Meet three high flying pilots from Hertfordshire
PUBLISHED: 10:32 08 May 2017 | UPDATED: 10:52 09 May 2017
From a microlight world champion to a newly-qualified commercial airline pilot, Barry Hunt discovers the inspiring journeys made by three of Herts' high flyers
Sandwiched between the A414, M1 and M25, Chiswell Green is a quiet little corner of Hertfordshire. Apart from an occasional tractor, very little traffic finds its way down the narrow lane leading to Plaistows Farm, but it’s here, among the barns and outbuildings, that you’ll find one of the country’s most successful pilots.
With a string of world, European and British championships under his wing, Rob Grimwood can justifiably be called Mr Microlight. The softly spoken 36-year-old grew up in the village and got the flying bug at the age of 10 when he used to watch aircraft using the small airfield.
When the farm’s owner Derrick Brunt offered to take him on a flight Rob jumped at the chance and has never looked back.
‘I can still remember that flight; the feeling of being up in the sky and looking down on the countryside. The flight probably lasted less than half an hour, but it was exhilarating, I felt totally free. That never leaves you.’
When he was 16 Rob won a bursary to learn how to fly. ‘I had been saving up for my own plane since my first flight with Derrick, so by the age of 17 I had bought a plane and got my licence.’
After his A-levels, Rob became a qualified flying instructor and took a masters degree in aeronautical engineering at Brunel University. Ten years ago he set up his own flying school, Exodus Airsports based at Plaistows Farm, and now gives other people the unforgettable experience of flying small aircraft.
‘It’s a job, but I would rather be doing this than anything else. Why work in an office when I can be here out in the fresh air? People come here because they want to fly and I love to see the thrill they get when they go up for the first time.’
Microlights are technically light aircraft weighing less than 450kg. They can be fixed-wing (just like a small plane) or flexi-wing, a bit like a powered hanglider. But don’t be fooled into thinking microlights are slow or flimsy, Rob says.
‘Modern microlights can be very powerful and will outperform heavier traditional light aircraft. Think of them as an ultra light, high performance sportscar, but they are cheaper to own and maintain than planes.’
You need a minimum of 25 hours’ training to get a microlight licence, with a learners’ package at Exodus Airsports costing £3,500. Microlights start from as little as £2,000 (prices can reach £100,000) and only cost a few hundred pounds a year to run including storage and insurance.
As well as being an instructor, since the age of 17 Rob has competed in national and international microlight events, winning multiple British, European and world titles. His success led to his membership of the prestigious Royal Aero Club in Piccadilly, and in May last year the Duke of York presented Rob with the club’s top award – the gold medal.
In 2015 Rob took a break from competing to organise two major flying competitions – the World Air Games in Dubai (the microlight equivalent of the Red Bull Air Races), and last year’s World Championships in Basingstoke.He returns to competition this month at the European Championships in Hungary and then the British Championships, with one round taking place on home turf at Plaistows Farm.
Just across the M25 from Rob Grimwood’s base is Elstree Aerodrome, a busy asphalt runway surrounded by hangars, workshops and private aircraft. Here, tucked away in an office, is one of its most experienced pilots, Ches Cole. He started the Fly Elstree flying school in 2009.
Ches, who happily admits to being a pensioner, grew up near RAF Northolt in north-west London where he used to gaze up at passing jet fighters and bombers.
‘That put the spark in me,’ he says. ‘I had a great aunt in Westcliff, Southend, and I had my first flight there when I was 12 – it was a five-bob pleasure flight in an old RAF trainer.’
After scraping together enough money to get his licence in his early 30s, Ches became an instructor in 1999 and now his club offers trial lessons, a ground school and aircraft hire.
‘Flying is very addictive, there’s nothing quite like it on earth,’ he says. ‘The majority of people who fly are wealthy and own their own planes. Most of our members are ordinary people who can afford to spend a bit of money on something they love. Whichever way you do it, it’s expensive, but if you have got the desire you can usually find a way.’
You need at least 45 hours’ flying experience to gain a private pilot’s licence, although according to Ches the reality is nearer 60. That will cost between £8,000 and £12,000, depending on the aircraft. If you want to aim for a commercial airline pilot’s licence, the figures quickly get eye-watering.
‘We do professional training, but in a friendly manner, we want people to enjoy it. Flying is really fun and there’s a lot of laughter in the cockpit,’ says Ches.
‘This is the most satisfying job I have had in my life because you see the result in people’s faces at the end of each flight.’
The huge financial and time commitment required to pursue a career as a pilot puts many off, but it didn’t deter 40-year-old Lucia Ozar who decided to get her wings when her daughter Sophia started school.
‘I was 34, I had a family and no help, but I still found time to study and fly,’ Lucia, who lives on the Herts-Essex border, explains. ‘I had my domestic life during the day and then I would stay up and study until two or three in the morning. In the end, I got my commercial licence in just over two years.’
After getting a masters degree in operations and business administration in her native Slovakia, Lucia came to the UK in 2001 when her husband, who is also an airline pilot, was relocated to Stansted Airport where Lucia currently works for property firm Airport Lettings.
‘I always thought flying was an interesting profession. I was attracted by the precision, accuracy and responsibility that is needed to be a pilot. That’s what I really admired,’ Lucia says.
‘Learning was demanding in every respect, but I’m quite a determined person so I didn’t mind the hard work. I did not want to look back and regret not doing it. Now I am looking for a job with an airline. I am 40, female and have a family, so I am not your typical airline pilot.
‘Financially, learning to fly is the same as putting a deposit down for your house, but I still managed to fulfil my dream. If you have the desire to fly, it is difficult to suppress.’
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