleasure flight, just so that I could say I’d done it, I’d flown a Pitts Special.
The first time I saw the aeroplane was a strange day. The weather was too poor to fly so I’d just gone to go and have a look, see if I definitely wanted to go through with the flight. Sitting in the cockpit I felt over-awed. She was so different to the Cessna 152s and PA28s I’d flown before – she somehow felt both constrictive and comfortable, scary and comforting, all at the same time. Sitting in the Pitts, inside the hangar, on a grey rainy day, was the first time I had any kind of inkling that something was about to change in my life.
The first flight was incredible. I was petrified – completely and utterly, mind-numbingly terrified. I knew this man was about to turn my world upside down, quite literally, and I had no idea what it was going to feel like or even if I actually wanted to feel it. Thundering down the runway with virtually no visibility out of the front of this beautiful thoroughbred of an aeroplane at once felt scary and wrong, but also in some way it was just so right.
Back on the ground after the flight I could barely stand. I felt sick and had no real idea of what I’d just been through, only that this had been ‘aerobatics’. It felt horrible, I felt hungover and confused, and yet, there and then I knew I was done for – I knew that that one hit had touched on every fibre of every memory of every effort I’d ever made in my quest for focus, clarity and challenge in my life. It had taken just one hit and I knew was hooked.