Bruce Dickinson sings lead with the British rock band Iron Maiden, which formed in 1975 and has released 38 albums, many of which have achieved gold or platinum sales status in the U.S. and U.K. Dickinson joined the group in 1981 and has been with it ever since, with the exception of a six-year period beginning in 1993, when he left to focus on a solo career. He and his bandmates are currently on a five-month, six-continent tour to promote their first album in five years, The Book of Souls. They’re traveling—along with 12 tons of equipment—in a vividly liveried leased Boeing 747-400, dubbed “Ed Force One,” after the band’s mascot, “Eddie.”
An avid aviator, Dickinson worked as a pilot for the now-defunct Icelandic airline Astraeus. He is type-rated on the Boeing 737 and 757 and expects to soon be type-rated on the 747. (He is finishing his training on that model during the current band tour.) He also co-owns Cardiff Aviation, in Wales, U.K., with business partner and ex-Astraeus CEO Mario Fulgoni. That organization, based at a former military airfield with a 6,000-foot runway, serves as a pilot-training center. It is also a maintenance, repair, and overhaul facility that employs about 100 people and has approvals to work on all Boeing narrowbody types. It recently won a contract to support the African nation Djibouti’s national airline.
Dickinson is chairman of Aeris Aviation, which distributes the Eclipse jet in the U.K. (on which he is also type-rated), and he owns, flies, and displays a replica Fokker Dr1 403/17 triplane with the Great War Display Team. He is an investor in the Airlander project, which is building the world’s biggest airship, and chairman of the U.K. charity Flying Scholarships for Disabled People.
As if performing with a rock band and multiple aviation activities weren’t enough to keep him busy, Dickinson has several other sidelines. He played a major role in developing Iron Maiden’s Trooper beer, which is sold in 55 countries. He is an Olympic-standard fencing champion and the host of radio and TV shows. And he has turned out a pair of successful satirical novels, The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace and The Missionary Position: The Further Advances of Lord Iffy Boatrace.
Oh, and he has just recovered from cancer.
A modest man who eschews iPhones in favor of a 10-year-old Nokia, he once told Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “Life is too short to do the things you don’t love doing. If your only arbiter of anything is money, really you should…go and rob banks.”
How’s your health these days?
It’s been great. It’s almost a year to the day since I got my diagnosis. It’s interesting to reflect and think, “Where was I a year ago?” The powers of recuperation are quite incredible. I say, “Good little body, thank you very much.”
That’s wonderful news for you and your fans, and I suspect it offers encouragement to anyone who has cancer.
I’ve been astonished at the number of people who have sidled up to me and said, “Oh, well done,” and it turned out that they had had exactly the same [tongue] cancer that I had. One guy instructing me on the 747 had it 15 years ago. I was in Djibouti and along comes a British diplomat who said, “Guess what?” and he has the same cancer. It’s extraordinary how many people pop into your life after the diagnosis and you share a common experience.
What resources did you draw on to help you recover?
I treated it as a project. You go through stages of anger or feeling sorry for yourself. I thought, “Enough of this. It’s not going to do me any good.” It’s not my natural state, and it won’t affect the outcome. What will affect the outcome could be a positive attitude…[and] knowledge. Knowledge of what was going on with your body, understanding of the nature of the disease, understanding of the drugs.
And [learning about] it gives you something to do. Having cancer is bloody boring because you sit there and you take your drugs and can’t really do a lot. You’re wiped out, and you run out of shows to watch on daytime TV.
I think a dark sense of humor helps. My wife was unbelievable. In a sense it’s harder for the people around you because the two worst bits about it are one, not knowing; two, the people around you who don’t know what the outcome is going to be, and they’re also not going through what you’re going through when you’re going for the treatment. You don’t dwell on the bad stuff, unless the bad stuff happens. It’s like engine failures on airplanes.
Talking of airplanes, when did Bruce the aviator come in?
Until age 30, plastic airplanes and Biggles were as far as I got. [Biggles is a fictional British storybook hero, who was a World War II pilot. —Ed.] I was rubbish at math and physics, and I talked myself out of applying to the Royal Air Force. Luckily for the U.K. military I became a rock singer instead.
I was always interested in aviation. We were in Jersey writing an album and Nicko McBrain, our drummer, decided to learn to fly. Then I was on a family holiday in Florida, so I tried a lesson. My life changed. Every little boy has a fantasy. My heroes were U-boat captains, test pilots, astronauts, and fighter pilots. I got to fly a Cessna 152, and I thought, “Wow, this is incredible.”
And now you fly a stunning Boeing 747-400. How did you feel when you saw it for the first time?
