I’m on the train from Lithgow to Sydney, the morning after my first solo flight. Yesterday, after a cuppa with my kind, patient and expert instructor Joe Newham and my supportive husband Peter, I started to reflect. Now I’m squealing internally with the same amount of joy, delight and pride.

I’ve been dreaming about becoming a pilot since before I met Peter, in fact I believe a seed was planted long, long ago. I’ve had flying dreams since I was a child, flying like a bird through the house, landing jets in city streets or missing runways altogether! I wonder now how many pilots recall flying dreams as a child? I asked Peter but he said he couldn’t, perhaps because he’s been flying for so long! I’ll ask more pilots, but I have a feeling my flying dreams were a sign that it would one day become reality.

When I was 18, my uncle Welsman gave me a calendar featuring famous female pilots. It was a going away gift, before I left to study piano in London and the US. I remember thinking it was a strange gift for a budding pianist. Welsman was a mystical figure when I was young, maybe he was prescient? Impossible. He played the clarinet.

Then there’s my aunty Tricia. I grew up hearing stories of her adventures with the Red Cross in PNG. I recently travelled to Darwin to visit her, in palliative care at home. When I told her what I was up to, her face lit up. She recalled her flying days with joy and excitement, her face so bright and beautiful. Flying is so thrilling it can’t be forgotten, apparently not even during the last stages of life.

Finally, what are the odds I would meet my soulmate in the form of a pilot AND a professional musician?

Well, I’m not a pilot yet. All I’ve done is learn to fly a circuit alone, but I’m beginning a journey that I know will take me into old(er) age. I’m hooked.

My most fearful part of the circuit was shutting off power going into base, more so even than landing! Stuffing around with rudders, not pulling back the stick in time, pulling up early… It’s nauseating just thinking about it! This is when you need a great instructor. Joe knew exactly when to hand over the controls, aware I would make mistakes. He also knew when to take control, saving us from a disastrous fate. He’s a natural teacher, and being a teacher too, we both know that we learn best when allowed to make mistakes.

To be successful in the music industry, you need a thick-skin and a competitive nature. The same can be said for flying. I’ve only recently become thick-skinned and unabashed but I’ve always been competitive, especially with myself. I remember saying to myself that fear and confusion will control me if I don’t find out, quickly, how to control it.

I remember the same feeling preparing for international piano competitions. I’ve been playing piano for about five decades, since before I was 2. Flying reminded me that I will never be rid of performance anxiety, that acknowledging it is the way to overcome it. When flying, I found that to control fear and confusion, I had to go to the field and see the circuit from different runways. I had to call aloud, “upwind, 500 ft crosswind, 1000ft downwind, base, 500 ft final”. I had to practice saying aloud runway angles and radio calls, memorising heights to raise and lower flaps and so much more.

Peter has recorded my piano playing for years.

He’s the reason I’ve kept going in a culture that doesn’t make it easy. Yesterday, he filmed my flight. He captured the hand on my heart when I shut the engine down, the handshake from Joe and the little dance I did turning to face the camera. I’ll share this video with my students, I want them to feel this sense of joy and accomplishment when playing piano. They could learn so much about dealing with fear, although the fear of live performance is nothing compared to flying an aeroplane! Of course, if their audience consisted of the supportive pilots who frequent our airpark, my students would find performing a joyful and rewarding experience, without judgement and nit-picking.

As I mentioned, my greatest fear was letting go of, what I felt was, my control of the airplane when turning on base. Suddenly that force that keeps the plane at altitude is gone and I must descend, trusting totally in the aircraft and the forces of nature. That trust is key. That and developing a sense of judgement to aim and navigate to the runway. My students could learn so much from this. If they want to succeed, it’s imperative that they listen to their fear and do what must be done to control it, to let go and start trusting themselves and their hard work. Most importantly, one must embrace the joy and exhilaration of the task, be it playing live or flying solo.