By Noel Philips
Things had never been better. Less than a year previously, at the grand old age of almost 40, I’d quit my steady career of 20 years in IT Consultancy in search of internet fame and all that it implied. Admittedly I’d been steadily growing my YouTube channel for a few years, never dreaming that a slightly overweight, fast-balding middle-aged IT geek from the UK’s Midlands could actually have a full-time job shouting phrases like ‘What’s up guys’ and ‘smash that subscribe button’.
Nonetheless, I’d gone almost a full year of doing YouTube full-time, managed to avoid bankruptcy, and avoided crawling back to my old boss. I had the feeling that things were looking good.
During COVID it was possible to fly in style for very little money. I flew the Qatar Qsuite and Emirates First Class which were both simply incredible. The Emirates 777 has private rooms in first class, so it’s like riding on a flying hotel!
January 2020 was the beginning of what was meant to be an amazing year. I had trips planned to every continent over the year, and I kicked it off in style. Before the end of January, I’d been to the US twice, as well as setting foot on three other continents. I enjoyed the highlight of my YouTube career by visiting Nepal, which remains to this day the most incredible country I’ve visited on my adventures.
One morning, I was sitting in the crowded domestic terminal at Kathmandu Airport waiting for a flight to Lukla, known as the most dangerous airport on earth. During a spot of intermittent connectivity, I read a BBC news article about a strange new virus, spreading fast just a few hundred miles away in China. There had been some British people there, along with scary photos of people wearing full hazmat suits. ‘Seems a bit overkill’ I remember thinking as I boarded an old Twin Otter heading for the side of a mountain. I was certain that by the time I got home the news would have changed once again to the latest exploits of the Kardashians, or whatever other reality star had done something silly that week.
Rachel very kindly (!) arranged for me to jump out of a plane. It was honestly the most terrifying experience I’ve ever undertaken, and I don’t plan to ever do this again!
A few days later I was on my way home to Manchester, making a video about a Middle Eastern airline. I never noticed it at the time, although some eagle-eyed viewers later pointed it out. While filming an innocuous shot of the aircraft cabin, the camera caught a glimpse of the TV screen on my seat, a news ticker running along the bottom of the screen.
‘FIRST CASES OF NEW SARS TYPE VIRUS DISCOVERED OUTSIDE OF CHINA’
The beginning of the most unprecedented and challenging period of our lives had begun, while I sat on a plane completely unaware.
I had a few more trips over the next couple of months. As I’d confidently predicted, not much had changed in the world. Life went on, and I’d taken another two trips to Asia and another to the USA before the end of February. Everything was fine. Until it wasn’t.
The month began, much as usual. I spent days planning trips, relishing a couple of weeks at home before I’d be off traveling again. I’d sent my wife on a weekend away to the US for some much-needed rest and relaxation. At some point during this weekend, the world changed, almost overnight. I woke up to dozens of messages and emails, asking me how on earth my wife would get home. A quick look at the news revealed the US had closed its borders while my wife was there. When she saw all of the panicked messages, she wondered if she’d be stuck there. I love my fans dearly, and I know they have our interests at heart, but that weekend I just wished they’d leave her alone.
We got her back right on time, and within hours almost every country around the world slammed their borders shut, and the UK was in full on lockdown.
My travel plans obliterated overnight and I started feeling a little less sure about this whole YouTube adventure. Without travel, what would I do? I had a backlog of videos I could maybe stretch out for a couple of months, if I was lucky. They wouldn’t be great, many were the backup ‘spare’ videos I often make, not necessarily up to my usual standard, but they’d do in a dire emergency.
As I posted these backlogged videos, the abuse started. ‘Why are you still travelling?’ ‘You are the problem.’ I honestly think this was the lowest point I’d ever reached, as I considered seriously going back to that IT job after all.
That was until I read a single comment that changed my mind completely.
The story of the last two years! Qatar Airways were the only airline who mandated a plastic face shield in addition to a face mask, which you had to wear while boarding the plane if you were in business class, or throughout the entire flight if you sat in economy.
‘I guess that’s you pretty much f***d now then. Guess you’ll have to find a real job.’
My first reaction was to shout, ‘Who does this person think he is?’ My next reaction was to prove him wrong.
I resolved that I would not miss a single week of uploading content however long this situation lasted. It became clear that people needed entertaining, and entertain them I would continue to do. As soon as travel was allowed, I was back in Europe, making whatever content I could depending on which countries were open at any given hour. This was tough, and often meant last minute trips to grab another few videos before things closed again. Sweden, Iceland and the Netherlands, not exactly exotic locations but I found they all had a wealth of content opportunities I’d never looked at before.
