Flying 'legend' comes in to land
THERE is a glimmer in the blue summer sky. In moments it has grown into a speck. Then a little silver cross. Before finally, the incoming object becomes recognisable an aeroplane.
The sight of an incoming Airbus is not unusual here at Bristol Airport, but today, all eyes are on the growing glimmer. For today is the day the staff at Bristol Airport have to start saying their goodbyes to one of the place's best-loved characters – Captain Pam McCoy.
The steady pair of hands at the controls have steered hundreds of aircraft in to land at Bristol since Pam first flew here in 1977.
A formidable character, with a seemingly permanent mischievous glint in her eye, the Iron Acton-based captain is a familiar figure at the airport.
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Everyone you speak to here comes up with the same set of expressions when trying to describe her – "extraordinary", "a force to be reckoned with", "a legend", and above all else "a genuinely lovely person".
But as we watch Pam bring in her Thomas Cook-liveried aeroplane, packed with happy holidaymakers nattering about their week in Minorca, it is the end of an era for the airport.
"Well that's my last landing in Bristol," she says with a smile and a little shrug of her shoulders, as she leaves the cockpit a few minutes later. "So there you go."
She glances at her watch, before adding: "Look I even brought her in half an hour early."
Few people are as familiar with Bristol Airport as Captain Pam – as she is affectionately known by all.
"When I started out here in the 1970s, it was as a flying instructor," she tells me, as she leads the way through the original airport terminus – now the staff admin building.
"This building was the heart of it all in those days."
The aviation business in the 1970s was a world in which even the idea of a female pilot was enough to raise eyebrows from the male-oriented industry.
"Even today, we have 500 pilots at Thomas Cook, and just eight female captains," she says. "But back when I got my commercial pilot's licence, I was almost the only one.
"The pilots I trained under were old-school captains, many of whom had flown during the war, but actually they were rather lovely about the idea of having a woman on the flight deck – they were very gentle- manly about it."
Pam progressed from her early days of commercial piloting – flying mail from Cardiff to Liverpool, on to flying aircraft such as the Vickers Viscount – the VC8 – for Dan-Air and Boeing 737s and 757s for AirTours, and latterly Thomas Cook – she has even taken command of the mighty Airbus A330.
"I have received plenty of sexual discrimination from the passengers over the years, but never really from the crew. Plenty of passengers still make jokes about women drivers, and are sometimes quite seriously alarmed about the idea of a woman piloting the aircraft.
"You wouldn't believe the number of times I've been told I'm not strong enough to fly the plane – as if I'm having to lift it by hand. But I never let any of that bother me."
Pam is understandably proud of her achievements in a male-dominated industry.
"That first time I had command of an aircraft, more than 20 years ago, has to have been one of the real career highlights," she says, pointing towards the captain's stripes on her epaulettes, "these things aren't easy to get you know.
"But to be honest there have been so many wonderful moments, it is hard to pin down the best bits.
"One of the most extraordinary things I've done is to fly pilgrims into Mecca for the Hajj. I've done it three or four times – flying thousands of people from Indonesia to Saudi Arabia.
"It's a pilgrimage that all Muslims are supposed to try to make in their lifetime, so you got to meet some incredible people from very poor, rural villages, who had saved all their life to do this – some of them had never seen an aeroplane before, let alone been on one.
"You'd spend three weeks shipping them in to Mecca, and then three weeks shipping them back out again – by which point they were often ill or diseased, or all too often, given that many of these people were quite old, they had died out there and you had to bring their bodies home.
"But it really was the most extraordinary experience, and quite a spectacle.
"Another interesting experience was when we were sent to break a flight crew strike that was taking place on the internal airlines in Australia in the 1980s.
"I was based out in Adelaide for three months, flying around the country. We had been warned that it would be all about getting abused at picket lines, but actually the Australians were wonderful to us – we all had a great time."
Another career highlight for Pam came in February last year, when Pam set up a charity flight to chase the Northern Lights.
"I'd wanted to do something in aid of Help for Heroes," she explains. "I was going to organise a ball, but I thought that's a bit boring. Then I had the idea of taking one of the planes, and heading north to look for the Northern Lights, and selling tickets in aid of the charity.
"It took me over a year to organise it – lots and lots of phone calls, but I managed to get all costs waivered, with the exception of the fuel cost and the airport passage duty – which sadly, the Government refused to budge on.
"We got a glimpse of the Northern Lights – although they weren't too spectacular that night. But the important thing was that we raised £25,500 for our injured servicemen."
Pam says the industry has changed beyond all recognition in the time she has been flying.
"The biggest changes over the years are the technical advances we have seen in terms of the sophistication of the computer equipment on the flight deck, and the reliability and power of the engines," she says.
"The automation we now have at our disposal is truly extraordinary. The aeroplane can technically bring itself in to land in Bristol, with as little as 75 metres of visibility. It's that sort of thing that has made flying much safer for all of us."
Pam's final flight out of Bristol left for Majorca early on Saturday morning, with Pam returning to Exeter on Saturday evening.
As a mark of respect, for her final flight out of Bristol Pam was given the traditional aviation salute – a taxiing archway created by a pair of fire engine hoses.
There was one final surprise for her on the flight sheet – where Pam discovered her last flight was given a unique call sign that incorporated her initials – PM01/PM02.
"It may be time to give up the day job," she says. "But I can't imagine giving up flying altogether – I'll still make sure I get behind the controls of a few smaller aircraft once in a while. I might even renew my licence as a flight instructor.
"But I'll never forget my happy times at the controls of these wonderful larger aircraft. It's a fabulous job. After all, there aren't many jobs where you get to see the sun every day, whatever the weather."