Updated: Jun 30
Learn to fly and there is no limit to what you can achieve. That’s the overriding message from Aerobility – the UK charity offering disabled people, without exception, the opportunity to fly an aeroplane.
Just ask any of the 1,000 disabled people a year that take to the sky from Blackbushe Airport in Surrey or Tatenhill in Staffordshire what it means to take the controls and experience the ultimate feeling of freedom and escape from the restrictions of disability.
For some, just the first time soaring through the clouds is enough to change their outlook on disability forever and inspire them to ask themselves what else they could do.
Others relish the greater challenge of learning to fly solo, securing their Private Pilot Licence and even aspiring to a career in commercial aviation.
“When I’m flying and I’ve established myself in the cruise, the aircraft is settled and I have a few
moments to look out into the distant horizon, I can think to myself, I’ve done it, I’m doing what I’ve
always wanted to do – that’s to fly an aircraft,” said Damian Hunter, who despite having athetoid cerebral palsy, completed his life-long dream of acquiring his Private Pilot Licence thanks to Aerobility.
“You know, that thought of flying an aircraft caused me to leap with happiness, and just filled my whole soul up with such a great feeling of hope.”
The driving (or maybe that should be ‘flying’) force behind Aerobility knows all about the magic and wonder of flight as an able bodied and disabled flyer.
Mike Miller-Smith has always had a passion for flying and was training as a commercial pilot when he developed muscular dystrophy, which over the years has completely taken away his ability to move.
He permanently uses an electric wheelchair. But Mike has never been grounded by the debilitating condition. He continued to be closely involved with aviation as part of the British Disabled Flying Association (BDFA), later to become Aerobility, and has been instrumental in developing the organisation to become the UK’s leading representative body for disabled flyers.
“My interest in flying started as a child, when I was visiting airshows, meeting pilots and being surrounded by the sounds and smells of aviation,” said Mike. “From there, it didn’t take much to convince me to learn to fly and then it wasn’t long until I was competing in international gliding competitions. Even though in my twenties, the onset of MD made it more difficult, I continued to fly.
“Taking the controls of an aeroplane reminds us all what we are capable of, irrespective of who we are, where we come from or whatever our abilities are. Today, I make sure anyone, with any disability has access to aviation, as I know only too well what joy and benefits aviation can bring. It truly changes lives with a positive impact that reaches far beyond the airfield.”
It hasn’t been an easy journey though. The BDFA was set-up in 1993 but it wasn’t until 2003 that it really took off – thanks to a chance conversation 10 years earlier.
The late King Hussein of Jordan was presenting a member of the BDFA with an award at the Royal International Air tattoo. After the ceremony the man jokingly asked Prince Faisal, the king’s son, if he would like to donate one of his planes. So, when four military Bulldog training planes were flown in direct from the prince, it came as something of a surprise.
“I was aware of the BDFA but it wasn’t until I read about the planes arriving from the Royal Jordanian Air Force that I went to a meeting about rebuilding and adapting one of the planes specifically for disabled flyers that I got involved,” said Mike, who to date has notched up more than 2,000 flying hours.
“It turns out that flying a plane is the easy, safe bit – getting into the plane and adapting controls for specific disabilities are by far the greater challenges and present the most dangers.
“Aerobility currently operates a mixed fleet of five aircraft offering different modifications and accessibility so that we can work with as broad a range of disability types as possible.” But that number of planes and the number of disabled people and injured ex-military personnel who will benefit from flying high with the charity is set to increase dramatically.
Motor gliders that used to train thousands of RAF Air Cadets will get a new lease of life following the charity’s successful bid to acquire 63 decommissioned Vigilant t1 aircraft from the UK Ministry of Defence.
The first batch of gliders will be modified and refurbished by German company GRoB Aircraft SE to meet civil certification standards. Aerobility plans on showing off its first Grob 109B Able plan at this year’s Farnborough Air Show.
“We will more than double our fleet with eight Vigilants thanks to a grant from the Department for Transport (Dft),” explained Mike.
“It means we will be able to help about 2,600 people into the air every year compared to 1,000 currently. Other gliders will be sold to raise vital funds for the charity. It costs us £1/2 million a year to stay operational and much of that funding comes through various fundraising initiatives, ensuring disabled people fly for a fraction of the commercial rate.”
Even when the charity couldn’t take to the sky during the Covid pandemic, it put on a free-to-view live streamed Armchair Airshow from Biggin Hill Airport, featuring interviews, cockpit footage and highlights of shows and displays from around the world. Alongside the show a live auction took place, with bids for items, including a Spitfire flight courtesy of FlyaSpitfire.com, a private jet experience to Newquay and a signed model of a MiG-29, signed by Russian test pilot Anatoly Kvotchur, raising life changing funds for the charity that secured eight flying scholarships.
The charity receives enormous support from the aviation industry and works closely with manufacturing companies, airlines, airports and the Civil Aviation Authority on a series of initiatives. Its Aviation Education Programme is a nine-month course for disabled youngsters to grow their aviation knowledge.
“Aviation isn’t all about pilots. Hundreds of people are responsible for ensuring that aircraft, airports and the skies run smoothly and safely,” said Mike. “Over sixteen sessions participants learn about a range of aviation elements including air traffic control, engineering, metrology, navigation, fire and rescue, airport development and flight. they see the theory in action through flight simulator sessions, interactive activities and experiments.”
To find out more about Aerobility go to www.aerobility.com