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The importance of resilience

In aviation, as in many other careers, lifechoices, or situations, you will hear mention of resilience and its importance. But what exactly is it? And why is it important?

Firstly, what does the word “resilience” mean? A quick search on the definition will reveal:

Resilience

[rɪˈzɪlɪəns]

NOUN

  1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
    “the often remarkable resilience of so many British institutions”
  2. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity.
    “nylon is excellent in wearability, abrasion resistance and resilience”

Two definitions that mean roughly the same thing. For me, resilience means the ability to bounce back after a knock, to pick yourself up again and continue. In aviation that is incredibly important. Why? Because you will get knocked back. Probably more than once. How you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, adapt your plan if necessary, and keep moving forward will ultimately decide whether or not you succeed.

Aviation throws many curve balls at you. Speaking from my own personal experience, my career in aviation could have ended if I accepted my failure to pass the screening interview when I first applied for the RAF in 2006. They told me I didn’t know enough and they didn’t think I had the motivation. What were they talking about?! I knew I wanted to be a pilot, couldn’t they see that?! No. They couldn’t see that. So I listened to their advice, went away, studied, arranged visits to stations, and did everything asked of me and more. Six months later I was back, I passed, and went off to Cranwell to sit the next stage. I passed the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre but went to review for three months. Then, despite passing everything, I was told they didn’t think I was motivated enough and so try again in a year. That whole process, starting at a filter interview commenced again, a whole year later. I went back, passed everything again, developed ways of demonstrating my motivation (I can come across very serious under stress, so I had to train myself to “lighten up” in the interview) and was finally successful. I even received a note on my paperwork stating that the Interviewing Staff really enjoyed my interview. 

Caption: Aviation will chew you up and spit you out if you are not resilient. If you are, then you will be able to deal with that, come back stronger, and succeed

And so, in August 2009, I entered the gates at RAFC Cranwell not for selection, but as a trainee. Joining the RAF as a pilot. I thought I’d made it. 

Fast forward about eighteen months after completing IOT and commencing Elementary Flying Training, now living at RAF Linton-on-Ouse, and the results of the government Security, Defence and Spending Review (SDSR) in 2010 made themselves felt and I, along with around 180 colleagues at various stages of training, was made redundant. What a blow. A full body blow. I kicked, I screamed, I explored legal action, had lengthy discussions with a number of MPs, including Churchill’s grandson, spoke on the phone to Geoffrey Wellum who in turn promised to “bend the government’s ear”, wrote a service complaint and so on. But nothing. Our fate was set in stone. We were leaving, and that was that. 

A small mercy. We were granted a period of “special paid leave” which stated that if we were doing something beneficial to our training, or gaining skills for when we leave, we could go and do that whilst we served out our time in the gainful employment of Her Majesty the Queen. So I did. Along with a course mate we did our research, travelled the length and breadth of the country visiting flying schools and settled on an Integrated course of flying training to achieve our fATPLs with Cabair College of Air Training. The staff seemed nice, the students happy, the aircraft in good order and lots of their students went on to jobs. They had an accommodating payment plan and were much more affordable than some of the bigger and shinier schools. So we’d done our due diligence and set up very reasonable payment plans, starting our training in July 2011 and living at nearby RAF Henlow.

About eight months later, having just finished the groundschool and commenced flying, Cabair went bust. At this point I hadn’t even left the RAF, this was early 2012. I was due to leave in September 2012. Talk about being kicked whilst you’re down. Not only was the dream of flying shattered once more, this time it had cost money, a not inconsiderable sum either. Approximately half of the entire course cost had been paid, so I had half left. What to do?

At this point I had to ask myself the question, do I really want this? I’d been turned down twice by the RAF, been told I was being made redundant, and now this. After some soul searching, the answer was yes. Right then, I had to figure out how to complete the training with approximately half the funds. I had to adapt the plan. I became a modular student and I am so glad I was forced into that corner. 

I utilised the RAF Flying Club network, found a school at RAF Wyton, Cambridgeshire. Ex CFS instructors, so very high calibre training, good aircraft, and very affordable. Maybe even cheap. No ground school to worry about, as I’d already passed my ATPLs. Arriving in April 2012, first solo about a week later, the PPL a little over 4 weeks; exactly 45hrs in my logbook at the end of the skills test. I was living on camp, as entitled, still being “in” the RAF for a few more months. Next, hour building. 150 hours to obtain by 31st August; my last day in service. Around this time I was introduced to Mark Greenfield at Ultimate High and I began working for them three days a week at Kemble on some ground school material for a UPRT course they were beginning to develop – they have since gone on to become the industry leaders in this field, paving the way for others. That left four days a week to fly, which I did, as much as I could. But first an aerobatic rating and then a tailwheel conversion using up the dual hours I still had “spare” to allow me to still have the required 100 hours in command once I hit 150. I was on a budget and could not afford to exceed hours. That and I knew I wanted to fly taildraggers when I “grew up”, so I’d best make a start.

September came, and on the day I left I flew the last hour of the 150 I required. Then, off to Exeter for my CPL and ME/IR with a well known school called Airways Flight Training, which has now, sadly, been amalgamated with another. If I could hit the targets, minimum hours were required here too, especially with Multi Engine flying costing an eye watering £440 an hour. And so I set about working hard, whilst also being cautious to enjoy the experience at the same time. I was getting there, finally.

An early Christmas break to leave a few hours in the bank to refresh in January and then take the final skills test. By the 11th January I was complete, when I flew my IR test. But no rest for the wicked as I was due to begin my instructor certificate shortly. The school that I had flown the tailwheel aircraft at during my hour building had asked me if I would come on to help them “for the summer”; all I needed to do was gain the relevant instructor qualification, then I could begin to help with trial lessons and go from there. And so, I “moved house” for the fourth time in less than a year, this time, back home. Living at home whilst I completed the instructor certificate and flew with the school saved a fortune, and money was tight. 

At the beginning of May just thirteen months after flying my first solo in April 2012, but six years after my initial application to the RAF, I sat the skills test to become a flying instructor. I passed. What followed was six wonderful seasons as an instructor, two at Shoreham and a further four at Goodwood – the base from where my grandfather flew his final sortie as a fighter pilot in WWII. I met my now wife, renovated two houses to pay to live, gained almost 2000 hours of experience, taught numerous ab initio students, sent many off on their first solo, flew over 600 hours in tailwheel aircraft such as the Tiger Moth, Stampe, Cub, Extra and Harvard, including taking a number of WWII veterans flying, some for the last time. Gave many their first experience of flight, had a few sickbags filled in the process, had (and still have) the privilege of flying for Ultimate High as their first non Qualified Service Pilot, obtained my Display Authorisation and founded the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group. 

Then in 2018, six years after the redundancy and just before securing a First Officer position with a major airline, I was asked to fly the Spitfire by Aircraft Restoration Company owner, John Romain. His Spitfire. Every pilot’s dream. My dream, and the reason I wanted to fly in the first place. 

In the three years since then, I have completed my type rating with TUI, moved house, got married, flown in Daks over Normandy, flown my first Duxford air show display, solo’d the Spitfire, officially become the project director of the Hawker Typhoon Preservation Group and passed the £1million mark with the team, welcomed our first child into the world and checked out on the Lancaster as a taxi pilot at East Kirkby.

Not a single one of those things would have happened if I didn’t bounce back in 2006 as a naive teenager being told I wasn’t motivated. Likewise, without all of those setbacks along the way I would not have become the pilot, or person, that I am today, with experiences I am truly grateful for. 

That, to me, is the importance of resilience. 

“The obstacle is the way.”