First published with Frank Magazine
Once the home to RAF Westhampnett West Sussex now, in recent years known as the Goodwood Aerodrome, where for me I associate the Estate of the Duke of Richmond with jam packed racing weekends with friends.
However, sitting here on this glorious spring day with Pilot Mags Cunningham by the Ultimate High office which is nestled between the holding paddock of the motor circuit and the airfield itself, I almost forget the visceral noise of pre-war sports cars preparing to get out onto the motor circuit, instead, there are daffodils surrounding us with gentle noises of aeroplanes in the distance. All in all it is very peaceful as we sit outside on a bench and chat about the life of a pilot.
This crazy year aside, what would be your normal amount of flying
I fly with a major airline out of Heathrow for 75% of my time with a roster of three weeks on with one week off and the week off I come to Ultimate High, and any other days I can, I come here to Goodwood and fly.
What is the state of flying aircraft during this Covid-19 Pandemic Mags
Despite the Lockdowns, commercial and Upset Recovery training are still being held under safe restrictions and we were very busy in the summer during that window with aerobatic flying. The winter months are always quiet anyway as the ground is waterlogged, so we will begin again with the aerobatics as soon Lockdown restrictions are eased.
What do you actually do at Ultimate High
I am an instructor and people come here for an aerobatic experience, as an instructional lesson and an aerobatic experience as well as instruction for people who already have their licenses.
So for the experience, say it is a gift flight for example, we do a brief in the briefing room and then go to the aircraft strap them in and we’ll do the take off. Then once we get to – depending on how we feel say 2000 feet- we give the controls to the client and then go up to 4000 feet and then often we’ll go up higher and go over the Sussex coast which is so beautiful and do a steep turn to get them used to unusual positions and then we’ll do a loop and then hand the controls over to them and they’ll have a go at doing a loop and we’ll do roll and they’ll do a roll and other manoeuvres. Some people want to keep it quite gentle and others want to rip the wings off the aeroplane.
Do people come out of the aeroplane saying “It’s the best fun they have had with their clothes on”
Yeh! A lot of the time they do
You mentioned that you are still running commercial flights and the Upset Recovery training, what is this
It’s been found that a lot of aviation accidents over recent years have been attributed to the lack of basic flying skills having been lost by people, so before you would have people who came from the Air Force or like myself who came from private flying who, gradually came from being a pilot to an instructor and fly twins then may be a turbo prop then a small jet then a big jet however, now people can do a year-long course to become a commercial pilot and it will cost them about a £120k and then become a pilot with the hours flown. But they don’t have that experience of basic flying in all sorts of situations.
So for example the Air France accident in the South Atlantic, off the coast of South America and a few others, had been attributed to the loss of basic flying skills.
Oh my goodness Mags, that sounds awful and terrifying
Well, so for instance ‘power and attitude equals performance’ and the pilots didn’t seem to know where they were, so with the Upset Recovery training you get trained in the recovery, if you do a steep turn deliberately then that’s not an Upset but if you find yourself at 90 degrees because of weight turbulence for example then that’s an Upset as it’s not where the aeroplane should be. So we do the training to teach people to have an inbuilt reaction so its push roll recover –it’s a really simple thing to do.
Mags, I have this analogy, whilst I drive a 1964 Landrover my thoughts are that it is similar to learning on a car without power steering without synchronised gear boxes. knowing you are part of how the car is moving along the road.
Yes you have to be involved with the driving is a similar analogy to seat of the pants flying, if it looks right and is right it normally is right, you really need to know what the plane is doing. It’s different to commercial flying where you fly on instruments a lot more but the same principle applies you should know what the aeroplane is doing.
When and how and why did you start
Well I didn’t know what I wanted to do at school – I’m an example of someone who can be successful even though they wasted their time at school, I started a 3 year business studies course as I was told I ought to learn to type got bored and left before the end of year one and had various jobs and adventures and had a boyfriend in my early twenties and he had a pilot license and we did some parachute jumps together and some freefall parachute jumps. I wanted to learn to fly but didn’t really have the money, and then after a very long story, I ended up with some money and learnt to fly, not until my mid-twenties though.
So it does come down to money – you have to be really serious to want to do it
It highlights the social mobility really – if your parents can afford to guarantee that loan, or you have the money but yes it makes it very difficult for people from poorer backgrounds.
