Ever have one of those conversations, with someone you may never have crossed paths with had you not done that thing on that day, that leads to something which makes you stand back and think ‘Wow, did that really just happen?’
Well, it has happened to me a few times now, and every time I am left blown away by how these chance meetings and events seem to come together and create an opportunity, life changing event or memory that almost reroutes your life (or more often of late, my children’s) or sends you off on a different trajectory to the one you were on.
Still with me? For those of you old enough to remember the film Sliding Doors you will know exactly what I am talking about, for the rest of you I will give you some personal examples:
2016: 🏝️ I laid by the pool in Antigua, my jaw on the floor as a fellow crewmember told me of how her ex had cheated on her with the new receptionist at his business. The girl that she had helped him to hire. In crew rest sometime soon after that I thought how that story, and other things I heard on board would make good novels… and by the time I got up from my break I had forgotten all about it!
Cue a flight to Cancun several months later, a five-night layover for which I have given up my days off in order to take my family. That morning we had a sudden uplift of passengers from a cancelled flight which meant they never got on with their standby tickets. I’m sure you would imagine I just made the most of it, but the truth was it rained for the entire time I was there, and so, by day two I found myself down a google rabbit hole about writing a novel, revisiting the story from Antigua, and beginning the journey that has led me to where I am now with my six novels and two audiobooks... Would any of this happened if it wasn’t for that conversation by the pool, with a random crew member I had never met, or if my family had come to Cancun with me? I wonder…
2022: Leopardsong Game Reserve, Nr Johannesburg. 🇿🇦
A family trip over the Christmas holidays to a safari park we had visited before, and a chance meeting with a crewmember from another airline who was also staying there. On the bus ride back to our hotels I mentioned in conversation to him that my daughter wanted to be a vet and needed work experience… and he mentioned that he knew the owners of the local zoo right there in Jo’burg… and that they took volunteers…
(Have a look at my blog https://www.kayliekaywrites.com/post/lions-tigers-and-guinea-pigs-a-south-african-adventure to read about how my lucky 17-year-old had the experience of a lifetime while ticking off boxes on her veterinary application!)
So, you get the picture? I believe that the more you talk to people, and more importantly, the more you listen, the greater opportunities and ideas you will garner… it makes sense after all, don’t you think?
Which brings me to my latest WOW moment. My latest adventure that has made me truly stand back and think that I, and my friend, and our sons are amongst the luckiest people I know, and that one simple conversation really has the power to change the course of someone’s life...
So, grab a cup of whatever you drink and let me tell you all about this latest adventure, and how we showed two childhood friends that the sky is not even their limit…
Jamica, 2022 🇯🇲
We have a captain at my airline who ‘does things.’ He organises things, and has the most interesting stories to tell, such as how he took the crew into the slums of Delhi to celebrate Holi festival with the locals; of driving a Tuktuk for hundreds of miles to raise money for charity; of cycling across Capetown or through New Mexico to visit Virgin Galactic… all the while in his words ‘Living life between the ordinary.’
Something he had said had really just piqued my interest, and I immediately put down my rum punch.
‘Virgin Galactic, you say?’ I asked at the first chance I saw to draw the conversation back. ‘Can anyone go there for a visit?’
‘No, not anyone,’ he says. ‘But I can hook you up…’
I had given my daughter an experience of a lifetime in South Africa… and here, manifesting, was my son’s opportunity. A self-confessed 15-year-old nerd who loves nothing better than playing DND (if you know you know) and wearing a hat (top hat, crusader helmet…), Lewis is clever. He loves computers, loves physics… and he loves the whole idea of leaving this earth on a spaceship! Lewis also has a best friend, Miles, a wannabe pilot who is a bit of a nerd too (although I think he hides it better!), who just so happens to be the son of my best friend Julie… Julie and I trained as crew together back in 1998, live just a few hundred metres from each other in Southampton and have raised our children together. As soon as I began to hatch my plan they were the first people I thought of. So, on October 23rd we all got to fly off with our best friends on an adventure that would take us all somewhere that we had never been before, to see a place that we would otherwise only have seen on TV had it not been for that wonderful captain and that one conversation…
What better way to start the journey than a cheeky little upgrade on our flight from London Heathrow to Austin, Texas! With champagne in the lounge and more on board, we bubbled with excitement as we told the crew of our plans… I think when they asked us what we were doing no one expected our replies… and I just know that there will be crew conversations for years to come along the lines of: ‘I had some crew on my flight that were going down to Virgin Galactic…’ I hope that someone like me hears this tale and reaches out for the opportunity to do what we did, as in general, ‘if you don’t ask you don’t get, and if you do ask… you might just get!’
