Life took over and flying went on the back burner for 17 years. Then I started working for the oil firm Chevron as a technical safety engineer. We were living in Houston, Texas, when my wife suggested I complete my private pilot’s licence.
After I did, I got my instrument rating. This allows you to fly in low-visibility conditions using the aircraft’s instruments to navigate, rather than navigating by what you can see. Next, I secured my commercial licence and then, because I’d always wanted to fly twin-engine planes, my rating to fly multi-engine aircraft.
The only thing left to do was train to be a flight instructor. I wasn’t sure whether I would have the patience but gave it a go. It’s tough as you have to learn so much; to teach pilots, you have to know more than they do! So, you learn about aerodynamics, how aircraft are built, and in a lot more in detail than when you’re doing your other ratings. I got my instructor rating and spent my final year in the US teaching, and loved it.
Moving back to Scotland I converted all my licences to UK ones. Then a friend told me he had an idea to start a flight school so – working around my day job – we set one up in Aberdeen. After five successful years, my friend decided to move on, and I now run it with another friend. I’ll be 53 this year and my plan is to retire from my day job in the next few years and focus on instructing.
Less than 1% of the population has a pilot’s licence, so you are part of a unique group; it’s something different. Flying gives you so much freedom: I’ve flown over the white cliffs of Dover to the First World War battlefields in France. I do a lot of instrument flying because of poor weather conditions. Learning to fly by instrument is probably the biggest intellectual leap you make in training. It’s all about precision and procedure.
Always take more fuel than you need – you can only have too much fuel if you’re on fire
The most enjoyable part of teaching is the buzz you get when someone “gets it”. Landings are a bit like riding a bike: it suddenly falls into place. It’s always special when someone you’ve taught does their first solo flight and you go to the control tower to watch.
Teaching never gets boring because you’re always concentrating. Someone might be having a bad day so you have to be able to identify and anticipate any problems early and take action. Every day is different because everyone has different learning styles. You also have to be on your guard to never cut corners, for example with your pre-flight checks. You have to model the behaviours you want people to learn.
My day job definitely influences my approach to flying. Aviation has error-tolerant systems with checks and balances and lots of built-in redundancy, but it’s also unforgiving. As in the oil industry, it is important to remember that a pound of prevention is worth a tonne of cure. Many incidents have their genesis in the planning stage, so attention to detail in planning a flight is vital. I teach people to plan the route, think about the weather, and always take more fuel than they need – you can only have too much fuel if you’re on fire. We manage risk: it’s not about absolute safety. In the air, you need to consider human factors and look also at risk from a dynamic viewpoint. If the weather is deteriorating, divert and spend the night in a hotel. I try to give trainees the ability to recognise, identify and reduce risk.
Lots of safety approaches in aviation are relevant to the wider industry. “Crew resource management” is about involving the wider cohort of a crew or workplace: using all the resources you have available and listening to people’s views – including the more junior ones in the hierarchy. You encourage people to speak up and offer constructive alternatives.
There have been many highlights. Three years ago, I did a bush flying course in Johannesburg. The next year my wife and I went back for our 25th wedding anniversary and did a flying safari: we rented a plane and flew through Botswana and Zimbabwe. We had to chase giraffes off a runway!
I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to give flying a go. Most people who come to us are absolute beginners; lots go on to do commercial flying. The destination – gaining a licence – is important, but the journey is too: learning to fly is a huge amount of fun.