My first trip after the beginning of COVID hit hard. I touched down at Stockholm Airport and saw almost the entire fleet of SAS Airlines abandoned in situ, enveloped with plastic wrap around the windows and engines bagged for storage. The realization hit fast – this was not going to be a short-term problem.
This DC3 made an emergency landing on a beach in Iceland in 1973 after running out of fuel. It is so remote that the US Air Force decided to just leave it there, where it remains to the present day.
We battled through, me grabbing what content I could while my wife did all she could to support me, while simultaneously educating our two primary school-aged children, and then picking me up as my mental health suffered more than ever.
The mental strain of constant fear for the business, for our livelihood, added to the constant stream of depressing news coming through on the social media feeds, and the torrent of online abuse that, by now, was flooding in on a daily basis, for daring to try to keep a business running and a roof over our heads during the toughest situation the world has ever faced. It was tough and caused immense pressure on us all.
I took the difficult decision to seek out professional help, and started seeing a wonderful therapist who, week by week, started unpicking everything going on in my head. Over time, she helped me to realize that the work I was doing was having a tremendous impact on people’s lives during what was a terrible time for everyone. She helped me to actually listen to the dozens of lovely emails and messages I received every week from fans and people around the world who credited me with getting them through COVID, and to disregard the messages of hate as nothing more than the delusional rants of jealous trolls.
In November 2020 I was kindly invited to fly with an organisation called Mission Aviation Fellowship. They do fantastic world across some of the poorest communities around the world, delivering aid and transporting humanitarian workers to some of the world’s most impoverished areas. We flew to Northern Kenya which is home to refugees fleeing the civil war in South Sudan, as well as the world’s largest refugee camp at Kakuma.
I took the decision to come off all social media completely, and use it just for work. I still find it ironic that I have an entire career based on social media, yet I refuse to use it myself. This alone helped pick up my mood considerably, and I have never looked back.
With travel still heavily restricted over the summer, I began looking for other ways to spread my wings. Way back in 2001 I passed my Private Pilot Licence (PPL). Soon after I’d met my now wife and we got married, and I couldn’t afford to keep flying. I’d long considered it a lost cause, and all but given up any hope of getting it back. That was until I reached out to a local flying school who told me that these things never truly expire, and moreover it was an easy process to get it going again. To my utter surprise it took just a few hours training to get my licence going again, and after a bit of paperwork I was back in the air.
I truly believe that flying helped me through the latter part of 2020, the feeling of soaring thousands of feet up controlling an aircraft is second to none. All of your worries disappear as you’re flying high above the clouds, on your own in a small aircraft, and this very quickly became my happy place. So much so, that I started a second YouTube channel to show my flying adventures.
In June 2020 I used the extended time I was having to spend at home to regain my private pilots license after a break from flying of almost 20 years. Since regaining my PPL I”ve completed both my restricted instrument rating and my night rating, and started a second YouTube channel showing my PPL flying adventures.
By the end of the year, travel had become reasonably stable, but it became clear that the way I traveled before would have to change. Rather than spending three weeks a month hopping around four continents, testing and paperwork requirements meant that I’d have to spend a couple of solid weeks in one area, filming as much as I could to last a few months, then having a few months off while I waited for the next region to open. This led to a couple of amazing side effects. Firstly, I’d have the chance to spend months at a time at home after a couple of intense weeks filming. Secondly, I now had the chance to film entire series of content, which the viewers loved.
My Africa series allowed me to show some of the most incredible experiences in a part of the world little traveled by aviation geeks. My Russia series allowed me to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world on rare Soviet era airliners. In between, I spent a few months at home.
I flew on a domestic airline in Tanzania called FlightLink, who operated this old Embraer 120. The aircraft was absolutely worn out, with interior panels missing and seats missing their cushions. I paid $40 for this shirt in a tourist market!
As I write this in September 2021, the world is still a long way from ‘back to normal’. Things are gradually opening back up, but at a slow pace. It’s true that COVID has been immensely painful for so many around the world. It’s destroyed lives and livelihoods, and changed the way we live forever. We have loved, and lost, more than ever before. But among that immense pain is opportunity, opportunity that we may have never realized was there until we were forced to find it. Get a real job? Actually, I think I’m good, thanks.