BY TOBY PORTER
A former resident of a run-down estate who put himself through A-levels, college and pilot training, aims to break the world record altitude for a light aircraft
Lola Odujinrin, from Elephant & Castle, has already become the first man of African descent to fly solo around the world, a feat he completed last March.
But now the 39-year-old father of two is organising details to make the highest flight ever, which involves loaning a £200,000 space-flight-style pressure suit.
The current record stands at 56,000 feet – but if he were to fly that high without the suit, he would die as his blood would boil and his veins would burst. But he wants to breach the 60,000-feet barrier.
He said: “The plans are going quite well. I reckon by the summer I will be in a position to give the date.”
If he achieves his aim, he plans to use the publicity to offer a flight simulator to teenage school pupils from deprived backgrounds like him so they can see if they want to become pilots too.
“I can assure you. Out of every 100 kids who get into that simulator, one or two future pilots will come out,” he said.
Lola, whose parents were living in Battersea when he was born, first hatched his soaring ambition to fly aircraft at the age of 14, when he sat in a plane’s cockpit.
“Having an eagle-eye view of the world brings such elation,” he said. “I knew then I wanted to fly.”
But he had no cash for pilot training.
His family had moved to Nigeria when he was still small, but he returned to England at 18, moving to the Elephant & Castle, putting himself through A-levels in maths and physics – while working two jobs.
Then he studied aerospace engineering in Queen Mary College, University of London, and passed his initial training, his private pilot licence in 19 days in 1999 – a record at the time.
But because he had no family cash to fall back on, he had to work as an accountant and a programmer while continuing his training.
It normally takes 24 months to complete. But he had to earn money while he did so it took him 10 years.
“I have never once been late for work since then, even when I have to get up at 3.15am for a 6am flight – I love my job so much,” he said. “It’s like being paid to be a kid again.”
He passed his commercial pilot’s licence in 2011 and has worked for three airlines.
“Boys like me from South London know what it is like to be written off. Our spirit tells us we can do things but everyone else thinks different – they would say ‘he’s going to kill himself.
“But I have overcome all obstacles put in my way.
“Living in Nigeria during my early years made me realise how fortunate I was to be British and the opportunities available to me as a young man.
“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 10 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.”
His solo flight around the planet took nine months.
“I screamed so loud I lost my voice,” he said. “It was such a huge release of tension. I did not want to talk to anyone – I was so glad it was over.
“I’m the last person you’d expect to have flown around the world. I was born to a family with no money, and I’ve had to work very hard to achieve my dreams.
“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 centre in Oregon to tell them my location in case something went wrong.
“I had been warned of not creeping into the Iranian airspace with an American registered aircraft.
I had a sigh of relief when I got into the Pakistan airspace. So many times my life flashed in front of me.”
His One Man, One Plane expedition was part of Project Transcend, a foundation which aims to
inspire young people in order to achieve their goals regardless of their personal circumstances.
He hopes to use his humble beginning to inspire other South Londoners by demonstrating one of his philosophies, which is that if you can imagine it, then it can be done.
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