Business management

A true high-flier: Captain Emma Henderson MBE

During the Covid-19 pandemic, airline pilot Emma Henderson decided to take on a new challenge: the formation of a charity that would support thousands of NHS staff.

Henderson, 48, who was awarded an MBE in the 2021 New Year Honours list for her work with Project Wingman, has always been (quite literally) a high-flier, but she’s had to overcome plenty of hurdles along the way. Fascinated by space and aviation from an early age, she was given her first flying lesson as an 18th birthday present, and at university in Leeds she joined the university’s air squadron in order to further her training. She met her husband through the air squadron and his career in the air force took them to New Zealand, where he urged her to continue her training using money saved by giving up smoking.

She took on the challenge and gained her private pilot’s licence – then, on their return to the UK, she qualified as a flying instructor and started training to become a commercial pilot. This meant spending significant time away from her husband and three children, but by the age of 37 she had become a pilot for easyJet.

“It hadn’t been the traditional route where you start as a 22-year-old with no responsibilities,” she says. “I was 37 with three young children, and a life somewhere else. I’m very lucky to have a fantastic and supportive husband – it’s a real joint effort, and he had to juggle his job with childcare.”

Learning from failure

A successful career followed, and she became one of a handful of women to be made captain. She will be familiar to many from ITV’s Inside the Cockpit, which lifted the lid on the life of easyJet crew.

However, it has not all been plain sailing. She failed in her first bid to become a captain and had to pick herself up and try again.

“When something like that happens, you have to graciously accept that it’s part of your learning process,” she says. “Failing isn’t a bad thing: we can learn our best lessons from failing – and if you have never experienced failure, how can you know how sweet success tastes?”

Another hurdle came when she was temporarily grounded due to a serious illness. She coped by focusing on family time and joining a military wives’ choir.

“I probably wouldn’t have been able to commit to that as much if I had been flying all the time,” she says. “I made friendships and the illness taught me a different way of doing things. It taught me that we need to have a lot of respect for our bodies, and to pay attention when they’re trying to tell you to slow down. It also taught me to be grateful; I really feel like I had a second shot at life after that.”

Despite being one of a very small proportion of female pilots, Henderson says she’s encountered relatively little gender bias in her career, other than an instructor asking her why she wasn’t at home with her children – but other female pilots have told her that they have faced a lot of discrimination. She has had plenty of passengers comment on the fact that she’s a woman – but she takes this in good humour.

Staff have said it’s made such a difference to their working day. It’s changed the working culture in some hospitals: as a result of seeing each other in our lounges, people have started talking and helping each other

Captain Emma Henderson MBE
Co-founder, Project Wingman Foundation

“They want to say something to acknowledge the fact that I’m a woman, but they don’t really know what, so they’ll say something like: ‘Oh, who parked it?’ or ‘Well done dear.’ You can choose to either take that as being rude or see it as them just wanting to acknowledge that you’re not a man. I always chose the second approach.”

Supporting the NHS

She loved her career for many reasons – the passengers, the crew and, of course, the views, but in 2020 it all came to an abrupt end. Like her colleagues, she had no idea when she’d be able to go back to work. That’s when the idea for Project Wingman started to take shape. She recognised that she and her colleagues had a lot of transferrable skills – from working in a safety-critical environment to dealing with distressed passengers – which could be useful in supporting NHS staff.

The idea quickly took off. Project Wingman is now a national charity with 94 sites and 6,000 volunteers on its database – and while the lounges initially started as dedicated spaces within the hospitals, the charity now also has a mobile, bus-based lounge and plans to have five more.

The response from the NHS has been one of delight. “Staff have said it’s made such a difference to their working day,” she says. “It’s raised well-being on the agenda and changed the working culture in some hospitals: previously, trying to get departments to work with each other was apparently very difficult but, as a result of seeing each other in our lounges, people have started talking and helping each other.”

Another happy side effect is the sense of purpose it has given to thousands of air crew who have been made redundant or furloughed.

“It gives people a reason to get up in the morning, put the uniforms on, go and get that camaraderie that you have with crew during the day,” she says. “They've made lifelong friendships as well, which is fantastic.”

Silver linings and new horizons

Henderson reached a poignant milestone in September 2020 when she decided to take voluntary redundancy from the job she loves, saving the jobs of two colleagues in the process. Having Project Wingman has helped her with the transition.

“I do still get sad about finishing,” she says. “If I hadn’t had Project Wingman to hang my hat on, then I think it would have been a very different decision for me.”

She also has other projects under way, including an autobiography, a new public speaking career, and Moo Prints, the outlet for her delightful watercolour paintings and prints.

Having successfully taken on so many challenges in her own life and career, she has this advice for other women: “As women, we don’t believe we’re good enough to do things – so give yourself permission to recognise the strengths that you have. If you face a challenge, take ownership of it. Often the only way to come back from it is to work hard and learn the extra things you need to learn in order to progress – and also to allow other people to help you along the way.”

As for Project Wingman, it now looks set to run and run. “There’s so much to love about it,” she says. “It’s fantastic to see smiles on the faces of people who are going through a really hard time, and I enjoy the relationships that have been forged as a result of it. It’s also so exciting that we have grown so organically from this little idea into this massive charity that’s got a future that stretches for at least five years, if not longer: we’d love to still be going in 30 years’ time.”

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