Pilot Profile: Captain Bruce Dickinson
PUBLISHED: 16:48 10 September 2015
Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson famously took the band on tour in a 757 he piloted himself. In conversation, his passion for flying runs deep - he's an aviator, through and through
Rock star, commercial pilot, private pilot, company chief executive and aviation enthusiast Bruce Dickinson is on part two of a world tour as lead vocalist with the heavy metal band, Iron Maiden. Meanwhile his aviation exploits bring a different dimension to a musician’s existence played out amid the thumping rhythms, swirling stage smoke and strobing lights of the vast arenas like the London O2, and a multitude of other big venues world-wide.
When Pilot caught up with Bruce at his Cardiff Aviation base at St Athan he’d just completed concerts with the band in Zagreb and Prague. He’d flown back to London, caught a train and was busy doing an interview and photo-shoot for another magazine. The O2 gig was the end of part one of the world tour − the European section: in September Bruce was heading west to the USA and South America. This would be enough to exhaust a normal mortal, but he seems to have boundless energy and drive−and is clearly ready to talk aeroplanes all day.
Well known as a Commercial pilot from his career with Astraeus Airlines, Bruce (a down-to-earth guy, he’d not want you to call him Captain Dickinson) has loved aviation since he was a boy. “It just got in the blood,” he says. Don’t, however, think for a moment that the path to the pilot’s seat was an easy one. There was no parental interest in aviation, and at Oundle School Bruce was, in his own words, “utterly useless” at physics and maths − the technical subjects that might have given him entry to an Air Transport Pilot Licence training scheme. In fact, he failed to get into the Air Cadets and ended up, despite an “aversion for things that walked”, in the Army Cadets.
Compensation came in the form of a rise through the ranks and stewardship of the keys to the school armoury − in the innocent days of the early 1970s, a place where a teenager could readily lay hands on a .303 Lee-Enfield rifle and help himself to cartridges and glorious explosive toys like thunder-flashes… “Thanks to my exalted rank,” continues Bruce, “I also had access to the Cadets’ Link Trainer and, in spending hours teaching myself to fly the thing on my own, I unwittingly picked up the basics of instrument flying.” Bruce’s academic career concluded with a 2.2 in Modern History from Queen Mary College. “Then, as you do with this kind of degree, I became a musician…” His first exposure to light aviation came with a flight from Jersey with Iron Maiden drummer Nicko McBrain, who was learning to fly in a PA-28 Cherokee 140.
Returning from a fencing competition in France (among his many achievements, he was at the time among the UK’s top ten foilists) Bruce was hitching an aerial lift and Nicko’s instructor Charlie was accompanying them in the heavily-loaded Piper. “He took one look at me and all the kit we were carrying and turned a whiter shade of pale. We all had to lean forward while he boarded the aircraft to stop the thing falling on its tail − and once we got off the ground, it was straight into a solid overcast.” This didn’t put Bruce off − quite the opposite, in fact − but he didn’t really start learning to fly in earnest until the early 1990s, when he was staying in Kissimmee, Florida and had a $30 trial lesson. “This was my road to Damascus moment. I could see the whole mental process of planning and conducting flights stretching out to infinity − here was a subject you could never fully know.” He undertook further PPL training in Ardmore NZ in a Cessna 150 Aerobat− “which wobbled my gyros a bit” − and at Leavesden, where after his US experience he found it was very easy to get lost in British skies.
Progressing through ratings, his first aircraft was a Turbo Aztec E, about which he has many war stories, all of which tested but did not defeat his obvious natural talent as a pilot (they are still talking at White Waltham about a nicely managed night arrival Bruce made there years ago). Despite feeling that the ATPL “is not a way of imparting knowledge but a barrier to entry”, Bruce pursued a career in Commercial aviation when he broke with Iron Maiden in 1993. He of course followed his own modular training route, enjoying the services of Bristol Ground School for the theory part (he still holds this organisation in high regard today). On the way, he’d gained a Flight Instructor rating in the USA, and converted onto taildraggers. Not only did this cement his interest in small aeroplanes − he rated the tailwheel ACA Decathlon a “really honest little aeroplane” − but it confirmed his passion for “flying with a purpose. I really like the idea of putting light bulbs on in people’s heads and demystifying the whole thing. People talk about fast and slow learners and I say ‘Really? Is it some kind of race?’
Bruce’s early days of Commercial flying were right-hand-seat on types like Air Atlantique’s Twin Pioneer. When he rejoined Iron Maiden in the late 1990s, he kept his multi-engine flying current on a Cessna 421 he bought in Santa Monica for $225,000. “I loved it −you could cruise all day at 220 knots at 18 to 20,000 feet, but it would crack its engine cylinders in a heartbeat if you ignored the rule of thumb on throttling back for descent.” The ferry flight to the UK furnished one especially character-forming incident, when his passenger asked “What’s that big red light?” It was a fire warning for one of the engines and went out when Bruce operated the extinguisher. He was then faced with the question of whether he should shut down the engine, but decided to keep it running and put down at the first opportunity. On the ground, the engineer they’d called out soon established what had happened: “See,” he said to Bruce, grinning as he touched the chafed sensor wire against the aircraft structure and then pulled it away, “Fire; no fire… fire; no fire… fire; no fire…” For once Bruce, one of the most easygoing characters you could imagine, was not amused.
