At the beginning of 2009 during a conversation with two very good friends, Caroline and Pete; Caroline asked “Lee, have you ever heard of FSD”. It was an organisation that I had never heard of before, which Caroline continued to explain “is a charity dedicated to helping disabled people to discover their true potential through the mental and physical stimulation of learning to fly a light aircraft” and that was where the seed for what was about to commence was planted!
Shortly after the conversation I sent an email to “Reach for the Sky” asking for an application form to be sent. An hour later, I was contacted by the lovely Sue Whitby who after asking a number of questions was more than happy to send out an application form
After my brief conversation with Sue Whitby, I realised that I needed also to make Steve aware of the organisation. Like me, he is enthusiastic and passionate about the world of aviation, and he too had never heard of FSD. Steve also requested an application form either.
Once the application form was completed and returned to FSD, and a good few months had passed, I was contacted once again by Sue Whitby, this time congratulating me that I had been selected to attend the final selection board at RAF Cranwell. She also was able to tell me that a huge coincidence had it, that Steve had also been chosen for the final selection and that together we would undergo a series of medicals, interviews and aptitude tests to determined whether we had what it takes to become one of the 2010 FSD Scholars.
Steve and I travelled down to Cranwell on the Sunday afternoon, and arrived at around 4:00pm, the rest of the day was one of those days where everyone gets to know each other. The conversation at first was rather dead, but it soon picked up as everyone became more familiar with each other and friendships began forming amongst those of us shortlisted for scholarships.
There were 28 of us at Cranwell who had been shortlisted out of 1500 applicants and at the end of the 3 days, around 12 of us were going to be given a scholarship. Some candidates will learn to fly in Port Alfred (South Africa), but the majority will be given a scholarship in the UK.
After a tiring day ice-breaking, I retired to my billet at about 9:30pm, I lay awake in bed, thinking about possible answers for possible questions that I may be presented with during the preliminary interview. Finally at about 1:30am I got my mind settled and fell asleep.
6:00 am on the Monday and the Early Morning call alarms went off. It sounded like a 2nd world war siren so, it certainly woke you up good; and there was no way you were going to sleep through it.
Once I was up and dressed ready for the preliminary interview I headed off to the candidates Mess, where breakfast was served in buffet format and had myself a good old full English.
At 7:30am we had to rendezvous with our mentors in the candidate’s lounge, they were to escort us to a different part of the RAF base, where the preliminary interviews and medicals were taking place. There was a lot of waiting about, but that was fine as it gave us all good time to get to know each other and chat to the mentors about their experiences of being a scholar in previous years (all the mentors were previous scholars).
During the time waiting for the preliminary interview, I had a really good conversation with Debbie Grice , (previous scholar) about her experience. Debbie was given a scholarship to achieve an NPPL (National Private Pilots License) and told me that although she wasn’t selected to go to Port Alfred (South Africa) to learn to fly, she was awarded with a scholarship that was to take place in the UK, where she had an experience of a life-time and one that she says she will never forget.
Eventually I was called in for my preliminary interview, where I was interviewed by 3 of the FSD board members; Edwin Brenninkmeijer was one of the interviewers. The preliminary interview was very, very informal and relaxed, although at the same time extremely important to those making the decision of who were the best candidates to be given scholars.
The first thing that the interviewers picked up on was the fact that I am a flight sim addict, I was asked which was my favourite plane to fly in Flight Simulator, to which I replied the Jet Stream 4100, because there is lots to do and PMDG Simulations have modelled the systems of the aircraft to a very high standard matching the real thing as closely as possible. I joked to them that although the Jet Stream 4100 for flight simulator was highly challenging to fly, Flight Simulator X is fantastic because if you get yourself into any difficulties you can just press the "reset" button and everything is OK again - thankfully the interviewers found this amusing!
After their questions revolving around my hobbies, the board member that seemed to be conducting the interview began asking some very searching questions, The first being:-
"If we were to give you a Scholarship in South Africa, then how would you feel about leaving your family behind for 5 weeks?"
I answered - "thrilled, but only thrilled because I know that both my parents would be over the moon for me and support me whatever decisions I make".
He then went on to ask me about my family life, when I explained that I have a very good relationship with both my parents, and live with my mother who has been my rock since my parents split, and it was at this point that I felt it was appropriate to talk to them about the Kidney transplant and how this had united Dad and I into a inseparable bond that still exists today.
