Hard work gets you your dream… eventually

by Anthony D. Cliffe

A dream a long time coming.

Well what can I say other than the past three days have been the most pressured and hectic few days for a long time. Imagine doing your GCSE’s then your A levels and then your Undergraduate degree in the space of two days…in an exam hall which is on fire…and you’re covered in petrol. Pretty much sums up three days of intensive examinations!

A long time ago and for as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a pilot. That’s all I ever talked about as a kid. I had a love of aviation ever since my first flight when I was a few months old, in a Shoebox aircraft with a gap in the door (ah the joys of 1990’s health and safety). As I grew older I understood the physics of it all, I was amazed and inspired by these giant feats of engineering lurching up into the sky on nothing but fast flowing air moving from high to low pressure over a wing creating lift. Whenever I’m on a plane it can be quite the feeling of knowing just a few fast flowing air particles are all that’s keeping you up suspended in the sky. Okay, it’s not that simple…we have Bernoulli’s principle and the formula of lift coefficient, thrust and angles of attack to consider (a formula I now know like my own mobile number after these past few days!) but in concept it’s pretty straight forward. Civil aviation amazed me due to the size, military aviation was full of power, noise and agility. I think you’d have to be pretty soulless to not see a Eurofighter Typhoon on full reheat and not be impressed by the agility, speed and bone shaking noise. Above all of that though it always came down to a simple desire to fly. As much as the physics and the engineering amazed me, it was what aviation provides. Freedom. I was jealous that some people get paid to always have a sunny office above the clouds, they can go wherever they want to, no roads, no traffic lights. You’re soaring away in an azure blue sky leaving all the crap below you (not chemtrails either! 😉 ). That sense of adventure and freedom to explore is what captivated me the most about flying. Whenever I saw a plane I wondered where they were going, what are they thinking as they fly over with a splendid view, everything in perspective of how small we are down below. The freedom of the skies was always something that captivated me.

I have a desire to travel and aviation was always a way for me to do that. There was that adventure and exploration I always wanted as a kid. I think that came from flicking through this really old musty smelling Atlas in the loft as a child. So many different exotic places to explore. That Atlas actually got me into Geography! So anyway, as long as I could remember I wanted to be a pilot but like most childhood dreams they very rarely become a reality. For me when I started year 7 in high school I got glasses and that was pretty much the dream dead in the water in terms of commercial flying. Pretty gutting but realistically the chances of a childhood dream career coming true where pretty slim so I took that on the chin. The joys of being a rational realist! Yet that never stopped me wanting to fly. My love of aviation grew but there was always the well-known fact that to fly was always going to be a bridge too far. Always just out of reach. I have a few personal goals in life of things I want to do and things I want to achieve. Holding a pilot’s licence was always one of them. Commercial aviation was a no go, military the same so that only left a private pilot’s licence. An avenue for my dream but one that was behind a giant gate called finance. To get a private pilot’s licence costs a stupid amount of money. Certainly one I could never afford!

I was fortunate to join the Royal Air Force cadets when I was 13 as I saw that as my one of only chance to physically fly an aircraft and fly one for free. I still remember my first flight as if it were yesterday. Standing on parade on Friday night in those horrible itchy wool jumpers and berets waiting to be dismissed, crimping your toes together to keep the blood flowing so you didn’t collapse under the heat. I was only in the service for a few months and this was the first time that the squadron had some flying spots for some time. I impressed the officers with my aircraft knowledge in all the lectures and I put my name down on the list. A slim chance, especially as a new cadet.

“Cliffe!”  The OC voice boomed.

“Yes…Sir” my voice a squeaky nervous 13 year old lacked any quiver of authority.

“Well done, you’re going flying on Sunday. Be here at 08.00hrs”

“Thank you Sir!” a smile as wide as an aircraft wing appeared across my face.

When I got to RAF Woodvale it was windy and raining. Not the best for flying but I didn’t care. This was exciting. I had waited a long time to fly a plane and for many years it was out of reach. I was under no illusion that this one flight might be the only time I ever get to fly a plane. I sat in the briefing room with the other lucky cadets, jealous of the older ones who’d been on flights before, others the chosen few to be on flying scholarships. I watched as each one departed, each time the rain came down harder and with each flight my chance of flying seemed to be so agonisingly close but so far away at the same time.

“Cliffe, you’re up” a warm smile from the guys in the fitting room. Slipping into that famous green flying suit was an amazing feeling. Pulling on your white gloves, the weight of that big heavy helmet, life jacket and knowing you had a parachute strapped to your back made everything suddenly very, very real! If you’ve never worn a parachute before, that D-ring that you have to pull to activate the chute is like a giant red button. You’re not meant to press it but it looks so enticing to do!

