Open Eye: Graduate who reaches for the sky

How pilot's Polar diary aids disabled By Jane Matthews
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Column inches analysing the perils and purpose of adventure holidays may be a natural reaction to recent disasters, but all the words in the world won't alter the need for the human spirit to stretch itself.

For OU graduate Polly Vacher there came a moment when her decision to fly a single engine aircraft solo across the Atlantic might easily have ended in death. She knew bad weather was closing in behind her and that if she landed as planned in Greenland she would be stuck for several days. She decided to fly on to Iceland. But as two instrument lights failed, darkness fell, and the deteriorating conditions threatened to coat the plane's wings in deadly ice, Polly says she had never been so afraid in her life.

She flew blind, and as low over the uninhabited northern wasteland as she dared, to reduce the risk of ice clawing the plane from the nightsky, swearing all the while that if she got through she would never make such a misjudgment again.

Yet, safely home at Drayton, near Abingdon in Oxfordshire, Polly and husband Peter are already planning the next challenge, which will be flying solo around the world.

What's more, when she's not skimming cloud tops in her Piper Dakota, Polly is the driving force behind a campaign to raise enough money to fund a scholarship to enable people with disabilities to experience the same surge of sheer adrenaline which comes with scaling heights and seeing sights which are hidden to the earth-bound.

And here it is that one begins to understand the reverse side of those moments when adventure could so easily tip over into tragedy: its power to alter perspectives.

Says Polly: "I don't think people realise how high the icecap is. I had to put on oxygen to fly at 14,000 feet in order to climb above it, and then I was skimming the tops of mountains, looking out over complete wildness. You see things which no-one else sees, a myriad of colours, the sun sparkling on virgin snow and icebergs floating. I suppose what I felt most was very privileged."

At another level she says of her fund-raising for The Royal International Air Tattoo Flying Scholarships for the Disabled in memory of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader: "For people with disabilities, a flying scholarship offers them an intellectual and physical challenge at which they never remotely believed they could succeed, and helps them gain in confidence and self esteem. Up there in the sky they are as free as anyone else."

Polly's own flying career didn't begin until her 49th year, after she had successfully tackled the slightly different challenges of raising children and completing OU studies in arts and music in order to gain a degree. She later did a masters in music education at Reading to complete the career transformation from physiotherapist to music teacher.

Her Atlantic challenge grew out of a plan for a US holiday with Peter, who learned to fly at the same time.

"We were going to hire a plane out there but my instructor said why are you hiring a plane when you have got a perfectly good one yourself."

It took Polly nine months to prepare for the flight, which she achieved in four legs of approximately 700 nautical miles. Much of the lead-up time was spent in safety and survival training, since the majority of the trip is over sea or desolate rocky mountains and lakes. Her plane, which is about the size of a Mini inside, had to be fitted with an extra fuel tank, and she spent days plotting and re-plotting the route to align her path with the big airlines, who would be her only point of radio contact for the majority of the trip.

While those conversations with commercial pilots were another highlight of the journey, Polly was never in any danger of needing stimulation to stay alert in the sky.

She explains: "It isn't difficult to stay awake because there is a lot of adrenaline and you have actually got a lot to do, checking the fuel and relaying your position and route which you are obliged to do every hour. I ate something, and when I did have time I wrote a diary."

The diary has since proved a useful resource for Polly's speaking engagements. It was not part of the original plan to go public on what she describes `an essentially private challenge'. But, deciding she wanted to give something back, she agreed to give talks in return for a donation to Flying Scholarships for the Disabled. Now she has become Chair of the committee organising a major event at Duxford, next May, which aims to raise the balance of the 150,000 needed to endow a permanent scholarship opening up the skies - and consequently the horizons - for more people with disabilities.

Wheelchairs on Wings will feature a champagne reception, private flying display by some top names, dinner dance and an auction of unique opportunities.For further details contact Polly Vacher on 01235 531540 or e-mail