Taking off in mid-life with new challenges

Cathleen Heslan next to a plane she piloted

I was forty when I learnt to fly. I was ten when I decided I wanted to fly – like Superman. I had a red cardigan I would do up the top button and wear like a cape. Then I would jump off the top of the fence. Needless to say, my mother did not appreciate my use of clothes in this fashion.

I grew up in the South Island of New Zealand living in small country towns. It wasn’t common to see planes where we lived. I had an uncle and aunt who lived near an airport and aircraft flew right over their house when coming in to land. When I visited, I always looked up to watch them. Once I pointed them out my aunt, and she said she never noticed them. I didn’t know anybody who could fly a plane.

My working life began at 18 years, and I had a range of jobs in the agriculture, manufacturing, education, forestry and public transport sectors. None of these required me to be in or near a plane.

When I was working in my mid-20s, I had a friend who got her pilot licence and she took me up for a couple of flights. Although I considered at that time that I would like to learn, I did not have much money then, so it was out of reach. I shelved the idea to the back of my mind. I thought it would never happen. But it’s strange what you remember – years later I can still recall the call sign of that aeroplane: Bravo November Lima. Why did I remember that? It had obviously had a big impact on me.

Years later I started volunteer work at the NZ Air Force Museum. One day they offered half price for a flight in a Tiger Moth, which I took and the dream resurfaced. When I first mentioned it to my housemates, they laughed at me. So, I shelved the dream again.

While I wasn’t in planes flying them, I did like being near them. In my volunteer position as a guide at museum I got to know a lot about old planes and war planes. I got the role because I visited many times doing research for a story I was writing, and on one of those visits the Head Guide asked me to join. While I hesitated at first, saying I didn’t know anything – they were willing to teach me. Such an opportunity felt like divine intervention. I loved talking to people about planes and the people who flew them, and meeting interesting people. Working there was the highlight of my week.

A friend working at the Museum was learning to fly, and frequently would do their study while at the Museum. I would take a peek at the books he was reading and it was completely over my head. Dear me! I could never understand all that! Not in a million years would I have believed that only a year later I would be borrowing those same books for my own study and be devouring every word.

I came out of a bad living situation, which left me not believing in myself. I was in a very dark place. It took a lot of time and a bit of that divine intervention, to reconnect with myself, my dreams and the possibility of joyful life experiences. Looking back, I think this was a necessary step to opening doors of opportunity that I might walk through.

When I was a child, the idea of learning to fly was about doing something exciting. As I got older, I and started to fly a new dream emerged that I could potentially use this skill to aid in doing missionary work. I didn’t know this could be an option until I got into the flying community. While this didn’t eventuate because of needing to pass all the flying levels – it shows that sometimes you don’t know what’s possible until after you start doing a thing.

Learning to fly started quite by accident. There wasn’t any goal or big plan. My boss at work sent me on an errand to the business next to the museum about joyride flights in a plane parked on the same airfield. I hadn’t paid attention to the business before, and hadn’t seen that aircraft flying as it was grounded but discovered it was actually a flying school. “Talk to me,” I blurted out to the guy in charge (that unconscious dream keen to show itself!) “I could be interested.” He advised that I first take a trial flight to see how I might feel about it before signing up. Because they were a small business, I was more at ease to take the leap to learn to fly than if I had the big organisation over at the main city airport. Having already been for plane rides I knew I’d like it. Whether I could fly a plane was a whole other thing.

I needn’t have worried. They teach you everything. There’s a check you make around the aircraft before you get in, before you start, after you have started, before you take off and another check list before you land. But you learn it all. You learn what to do when the engine fails; when the engine isn’t running on full power; and how to fly in low cloud within certain perimeters, any lower and you should be on the ground.

This time the people I was living with encouraged me. For weeks only my housemates knew of my activities. With a grin on my face that I could not hide, my workmates were left guessing about why. When I did my first solo and I told my workmates, who were impressed. I found the response quite staggering. To me I was still the same person but with this achievement I went up in their estimation of me. I told some old friends that I was learning to fly and they said, “Good Lord!” in an unfavourable way. People reacted in different ways. Some despite thinking it was wonderful, did not want to fly with me. My parents were very happy to be passengers once I had my licence, and I was thrilled to take them.

Flying gave me confidence. Flying made me a decision maker, dealing with many choices. I learnt to turn back in bad weather. I learnt to ‘go around’ if my landing profile wasn’t right. I learnt life is great above ground. Apparently, this used to be a regular saying and some frowned on my use of it but it had a double meaning for me – only a year before in that dark place I had contemplated suicide but now above the ground – in the air – life was wonderful. My instructor used to great me with “It’s a great day to go flying.” I loved that attitude. He also praised me a lot in my flying which I actually found it hard to deal with – I can’t be THAT good! Taking off is always special, I always get a grin on my face.

I also loved learning something new. There were exams. We had night classes. I was learning while flying as the instructor explained things, and I found I could understand the books. I was always asking questions. I thrived. It took me a year to build up the 50 hours required before you get your licence. Boy, was I nervous for that test! But the Examiner was an easy going fellow and I soon felt at ease with him.

Flying is expensive – for me it was about a third of my wages. I took lessons as I could afford them. I got an extra job to help with the costs. It was not all smooth riding; I had my hurdles. Some of my exams I had to do again. For a while it seemed I could not make a landing. Around and around, we went. Finally, my instructor got me a cushion, problem solved. The sacrifices I made and challenges I tackled were worth it – it’s an amazing feeling being up there looking down.

I have got to see my own country from a unique perspective. From a home-base in Christchurch in NZ’s South Island, I have flown to Stewart Island at the bottom of NZ (almost 1200 km), and to Cape Reinga at the top of NZ (2400 km round trip) in multi-day adventures.

There’s more to learn and achieve after getting basic pilot’s licence – and I was eager to learn. I have done gliding, got a twin-engine rating, and got my Commercial Licence. I tried for my Instrument Rating but after completing my exams the instructor told me I was wasting my money. That instructor did not create an enjoyable learning experience. I don’t recall him saying ever anything good. It can make it difference. I should have gone for Instructor’s Rating but I did not have the confidence of the 20-year-olds I saw taking this step. I considered myself not ready to teach as I had just learnt myself. This was short-sighted, surely if they could, then I could: If you know something someone else does not, then you are in the position to teach them.

While flying isn’t connected to my day job, it’s been a wonderful activity for learning, and connecting with a whole other group of people in society. I’ve made many friends in the flying community, and been able to contribute to community life with writing for the newsletter and helping out at flying shows. My day job provided me the funds, to bring my dreams to life and help me grow as a person.



When her feet are on the ground Cathleen Heslan resides in a remote part of NZ which is a recent alteration in her life to be near aging family. Semi-retirement involves various day-jobs not connected to flying, loving the peaceful life surrounded by birdsong, beach walks and some things that there were never time for when working full time – like a good book! She keeps learning and doing interesting things in her late 50s because she believes age does not have to be a barrier. After all, she didn’t take up flying until she was 40!