IT’S the sense of freedom, says Kati Harwood. “That moment when you fly over a traffic jam, and all the cars are stuck, but you can just keep on going.”

Harwood, a born adventurer who lives in Arbroath, is one of a handful of female gyrocopter pilots in the UK. A gyrocopter is a sort of microlight helicopter. It has rotor blades, but they are not powered by the engine; once in flight, air flow and gravity keeps them turning like a sycamore seed on the wind.

Harwood’s passion for flying began in 2008 when her pilot boyfriend Phil – now her husband – took her up above York on one of their early dates, and they gazed at the Minster’s gothic towers from a height of 1,000ft.

By the time she decided to go for her licence, Phil had qualified as an instructor, and she became his first student. It was a test of their relationship.

 “On the morning of my first lesson, my parents texted him to wish him luck,” she laughs. Her parents had taught her to drive, so they had every sympathy. “I found it difficult because I had to remember that, in the gyrocopter, he was always right; and that was not my default position.”

Harwood is one of two female pilots at the Perth Airport-based Scottish Aero Club’s (SAC) first Ladies’ Day – an event which sold out within 12 hours of it being posted on Facebook.

The other, Sue Easton, flies fixed-wing aircraft such as Tomahawks and Cessnas. She and her husband, Neil, also a pilot, are between planes just now. 

They sold their Tecnam P2002 JF because they needed an aircraft big enough to accommodate their two Jack Russell terriers, who love to romp along the beach on away-days. 

“What I love about flying is the feeling of control,” Easton says, “and the beauty of it and the way you can go to Plockton or Colonsay for lunch – there are so many runways along the west coast.”

Easton, who now runs a business improvement company with Neil, is an engineer. While working for the Met Office earlier in her career, she was responsible 
for maintaining and operating weather-monitoring equipment, flying out with it to

Australasia on board a Hercules. “So I’m used to there not being many women around,” she says.

Recreational flying is still a male-dominated hobby. Of the 4,603 national private pilot licence applications received by the British Microlight Aircraft Association since 2010, only 169 – or 3.67% – came from women. 

“Flying is still a bit of an old boys’ club,” says Amanda Rutherford, who is taking lessons with Alba Airsports, the SAC’s microlight and gyrocopter training provider, and who came up with the idea for the Ladies’ Day. 

“You don’t see many women here, and those you do see tend to be travelling as passengers with their pilot husbands. Everyone at the club is positive and helpful, but there has never been a female committee member and that, to me, belongs in the 1970s.”

Rutherford, who works for a homeless charity, started learning last year, after her husband Davie died suddenly.

She had always had a yen to fly a plane; but it never occurred to her that a working-class woman like her could become a pilot. She kept on dreaming, though.

“Every time Davie and I went abroad, I’d joke that one day it would be me saying: ‘This is your captain speaking’.”

In August 2021, Davie took the hint and bought her a flying voucher for her birthday. She set it aside for the spring; but then, in December, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and, six weeks later, he died at the age of 59.

She forgot about the voucher. But shortly before what would have been Davie’s 60th birthday, she was sorting through paperwork and it fell out.

“It felt like fate,” she says. She chose to spend that difficult day, not crying by Davie’s woodland grave, but up in a tumult in the clouds.

Would he have been proud? “There’s no chance he would ever have got into the plane with me,” she laughs, “but he would have enjoyed seeing me up there.”

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By the time Rutherford touched back down, she knew she would get her licence. Today, she has 25 flying hours under her belt, and she will soon be taking her first solo flight.

Like all Alba Airsports students, she learns in a Eurostar microlight. “It’s strange – a sort of gift from beyond the grave,” she says. “It doesn’t take away the grief, but up there you feel a sense of freedom and peace of sorts.”

Today, at Perth Airport, she and other organisers are watching the sky like farmers fretting over their harvests.

