Taking over what was an all male preserve, the latest Master of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots is determined to improve standards in flight instruction. We chatted to Dorothy Saul-Pooley about breaking through the glass ceiling.
On 17 March 2014, Dorothy Saul-Pooley was invested as Master of the Honourable Company of Air Pilots (formerly the Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators). It was the first time in the organisation’s 85-year history that it had been headed by a woman. By any standards this was a tremendous achievement. It was also the culmination of a great deal of effort, for Dorothy had first sought to be elected as a Warden the first rung on the long ladder leading to becoming Master in 2004.
“I didn’t make it. I stood again in 2005, 2006 and then 2007. But I thought I was banging my head against a brick wall ? I decided they didn’t want women and I wouldn’t bother any more. So I put aside the ambition to become Master. But then I stood again in 2010 and was elected to be a Warden, so I knew I’d become Master eventually. But it’s taken me really a long time compared to some other people.”
Those who know Dorothy’s history might not be that surprised at her latest achievement; after all, she is no stranger to success in aviation. An experienced pilot of both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft, she has around 9,700 flying hours in about 95 different types. She holds both an ATPL (A) and a CPL (H), and instructs on both aeroplanes and helicopters. In addition, she is qualified to teach fixed-wing flying instructors and has trained over 250 of these from her base ? Pooley’s Flying Instructor School at Shoreham Airfield.
She is also a CAA flight examiner and has somehow found the time to become a leading author and editor of flight training manuals, as well as an expert on aviation law. Within the ‘Air Pilots’ Dorothy has worked unstintingly for the Education and Training Committee, which she eventually chaired. More recently she went on to establish the biennial Instructors Forum, and then created and chaired the Professional Flying Instructors Association.
Reading the above, you might be forgiven for assuming that Dorothy was someone who was born into an aviation orientated family and had been flying from an early age. She must be one of those natural pilots who had always found everything easy and passed all her exams with flying colours and minimal hours… In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
“I wanted to fly as a child, but I knew nothing about it. The first time I even went in an aeroplane was when I was nearly nine, when we went on holiday. We went from Southend to Le Touquet in Bristol Freighter with the car, and I thought it was amazing. But there were not many opportunities after that to fly. I was the eldest of five children and we usually went on holiday in a caravan.”
Dorothy held on to this new desire to fly, but there were few opportunities in aviation for women back then. In the1970s, when she went to Southampton University to study law, she attempted to join the University Air Squadron, “but they looked at me and said ‘no’. I asked why not. They said I was female, so I wasn’t eligible for flying duties in the Air Force. That was that. I went off and joined the rifle club and the skiing club and the light opera society, and put the idea of flying to the back of my mind”.
Thus thwarted, Dorothy’s flying ambitions remained dormant until she was about thirty. Then, during a skiing holiday, she just happened to hear someone talking about flying. It turned out that the chap she had been listening to had done some air racing. This sounded such fun to the adventurous young woman that she kept in touch with him, and when she got back to the UK he eventually introduced her to his flying instructor. “So just after my 31st birthday I had my first flying lesson,” she told me. “It was at Biggin Hill in a Cessna 150. I was hooked; I just loved being in the air.”
Dorothy started the PPL course, but right from the start she found it difficult. “I didn’t have any confidence. I’d been told as a young woman that I wasn’t very practical or coordinated; I couldn’t even catch a ball and I failed my driving test twice. I didn’t really believe I could do it. The first lesson, this older guy took me up and I loved it, and I think I expected him to be my instructor. But when I went back the next time they gave me this young hour-builder. He wasn’t interested in me, and he clearly didn’t want to be there ? he wanted to be flying something bigger.”
Like many PPL students both before and since, Dorothy’s instruction left a lot to be desired, although she didn’t realise that at the time. But now, with the benefit of experience and hindsight, she says “He didn’t give me any briefings; he just stuffed me in the aeroplane and off we went. If it suited him to go up and earn some money, then he’d take me flying even in unsuitable conditions. When I look at my logbook, I see that I did the early exercises in a fairly short space of time, but with no real idea of what was going on.
