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Come Fly With Me

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Tom Cruciani slips the surly bonds of earth to join his fellow student aviators in the sky, and gives us the low-down on flying solo and transferring mental patients across the English Channel.

Somewhere in the middle of the English countryside, the faint sound of an aircraft engine is heard, loping along its southerly route. A farmer looks up, his hand shielding his eyes from the sun, and sees only a faraway gleam before averting his gaze back down to his work.

Three thousand feet above, glorious rays of light burst through the cockpit, bathing us in sunlight. Up here, the wind has subsided and the ride is smooth; there is nowhere I would rather be. I cannot help but become distracted as I observe the flooded fields below, wondering about those who have had to flee their homes. I could not be any more relaxed in my seat when, suddenly, the engine noise changes as the propeller slows down. I take a quick glance at the RPM gauge and see the needle ticking down. I go through the practiced drills, checking instruments and turning knobs while looking below for one field that has not flooded. There I will make my emergency landing, with no engine power.

Image Credits: Akton
Image Credits: Akton

As I glide the aircraft towards the touchdown zone, there is little time for logic. Instinct takes over, making sure I fly accurately, avoiding a stall at all costs. I put down the flaps and, with only ten seconds before the wheels touch the ground, my headset crackles to life: “Good, that was safely done, now put the power back in and let’s climb back up”. An instructor is sitting right next to me, because this was just a training flight, and the engine failure only a simulation. This, after all, is how I like to spend my weekends.

At this year’s Freshers’ squash, I could be seen in a green, full-body flight suit, hounding passers-by with my enthusiastic leafleting for EUGC, our very own Exeter University Gliding Club. I expected the hungover freshers to look the other way before even so much as hearing what I had to offer, but by the end of the day I was left with an overall positive impression of our student body’s spirit of adventure. My slogan of “want to get high?” certainly provided an intriguing hook. Besides tired feet and a sore throat, the day provided me with a rough survey of interest, and I was pleasantly surprised at the number of people who followed up with questions and those asking for more information. Among the various adventure sports offerings, I found flying attracted a lot of young people looking for an alternative and challenging hobby.

When I came to university, I initially had a difficult time building a rapport with the UK aviation scene (especially with the weather). Now, as a final year student, I can think of few places more welcoming and well-suited to learning to fly. Most people live within a half-hour’s drive from an airfield, and non-flyers are especially welcome to visit and have a look around the planes, guided by the old-timer pilot who is bound to be lounging around the ubiquitous aviators’ café. No barbed wire fences, security to clear, or passes necessary in these places of marvel. Just a friendly smile and the remarkable ability to ask good questions.

I am passionate about promoting aviation, and strongly believe in the ways flying can help young people become more confident in themselves. Being the solo pilot of an airplane for the first time is a unique character-building experience, and one that makes you realise a lot about yourself. Flying teaches us to discover our limits and push them further out, stepping outside our comfort zone. It teaches us that many boundaries are only in our minds and that expanding our horizons improves our self-reliance. As film director Baz Luhrmann once said, “Do one thing every day that scares you”. While I would temper this with a word of caution, the fine interplay between risk and responsibility is one of the greatest excitements in flying, and something worth mastering for any aspect of our lives.

To attain the breathtaking views a pilot can see is a colossal undertaking.  A long, arduous journey awaits any trainee, with one of the largest barriers to entry being the high initial cost of training. For most aspiring young aviators, this makes the dream prohibitive. Thankfully, as a student, I have mastered a hawk-like ability for spotting opportunities to receive financial aid. There is help out there, and while the path to the cockpit is not easy, it is a more than worthwhile challenge for those with a deep-rooted desire.

In my first two years of university I learned to fly gliders (which fly with no engines, using purely thermals of hot air) with the University Gliding Society in order to cut the costs of fuel and improve my handling skills. In my second year I became a member of The Air League, an association for young aviators in Britain. Through its incredible ‘Youth in Aviation’ flying day in the spring, I encountered a world of other young pilots, all eager to challenge themselves while having fun in a social environment. A day of flying, air displays, meeting pilots and spreading the passion culminated in a chance to try my hand at aerobatics in a world-class competition glider, instructed by a British Airways captain in the rigors of loops, rolls and tumbles.

