Pilot and bass guitar player with The Feeling, Richard Jones doesn’t believe for a moment that flying has lost its appeal to the young
Words by Pat Malone Photos by Philip Whiteman
They’re out there, you know. Young people, desperate to fly. Youths who will revitalise general aviation, get the median age of pilots right down, inject new blood into this most thrilling of pursuits. They’re out there ? they just don’t know about us yet, and we don’t know how to reach them.
For those who can’t believe it ? those who lament the fact that all the younger generation wants to do is to sit slack-jawed at a computer screen having ‘virtual’ fun ? this unimpeachable information comes from the young rock musician Richard Jones, bass player in the successful band The Feeling. An avid aviator and Pilot subscriber who shares Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason’s Robin DR400, Richard gives the lie to the widespread notion that GA does not appeal to the young. But for complex reasons, aviation is making a poor fist of awakening the young to aspirations they don’t yet realise they have.
As a PPL, Richard has yet to meet a contemporary who is anything other than gob-smacked by what he is able to do. “You can fly, really?” they ask, astounded. It has never crossed their minds that they could do so too. And when Richard takes them up in the Robin they behave exactly like you and I did ? they come down with their eyes rotating in different directions, determined that one day, whatever it takes, they’ll do that, too.
It’s not the money. Flying costs the same as it always did ? all you’ve got. It’s not that the youth are hopelessly jaded and sneer at any adventure, but there are many more distractions than there were a generation ago, and messages to the young have to cut through a cacophonous hubbub, online and offline. With our old ways, we haven’t yet mastered the knack of making ourselves heard.
There are many, many other issues. Nobody under twenty can remember seeing an airline pilot walk down the aisle of his jet, ten feet tall and scrambled egg on his hat. To the young, flying is all hassle, security, queues, discomfort and hard-sell. Behind the locked door on the left as they board the plane there might as well be another lavatory. Air shows aren’t what they used to be. And frankly, a lot of general aviation makes it difficult to participate. But still the latent desire is there, and it amounts to a reservoir of pent-up demand that will be released the day we stop expecting the young come to us, and find out how to push their buttons.
Richard Jones himself, however, was stricken with the aviation plague in the time-honoured fashion ? like you and me, he kept stumbling over obstacles in the street because he was looking up at planes. Born in Forest Row, near the Gatwick flight path, he made Airfix models with his dad and aspired to fly helicopters with the RAF or the Army Air Corps. Regrettably, at the age of thirteen he was deflected from the true path by the discovery of an all-consuming passion for music, and in particular for the bass guitar. The Airfix models gathered dust while his guitar obsession grew and he went off on a whole new trajectory ? one which took him to the British School of Performing Arts (known as the BRIT school), alma mater of such entertainment luminaries as Amy Winehouse, Jessie J, and the well-known helicopter pilot Adele. There he met Dan Sells, who was to become lead singer with The Feeling, and later they polished their craft during their ‘Hamburg period’, playing three times a day for a ski season in Meribel.
Richard auditioned for a job in the backing band for the singer Sophie Ellis Bextor, now his wife and mother of their three children Sonny, 9, Kit, 4, and Ray, 14 months. All five fly together in the Robin, and Sophie is contemplating doing the ten-hour AOPA Companions Course. Before they married, Sophie had a major hit with the single Murder on the Dance Floor, inter alia, and they toured the world for a year and a half until, when they started dating, Richard thought it prudent to quit the band and got together with Dan Sells and other old friends as The Feeling. All band members had worked as session musicians and were accomplished in their art, an uncommon situation in modern times. They met with rapid success; their first release was one of the biggest radio hits of 2006, ‘Sewn’. It was quickly followed by two more best-sellers, ‘Fill my Little World’ and ‘Never be Lonely’. Their album Twelve Stops and Home reached No 2 in the UK charts. Their second album Join with Us went to No 1 in 2008, the year they did Glastonbury. They have played some major stadium shows, including the Concert for Diana on the tenth anniversary of her death in 2007.
If you think aviation has been turned on its head by technology, spare a thought for the recording industry, which has been devastated by online distribution and free downloads. Many talented musicians find it all but impossible to make a living from their work, but The Feeling have fared better than most; their CDs and incessant touring made them, shall we say, comfortable beyond their wildest dreams. It has been hard work, and in searching for an offstage release Richard essayed golf, to the horror of his wife.
“Sophie hated it,” he says. “She told me, ‘you’re way too young and it’s just not sexy’. She’d heard me speak of flying, and as a way of breaking my golf habit she bought me five flying lessons for my birthday.”
Richard’s first lesson, in a PA-28 with Cabair at Denham, rekindled his dormant passion for flying. “The trial lesson was more than I expected of it,” he says. “As soon as our wheels left the tarmac I was overwhelmed by it, carried away.” Then there was no stopping him. After three and a half years on the road the band took a break, and Richard went all out to get his PPL.
Some of his flying experiences, he says, match the thrill a performer gets when facing up to a big audience ? the mixture of trepidation and adrenalin, topped off by a powerful urge to do the thing right. “My first solo was like a stage performance,” he says. “I felt I was ready for it, and Rod Brown [Denham CFI for Cabair at the time] had prepared me for everything, even going through the diversion options to Elstree and Booker if the runway at Denham was blocked. I had to do my Air Law exam, and that was a bit short on laughs but I got through it. Then we did a couple of circuits and Rod pronounced himself satisfied and got out. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said, and walked away.
