At 9 years old, Ellie Carter was a U2 and stratosphere expert; at 16, she went solo and at 17 she got her PPL. Read this incredible young woman’s full story here!
You may have heard of Ellie Carter ? certainly down in the south-west of England she is spoken of in awed tones by veteran aviators who have never seen anybody like her before. Just seventeen years old and a qualified PPL since her birthday, she has a tailwheel endorsement and flies a 1943 Piper Grasshopper in D-Day markings, as well as dabbling with a Super Decathlon, a Citabria, a Chipmunk and several nose-dragger types. As a maths and science student she understands the physics of flight better than some of us who’ve been in the game for decades, and a career in some form of aviation certainly beckons.
Such is the level of her comprehension, and the maturity with which she puts her points across, that it’s easy to forget she has not yet come to the fork in the road where she must decide which path to follow. She’s studying for her A-levels at a specialist maths and science school in Exeter and hasn’t settled on which universities to apply to, but it looks like it’s going to be aeronautics and astronautics, or aeronautical engineering. Already she’s been approached by easyJet, who’ve put her on their mentoring programme, but the whole world of aviation stands before her ? she could go civil, go military, engineering, design, or to the edge of space and beyond… but right now she’d really like to fly stunts for the movies.
From the standpoint of general aviation, she’s able to tell us something about one of our biggest problems?how to engage the younger generation with flying. Loud and long we lament the fact that the kids just don’t have the passion our generation had for aviation (or anything else that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen, for that matter). There is much we can do, it seems. Ellie is an ambassador for the LAA’s Youth Education & Support (YES) programme and is already quite comfortable with public speaking, especially to young audiences. Read on for some tips on what we’re not doing right.
A stand-out in any generation
But Ellie Carter would be a stand-out in any generation, and in any field. At the age of nine she was ‘adopted’ by the pilots of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale Air Force Base in California after she expressed an interest in, and an in-depth understanding of, the Lockheed U2 ‘Dragon Lady’, and she first came to public attention in 2012 when they invited her to Fairford to look over their operations. As they discovered then, she’s not just a cute little mascot ? even at nine, she knew her stuff.
There’s no family history in aviation, but Ellie always wanted to fly, even before she could read. “My mum used to trade cigarette cards, and when I was one and a half I looked at one with a picture of an aeroplane on and said that it was a Vildebeest” ? a 1928 aberration of a biplane, even uglier than its namesake. And it was in fact a Vickers Vildebeest, “but I have no idea how I knew” says Ellie, “I’d never seen an aeroplane, I couldn’t even read”. Make of that what you will, but it seems flying was in the stars.
Her parents Lorna and Neil supported her interest to a significant degree and never tried to steer her into conventional little-girl pastimes, although one of her grandmothers thought she should be playing with dolls and bought her a selection. Ellie tied bin-bag parachutes to them and launched them from an upstairs window.
“When I was at primary school we were in a low-flying area so there were always aircraft going over ? sometimes you’d see the Red Arrows,” Ellie says. “So I was always running to the fence to look at these aircraft. I knew some of the types but I’ve never really been a plane spotter ? I could tell a Hawk, but I’m not an expert on types. I used to read an awful lot of flying books… when I was nine, my bedtime reading was Fifty Years of the U2: The Complete Illustrated History of the Dragon Lady. A year earlier someone had given me another book with the U2 in it, and I was fascinated with the science of it ? the fact that it flies on the edge of space, and the idea of ‘coffin corner’, with seven knots between overspeed and underspeed, which is awesome. I don’t know where I had learned it all from, but I knew something about the stratosphere and the physics… I was always a geek and I liked maths and science, but the only science we did at school was ‘the parts of the flower’. So my knowledge came entirely from books.
