“They want to say something to acknowledge the fact that I’m a woman, but they don’t really know what, so they’ll say something like: ‘Oh, who parked it?’ or ‘Well done dear.’ You can choose to either take that as being rude or see it as them just wanting to acknowledge that you’re not a man. I always chose the second approach.”
Supporting the NHS
She loved her career for many reasons – the passengers, the crew and, of course, the views, but in 2020 it all came to an abrupt end. Like her colleagues, she had no idea when she’d be able to go back to work. That’s when the idea for Project Wingman started to take shape. She recognised that she and her colleagues had a lot of transferrable skills – from working in a safety-critical environment to dealing with distressed passengers – which could be useful in supporting NHS staff.
The idea quickly took off. Project Wingman is now a national charity with 94 sites and 6,000 volunteers on its database – and while the lounges initially started as dedicated spaces within the hospitals, the charity now also has a mobile, bus-based lounge and plans to have five more.
The response from the NHS has been one of delight. “Staff have said it’s made such a difference to their working day,” she says. “It’s raised well-being on the agenda and changed the working culture in some hospitals: previously, trying to get departments to work with each other was apparently very difficult but, as a result of seeing each other in our lounges, people have started talking and helping each other.”
Another happy side effect is the sense of purpose it has given to thousands of air crew who have been made redundant or furloughed.
“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,” she says. “They've made lifelong friendships as well, which is fantastic.”
Silver linings and new horizons
Henderson reached a poignant milestone in September 2020 when she decided to take voluntary redundancy from the job she loves, saving the jobs of two colleagues in the process. Having Project Wingman has helped her with the transition.
“I do still get sad about finishing,” she says. “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.”
She also has other projects under way, including an autobiography, a new public speaking career, and Moo Prints, the outlet for her delightful watercolour paintings and prints.
Having successfully taken on so many challenges in her own life and career, she has this advice for other women: “As women, we don’t believe we’re good enough to do things – so give yourself permission to recognise the strengths that you have. If you face a challenge, take ownership of it. Often the only way to come back from it is to work hard and learn the extra things you need to learn in order to progress – and also to allow other people to help you along the way.”
As for Project Wingman, it now looks set to run and run. “There’s so much to love about it,” she says. “It’s fantastic to see smiles on the faces of people who are going through a really hard time, and I enjoy the relationships that have been forged as a result of it. 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.”