Iron Maiden's lead singer switches on the seatbelt sign

As the lead singer of heavy metal legends Iron Maiden, Bruce Dickinson has belted out songs like No Prayer for the Dying - not quite what you want to hear over the intercom of your charter Boeing 737. Steven Poole joins the newly qualified commercial pilot in the cockpit

Bruce Dickinson is teaching me to fly. We are in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 simulator at the British Airways flight training facilities at Heathrow. Through the windows are the winking nightlights of Gatwick airport. "You're doing extraordinarily well here, sir," says the legendary heavy-metal frontman, as I wrench the joystick around and yellow alarm lights flash. While he solicitously explains the functions of the banks of switches, levers and luminescent screens, I'm waiting for him to start hollering Bring Your Daughter to the Slaughter. "Too low - flaps," says a stern electronic voice with an American accent. Buzzers sound. The runway looms up to meet us. Groundrush. I have information overload.

We land safely - thanks to Dickinson's finessing of my controls. The hydraulic cabin comes to a shuddering halt and the whine of the engines and air-conditioning subsides. Which leaves only one question. What on earth am I doing in a £10m airliner simulator with the lead singer of Iron Maiden?

Dickinson has long been the renaissance man of rock - not content with selling 50 million albums, he wrote two novels and represented his country with fencing swords. Now he is a commercial pilot, working as a first officer for a new British charter airline called Astreus: hops to Portugal or the Greek islands in the summer, ski trips in the winter. He had a private pilot's licence for years, which is not so unusual among the wealthy and famous, but what is he doing flying these monsters? The answer is that it's even more of a rush.

"This started out years ago when I was in the middle of my solo career and I wasn't sure whether it was going to be viable or not," Dickinson explains, looking trim and happy in his pilot's uniform and sensible haircut - the antithesis of Spinal Tap excess. "I did seriously think about going to fly aeroplanes as an alternative career. I was putting out piloting CVs that said nothing about me being the lead singer of Iron Maiden." He was offered a job with the now-defunct airline British World, who put him in a 757, "a real rocketship of an aeroplane".

"I'd flown across the Atlantic in light twin-engined aircraft and stuff - done a lot of Bigglesy-type things - but flying a jet airliner was the most challenging thing that I'd encountered," he says. "The amount of information that you have to process. It's very much a headtrip - you have to manufacture where the aeroplane is going to go and what its flightpath is going to be, and then you have to put the aeroplane where you want it to be. It's quite a conceptual thing. I loved it."

It's also a useful insurance policy against ridiculous old age. "Put it this way: I'm not quite sure whether I want to be wandering around in spandex at 60," chuckles the 44-year-old Dickinson. "But aviation has the opportunity of keeping you occupied, even in a non-flying role, to quite an advanced stage of decrepitude."

Has he ever been accosted by a fan in his new job? He tells the story of a flight he was on when training with BA. "First trip, I'm all togged up with a BA uniform, hat and everything. We get off at Munich, I'm wandering down to the crew bus, and then making a beeline for me is an Iron Maiden fan in full regalia, T-shirt and everything, and I'm stood there going: 'Oh God.' And this guy comes straight up to me and he says [thick German accent] 'Hello? But I must know ...' and I'm going 'Yes, yes, yes ...'" Pause for storytelling effect. "'Is this the bus to Munich?'" He roars with laughter.

It turns out that Bruce's fellow pilots are the real fans. "One of our captains at Astreus, we get into the cruise, we've done all our checks, and he goes, 'There's a new Megadeth album coming out, any chance of some swag?' We've got a friend, Alvin, who's an Airbus captain for BA, the most phenomenal Hammond organ player, he does sessions and everything.

"We actually assembled a band of airline pilots for a couple of Christmas parties. Only for airline pilots - closed shop. Although we had to borrow a drummer, 'cos we couldn't find one who was an airline pilot." (Indeed, few people would feel safe on an aeroplane flown by a drummer.) "In the airline industry, I can't really say I've ever met anybody who's been a real pain in the arse," Dickinson says. A notable contrast to the music business.

He snorts when I point out that he doesn't need a proper job; that he could live in his rock mansion, counting his money for the rest of his life. "I've got a house in Chiswick - is that a rock mansion? I live in the 'burbs, and have a Simpsons family lifestyle. All my kids are basically Bart Simpson. My daughter likes Steps and Barbie and Gareth. My middle son is the full-on Papa Roach, scratching and everything else. And my elder son is more into classic rock. He's 12."

And how do his kids feel about having a heavy-metal legend for a dad? "I'm just dad," he protests, "and I say all the normal dad things, like 'Turn that racket down!' The irony is not lost on me, but that still doesn't make any bloody difference," he says.

Does he have any paternal feelings towards the new wave of heavy metal? "It's such a mixed bag," Dickinson points out. "Music journalists are desperately quick to consign things to the bargain bin of history, and then along comes a band like Nickelback, which is straight out of the 1980s in every way and does these huge numbers in terms of sales. And you've got bands like the Murder Dolls coming along now that are basically very retro, doing complete classic rock, but these are 16- and 17-year-old kids. It just keeps going round, it's very cyclical. The thing that always is going to stand out is people that write good songs or good material, and people that are sincere. A band like Slipknot, for example, inspire huge loyalty from their following."

Dickinson rejoined Iron Maiden three years ago for a global reunion tour and a new album, Brave New World. And rather than give up music for flying, he intends to continue combining his careers. (As it costs so much to train a pilot, airlines are happy to work around those who want to take unpaid leave.) The band is still a going concern, regardless of the vagaries of fashion. "As far as our audience is concerned, they quite like what we do, so it's irrelevant what people think. It's either a good Maiden record or a bad Maiden record, and if you don't understand Iron Maiden, then it's irrelevant what you think anyway. Metal is like that, it's a series of little villages, if you like, and music increasingly is becoming like that, unless you're in the big boyband, girlband-type things, which I really know nothing about. I'm probably way out of step with the rest of the population, but then, on the other hand, I am the lead singer of Iron Maiden, so almost by definition I'm out of step with the mass of the population," he adds.

Dickinson was in prance mode on Top of the Pops only this summer, when Run to the Hills was re-released. Next month, a huge boxed set of live material, Edward the Great, will be released in a coffin-shaped package. "Cracking stuff - Reading '82, Hammersmith Odeon from the Number of the Beast tour ..." And soon he'll be taking more time off for a new studio album, scheduled for release next year.

Dickinson gets stuck into a discussion on music production - a wonderful studio in Paris that the band found a few years ago, the benefits of recording live into Pro Tools software, the differences between analogue tape, CDs and mp3s. The tech-lover's gleam in his eye is the same as when he was explaining the complex workings of an aircraft's control surface to me.

As we part, he says of our time in the simulator: "It's a good toy to play with, isn't it?"

And then he's off, the most charming man in heavy metal, high on a life filled with so many interesting playthings.


Steven Poole

The GuardianTramp

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