“I had been asking my mum and dad to take me to an airshow, and when I was seven they took me to RNAS Yeovilton Air Day. There was no U2 there, but I met a Belgian F-16 display pilot, Mitch Buelen. He was lovely, and we had quite a long conversation.” It’s interesting to reflect on how easy, and perhaps how natural, it would have been for Buelen, as he walked away from his F-16, to have said something condescending to this diminutive girl, patted her on the head and moved on. But mum Lorna remembers: “Actually, Mitch Buelen sat down with Ellie on the tarmac, and they talked for about an hour. At the end, he told me I had to get tickets for RIAT at Fairford, which was the following weekend, so we did that.”
Ellie remembers well that air show: “There was no U2 at RIAT, and that’s what I particularly wanted to see. So afterwards I wrote to them to see if something could be done.” The letter began: ‘My name is Ellie Carter i am nine and i live in Devon, i have come to the airshow for the last two years and my ambition is to be a pilot’. It went on to say the aircraft Ellie would most like to see at Fairford was the U2. ‘I have a large U2 model on my ceiling with my stars as it flies on the edge of space and i have heard that the U2s have landed at Fairford recently on their missions… i love the way the whole team works together to land them and take them off’.
Ellie’s letter raised eyebrows at RIAT, as it’s not every day they get a letter from a girl of nine years of age expressing interest in a fairly obscure aircraft on the basis of its unusual flying characteristics and the teamwork needed to make it fly. [Remember that with its super-efficient wing and unicycle main gear, the U2 is so tricky to land that it is generally followed down the runway by a fast car bearing a pilot who can guide the U2 pilot, helping him stall the aircraft onto the runway from two feet QFE with the yoke right back in his stomach before allowing a wing to drop gently onto its titanium tip]. Unfortunately, Ellie had neglected to append her address to her letter. The people at RIAT passed it on to the Pentagon, who passed it on to the Beale AFB. The United States Air Force is nothing if not resourceful, and thus it was that BBC Radio Devon broadcast an appeal for a nine-year-old girl called Ellie Carter who was interested in the Lockheed U2 to get in touch ? which she did.
Surrounded by sub-machine guns
Ellie was invited to Fairford on a day when there was a crew change – they often change pilots there, and on that morning they had a U2 coming in from Beale, north of Sacramento, in the dark. Mum Lorna recalls: “It was half past four in the morning, and we were on the runway, surrounded by sub-machine guns, and I did wonder what she was getting us into.”
The Americans must have been equally discomfited when confronted by this tiny girl in a flying suit, all alice band and big smiles, but as she sat in the cockpit and rattled through the touch-drills like a pro, their consternation grew. “I could talk around a U2 cockpit, I knew what everything did, I was a U2 geek”, Ellie says. “That’s frightening, Ellie” said the pilot, Captain Ray Tierney. “It takes us months to learn that!”
That first visit led to a long-term friendship with Major John Cabigas (you may have seen him flying James May in a U2 in the BBC programme Edge of Space) who invited Ellie’s family to stay with him in California, and she went flying with him in his Cub. The U2 pilots at Beale stay in touch with Ellie to this day ? not as a curio, but as a pilot who shares their own passion for, and understanding of the U2. Major Cabigas had introduced Ellie to Professor Martin Kellett, an aerodynamicist and ground instructor at the Empire Test Pilots’ School who had taken her for her first flight, in his Socata Rallye ? incidentally, the aircraft in which Kellett won the Schneider Trophy in 2006. “He let me handle the stick, but of course I couldn’t reach the pedals and at the age of nine I was far too young to begin learning to fly”, Ellie says.
As her age moved into double figures Ellie saved all her pocket money with a view to learning to fly ? apart from rare splurges on Airfix models, three of them of the U2 in different configurations. Following the classic pattern, she began hanging around airfields sweeping hangars and doing odd jobs in return for flights. There, at the age of eleven, she met Richard Horner, owner of the Grasshopper she now flies. “He asked me if I wanted to come for a flight, and of course I did… we formed a bond, and I ended up flying with him an awful lot. Richard is incredible ? he’s always treated me like any other pilot, like any other person.
