Follow Your Dreams into the Clouds
Photography by Amy Shore for Petrolicious
As Mr. Rob Millinship and I sit in the control tower café in Leicester’s airport, the stereotypical English rain patters at the windows. We’re casually chatting over tea when suddenly, Rob points to the airfield behind me and says, “Quick, look! We’re about to be attacked!” I quickly swivel in my seat to see a red single-seater aircraft charging through the air directly towards us in our elevated café. I’m not going to lie, my heart does slightly stumble on a beat at the sight but as the aircraft shoots above the café and into the sky, I turn back to see Rob smiling.
Rob had wanted to be a pilot for as long as he could remember, stating that his first memory was of his mother carrying him to bed when all he wanted to do was watch his father and uncle build the model airplane they were working on. He used to be fascinated by anything that could fly and collected butterflies whilst questioning, “How does it stay up in the air?” That question is what encouraged Rob to start learning about and understanding planes from an early age. The first airplane he sat in was a Messerschmitt 109 at the age of eleven when he visited a Battle of Britain display. It cost six pence to sit in it.
“My dad used to take me to airshows since I was a kid and the pilots were like gods of the skies, they didn’t talk to mere mortals like me! You just saw their heads in the cockpits as they screamed past you in Spitfires.” Rob now flies with one of the UK’s most renowned flying groups, The Shuttleworth Collection, which is home to over fifty unique and mostly original airworthy airplanes, many being the only surviving examples of their marque in the world. “At Shuttleworth events, I always make an effort to lean on the fence to talk to kids and answer questions because I never got to have that experience. Pilots aren’t super heros like I thought when I was a kid.”
Also at the age of eleven, Rob first saw his favourite airplane which to this day remains in his top spot. “Had it not been for that plane, we would all be speaking German,” Rob tells me, “It’s an artists’ airplane designed by a dying man. It’s a work of art greater than any painting. It’s engineering art, the most beautiful piece of metalwork to ever have been designed. It’s exactly the right shape to carry eight machine guns, thin wing and a big engine.” I could hear the admiration for this machine in his voice. Rob has always sworn that he would fly a Spitfire one day and that day is approaching fast.
When Rob was fourteen, he was told by his career officer that he wasn’t intelligent enough to become a fighter pilot in the RAF–all because of a faulty test paper. He was told that the best he could hope for was to build engines, to which he replied (in words that I won’t repeat) that that wouldn’t be his career path. So, Rob grew hair to his waist, went to art college and ultimately became a graphic designer for twenty years, building model and full sized airplanes, including the airplane that he took me for a spin in the sky with–his Pitts Special. He was always told that he wouldn’t be a pilot.
As previously mentioned, the Shuttleworth Collection is home to many of “the only surviving airworthy examples of their marque in the world,” which often leads to hairy moments in the air. “When I joined the Shuttleworth Collection, I was told that if I wasn’t prepared to have my engine fail in front of 10,000 spectators at a display, then I shouldn’t bother being in the Collection.” He continued to tell me that in just one season, he had eight forced landings, twice which he landed on fire. “Another time, my propeller came clean off. I looked down to my left and saw it just floating down into a field below. My engine was still going but it just wasn’t driving anything any more! Luckily, I was at the perfect height and position to land safely on the runway.”
Rob and I talked long into the afternoon of his fascinating stories and life, some stories exciting, some deeply upsetting. But one thing I learned about Rob for sure is that he adores flying. His closing line to me was to try and experience as many things in life as you possibly can and truly live your life to the full. “Life is not a rehearsal, you’ve just got to do it.”