From gliders to jets - Mylynn’s journey to the flight deck

by Mylynn Bowker on Mar 16 2020

Hi! My name is Mylynn, I’m 24 years old and I’m a cadet pilot at L3Harris Airline Academy on the British Airways Cadet Programme. I started gliding over five years ago while I was at university but right now you can find me flying DA40’s across the UK as part of my ATPL course with L3Harris. I’m really excited to share my story as part of the Women in Aviation Month in March. Read more to find out about how gliding led me to become a commercial airline pilot!

Flying the motor glider into Husbands Bosworth Airfield on a short nav flight from Bicester, August 2019
Flying the motor glider into Husbands Bosworth Airfield on a short nav flight from Bicester, August 2019

For as long as I can remember I had set my sights on becoming an airline pilot, just like my father and grandfather. I was aware of aviation being regarded by some as a male-dominated industry, however, this only made me more determined to chase my dreams. I was thrilled by the thought of being the first woman in my family to embark on a career as a pilot, while also wanting to continue the female family aviation legacy from my mother and grandmother who were flight attendants. A limited general aviation scene in Hong Kong where I grew up meant that I only got my first taste of flying as a teenager on a trial flight in a Cessna 152 at Booker Airfield. Controlling an aircraft was a thrilling and novel experience and I knew I had chosen the right ‘dream career’. At the same time, I still wanted the full university experience and also a chance to travel and explore my love of languages so I accepted a place to study Modern Languages and Literature at Trinity College, Oxford. At the Freshers’ Fair I was overwhelmed by the choice of alluring and intriguing activities and clubs, ranging from Octopush (underwater hockey) to the Blind Tasting Society. One stall in particular caught my eye. I made a beeline to the Oxford University Gliding Club stand and swiftly signed up.

Living life upside down in OUGC's K-21 on my Standard Aerobatics Badge flight, September 2017
Living life upside down in OUGC's K-21 on my Standard Aerobatics Badge flight, September 2017

I was invited to an introductory evening to find out more about gliding. I must admit that before I signed up, I didn’t have much of a clue about what gliding was and how gliders managed to stay airborne without an engine. At most gliding clubs you can either get airborne via an aerotow or a winch launch. For the aerotow, the glider is attached to a powered aircraft with a rope and towed along. The rope is then released once the desired starting height is reached. The far more thrilling winch launch involves a cable attached between the glider and a powerful rotating drum at the opposite end of the field. The cable then goes ‘live’ and you are launched into the sky at about 70mph! In terms of remaining in the sky once you get there, glider pilots essentially utilise rising currents of air to gain height and soar across expansive distances. While our ‘powered’ friends jokingly call gliders the bicycles of the skies, glider pilots adopt the adage that gliding is the purest form of flight.

There are three different variants of lift that are used in gliding. Thermals are produced when the sun heats the ground and if the air mass is sufficiently unstable, rising bubbles of air are created. A lot of skill is required to find the core of the thermal and manoeuvre the glider to climb most efficiently and remain inside the thermal. Ridge lift is produced when relatively strong wind blows perpendicular to a hill or mountain. Finally, the most elusive but smoothest type of lift, wave, occurs when strong wind blows against a mountain and flows and rebounds, producing a wave-like pattern. After fighting through the turbulent rotor and once established in the lift, it is an effortless and speedy ride up to often ridiculous heights. (In my case, 19,500ft during one unforgettable flight in New Zealand!) I was fascinated by the overview and couldn’t wait to get started.

Soaring in wave at 19,500ft in the Duo Discus over Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand, May 2019
Soaring in wave at 19,500ft in the Duo Discus over Mt Cook National Park, New Zealand, May 2019

My first day at Bicester Airfield involved a safety brief and a run-through of how the gliding club operates. I then had my first flight in a motor glider which gave me a longer opportunity to familiarise myself with the controls than a five-minute winch launch flight in winter! I definitely caught the ‘flying bug’ as seasoned aviators deem it. Very soon I found myself spending my weekends outside on a perennially chilly and breezy airfield, following a training programme to get me from zero experience to solo. After multiple winch launches and a few aerotows to get us high enough to practise spinning and spin recovery, I had my first solo flight in a glider. Many pilots struggle to describe the feeling of their first solo - the freedom, the exhilaration, the sense of achievement, the nerves - but it’s definitely a memory I’ll treasure! Flying solo is just the first milestone - there is so much more you can do to challenge yourself throughout your gliding career, for instance, cross-country flying, competitions, expeditions across the country and abroad, instructing, aerobatics, and even flying vintage gliders.