He then took me up to do stalling, and put the plane into a spin without warning, which terrified me. Then we started doing circuits, but after one circuit session the school changed the fleet from 150s to 172s. I was given no cross-over briefing, and the next session we went up and did circuits again, but now in a bigger, heavier aeroplane. My next five and a half hours were instrument flying, because the weather wasn’t very good, but my instructor was trying to get his hours in. Then we went back to climbing and descending? probably because someone had realised that I couldn’t really control the aeroplane and we needed to go over stuff. So, it was not a very structured or sensible way to learn to fly.”
Why did Dorothy put up with all this, you may ask? Why not try a different instructor or indeed another school, for there were several flying schools at Biggin Hill? She explains: “I thought it was me. He used to yell at me, and I got more and more scared. And I was the only woman there. I didn’t dare ask for a different instructor; I didn’t know you could. I didn’t even think of looking at another flying school ? I didn’t know you could do that sort of thing. And I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it. I look back now and wonder how I could have been so timid, but clearly I was. I was a lawyer, but I was in a totally unfamiliar environment. It was an intimidating environment for a woman.”
Eventually, however, Dorothy got another instructor, and in the end she got her PPL. You might think that such a bad experience would have put her off the whole flying school and instructing scene, if not scared her off aviation altogether. But for Dorothy the whole thing worked in exactly the opposite way. Her unsatisfactory training made her want to improve the way that things were done. Indeed, this desire became the driving force that shaped her whole future career: “At the end of my PPL I felt that I could have done it a whole lot better than they did. So I decided I’d like to be an instructor.”
With the drive and ambition which are typical of her, Dorothy started off by getting her Twin Rating, after only seventy hours flying time. Then she stopped practising law for a while so that she could study full time for a CPL and an FI rating, which she completed in 1992, only four years after learning to fly. In 1994 she was given a full-time instructing job at Redhill, which she did for a couple of years, following up that with obtaining an IR. She then upgraded to be able to teach IMC, before becoming a multiengine instructor.
By that time, however, Dorothy had completely run out of money, “so I reinvented myself as an aviation lawyer. I went to work at Heathrow on aviation accidents and insurance claims; it was very interesting. Then I went back to law for a couple of years ? but all the time I was doing full-time law, I was doing part-time instructing evenings and weekends, and getting in about 300 hours a year”.
That job came to an end and, at the suggestion of someone she knew who worked for the CAA, Dorothy decided to train as an FIC (Flying Instructor Course) instructor. In 1999 she got her first job training new instructors, at one of the flying schools at Shoreham, and so began the type of instructing that became essentially her life’s work. She told me: “That’s what I’ve done ever since. It makes you feel you’re passing on your knowledge to more people, shaping the instructors who then pass it on to their students. It’s all about helping people be the best they possibly can be. And it’s about safety, because if you teach people properly they’ll be safer pilots.”
Dorothy’s aviation law background had also played a part in her realisation of the importance of good instructing. She added: “If you spend ten years on and off as an aviation lawyer dealing with accidents and insurance claims, you can see what goes wrong. One of the shocking things is that practically every time there’s an accident, there’s a paperwork deficiency, because people don’t understand paperwork: lapsed licence, lapsed Certificate of Airworthiness?that sort of thing. That means it’s very likely the insurance company won’t pay up.” Needless to say, Dorothy makes sure that she passes the importance of this side of things on to her instructor students!
Along the way, as a result of her law background, Dorothy got involved in editing the Air Law volume in the Pooley’s series of PPL training books. She followed this up by writing a couple of training books herself and, after her marriage to Robert Pooley (they have since divorced), finally ended up writing and editing the whole series ? which led to her learning to fly helicopters.
“I was asked to edit a helicopter trial flight guide on the basis of my literary abilities. And I started going through it. Well, I could correct the grammar, but I didn’t know if the sense was right, as I didn’t even know the difference between a collective and a cyclic. So it was decided I should have some helicopter lessons. I had my first one at Sloane’s in about 2003. I had a lady instructor, which was rather good. I’d had a couple of trial helicopter lessons before, but I’d been put off by men showing off ? putting the helicopter into confined areas for instance; it was terrifying. But this woman let me fly the helicopter and we climbed and descended and so on, and I realised it wasn’t that difficult for an aeroplane pilot of 4,000 odd hours.”
