Teenage girl becomes one of the youngest pilots in the country

STEPPING into an aeroplane with a 17-year-old girl who has just become one of the youngest female pilots in the country may fill some people with fear...

But when her dream is to work on the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland after graduating from Oxford University, it’s fair to say your life is in safe hands.

Just days after receiving her pilot’s licence in the post, Saffron Walden County High student Pernilla Craig was able to take to the skies with a passenger for the first time on Saturday.

First up was her mum Lena – who enjoyed a short flight around Andrewsfield Airfield in Stebbing, where Pernilla completed her training – before it was my turn to jump into the two-seater Cessna 152 aircraft.

After clambering into the tiny cockpit I’m greeted by a smiling Pernilla, still beaming from ear to ear with excitement about being let loose in the skies.

At 17 years and eight months, she is one of the youngest pilots in the UK – a feat she would have held outright had she not been forced to wait to take her test because of bad weather.

Her smile, she said, had been plastered across her face ever since her first solo flight at the age of 16 – two years after she got her first taste of flying with an instructor.

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“My first solo flight was amazing. Shortly after take-off I remember looking at the seat next to me and then it hit me that I was up there on my own,” the Little Easton resident said.

“Although I was a little nervous beforehand I don’t think I stopped smiling the whole way round – it was so exciting.”

As the precocious youngster goes through her pre-flight checks she says she can’t wait to take her family – and her school friends, most of whom find it funny that she can fly – on a few trips.

“I want to go to Le Touquet in the south of France because we’ve been there before as a family and I’d like to take my mum, dad and little brother over there for the day.

“A lot of my friends laugh because I haven’t got a driving licence yet but they think it’s cool – that’s the next thing I want to learn.”

Taxiing across the bumpy grass towards the runway, Pernilla tells me she was first bitten by the flying bug after circling the skies with her father Glyn, an aircraft engineer who also has a private licence.

“It was something that was always there when I was growing up and I’ve always been interested in it. We would go up as a family and fly to places and I remember looking out of the window thinking ‘wow, this is really cool’.

“I got to have a go when I was 14 and thought it was brilliant because I’d never been able to do anything like it. It was really special.”

She carries out a final spot check for any incoming aircraft and, despite my own personal alarm at what Pernilla tells me is a commercial airliner bound for Stansted Airport on the horizon – which she reassures me is “nothing to worry about” – she pushes forward the throttle and off we go.

“I was aiming to take my test on my birthday in February but unfortunately I had to wait until September because the weather delayed my training and then I had my AS-level exams,” she explains.

“I want to go to university so I thought it would be a good time to squeeze it in before my A-levels.

“It’s a strange feeling being one of the youngest pilots in the country. I haven’t really thought about it much because I’ve been flying on my own for over a year, but it’s cool.”

After completing a short circuit of the airfield, Pernilla levels the plane out for landing – which is once again as smooth as the take-off, despite the muddy ground – and we taxi back in.

So what is next on the horizon for the fledgling flyer who has the world at her feet?

Although she would like to learn instrument reading as opposed to visual flying – which would allow her to pilot aircraft bigger than four-seaters and fly higher in the sky – a career in aviation may not be her first port of call.

“It would be really cool to work on the Hadron Collider one day but my dream at the moment is to study physics at Oxford, although being a commercial pilot would be pretty awesome.”