Last year, Elephant & Castle-born Lola Odujinrin became the first pilot of African descent to fly solo around the world. But even before his record-breaking journey, he had to cross all sorts of borders…
‘I know I’m the last person you’d expect to have flown around the world. I was born in south London to a family with no money, and I’ve had to work very hard to achieve my dreams.
It was only by coincidence that I discovered flying in the first place. I grew up in Nigeria after my parents moved back there when I was a baby. My uncle was a pilot there, and when I was 14 I was lucky enough to join him on the flight deck. It was incredible. I knew then I wanted to fly.
At 18 I needed some independence from my parents, so I came back to London alone. I remember walking into a career centre on the high street and saying I wanted to be a pilot. They were like, “Huh?” It wasn’t much help, so I did loads of research and wrote letters to every airline in the UK.
Eventually I took an office job and worked my way up the ladder, saving as much money as possible to train as a pilot. I’d work, save, then fly a bit. It took me more than ten years to get my pilot’s licence because I had to spread out my training like that. Most of the people I trained with did it in just two years, because they had parents who could pay.
I thought I’d be made when I got my licence, but I wasn’t. In the UK, pilots have traditionally come from a certain background. Not everyone accepted me and getting employed was virtually impossible. I ended up working abroad for five years before I finally found work in London. It’s only now that aviation is recognising that it needs to be more diverse. I’m happy to see a huge drive to make it a less white-male-dominated profession.
But just becoming a pilot wasn’t my main goal. People thought I was crazy when I said I wanted to fly around the world, but it’s something I’d been dreaming about since I was 14. I couldn’t shake it off, even when I started trying to raise funds and people told me: “Black people don’t do adventure.” For me, it was about breaking that barrier. I wanted to show kids in areas like inner London that you can achieve your dreams if you work as hard as you can.
It took me about nine months to fly all the way round the globe. There were so many challenges along the way. I had to fly between war zones in Eritrea and Yemen because I wasn’t allowed into Sudan. Every time the aircraft broke down, I had to raise more money – I’d never have made it without my sponsors. And my high-frequency radio failed when I was flying across the Pacific Ocean, so I had to communicate with my wife using a satellite phone. Every 30 minutes, she’d call a flight center in Oregon to tell them my location in case something went wrong.
Some of the setbacks along the way made me cry, but my wife and kids kept me going. I completed the trip in March 2017, and was totally elated. Now I’m planning to break an altitude world record by flying to 60,000 feet in a light aircraft. I also want to open a flight simulator in south London where kids from local schools can experience the sensation of flying. I can assure you this: out of every 100 kids who get into that simulator, one or two future pilots will come out.’