When Emma Henderson set up Project Wingman as the UK plunged into lockdown last year, she had no idea about the heights the project would soar to.
Grounded by the pandemic, the Easyjet pilot co-founded the charity with British Airways counterpart Dave Fielding and Professor Rob Bor to give furloughed airline staff a sense of purpose.
Under the programme, they arranged makeshift airport-style first class lounges for exhausted NHS staff dealing with the grim coronavirus frontline.
Spare rooms across more than 104 hospitals such as Dr Gray’s in Elgin have been transformed into lounges where volunteers serve refreshments and offer a friendly chat to NHS workers facing the daily stresses of battling Covid.
And the scheme has now helped more than two million frontline staff, even reaching as far as New York.
Mrs Henderson previously flew thousands of passengers on flights across Europe and North Africa for 11 years before accepting voluntary redundancy in September – and saving the jobs of two colleagues in the process.
Speaking to the Press and Journal about the project that has rapidly grown since its creation, the 48-year-old hailed the furloughed airline staff that have stepped up to help in these uncertain times.
Mrs Henderson, who stays in Kinloss, said: “I do still get sad about finishing.
“If I hadn’t had Project Wingman to hang my hat on, then I think it would have been a very different decision for me.
“The selfless aircrew volunteers have been incredible and I couldn’t be more proud of their efforts in supporting NHS staff.
“We know there has been a lot of uncertainty and difficult times in the NHS as they have had to deal with the daily fight against the coronavirus.
“Also all life pressures are still there, and they have been accelerated by this terrible virus.
“It is really humbling to read all the comments from people saying that Project Wingman has benefited their hospital, and we set out to serve them by giving the staff an area to relax from the daily struggles.
“This project has also supported the mental wellbeing of the grounded and furloughed airline staff as given them a sense of purpose.
“It gives people a reason to get up in the morning, put the uniforms on, go and get that camaraderie that you have with crew during the day.”
Mrs Henderson said she felt it was “crucial” when setting up the Project Wingman lounges across the country that Dr Gray’s Hospital on her doorstep was included in the project.
She added: ” I was determined to have a lounge in Dr Gray’s Hospital as I stay in Moray and didn’t want this part of the country to miss out.
“It was extra special to provide for that for the staff that my family and I live and work among.
“Our member Jess Hall has led from the front at Elgin lounge and all the volunteers there have been brilliant.
“We have changed people’s lives, which is excellent, and even had two lounges in New York at one time.
“Through this project we want to make sure that no place far away or smaller misses out.”
Passion for aviation industry
Mrs Henderson, who spent 29 years in the aviation industry, explained how she developed her life-long passion for all things airborne as a child.
She said: “I was always fascinated by things that flew.
“I was and still am a keen birdwatcher and became a young ornithologist at Boat of Garten Osprey Centre aged nine.
“School projects were always about flight and Biggles was my friend.
“In 1983, the space shuttle Enterprise toured the world on the back of a B747 and came to Stansted near where I grew up.
“We went to see it, and that was that.
“I wanted to be an astronaut and I didn’t go on to do this of course – my path meandered and I studied history at university with a career as a lawyer in mind.
“In my second year I discovered the University Air Squadron and the rest is pretty much history, although I actually didn’t join the RAF – I married an RAF wing commander instead and eight years passed between finishing university and re-starting my flying training.
“Then, right place at the right time, I did flying for Easyjet and started working.
“I have flown all across Europe and really enjoyed every minute of it.
“It was sad leaving the career as a pilot, however I have plenty exciting things to look forward to with Project Wingman.”
‘It is just the beginning’
There is no sign of the scheme slowing down its tremendous efforts to support the NHS staff in their continued fight against coronavirus.
The project raised £25,000 in December to buy a double-decker bus which was converted into a mobile lounge, with a fully fitted kitchen and outside space to relax and unwind under the awning.
Mrs Henderson hopes to have more buses touring across the country in the future to support the NHS.
She added: “We are keen to maintain lounges for legacy and we are excited about wingman wheels which hope can bring mobile wellbeing lounges by buses right across the country and move it on.
“I would love to have six buses on road to cover the UK and we are focusing at first on NHS.
“We believe that in the very worst of times, we have seen the very best of people and it is a privilege to be a part of this team of truly extraordinary people.
“It’s also so exciting that we have grown so organically from this little idea into this massive charity that’s got a future that stretches for at least five years, if not longer. We’d love to still be going in 30 years’ time.
“This is just the beginning of the project and the bus will make it easier as we will not need to search for physical space in the hospitals.”
Project Wingman chief executive and co-founder Emma Henderson was made an MBE in the New Year Honours List at the start of 2021.
Despite being “shocked and overwhelmed” with the honour, Mrs Henderson chose to praise others across the country for continuously helping to drive the project forward.
Mrs Henderson said: “It was a bit surreal and I was shocked.
“I was in a Zoom meeting and this square popped up and I thought ‘that looks interesting’.
“I had to leave meeting after opening it because I was so shocked.
“I told them someone was at door and then went and had a little cry to myself.”
Mrs Henderson reflected on how the idea which led to the royal recognition took shape.
She added: “As the Covid crisis marched towards us, it became very obvious to those of us that were flying at the time that we weren’t going to be continuing doing that for long.
“The NHS was facing a tidal wave of struggle and to me it seemed very obvious that there was a huge army of air crew that could use their skills to just wrap their arms around the NHS a little bit and provide a little bit of extra care.
“I care deeply for my fellow aircrew who have been made redundant or been furloughed.
“People have contacted me to say Project Wingman has been a lifeline for them.
“It’s something to grab onto in these dark days.
“It has been profoundly important for me, too, in helping me get through redundancy.
“I’ve never met most of the people I work with, but I’ve made friends for life.”