Nathan Ridley made his first solo flight in a glider when he was 14, but his ambitions haven’t stopped there – he hopes one day to become an airline pilot
WHEN young Nathan Ridley flew abroad on holiday several years ago, he stared out of the window and marvelled at the world below him. And looking up the aisle towards the door of the cockpit – the exclusive domain of the captain and co-pilot – he made the decision that one day he would sit there at the controls.
Being able to fly is a dream many children have, but the Prudhoe High School student has already made it a reality. Last year, at the age of 14, he flew solo for the first time in a glider after joining Northumbria Gliding club seven months earlier.
And he’s still hoping to achieve his ultimate aim of becoming a commercial airline pilot. It’s still a long way off and there are plenty of hurdles to cross, but this fledgling pilot is already showing his determination.
Getting his wings at such an early age was no mean feat and involved a lot of work, both on the ground and in the air. The club, which sits above the Tyne Valley near Hedley on the Hill meets on Wednesday evenings and weekends and Nathan spends as much time as he can there. Even if there’s no flying due to bad weather, he is eager to help out with the jobs on the ground.
Becoming an active member of the club initially meant winning mum, Lesley, round. For a couple of years she had resisted Nathan’s pleas take up flying. “I kept saying no,” recalled Lesley. “He was too young and I felt it was too dangerous.”
Nathan’s persistence paid off though and he soon made up for lost time. After 32 training flights, the club’s instructors were confident in Nathan’s ability to fly on his own.
To achieve his goal, Nathan had to undergo the training flights with an instructor who sat in the back seat with access to a dual set of controls – a bit like to learning to drive, but without a several thousand feet drop below you.
And a lot of groundwork was also involved. Nathan joined the club’s cadet scheme where bronze, silver and gold awards mark your progress. Knowing how to prepare a glider for flight, is amongst the tasks you have to learn. And he did learn to drive – something not many 14 year-olds do – getting behind the wheel of the off-road vehicles used on the field to tow the gliders into place.
On his very first flight he was allowed to take the controls himself. “They let you have a go and I got in and took off,” said Nathan. “And on the first flight I got to have a go in the air, moving to the left and right. It was quite calm.
So back he went, time and time again until the day dawned when the instructors deemed that he was ready to earn his wings. “On the ground I was shaking because it is a nerve-wracking thing,” he said. “But once I got off the ground my mind was too busy, until I was coming into land and it got a bit nerve-wracking again.”
Nathan’s nerves were nothing compared to Lesley’s, who Nathan had told not to come because it would put him on edge.
Nevertheless, she got in the car and drove up the hill to the club to see Nathan already in the air, 2,000ft above her. “I was crying my eyes out,” she said. “He did ring me and I came up there to the club. I saw him flying around and thought… this is my son!
“When he landed; where I was parked I could not see his glider coming in. I just needed to know he had landed safely. I have never run so fast across a field! Just to think, that is my little boy – well not so little anymore.”
Nathan remains pragmatic about the whole experience. “You have got to know what you are doing. The instructor needs to know that he can trust you. I have a check flight before I go solo and once they have done that I go up on my own.”
Nathan tends to fly at around 2,000ft, but it is possible, he explained to go a lot higher in a glider. He said experienced fliers at the club had flown at 19,800ft, while above 10,000ft, they have to use oxygen.
“If you lose your air speed, you stall and plummet to the ground,” warned Nathan. “You need to keep an eye on your altitude. There’s no engine so unless you catch thermals, you do not want to be too far away and too low. Hot air rises which causes thermal energy which is in a spiral. If you get into the centre of a thermal you get lift and then you are fine.We do have boundaries. We are not allowed in Newcastle airspace.
“And unless you have a radio licence, the maximum height you’re allowed is 4,200ft above the field – that’s 5,000ft above sea level.”
As well as relying on various instruments in his cockpit, including a variometer which tells him the rate of descent or climb, Nathan has also learned how to read the skies, explaining, for example, that thermals usually occur under clouds.
But it’s the joy and excitement that gliding brings that makes it such an addictive hobby. “I have done aerobatics with an instructor, like loop the loop,” said Nathan. “There are a bunch of different things we do which are aerobatics. It’s fun.”
And Lesley is really appreciative about what the club have done for Nathan. “There are a few people that just seem to live there and have a heart of gold,” she said. “They are so good natured.”
For chief instructor, Rob Rose, getting younger people like Nathan involved is crucial because they will be potential instructors in the future.
“I’ve been flying gliders since I was 13 and started off in the air cadets,” he said. “ When flying gliders there is no fuel, no engine, it’s peaceful and it’s always a challenge. You can always compete against yourself and see how long you can keep the glider up. People think gliders are just for short range flights, but I have flown 500km and the longest flight I’ve done is seven hours and that is by no means a UK record.
“Nathan joined our cadet scheme which is designed for youngsters and in return we expect a lot of commitment from them, helping for example to launch gliders. The training is fairly intensive. You learn about meteorology, the principles of flight, navigation – a lot of science and geography that complements school work. The law changed a couple of years ago to allow a 14 year old to fly solo which is quite a responsibility. You learn how to take off and land, how to communicate by radio and we are near Newcastle Airport so you have Boeing 737s operating in the same airspace.”
The club runs a recognised programme which results in a gliding pilot’s licence and Rob hopes that by next year, Nathan will have reached the stage where he will be allowed to take passengers and fulfil the role of a basic instructor.
“Younger people who have an interest in gliding can pick it up very quickly. It is a real pleasure for us teaching kids because they soak it all up,” he said.
The sky’s the limit for Nathan now who, once he’s finished his GCSEs and A levels, wants to go to a flying academy and learn how to fly jumbo jets. But training to be a commercial airline pilot is not cheap, costing up to £100,000.
“You have got to be rich to be able to do it,” said Lesley and Nathan added: “Most of the pilots have found a way to get around it, but now it is a lot harder.
“My ideal job is to be a commercial pilot, but I would do any job if it paid for me to carry on flying. I would be happy working anywhere as long as I could fly.”
And Lesley is supporting her son all the way. “When they have got a dream, you have got to back them – not look at things that are in the way, but keep going.”