First Solo

Susie Whitcombe

Aviator and figurative painter Susie Whitcombe soloed on the same day as her husband. 

How did you get into aviation?

Growing up on a farm in Hampshire, I was completely mad about ponies, while my brother was crazy about aeroplanes. 

We’d always go horse riding together and when my brother learned to fly at university, I felt like I was missing out. 

He’d ride my horse but I wasn’t able to fly his aeroplane: something had to be done about that!

How did your flight training go?

My husband was easily persuaded to learn to fly too, so we went off to Goodwood. Taking flying lessons together was great as it meant we could swap notes. I was surprised at how out of my element I was in the aeroplane.

My husband made it seem like a breeze, so I thought ‘How hard can it be?’ Well, rather difficult. I’d been riding ponies since before I could walk and believed that flying couldn’t be too different. But although there are plenty of similarities, horses do have a certain sense of self-preservation whereas aeroplanes don’t. Once you’ve left the ground, it’s all down to you… 

Tell us about your first solo?

My husband and I soloed on the same day, which was a first for Goodwood.

His lessons were scheduled first so he went first – I was invited up to the tower to watch him solo and remember thinking ‘He beat me to it’. Going solo was such a big deal for me, it was absolutely mind-blowing. I have to admit I was very nervous, luckily my landing was OK and I didn’t have to go-around. 

Only weeks after my solo, I admitted to being pregnant, which back in those days led to my medical being whisked away. As I couldn’t fly alone anymore, I stopped training and only started again when my first son was born. Resuming my flight training almost felt like a second solo.

What does flying mean to you?

Adventure! I just fly for fun as I only hold a PPL, but aviation has opened the doors to many wonderful opportunities.

I’m a member of the Royal Air Squadron and have been on some great trips with them. In 2013, I flew the Cub down to Ukraine, alongside four Tiger Moths. There, we celebrated the Charge of the Light Brigade by dropping poppies from the aeroplane when flying over the Valley of Death. The journey was such an adventure, it took a week to get there and a week to fly back. 

Do you manage to mix flying and painting?

Yes, I often take my paintbox when flying, and frequently I fly somewhere with the intention of painting, so they mix well. 

Perhaps my flying experience has a parallel with painting. Flying is a very three-dimensional activity and with the type of painting I do, I’m turning something three-dimensional into a two-dimensional image.

Although I mainly paint people, animals and landscapes, I’ve painted quite a few aeroplanes as well. 

At the RAF’s centenary at the Battle of Britain airshow in 2018, I flew as a safety pilot in our Tiger Moth. We formed up with 16 Tiger Moths to look like the number 100 in the sky over Duxford and afterwards I painted these aircraft gathered on the ground in the gloom.

What aircraft would you have in your fantasy hangar?

At the risk of sounding like everybody else: a Spitfire. It’s just a wonderful beast, such an iconic aircraft. I’d need a longer strip though. 

I currently own a Super Cub and a Van’s RV-9, and the Tiger Moth is still on the premises. We used to have a single-seater Yak 50, which I sold after my husband died. It was the most fantastic aeroplane, such a joy to fly: even I could do aerobatics in it!

What do you love about flying most?

The freedom and exhilaration that flying brings. In an aeroplane you really have to keep your wits about you – that’s the reason I love fast cars as well. 

When flying, you have to concentrate and be on the ball, and that’s what makes it fun.  

Solo stats

Apart from being a fabulous artist, Susie Whitcombe is also an adventurous aviator.

When 18 September 1986
Where Goodwood Aerodrome
Aircraft Piper PA-38 Tomahawk
Hours at solo Nine
Hours now Approx. 2,000+
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