Absolutely jaw dropping. What we’ve got here is something unique that differentiates us. When we did the [tours with a] 757 it was a bit of a first, and the straightforward business case for it became apparent. After doing it once around the world, the management came up to me and said, “Can we do it again?” We did three times around, and then sadly Astraeus went under. This  aircraft just cropped up.
What advantages does it offer?
The greatest benefit of traveling in a 747 is that because of its colossal size and freight capacity we can carry our stage production and all our stage equipment in the cargo hold without having to make any of the immense structural modifications needed to do this on the 757. Although in reality we cannot carry much more gear, the savings in complexity, time, and cost make using the 747 even more practical. There is much more room for band and crew. Furthermore, it is marginally faster—Mach 0.85—and the range of around 7,000 nautical miles is much greater, which means we will not have to make the refueling stops we needed to with the 757.
How does the band work? Do you write the songs together?
Everybody writes on their own, and then we all tend to meet around each other’s houses. It’s a bit like how we used to write when we were school kids.
You’re upbeat, yet you have a dark sense of humor. Book of Souls has a lot of darkness in it.
When we wrote Book of Souls, I finished it and then got sick. It is a dark album. If you look now at the world, there are all these kind of millennial groups and apocalyptic people springing up all over the place. I think it tends to reflect in people’s psyches, and musicians are no different [than anyone else].
One of the tracks, “Death or Glory,” is about World War I dogfighting tri-planes. How do you find that kind flying with your replica Fokker Dr1 403/17?
That is some of the hairiest flying I’ve ever done. These airplanes have quite primitive wings in terms of their stall characteristics, and were comparatively slow. We get up to around 120, 130 miles an hour. We’re flying, chasing each other 50 or 100 feet off the ground, or doing head-on passes. However, we’ve got a great big whirling prop at the front, chucking out a big old slipstream. I’ve almost been inadvertently knocked upside down, 50 feet above the deck in a World War I full-size replica. Trust me—it gets your attention.
You think about where to position the airplane so the spectator gets a great view, but you also keep yourself out of the firing line in terms of the slipstream. You’re thinking about what the spectator sees, not necessarily what might be effective in combat. It’s almost like you’re the actor and the director when you’re in a display, because you’re doing the performing, but you are creating a moving image.
So you think in pictures all the time?
It’s the same thing with fencing. I wanted to do boxing, because I wanted to fight people. Boxing seemed like a fair enough way to do it, but they didn’t do boxing at school. A bloke turned up and said, “Any kids fancy learning to sword fight?” I realized that was way more exciting than thumping somebody in the head. You could get the whole combat thing, but without the brain damage, and suddenly my desire to fight people was very much muted. The one thing about fencing is that there’s always somebody out there who can beat you and you’ll always have to come up with a different strategy. No two days are ever alike. Welcome to aviation!
There’s a lot of physicality in what you do, whether it’s fencing, being a pilot, or being a singer. Why is that?
It’s all three-dimensional space, and I’m a tactile learner. Somebody once said, “What’s the point of words when equations say it so much more elegantly?” With me, it’s the other way around. I would rather read a half page of words and understand the concept than look at a line of X squared equals Y squared equals gobbledygook, but that’s because I don’t have that kind of a brain. Probably about two-thirds of pilots are X-squared, Y-squared types. The math thing is an expression of how things actually work, but you don’t need to reduce your life to a series of equations.
What drew you to the charity Flying Scholarships for Disabled People?
I got involved with FSDP when I was invited to sit in on its selection process. I’d been invited to fly with Nathan Doidge, “the most disabled pilot in the world” [Doidge’s nickname for himself], which was a humbling experience. The scholars are so inspiring. The determination that they use to face the challenges that they face, and the mental toughness they display, is remarkable. FSDP brings them back to life and back into the real world away from the depths of depression.
How long will you keep working with Cardiff Aviation?
I don’t understand this exit nonsense. If I’m generating 30 or 40 million [pounds] a year and we’re making five million or more on that, and I’m enjoying the business, why would I exit? If I do exit, what do I do then? Sit in my pile of cash and be too old to enjoy it?
Name: Paul Bruce Dickinson
Born: Aug. 7, 1958 in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, U.K.
Occupation: Lead singer of the heavy-metal band Iron Maiden. Also, owner/investor in aviation businesses, radio and TV show host, novelist, and former airline pilot.
Transportation: Boeing 747-400 (leased). Owns replica Fokker Dr1 403/17 triplane. Co-owns SA Bulldog and World War II–era Bücker Jungmann biplane trainer.
Education: Attended school in Sheffield and university in London.
Personal: Lives in Chiswick section of London and has three children with second wife, Paddy Bowden: Austin (born 1990), Griffin (born 1992), and Kia (born 1994).