My First Solo

Darren Lewington

Air traffic controller Darren Lewington first soloed during his lunch break…

How did you get into aviation?

My dad was an engineer and every Sunday he’d take me to Southend Historic Aircraft Museum so he could go for a lunchtime pint with his colleagues.

Standing there as a five-year-old, looking at the aeroplanes, I knew I wanted to fly. However, instead of becoming a pilot, I ended up becoming an air traffic controller, which enabled me to learn to fly privately in 1996.

How did your flight training go?

I had an absolute hoot and enjoyed every single moment. I trained at Gloucester Airport, where I worked in ATC, and was instructed by the fantastic Paddy Barrett. He taught me as a friend, on whichever aircraft we could get our hands on cheaply. 

“Whether it’s a circuit in a Cherokee or being a passenger at 35,000ft, flying is a huge privilege”

Being an air traffic controller was an enormous advantage. It meant that from day one I wasn’t daunted by radio or procedures. If anything, learning to fly actually improved my controlling skills. Being at the other end of the microphone gave me a better appreciation of what pilots were doing and taught me to pass information and clearances in a more relevant and sensible way. 

Were you expecting your first solo?

No, I wasn’t. As I used every opportunity to fly, one day we were flying during my lunch break and when taxying back after two circuits, I just assumed it was the end of my break. Then my instructor suddenly jumped out. I was pretty petrified at the start, especially as Paddy hadn’t told me the aircraft would climb so much faster without him in it!

Downwind, I did my pre-landing checks four times – to this date, my first solo remains the best landing I’ve ever done. I got such a buzz from soloing, it’s still one of my biggest achievements. Afterwards, my ATC colleague said ‘Congrats, don’t be late!’ and I returned to work with a huge grin on my face. 

That afternoon, everyone got straight-in approaches! 

Gloucester Airport flourished while you were airport manager there – what makes a successful airport?

There’s no big secret. Just like everything else, successful airport managing comes down to offering customer service and good products at a fair price. If you do that, people will come back. 

It’s about knowing what your customers want;. GA pilots have no desire for PPR, mandatory handling, high vis, restrictions on hours or expensive landing fees.

Given your air traffic background, have you got any tips for those who are nervous when it comes to making radio calls?

Get your radio communication nailed before you get into the aircraft! Don’t spend money on learning it in the cockpit, instead give yourself vectors around the kitchen, or clearance to the bathroom.

There are only a dozen mandatory readback items, so get a list of the standard words and phrases and study it.

At home, on the bus, wherever – just not during your flight training. As an air traffic controller, I’ve spent most of my career hearing people wasting their money by trying to talk to me in slightly technical language.

Aerotiques has really taken off – can you explain the popularity of aircraft upcycling?

We always thought it’d appeal to aviation enthusiasts like ourselves, but it also appeals to anyone who appreciates good design. Engineering is art by default.

Sleek, clean, aerodynamic, made from high quality titanium – a turbine blade is stunningly beautiful. Because of the upcycling factor, our products also attract customers with environmental concerns.

Currently, with the retirement of the 747, things have gone crazy – everyone wants a piece of it! But it’s not just about jumbo jets. We also do many commissioned pieces for private pilots, who want us to use the engine or propeller blades so their old aeroplane lives on.

What do you love about flying most?

The sense of freedom when looking out the window, down on the world. Whether you’re doing a circuit in a Cherokee or being a passenger at 35,000ft, flying is a huge privilege. Humans aren’t meant to fly, so the fact we’ve managed it is quite something. I’m not a religious person, but to me, flying is the closest you get to having a spiritual experience – it’s incredible.

Solo stats

Air traffic controller and former Gloucestershire Airport manager Darren Lewington makes art and furniture from recycled aeroplanes

When 29 February 1996
Where Gloucester Airport
Aircraft Piper PA-38 Tomahawk
Hours at solo  7h 40min
Hours now Approx. 400
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