Such is the nature of this career, it’s not only pilots themselves who are affected by the long hours, early starts and days away from home, these are felt by the rest of the family, too. Former BALPA employee and daughter of a pilot, Emma Chisholm, gives her account of growing up with Captain Dad.
One of my earliest memories as a child is hearing my father get up early and me rushing downstairs to cling to his leg so he couldn’t leave us for another week. After some effort on my dad’s part to prise me off, I watched sobbing as his car disappeared down the road. A week later he would return and I would ignore him for at least three days as an infantile means of punishment for leaving me.
As a parent now, I can imagine this must have been tough on my dad. But also as an adult I can reflect on just how much he meant to me (and still does) and how his role as a pilot elevated him to hero status in my eyes.
I was lucky enough to go on many trips with him and even luckier that I could sit behind him on the flightdeck. I loved to watch him prepare the aircraft for take-off and listen in on the super-serious communications with air traffic control. As we rumbled down the runway it was my dad’s hand on the throttle, he was making this machine fly!
The upside to being the child of a pilot is, of course, staff travel. I was lucky enough to travel the world throughout my childhood years and, as he became more senior, in rather lovely seats. They say youth is wasted on the young, and as the (now grown up) daughter of a pilot I can say that staff travel is wasted on children! As I turn right on every aircraft I board with my three tired/hungry/emotional children in tow I look longingly at the ‘comfy’ seats before the dividing curtain is whisked shut to spare the premium passengers the sight of my unruly brood.
Of course, there were downsides. Fatigue was a problem then, as it is today, and I remember dad was often tired or sleeping at odd times of the day. When dad had returned from a night flight (and I had passed my ‘ignoring for three days’ phase), I would wake him up by peeling open his eyelids “Daddy, wake up!” which was met with much grunting and grumbling. Incidentally, my father recently performed the ‘eyelid opening’ on me when I was having a sleep as revenge.
Then of course there were the missed birthdays and Christmases or the many childhood events where dad couldn’t come because he was either sleeping before a flight, away on a trip or sleeping after a flight. I find it hard enough when my husband is away for work for a couple of days, so I can imagine the repeated absences and ongoing tiredness/sleeping must have been hard on my mum.
But despite all of this, I grew up wanting to be a pilot, like my dad. I joined the air cadets and applied for the British Airways cadet scheme. Fortunately, for the safety of the travelling public, but less fortunately for me, I didn’t succeed and moved rather tangentially into a career in communications. But my love of aviation, from the love of my father, soon drew me back towards the airport and I have since been working in aviation communications.
I love airports, I love the smell of aviation fuel, I love the sound of jet engines and the sight of a 747 on final approach over our local park has me staring skywards until it’s out of sight. I am sure a psychoanalyst would have a field day with me!
My father finished his career with four years at the cargo operator GSS, an airline which sadly no longer exists. He loved these last years, the trips were interesting, the cargo was interesting (anything from formula one cars to rhinos!) and there were no passengers or crew to deal with. I, however, was dreading his retirement. I worried about how my relationship with my father would change when he was no longer the ‘man who could make planes take off’.
I wanted to be there to see dad’s last landing and thankfully GSS were kind enough to arrange for that to happen. He had no clue we were there and once he realised it was us standing on the tarmac by the marshaller he was so overcome with emotion that his legs went to jelly and he had to ask his co-pilot to apply the brakes. And then it happened… my dad descended the aircraft steps, gave the nose wheel a kiss and his career as a pilot was over. No party, no gifts just the crew bus to the carpark and a long drive home to Sussex.
Five years on and I am pleased to report my father is very happy to have traded the 18 wheels of his 747 for the four wheels of his beloved car. He has far more energy, far fewer illnesses and is delighting in spending quality time with his grandchildren. My fears about our relationship have proved unfounded as the passion he had for flying he has completely redirected into being an incredible grandfather. There is nothing he wouldn’t do for me and my family. My father may no longer a pilot, but he is still my hero. Except when he peels open my eyelids.