The highlight of Ladies’ Day is supposed to be a flight – with each woman matched to a pilot (all men because neither Harwood nor Easton has access to an aircraft at Perth at present).

There is a frisson of excitement in the air, along with the threat of rain. Most of the visitors have forded road rivers to get here, and more squalls are expected to roll in throughout the afternoon.

Elaine Whitehead, the club’s administrative officer, who also co-owns Alba Airsports with her husband Kevin, promises that, if the planes are grounded, we’ll leave with a “blind date” for a day with better weather. 

In the meantime, we are divided into groups and invited through the secure access door into the CCTV-covered hangar where around 90 brightly-liveried aircraft – their limbs outstretched, their propellers pert – await inspection like pedigree dogs at Crufts.

There are flex-wing microlights – circus-like contraptions, beloved of biker-types – and aerobatic bi-planes, which make you feel as if you’re wandering through the set of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.

Factory-built models vie with First World War replicas and flatpack kit planes built in their owners’ garages. Some are sleek and streamlined, others have “faces” so anthropomorphic they could star in the next Pixar blockbuster; but all are lovingly tended by men, who appear now and then, brandishing cloths, to top up the oil tanks or polish the paintwork.

“How much do you think this one costs?” group leader Norman Sutherland asks of every plane we stop in front of. The answers range from £5,000 for an older, second-hand flex-wing to £250,000 for a Cirrus SR22 – a grand tourer for the air.

Sutherland built his own plane: a Skyranger Nynja. He prefers high-wing models – ones where the wings sit above the fuselage – because, although they are less streamlined, they offer a better view of the ground.

They are also more practical for his work with Civil Air Support: a charity which offers air services to organisations that can’t afford to buy them in.

Volunteers may be asked by families to continue search and rescue after the official operation has been called off; or to take aerial shots of seal colonies, so their numbers can be counted.

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When I asked the Ladies’ Day visitors why they thought women were less likely to take up recreational flying, Victoria Rodner said maybe they found the technology off-putting.

Rodner, a lecturer in marketing at Edinburgh University, is currently involved in a research project on what motivates people to fly, which is ironic because she is frightened by turbulence, even on commercial aircraft.

On a recent paramotor tandem flight, she could see her legs dangling and thought she’d be terrified, though “once we were airborne, everything just melted away”. She says she finds all the knobs and nozzles overwhelming. “Maybe some women don’t like the gadgets – maybe it all seems a bit ‘boys with their toys’,” she says.

Sutherland, a healthcare planning consultant, is certainly passionate about machines. He tells us about the engines. “This one is a 100 horsepower Rotax – a boxer style similar to the configuration of engine used in a Volkswagen Beetle, but with more modern technology,” he says.

And he talks us through the various instruments: the ailerons that roll the wing backwards and forwards, the elevator which pitches the tail up and down, the throttles that look like plungers or syringes, the flight instruments with built-in GPS and synthetic vision so you can see the hills ahead on a computer screen, even if, in reality, they are shrouded in mist.
He talks about the average fuel consumption. 

“Most of these aircraft are burning between 10 and 14 litres of petrol an hour. With petrol at £1.50 a litre, that’s £15-£20 an hour,” he says. “This one carries 60 litres of fuel, and has a range of around 450 miles.”

For a moment, there are so many numbers coming at me I feel like Clare Grogan’s Susan in Gregory’s Girl.

But it’s good to have an opportunity to ask questions without being made to feel stupid; and the financial and eco-costs of recreational flying are a consideration for anyone who is considering taking it up.

Lessons at Alba Airsports come in at £150 (one hour in the air, one hour at ground school). You need at least 45 flying hours to qualify (a minimum of 25 under dual instruction, and a minimum of 10 supervised solo) though most people take closer to 60. And it costs around £200 a month to store your plane in the club’s hangar and for access to the runways.

It’s not cheap, but many people cut costs by belonging to a syndicate.  On the ecological front, Sutherland says things are improving.

