It was just like any other day checking in for a flight. I arrived at the crew-room having checked in for my flight to Johannesburg, signed in at the desk, went to make a cup of tea, and sat down to read my notices. Except it wasn’t…
The usually ‘full of life’ briefing room was silent except for me and one other crew member. It was clear we were the only flight departing this evening, and an eerie silence hung in the air. The day of course was the 23rd March 2020, and Boris Johnson (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) was exactly 30 minutes away from announcing a national lockdown.
The rest of the crew arrived, and after a briefing for our flight, all 10 crew and 3 pilots sat as a team and watched the UK be placed into a lockdown. In that moment we knew that this flight, flights to come, and the whole industry, in general, was going to face huge uncertainty. Despite personal concerns about family, housing, and onward travel for when we eventually arrived back in the UK, we boarded our flight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg, ready to repatriate some of the last customers to South Africa we were to see for weeks.
Sitting in the rear galley of the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on the last operational commercial flight back to the UK several days later, I looked around at the amazing group of people that made up the crew that trip. We really had pulled together as a team, but concerns were rife amongst us all. Rumors of furlough, unpaid leave, and redundancies were mere whispers at this point; at most we thought we would have 3 weeks on the ground, and then be back to sitting on adjacent jump-seats to each other at 3 am mid-Atlantic, discussing the endless Zoom calls, home workouts, and loaves of banana bread that we had endured. Not one of us could have guessed what the industry was to face.
I count myself extremely lucky to have been able to fly for a little while longer, on repatriation and cargo flights. Our airline was ensuring that supply chains were undisrupted, and vital medication/ PPE was reaching where it was needed, to assist the front-line staff in fighting the global pandemic. It was a true privilege to be able to provide comfort and reassurance to passengers in need of travel, and it reminded me of exactly why I love what I do. It’s not about the layovers in beautiful destinations. It’s about being able to help people and support them when they need us… and this was a real-time of need.
As flying operations became almost solely cargo, and the skies fell quiet, I was inevitably furloughed. What was initially a novelty, and enjoyable, within about two weeks became total drudgery. I missed having a sense of purpose, and belonging, and more crucially I missed actual human contact (living far away from my family and only having recently moved to the area was proving to be a lonely combination). That’s when I decided to join the team at Project Wingman. Project Wingman, now celebrating their first birthday, was set up to give the NHS workers, a ‘first-class’ lounge experience, in return for all their hard work ensuring that patients are receiving first-class treatment. Airline workers came together to prove they are ‘united by wings’, by using our skills to help and improve the wellbeing of staff within the NHS, during this difficult time. It’s now almost a year since I began volunteering and in this time I have worked at two different lounges, ticked off numerous shifts on their mobile bus lounge named ‘Wellbee’, and joined the team as a crewing officer working to crew the buses. It has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life; being able to support NHS staff through the most difficult of times of course, but Project Wingman has kept me in touch with my aviation family, and given me friends and support for life, during a time that I was going to desperately need it.
My wings were sadly clipped not long after that. I am a true believer that it will be temporary which provides some comfort, however, the time following this was incredibly difficult and sometimes is still hugely overwhelming. The virus has taken my one true love away from me, taking me away from my purpose, my team, and aviation family overnight. Immediately my world was turned upside down. I’m lucky that all my friends and family are safe and well, and I know so many others hurting because they can’t say the same. Despite this, I was still devastated. A phrase that springs to mind is that we are all in the same storm but different boats, and this was my battle to face. However, the Covid-19 pandemic is bigger than me, and I sadly am not alone in this terrible situation. Thousands of talented, hard-working, intelligent and deserving aviators have been laid off, and it truly breaks my heart. I quickly created an action plan to ensure that I could survive this crisis. My priorities became to increase my connection with the industry to allow me to remain a part of what I love, to better myself, so that as and when the industry picks up, I can be ready for it and to provide support to my fellow aviators who I knew would be in equal amounts of pain as myself, no matter their airline or employment status.
