Gautam Lewis Podcast Script

Gautam Lewis

PrivateFly CEO Adam Twidell meets aviation industry pioneer Gautam Lewis.

Gautam discusses his childhood and his music industry career, managing bands including Oasis and The Libertines.

He also explains his move from the music industry into aviation and overcoming the challenges involved in learning to fly with a disability. Listen to the full interview here

Adam Twidell

Welcome to the PrivateFly podcast. I'm Adam Twidell and in this series I have been talking to high flyers and leaders in the world of aviation, technology and business.

Today I am chatting with a very inspirational man, Gautam Lewis. Gautam is head of marketing for Cranfield Flying School, one of the leading pilot training schools in the UK.

Gautam is also the founder of flying charity Freedom in the Air and is working as an Ambassador with Unicef to eradicate polio.

Gautam in 2008 you were also awarded a Leadership in Charity award and on top of all of this you are a pilot as well, so welcome to the PrivateFly podcast.

Gautam: Thank you very much for inviting me to your podcast.

Adam: So let’s talk about your background to kick off with which is absolutely fascinating. I believe you started off life in Calcutta.

 Gautam: Yes when I was a small boy my life started with polio when I was around 18 months old and it was in the very poor industrial city of Calcutta and Gwalior in India and in 1977 give or take (that’s when I was supposedly born, there was no official record of my birth) but I was really fortunate in the fact that I survived polio at a time and in a place when one in five children died of the virus.

Today I have absolutely no memory of my birth mother or father or actually of anyone in my family and I think possibly because I had caught polio and was paralysed possibly because there was no money in the family, I was rescued by Mother Teresa’s Mission of Charity Orphanage and I do believe that whatever decision was made by my original family, I think it must have taken a lot of courage to give me away so that they could look after me.

Adam: Looking back now, we all hear amazing stories about Mother Teresa and the work that she has done, but you are just testament of how life can be transformed by amazing people like Mother Teresa.

Gautam: Well indeed and I think there have been many people in my life that have nurtured my development and indeed nurtured my ability to be independent. 

You know when I did live in the Mission of Charity, when I realised that no-one was coming to get me, I stopped talking for six months. 

Eventually I managed to call her "Trisha G" which means Big Sister Trisha. She was someone who was working in Calcutta with disabled children and over time whilst she was working at the orphanage we created a bond. Eventually at the age of 27 and with the thinking process of nothing ventured, nothing gained she decided to adopt me and take me out of Calcutta.

Adam: And if we fast-forward, you ended up at the same school that Prince Charles attended.

Gautam: And possibly it is something that you couldn't make up. And it is really hard to explain how complicated life can be for people that live in poverty going to not only the same prep school as Prince Charles, but also another elite private boarding school is the complete contrast for someone like me who was once boarding with some of the World's poorest children in India and I think because of my education and it is because of that upbringing and because not many people get a second chance at life, that I completely feel compelled now to not waste these chances and opportunities that I have been given.

Adam: I want to keep going here because we have got to get to some amazing aviation stories, however, I cannot skip over your chapter within the music industry. You ended up managing bands including Oasis.

Gautam: It was another strange route that this universe decided to send me down. So whilst I was at the University of Southampton, I opened up a nightclub and it was during that period that I started to become quite involved in the music side of the business and that then influenced my subsequently work in the music industry.

I ended up spending six years working with who is quite an iconic person called Alan McGee at something called Creation Records and bands like Oasis and all the creative musical genesis that would cause trouble. I was fortunate enough to shadow Alan and work very closely with him and I came in just towards the backend of Oasis and I think where Alan had had enough of problematic rock stars, he decided to assign Pete Doherty and the Libertines under my own management side of it and it was a complete rollercoaster bonafide lifestyle as they say.

Managing high profile rock stars of the Libertines it was 20 hours a day, 7 days a week and it could be anything from organising a tour, to recording contracts, but mostly with someone like Pete Doherty it was getting him out of jail, getting calls from hotels in Paris going “the hotel is on fire would you like to pay for it? ". I would possibly not wish that on my worst enemy, but I think in hindsight it was a wonderful experience which I would never change.

Adam: So managing a bunch of flying students going through Cranfield Flying School is in some ways a breeze in comparison.

Gautam: Well I think anybody whether it’s a student learning to fly or a musician trying to make it in the complicated world of the music industry, I think where both have a deep passion for what it is they are trying to do it can be difficult to nurture those talents and to nurture people’s dreams, but I think at least within the world of aviation it’s not complicated by things like drug taking. There are other challenges in aviation that are complicated.

Adam: So learning to fly is something that you decided that you wanted to do yourself. With childhood polio, what challenges did you face?

Gautam: Well I think the catalyst for me one day getting out of bed going “I don’t want to do rock and roll anymore” was me reflecting on how people such as musicians are wasting their talents or whatever it is that is causing them issues, and I started to get quite saddened by wasting my only talent and skill base to help people and they were effectively wasting their lives and the opportunity that they had been given and for various reasons.