“There was a lot of bad press going back 15 years or so – the old two-stroke engines were inefficient,” he says, “but the modern engines are much safer, more reliable, more efficient and better for the environment.”

William Scott has been SAC chairman for three months. One of his priorities is to look at green options such as electric propulsion and hydrogen fuel cells, and to make the club as environmentally-friendly as possible.

But he also wants to get more women involved. He shows the Ladies’ Day visitors photographs of Winifred Drinkwater, from East Renfrewshire, who became the UK’s youngest pilot when she gained her licence at 17 in 1930, and the world’s first female commercial pilot a few years later.

“I think there is a perception this is not something that ladies do, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Scott says.

By 3pm-ish, the weather has cleared enough for the planes to take off. I have been paired with Kevin Whitehead, who is also Alba Airsports’ chief flying instructor, and we are going up in a Eurostar which was given its name – G-Mola – by its previous owner, a witty dentist. Although I have flown a lot, I have never been in a plane so tiny. 

On top of this, the last time I flew, the pilot pulled back up for a “go-around” just as the plane was about to touch down, so I am more anxious than I anticipated. But Whitehead’s easy manner and rigorous ticking off of the safety checklist is calming.

“Pull on the choke,” he tells me, as he presses the start button. A short spurt along the tarmac and we are up, up and away.

A weak sun battles heroically to illuminate Perth as she stretches herself out across an amber and ochre bedspread. From our sky-borne cabin, we follow the great loops of the Tay as it wends its way inexorably towards the estuary.

Hay bales and plough marks trace a rigid geometry in some fields, while others are whitened by a dandruff scattering of sheep. For a short time, we seem to be heading towards a downpour and I will Whitehead to swing back round towards the light.

When he does, I realise we are swooping down towards the folly at Kinnoull Hill, where I had stood just months earlier, and suddenly, I feel it: the thrill of seeing a familiar landscape from a new and wilder perspective.

When we land, I swap places with Elaine Boyd, a director at Audit Scotland, who has already taken a handful of lessons courtesy of Flying Scholarships for Disabled People.

Boyd, from East Dunbartonshire, has cerebral palsy which causes a weakness in her left side. At present, Flying Scholarships for Disabled People only operates in England and the lessons she took were close to Salisbury.

“The scenery was amazing,” she says, “but I would really like to be able to fly here.” She’s excited because the previous day she managed to board the Eurostar using her kitchen steps.

She was also able to shimmy across to the far side of the plane, a manoeuvre which would allow her to use her right side – her predominant side – to fly. I watch her now, climbing the kitchen steps and getting inside, ready to soar.

While she is in the air, I grab a quick chat with Kendra Keith, 22, who is also learning to fly. She started taking lessons when her 18-year-old pilot friend Adam took her up on an jaunt over Pitlochry and Blair Atholl in April.

Since then, she has flown for 12-and-a-half hours, and she is preparing for her first solo circuits. “I love it. You get a completely different view of the world. People say: ‘That’s Stanley, that’s Murthly,’ and you’re like: ‘They’re tiny’.”

Keith is currently funding her lessons out of her wages as a manager at Morrisons, but hopes to train as a dental nurse to boost her income. “My female friends all think I am mad, but now they are saying: ‘When you pass, does that mean we can come for a flight?’”

Every woman I speak to afterwards is equally buzzed by their experience. “It was totally amazing to see the Forth Road Bridge and Dundee ahead of me,” says Boyd. “I was blown away.” She is now planning to take lessons and join the SAC.

Given this event was over-subscribed, with a waiting list, the club is eager to hold another one soon. “It’s a just a shame you couldn’t have been taken up by a female pilot,” Elaine Whitehead says as I leave, “but Amanda and Kendra [and perhaps also Boyd] should have their licences soon.”

It seems likely that some of the next batch of “ladies” will be flown by ladies. Fingers crossed, I’ll be invited back.