“One day at Eggesford, Barbie Fairclough flew in with her Cub and suggested I try gliding, so I went to the Devon and Somerset Gliding Club at North Hill, and began flying the Schleicher K-13, K-21, Ka 6 and SZD-51. It’s excellent for teaching you judgement, and I went solo on my fourteenth birthday. It was quite windy… we waited all day for the wind to drop, and in the evening it abated enough so I could fly.”
Ellie worked at a variety of jobs to raise flying funds, including selling fossils on a beach and appearing as an extra in a film, and moved on to powered flying at the age of fifteen. She gained her PPL on the Cessna 152 with Devon and Somerset Flight Training at Dunkeswell. “I flew with a bunch of instructors, and every one had a different way of teaching,” she says. “There are positives and negatives to that. You’ll learn different little tricks that are really useful, but from another standpoint they all have different preferences on which they tend to insist, which can make it confusing. On the whole they were really good instructors who treated me just like any other pilot, which was nice.”
She would have gone solo on her sixteenth birthday but for Storm Diana, which delayed that milestone by three days ? she went solo on 1 December 2018. No such misfortune with her flight test, however. She passed on her seventeenth birthday, with dad Neil driving her to the CAA at Gatwick the same day to pick up her PPL. Ellie followed up a month later with a tailwheel endorsement on the Citabria and began to fly Richard Horner’s Grasshopper. Richard has such faith in her flying skills that he allows her to fly it solo at will, and the pair of them have taken the aircraft to D-Day commemoration events and have flown it as far as Belgium together. Thousands of Piper Cubs were produced for the military during the Second World War under the name of the L-4 Grasshopper. “It’s a more challenging aircraft” Ellie says. “A proper aircraft. On the ground it’s a nightmare. I also have quite small feet, so having the heel brakes makes life challenging. I found it quite difficult for a long time, but the ‘booting it’ method works quite well.”
Ellie is 5ft 1in and flies some aircraft with a specially-made booster seat. She also carries a rubber-tipped stick with which to change the altimeter setting from the rear seat. “I’m also quite light, and when I’m on my own it’s hard to keep the Cub from climbing ? it’s very light and it has a 90hp engine, so the nose is well down and it gets quite fast. There’s a good five knot difference when I have a passenger. It’s relatively heavy in pitch so I tend to use a lot of trim on landing. The trim control is a handle on the side (Piper ‘re-purposed’ the Ford Model A window winder?Ed) and I had some problems getting the trim right during touch and goes. On my own, I trim about four turns, but when I have someone with me I’m the whole way back ? big trim change.”
The fact that a young girl is flying a ‘warbird’ is one of the main reasons why Ellie attracts attention in the media today ? she has appeared on the One Show on TV and figured in national newspapers, and her name features regularly in local papers and on radio. The publicity brought her to the attention of easyJet, which has a policy of increasing the number of women pilots, and she has been embraced by the airline’s mentoring scheme, under which potential recruits are looked after by a company pilot who explains the business to them and shows them the ropes. Under the guidance of A320 training captain Zoe Ebrey, Ellie has visited easyJet’s Bristol operation and the L3 training academy and has studied the various routes into commercial flying. “We talk a lot,” she says. “Zoe went via the modular route, which was expensive and took quite a long time. With the academies you don’t have to be a pilot at all ? you can go in and they’ll do your PPL while you’re there. But it’s quite competitive ? you do have to have very good grades.”
We ask Ellie whether mentoring gives her a better chance of getting on the career ladder. “It hasn’t been explicitly mentioned so I can’t say, but it’s invaluable experience… flying the A320 sim at L3 in Southampton, I did a simulated engine failure on takeoff, a normal flight and a high-altitude takeoff flying into some severe mountain conditions, and it was really fascinating to see how versatile the aeroplane is. You might think an A320 is a big bulky thing that doesn’t really respond, but it flies brilliantly, it’s awesome.”
