Just Like Me: Q and A with pilot Rikke Carmichael

Rikke Carmichael started flying planes aged just 15. Today, she heads our Air Operations team, helping us keep millions of people safe every day.

Watch this film to hear how Rikke turned her passion for flying into a surprising exploration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM):

“I was always told I could do anything I wanted to… I never considered I couldn’t be a pilot or shouldn’t be a pilot. I looked at what I wanted to do and I enjoyed flying so I thought I’d go for it…” – Rikke Carmichael, head of Air Operations, Network Rail

Click here to watch Just Like Me, the full film we released for International Women in Engineering Day last year.

When did you start flying?

From about 15 I started glider flying because it was the cheapest way to get in the air and less complicated and something you can do after school… It’s a really good way of getting into that kind of environment.

Because you fly without an engine, you have to learn about meteorology and you have to learn about aerodynamics… You find out if that’s something you’re interested in because it’s part of learning to fly. It’s not just about going up and having fun in the air, there are quite a lot of theoretical things you need to learn about.

How did you start your flying career?

I am a fairly self-motivated person and I’m not quite sure where that’s coming from but I always had a pretty clear goal of what I wanted to do so I set out and did it. When I finished school I wanted to learn to fly and I moved from Denmark, where I’m originally from, to California and went to flight school and I didn’t know anybody… I have always had the goal and haven’t really needed to be pointed in any direction.

Why do you love your job?

There’s so much to do and there are so many opportunities and so many different aspects of what we can support Network Rail with that it’s almost difficult to know where to begin but that’s the good thing as well. It means no two days are the same. We have different challenges every day and I’m just excited and happy to be part of that and hopefully grow the team.

What would you tell a young person who thinks STEM is boring?

I think they probably need to look a little bit further from what just STEM represents. I can understand maybe from a certain angle it’s slightly if not too boring and maybe a little limited but when you look at aviation, not everyone thinks it’s part of that community as well. When we look at the railways as well, there are so many aspects of things we do, little niche areas where with that kind of background and education, you can get into that very interesting work. I’d say have an open mind and go and explore.

The Network Rail helicopter

I think that as a young person, I tried to do as much work experience as possible. If you can get a couple of days with somebody doing a job just to see what it was about and if you have the opportunity to do that, go out and see what it is actually about before making any decision about what that job potentially can give to you.

Network Rail’s air operations team

Our fleet: machines and vehicles

I wasn’t necessarily the most academically gifted child but I had the passion for what I wanted to do. I probably went the route I did in spite of my natural talent rather than because of it and yes, it means hard work and it means maybe you have to put the extra hours in to learn something but if you are really truly passionate about a subject like I was about flying, you will get there and it will be worth it so perseverance is probably one of the most important words, I think.

It’s about not how many times you fall or why you fall but how you get up and why you keep going… You shouldn’t let anybody stand in the way of what it is you’re trying to achieve with your life, whether that’s education or anything else and just keep going.

What advice would you give to a young person?

Find something that will make you jump out of bed in the morning and go, ‘I’m going to make a difference today,’ whether that’s baking phenomenal bread or building a rail road or whatever it is… As long as you’ve got passion and got an interest in it, then I don’t think you can go too wrong.

What do you hope to do before the end of your career?

I would like to have inspired people in the sense that you can do what you want to, that you can, if you put hard into it, get to where you’d like to get to in your career.

What does the railway mean to you?

The railway to me today means opportunity and it means responsibility. We’re responsible [for getting people] from A to B every single day, safely – and I take that responsibility very seriously. I think we, as air ops, play an important part in ensuring that happens every day.

It’s a very exciting time for us now. We have so many new projects that are being launched and considering we have to maintain our 20,000 miles of track, there will always be engineering work so exciting times!