A wish for wings PART 1…

Selfie of Sarah in her glider

A guest blog post by Sarah Kelman

Sarah being given a bottle of wine by the competition director for a day win at the Standard Class Nationals 2011 at Bicester Gliding Centre
Sarah winning a day at the Standard Class Nationals 2011 at Bicester Gliding Centre

I always wanted to fly. We often have dreams of flight but too few of us get to make that a reality. My obsession with the sky began on our first overseas package holiday to the Med, aged three. Despite, or maybe because of, my mum’s terror of flying, my dad would have a word and get his little girl (and him, of course) an invitation to the flight deck. Before long, I’d worked out it was far more fun to spend an hour or so with the pilots rather than sitting bored in Dan Air economy, and soon I blagged a ride through to the landing. My goodness – this was an amazing way to earn a living, but how on earth does anyone even think about starting?

My increasing obsession with aircraft led to joining the Air Training Corps at age 15, but although I learned a lot more about piston engines (and polishing boots, shooting and generally being shouted at), there was little flying to be had at our large Squadron. I passed all the RAF aptitude tests only to be told there was no place for a woman other than as a loadmaster – glorified cabin crew. No thanks. Flying Scholarships were only available to the boys at that time.

Sarah as a little girl with two chuck gliders
Early aircraft obsession

Approaching Sixth Form, I was convinced I wanted to be a pilot and maybe join something worthwhile like Mission Aviation Fellowship, but obviously had no money to learn. I applied for a cadetship with British Airways but, yet again, I was rebuffed – I am very short sighted (and so, it could be argued, was BA at this time) and the Powers that Be not only declined my application, but they also implied I was too short sighted to gain ANY commercial license, ever. Distraught, I thought “if I can’t fly them, I’ll learn how to build them.”

Hence, I turned to Aeronautical Engineering, much to the visible repulsion of my teachers. “That’s merely a ‘trade’ and no subject for a Young Lady and anyway, it can’t be a good course as OxBridge don’t offer it.” Come 1989, I was off to Imperial College – one of three women on a course intake of 60. I was fortunate at Uni that I suffered no discrimination whatsoever – I think this was mainly because I had also discovered the joys of the alternative night life scene and I think everyone was just a bit scared of me.

Three women dwindled to two, then just me as the other two dropped out. But it was a chance conversation with a classmate in my third year that changed my career path again. His father worked for the CAA medical branch and he showed me I could get a Class 1 medical despite my myopia. My goodness – I needed to make up for lost time, but now, as a student, I was penniless. At this point, I discovered the Imperial College Gliding Club flying out of Lasham. My trial lesson with the club Captain involved cloud surfing (at my expense of course) and a side slip on approach. It was just soooo exciting. The exhilaration and three-dimensional liberty of aviation was second to none. I was back the next weekend, and the weekend after that. I saved every pound from my weekday job in the college café and progressed quickly, first on the K13s and then, just when I was on cable breaks, I was shoved into the College’s brand spanking new Grob 103c “496”. This was a bit of a beast after a K13 but the setback was short and I was sent first solo by Pete Reading just two months after that first trial lesson. I spent the Christmas holidays at Lasham, helping at the launch point, flying anything and everything so was nearly ready for my Bronze and Silver by the spring.

Sarah in the front seat of a two-seater glider at Aboyne in Scotland.
In the front of Lasham's K-21 with Norman Smith at Aboyne – my first wave flight

As a bit of an airfield groupie, I cadged a lift to Aboyne in late March, despite being newly solo, and this became another pivotal moment. The weather was poor with little flying and CFI Terry Joint went home a day early leaving tow pilot and equally inspirational glider pilot, Norman Smith in charge of the Lasham contingent. I’d previously had my first ever thermal flight with him in the Lasham K21. “What do we do when we get to the bottom of the cloud?” I’d asked. “Just switch on the Turn and Slip and keep going!” he replied. My first soaring flight now became my first cloud flying experience too. Anything is possible! On our last day, blowing a gale, he grabbed me for the only wave flight of the expedition. Below us, SAR helicopters searched for a missing light aircraft examiner and his student who had taken a wrong turn on a licensing Navigation Flight Test into Glen Muick with fatal consequences.

That summer, again I lived at Lasham, having gained my Silver as soon as the fields were cut in June (thanks to Terry Joint again for giving me a rollocking for wimping out on the first attempt) and then the Junior Nationals rolled around. Another instructor suggested I enter – but I’d only ever done two cross countries, my Silver C and my 100k Diploma. He offered to crew and off we went to RAF Halton. Needless to say, the weather was wet, and I struggled even to stay airborne locally whilst the likes of Steve Jones were completing tasks. How on earth do they do that? Still, it was free flying and great fun.

The following year I was finishing my Master's degree and was sent by the University onto an Air Experience Instructor course so I was now the person who got to take the freshers up for their first flights, just one year after starting my own gliding journey. I still would much prefer to muck about in aircraft for a living after Uni and I saved enough from summer jobs to finance my Private Pilot's Licence. Back then, you could fast track it off a Silver C with a handful of solo flights and the two flight tests. I still remember my General Flight Test engine failure – I was on Super Cubs and decided to take advantage of a nearby thermal to gain height instead. The examiner humoured me for a while before pointing out that I was paying by the minute and wouldn’t get a Pass until I did the forced landing.

By March, I was to relocate to Bristol for my final project with Airbus – conveniently close to Nympsfield, and this is where I first met G Dale, although the pressure of trying to demonstrate a perfect circuit on my check flight with him culminated in me completely forgetting to round out. Ho hum, lucky it was just another K13 (yikes!). Both our backs and the aircraft survived.

Part 2 to follow…

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