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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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'A whole new attitude to life when you learn to fly'

The four-seater Cessna 172 chugs towards the runway at Carlisle Airport and pilot Alex Sandham runs through final checks.

Carlisle flying photo
Carlisle College business development manager Andy Sullivan, left,and pilot Brian Swan

He adjusts the throttle and radios the control tower, then, headsets on, we start speeding down the runway and take to the air.

I learn afterwards we were doing about 100mph but the ride feels smooth. It’s quite surreal having such a clear, panoramic view, especially since my only experience of flying is being herded onto a huge commercial plane, watching it rise into the clouds (if you’re lucky enough to get the window seat), then landing in another country as if by magic.

Here you get a whole new perspective. We’re high enough up to make the groups of houses and streets look like toytowns and the sheep like abstract patterns of white dots, but low enough to enjoy the glorious scenery: there’s the Eden river snaking through patchwork fields of crops and grass, and the Lakeland fells and the Solway Firth clear in the distance.

“So this is flying,” Alex says, smiling, his voice hissing through the radio airwaves. “It gets quite addictive.”

And he’s not the only one to be transfixed. Following a successful first year, Border Air Training and Carlisle College have teamed up again this autumn to offer a 20-week aviation studies course.

It’s the first step for those wishing to become a commercial pilot and accredited by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Taught by Border Air Training instructors at the college once a week, the “ground studies” course covers all the theory through a series of modules, including aviation law and operational procedures, navigation, meteorology, communications, and learning about the limits on the human body when at altitude.

Once students pass exams at the end of each module, they can build up flying hours and earn their pilot licence.

Andy Sullivan from the Business Development Unit at Carlisle College explains why they decided to run the unusual course.

“It’s something a bit different; with further education the focus tends to be on vocational training and people forget you can learn something for fun and not just for your CV, although that is connected.

“It generates an income for the college that we can then invest in future courses. And it’s also to show that the college is an adult environment and a really nice place to be.

“A perception has been that it’s for younger people but more and more people from the wider community are coming to study at the college.”

One of the 10 students to complete the course last year was Ben Morgan from Cockermouth.

“I want to be a commercial pilot and need exams for my private pilot licence,” explains the 17-year-old, who is at the airfield today to get some flying practice in. “Getting the motivation by myself was quite difficult, and this was structured and a way of getting the exams. Initially I was concerned about fitting in the work around my A-levels but it was fine.”

Once Ben has clocked up 45 hours of flying he will be awarded his licence. Commercial flight training is expensive so he’ll need sponsorship, and is planning to study mechanical engineering at university as a fallback.

But the Cockermouth School sixth-former is determined to become a pilot. It’s been his ambition since he was a kid, when he first flew abroad for holidays and was inspired by books about science and engineering.

“I like the way humans weren’t meant to fly. It’s like sticking it to mother nature,” he adds.

Graham Dawson, chief flying instructor at Border Air Training, is passionate about flying and passionate that everyone should have access to what is often considered an exclusive hobby of the rich.

“We want to demystify flying. People think it’s too expensive – I say stop binge drinking or smoking cigarettes, then you’ll be able afford a monthly flying lesson,” he says animatedly.

“People also think it’s rocket science. I didn’t think I was clever enough but you don’t need to be a genius, you just need to be determined and have a bit of common sense.”

And he believes most people’s experiences of flying are a million miles away from the exhilaration and freedom you can feel piloting your own plane.

“As a child I loved airplanes. I remember when I was four-years-old flying in a Dakota with Dan-Air to Rotterdam to visit my father, who was working there. I loved looking out the window, seeing this shiny metal wing and flying through turbulent weather, just being fascinated by the way it all worked,

“Back then everyone dressed up to go flying. I wore my Sunday best and my father always flew in a suit. You got nice meals and proper service. You were passengers, not customers.

“But that special experience has been killed off. Now it’s gone so far the other way because of budget airlines.

“Before aircraft, to get to Budapest it was a two day journey by train. Before that it was by sea. Now you can be there in two-and-a-half hours. It should be a privilege to be able to fly anywhere but there are so many flights across Europe it’s taken for granted.”

Graham, 53, worked in the police force in London before changing career. He trained at a now-defunct flying school in Teesside and has been at Border Air Training for nearly three years.

“Once people learn about flying they have a whole new attitude to life. You don’t walk out your front door like this,” he says, doing an impression of a downbeat person, walking with head bowed and staring at the ground. “You walk out with your head held high, with an interest in the world around you.”

And what if people are too frightened to go up in a plane in the first place? No bother, Graham says.

“I have an understanding of people’s fear of flying but it’s actually a fear of lack of control. I show them there’s nothing to be fearful of. It’s safer than driving.

“It’s a fantastic feeling to help people tackle their phobia and go up into the sky, and see them come back with a huge smile on their face. The sense of achievement from learning to fly is tremendous and I get huge satisfaction out of teaching people.”

The aviation studies course starts at Carlisle College in November and runs on Thursday evenings. The £348 fee includes an introductory flying lesson and the cost of sitting seven exams. For more information phone Graham Dawson at Border Air Training, on 01228 573490.

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