I have always been fascinated with aviation so I decided at that point in time, right regardless of my disability, I have this desire to fly aeroplanes and certainly there were rules whether it was medical or an aeroplane equipped for someone like myself who has crutches so you can’t control, to name a few, but once I have an idea and the more people say "ooh I'm not sure about this", the more I will go and do it.

I won’t allow other people or the authority or anything to get in the way of me trying realise something that I believed in since childhood. So my journey started in 2007 in a PA-28 and a Tornado F4 military civilian instructor who pretty much brought got me to my navigation stage.

Adam: And can you remember much about your first solo Gautam?

Gautam: Yes my first solo ended up, I started to learn to fly at Lasham Aerodrome which is quite famous for gliding, but I ended up finishing at Cranfield.

The thing that I remember when the wheels left the ground there was that instant feeling of freedom and feeling of liberation with no polio paralysis holding me back.

Suddenly with all those years of hopes and wishes and thinking about "when am I going to fly an aeroplane", it all came together at that one moment, there was so much electricity and energy flowing around me, the feeling of happiness is so unique it is so hard to share that feeling with other people because it is a very individual thing and the one thing that I do remember because I was focusing so much, was on the radio talking really slowly and in a really dull voice as if to make sure that everything I did that air traffic control understood what I was saying, someone else on the frequency said "cheer up Gauty" very gently, it was just brilliant and I wish every day felt like going solo.

Adam: Going solo is such an amazing feeling. I remember my first solo was in a Bulldog at Turnhouse Edinburgh Airport but you are right, for me it was a very unique personal experience, but I would imagine for a disabled flyer there are a lot more people involved in terms of families, instructors, people who got to know your journey.

Were there other people after that first solo who were just as thrilled as you were?

Gautam: Well I think with what I was trying to do in my early aviation journey was not about proving a point, it was about not even considering that there was an issue in the terms of my ability or disability, and what was the most important thing about all of this happening was finding people that had the right attitude so you know from the head of the civil aviation medical department and then people at Cranfield.

You know when I first walked in there and started explaining to them all the complications I had experienced, until that point they didn’t want to know about any of that, all they said was "do you want to become a commander of an aeroplane" and one of them just chuckled and said "go and walk round A-28".

So no-one ever looked at me as someone that had a different need, they just looked at me as someone who had a deep passion for wanting to fly aeroplanes and that was the central feeling in everything that I have done subsequently.

Adam: One thing struck a chord there with me was the requirement to surround yourself by people with determination to do things differently.

In business, PrivateFly is not a large corporate, we are a young entrepreneurial company and we want to do things differently, we want to sell private aviation on-line so that the customer can get better prices and in a much more transparent market place and when we are doing interviews for staff here, we are not looking for people who are happy with the status quo, we are looking for people who want to challenge the status quo and we are so lucky to have so many great people at PrivateFly now who are building the business.

And that must have been the same, because moving on I am desperate to talk about the charity Freedom in the Air and setting up a charity must be exactly the same, you must be needing to surround yourself with people who just go and do.

Gautam: Well there are lots of similarities, Freedom in the Air is a not-for-profit organisation which effectively is a flying school for people with disabilities and if your listeners need a reference point, perhaps they could think about someone called Douglas Bader.

Freedom in the Air is a school which not only provides the initial opportunities that since 2009, I believe, has given 600 people with disabilities flying lessons, the little steps that we taken we have been fortunate enough to give numerous full PPL scholarships and one of the things that I have personally been inspired by.

It goes back to your thoughts about how you set up PrivateFly, in terms of how the company should be run, again we surrounded ourselves with really open minded people whereby Cranfield University set out and helped how we develop hand controls for the single engine aeroplane and a multi-engine aeroplane and I think we are, well my challenge to the World is, if you can find a cheaper plane to get your PPL than Freedom in the Air, I will be pay for it myself.

Adam: Cranfield, centre of aviation excellence with the University, a University with a runway to begin with, tell me about the connections between Cranfield University, Cranfield Flying School, break down Cranfield Flying School for us to understand what you are doing with the company.

Gautam: So Cranfield Flying School is an approved training organisation under the JAA approval system and primarily the school is set up as a modular commercial flying training centre so people who want to become professional pilots at any professional aviation level can learn their skills from us and there is also a flying club and also PPL flying for general aviation.

Cranfield Flying School was and still is, the primary supporter of Freedom in the Air and out of our relationship I started working for the commercial side and over the past four years both Freedom in the Air and Cranfield Flying School partnered with the aerospace school at Cranfield University and over the years we created the hand control project which is probably the first of its kind in the World and subsequently it is really important for the universities that people who are doing their Masters Degree in Aerospace Engineering and Physical Design also get to learn to fly so that they can understand when designing aeroplanes how they are flown.

