A wish for wings PART 3…

A picture of Sarah on a racing bike, taken during a triathlon in Austria

In part 2, Sarah Kelman has just won a Gold Medal in her first ever international competition. Here's the third and final part (for now!) of Sarah's flying journey.

Sarah on the top step of the podium at the Women's Worlds, Lithuania
On the top step of the podium at the Women's Worlds, Lithuania

Professionally, I graduated into AirUK (now KLMuk) onto the ATR72, then Fokker 50 and BAe146, and they too supported my gliding so I secured time off for summer competitions. I borrowed a PW5 for the World Air Games in Spain and basically flew it like as ASW24. I led for most of the week, dropping to third on the penultimate day, then daftly did an “all or nothing” attempt to regain the gold that actually resulted in a horrible, lonely day in the blue to fifth overall. However, I redeemed myself later that summer at the first Women’s Worlds in Pociunai, Lithuania. Again, there were many super racing days but several tricky and marginal ones, and it was those days that I could show my talents. At home, I still had a penchant for winch launching at the first hint of a thermal and this meant I was very confident at scrabbling around in 1/2kt thermals under an overcast sky. I got a lead, I extended it and by the last day, I had a 600pt buffer. I won comfortably.

My chance to defend my title was taken away in 2003. KLMuk was sold off and I was on the receiving end of a redundancy letter. Unlike many of my colleagues, I was accepted by easyJet but this new, large airline was not able to accommodate my requests for a month’s peak summer leave so I missed the chance to fly in Czech Republic. This year was also monumental for meeting my future husband and by the time of the 3rd Women’s Worlds in 2005, I was now also a mother to a small baby. The upside of this was that I was still on maternity leave for the competition held in Klix, Germany, but the downside was that my daughter was only four months old. My husband and parents helped but the pressure of competing as well as mothering was immense. Despite this, I managed the Bronze medal that year.

2006 was back to Nationals and by July I was seven months pregnant with our second child and again on maternity leave from easyJet. I rashly entered the UK nationals thinking it would be another week of rain, grid squats and token 100k triangles. I was wrong. 2006 was fabulous and after seven days of long, gruelling flights in hot, blue conditions, I was quite unwell and had to retire on medication to not risk my pregnancy. Despite this poor result, on paper, I still qualified for the fourth Women’s Worlds at Romorantin in 2007, now having upgraded to an ASW28.

This would be my final Women’s Worlds. I struggled with the pressure at first and landed out after a silly mistake on day 1, but was relieved to discover that many others also landed and the day was devalued. I got my head in order and made steady progress again with the amazing help of my teammates, especially Gill Spreckley again (this time she was flying 15m class) and we both finished with a gold medal in our respective classes.

For 2008, I was offered a wild card to the mixed World championship in Rieti. This is where my gliding story started to tarnish. The women’s team had been feisty but the men proved very resentful as I hadn’t qualified by the traditional path. This was the first time I really felt discrimination and I felt like an outsider. Even the local tow pilots spent all week telling me that women shouldn’t fly, and should be at home raising their children. This affected me really quite badly mentally and by the start of the competition, I felt I wasn’t worthy of the place and had to somehow prove myself to my teammates. As a result, I made a very bad decision on day 1 to deliberately press low into an unlandable area with only the “hope” of lift (my team mate ahead had said it wasn’t pretty but it was OK), and the pressure of showing I was bold enough for this team weighed heavily on me. Well, it wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t alright. I ran out of height and had to make a controlled crash into an inappropriate field. I was fine, the glider was a mess, but all I could do was sob, thinking I had nearly left my two children without a mother.

Zulu Glasstek did a fantastic job at getting me back in the air with a replacement ASW28 and I got to fly at the World Air Games in Turin 2009, but I think the competitive edge was somewhat blunted by my experience. The psychological pressures of parenthood continued to build. I still loved soaring, but every time I flew, I had the guilt that I was busy enjoying myself instead of being around for my kids. I started coming back off tasks early so I could be home for the end of school. As the children grew, they relied on me more to drive them to friends and their own social events in the afternoons and it became harder to justify long hours at the airfield to myself. Despite this, I was still sharp enough to stay competitive. When I won the UK Standard Nationals, I really felt I had finally showed that I was a top glider pilot, not “just a woman pilot.” The unspoken stigma of being “just a girl” eats away at your confidence. Many of my peers think they are just being funny when they joke that I only won the gold medal for the “pilots with boobs” but it means us women end up always trying harder to prove ourselves and justify our place in the teams. Also the decades of pressure to secure leave for qualifying competitions was also showing. For people with conventional jobs, it might be more straight forward to get five days off in June, or even August, but in the travel industry, summer leave is gold dust and our roster pattern means that we have to spend our entire annual leave allowance to just ensure those nine days for a UK Nationals. Now my children were in school, my options for a family holiday were constrained by their availability too and I had to decide between spending my leave with my family once a year or selfishly at a gliding competition. I chose the former.

Sarah on her bycicle during a triathlon
Sarah in her new "happy place" competing for Team GB at Triathlon

I’m very goal driven, and once I no longer had the incentive of competing, I found it difficult to maintain momentum for everyday club cross country flying. As an instructor, the commitment to spend my rare weekend days away from work fulfilling my club obligations also began to weigh heavily as again this detracted from the equally limited family time and so I drifted away from gliding altogether and finally sold my ASW28 shortly after the Brexit referendum. Despite this I’ve found a new outlet for my competitive nature. I’ve always loved cycling and swimming, and so I fell into triathlon. I’ve gone on to win the Gold Medal in the Age Group European championships and still hope to medal in the Worlds. Triathlon is more time-friendly as it’s easier to fit in training around the school day and it’s less weather dependent. However, I still gaze at the cumulus and increasingly pine for the freedom of the skies.

Throughout my flying career, I’ve always done my best, shown complete commitment and left little room for gender bias, yet women pilots remain the minority in a male orientated field. At work as an Airbus captain, I still have to smile sweetly at the daily “woman driver” witticisms from passengers and still wince at the sexist japes thrown about by my male colleagues. It’s so fantastic to see the work being done by the Women Gliding group to empower and enable all of us to enjoy this fantastic privilege of flight, regardless of our race or gender. Women still suffer from “imposter syndrome” but we shouldn’t – flying remains one of the most amazing experiences any human can have. Don’t let anyone discourage you from your dreams.

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