A wish for wings PART 2…

Sarah on the top of the podium at the Women's Worlds, with her gold medal round her neck, holding up her trophy, and with a camera person filming and an official looking on

Part 2 of the 3-part guest blog by Sarah Kelman.
In part 1, Sarah has just landed the K13 at Nympsfield with G Dale in the back seat.

Sarah flying a BAe 146 for AirUK
Sarah flying a BAe 146 for AirUK

By the summer, it was time for the Junior Nationals again. This time I was in Imperial’s top cross-country machine, their ASW19 “96” (still with no averager!) and did a lot better. I managed to tailgate Steve Jones a couple of times and started to see how he ran the energy lines. I even beat him on one day, mainly through naivety as a warm front approached.

All this time, it never really occurred to me to ponder on how few women there were in gliding. The male to female ratio was similar to that I recognized at Imperial and we were all united by a common desire to fly, regardless of gender.

September brought a reality check. I’d adored my time as a carefree student, but now I’d graduated and needed to join the real world. My degree suggested the traditional career in aerospace and I was indeed offered a post at GEC-Marconi to work on the flight control system for the B777 for a salary lower than I could have got working a supermarket checkout. But I still wanted to fly. I joined the biannual Lasham pilgrimage to Aboyne again with the intention of staying as long as I could get away with it. One evening at the club bar, I “let slip” that I’d got my PPL on Super Cubs and had even been down to Challock to do a spot of aerotowing, and so the hoped-for invitation to stay and do a season as resident tug pilot was offered. This was my dream placement – the chance to fly in the best soaring area in the UK and the chance to get myself improver hours towards the coveted Commercial Pilots Licence.

So began the best 18 months of my life. To be fair, I was more interested in the soaring than the power flying. Deeside paid for me to get my Assistant Cat instructor rating and I loved little better than sitting in the back of the Puchacz, exploring the wave, and also got use of the BGA’s SZD55 for the winter whilst it wasn’t doing much else. I got in trouble mid-summer when I eloped down south to fulfil an obligation to crew for the Open Nationals in return for that loan, but again the Deeside committee saw fit to give me a second chance, and I certainly pulled my weight by the autumn. The visitor season at Aboyne is mental, with the visiting clubs wanting the tug out and ready before dawn and towing through until darkness every day.

November saw a return to Lasham to study for my CPL exams (again self-studying), then it was off to Staverton for the IMC and Night Rating. I was still saving for the Instrument Rating but the first sponsorship opportunities had started to trickle through after the Gulf War dip. I was dispirited enough by a rejection from Air Atlantique that I nearly jacked it all in and went back to Engineering, but my referee, Lemmy Tanner, let slip that Atlantique had considered me “overqualified” for them and thought I wouldn’t stay the course. I applied to AirUK – one of 1000 applicants – and I was accepted into the Cabair Concrete Contract.

As I already had self-financed my CPL exams, I was fast tracked onto the previous course and started as a flight instructor at Elstree in June 1996. I almost cried that first week – I had no students and was stuck doing office work whilst Chris Rollings and Pullen flew the first ever UK 1000k. I was desperate to get my first 500k.

As I was being paid £250pcm, and still had a gliding habit to finance, I lived in a caravan at Dunstable, instructing there on my days off or flying a loaned ASW20. Despite my experience, I was still terrified of going properly cross country. I’d local soar all day, from the first thermal to the last, but never really go anywhere. I bought an ASW24 with my boyfriend so had a retrieve crew if I’d really needed it, but still couldn’t cut that umbilical cord outside the Junior Nationals.

Sarah in the front seat of a two-seat glider, flying in the mountains
Sarah flying a two-seater in the mountains

I was now too old to be a Junior so entered the Eastern Regionals at Tibenham. My boyfriend came as crew and, despite freezing easterly winds and many a grid squat, we flew seven days and I won. I’m still unsure how as I never saw anyone and the conditions were really awful, but all those hours clinging on to the sky, local soaring, had served me well. The other established (and all male) competitors seemed a bit suspicious of my success but again, I sort of didn’t really notice and just got on with the flying. I really was hooked.

I’d now qualified for Nationals, and someone mentioned the Women’s European Gliding Team. I applied and got a place, but, oh my, what a case of imposter syndrome! I was off to Leszno with amazing veterans of gliding – Gillian Spreckley, Lucy Withall etc, all names with a long history of UK soaring. I was terrified as I drove out to Poland. Would I even be able to recognize and interpret the foreign skies? Gill and Lucy flew a fantastic and experienced campaign, despite my constant bleating on the radio as I seemed incapable of staying with them or making a decision on my own. The situation changed on a POST task day – a pilot selected distance task and precursor to the dreaded AAT. All the available turn points were towards a catastrophic thundery airmass, but the British Team led by Brian Spreckley, realized that if we could fly just far enough into the storms to turn the closest point, we could then turn tail and fly away until the time ran out for a maximum score. It worked, and after several hours, I landed a few hundred kilometres away in the Polish countryside. Now, coming into the last day, we had a shot at the podium. Again, Lucy and Gill shepherded me around the racing task and we finished with Gold, Silver and Bronze in the Standard Class. I was European Champion at my first International.

Part 3 to follow…

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