The first time Charlotte Knowlson flew a solo flight that involved landing at a new and unfamiliar airport, she needed to re-fuel for her return to base. Filling up for the flight back might not sound that remarkable, but when you discover that Charlotte could fly a plane before driving a car, her first ever experience at the pumps was pretty awesome.
I stumbled across Charlotte on Twitter, and have enjoyed her articulate, honest and fascinating tweets about life as a pilot ever since.
An inspiration for future aviators, it’s people like Charlotte who will help grow the global community of women in aviation (at present, just 5% of all pilots are women). There wasn’t always a gender equal foundation for careers in the clouds, as can be illustrated by the fact that the Boeing 747 entered into service in 1970, but wasn’t captained by a woman (Captain Beverly Lynn Burns) until July 18, 1984.
Thankfully, the sky is no longer the limit for anyone, and airlines around the world are actively encouraging women to fly.
Intrigued to learn more about Charlotte’s journey into flying, I asked if she would talk about her experience for my blog, and was thrilled when she agreed.
After completing her A Levels, Charlotte spent time traveling while working as a wakeboard instructor, before studying for an aerospace engineering degree. Two years in, a bad wakeboarding accident resulted in Charlotte having time off to recover, and gave her space to think. She realized that university wasn’t making her happy. She’d always wanted to be a pilot but couldn’t afford the hefty cost of training, so started working for a luxury PR company in London. Then, her dream of flying became a reality.
I’ll hand over to Charlotte who will share her story. Charlotte, you have control!
When did you know that flying was for you?
My father had a share in an aircraft at our local airport (Bembridge) near to where I grew up on the Isle of Wight. He took me up one day when I was very young, and I remember holding the controls and looking out over the white cliffs thinking, I want to be able to do this. And that was it!
Did you, or do you have a role model who inspired you to fly?
I didn’t have a role model as such, I didn’t know much about flying and you don’t see female pilots that often! I guess my father was the one who inspired me. He’d take me to airshows. I always wanted to be a Red Arrow!
What was your route into flying commercially?
I decided that the integrated course was best for me. I applied for the CAE Oxford Aviation Academy when I was 18 and was due to start but my funding fell through. Eight years later I applied again, took the assessments on the Monday and started on the Friday! I became a CAE cadet, and graduated as a CAE pilot.
When did you first go solo?
This was at Falcon Field, Arizona, where pilots in training take to the skies for the first time once they have completed six months of ground school. I’d done about 15 hours flying in the Piper PA-28 Cherokee, and it was a beautiful cloudless Arizona day in December 2016.
What did it feel like?
Like a blur! You learn so much, so fast, and once your instructors think you’re ready, they just say ‘off you go’. I was repeating every stage of the circuit in my head as I was going round. It is the best feeling ever when you land and taxi back on your own, shut the engine down and walk away thinking, I just flew that, up there, on my own!
What aircraft do you fly? Tell us a bit about it.
I fly the Airbus 320 family. It’s a lovely aeroplane to fly. They all handle quite differently, especially if you’re flying a very light/heavy one. You almost have to learn each one’s personality. The side stick didn’t actually take as long as I thought to get used to and now I rather like it.
What’s the most challenging part of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is if you face an abnormal situation. We are trained for this, and get lots of regular practice at dealing with high stress and workload scenarios.
What’s the best thing about your job?
The feeling I have every time I climb out through the clouds into the blue sky. I don’t know if it’s just me but it puts a smile on my face every time.
What advice would you give to anyone aspiring to be a pilot?
You’ve got to be prepared to work hard and fail sometimes. The training and the learning never stops. It takes a huge amount of determination just to get through initial training and then when you get a job you’re tested at least every six months. The pace of training is like trying to drink from a fire hose. People learn at different rates and no one ever has a perfect flight. Remember that you’re human and all you can do is learn from every experience.
Any specific advice to women wanting to pursue a career in aviation?
Don’t be put off by anyone telling you, you can’t do it or shouldn’t. If you’re worried that it’s not suited to family life, it can work just fine, as I’ve seen from my colleagues.
What’s your favourite…
… take-off or landing
Landing, as it’s always a challenge
…destination as a pilot?
So far, Hurghada – the vast expanse of dessert is really cool.
… destination for a break?
In Europe it would have to be north-west Majorca – sunshine and hiking combined with beach days and great food. In the world, Bali. I just love a beautiful island where you can surf. The people are lovely.
… plane of all time?
The Spitfire – it’s a beautiful machine.
… in-flight meal?
The scones with cream and jam (jam first). We sometimes get them if there are any left!
Thank you so much for giving us an insight into your flying career so far, Charlotte! You can follow Charlotte’s flying adventure (and other adrenaline filled activites) on Instagram, Twitter, and her blog.