At 26 years old, Kate McWilliams is considered the youngest commercial airline captain in the world, and flying in the cockpit alongside her is Luke Elsworth, one of the UK’s youngest pilots at 19 years old. Despite ages that would typically see them backpacking around the world, the pair are instead flying holidaymakers all over the world with EasyJet.
We caught up with them both to talk female pilots, gap years, and how you could become a pilot.
At your ages young people are supposed to be jetting off on their gap years, not flying the planes themselves! What inspired you to pursue this career and achieve what you both have at such a young age?
Kate: I have had a love of flying from a very young age, since joining the Air Cadets at the age of 13. My school encouraged students to go to university but I didn’t feel like it was the right option for me – I wanted to travel and see a bit of the world, but at the same time make the first steps towards my dream career. So I applied to a flight training school called CTC Aviation which trains cadets to become commercial pilots. It’s a UK based company but the flying training takes place in New Zealand or Arizona, USA. I spent a year with them flying in New Zealand, and when I wasn’t flying, I was sightseeing. Some would say my experience sounds like a pretty great ‘gap year’!
Luke: I have always had the flying bug from as early as I can remember! My father is also a commercial airline pilot, so growing up I was able to gain various insights into the aviation world. When deciding what to do after school and college I realised that I didn’t want to go to university and instead wanted to join CTC Aviation and train to become a pilot. This was my equivalent of a ‘uni experience’; during my training I got the opportunity to live in America where I was able to travel around the United States. Kind of like a gap year with the added bonus of learning to fly!
Some people might feel a bit nervous about being flown by a young piloting team. How would you respond to that?
Kate: I’ve never experienced a passenger or a crew member who was nervous about my age. I am relatively young to be an airline Captain, but age is just a number. It’s all about experience, I’ve been flying for over 7 years now and have accumulated thousands of flying hours, which brings with it experience. I have passed the same exams and courses as every other captain, I just happen to have achieved it at a slightly younger age.
Luke: Kate and I have gone through rigorous training to ensure that we are both fully equipped with the skills and knowledge to complete our roles. I believe age is only a number and doesn’t affect your ability to do the job.
How old were you the first time you flew an aircraft?
Kate: I first got my hands on the controls of an aircraft at the age of 13 on an experience flight with the air cadets. I then progressed to take my first solo flight when I was 16.
Luke: I first flew a plane when I was 15; although we were only in the air for 30 minutes I became hooked on it. I started my flight training with easyJet and CTC Aviation in September 2014 after my 18th birthday. At the age of 19 I flew my first commercial flight with easyJet in April this year.
What challenges have you faced along the way to where you are now? Asking Kate specifically, figures suggest it’s much more difficult for women to become professional pilots – what was your experience?
Kate: The training itself was extremely enjoyable although it was also very demanding but we are being trained for great responsibility so you would expect it to be tough. Of course every few months we have regular testing and training to ensure that those high standards taught during training are maintained.
Luke: The actual course is pretty tough but is extremely rewarding, there were a lot of long days spent revising for tests and learning procedures.
Kate: Only 5% of pilots are women but I don’t think my gender hindered my career either during training or on a day-to-day basis at work. I wouldn’t say it is more difficult for women to become pilots, I just think that perhaps lack of female role models in the industry makes it appear less achievable.
What advice would you give to young people who are interested in becoming pilots?
Kate: If you have a passion for flying and are considering a career in aviation, I would recommend going to your local air cadets and local flying club for some advice and to give flying a try. There is also so much information available on the internet from flying schools such as CTC Aviation and also on airlines’ careers websites giving information about schemes, such as easyJets Amy Johnson Initiative.
Luke: If you are passionate about flying and are seriously considering it as a career, take the plunge and go for it. Make sure you do a lot of research beforehand to ensure it really is for you as it is a massive commitment. Similar to when deciding what university to go to, I would recommend going to visit various flight schools to find the one that suits you before making any decisions. It is a fantastic career; I love my job and would recommend it to anyone!
When you’ve not been flying, have you had the chance to do much travelling? What’s your favourite place you’ve been, and where would you most like to fly to?
Kate: Being based at Gatwick we are fortunate enough to fly to over 100 easyJet destinations and I am able to travel to lots of destinations including for my holidays. My most recent trip which was also one of my favourite was to Budapest. It is such an interesting city. I really enjoy flying to Croatian destinations such as Split and Dubronik as the scenery is so beautiful so they are on my list of places to visit on my next holiday.
Luke: This job is fantastic for travelling, being based at Gatwick with easyJet I get the opportunity to stop overnight at some of our destinations. This is great as you normally get just enough time to have a quick look around the city before having to fly back. My favourite place to fly to is Faro in Portugal as I used to go there a lot when I was younger so it brings back great family holiday memories. In the future I would really like to go to Croatia, as the coast looks amazing from the sky!