I remember walking waddling to the crew room under all the weight of the safety gear. Top Gun made that walk look so easy! I was suddenly terrified. These aircraft are tiny but they can do loops, rolls…and I’m going to be in the cockpit! It was weird waiting for that moment. The helmet insinuates your breathing. It’s all you can hear, the voices outside are just muffles so everyone else relies on hand signals. “Fwirst… ime?” ….”What!?…Oh. First time? Yeah 1st flight” I say with a raised finger. The marshaller had a big smile on his face and a thumbs up, let’s go! The smell of aviation fuel is one of the greatest smells ever, I remember stepping onto the wing, being guided by the ground crews about where to put my feet and helped me lower myself into the cramped cockpit. All the dials in front of me, that joystick between my legs, my shinny polished boots reflecting the grey sky above the cockpit. Before I knew it my breathing I couldn’t hear any more, it was replaced by an electrical whine as my helmet was plugged into the aircraft and the radio coms so that I could talk to the flight instructor next to me to my right. The ground crew pulled on the straps and I was locked into that plane tighter than a bear hug. The pilot to my right was flicking switches and going through checklists and I just took a deep breath, drinking it all in, the smells, the noise, the view. I get a tap on my helmet from the ground crew with two thumbs up. I reciprocate the gesture and the canopy is closed shut above my head.

“Can you hear me?” the typical British RAF pilot’s voice booms in my helmet.

“Yes Sir!”

“I’m Squadron Leader Kings, nice to meet you. How many flights have you done in the tutor?”

“Hi Sir, I’m Cadet Cliffe…errm. First flight sir”

“Excellent! You’re going to love it!”

After briefing from him which was basically do not touch anything at all, we taxied to the runway, the radio chatter between us and air traffic filled my ears along with the noise of the engines. If you’ve never flown in an aircraft that isn’t a big airliner, it’s a completely different world. It’s hard to explain and while sitting in this tiny plane you’re looking forward. No longer consigned to looking outwards to the side from a cramped window seat. “Here we go”. Throttles advanced forward and before I knew it we were climbing into the rain and wind. It was bumpy as hell but I didn’t mind at all as I watched the rain stream passed the cockpit dome. We headed to my town and we flew in circles over my house, my mum and dad even came out in the rain to watch as he completed a few passes over them. What a moment to see your childhood street from the air like that…and then he said it. “You have control”

“I…I have control sir”

I placed my hands on the joystick with an almighty grip, I bank the stick the left slightly and the aircraft moved to the left, I moved it to the right and it moved to the right. Holy fuck. I’m flying a plane!

“Patch of blue sky over there, head that way. You’re doing really well.”

I was flying a plane…an actual real aircraft! Something that seemed so unattainable was actually happening. When we got to the blue patch I hear the words “I have control” and I relinquished my grip on the controls and my short time flying a plane was over. I was a little sad but still so on a high from the experience that I wasn’t expecting what came next. In one sharp movement of the stick the horizon lurched, my stomach churched and the G force made my heart rate work harder. I look up through the glass and I don’t see sky…it’s the ground below. We’re flying upside down! We did some aerobatics in a tiny patch of blue sky, loops, rolls, experiencing 0 G as he took off his flying glove and I watched it float in the air. What an experience. Before too long I was back on the ground, exhilarated. He shook my hand before I left the cockpit and he said “Cadet Cliffe, congratulations! You’ve just flown a plane, you’re an aviator now”.

I went onto have a really good flying career in cadets. I was very fortunate to get triple the hours any one normal cadet would get. I spent a few hours flying myself with just the pilot next to me enjoying the views and manoeuvres. When it was time to leave cadets despite many hours of flying I never made it onto any flying scholarships, I guess I used all my luck getting those flights in. So I left with many happy memories of flying but still no pilot’s licence. RAF flying was free and sadly private pilot’s licences are not so the only flying I carried on doing was on the computer which isn’t the same. I had a taste of the dream and it was good while it lasted. I was fortunate enough to fly a plane once, let alone many times.

I continued to love aviation and took many more flights, I must have over 500 commercial flights by now as we’d go on holiday often but always as a passenger, never a pilot.

