Today marks exactly a month until the scheduled start of my flying training.
As Day 1 draws nearer, I’m feeling very excited and incredibly fortunate. Part of me still can’t believe that I’m about to learn to fly! Until just under a year ago, I thought I may have a chance of learning to fly at around the age of 55 – if ever. Now I’m about to do it at the relatively young age of 40. I’m about to fulfil a lifetime ambition. And it has everything to do with some fantastic luck I had last year. So I have a very persistent “pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming” feeling at the moment.
As I’ve described in earlier posts (here, here and here), I’ve always had a general love of aviation. Then around the age of 25 I realised that I really, seriously, wanted to fly. The catalyst was when I first started to experiment with Microsoft Flight Simulator on my computer. It gave me just a tiny taste of what flying is like – then I quickly wanted to try the real thing. So it’s been 15 years now that I’ve harboured my flying ambition. And until recently, I haven’t been able to do anything about it.
Around 4 years ago I did briefly consider a mid-career change to become a commercial pilot. In 2007 (well prior to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008) there was a serious shortage of commercial airline pilots in Australia and overseas. So I looked into the possibility of training as a commercial pilot. After a little digging around I quickly decided that there was just no way I was going to do this. Apart from the sheer cost of training (around $100,000 when all added up), it just was never going to fit with my young family. Training away from home, away for nights at a time, taking low-paid jobs in the bush just to get my flying hours up – just no way. While it was fun to briefly explore this idea, it was a very easy decision to walk away from it.
However, having rejected the commercial flying option, I had rekindled my wish to fly. So I briefly entertained the idea of getting my Private Pilot Licence. I even bought the PPL theory books (the ones I’m using right now!) and read them cover-to-cover. But, my son was less than a year old, money was (of course) tight and I made a decision to shelve flying until later years. I hoped – maybe – to learn to fly at a time in my life when the kids were older, money was more plentiful, and I was approaching semi-retirement. Hence my rough idea of revisiting the flying thing when I was (say) 55.
So, there things stood. I hasten to add that I was quite accepting of the situation – I don’t mean to portray that I was miserable or frustrated at having to delay my flying ambition. Far from it. Family considerations were and are far more important to me. I made my own decision, voluntarily, to put flying on the backburner – it was not put on me by anyone else.
But then – Lady Luck entered the picture.
I’ve got a pretty good mind for knowledge and trivia. My wife and family would often tell me that I should put this to use and try to be a contestant on a TV game show. Something like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. So, back in late 2008 or early 2009, I applied to be a contestant on Channel 9’s Millionaire Hot Seat. I filled in a questionnaire on the TV show’s web site, sent it in, then forgot about it.
Months passed. Then in November 2009, much to my surprise, I got a phone call from the show’s producers, inviting me to attend a Sydney audition for the show. I went along to the day without any expectation at all – in fact, I only really went along so that I could always tell myself that at least I tried. I mean, who wins game shows? I didn’t know anyone who had. Do you? It just seemed like a completely remote possibility.
About 500 people turned up for that audition! Seems everyone wants to get in on the game. Fair enough. Well, we had a short trivia questionnaire which filtered out about half the attendees. I was one of the ones lucky enough to be invited to stay for the rest of the day, which consisted mainly of everyone taping a quick minute to camera with a short presentation of themselves – who we were, interesting things about ourselves, why we wanted to go on the show, what we’d do if we won and so on. (Evidently they selected contestants not just on our level of general knowledge, but also on how well we presented to the camera.) I got mine out of the way fairly quickly and left. The general message was “don’t call us, we’ll call you”, and as far as I was concerned, that was that. Out of 250-odd applicants to go on the show (and remember, this was just the applicants from the Sydney audition), how many would actually make it through? Surely not me. End of story.
But not end of story, as it turned out. In March 2010, I got another phone call. Congratulations! We’d like to invite you to be a contestant on Millionaire Hot Seat. Can you come down to Melbourne to film on 11 May? We’ll pay for you and your wife to fly down and back and put you up overnight in a hotel. Wow! Cool. This was way unexpected.
So on 11 May 2010 Laura and I flew down to Melbourne, with our newborn daughter Lilu who was just 4 months old. Next morning, I fronted up at the Channel 9 Richmond studios bright and early with all the other contestants, of whom there were plenty – they filmed 5 episodes that day, one after the other.
Having made it that far, I still had no expectations at all. OK, it was going to be a fun and interesting experience, and I would get to be on national TV. But the odds were still hugely against me. The way that Millionaire Hot Seat is played, you’re not even guaranteed to get in the Hot Seat for a shot at the million. Luck plays a huge part. It all depends on which of the 6 contestant positions you’re assigned to, and whether the contestants before you bomb out or pass along to you. And even if I did get into the Hot Seat – how much money could really be available? And could I answer all the questions? One wrong question, and I’d be out of there. So at worst (I thought) Laura and I would have had a quick – if not very relaxing – trip to Melbourne, and I would have had a chance to compete for some prize money. It’s a lot further than I’d ever expected to get anyway.
Well … as luck would have it, the 4 contestants before me on my episode of the show either passed, or bombed out. Against the odds, from my position in seat 5 of the 6 contestant seats, I made it into the Hot Seat. And … long story short … from there, I won.
I didn’t win a million dollars. To date, no-one has on the Australian version of this show. But I did win a significant amount of money. Just … freaking … incredible.
Just to prove I’m not spinning a tale here … and if you’re interested … you can view the show on YouTube. Here are links to Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 – aired in Australia on 31 May 2010. (And apparently re-aired last Christmas Eve.)
It seemed like a dream. Still does. Looking back at that fantastic month of May 2010, it seems as though it all happened to somebody else. Even though we’ve the show itself, some photos, a lot of celebration and a significant amount of our household debt erased to show for it, the memory of being on the show – and our flight back home to Sydney that night – has a dreamlike quality to it. Other-worldly.
One of my few clear memories of that day is the discussion Laura and I had on the flight home. We were sitting in the back of the plane with Lilu, just stunned with our incredible good fortune. We relived the day and started to swap ideas about what we’d do with the prize money. Reducing our debt figured largest of the priorities – that was easy. But at one point Laura said to me, “Now you can learn to fly!”
To be honest, the idea had occurred to me even before she said it. But I hadn’t wanted to put it out there too soon. So when she raised it, I was ecstatic. We’d come by this money through incredible fortune, and we would put it to good use – but I was able to keep some aside to fulfil my dream of flying! (We have indeed put it to good use. But just to maintain perspective, we’re both still working. The money was enough to make some lovely changes and introduce some new opportunities into our lives, but not quite enough to retire on …)
So far as the flying was concerned, I decided for various reasons – chief among them being that our daughter was still tiny – to wait a year before putting the plans into action. And now, nearly a year on, the day dawns. I get to realise my long-held ambition, much earlier than I’d envisioned. I get to fly in the prime of my life! And all because of this incredible stroke of luck.
I am truly fortunate. My flying is made even more special by the circumstances that made it possible. And I will never lose sight of the role that sheer luck has played in allowing me to realise my ambition.