‘I’m still soaring after first flight experience’

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Anyone who has ridden in a car with me would perhaps shudder at the thought of letting me loose in the skies, but with 30 years’ teaching experience I could only hope Christopher Shepherd-Rose had seen worse students than me.

The 61-year-old pilot, who lives near Swaffham, relocated Skyward Flight Training –the flight school he owns with Bury St Edmunds co-directors Patricia and Jeffery Carlisle-Dodd – to Rougham Airfield in May.

Some students followed from his former Essex base and within the last few weeks a solo flight and a private pilot licence (PPL) have been celebrated at the school – both firsts for Rougham.

Not one to let an opportunity pass me by, I decided to experience first hand the thrill of learning to become a pilot – no harm in that, besides enjoying it so much I’m now contemplating regular lessons!

On the day in question, the weather had been so changeable I’d all but convinced myself the flight wouldn’t go ahead, but with a 9am call to confirm take off at 11am, the next thing I knew I was in a safety briefing with Chris.

It wasn’t until he was quizzing me on pitch and roll, bank angles, air speed and altitude that I really began to appreciate the task ahead.

Nervous and excited with anticipation, I stepped up onto the wing of the four-seater touring aircraft (a PA-28 for anyone familiar with planes) and climbed into the cockpit.

Chris followed and promptly pointed out how I should exit the plane in an emergency, which did nothing to ease the anxiety that had been building since he told me I’d be at the controls for take off and landing, and everything in between.

He familiarised me with the basic controls, surrounded by an array of complex-looking switches and gauges I was glad I wouldn’t, at that stage, need to understand, and with key in the ignition and harnesses and lap belts secure, my flight training began.

I practised steering on the ground. It felt strange to be manoeuvring the plane using foot pedals – but after a go on a sort of makeshift slalom course, I was apparently ready for take-off.

We taxied to the runway and positioned the plane in the centre, then I pulled back on the control stick, protecting the propeller from the ground, and began easing the throttle forward.

We took off about half way down the runway, doing about 60mph and were airborne within seconds, climbing to 2,500 feet as Bury shrank below us.

We banked left, something Chris insists all pilots do early to avoid flying over built-up areas, and straightened up using the horizon over the aircraft’s nose, travelling at 110 knots (around 127mph).

‘There’s Ickworth House,’ said Chris, who was able to point out Bury’s landmarks.

For me though, it wasn’t so easy. I think it takes a while to adjust to the bird’s-eye view!

We rolled left and right, making the necessary pitch adjustments, and before long Chris was pointing out the runway ready for us to make our descent.

I radioed Wattisham’s Control Tower, an ‘extra pair of eyes’, and positioned the plane according to Chris’ instructions, applying flaps and making power adjustments as directed. Anticipating the landing was, without doubt, the most nerve-racking and exhilarating part of the lesson, but I was shocked by just how smooth it turned out to be.

Chris was calm, confident and committed to making my first flight a success and, despite my nerves, I soon relaxed and enjoyed every minute.

“You’re an above average student. I think you could fly solo within about 12 hours,” he told me after, and with that the seed was planted.

On average, people need around 50 hours training to obtain their PPL. I can’t tell you how tempting it is knowing that with a weekly lesson I could be qualified in a year.

Chris, a father of two and former paramedic, decided to become a pilot after a gliding course ignited his imagination for flight.

Now, with more than 9,000 hours’ flight time, his experience has included commercial flying as well as piloting vintage planes like the Tiger Moth and Stearman. He enjoys watching his pupils’ progress, many of whom have become personal friends, and wants to encourage more women to fly.

“There are women pilots but, out of 12, you maybe get one or two women,” he said, adding that women make good students ‘because they’re not afraid to ask questions’.

He favours Rougham as a place to learn because of its access to the A14, proximity to attractive towns like Bury and the beautiful coastline nearby, as well as the history of the airfield, the fact it has no restrictions on movements and its long, wide runway.

“I think we’ll get more and more interesting aeroplanes here, biplanes and so on, once people get to know the level of hospitality here,” said Chris, who wants to dispel the illusion that flying is only for the wealthy.

“People who fly aren’t just people who are filthy rich who have nothing better to do. Most of them are just people like me and you. Over the years I have taught nurses, car salesmen,
 TV personalities, firemen, policemen, all different professions. There are people in ordinary jobs that put money aside to learn to fly,” said Chris, adding that he has taught people aged from 11-90.

Skyward Flight Training was set up in 2011 and offers one-to-one tuition in a friendly atmosphere, with complimentary cakes and refreshments made by Mrs Carlisle-Dodd, a pilot trained by Chris.

It is open for training from Wednesday to Saturday with flights up to 7pm in summer and 4pm in winter. Training Sunday to Tuesday is possible by prior arrangement.

Members of the public who visit the airfield are reminded to walk their dogs on leads and keep children supervised at all times.

For more details on the school, which offers taster flights from £45, visit www.skywarflighttraining.co.uk or email flyskyward@hotmail.com or call 07763 148640 or 07792 892588.