Ellie is concentrating on getting good enough A-level grades to attract the attention of a university with an aeronautical focus. She’s doing Pure Maths, with minors in Mechanics and Numerical Methods ?statistics? at the Exeter Maths School, a prestigious A-level college which takes only sixty gifted students a year. If she does well she may apply to Southampton, the only university in the UK that offers an Aeronautics and Astronautics degree. “Loughborough offers aeronautical engineering, as does London Imperial, but it’s very competitive… I’ll do my best and see what happens.”
Tips for aspiring pilots
Surprisingly, Ellie finds that most people her age are fascinated to learn that she’s a pilot, and many of them would get involved in flying if they knew how to go about it. “The appetite is there ? people ask me about it, but it seems to some that they’d be aiming too high,” she says.
Some do try, and fall at the first hurdle ? because frankly, we fliers seem to be an off-putting bunch. “It can be very daunting, walking into a flying club,” she says. “Bad enough for an adult, much more so for a young person. Everyone must have had that experience of people looking at you when you walk in the door, then turning straight back to what they were doing. The immediate impression is that you’re not going to be part of the crowd. It’s an inescapable fact that most aviators are men of a certain age. Imagine yourself walking into a room full of seventeen-year-old girls, looking to fit in with the group – that’s not a precise analogy, but you get the idea. Being the only young person can be very isolating. It can feel quite weird, you don’t know where and how to approach people. It’s easy to think they’ll persevere if they really want to do it, and I certainly did. But then, I can never quite work out why people don’t want to do it ? it’s expensive, but it’s doable. If we got more young people, there would be a snowball effect. I advise people to go to a flying club with a bunch of friends, rather than alone. But everyone can help by being overtly welcoming, and trying to put new people at ease.”
Some of the mystique has gone out of professional flying, too. “The cockpit is closed off, the door is locked, and you rarely see people who might be rôle models in their uniforms”, Ellie says. “Health and safety is great, but it’s also been a curse. Back in the day, you could get close to an aircraft, you could get into the cockpit, even fly in the jump seat. A significant percentage of young people who go to the airlines have a parent or a relative who’s a pilot and they have been brought up with flying. Others just don’t know where to begin.”
We’re also too old to be truly social media-savvy. “That’s where the young live, and that’s where general aviation needs to go. Some clubs do it well, most don’t”. Once they’re in, do your best not to turn them off ? especially if they’re female. “I know a lot of people who are really encouraging, but there are also some who ignore you, or don’t even acknowledge you,” says Ellie. “Quite often I’ll fly somewhere with my dad, and people will say to him, ah, you flew your daughter in. He’ll say no, she flew me in. And they’ll walk off and won’t even acknowledge me.
“I was about to go flying one day and had my kneeboard with me. An old chap came up and said oh, you’re doing a survey, what are you doing a survey on? I said no, I’m going flying… he looked at me with a startled look and walked away. If it happened occasionally it might be funny, but it happens too often. Another time I went to the loo and was going back to the aircraft, and this person on the gate stopped me and said ‘You can’t go past, it’s only pilots from here’. Well, I am the pilot, I said, but he wouldn’t budge… then Richard came behind me and asked me whether I was going to do the preflight. And the man let me go. The same thing happened to the women of the Air Transport Auxiliary during the war, and it’s a shame things haven’t changed much in seventy years.”
Her father Neil adds: “I do see guys really helping her and I’d say it’s largely through their kindness that she’s got where she is. On the other hand, some men resent her badly, to the point of being cruel. When she was eleven or maybe twelve, I heard a man tell her she’d never fly because girls couldn’t understand engineering or physics. I also remember a glider instructor taking ten minutes to explain the mechanics of aerobatics to a boy, then turning to Ellie to tell her that she won’t understand”.
So there you have it. Be welcoming, don’t be presumptuous or condescending, get on Twitter (blah) and Instagram and we may get the average age down a tad… and by heavens, we need to.
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