Sunset did not mark the end of the day, with twilight flying – pyrotechnics blazing from the wingtips of performing airplanes – ending the evening. Then commenced a long night of drinking and merriment, with the live music setting the tempo late into the night. By dawn, everyone retreated to their tents, with those who had arrived for the party by airplane sleeping under the wing of their machine. It is times like these that I realise how fortunate I am to see the world from above and to have met people whose stories continue to inspire me like nothing else.

Beyond such events, The Air League also provides scholarships and bursaries for young people to begin learning to fly, further their flying qualifications, or gain an engineering internship in the aviation industry. I was a lucky 2013 recipient of a flying bursary, which allowed me to add a night flying qualification to my license. Learning to fly at night was another daunting but thrilling step in my education. If your sole propeller stops spinning at night, the darkness beneath can feel as frightening as a black hole. Aiming for the light below ensures that you will hit its source, most probably a building. The dark areas, on the other hand, could be woods, lakes, rocks, or any other nasty surprise. There are few options and very little time to make decisions. Overcoming these fears, however, rewards one with an invaluable new skill-set and a newfound confidence in one’s abilities. Thanks to challenges like these, flying never fails to humble me and has taught me that, in the air, responsibility for your life is, literally, in your own two hands.

Flying comes in many shapes and forms, from propeller to glider, gyrocopter and balloon to helicopter, paraglider or hang glider to ultralight and even jet – all are available to those with an interest. For example, through another organization, I was a recent beneficiary of a scholarship to begin my airline pilot theory course after I graduate from university in July. Chances like this have encouraged me to apply for a sponsored British Airways cadet pilot scheme, which I am currently undergoing selection for. In the meantime, I have found a part-time job as a company representative in a small, friendly air charter company that flies VIP clients and has air ambulance contracts that have taken me across Europe and as far as North Africa and the Canary Islands on some truly exciting missions. Staying in smart hotels, tasting new, mysterious foods and building incredible memories is all part of my exciting routine. More significantly, repatriating critically ill patients rewards me with a sense of accomplishment, and getting the job done even when the winds blow the rain horizontally and hail batters the airplane like bullets hitting a tin can is a remarkable adventure.

On a particularly memorable flight, we were charged with transferring a mental patient from the isle of Jersey’s prison to London’s Southend airport. At both our departure and arrival points, armed guards awaited us with stern faces and guns loaded. On board we were accompanied by three prison guards and one boxing instructor-turned-psychotherapist, all there to look after the patient. Although he was handcuffed and well monitored, the crew on board and I were still briefed on what to do if the worst should happen and the patient should get loose, including actions for me to take in the event that he became agitated and made for the cockpit. We decided who would fly the plane, and who would find a way to deal with the ‘disturbance’.

I must admit I felt uneasy with the idea of a mentally-ill person potentially breaking loose in a small airplane over the English Channel, but then again, this was certainly going to fulfill Baz Luhrmann’s advice on life. Finally, when such a cast of characters showed up in the reinforced prison van, I found that the patient was, in fact, pretty innocuous, and the whole operation well-planned so nothing sudden could happen. The flight proceeded smoothly under a very sunny sky, and an early arrival into Southend meant we could get lunch before flying back to Jersey. Missions like these convince me that there can be few more exhilarating student jobs!

Ultimately, thanks to these adventures I have learned to take chances and that even the most insurmountable dreams can be achieved step by step. By applying for financial aid, connecting with the right people, believing in our abilities, and never giving up or thinking that something is not for us, we can achieve things we thought impossible. For those whose interest I have piqued, and who want to have a go in the air, curious to experience the thrill of flight, I cannot recommend The Air League or gliding clubs enough. Because, to quote Amelia Earhart, “adventure is worthwhile in itself.”

Tom Cruciani

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