Hannah Nobbs is one of our new co-pilots. Her journey to this point has been an interesting one, with Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance (DSAA) playing a significant part. Over the past eight years, Hannah has been a volunteer for the charity, both on the fundraising side and then subsequently as a trustee. She shares her story, in the hope that is shows with hard work, determination, a community of support and a bit of luck in timings, a seemingly impossible dream can come true. 

I didn’t grow up wanting to fly, in fact I started secondary school wanting to be an actress, journalist, vet and a diplomat (simultaneously)! But a visit to the International Helicopter Museum at Weston-super-Mare as a teenager sparked an interest in helicopters that has grown ever since.  

A trial lesson in a small two-seat helicopter for my 16th birthday was intended to get it out of my system, but you’ve guessed it, I was hooked! 

Deciding I wanted to fly was the easy bit, gaining the required qualification and experience to be able to fly in a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) role was more tricky. It was soon apparent that the military route was not an option because I wore glasses and would not pass the initial military pilot medical. The costs of training as a civilian pilot are incredibly high and I quickly realised that to fly professionally was likely to remain a dream.  

During my A-levels, when presented with a list of university courses in alphabetical order, I got as far as “A” for Aerospace Engineering, which seemed as good a way as any of becoming part of the world of aviation. Four years of study later, I left the University of Southampton as an Aerospace Engineer.  

It was after visiting an air show that I first saw someone do aerobatics in a tiny helicopter. I didn’t realise it at the time, but the Pilot, Dennis Kenyon (who could make a machine that looked like it was made of Meccano dance gracefully through the air) would become a life-long friend and mentor who changed my life. 

An announcement over the tannoy informed the crowd that the Dennis Kenyon Junior Memorial Scholarship was open for applications, for a fully funded helicopter Private Pilot’s Licence. The scholarship had been set up in memory of Dennis’s son who had tragically died in a helicopter accident. It was a long process of a written application, interview and aptitude test, but I made it through and completed my licence in the summer of 2005. This was a fantastic opportunity to be able to fly, but the cost of keeping the licence current was so high that within a few years, despite much support from friends and family, I was no longer able to fly often enough to use the licence.  

It was AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) that brought me from Essex to my adopted home in the west country. Following my graduation, I applied for a role in the helicopter preliminary design department in Yeovil. There, I worked on concept designs for heavy lift helicopters and tilt rotors. It was an exciting role and gave me an opportunity to work in Cascina Costa on a brand new helicopter, known then as the “special project, XX9”. This was to become the AW169, an aircraft specifically aimed at the market for HEMS.  

I remember the numerous discussions as to how many rotor blades the aircraft would have, whether it would have wheels or skids, where the fuel tanks would be located etc. There were many hours spent with HEMS professionals to develop the requirements and several more hours with wooden mock-up models in a shed on site to try out different cabin layouts and methods of loading patients.  

After the initial part of the project, I stayed in Italy to work in the rotors department as a structural analyst, developing a blade design for a European tilt rotor aircraft. I then returned to Yeovil to continue with design certification analysis and testing for the AW189, which is now used by the UK Coastguard.  

It was during my time working in Yeovil that I started volunteering for DSAA, giving talks and presentations to interested groups and helping at events such as the Coast to Coast Cycle Challenge. I became more and more interested in the charity and how it was governed. Several years later, I started serving as a trustee. I continued this role when I left AgustaWestland to work for the RNLI in their Innovation Team on the future life-saving programme, exploring the use of drones for Search and Rescue.  

Since DSAA was formed, it has operated as a single pilot operation and there are very few other helicopter operators in the west country. So, with a limited opportunity to fly where I was based, I took a role with the Civil Aviation Authority in West Sussex. The role was an exciting one – to develop regulations to enable commercial spaceflight from the UK. What it also meant was that while I was working full time I could be near an airfield, finish chipping away at the 14 written theory exams and build the flight experience needed to start the commercial course.

During this time, (and this is the luck in timings), some air ambulances began flying with two pilots, meaning that a co-pilot role could be a possible opening into the exciting world of HEMS, if I could complete my commercial licence. But – and there is always a but – co-pilots would need an instrument rating. This is a qualification that enables pilots to fly a helicopter in cloud, only using instruments to know where they are. This course is cripplingly expensive because although 40 hours of training can be done in a simulator, a minimum of 10 hours is required in a twin turbine engine helicopter, at an average cost of about £1,400 per hour. 

I now had my commercial licence and the Civil Aviation Authority were supportive of me taking a period of unpaid leave to do the course. It was now GO BIG or GO HOME! I was delighted to be awarded a scholarship from the British Women’s Pilot Association towards the course and the rest was funded by a loan against my house and a loan from my family.  

I found the initial instrument rating course the most difficult so far. During the course, an advert for DSAA co-pilots went out and I applied. I was interviewed and then assessed in a simulator before finding out that all my efforts were worth it. I was offered one of the co-pilot roles, however it was conditional on the completion of the instrument course. Obviously, this was a massive motivation to finishing the course, but definitely added to the test nerves. 

A month into being an operational member of the crew and after three months of training to learn to fly the AW169, I have finally had chance to pause and realise that this is now real. I have already learnt a huge amount; mostly that there is so much, much, more to learn and I have loved every single second. It has been a huge privilege to work with such an amazing crew and be able to serve the community of Dorset and Somerset that welcomed me many years ago. There are not many people that get the chance to fly an aircraft they have helped to develop, so it is extra special to me that Peggy is now my colleague.