Who is your idol asked Edwin Brenninkmeijer ? I stumbled on my words somewhat on this question (not the best thing to do in an interview I know) but then quickly thought up an answer, which I could give that I felt was honest - "I don't have an idol", I told them "but I'm always inspired when I see other disabled people achieving great things and always have been since my school days"
"Is there anything that you feel keeps you awake at night, or anything that you worry about" Edwin Brenninkmeijer asked, this was the point in the interview where I felt that I ought to talk about my anxieties that revolve around the life of a kidney transplant. I explained to those present in the interview that a kidney transplant is not a cure to my condition, nor is a transplanted kidney expected to last a life time and, so this is something that I think about every day and is one of the things that drives my motivation and determination to push myself to my own limits, whilst I have the good health.
The interviewers also asked about social life , and whether I go out with mates to the pub at night. At first I didn't think it was going to be a good move here to be honest and tell them that I don't like socialising in Pubs, but as I wanted to paint an honest picture of myself I felt that it was in my best interest to tell them the truth. I explained that I don't like going to Pubs as I would feel under pressure to drink alcohol, and would rather not do so to try and preserve the life of the transplanted kidney. The response to my answer was rather good, and took me by surprise. and that, just about sums up the preliminary interview.
Next up was the aircraft assessment. This is where each of the shortlisted scholars were to prove that they can get into an aircraft (G- BODR), A piper warrior II alone. without help and be able to reach all the necessary knobs, buttons and instruments. We also had to prove that we could open the engine cowling, get to the fuel tank valves underneath the wings to carry out fuel purity tests, and reach the flight surfaces of the aircraft (rudder, flaps, ailerons and elevators) to check that they are free to move.
There were a few challenging moments that occurred during the aircraft assessment. The first one was trying to reach the valve underneath the wing. I found myself struggling a great deal to get to it and it took me a good while to find a way to get out the fuel. I eventually managed to reach the valve and successfully drain some fuel from the aircraft, On reflection though I think I would have been much better just to lie on the floor on my back and crawl under the wing to drain the fuel.
Then came the interior part of the aircraft assessment - I managed OK to climb onto the top of the wing, open the aircraft door and then get into the right seat and clamber over into the left seat (the captain's/student's seat). Again it took some thinking about to work out how I was going to do it, but I was surer than ever that I was not going to let it get in the way of my chances of getting a scholarship.
Once in the left seat, I confirmed my initial theory that I had a problem operating the rudder pedals with my feet, however, Peter who was assessing the candidates abilities was quick to explain that this isn't a problem and that I could make use of a Gizmo; a bar that is fitted to the rudder pedals, very similar to those fitted to cars for disabled people. The bar basically makes it so that the rudder pedals can be operated by hand. A rather simple devise that nothing short of a genius must have invented - very effective!
Getting out of the aircraft was the next challenge. The instructor told me he was going to leave the aircraft and shut me in. The idea behind this was that I had to get out without any help - very daunting thought at first, because a piper Warrior has only one door, which is on the right hand side. so I would have to get my backside over across to the right seat, open the door by releasing two catches, one at the top of the door, and one in about the same place as a car door, not an easy task when you're sat right next to it, but I managed.
Getting out of the aircraft from the position of sitting on the right seat was going to be fun! There was absolutely no way that I was going to manage to stand up to transfer myself to the top of the wing, so I decided to do the next best thing and shuffle out of the door onto the wing and then in a rather comical manner slide down the leading edge of the wing, something that girls wearing skirts should be advised not to do!
So I was out of the aircraft and passed my initial aircraft assessment test, the only thing I had to do now where the aircraft was concerned, was a radio test - I was the only one of the 28, who was required to do a radio test, this was to ensure that I could hear the intercom/radios and communicate effectively with the engine running, due to my hearing impairment, but it would need to be done on the Tuesday due to the aircraft being inside the hanger for the initial assessments.
Next up was dinner for all the FSD board members, mentors, volunteers and candidate, where I got into a very interesting and inspiring conversation with Edwin Brenninkmeijer . (One of the people who had just interviewed me)
Edwin Brenninkmeijer had his own business and aircraft, and learnt to fly when he was 16/17, then earned his PPL (Private Pilots License) when he was just 17 years old. Also during lunch my mentor brought me a Bone Dome to 'play with' My mentor also had a hearing impairment and like myself wore hearing aids. Pauline explained that the Bone Dome also acted as a noise canceller and this may help towards me being able to hear over the radios and intercom.
