Norfolk woman becomes RNLI hover pilot

A Norfolk lifeboatwoman has become the first in Britain to gain a pilot's licence to fly an RNLI rescue hovercraft.

A Norfolk lifeboatwoman has become the first in Britain to gain a pilot's licence to fly an RNLI rescue hovercraft.

Junior school teacher Leesa Espley, one of two female crew members at Hunstanton Lifeboat Station, passed on her first attempt when she took examiners for a 90-minute spin out on The Wash.

The volunteer station is one of only four in the country - alongside Morecombe, Southend-on-Sea and New Brighton, Merseyside - to operate the specialist craft.

“It's all a question of air,” said Ms Espley, 36, who comes from Heacham and is also a retained firefighter.

“It hasn't got any wheels and it's very different to a boat - it's all on a cushion of air so it's greatly affected by the wind.

“To pass your test you have to do water-based work and land-based work. You have to be able to manoeuvre it slowly and at speed.”

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At speed can mean up to 30knots (34mph) as powerful twin propellors skim the craft across the waves.

The hovercraft test also includes that manoeuvre feared by generations of learner drivers - the dreaded emergency stop.

During her test, she also carried out a mock rescue of a casualty trapped by rising tides on a mudbank, bringing the hovercraft alongside a football.

Ms Espley said fellow crew members had helped her chalk up the 40 hours' practice needed on top of a week's residential course at the RNLI's headquarters in Poole, Dorset.

“The lads have been brilliant,” she said.

“I wouldn't have passed without them, they've come down during the evenings to get me up to my 40 hours.”

Fellow crew member Brian Henty has also now qualified and two other members of the crew are undergoing pilot training.

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