What inspires young people to consider a career in aviation or aerospace? Several years ago, I interviewed a senior British executive who had started out decades before as an apprentice on the factory floor of an engineering company. He’d worked his way up and was now running the UK arm of a multinational aerospace and defense group. I was keen to find out what had brought him into the industry in the first place.
It was simple, he told me: “In 1969, Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the surface of the moon, Concorde took its first flight and I saw a Harrier Jump Jet display at Farnborough Air Show. What else would I have chosen after that?”
Image: Gary Lakin
That simple story has stayed with me ever since and I recite it when anyone questions whether children can be inspired by attending such events. My own aviation awakening came in three phases. My earliest memory of an aircraft was seeing Concorde (there she is again) soaring over London as I walked in Hyde Park with my grandparents. I was only about four or five-years-old.
Next, I went to Duxford on a birthday trip with a school friend. Together we watched a Spitfire dance in the skies above that historic airfield. It transported us back to 1940 and the Royal Air Force’s Finest Hour. I was determined to be a fighter pilot from that moment on (the RAF had other ideas).
The first time I took the controls of an aircraft myself I felt instantly at home and have flown pretty much ever since, infrequently to start with before training for a private license and more regularly as the co-owner of various light aircraft for the past decade. Becoming ‘hands on’ in aviation has changed my life for the better, opened doors I never thought I’d see behind, and granted me access to a global collective of like-minded individuals who instantly recognize a fellow aviation nut.
Image: Gary Lakin
Today, I’m also lucky enough to work for a large and growing UK aviation company that operates across a spectrum of activities – occasionally I get to fly in our aircraft. Everyone I meet there is equally passionate about the magic of flight. Many take the time to welcome visitors into our world, speak to school or college children, and engage with members of the public at airshows or other events.
A few summers ago, long before COVID devastated the sector, I was strolling back to my shared de Havilland Chipmunk parked up on the grass near the café at my home airfield. Leaning on the fence, looking at the 70-year-old machine on the other side, were three quite young boys. It was clear they were pretty excited to be so close to an aeroplane, one that all too soon was going to start up and fly away again, out of their lives.
Remembering one kind airshow pilot who took the time to show me around his plane when I was a similar age, I turned back to the kids. Beckoning over two ladies who were the trio’s mothers, I asked if all five would like to come through the gate to take a closer look at the Chipmunk. They simply couldn’t believe they were allowed to visit ‘airside’ and, what’s more, that they would be able to sit inside this vintage machine.
Image: Gary Lakin
The smiles on their faces were priceless as they took hold of the controls, made the obligatory engine noises and no doubt imagined themselves soaring through the clouds. Their mums were also joyful to witness this transformation in their excitable children.
For me it was a small gesture, a few minutes out of the flying day and a chance to talk about the airplane I love. But as we prepared to part, one of the mothers explained that their families had spent all summer throwing money at activities in the hope the boys would be entertained for a short while during the long holidays. Nothing seemed to resonate. Until they saw this aeroplane. One of the kids declared it the best thing he’d done all summer. I found this hugely encouraging.
So, ever since I’ve tried to make sure I offer others the chance to get up close to this aircraft. If even one single person picks up the bug from me and develops a similar passion for aviation, I’d consider it hugely worthwhile. And if they don’t, maybe just dispelling some of the perception of elitism around private aviation makes it a worthwhile thing to do in its own right.
There are myriad ways that those of us in aviation can open our world to those outside, welcome in people – particularly youngsters – who could provide the lifeblood to sustain the sector in the years ahead. By its very nature, aviation has always blazed a trail, pushed the envelope (as Tom Wolfe described it in The Right Stuff) and driven futuristic developments at a pace many industries struggle to match.
Image: Gary Lakin
As pilots or aviation professionals, we have an obligation to use our enthusiasm for flight for the greater good and take every opportunity to extol its virtues. There are those who would see us grounded for good. But we know the power to change lives that the promise of flight provides. The industry has modernized before – think back to the dawn of the jet age. And now it must modernize again for the health of the planet. But to keep moving forward we need to lure new generations of enthusiasts who together will go on to change our world for the better.