19 JANUARY 2005


Bruce Dickinson, singer with heavy metal band Iron Maiden, is also a commercial airline pilot. Christa D'Souza checks in, nervously.


Having seen a few old photographs of Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Britain's favourite heavy metal band, I can't help expecting him to be a great big, hairy hulk of a man.


What a surprise, then, when he bowls up at Victoria Station, a pocket-sized figure, looking very smart in his Astraeus Airlines pilot's uniform. His hair, which used to be greasy and almost waist-length (perfect for head-banging) in Iron Maiden's heyday, back in the early Eighties, is now cropped short and grazes his collar. 


It's not difficult at all, in other words, to take him seriously as the £36,000-a-year commercial pilot that he is – scheduled, in 90 minutes' time, to fly me and a plane-load of holidaymakers from Gatwick to Chambery, in France. Which is lucky because, if you can't trust your pilot, who can you trust?


More difficult, now, is picturing Dickinson prancing round the stage, eyes ablaze, tongue lolling, and belting out hits such as Bring your Daughter to the Slaughter, The Number of the Beast and Be Quick Or Be Dead. Yet that is exactly what he will be doing on May 28 when Maiden, as the band's millions of diehard, mostly male fans know them, begin their latest European tour. 


"Oh yeah, we sold 55,000 tickets in Gothenburg in two and a half hours flat," says Dickinson, 46, after handing his ticket to a member of the airport staff. "We're bigger now than we were 10 years ago. Don't ask me why. Maybe it's because we don't spend all our time trying to hang out with fashionistas - we just get on with it."


Just back from LA, where he was finishing a new solo album - "I had to take some leave from work to go to work," he says, with a falsetto cackle - Dickinson is in the middle of promoting a new Discovery Channel series on the history of aviation. 


Entitled, naturally, Flying Heavy Metal, and with a soundtrack of loud rock music, it features an enthusiastic Dickinson behind the controls of a space shuttle simulator, test-piloting a Tiger Moth and bemoaning the demise of Concorde. It's all very Boys' Own stuff, the kind of thing that adolescent males, plane-spotters and adrenaline geeks - Iron Maiden fans, in fact - are going to go mad over. 


Television presenting is the latest unexpected addition to Dickinson's CV. He is also a fencing enthusiast (he was once ranked number seven in the world) and a keen writer, with two published novels "about a wannabe Sherlock Holmes who's a transvestite below the knee". His first book, thanks to his faithful fan base, sold 40,000 copies.


A mixture, looks-wise, of Nigel Tufnel from Spinal Tap and Madonna's husband Guy Ritchie, Dickinson attributes his confidence, and the ability to wear so many different hats, to his father – a man who "always believed if you had a chance to have a go, you should have a go, and if you do have a go, do your best - whether it's road-sweeping or physics".


Dickinson was initially brought up in Worksop by his grandfather, a coal miner. "I was an accident - my mum was only 16 when she had me," he says. It was not until he was four and his father, a retired Army draughtsman, started making money selling second-hand cars, that he and his younger sister, Helena (now a professional showjumper), went back to live in Sheffield with their parents. "Every time my dad made a bit more money, we'd move." 


Dickinson senior finally came up with enough cash to send his son, then 15, to Oundle, the quintessential English boarding school, near Peterborough. It was a loathsome experience for Dickinson, who was bullied because of his northern accent and working-class roots.


Eventually, he was expelled, after boiling up some of his own urine and pouring it into his headmaster's mange-touts. "I knew it wouldn't harm him," he shrugs. "I'd done a bit of chemistry."


He briefly considered a career in the Army, but the idea of emulating his musical heroes, Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, became more appealing, and by the time he was enrolled at Queen Mary College, London, reading modern history, he had formed a band. In 1981, to his delight, he was asked to front the already notorious Iron Maiden.


Despite the screechy vocals, the studded leather gauntlets and the macabre, if cartoonish, lyrics - "We'll oil the jaws of the war machine and feed it with our babies!" - Dickinson never really had it in him, unlike his idol, Ozzy Osbourne, to be a bad boy. His rock 'n' roll excesses did not extend further than drinking vodka, smoking a bit of marijuana, and sleeping with a few girls. 


At one point, while touring in Japan, he found himself crawling along a hotel corridor in Tokyo, blind drunk and ravenous, desperately searching for leftover food on discarded room-service trays.


"Afterwards, I just thought: 'There's got to be more than this.' Nothing to do with that touchy-feely, must-check-into-the-Priory-bollocks. That's when I took up fencing again and decided to learn how to fly."


Though comfortably well-off (in 2001, Iron Maiden floated their future earnings from their back catalogue on the stock market for £25 million), Dickinson doesn't live a pampered, celebrity life. He uses public transport and, when on holiday with his wife, Paddy, and their three children, flies "cattle class, because I'd much rather spend the money on school fees". 


He drives a beaten-up Range Rover and owns a Cessna that is gathering dust "on an airfield somewhere". Although he abhors the term "New Man", he is very proud of the fact that Austin, 14, Griffin, 12 and Kia, 10, were all born at home in Chiswick, in birthing pools, "with me as the wicket keeper - ha, ha". 


These days, he prefers the company of commercial pilots to that of other rockers. "I've even formed a band with a few pilots," he says. "I've got a guy who flies an Airbus on keyboards, the head of standards for BA 737s on guitar, and me on vocals. You should hear us - we did some great Christmas gigs." 


Eight hours on, we touch down smoothly at Gatwick, having been to France and back and, although it's only 2pm, I'm bushed. Dickinson, however, is as bright-eyed as ever, groaning happily when an air hostess asks if one of the passengers can get an autograph for his wife. Tomorrow, he's on standby to fly to Ghana, and, next week, he'll be spending a couple of days in Sierra Leone. 


"We go all the places other airlines don't fly," he laughs.