So we have been lucky in the sense that Freedom in the Air has the university's support and Cranfield Flying School also teaches a lot of their students the Ab-initio PPL level in the hope that we can then progress that to a Masters in PPL and they are right there are very few aerospace engineering universities that have their own not just a GA airport ready to get business jets in their you can also get 757’s in there.

Adam: Well I certainly landed a Citation Excel there and it would be great to see some larger aircraft using Cranfield as it is a super runway, great access to the M1, probably just an hour out of London an excellent airport and it sounds like a tremendous three way partnership which is going on between the University, the Flying Club and the Charity.

A fantastic role model for aviation.

Gautam: And what is key is in that alliance is each of those three individual areas are harnessing their individual strengths and bringing it altogether on the same table and actually together we become a lot stronger.

Adam: And let’s talk about the product of the Flying School the pilot, tough times for pilots graduating from flying schools at the moment.

We are still in the aviation recession, we haven’t seen huge pick ups from the airlines recruiting, they are certainly not training their own pilots for cadetships anymore, what is the prospect from a graduation from Cranfield Flying School in terms of jobs?

Gautam: Well there is never a generic path to anything apart from, although we are passionate about what we doing, we are also very realistic in terms of what we tell our students from day one, so we never promise them that there are jobs out there although we do support them in every shape and form, but you know we are not a recruitment agency so we can’t be good at that and teach people to become commercial commanders of aeroplanes.

However, we bend over backwards because we are a smaller school we can give all of our students a lot more time but thinking of the future, you know there is this strange concept that when people think about being a commercial pilot they automatically think about airlines. Now we are learning over time that you know we are pointing people to the business jet market because that is growing.

Adam: In your opinion, what could private aviation do more to attract better pilots rather than the pilots leave for the airlines?

Gautam: Well I think, for example, what you guys are doing is very engaging in the sense of how you are thinking out of the box to showcase and formalise your division of the sector and I don’t think people understand how interesting and diverse your sector is as a professional pilot, a business jet pilot has a very multifaceted timetable that can change overnight.

The client base that business jet pilot deals with can be fascinating and actually as a commander of a private business jet you are not just a pilot, there are so many other things that you get to do in your daily timetable that harnesses all the individual’s talent and training and how exciting to think one day you are flying out of Heathrow airport and the next day you are the middle of nowhere in Africa.

Adam: It is so varied you are absolutely right. Being a private jet pilot is one of the most diverse job roles on the planet. You are meeting incredible customers, speaking to them, in an airline you are behind a locked door very rarely do you even speak to a customer let alone chat to them in-depth about the business meeting they are going to.

Looking after your aircraft, you land in a remote airfield in Sweden and it is just you, if you have a maintenance issue you are on the phone describing it to the engineer and you are not doing the maintenance but you are very much involved in it.

There are ups and downs with that, you are also the person cleaning the aircraft as there are no cleaners in the airport, you are putting the blanks on the aircrafts at night, just like you would do if it was your own GA aircraft, so huge amounts of variety but it also takes a very flexible pilot to become a private jet pilot.

Gautam: Absolutely and I think you know if you as an individual want to grow and become a better pilot, you get those challenging opportunities quicker with a biz jet operator, but actually like we just explained, I was fortunate enough in the days of rock and roll we used to go by private plane quite a lot, all over the place, and I always thought that being a biz jet pilot would make a fantastic tour manager because we used to give those pilots the most ridiculous demands, and they had to deliver otherwise it was like, well we just find someone else.

Adam: Well that’s all part of the job, it’s a balancing act between delivering for the customer, but overwhelming you have to look at safety and safety is the number one priority for any private jet pilot.

Gautam: Since the university have been working with Freedom in the Air, they are now instilling and have been doing so for the last four years, that all their aeroplane engineers now have to design the next generation of commercial jets to accommodate all abilities and where they are learning about universal design, it actually benefits everyone. I think maybe in 20 years time we will look back today and go "wow Freedom in the Air helped, to a degree, change how commercial aeroplanes are now built.

Adam: Now that was a huge challenge that you set yourself, but looking back at your vast challenges it hasn’t been a problem. You've got such an amazing story Gautam, thank you very much for joining us today on the PrivateFly podcast.

You are truly an inspiration and for any young pilots out there who want to learn to fly, just hearing your background and the challenges that you have overcome, I think will spur them on to pick up the phone and to call Cranfield Flying School and to book that first lesson, it’s all achievable.

Gautam: It’s been a lot of fun and thank you so much for inviting me to your podcast and I really wish you and your team all the best for your future.

Adam: Thank you Gautam and for the listeners, I am going to ask Gautam to send some pictures of the aircraft, especially those hand controls and we will try and bring this story of disabled flying to life on the website.

Gautam: Thank you very much and I shall see you in the Chart top ten.

Adam: Great, thank you Gautam.

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