Luckily you acquired some money to learn and you got your private pilot license
Yes luckily in those days you didn’t need a commercial license to instruct so once I got my private license I built up 130 hours then I did an instructor rating to be able to instruct so after that point my flying was free to gain my commercial flying license.
And how long did that take you
Well, I never really wanted to be a commercial pilot because it was seen by the group of friends I was flying with as a sort of traitor to fly as its not proper flying as it’s flying an airline
So I instructed for years and it was only when I was 39 that I got into commercial flying.
Now tell me is that an average age or is that quite late on
It’s late now but at that time it wasn’t because people always did it gradually with their private license first
When did women in commercial flying really start – I don’t mean the women who flew back and forth for WWII taking planes from the factory to the airfields or the women who flew round the world in the 1920’s, when did it become the norm in the late 20th century- I sort of mean out of Heathrow today.
Well at the moment commercially there are about 5-6% women pilots and captains it’s probably about 3%. However that’s mainland Europe and there is some positive discrimination to try and get more, but in India for example it’s over 15- 20% of women pilots. I think there were lots of women in the airlines but major airlines didn’t take women on until 1987 taking on their first 4 female pilots, that’s when I was just doing my instructor rating, they were the days when airlines would put you through the training but now, because there is enough people that want to do you have to pay for you own training.
Do you think it will get back to normal
Oh I think so. Business travel will take a long time to pick up again. At the beginning of the pandemic most of the airlines said it would be 2023 before we will back to 2019 levels of travel and that seemed absurd at the time but now I thinks that is probably quite realistic.
Mags, back to you what next happened in your career
I used to live in Scotland but the Gulf War happened and there were no flying jobs there at all, and then I did my airline transport exams (one up from the commercial license) – where I was flying light aircraft. I instructed for longer and then got a job with FR Aviation where we provided electronic warfare training with the Air Force. We used to fly around in a Falcan 20 aeroplane without seats but with extra fuel tanks and there was a boffin – electronic warfare operator – and the ground base radars would try to pick us up and the boffin in the back would makes you invisible, work though that shielding,
Were there any women in that company
Yes there was a few yes, mainly military pilots doing it but yes. It was amazing flying because we used to go on missions, flying low and we’d go up to Norway for some exercises just fantastic. I also used to do calibration on landing systems and found myself at Dublin airport at 3am sweeping the snow off this aeroplane. And it was at that point of me saying ‘I was never going to join the airlines’, I said, ‘you know what, I think I am going to join the airlines’.
Then I got a job with British Mediterranean and flew to amazing places: Kurdistan, Kazakstan Syriah, Ethipia, Petra – in an airbus, now they have about 200 seats I would have probably stayed there but the company got taken over, so I went to join the airline flying out from Heathrow.
Do you have lots of women friends as pilots
No – I know some and I have some.
And is it even important to you
No I mean imagine if there was a men’s only club for male pilots we’d all be in uproar. I don’t really like the all women stuff. Bit like you with the racing, I am sure you get on with everyone who has the same passions and not male or female.
Yes completely I mean though, I always am conscious that there has to be a good chunk of women as well, that I am passing this on and showing a new generation of women
Well it should be in any profession but I think that will come about by us not making a fuss and getting on with it, but hopefully someone getting on an aeroplane and seeing me that that will be enough that they say wow I didn’t realise I could do that.
And as I said I didn’t go to university so if I can do it anyone can do it.
Do people come and see the pilot
Yes it’s lovely – on the ground we encourage kids and anyone who wants to see the pilots to come in to the cabin.
Finally what advice have you got for someone who wants to get into flying
Well because especially at the moment because there’s a lot of unemployed pilots, its very competitive, you would have to bite the bullet and pay, you can do it in a modular route where you do it gradually but airlines like someone who has done an approved year long course – because they feel that would be taught to a known standard. Especially young people who they can mould.
But anyway, if you wanted to go flying, you can always go to a school like this one at Goodwood Aerodrome
Oh definitely and actually, after the pandemic, most airlines it’s not the same financial benefits as it used to be its still fine but it’s not as lucrative.
If you have a love of flying, if you can earn doing something else then come flying is a good way really. I mean this is my hobby I am passionate about flying – you have got to be passionate about it. I fly here and at the airline – I don’t want to retire because I am already doing my hobbies. I pinch myself still.
Lara Platman twitter @photofeature
Mags Cunningham can be contacted via https://www.ultimatehigh.co.uk/