Indeed it wasn’t. Dorothy managed to master helicopter flying quite quickly ? indeed she learned to hover in eight minutes ? and got her licence in eleven weeks, while still working full time. But that achievement wasn’t enough for her. “Then Pooley’s set out to produce another book, Principles of Helicopter Flight, Commercial. I started reading the manuscript and realised it wouldn’t look good if the editor only had a PPL(H), and I decided to get my helicopter commercial. Since I had a CPL(A), I only needed 105 hours and one written exam. While editing the book I studied it and took the exam and got 93%, so I decided the book must be fairly correct. Then I was asked to edit the helicopter instructor manual, and I decided I’d better get my rotary wing instructor rating too.”
At that point, however, Dorothy hit a bureaucratic brick wall. She officially needed 250 rotary hours for the helicopter instructor course, and only had around 140. She thought this was crazy ? she now had 6,000 flying hours total: what was to be gained by simply boring more holes in the sky at a very expensive hourly rate? She went to see the CAA, and “the guy in policy agreed. He told me if I could find an FIC instructor who’d let me do the course with fewer hours, he’d accept my application as an instructor with 200 hours total”.
It was a hollow victory. No school would accept her, and she had to give in and rack up the 250 hours, which took her another two years. But, “I finally qualified as a helicopter instructor just before I was fifty”. So, what about the Honourable Company of Air Pilots? Where did that fit in? Having joined as soon as she was allowed to?i.e. after having held her licence for five years ? Dorothy threw herself into the organisation’s activities with enthusiasm, attending as many events as she could. She joined the Education and Training Committee in 1998, eventually chairing it, then starting the Instructor Sub-Committee in 2002.
“There was concern over instructor standards slipping. We started this up to see if we could raise standards. I chaired it for the first four years, and during that time I organised the first conference at Cranwell. It was a forum for senior flying instructors. We ran the first one in 2004, and I spoke on insurance and legal issues. We had various other speakers, and it was deemed to be a success.”
Some time after that Dorothy started the Professional Flying Instructor Association, and also her own instructor flying school at Shoreham. “We decided we needed a civilian school where everything would be standardised. So I set up my own company. The following year I moved from the school where I was working, across the road to my own building, and started up my school. At the same time the idea for the Professional Flying Instructor Association came along. I thought we needed an association which would look after the needs of instructors. So I chaired that for the next eight years.”
However, even Dorothy has found it impossible to do everything. Since becoming Master of the Air Pilots, she is too busy to continue with running the Professional Flying Instructor Association. She is hoping to go back to it in the future, after her one-year term as Master is complete, but “I may revive it in a different way. It needs a rethink, and I can’t do that this year”.
Dorothy clearly has a very busy year ahead in her already active life. The role of Master has many ceremonial duties, but she is also involved in a good deal of the Air Pilots’ social activities. In fact, soon after talking to me ? in the time available between two speaking engagements ? she was heading off on a six week international tour. She is clearly leading a very energetic and enjoyable life, perhaps even more so than in the past.
So, what next? How can you possibly follow up a year as the Air Pilots’ first female Master? “I’d like to get to 10,000 hours. I’m keen to fly something different like a DC-3 or a Catalina; something a bit ambitious. I’d like to keep my UK ATPL, and if I can get a type rating on it that you can’t put on anything else, then I can keep it. Otherwise it’s consigned to history.”
But, perhaps surprisingly, most of the future plans she mentioned were outside of the aviation world. “I’ve got into creative writing. I’ve started three novels, and I’d like to write a novel or something fairly autobiographical at some point. Or do some family research.” Interestingly, Dorothy has recently discovered that she has aviation links on both sides of the family ? two cousins who were in the Royal Air Force, and a
great-grandfather who was an aeronautical engineer. Perhaps her career path isn’t so surprising after all.
She continued: “The other thing I think I’m going to do is become a yoga teacher. I do yoga every morning, and I’m looking into a course for that. Last weekend for the first time in my life I took part in some choral singing. I’ve never done any singing before because I thought I couldn’t do it. So at the age of 57 I did it, I loved it, and I want to do a bit more.”
So after 26 years in aviation, Dorothy is thinking of moving on to pastures new. “Now it’s time to branch out and do different things. Some other things in my life have been neglected. Perhaps it’s time to find my creative side. Aviation’s quite a left side of the brain thing. I’ve neglected the other side ? the creative side, music, writing, expressing myself. I can see aviation won’t go on for ever in my life.”
Perhaps it really will happen. And yet, somehow, I suspect that this won’t be the last that the aviation world hears of Dorothy Saul-Pooley.
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