The entrée to passenger jet operations came when a Commercial pilot friend based at Cardiff invited Bruce to share some simulator time. When Bruce’s ability became apparent, he was invited by the training captain present to join British World Airlines with the question “What are you doing on Monday?” While employed by BWA, he flew twenty sectors for parent airline BA: “I’ve still got the hat!” BWA was a casualty of the dip in air travel that followed 9/11, Bruce moving on to Astraeus where he flew Boeing 737s before converting on to his favourite jet, the 757. “It’s the airliner equivalent of the Jaguar XK8,” he says − and Bruce should know, because he’s driving one of these modern classics today. Interestingly, as well as being a whole lot more fun, it made logistical sense for Bruce to charter one of the company’s jets converted to passenger/cargo ‘combi’ configuration to fly the band across continents, rather than use the usual fleet of coaches and trucks. The sight of the Astraeus Boeing 757-200 with Iron Maiden titles along the fuselage for the band’s Somewhere Back in Time World Tour was also some of the best advertising the band has ever received.
Astraeus left the band’s artwork in place. However, on one of the 757’s post-tour charter outings to Africa the decals had to be removed because on seeing the image of the band’s mascot, Eddie some passengers refused to board the airliner claiming it was “possessed by evil spirits”. Bruce’s Commercial aviation activities are today centred on Cardiff, but when the conversation turns away from business − which he takes very seriously − to pleasure, it’s hard to escape the impression that he’d much rather be at White Waltham, where he is part owner of a SA Bulldog and WWII-era Bücker Jungmann biplane trainer, than trailing around the UK doing media interviews at the behest of his PR people.
Mention of the famously aerobatic Jungmann leads to a question about what kind of flying Bruce does in it. “Only gentleman’s aerobatics − the odd loop or roll for fun. I’ve never done, nor had the slightest desire to do competition aerobatics. I can empathise with the sport and really appreciate the skill and dedication these pilots require, but it is all a bit too esoteric for me. “However, I also think − wearing my commercial pilot’s hat − that every CPL course should include at least five hours of aerobatic flight and training. It is being brought home more and more that newer pilots who spend much of their training time in simulators do not have the flying skill finesse to appreciate sometimes what’s happening to their aircraft. Take the Air France AF447 incident when an Airbus A330 was lost over the South Atlantic. It may be speculation, but I believe that if those guys had a better grasp of aircraft handling, honed with some practical aerobatic flying, they may just have had the awareness and skill to save that aircraft.”
What about flight training these days, and the advent of the microlight? “I can’t understand instructors and students flogging around in thirty-year old Piper Cherokees when there are such lovely and economic microlights available. I would much rather fly one of these than an old spam can. I particularly like the Comco Ikarus C42 and have flown quite a few hours in this −a safe and sturdy machine. “We will soon be sponsoring an attempt on the FAI world altitude record for this class of aircraft, currently at about 27,000ft. We plan to do it in an Ikarus and to do it in Greece where the ill-fated mythological aviator fell to earth after flying too close to the sun. This will be an exciting and worthwhile adventure.”
One thing that Bruce doesn’t do is fly himself between appointments and venues, “It is the well known old adage, ‘go by air if you’ve time to spare’, and for this interview at St Athan I came down on the train, and a car picked me up from the station. I regularly use easyJet for travel around the UK and Europe and am quite happy to sit back and let someone else do the flying”. At White Waltham, where he’s long been part of the scene, Bruce is happy to be counted as just another member of the club. But does his high profile as a rock star draw more attention in the outside world? “Yes and no − I could be on one side of the street and nobody but nobody has the slightest idea who I am. Go to the other side of the street, metaphorically speaking, and there can be a clique of die-hard fans in a frenzy.” All part of the parcel of being an immensely successful musician − but you sense that he’s much more comfortable in the flying environment.
You might imagine that Bruce, like several other rock and pop stars, would have his sights on some kind of classic warbird. “I’d love to own and fly one but, believe it or not, I can’t afford one − at least not a high-end warbird like a P-51 Mustang or Spitfire.” Instead, Bruce takes enormous pleasure in flying some of the older pistonengine airliners – aircraft like the Douglas DC-3, DC-6 and Lockheed Constellation – whenever and wherever he can. “This is why I fell in love with the TV series Ice Pilots and went to Canada and flew with Buffalo Airways at Yellowknife.” Bruce points to the two orange Canadair/ Bombardier CL-215s sitting on the St Athan ramp opposite his Cardiff Aviation hangars. “It was from my contacts with Buffalo Airways that I got the contract to fly one of these two water-bombers back from Turkey at the end of the 2012 fire-fighting season. We contracted to store them here and carry out maintenance. They are sitting here waiting for the call up, but being the older type of water bomber − the newer CL-415 has turbine engines − they are not in such great demand.”
This pair of machines rather encapsulates Bruce’s multi-layered interest in flying, as enthusiast, private and Commercial pilot, and businessman. As well as his career in music, he has turned out a pair very successful satirical novels, The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace and The Missionary Position, making him a polymath in the true sense of the word. For all of this he remains a modest and very likeable guy, one who − for all the pleasure it has given him − is quietly putting more back into aviation than he ever took out of it.
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