Beaming next to instructor Nick Kelly after my first solo flight in the K-13 at Bicester Airfield, May 2015
Beaming next to instructor Nick Kelly after my first solo flight in the K-13 at Bicester Airfield, May 2015

In the UK, after their first solo most glider pilots would then work towards their Bronze Badge, Bronze Cross-Country Endorsement, Silver Badge, and much further on the Gold and Diamond Badges. The Bronze Badge involves a flying skills test and a thorough theory exam on subjects such as Meteorology, Principles of Flight, Instrumentation, Air Law, and Navigation. The Cross-Country Endorsement was introduced as a stepping stone between Bronze and Silver. It entails a 100km navigational flight in a motor glider where you must demonstrate to your examiner that you can accurately navigate throughout busy and tricky UK airspace, as well as being able to perform a field landing safely, a common occurrence if you ‘run out of lift’ on a cross-country flight! The Silver Badge is internationally recognised and is comprised of three achievements: a flight with a height gain of 1000m, a duration flight longer than 5 hours, and a distance flight in which you fly a 50km leg away from your airfield. It took me several attempts to do the 5 hours flight (the 4 hours 22 minutes one was painfully close!) as you need a large soarable window. On top of this I ended up having my first solo field landing on my distance flight but luckily still met the 50km criteria to gain the Silver Badge!

Gliding has offered me many other exciting opportunities. I’ve always loved roller coasters and thrill rides so I jumped at the chance to do some aerobatics. I completed the Standard Aerobatics Badge in which you execute a solo aerobatics sequence - a loop, humpty bump, chandelle and steep turn - while the examiner watches and assesses you from the ground. Other than being incredibly fun and adrenaline-inducing, performing aerobatics requires you to be extremely precise in your flying. I also took part in some gliding cross-country competitions in a two-seater glider for competition training. Every day a different ‘task’ is set with turn points around the country and the aim is to fly the task as quickly as possible without landing out in a field! It’s a huge challenge in terms of managing the glider’s speed and energy while trying to find the most efficient route in terms of thermals along your track. Keeping a good lookout is paramount too since if you come across a ‘stonking thermal’, it’s rather likely that you’ll find yourself in a ‘gaggle’ of gliders fighting for the best source of lift! The highlight of my time at Oxford University Gliding Club (OUGC) was joining the committee and getting involved in running the club. As OUGC’s Captain I organised expeditions to Portmoak Airfield in Scotland, La Cerdanya in Spain, and La Motte du Caire in France. Flying at a new site is both challenging and exciting and will offer certain experiences that you don’t have at your home airfield, such as ridge flying, wave, and even flying over a glacier!

Soaring over Glacier Blanc at 14,500ft in the Duo Discus on the La Motte expedition, July 2017
Soaring over Glacier Blanc at 14,500ft in the Duo Discus on the La Motte expedition, July 2017

My time spent gliding at university solidified my dreams of becoming an airline pilot and once I graduated, I immediately started working towards my goal. I was lucky enough to receive a place on the British Airways Cadet Programme and begun my ATPL training with L3Harris Airline Academy in October 2018. I knew that I would have to put gliding on hold to focus on my training but I still managed to spend a week gliding at Omarama, New Zealand after doing six months of ground school out at L3Harris’ base in Hamilton. Soaring over the breathtaking South Island mountains and lakes is something I’ll never forget, especially since I managed to get into wave and fly over Mount Cook! I’ve found that both the theoretical and practical sides of my gliding experience have greatly helped me throughout my ATPL course. Once I finish training and have a chance to settle into my career, I plan to go back to gliding and eventually would love to train to become a gliding instructor and help others learn to fly. If you’re considering a career in aviation I would strongly encourage you to give gliding a go and spend a day at your nearest gliding site!

In terms of my experience as a woman in aviation, I’ve been very lucky to share my journey with some fantastic coursemates and to have the chance to train with some highly knowledgeable and engaging instructors. I haven’t been treated any differently because of my gender and thankfully haven’t faced any stereotypes or challenges along the way, either in a gliding context or during my commercial airline training. There is a strong sense of camraderie and support between all cadets and I think it’s wonderful that there is a growing contingent of female cadets at L3Harris. I’ve come across many inspiring women throughout my training and I’m looking forward to working and flying with many more in the future! I would urge all aspiring female pilots to follow their dreams to the flight deck, see you there!

Waiting for a launch after converting to OUGC's Astir, June 2017
Waiting for a launch after converting to OUGC's Astir, June 2017