First Solo

Kanchana Gamage

Not feeling ready at all, Kanchana Gamage declined to go solo – several times.

How did you get into aviation?

I grew up in Sri Lanka, living near the approach to Colombo Airport. Seeing all these aircraft flying over the ocean triggered my passion for aviation. Already, at the age of five, I knew I wanted to become a pilot one day and dreamed about flying over these vast oceans. However, as a young girl I never met a pilot nor sat in a small aeroplane. I didn’t even know airports were public places that you could visit just to watch aeroplanes! 

“My first solo was a turning point in life and felt like my childhood dream had come true”

How did your flight training go?

I started my lessons at 33, after having saved up for a long time. A trial lesson at Duxford confirmed that flying was still what I wanted, so I joined Flight Training London at Elstree. Everyone at Elstree Airfield was absolutely fantastic. 

It was quite a busy place though, and I was always very focused while flying. As I’m petrified of heights, coming into land was terrifying at the beginning. Seeing the ground below me, the first few times I felt mesmerised, but also incredibly afraid on approach…

Did you feel ready to solo?

Not at all! I don’t think I ever believed I could fly an aircraft by myself. My instructor claimed I was ready, but I didn’t, so I declined to solo at least three times. One day, he just got out of the aircraft without saying a word – he didn’t even look back. The mix of excitement, adventure and fear was quite something. It was a truly momentous flight. My first solo was a turning point in life and felt like my childhood dream had come true. On downwind I was thinking, ‘I wish I’d done this earlier!’

You started The Aviatrix Project in 2015, what have your biggest accomplishments been?

We’ve worked with more than 500 schools and events, inspired many pupils and especially in the last few years I’ve seen a big change – there’s more discussion about STEM, and organisations are working together. It’s great to see that we’ve made an impact. However, my main accomplishment is that I can pinpoint at least a dozen young people, mostly girls, whose lives we’ve changed.

Through our talks and mentoring we’ve literally changed the course of their career and got them into aviation. For me, that’s the biggest achievement.

What are your hopes for the next five years?

In the future I’d like to continue to target pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and encourage them to consider STEM careers. Also, I’m hoping to take The Aviatrix Project on the road next year, flying to different UK airfields and organising aviation days for local schools.

Who is your aviation role model?

Amelia Earhart, because she managed to break the mould, doing what nobody considered was possible for a woman in the 1930s. I remember reading about her when I was a child and feeling very inspired. More recent role models include Rangana Weerawardhana and Pavithra Gunaratne, the first female military pilots of the Sri Lankan Air Force. However, I meet many inspiring people at airfields I visit, every pilot has a story to tell. Learning to fly requires a drive and passion. No one wakes up thinking, ‘Let’s spend £15,000 on getting a pilot’s licence, because why not?

If you could have any aircraft in your ‘fantasy hangar’, what would it be?

A Fairchild Argus and a de Havilland DH.88 Comet. I love vintage aircraft and like reading about the early days of aviation, it’s so romantic. Also a PC-12, as it’s a beautiful aircraft and I could fly around the world in it. Apart from a RTW trip, I’d love to gain my taildragger rating and continue with aerobatics.

What does flying mean to you?

Being able to leave the world behind for a little while, not in the sense of escapism. For me, flying is like a door to another world. It’s a whole different world up there and this unique perspective, plus the fact that it’s something not many people are able to do, makes me love aviation so much.

More info here.

Solo stats

Founder and director of The Aviatrix Project, Kanchana Gamage encourages women and girls to take to the skies by promoting aviation as an accessible and exciting career choice.

When 1 May 2015
Where Elstree Airfield
Aircraft Cessna 152 G-BFLU
Hours at solo 21
Hours now 212
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