Fast forward many years later and I find myself in a field, at the controls of an aircraft being assessed for my flight exam for a pilots licence. Granted it’s not the pilot’s licence I thought I would be getting but it was a pilot’s licence never the less. It’s weird how dreams and goals work out. Many of you know how for many years once I knew I could never be a pilot as a job that I wanted to be an air traffic controller. A dream job for an avgeek like me and especially one who loved order and problem solving. Every decision post year 9 in school was geared up towards making the selection process for Air Traffic Control. What subjects I picked, the hours getting my head around formulas knowing I needed good math skills, even down to the university course I took was all geared towards that goal. I believed I could do it, my family did too. It was their dream now to. I passed all the tests and like all those years ago it seemed like the dream was about to happen…and then once again my eyes let me down. Regulations changed and a dream I had worked years for was taken away by having eye sight -0.5 out of their limit. Medical failed. I was heartbroken when I found that out in final year, especially at the end of the week when my long term uni girlfriend at the time had just broken up with me. That was quite the week! So me and aviation and the dream of a pilot’s licence seemed as far away as possible now. Again as a realist, you know what? Shit happens. Move on. So I did. I fell into the world of research, did my masters and loved it and moved into sustainability and energy. Any chance I could I’d tailor my personal research back to aviation. That world that was once so close but had been a massive part of my life for years. To be fair my research on aviation was so good it got me presenting it to British Parliament, so it seemed that maybe this new path of research was where I was meant to be all along. Maybe I can’t fly but I can do good from the ground. Further things happened and I ended up doing the PhD around unmanned aerial vehicles. “This PhD is written for you! It’s not flying like you wanted but it’s still flying!” many would say.

True, it was a tenuous link and hey why not. Then came the opportunity to do my RPAS (remotely piloted operating systems) pilots course. A full approved Civil Aviation pilot’s course. The very bottom licence but still, I could call myself an official pilot! Three months of hard work studying the books because to become a fully qualified aircraft even for a UAV is a massive amount of work. You could kill someone with these things very easily and you’re operating in airspace alongside other commercial jets. These are not toys and that’s why the exams and processes are so rigorous and why there are not that many commercial RPAS pilots in the UK yet…because it’s bloody hard to pass!

Two days of 10 hours exams each day, from Air Law to systems, we were tested on everything from practical skills to knowledge recall. It was so so hard. The pressure was huge to as was the expectation from others that I would perform. I had that horrible feeling of being here before, working my arse off with the right attitude for something to screw it up. Luckily my eye sight was no longer an issue for this pilots licence. The only thing between me and it, was how well I’d do these exams.

With all that pressure and studying for months I came out of the written ground school exam phases with 94%. Never in doubt people said to me afterwards. If only I shared their confidence in myself it would have been easy! The flying exam was the hardest thing I have ever done. Pressure, wind 2 mph below maximum, it took every ounce of self-calming and focus to get through the flying exam. Four had failed before me on that day alone. Again I had a huge slice of luck with the examiner giving me one more go on a manoeuvre I had failed already. If you fail once you can repeat but if you fail that, that’s it. For whatever reason be that how well he knew I did on the exams or if he was somehow grateful for how I helped my fellow classmates through the course with hints and tips I don’t know. Either way whatever it was he gave me that extra chance. Now think of the pressure. 1 manoeuvre and everything hangs on it, your PhD, your dream of finally getting a pilot’s licence, all of those long hours of hard work and sacrifice that I’d done again. All hanging on this one manoeuvre. After completing it he didn’t say a word, we carried on with the test, he threw two emergencies at me to deal with during the flight and then he scrutinised my checklists and post flight inspection, asking questions as he went. It was like the most terrifying interview ever. They have to be this way. If they pass I’ll legally be allowed to fly an RPAS aircraft, they have to be thorough.

“Okay Anthony. Assessment is now over. How do you think it went?”

“Errs…Could have been better. I know I messed that bit up but I think I handled the aircraft and emergencies well. I feel I followed the checklists and procedures calmly and professionally…I don’t know. It can go either way”.

Augh I hate examiners, nothing in his face gave anything away as he spoke. “Yeah, okay. You can improve on that manoeuvre and you got this bit wrong here but you corrected yourself. Overall you handled the aircraft well, your briefing was excellent, you professionally followed the checklists and your emergency reactions were spot on. Congratulations Mr Cliffe, you’ve passed. You’re now a fully qualified RPAS pilot”

I shook his hand, thanked him and walked towards the city. It felt like 15 years of expectation, effort, hard work, sacrifice, failure and heartbreak had suddenly flown out of me. I took a deep breath as the sun came out. I put my bag on the floor and closed my eyes. I took a moment to congratulate myself. I never gave up and eventually that hard work paid off. Dreams change and they mould. For sure it’s not the pilot’s licence I set out to get all those years ago but life had different plans for me. That dream is never attainable but I am so glad that I’ve finally made it to that dream in some way. I’m proud that I’m now a fully licenced and approved pilot. I ticked off one of my life goals and eventually made the dream a reality.

Dreams do come true if you work hard enough. They may not ever happen the way you imagined because life is cruel and it gets in the way. Yet, once in a while it’ll give you something back for your determination and hard work. I’ve always had the attitude that I can do anything I put my mind to. It may have taken me years but I did it.

Finally!