Confessions of a frustrated pilot

Fiona Guest, a trainee glider pilot, tells her story on how national lockdowns affected her flying.

Since the end of March 2020, it’s not been good for us in the aviation community. Whether you’re a commercial pilot, a PPL, a glider pilot, a paraglider or hang glider pilot, a balloonist, a parachutist or someone who likes to travel by air, there have been months of frustration on the ground as Covid restrictions forbid us to meet others and go out and about doing things we enjoy (like flying).

For trainee GA pilots (I’m a trainee glider pilot) it has been especially frustrating. All aviators have been missing out on the one thing we love – the freedom of flight. However for GA trainees it’s been even worse because we have not been able to do the one thing that will enable us to improve and qualify – practice, practice, practice.

2020 was going to be the year that after spending over a year failing to master the roundout and hold off that I was finally going to nail it, go solo, progress and qualify. Then Covid struck.

The go-ahead to resume GA flying was given for 13th May 2020 but to maintain social distancing, only solo flying was allowed. There were lovely days when my solo friends were thermalling but trainees like me were still grounded and unable to progress.

Being something of a campaigner I wanted to “fight for the right to fly”. I understood that the whole purpose of the Covid restrictions was to prevent there being too many cases at once, with people dying for lack of treatment capacity. I reasoned that GA in general and gliding in particular are minority interests so that the country’s intensive care units would not be overwhelmed if a student or instructor gave the other Covid-19. I reasoned too that the close contact would be between one student and one instructor so that there would not be the risk of infecting large numbers of people. It wouldn’t be like thousands at a football stadium!

I took the matter up with the British Gliding Association and received a lovely reply stating that the BGA continued to stay closely engaged with the DfT on the subject of dual flying by members of different households.

It was reassuring to know that the BGA was fighting for us trainees and I came to the conclusion that with their expertise they would be better at it than I would be.

Then 4th July came. Whilst Americans were celebrating Independence Day and many people were celebrating being able to celebrate down the pub, GA trainees were celebrating the fact that we could now fly again.

However things were different. Instructors and trainees had to wear facemasks or there had to be a screen between the cockpits. Whereas previously any trainee could fly with any old instructor, now trainees were assigned specific instructors and could only fly with that instructor, to reduce mixing. That idea isn’t such a bad one because each instructor is different so sticking to the same one gives consistency.

Then came months of sheer bliss in the air! Learning how to find, chase and work thermals, starting to learn the aerotow ground run and being initiated into the joys of aerobatics. (Landing was still a challenge.)

The November lockdown didn’t matter too much because I thought of it not as lockdown but as November – that month with low cloud, high winds and lots of rain, and I was preparing for Christmas too. In December the weather was decidedly uncooperative (a fact of life for aviators) but in mid-December there was one glorious flight. The weather was beautiful and I’d recently attended our CFI’s Zoom lecture on the approach as well as reading a lot of internet material on landing. I’d got the message “Look ahead” firmly hammered into my brain and did a beautiful landing. My instructor who’s wont to use exclamation marks wrote “Landed without help”!! I thought, I’ve cracked landing – I just need to practice, practice, practice. Then two days later the areas where I live and fly went into Tier 3 (only solo flying allowed) then Tier 4 (no gliding allowed).

At the time of writing, we’re still in lockdown and I want to just get in the air and remembering “Look ahead” get consistent landings. Hopefully it won’t be long.

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