As I sat on the train from London to Headcorn, I was feeling apprehensive. Who would I meet? How would the event go? Would a lot of women show up? But as soon as I entered the door of the Headcorn and met the first of many female pilots, I knew I was in the right place.
The first night of the event was mostly a mixer where pilots and passengers got to meet each other and swap aviation stories. A popular question was how people got involved in aviation and what lead them to get a pilot license. For most, the answer was simple- a friend or family member took them flying and they were hooked. I also got to go on an hour-long night flight with some of the local pilots, which was fun and informative as we talked about the differences between US and UK flying.
Saturday proved to be both a fun and informative day for women aviators everywhere, but it was not without its difficulties. Getting all the participants across the Channel proved to be a logistical challenge. Many of the pilots there didn’t hold pilot licenses that were issued in the UK or Europe, which meant they had to fly the British or French-registered aircraft with an instructor. Other challenges included weight limits, which meant that many planes that could hold four passengers had to fly with three if the plane was fully fueled and carrying baggage. And the biggest challenge of all was dealing with the fickle English weather. Low fog and clouds hung over the Channel throughout the morning, but fortunately they lifted enough in the afternoon to at least allow pilots to fly. Fortunately, a series of guest speakers kept the crowd engage while waiting on the weather. The speakers included several female pilots from around the world; the first pilot to circle the North Pole; and helicopter pilot Annette Mason, the wife of Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason.
The pilot I was originally going to fly with ended up having to cancel due to weather and didn’t make it out to the event, along with some other pilots from around Europe. The plans of who would fly with who in what planes changed several times, but eventually I got a new ride- in the Mason’s helicopter!
The helicopter is a Eurocopter Squirrel with a cloud and sky paint scheme. The headsets are painted to match the outside and Annette even wore a matching blouse. Some of the other cool features of the helicopter include window cutouts near the pilots’ feet so you can see beneath the helicopter and the ability to carry more passengers and baggage then a small fixed-wing aircraft.
I’ve never been in a helicopter before. The oddest part to me was the takeoff. It was weird but fun to take off going straight up instead of forward. The flight followed the path that nearly all the Channel flights took for the event, which is to head north from Headcorn to Dover, cross the Channel and fly to Nez Gris before heading south along the coast to Le Touquet. The reason most planes took this route is that it minimized the time over the water. Many general aviation pilots like to minimize over water time since land provides a lot more landing options in case of emergency.
As the helicopter made its way to Le Touquet, I saw landmarks such as the white cliffs of Dover; ferries running passengers and cargo across the Channel; and small towns dotting the countryside. One thing that did surprise me about the flight was the landing. Even though we were in a chopper, the chopper flew the pattern the way a fixed-wing plane would. It even did a pass over the runway before turning off and following a bicycle marshal to the VIP landing area.
The crowd to welcome the pilots at Le Touquet was large and excited. It echoed the reception Quimby got when she made the trip over 100 years ago. The crowd included spectators, musical groups, media, and VIPs such as the mayor of Le Touquet. A number of local businesses set up shop offering aviation-related products and samples of fine French food.
That evening, many of the pilots and passengers got to mingle at a fine dinner at city hall. It was wonderful seeing people from around the world meet and discuss women and aviation. Before the dinner, several of the pilots and I wandered through the local French market to try more of the local fare. We spent the rest of the afternoon trading yet more aviation stories before dinner. And many folks from Saturday’s events met up the next morning to do a bike ride around Le Touquet. Many friendships formed that weekend that will last long beyond the weekend.
If Harriet Quimby were alive today, I think she would have been proud of the progress that women are making in aviation. While there’s still room for improvement, the future of women in aviation looks bright.