When Everything Changes

25 Feb 22 34 Comments

My first aviation publication went something like this:

“You don’t need a real license,” Tom said. The stern-faced ex-RAF instructor had already chided me for dressing inappropriately in my short skirt and open-toed sandals. Now I realized he wanted to get rid
of me.

He continued. “You want a wife’s license. Forget the technical mumbo-jumbo. I’ll show you the radio and we’ll go up — you can even play with the flight controls.”

A strangled sound escaped me. A wife’s license?

His condescending smile didn’t falter. “You’ll be done in a day so you can leave your boyfriend to concentrate on his studies. That way, if he has a heart attack in the air, you’ll know how to contact ATC and take instruction.”

It was my boyfriend, Cliff, who had the crazy idea of buying a plane. I was just along for the ride, no interest in slogging through physics and engine mechanics. I was too old for exams. But a wife’s license? As if I weren’t competent to learn?

I twisted in my seat towards Cliff. The bastard was grinning.

“I’m getting my pilot’s license.” The grit in my voice surprised even me.

“Fine,” said Tom. He turned his back to me, stacking up the course books at the front of the room. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow. In long trousers and sensible shoes.”

“You will.” I walked out without another word and sat in the car until Cliff came out to join me.

My determination lasted until dinner time.

“Honey, I don’t think I’m going to be able to learn from Tom.” As the owner of the flight school, his attitude towards me was going to affect all of us but I didn’t think I could manage to stay polite for the four weeks of the course.

“You don’t need to.” Cliff was reassuring, clearly thrilled that I’d decided to take this on. “He’s going back to England next week.”

English flight lessons, local to us in Andalucía, had been Cliff’s idea too. He’d dealt directly with Tom to make it viable. The Oxford-based school had flown over with two Cessnas and a couple of young instructors. They would spend a few weeks teaching the group of four men that Cliff had gathered together to do an intensive course for the Private Pilot’s License, taking advantage of the weather. When the course was finished, the instructors would fly the two aircraft back to England to resume teaching at Oxford.

Tom’s best instructors had jumped at the chance to spend a few weeks in Spain and Cliff had found enough people to commit to full-time training that it was worth Tom’s time. Adding another person would reduce the price for the other participants and make everyone happy. Cliff clearly thought I should do it. This from the man who hated being in the passenger seat when I was driving … but he thought I should learn to fly?

“Tom’s not staying anyway. You got along fine with the younger instructors,” he said. “I’m sure you won’t have any problems. It’ll be fun. And it’s only four weeks.”

Which was part of the problem. What if I didn’t keep up? At a normal flight school, I would keep doing lessons until I was good enough to take the exams. This set-up meant that if I lagged behind, the flight school was going to disband around me — or worse, reduce the other students to try to get me up to speed before they left. Or really worst — push me to fly a plane before I was competent to do so.

Yesterday, the 24th of February 2022, Cliff Stanford, the love of my life and my full-time companion of over 25 years, passed away. Cliff’s infectious love of aviation made me what I am today and the time and effort he put into supporting me is why we’re all here on this website today.

I am completely devastated.

Cliff loved this site and especially the community that had built up around it. He also loved my aviation books and I made a promise to him that I would finish all five (!) books I currently have in progress.

I need a little bit of time to regroup and recover but I’m confident in your support. For next week, I have a relevant chapter from Why Planes Crash Casefiles: 2001 and then we’ll go from there.

Category: Miscellaneous,


  • Very sad news. Cliff was an important part of this blog, as you say, including through his epic response after the server meltdown (though I note he was recently fired as a proofreader 😀).

    You have built a strong community through your blog, and have a lot of support at this difficult time. I hope you will be able to continue with it.

    Best wishes.

  • I’ve never commented before but read every week. This is such a beautiful post – it reflects so beautifully on your beloved Cliff and your relationship. Thank you for sharing your devastation and loss.

  • I am so sorry to hear about your loss. This is a hard time, and I hope you’ll take care of yourself. Love and care from an internet stranger.

    May his memory be a blessing.

  • I am so sorry for your loss. My sadness is tempered by the news that you had twenty-five interesting years together. Some of them in the air.

  • I’m very sorry for your loss, you are not alone. I appreciate all of the work that you put into this blog.

  • Sylvia — So many of us will miss Cliff and all he did. Such a special man. But no one will miss him more than you. He loved you and supported you in all your undertakings. It was quite the twosome. Rest in Peace, Cliff.

  • Damn, what a kick in the guts. No words can convey our sorrow for your loss.
    Having lost a spouse, all the advice I can offer is, it will get better better but it will never be the same.

    Un abrazo fuerte!

  • Sorry to know your loss. My sincere condolences to you This is the only blog on aviation I read, I am sure you will continue with this.

  • I am sorry to hear of your loss Sylvia, I do hope that time will help to lessen the feeling of loss that you are going through.

  • Sylvia, I am reading this just as I am getting over a nasty flu. Reading about your loss gave me a new kick in the stomach.
    After all, I have celebrated our own 50th wedding anniversary only last October.
    We all, regular readers, knew about the place that Cliff occupied in your life. In your heart, in your soul. I have not met him, but I did have the pleasure of meeting you. It made reading your blog, and giving my usually unpolished comments a double pleasure.
    There are other good aviation blogs, but some are not really all that professional, others make sure that the reader is aware that the Captain is speaking, the man (seldom if ever a woman) whose Word carries the same weight as the Scriptures. Not involving the readers much (unless they happen to be an engineering test pilot with 45000 hours on Boeings from the StratoCruiser to the 747), but talking down on and often over the heads of their readers.
    With Cliff at your side, your blog became something that allowed your readers to bond into a fraternity. Highly professional and readable.
    We are all with you in those difficult days.
    Cliff rest in peace,
    What would he have said?
    “You fly like a woman”? And turned it into a compliment no doubt.

    With my heartfelt sympathy,

  • I’m so sorry. As others have said, take your time. You’ll know what you’re ready for, and that doesn’t have to be linear – or even forward. Praying for you.

  • Nooooooooo! This is simply unmitigatedly awful. I am so sorry. There are no words but just hugs. We are all with you.

  • I’m so sorry to read this belatedly. I’m sending my sympathy, empathy and encouragement to you Sylvia. I’ve subscribed to your Fear Of Landing for a few years now and find it well written, professional and informative. Take some time for yourself to process this change in your life. My thoughts are with you.

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