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Duchess of Cambridge Kate joins the royal heir force... ... and two Northern Ireland women also bitten by flying bug can understand why

BY KERRY McKITTRICK

There's nothing quite as exhilarating as being up among the clouds.

So say two adventurous Northern Ireland women who understand exactly why the Duchess of Cambridge has been learning to fly.

Kate (31) revealed to a group of RAF officers that she had been taking lessons in a fixed-wing aircraft.

And Ruth Devlin, a mother-of-three from Lurgan, understands exactly the attraction in taking to the skies.

"I think Kate learning how to fly is marvellous and she'll probably love it," said the 47-year-old primary school teacher.

Mrs Devlin earned her national private pilot's licence in August of this year with Kernan Aviation and plans to do just one thing with it.

"Fly," said Ruth. "The second the wheels went up on my first flight I was squealing with joy – there is nothing else on Earth like being up there in the clouds."

Still finding her feet, or wings as it were, Ruth is discovering a new community of fixed-wing pilots all over Northern Ireland.

"There are lots of little airstrips here and they have fly-in days," she said.

It took Ruth just under a year to get her licence, at a cost of around £8,000, but it can be done for less.

"It took me a while to master landing," she explained. "Anyone can take off but landing is the important thing! The instructors are very careful to make sure you're confident with an element before you move on to the next one."

Having spent years jet-setting to every continent in the world with her job as a strategic specialist for an oil company, 35-year-old Deborah Walls from Magherafelt took the plunge in August and began lessons with the Ulster Flying Club.

"I've always looked up at the sky and wondered about planes," said Deborah. "One day I realised I had the time and I could afford it and that I should just go for it."

Having completed just five hours in the sky and in the midst of the technical exams required for the PPL, Deborah enjoys lessons at weekends.

"There are men and women of all ages learning at the club, it's a great mix," she said.

Deborah hopes to have gained her licence within a year, but is realistic about her chances.

"The weather in Northern Ireland can be a big hindrance but it also can be a great teacher," she said.

She is also enthusiastic about the Duchess' new hobby.

"People will always criticise – they'll say as a mother she shouldn't endanger her life like that."

Deborah added: "Others, like me, will say good on her for taking on what is traditionally perceived as a male hobby."

It's hardly surprising that Kate has taken to the air, as both Prince Harry and Prince William are qualified military helicopter pilots.

Both of the Duchess' parents worked for British Airways, with her mother acting as cabin crew, and her grandfather Peter Middleton was an RAF pilot during WWII. Peter Middleton became a commercial pilot after the war and in 1962 spent two months acting as First Officer to none other than Prince Philip during a two-month flying tour of South America.

Kate is not the only well-known woman gaining her wings.

Carol Vorderman is about to gain her pilot's licence and next year plans to fly solo around the world.

FACTFILE

How to gain a private pilot's licence (PPL):

To qualify to take a PPL test you must spend at least 45 hours in the air. Of these, 25 hours must be with an instructor, 10 hours must be solo flights, and at least five hours of flight must be cross-country. You can start to fly at the age of 14 but solo flights can only be carried out from the age of 16. As well as the required amount of flying hours, you must pass a medical and written exam.

The total cost of gaining the PPL depends on the amount of hours recorded and the cost of instructors. Prices start at around £5,000.

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