Natalie Wellington had a successful career in sales, a house, regular holidays and an all-round very nice life. At age 33, she gave it all up to retrain as a commercial airline pilot.
Have you always wanted to be a pilot or was this a more recent ambition?
It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do but just not something that was really feasible for lots of reasons when I was younger. First of all, historically, being a female pilot wasn’t encouraged. It was seen as something that other people would do and not possible for me, almost as if it was exclusively for people who were rich and not from a working class background. It didn’t seem within my reach, and those around me definitely didn’t encourage it.
Were you apprehensive about going back to school?
I was massively apprehensive. As you get older, fears start to set in. I’ve often reflected on why that is as it has never really been a trait of my personality. I think it’s more about what society tells you. I’m in my 30s and I’d like the family and the 2.4 children but society tells you, “You’re a bit old to be retraining now aren’t you? Shouldn’t you be thinking about your future?”
It’s very easy to get comfortable with your life. I’ve had a good job, I’ve had holidays and nice clothes – all the things society says should satisfy you. But actually, all of the time it’s always felt like something was missing and it’s strange because you think, “I should be satisfied,” but I’m just not. It’s hard to know what it is that’s missing, because on the outside it looks like you have a fantastic life.
What does your training entail?
First we start with the theory, which is ground school. There we learn 14 different subjects varying from meteorology and the mechanics of how engines work through to air law. Once we’ve completed ground school, we go into flight school, which is the practical side where we learn to fly.
Is it a very competitive industry once you’ve got your license?
It’s massively competitive. Once you’re newly qualified your level of expertise is minimal – you’re almost still seen as an apprentice. The more hours you have behind you, the more favorable you are to an employer. As a low-hour pilot, the jobs available are few and far between. There are only a few airlines that are willing to take the responsibility and the additional cost of training someone with low hours. I suppose that’s how society is nowadays, everyone wants someone with experience but no one wants to take a chance on someone to give them that experience.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?
Cost. A lot of people I train with are Middle Eastern and are subsidised by their governments but I am self-sponsored. As consumers, we demand continually that we get the best price with travel. I’ve flown from Spain to the UK and the ticket has been less than the cost of the train from the airport back home. I think that at some point, consumers need to take responsibility and say that they are willing to pay a little extra and put companies in a position where they can invest in people and support students coming in from the bottom, as they are our future. Affordability is a really big issue – there are thousands of people who would be great pilots but have no way of funding the training.
It’s always felt like something was missing and it’s strange because you think, “I should be satisfied,” but I’m just not.
Are there many other women training alongside you and does that pose its own challenge?
Between 3-5% of pilots are female. When there are only 5% of you doing a job, you’re always going to stick out because you are a minority. It’s the same with other female pilots I know, we just strive to be better. That may be more of a reflection of our personalities than the fact that we’re female; it’s hard when you don’t have a high number of people to compare yourself to. I only know a couple other female pilots. Is it because we’re female or is it because the industry attracts a certain type of person?
There has been some recent scrutiny about the mental health of pilots. How do you feel about the systems put in place to protect you, the crew and ultimately the passengers from the mental pressures of this job?
From the very beginning of training we are taught a subject called human performance limitation which looks at the biological, physical and psychological effects of being a pilot. You learn how to recognize potential signs of illness with yourself and/or your crew, whether that’s physical or mental. We are also taught how to keep ourselves healthy and well-rested, as it is a very demanding profession. You have other people’s lives in your hands, as well as tons of machinery. I think that everyone continually thinks about these things. I personally don’t think safety has slipped at all and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people aren’t aware of. As an industry, we are not complacent and continually strive to be as safe as possible. Safety will always be paramount.
How have you most surprised yourself since starting this training?
Going into aviation and starting afresh I’ve found skills I didn’t know that I had, and skills that I didn’t have. The more that you challenge yourself, the more you probably surprise yourself. Often it’s there, you just forget. As people, we can become a little complacent and a little bit comfortable in our lives. Take yourself out of your comfort zone. It really isn’t too late at all.
What advice would you give someone thinking about making this sort of change in their own life?
I think it would definitely just be to be brave and to have confidence in your own ability because unless you try, how do you know? Surely it’s better to have tried and to know than to always wonder, “what if?”. Life’s too short for that.
Lastly, what’s your favorite plane movie?
It has to be Top Gun. What’s not to love about fast jets combined with a bit of romance?