“It felt like the moment we were about to walk on stage for the Diana concert… it was fully live, there’d been no sound check, no chance even to test if our instruments were working, and the man who sent us on told us there were 80,000 people out there and one billion watching on TV… and that feeling of occasion, the sensation of nerves, it crystallises in you a determination to get it right, to nail it…
“I lined up on 24 and firewalled the throttle, and I was surprised at how quickly the plane left the ground. For all my determination to be accurate, I have to confess I let it climb above circuit height, but everything else was right, and the landing was good. Rod said, ‘do you want another go?’ So off I went and did two or three circuits, and I felt like a pilot.
“In those circumstances, pilots feel something of the adrenalin rush that performers get on stage ? you’re crystallised in the moment, concentrating on getting it right. It taps into a desire to put yourself to the test, force yourself to find the balance between your overconfidence and your insecurity. But of course, for the pilot the stakes are higher.”
Work commitments meant it took Richard a year and a half, off and on, to get his PPL. He did his solo nav and an extended landaway at Sywell, Leeds, Wellesbourne and Turweston to make up his hours. He passed his nav exam, and was doing his skills test revision when Cabair went bust.
Called up Alex James for advice
“It was a shock, but luckily I didn’t have any money tied up with them,” Richard says. “I didn’t know what to do, so I called Alex James [private pilot and bass guitarist with the band Blur] for advice. He put me on to Tony Ryan at Elstree, and Tony was a godsend. He sat me down and went through my training records to make sure I didn’t pay for any more training than I strictly needed. He advised me to finish off my ground school, and said he’d then do my skills test. And that’s what happened. I finished the whole thing in a week and a half.”
Richard’s first passengers were friends of a similar age who had expressed astonishment when they found he was learning to fly. “It’s not the case that they weren’t interested,” he says. “It’s not something they had considered and rejected: they had simply never come into contact with the possibility that it could be done.”
Richard added a night qualification in a PA-38 and is currently doing his IMC rating. It is his intention to build on his skills by taking the AOPA Aerobatic Course and adding a glider licence. He uses light aircraft wherever possible to get to the band’s gigs, taking Tony Ryan with him because the teaching never stops. “It takes the pressure off the flight, and he’s always giving me tips,” Richard says. “Recently he made me do a practice forced landing, taking it really low because, he said, he could tell I had never gone almost to the ground in a PFL, and that’s the only way you’re going to be able to tell how it would have turned out. We flew to Manchester for a gig in the Robin, and we taxied off ahead of an A380, and that was quite an experience.”
The Robin came into his life when he met Nick Mason, an experienced pilot who flies fixed-wing and helicopter. “Nick is an Audi Ambassador, and so is my wife Sophie, and we met at one of their events,” Richard says. “We talked about flying, then later we met again in Ibiza on holiday and Nick invited me to Rendcomb, where he keeps his aircraft. Nick asked me if I’d like to fly the Robin, which he said was under-used; it needed to be flown, but Nick and his wife Annette mostly flew his Squirrel. Vic Norman would take it to France once a year, but otherwise it stood idle, which Nick said wasn’t good for it.
“It was a very generous offer, but I didn’t realise how generous until I got home and read Colin Goodwin’s article in Pilot in which he said that Nick had allowed him to drive his £20 million Ferrari, but he wouldn’t presume to have asked him to fly his Robin, which had such enormous nostalgia value for Nick. I must say, it puts a little pressure on to treat the aircraft well.”
G-IOOI was Nick’s first aircraft, in which he learned to fly, as did his wife and daughters. While it has been kept in a well-ventilated hangar, lack of use had made its mark. It flew perfectly well but the heater was stuck on, the avionics were dated, there were no headsets in the back. Richard has had new avionics installed, including a Garmin 430, Mode-S transponder, new radios, Sennheiser S1 headsets and rear headset points. “Nick was very keen that we avoid putting £40,000 worth of avionics into a £20,000 plane, but I think we’ve got it about right,” Richard says. He’s also a big fan of SkyDemon, which he uses on his iPad for flight planning and as a back-up GPS. “I find it really useful to help spot VRPs,” he says. “They aren’t clearly marked on the 430 maps. When I flew into Manchester International it was really helpful as they got me to hold over Congleton, which was easy to verify with SkyDemon’s help. As a side-effect of the flying relationship, Nick invited Richard to play in a band he was forming to play at the Olympic ceremony; with Mike Rutherford of Genesis and singer Ed Sheeran they gave a memorable performance of Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’.
The Robin now spends much of its time at Elstree, and it suits Nick as well as Richard well to have the plane in the London area. With it, Richard continues to introduce his friends to flying.
Musicians ‘keener than most’
“To them, it seems incredibly exciting,” he says. “Especially the musicians ? for some reason they’re keener than most. But exactly how you reach out to them is another question.
“The traditional avenues don’t work. You’ve got to target them online. As a band, we’re making music videos for online only because that’s where you get best results. My kids go straight to Youtube. The trick is to produce something that will go viral, and you can’t tell what will excite the imagination – just think of that clip with the dog, Fenton, chasing the deer in Richmond Park.
“But there’s no question the appetite is there among the young for aviation. All you have to do is find a way to tap into it.