No, we weren’t going to a ranch, as much as I think that would be great one day, or to learn the Texas Two-step. We weren’t even stopping in Austin, we had just a two-hour layover before trying to get on Southwest flight #2574 to El Paso. There was a slight problem that we were trying not to think about, in that the flight was currently only showing three spare seats for our party of four… but we had faith it would all work out!
So, Lewis’s experience of Texas was limited to a display of cowboy boots in the airport as we navigated ourselves to the Southwest desk. Miles had been to Austin before and proudly wore his genuine Stetson for the entire duration of our trip, even when we had long since left Texas!
Waiting at the gate the lovely lady confirmed there were still only three seats available, although five people were still to arrive, and that she had to wait until ten minutes before departure for everyone to show up. This seemed nuts to us, check in closes an hour before in London, for international flights at least, but we waited patiently and hatched a ‘just in case’ plan that involved Julie taking a different flight via Phoenix that would get her to El Paso just a couple of hours later than us… where I would be ready and waiting with our hire car for the final leg of that day’s journey.
Of course, we never needed that plan. I think our positive energy and thinking (ever read The Secret?!) might have thrown a curveball in Sylvia’s plans, as despite several announcements for her she never made it to the gate, and Julie walked on to the plane just as the doors closed, taking the very last seat!
One hour later we arrived in El Paso. Still in Texas, but not for long… the airport is small, and domestic, so none of the queues and checks we are so used to in our island life where most flights we take are international. Straight to Alamo and we were soon the proud drivers of a shiny blue…. Mustang Convertible! I mean, are you even crew if you don’t hire the Mustang and drive it everywhere with the roof down?
For some reason though, the boys weren’t quite as impressed as us as they folded their six-foot frames into the back seats. It was dark and late, so we reluctantly kept the roof up, limiting their head room along with their leg room! I think they were tired, or I’m sure that being in such a cool car would have been enough for them to have forgotten the discomfort!
And we hit the road… driving along the I-10 that took us North, across the border to New Mexico, and to our final stop for that very long day. Hotel Encanto, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
The hotel was beautiful, but apart from a brief look at reception we were soon in our room with an Uber eats pizza and a seven-hour countdown to when we had to be up and start the next day…
The next morning we fuelled up on breakfast and walked out to see the most stunning backdrop of mountains that had been hidden by the darkness last night. We drove north again on the I-25, transported into an almost barren land, save the perfectly self-planted shrubs that edged the road. We followed huge trucks and drove alongside the longest trains as they headed somewhere far away no doubt, until taking a right onto the County Road, where we were completely alone it seemed.
And then the magic started to happen.
It started slowly, with just a sign that hinted at what lay at the end of the road:
And then, in the distance a strange shaped building appeared, and we knew that we had arrived.
Spaceport America, home to Virgin Galactic, was right there in front of us… like something from Sci-Fi movie, and we were going to be in it!
We pulled up at the security booth and the man looked amused by our excited faces…
‘You are here to see Dave?’ he asked, as if expecting us. I guess they don’t get many visitors like us?!
‘Yes,’ we both replied, nodding, from the front of our roofless car. You know, Dave, our mate, Chief Astronaut… my inner narrative wanted to nudge Julie and say!
He took our passports and swapped them for tags, and we drove blindly along the road towards the building, stopping for a photo or two of course!
In the car park we asked someone in passing where we should go, and he pointed out to a figure walking across to the gate. ‘There’s Dave now,’ he said.
Let me introduce Dave McKay. As soon as I saw him I recognised him as someone I had flown with many times before. He had been a Boeing 747 captain at our airline some years ago, before that a test pilot in the RAF, and now he was flying at over 300,000ft as the Chief Pilot and Commercial Astronaut of Virgin Galactic! We all greeted each other at the gate, starting at first with polite introductions until he broke the ice by asking a question that reminded us that deep down that he was still crew, one of us:
‘So, did you get the Mustang Convertible?’
‘Of course we did, Dave, it’s just there…’ we laughed, pointing to our shiny wheels!
Can you imagine being a 15/16-year-old boy right now and being led into a facility that you know none of your mates will ever get to see? More so, can you imagine being the mother of a 15/16-year-old boy and watching their face give up on supressing that big smile that has been rarer of late? To see true wonder in their eyes once again? I don’t know what we had expected, but Dave McKay surpassed everything we could have dreamed of that day in the experience that he gave our boys…
First, we gathered out the front of what they call ‘The Gateway to Space.’ You would think it was the boys who would have been most interested in the super long runway (12000 ft), its 6000 square miles of restricted airspace (backed by the White Sands Missile range mountains) and the small Extra 300L acrobatic plane parked outside (which they use to take paying astronauts up in the days prior to their launch to give them a taster)… but I would say that Julie and I were probably asking the most questions!
