June 5, 2021
We've all had our ups and downs over the last couple of years, none more so than Lauren Wigglesworth, a senior first officer on our Airbus fleet.
We caught up with Lauren to discover how, since 2017, she lost one dream job, found another, fulfilled her ambition to fly the Boeing 747 and started a family in a pandemic. That’s quite a rollercoaster ride.
At the age of four, her first holiday flight set Lauren on the path to a career in aviation and the ultimate job of an airline pilot. “I told my parents that I’d like to be cabin crew and take people on holiday,” said Lauren. “They suggested that I could learn to fly the plane and become a pilot instead. That’s something I hadn’t thought about and where it all began. Over the following years they also used that as a bit of bribery, telling me that if I wanted to become a pilot, I had to work hard at school”. The trick worked. Lauren never wavered from her childhood ambition and, as one of our pilots, now flies our customers all over the world.
Having pestered her dad to enrol her in the Air Cadets at 13, she started her flying lessons. At 18, she went to flight school and graduated with an ATPL (Airline Transport Pilot Licence). Lauren initially flew Boeing 757’s on a temporary contract before landing her dream job with Monarch, flying the Airbus A320. She was a first officer before being promoted to Captain when she was only 28. Lauren was, in every sense, living her dream. And then she wasn’t.
As one of the UK’s longest established carriers when Monarch Airlines ceased trading in 2017, it sent shockwaves through the industry.That left Lauren without a job and plenty of time to plan the next stage of her career. “I could have retained my command at another short-haul airline but had always fancied flying long-haul,” she said. “So when I heard that Virgin had just acquired some Airbus aircraft and was looking for pilots, I applied, thinking my Airbus experience would stand me in good stead”. The big surprise came with a phone call from our recruitment team. “I remember it very vividly. I was driving to the Job Centre to sign on for job seekers allowance. You have to do it every week, and it’s the most depressing thing,” said Lauren. “That’s when I got a call from Julia in pilot recruitment who says she’d like to offer me a job, but not on the Airbus as I expected but on the Boeing 747. It turns out that the short time I spent flying the Boeing 757 gave me the experience on Boeing’s that Virgin were looking for. The opportunity to join Virgin and fly the 747 was too good an opportunity to miss. Flying the jumbo is a tick box for any pilot, and most of my friends would give their right arm to fly it just once. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have had to opportunity to fly them. I skipped into the jobcentre that day and announced that I was going to fly the 747!” Lauren spent a very happy 18 months flying the aircraft’ discovering that long-haul life was everything she’d hoped for and more. Life was going well, and it felt like a good time to start a family.
When Lauren decided to start a family, she was grounded straight away. This is standard for pilots. “Everything was normal with the world, up until about two weeks before I gave birth,” she said. “And that’s when the full extent of Covid-19 became clear. I gave birth to my son Sebastian on the second day of the first lockdown in March 2020 on a closed ward with none of my family able to visit. At the same time, I watched as the whole aviation industry was completely grounded”. And so, during the most uncertain of times, Lauren began her maternity leave. “Sadly, the effects of the pandemic meant it was not your typical first-time-mum experience. However, on the flip side, the three of us got a lot of quality family time at home, so we do have lots of lovely memories”.
Fast forward 11 months to this February and Lauren was back at work, this time relearning the Airbus and doing her type rating course on the A330. She’s already spent eight years flying the smaller A320 for Monarch, so she knew the layout and the Airbus way of doing thingsTo get back in the air involved three weeks of classroom ground school followed by another three weeks in the flight simulator and a several flights under the watchful eye of a training captain. “Having not flown for 18 months, it was initially challenging, getting my head back into the books, but with the support of the fabulous training department we have here at Virgin Atlantic, I was quickly able to get back up to speed and ready for my simulator exams. I was lucky enough to have Captain Chris sign off my final simulator exam alongside my final line check flight, which brought a really positive experience to the end of my training”.
If Lauren’s world hadn’t changed enough already, her first flight back brought with it a trio of firsts for her. “Believe it or not, my first flight was the first time I’d ever flown from Heathrow. Monarch didn’t fly from there, and in my time, neither did the Virgin 747. It was also my first flight in an A330 and the first time I’d been to Lagos. So it was a lot of firsts all wrapped into one flight, but it was really good.”
So how does her new long-haul career square up with being a new mum? Very well, it turns out. “In my old job, over three days of short-haul, I’d probably go to the Canary Islands three times. And although I’d always sleep in my own bed, the baby would have been asleep by the time I got home,” said Lauren. “Now, as a long-haul pilot, I get a little bit of time down route to do something for myself. That might be shopping, going to the gym or a nice quiet lunch in New York. Or maybe a swim and some chill time by a pool in the Caribbean. Although most trips involve a night stop, I still get to have more time at home than some of my friends who have other professional careers. I have much more quality time at home with my baby than my accountant friend has with her little one.That advantage of the job isn’t really spoken about. That said, I’m very fortunate that I have a supportive husband and family, which means that I can focus all my time on my baby when I’m home”.
Only 3% of all pilots worldwide are women. That’s not acceptable, and is something that weare trying hard to address. “There’s absolutely no reason in my opinion for this,” says Lauren. “It’s not a job which women think about for a career. I think the more we hear from female pilots discussing the benefits of flying as a career, the more we’ll attract future aviators from all backgrounds”.
After the last 15 months, and despite seeing so many of her colleagues affected by world events, Lauren still loves her career. It’s great to see her back doing what she does best, flying on the A330 and being an inspirational role model for any young women considering a career as a pilot.