I was finishing my dissertation and graduating with my degree in Summer 2020, however, the pandemic led me to my decision to undertake an MSc in Human Factors in Aviation (despite passionately declaring prior to the pandemic that I was ready for a break from study!). The decision to enroll on a Masters degree is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s fast-paced, interesting and relevant, with modules relating to fatigue, personnel selection, decision making, CRM, and human information processing as well as the all-important thesis to write. I have met people from so many backgrounds in aviation and it has broadened my outlook on the landscape of the industry. I really hope one day to be able to use the knowledge and skills I’ve learned from my course within an airline human factors training department. The course has also allowed me to participate in numerous seminars with a variety of aviation organizations, that I’d never had even known about without connecting with people via social media. That’s been another positive during this time. So many people within the industry have reached out to me via social media, and I am not only grateful for this never-ending support, but also count myself as lucky as some of my closest friends have come out of social media during the pandemic.
I also decided to undertake my PPL training, because when better than a pandemic to learn to fly! In all seriousness it’s something that I had decided a few years ago to complete but had struggled to fit around a flying roster. However this year has taught me that there is no time like the present, and if you want something, gather everything you’ve got, and GO for it. I love it and learning to fly has become a much more holistic experience for me than it has been linear. In the sky I find my peace, my calm, my purpose… it gives me a reason to hope. My life motto is find what sets your soul on fire and cling onto it. If it gives you your spark, then do it.
Writing has always been a passion of mine; I have this compulsive need to document the ‘moments’ of my life. It’s thanks to this, and the time on the ground that I’ve spent, that ‘Passport and Pants’ was published. A concept that had been in the making for probably 5 years, I finally decided to go ahead with. The suffocation I was feeling from not traveling, and lack of creative inspiration was fuelling me to create something that I could escape with, and maybe allow other people to as well. In time this blog also delved into topics relating to mental wellbeing that I believe is a topic more relevant than ever. It’s important that we normalize talking about mental health and wellbeing, particularly within aviation where it has in times prior to this been perceived as weak to disclose. Following on from this, in December I ‘ran the runways’ for charity organization Aviation Action, in which we raised money to provide training for peer supporters for those who may need it by running the length of 31 runways in 31 days.
I’m now so incredibly lucky to have been asked to work alongside ‘Resilient Pilot’, on their initiative ‘Resilient Crew’, within which I will be a mentor for cabin crew. ‘Resilient Pilot’ has done an incredible job supporting pilots during this difficult period with career advice, maintaining wellbeing, and developing that all-important resilience for such a volatile industry, and now they’re reaching out to cabin crew to offer the same. In being a part of this project, I am hoping to be able to support fellow cabin crew and aviators, the same way that so many people have reached out to support me during this time.
Versatility has been key during this time. Of course, paying rent and bills (and saving for flying lessons!) has had to play a part, and I’m lucky that my work as cabin crew has given me the skills and experience to work in so many different temporary roles. These include fitness instructing, call handling, and I even played the role of an elf at Christmas! I’ve also been a part of the vaccination effort at my local vaccination clinic, most often working in post-vaccination care, observing patients for signs of anaphylaxis and any other reaction, administering care and treatment should it be needed. In my mind, to get back to the skies, I must be a part of the recovery and with each vaccination, we are one step closer to that new normal. None of the above was in my life path (but then I’m guessing that a global pandemic wasn’t in anyone’s 5 year plan!), and yet I wouldn’t change any of it now. I’ve learnt something from every single experience and met the most amazing people along the way.
I know that a recovery in aviation will happen, and that every displaced aviator will one day find themselves back where they belong. One of my favourite sayings is ‘when everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it’ (Henry Ford), and I think that it has never been more apt. You can thrive amongst the madness, and there is always opportunity in a crisis. Sometimes you just have to look a little harder to find it and have faith in that it is always sunny above the clouds.