After lunch the Medicals began and I went for my hearing test - that was fun to say the least! I hate them at the best of times, but because my chances of being given a scholarship depended up on it, it was more nerve racking than ever!
ECG was next, and then the eye test, and if I'm honest, when the eye test came to a completion I was gutted at my inability to see the smaller letters on the Snellen chart. I honestly thought that I'd failed my medical due to the eye tests. I guess I got a bit of a sulk on, whilst I waited for the general medical with the MO.
The MO was really nice, and as he had got all the results of all the tests I had undergone during the medical, I just needed to ask how my eye examination went. Being told that I was well within the limits to get an NPPL put a smile back on my face and I was quite quickly back to chatting with folks again.
The theory exam was next, I had worked very hard during the past 4/5 weeks to make sure that I wasn't going to fail this one, and as a result most of the answers came very easily to me and the hard work studying had paid off. I got 95%.
Monday night was the time when we all let our hair down a bit and had a night in the candidates mess. I must have drunk gallons of coke that evening because it was only 20p for half a pint. What a laugh we had. There was a candidate there who was from Scotland who was an absolute comic - she couldn't help herself being funny and at times, I don't think she even realised she was being amusing either. Halfway through the evening it was announced that we didn't need to pay for our drinks from the bar because £60 was donated by some very kind board member of FSD. So that meant I could have another couple gallons of Coke LOL. (Don't tell my dentist).
Tuesday, was the day of the final interview and my radio checks, both of which were my most feared activities, the radio checks worried me immensely because I was very conscious that my hearing aids were not yet balanced correctly, and that they may fail me in this test.
The final interview was a very scary experience, I was up in front of 20 of the highest people involved in FSD and, also some of the people that provide big funds to run the charity. One of these people was Mr Vacher. Polly vacher (his wife) was the first woman to fly around the world in a single piston engine aircraft and has raised thousands for FSD.
This was definitely not an informal interview, in fact it was quite the opposite, and after the initial welcome to the interview, I was faced with rapid fire questions which lasted about 15 - 30 minutes. The questions asked were extremely searching, and extremely difficult to answer at the best of times.
A couple of times they asked me three or four questions simultaneously, so I had to remember the questions and answer them all in one go and I’d say that the final interview was one of the most challenging and mentally draining things I have had to do for a long long time.
As the interview was coming to an end, and the questions started to slow down a bit, the last few questions were a little more relaxed, and I was able to get a laugh out of Alan Smith (Chairman of FSD) when he asked which was my favourite air show. I replied Waddington Airshow, and he gestured suggesting that he had fallen out with me, probably because he was hoping I'd say RIAT - who do a lot for FSD) and I replied to him, "Oh well I've blown it now, bus fair home huh?" to which there was a subtle laugh coming from the rest of the board members
Last but not least were the radio checks. As the radio checks happened in a different part of the air base, myself and my mentor were escorted by some RAF personnel to where the aircraft was parked, I believe he was an officer of some description, and we spoke a lot about the Euro Fighter Typhoon en route to the aircraft, which had been moved to a safe location where the engines could be started.
Again I had to get into the aircraft, only this time I did it so, so, wrongly getting myself into a right pickle up on the wing; I ended up aborting my first attempt, getting off the wing and giving it a second try. The two instructors joked that they were going to tell of me, but I got it right the second time. (I think there had to be two instructors to verify I could communicate over the radios efficiently)
I was particularly nervous during the radio checks, because I was afraid that I wasn't going to be able to hear a thing, and my new hearing aids were going to let me down, but how wrong could I have been? I put on the Bone Dome (which my mentor had lent me) and when the instructor connected me to the intercom and radios, Hey Presto! Everything came to life and my biggest fear had been conquered, I could hear very, very clearly over the intercom.
The last part of radio check was to contact Cranwell Tower where the instructor asked for a runway and squawk code, to which I needed to repeat to pass the radio test. After this, I was told to my delight that I passed the radio checks with flying colours. I had now done everything in my power to ensure that I got a scholarship; the rest was up to the board members to decide whether or not they were going to award it to me.
The waiting from the Tuesday to the Thursday was a very anxious time, (I believe I lost all my fingernails during those few days of waiting), and all the time I was thinking - "it can't be me, it won't be me” but when I was contacted once again by Sue Whitby (director of FSD) to tell me that I had been awarded a 4 week flying course with 35 hours flying, I was totally lost for words! It is difficult to put how I felt, it was news that I had been wanting to hear for a long long time, and I still don't think it has sunk in properly yet.