Captain Emma Henderson MBE
CEO Project Wingman, Former Airline Captain
Emma is a pilot who grew up in rural Essex but for the last 25 years, the north of Scotland has been her home albeit a transient one at times as Emma is also a military wife! Her husbands career has taken them all over the UK as well as an overseas posting to New Zealand which is where she achieved her civilian pilots licences. Emma learned to fly whilst studying a History degree at the University of Leeds and after three years as a flying instructor she started working for easyJet where she spent eleven very happy years, becoming one of less than 400 female captains worldwide in 2016. Emmas airline career is currently “paused” due to covid as she took voluntary redundancy in 2020 and earlier in the year she co-founded Project Wingman of which she is now CEO. The purpose of the charity is to provide wellbeing support to frontline NHS staff across the UK utilising the transferable skills of airline staff and to date, they have served almost 90 NHS trusts and have 6000 volunteers as well as a mobile wellbeing lounge in the form of a double decker bus named Wellbee. Emma was awarded an MBE in the 2021 New Year Honours list for her services to charity. Emma and her husband returned to their beloved home on the Moray Firth at the start of 2018 with their dogs and chickens, and their son lives and works in London whilst their daughters are both students in Newcastle. Emma also sits on a number of charitable trusts in her local area and is chair of the local tennis club.
Tell us about your career path.
Why did you choose a STEM profession?
Was your interest in STEM encouraged?

I originally went to University with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Whilst there I discovered the University Air Squadron which I joined and spent 2 years flying at RAF Finningley. I actually met my husband whilst there and we married as soon as I fininshed University. It wasn’t until 8 years later, after I had three children that I started flying again whilst on an exchange tour to New Zealand. I returned as a fully qualified commercial pilot, received a scholarship to become an instructor and after another 3 years started working for easyJet flying the Airbus A320 series all over Europe.
Flying was just something that I loved to do and was good enough at that I was able to qualify – I didn’t have a particularly strong STEM background or skillset and whilst I was undertaking my flying training, I was encouraged by many people both in New Zealand and in the UK

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowliness, sail away from safe harbour, catch the Trade Winds in your sail. Explore, Dream, Discover

Mark Twain

How was your educational/university experience? Do you have any memorable experiences to share?

I worked very hard at school for my GCSEs, and progressively less hard for the International Baccalaureat and subsequently my degree – but I left school speaking 3 languages apart from English, and with a broad knowledge base that has definitely helped me throughout my career in aviation, and subsequently in setting up and running Project Wingman. I lived life to the absolute fullest at University – studying history meant very few lectures and a lot of background reading – I raced dinghies for the University team, spent two years flying around the North of England, went to all the parties, and literally burned the candle at both ends – and when it was all over, I was ready to calm down a bit (but only a bit!). University was a long time ago now, and my outstanding memory is one of being completely and utterly free to do anything I wanted to – that and a LOT of laughing – you can never spend too much time laughing – its good for the soul.

Where do you work?
What would you do during a typical day at work? What do you enjoy most about your job?

I took voluntary redundancy from my role as an airline captain for easyJet in September due to the covid pandemic. I was a captain of an A320 and spent my days flying up to 800 people a day all over Europe and North Africa. Now I am CEO of Project Wingman, a charity I co-founded in March 2020 in response to the pandemic. We use the transferable skills of grounded aircrew to provide wellbeing support to NHS frontline staff in hospitals across the UK. I now spend all my time at home (rather than commuting to London from my home in the north of Scotland) and I spend a lot of time sitting in front of a screen (very similar to flying, but not at 38000 feet!). I start the week with a team meeting, and the rest of the week is divided up in to more meetings, podcasts, media interviews, working with other charities I am involved with and juggling what people need from me. What I enjoy most about this role is the interaction I have with people who have become close friends over the last year, and the knowledge that what we are doing is making a real difference to peoples lives – there is no better feeling than that.

What are your plans and aspirations for the future?

I am currently writing a book about my journey to where I am now, as well as launching a new career in motivational speaking. I intend to continue in my role as CEO of Project Wingman and I also have a small business that I have been running for the last 4 years. I don’t know what the future holds because the damage that has been done to the aviation industry is permanent and I don’t know if there is a role there for me now. I will keep my options open and I strongly suspect that I will move more into health and wellbeing support thanks to the new skills I have learned from running a large national charity

What do you like to do outside of work? What are your passions and hobbies?

I live near the sea and I like spending time in and on it – I enjoy surfing and paddle boarding, I spend a lot of time walking my dogs on the beach. I also enjoy skiing, cycling and generally being outside. I have a large garden I enjoy working in and I also enjoy painting which is something I do as a business also.

What advice would you give to other young girls and women who plan to pursue a STEM career?

You have the ability to achieve your dreams if you work hard enough – you also need some talent in the area you are passionate about, but hard work can make up for some of that. Pursue what you love rather than what you think will make you the most money – you can’t take money with you in the end and you spend a long time at work – make sure its something you enjoy or can at least tolerate – and never allow anyone to make you believe that you can’t achieve because you are female – that’s just fabrication – keep going. You CAN do it.