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Midhurst resident Christine Farrell on piloting a Spitfire, flying VIPs and studying for her MSc

PUBLISHED: 09:03 29 December 2014

Christine flying at Spitfire on her Boutlbee training day

Christine flying at Spitfire on her Boutlbee training day

Archant

Christine Farrell from Midhurst spent two decades exploring the human mind as an organisational psychologist. Her latest endeavour was exploring the skies above Sussex from the pilot’s seat of a Spitfire, when she became one of the few women to claim that honour

Christine's helicopter over Parliament House, CanberraChristine's helicopter over Parliament House, Canberra

One of her clients called her a “poet of the air” due to her smooth technique, and Midhurst resident Christine Farrell has always been a high flier. Born in Australia’s Snowy Mountains, near the national capital, Canberra, she has spent her professional life exploring two vast and mysterious vistas: the skies and the mind.

Now she has become one of few women to fly a Spitfire, an experience she describes as “quite thrilling”.

Not many of us would have the courage to change career at 56, but that’s what organisational psychologist Christine did.

After two decades in London working at a British company, she and her fellow directors launched their multi-million pound psychology firm on the London Stock Exchange. She converted her shares into a Qantas ticket to Australia and her own flying machine and, after gaining her commercial licence, spent a decade as a helicopter pilot and owner of Aquila Helicopters. When in Canberra she did aerial filming, conducted aerial pollution surveys and flying VIPs, including the Deputy Prime Minister. “That was a big turning point in my career. It meant that I was financially independent and able to pursue my lifelong passion, flying.” Now she is studying for her MSc in Air Safety and Accident Investigation at Cranfield University and plans to build a third career in that area, which will relate to both areas of her expertise.

Growing up in a coal-mining and steel-manufacturing town – where the community’s wealth came out of the ground – Christine always had her eye on the sky. She loved the Biggles books as a child, but “my father was the headmaster of one of the local schools and my mum was a stay-at-home mum. I couldn’t afford to be in the aviation world.” Nevertheless she began flying in her late teens, clocking as many hours as she could manage. While she was on an infant school teacher’s wage, that was just an hour a month.

The origins of Christine’s passion can be traced back to her admiration for the pioneering British aviator Amy Johnson, who was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia and the first fully qualified female aviation mechanic. Johnson flew for the Aircraft Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War and died during the conflict. The legendary pilot provides inspiration of a tangible kind, too: “She was made an honorary life member of the Hull Flying Club, where she was presented with a certificate. It hangs on my wall at home.”

Despite early pioneers like Johnson and her US contemporary, Amelia Earhart, women are still not particularly well-represented in the industry. Christine said: “It was a male-dominated environment, and in the UK it still is. When I got my commercial helicopter licence that was unusual and it is certainly unusual for a woman to fly a Spitfire.

“There aren’t too many women flying helicopters in the UK, though I now have some women friends flying in the defence forces, on the North Sea and doing Air Ambulance work. Breaking into the commercial helicopter world is quite challenging, primarily because many of the jobs are taken by ex-Forces personnel.” But she says that she has always been treated with cordiality and respect, possibly because of the amount of flying experience she has amassed.

In a way, her recent two-day course at Goodwood Aerodrome with the Boultbee Academy represented the fulfilment of a dream that started a lifetime ago, at the other side of the world. At Goodwood she flew three Boultbee Academy ‘taildraggers’ – the aviation term for aircraft with a wheel underneath the rear rather than the nose: a Chipmunk, a Harvard and one of very few remaining Spitfires.

“I guess it’s every pilot’s dream to fly a Spitfire. As I discovered, they were actually quite tricky to fly. The biggest problem is they have a tendency to swerve to left or right during the take-off run and you can’t see over the nose, which can be quite unnerving. The more powerful the engine, the stronger that tendency. The fastest we travelled was 180mph, which was quite thrilling when you are used to flying around at 100mph.”

There was about three hours of flying on the course, which doesn’t sounds like much, but as Christine said, “The Spitfire is worth something in the region of £2m. You can imagine if you hired a car that cost £2m, they are going to limit what you can do in it. So the landings and take-offs in the Spitfire were done by the instructors. They handed over to the student after take-off and we flew it from there.”

Christine flew over to Midhurst – above her house – outside of which her partner Josephine stood watching – circling around in the vicinity of Haslemere then performing a vertical climb and a victory roll back over the house. “The Spitfire was a delight to fly.”

There is a sadness though, that the UK government doesn’t recognise her Australian commercial licence, meaning she is only able to fly privately.

“That is a great shame because in the Second World War Australia declared war on Germany within days of Britain. Very quickly 450 Australian pilots volunteered to fly for the RAF.” Christine’s uncle, like this writer’s grandfather, was one of them, “and it’s kind of sad, given Australia made a major contribution, that the the UK Civil Aviation Authority doesn’t recognise Australian commercial licences.”

Amy Johnson isn’t the only aviation hero in Christine’s life. Her uncle was with a group of bombers dropping supplies behind Japanese enemy lines. “There were 12 aircraft in the squadron. On their very first flight 12 went out and only nine came back.

“He was dropping supplies to the resistance and his aircraft was shot down over Vietnam. After the war the Americans sent in teams to recover the remains of the pilots and crews and my uncle’s body was discovered in the wreckage of their aircraft. I get sad every time I talk about it.”

Perhaps in some way he has inspired his niece, as she will continue to inspire others. Christine now flies privately from Goodwood with Elite Helicopters, offering friends and acquaintances flights on a non-profit, cost-sharing basis and enabling them to share her passion for aviation. 
“This way I can do twice as much flying, and as a psychologist I like putting smiles on other people’s faces.”

A one-hour flight out of Goodwood costs around £115 per head (based on a four-person helicopter). Email airpoet44@gmail.com for details.

***

Youth in flight

Christine is currently working on a book about helicopter operations, which will be aimed at the Young Adult market. Many of her international contacts have contributed to the book, which she hopes will show the diversity of the machines, Otherwise, her advice to young people interested in aviation is this: “When I was young aviation was much more on everybody’s minds as a result of the Second World War and the role that aircraft played.

“It is more of a struggle today to encourage people to consider aviation careers, whereas back then many people aspired to become pilots and the main restriction was being able to afford it. The most difficult thing is making a start and finding the funds. People will often take two jobs and do their flying part-time.

“One of the ways of starting is to join the Air Cadets, which brings you into contact with the RAF. Of course one of the most common routes for young people is to join either the Army, the Navy or the Air Force; all three services offer aviation careers. I have to say that people have fantastic career tracks, which are planned for them by the military – they don’t just go into one job and stay in it, they move around and fly different aircraft. They build up their hours at no expense to themselves. And all this time they are doing a very worthwhile job for the country.”

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