During the Covid-19 pandemic, airline pilot Captain Emma Henderson decided to take on a new challenge – creating a charity that would support thousands of NHS staff.
Two years on Captain Henderson is the CEO of Project Wingman, she has been honoured by the Queen with an MBE in the 2021 New Year’s Honours List, and this week was at the University of Sunderland to talk to fellow inspirational women.
Captain Henderson was key speaker at the very first Women in Leadership forum in Sunderland to talk about ‘resilience in the workplace, women in leadership and wellbeing’. It is a subject close to her heart, as just over two years ago she completely changed the direction of her life, and gave up the career she loved, to start her own charity.
Addressing an audience from the world of business, academia and education, event organiser Dr Derek Watson, Associate Professor, Faculty of Business, Law & Tourism, said: “We were delighted to host Captain Emma Henderson as part of our Women in Leadership forum. Captain Henderson’s insights and narrative was an inspiration in fostering a rich debate with invited business leaders, academics, and students.”
Captain Henderson was working for easyJet when she set up her charity – Project Wingman.
She explains: “This was in early 2020 when all aircraft were grounded due to the pandemic. During that time easyJet needed to reduce its pilot numbers. A lot of pilots went onto 50% contracts, but I decided to take redundancy. I lived in Inverness, was commuting to Gatwick, and there were no flights!”
Captain Henderson had an unusual route into becoming a commercial airline pilot. Though she always wanted to fly – inspired when she was a young girl to become an astronaut when the Space Shuttle toured the UK on the back of a 747 in 1983 – she initially studied history at university, with the aim of becoming a lawyer. Whilst studying she joined Yorkshire University Air Squadron where she met her husband, who was in the Royal Air Force. Travelling first to Scotland then New Zealand with her family she became a flying instructor.
The young mother became a pilot for easyJet at the age of 37.
“I had my dream job for my dream company, and it was a very difficult decision to leave, but it was the right one, and I don’t regret it.
“I haven’t flown since March 2020. I don’t miss the 3am starts, and I don’t miss the 3am finishes, but I was good at my job, and I loved it. I loved sitting at the end of the runway just before I got my take-off clearance, knowing that I was about to select full thrust, roll down the runway and get an aircraft into the air. It never failed to amaze me.”
In March 2020, Captain Henderson and a fellow pilot launched Project Wingman. Within three weeks of the initial idea they opened their first ‘First Class Lounge’ at the Whittington Hospital in London, and within three days 700 aircrew had signed up to help. By the summer that number had grown to 6,500 aircrew across the country, representing every UK airline.
“Volunteers basically turn up in uniform at hospitals where we’d create our First Class Lounge. We would have flower walls and plants and balloons to create a different atmosphere than in the ICUs where NHS workers were. They could come for some emergency respite care.”
She recognised that she and her colleagues had a lot of transferrable skills – from working in a safety-critical environment to dealing with distressed passengers – which could be useful in supporting NHS staff.
“We just wanted to wrap an extra warm blanket of care around the NHS at a time of real need.
“When people began to go back to work we were aware of the fact that we couldn’t sustain the lounges, so we decided to use double-decker buses to make our operation more mobile. We now own four double-decker buses which move around to the NHS trusts that need us.
“The charity has massively changed shape since it started, and that’s the secret of Project Wingman’s success. We’ve never been afraid of saying, ‘that’s not working, let’s change it’.
“In the future I’d like to see us become a working partner with the NHS. I believe it’s really important work. Well-being is an issue which isn’t going to go away, and NHS staff have been waiting 10 years to raise it on the agenda.
“The bottom line is you need to look after the well-being of your staff. If we look after our NHS staff, we end up with better patient care.”
Dr Abigail Moriarty, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Learning and Teaching) at the University of Sunderland, said: “I listened in rapture to Captain Henderson as she told colleagues of her journey. Many of her experiences resonated with me and her grit, determination and sense of humour was an inspiration to all.”