Northamptonshire pilot returns to the skies after an ‘awful’ two-year battle with cancer

‘There is light at the end of the tunnel’
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A pilot from Northamptonshire returns to work after battling cancer for more than two years.

Howard Barnard, 57, from Charwelton, started flying commercially 19 years ago, after getting his start as a glider pilot. Over the years, he has clocked up 7,800 flying hours.

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Almost two years ago, Howard was diagnosed with type two throat cancer. He said: “It was awful, I had to have speech therapy. I’d lost 20 kilograms which was 20 per cent of my body weight.”

Howard Barnard, TUI commercial pilot, pictured on board.Howard Barnard, TUI commercial pilot, pictured on board.
Howard Barnard, TUI commercial pilot, pictured on board.

Howard joined TUI, a German leisure, travel and tourism company, in 2019, following the collapse of the previous company for which he worked.

In January 2022, he noticed a lump on his neck while shaving in the morning. Howard contacted TUI’s healthcare provider to get it checked out, after a recommendation from his flight crew manager, Linda.

Within a few days, he received medical care and underwent several rounds of testing. Howard was diagnosed with type two laryngeal cancer.

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“Flying is what I’ve always been involved in, it’s what I’ve been doing for 27 years. Not being able to do it was just so difficult. I tried to keep myself up to speed, reading books and keeping up with my manual reading. I like to say I flew my armchair from time to time,” said Howard.

Although it was caught early, the treatment was aggressive because of its proximity to his lymph nodes.

After intensive weeks of computerized tomography (CT) scans, biopsies, two rounds of eight-hour chemotherapy and six weeks of daily radiotherapy, Howard said he felt broken.

He could not eat and had to rely on a tube inserted into his stomach to feed himself.

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Howard finished his treatment in June 2022. A large number of his saliva glands had been radiated, and his voice had completely changed.

Soon after, he started his recovery journey in order to obtain his medical certificate and return to work as a commercial pilot.

He attended a variety of therapies and had to be retrained on how to eat properly, which was difficult as he had no taste buds.

Howard said he felt incredibly supported by his colleagues throughout the whole process.

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“I was on various pilot chat groups, telling me to keep it up. I wasn’t able to drive, so some of my pilot friends would drive me to radiology appointments at the hospital.

“I was also in weekly contact with Linda, my pilot manager. I never had to call her, she would always call me, and she was just brilliant. She was the voice of reassurance during such a difficult time,” said Howard.

The TUI training department assisted in getting Howard back into the simulator and passing all of the required examinations.

In June 2023, Howard’s results were sent to an authorised medical examiner. A decision arrived on his doorstep a few weeks later. He said: “I was absolutely euphoric when I got my medical back in the post.”

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After nearly 23 months out of his workplace, Howard has returned to work and flying. He is currently halfway through completing his refresher training with TUI.

On Monday, he had his first flight back to Ibiza. He said: “It was fantastic going down the runway again.

“Having done so many simulators in the runup, I felt prepared. That said, simulators are the most amazing learning tool, but there’s really no substitute for being in the aircraft. That first take off from Birmingham at 6am, the sun was just rising, you could see it coming up from the tops of the clouds. It was just perfect, a fantastic day.”

Howard is set to operate a flight to Fuerteventura next week.

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“I just really want to thank friends, colleagues and TUI for their support during the last few years. In addition, I want to try to give hope to those who are going through a rough time for one reason or another. There is light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Resilience is the key,” said Howard.