Here I must direct you to www.virgingalactic.com as we weren’t allowed to take photos inside (any I use have been approved) and I would worry that my memory might misinform you! Dave led us, his personal tour group of four, inside and showed us Gaia, the super comfortable lounge where astronauts and their guests could relax at the coffee bar or have lunch. Fully glass fronted with a direct view of the taxi way and runway it is here that the astronauts leave their loved ones to spectate. From here they can watch as VSS Unity hitches a ride between the dual fuselages of the Mothership, VMS Eve (named after Richard Branson’s mum). At somewhere near 50,000 feet Unity will fire up its engine and detach itself from the plane, continuing its journey upward. Having recently completed their fifth successful spaceflight in five months, their vision of monthly, repeatable spaceflight is looking more probable now than it ever has…
Next we went upstairs, where Dave showed us a few workstations before standing outside a door and announcing that we were about to enter Mission Control! Can you imagine? We literally felt like we were in a movie as we walked into the room with all of the screens that you have seen on any decent space film! As we walked in my son said quietly to me, ‘this is where I want to work,’ and I said ‘me too!'
But we didn’t just get to look at the screens, oh no, we were treated to a half hour talk from one of the really cool, super intelligent guys that works there, who just happened to be there when we stopped by. He taught us about ‘flutter,’ explained how every station had two people at it monitoring a single system during flights, how only certain people could speak direct to the spaceship…. And it went on. Our boys faces! This was like a school trip on really strong drugs!! It was the stuff that ignites a passion, that makes you want to ask questions… that even with a middle-aged mummy brain, I stored and can remember every detail! As we left the room, the lovely man who’s name I forget called after us: ‘Don’t forget we do Internships.’ Welllll, I tell you, had Dave not already been leading us away I would have been straight back in that room getting him to sign something… but I controlled my excitement and promised to be in touch, and so had just happened one of those moments I mentioned way back at the beginning!
If all we had done that day was a tour of Mission Control I think we would have left happy, but Dave had so much more in store for us! So onwards we followed him, intrigued by the astronaut changing rooms with their suits hanging behind glass doors, and big comfy couches inside. (No prizes for guessing who Astronaut Number 1 is reserved for!) The briefing areas had a laid-back vibe, and you could picture the paying guests relaxed on the sofas being shown videos and data on the whiteboards.
‘So, Miles,’ Dave turned and asked as we went through the next doors. ‘You want to be a pilot?’
Miles drew his eyebrows together and nodded.
‘Do you want a go in the simulator?’
Whaaaaat?! Our boy (yes, he’s mine too on this trip) was going to fly a real-life spaceship simulator, together with the real-life astronaut! I think at this point Julie might have let out a squeal of excitement, or perhaps it was me?!
So, in they climbed, us behind them, and we watched as Dave separated them from the mothership and propelled them into space, before Miles took control of bringing VSS Unity back down to earth… not dissimilar to his gliding experience apparently, and what an amazing job he did! Imagine getting compliments from an astronaut on you ability when you are only just 16 😮
Still not it… nope, there was more!
Down to the shop floor Dave led us, where we stood between VMS Eve and VSS Unity, all the while being educated on how it all happens. Can you believe that Unity is held under VMS Eve by just three hooks? And that there is a special mechanism that ensures all three hooks disconnect at the same time, or none at all? That a new rocket motor is fitted to Unity for every flight; a hybrid propulsion system that powers them up to a maximum of 360,000 feet… a row of these units sat so casually on the side, each waiting for their turn to reach orbit. Indeed, we watched as a new one was fitted, certainly not something most people will get to see up close. As for the Feathers at the back of the spaceship, I admit that I got a little lost, but the website will tell you that this Feather Technology means that the pilots can effectively ‘fold the spaceship in half so that it behaves like a capsule on re-entry, spreading friction heat across the underside of the vehicle and enabling it to reorientate itself,’ – so there you go!
Three hours from when we stepped through the doors of Virgin Galactic we were escorted back out with more memories that we knew we could carry, and gratitude beyond what we could possibly express. Three short hours that had made more of an impression on us that many long months do.
As we walked with our boys, Miles had his moment, asking his mum on the side if there ‘might ever be a chance in my lifetime to fly a spaceship… ‘
‘Well, why not son?’
Yes, it is a shame that the UK don’t have their own space program, yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible for a Brit to be part of something, and Dave is testament to that. If Virgin Galactic is crewed by once-regular pilots, and a Spaceport is currently being built in Scotland among other developments, then why not you one day, Miles? And why not you working in Mission Control, Lewis?
Keep following your dreams boys and maybe they will just happen...
Part Two, the bit where we narrowly survive the rest of our stay in New Mexico and head off to LA LA Land coming soon…