Flight attendant Rachel Thorn’s last voyage was in March 2020. When she landed back in the UK, the pandemic was becoming disastrous, and a nationwide lockdown was looming.

The 34-year-old, who was based at Stanstead Airport, says: “I didn’t realize then that it would be my last flight. As permanent staff, we assumed we would just spend a couple of months on furlough.”

But the thought of sitting at home didn’t appeal to Rachel. So, when a colleague posted about Project Wingman on social media, she knew she wanted to volunteer. Rachel’s partner, a pilot at the same carrier, also got involved.

Project Wingman is a group of current and former aircrew who have been brough together to provide support to NHS staff during the pandemic. The initiative focuses on NHS staff wellbeing and creates a space, or lounge, to unwind and decompress before during and after hospital shifts.

Family feeling

“Although I wasn’t flying,” she says. “I was around crew and pilots, so you still had the crew mentality and a family feel.”

Unfortunately, Rachel and her partner were the first people in their lounge to be made redundant.

She says: “It was a great support network. We would come into work, all in our different uniforms, and there was no rivalry between airlines. We were all there as crew from the industry who were going through a rubbish time and leaning on each other for support.”

Rachel witnessed the toll the virus was taking on NHS staff at North Middlesex University Hospital. But volunteering for Project Wingman gave her a real sense of purpose with many people “leaving [the lounge] with a smile on their faces”.

“Sometimes people would just want to talk about aviation,” she adds. “They didn’t necessarily want to chat about what had been going on in the wards.

Clipped wings and new experiences

Soon, Rachel was approached to carry out some paid work conducting COVID surveys. As Project lead, she also assembled a team to monitor the hospital entrance and carry out tasks such as temperature checks alongside handing out facemasks and hand sanitizer. She also ensured that visitors to the hospitals had appointments in an effort to limit the number of people entering the budling.

Rachel, who was surprised by her newly appointed role as manager, says: “I’d never managed before. I’d been a senior on an aircraft but down the back. But now, I’ve learned how to do rostas and I make sure everyone gets paid. I also handle any complaints or issues among my staff.”

“I’m supposed to only work 9-5,” she adds, with a laugh. “But I’m always on the phone.”

Award winner

In April 2021, Rachel was granted the Project Wingman award for Outstanding Service to the NHS.

“It was overwhelming and so unexpected,” says Rachel. “We all put one hundred percent into the lounges. I’ve never won an award like that, so it did make me emotional. I just couldn’t belief that someone would take the time to nominate me.”

During the global pandemic, stories of people giving up their time, skills and resources to help their community have been a beacon of positivity during an incredibly challenging time.

“I’m not one to sit at home,” says Rachel. “For me, going around and collecting donations just felt like the right thing to do. I really enjoyed it. My family were proud of me. I wanted to get involved and I’m glad I did.”

Wing Woman

Being grounded hasn’t extinguished Rachel’s love for aviation. In September 2020, and in memory of her uncle and a close friend who had passed away, Rachel undertook a sponsored wing walk, raising £2,643 for Brain Tumour Research.

“I had planned to raise £1000,” says Rachel. “But I doubled that and then some. I am thankful to everyone who donated and supported me during the run-up.

“Brain Tumour Research is such a worthwhile charity, and it was an experience I will never forget. It was a bit of joy during the pandemic and something that I am immensely proud of. And yes, I want to do it again.”

So, does a return to the sky feature in Rachel’s plans for the future?

Rachel says: “Flying is what I want to do. My wings are just clipped temporarily. I hope they are. I love the job I’ve got at the moment, but I am not an office worker. I do like the fact that every day is different in the air, you meet different people and travel to new destinations. I miss that.”

She adds: “It has been a rough year, with lots of ups and downs, but I am so grateful to Project Wingman for letting me volunteer and also to the hospital for giving us this chance. It’s been such an experience and a real learning curve. I’ve learned so much from my team, the NHS staff and the patients, and I think I’ve developed as a person.”

Like many of us, the pandemic has given Rachel time to pause.

“It’s made me appreciate what I’ve got,” she reveals. “I took a lot for granted. I took my freedom for granted. Just being allowed out for two hours makes you appreciate that more. And also, just being able to see my family.

“Luckily, I haven’t lost anyone to COVID, but I know people who have. [While the pandemic] started off with numbers, it soon became about people we knew, either through friends, family or colleagues.”