It is a 5-kilometre drive from the guarded entrance, where a historical T-33 jet fighter is displayed on a roundabout. Virginia Verburg (34) drives past army buildings, an airfield and through a section of forest to her workplace. Here, on the edge of Woensdrecht Air Base, there are about fifteen glossy black planes with bright yellow stripes in which Virginia teaches students to fly. They are called Pilatus PC-7 Turbo Trainers: stepping stones on the way to military aircraft and helicopters.
It’s not the kind of workplace you would expect from someone who wanted to become a chartered accountant. “My neighbour was a chartered accountant, so I came into contact with the profession early on”, she says. “And in secondary school, I already liked economics and maths.” As a result, she started her Bachelor’s in Business Administration at the EUR in 2006 and obtained her Master’s in Accounting and Control here in 2010.
But the dream of becoming a military pilot already arose during her Bachelor’s degree. “My Bachelor’s programme was so impersonal that I felt like a number”, she says. “I looked around and wondered: what else is there?” Her adventurous side – she loved motorcycling, skydiving and diving – already led her to apply for training as an Air Force officer at the Royal Military Academy in Breda during her Master’s degree.
But she knew that the chances of being accepted there were small. Even at the flight training in Woensdrecht, which Virginia had to take after the academy to become a military pilot, students sometimes fall by the wayside. She therefore applied for a chartered accountant job with a company at the same time, and was accepted. “I thought that if it didn’t work out with the Air Force, at least I would have something else going for me.” But after a number of tests she was admitted to the academy in 2011, where she trained as an officer over a period of one year.
Her time at the military academy was ‘very enjoyable and educational’, but also ‘took some getting used to’ and was ‘physically demanding’, she says. The first six months were ‘green’, as it is known at the academy: a physically intensive period. Running in a military uniform with a heavy backpack, sleep deprivation, setting up camp in a forest and keeping watch at night were all part of her training. Virginia: “But I had a dot on the horizon and that’s what I focused on.”
That dot came closer when she passed her flight training in Woensdrecht in 2013, and then learned to fly the Apache combat helicopter within a year during follow-up training in the United States. Her first flight was ‘very overwhelming’, she recalls. “Flying feels so inaccessible at first, but anyone can learn how to do it.”
After all her training, her dream came true: she could call herself a military pilot. She became an Apache pilot at the Gilze-Rijen Air Base, where she trained for conflict situations on a daily basis. In 2016, she was sent to Mali for three months. Here, together with her colleagues, she was the ‘eyes and ears of the United Nations’. It was a ‘very unusual experience’, but she can’t reveal more about the mission.
And this mission was her first and so far also her last, because in 2019 she became a flight instructor at Woensdrecht Air Base. “I find it very valuable to educate people”, she says. “I realised that when I was a student assistant at the university.”
Now she flies in the black and yellow teaching planes with students almost every morning and afternoon. On the side of the room where the planes are standing, behind a door with a sign stating ‘Access prohibited for unauthorised people’, she picks up her flight equipment. Here, there are helmets with oxygen masks, backpacks containing parachutes and dark-green fire-resistant clothing. Against the wall, there is a cardboard cutout of Tom Cruise in the film Top Gun. “Virginia ‘Twiggy’ Verburg”, says a patch on her flying suit. “Everyone gets a nickname here”, she says. “It’s a name that suits you and that others give to you.” The tradition also remains behind closed doors: she can’t explain exactly why she is called Twiggy.
After the necessary preparations, Virginia goes up in the air with a student for more than an hour. She sits at the back, the student at the front. The steering wheels – they are called ‘flight controllers’ – are interconnected, ‘just like in a car at a driving school’, she says. And both are held in place by seat belts that could be compared to the belts in roller coasters that whisk people upside down.
She calls teaching students to fly ‘really enjoyable, but also serious business. “Flying can have disastrous consequences if you make a mistake”, she says. “If we’re flying high in the air and the student lowers the plane even though that wasn’t the intention, you won’t hit anything. But when you’re landing, you can’t afford to do that. I’m more involved at that time, and sometimes I take over the control of the airplane.” Thankfully, she has never needed to use the parachute.