‘Nearly dying in a car crash ended my dream job as a pilot, but now I’ve found another career I love as a radio presenter’
Bangor man and ex-pilot Mike Allen is back on air as a DJ, but it's been a long way back after a near fatal crash, says Stephanie Bell
Most of us count ourselves lucky to fulfil one passion in life, but Bangor man Mike Allen has managed to successfully pursue his two great loves to enjoy both a successful career in the air as a pilot and now on the air as a radio presenter.
In a tragic turn of events, however, both were nearly taken away from him and he was left to rebuild his shattered body and his life after being horrifically injured in an almost fatal road smash.
Seven years and 18 operations later and although still recovering physically from his injuries, against the odds Mike is back on the radio with his own show on Belfast 89FM and well on his way back to getting medical clearance to fly again.
The 63-year-old was born in England but moved to Northern Ireland when he was 12. He still speaks with an English accent, but has always regarded Northern Ireland as home.
He lives in Bangor with his partner, Alison, and has two daughters by his first marriage who live in England.
He spent a good part of his career working as a commercial airline pilot and then enjoyed a spell flying private jets taking A-listers to exotic locations all over the world.
His foray into radio presenting included a stint on the BBC's Nolan Show, both on radio and the television, and he is now gaining a loyal following of his own as a presenter on Belfast's newest radio station.
His experience as a pilot and natural ability as a broadcaster has also made him a popular commentator for air-related news stories in the local media, particularly in the wake of 9/11 - a day that like the rest of the world he will never forget as he found himself flying an aircraft of nervous passengers.
"I've been lucky in that I have been able to do both of the things I love although flying was my main passion," the broadcaster tells me.
"I was only eight the first time I went up in a small airplane, and after that it was all I wanted to do. At 16 I was flying gliders solo, and at 17 I was flying powered aircraft.
"I also was always interested in music, and so I listened to a lot of radio, although I didn't get the opportunity to do radio work until 1998 when a journalist friend got me on to Radio Foyle talking about what it was like to be a pilot.
"After that they got me back to review newspapers and for different things, and it started from there.
"At the time, I was flying out of Belfast City Airport and would get the occasional call to come to the studio to talk about some issue of the day.
"I had just started my dream job, though, working for executive jets when the accident happened.
"I flew a private jet owned by a well-known businessman who is also on TV and when he wasn't using it, it was chartered out. I flew footballers, pop stars and dignitaries all over the world.
"I had people like David Beckham and Hugh Grant and Wesley Snipes, who I remember was an absolute gentleman.
"He remembered all of our names and would ask if we got enough sleep and had enough to eat, and he was just really friendly. David Beckham was a gentleman as well, and it was surprising how many of them were like wee kids excited about coming up to the cockpit to see how things worked.
"It was an absolutely brilliant life. I would find myself lying by a pool in some exotic location waiting until whichever celebrity I was flying wanted to go home.
"Sadly, this dream job ended in 2007, when I had to retire after a near fatal car crash which left me with disabilities that necessitated me to stop flying."
Mike had been on his way home from visiting his terminally ill father in hospital and was driving through the Craigantlet Hills when he was hit head-on at speed.
His injuries were so extensive that he spent the next three-and-a-half weeks in a medically induced coma, missing his father's passing and funeral.
Eight years on, and after 18 operations to rebuild his badly broken body - with more to come - he is still on the road to recovery, but is as eager as ever to continue to pursue his love of radio and flying.
"The closing speed of both cars combined was between 120 and 150mph," Mike explains of the crash. "I was hit head-on by a car on the wrong side of the road. I had both feet crushed, my knees were damaged, my right femur was broken, my ribs came away, I had a fractured pelvis and my face was smashed up and my jaw was broken in six places. I had to get titanium eye sockets.
"I wasn't allowed to walk when I came out of hospital and I am still recovering now. I had a great physiotherapist and I remember telling her I wanted to go back to flying. She said she couldn't guarantee that she could get me walking again, never mind flying.
"I've had 18 operations with more to come and I am in pain and discomfort 24 hours a day, but I decided early on I was going to get on with my life as I couldn't sit about doing nothing."
It was while flying with a British Airways franchise company out of Belfast that Mike got involved with fairly regular live broadcasting at BBC Radio Foyle, reviewing newspapers and talking about topics of interest. He often appeared as their aviation expert, especially at the time of 9/11.
Like everyone, it is an event that is indelibly engraved on his mind. "I was flying that day from Southampton to Frankfurt," he explains. "A pilot mentioned to us that a plane had flown into the Twin Towers and we just thought it must have been a small aircraft if such a thing had happened.
"We had no idea our passengers had been watching it live on TV before they boarded, and we had some Americans on board and a lot of very upset people. That is the day aviation changed.
"Before that, flying was like giving people a treat and letting children into the cockpit, but after 9/11 we were barricaded into the cockpit. From a pilot's point of view, all the training in the world couldn't prepare you for something like that."
The tragedy also marked Mike's departure from commercial airline flying and full-time entry into the world of radio broadcasting.
He successfully applied for a place on a training course in BBC Radio Ulster and was given a placement as a researcher on the Nolan Show.
"One of my lecturers on the course was Anita Cochrane, who I now present a radio show with," he says.
"I got on very well with Stephen. He took me into the office and asked me what my ambitions were as a broadcaster, and I said to sit in his seat.
"After that, he brought me on air to discuss an aviation-related story. I have to say that he put me through my paces, as he does with any guest on his show, but he was happy enough with how I performed and that was the first of many on-air appearances.
"I not only worked on the locally based stories, but also looked worldwide for stories of interest that would previously have been outside the focus.
"My time with the Nolan Show lasted for about 18 months, until the BBC no longer renewed my contract.
"A week or so after leaving the radio show, Stephen contacted me and asked me to join him for a series of Nolan Live on BBC1, for which I researched topics behind the scenes and appeared live reading out viewer's texts and e-mails and commenting, unrehearsed, on subjects as and when Stephen requested. It was a great experience."
He also made a pilot programme for BBC Radio Foyle, with Hugo Duncan acting as his engineer and teaching him how to use the desk. He also did another for BBC Radio Ulster.
While recovering from multiple injuries, Mike was determined to get back to both radio and flying.
His dream of presenting his own radio show was finally realised last year when a friend told him about plans for a new station in Belfast and suggested he contact managing director John Rosborough.
Since the station launched in June last year, Mike has been in the hot seat presenting two shows a week - The Lazy Sunday Show, from 10-1pm, and a Monday afternoon show, from 1-4pm.
"There is a lot of chat and banter and I really love doing the shows," he says. "It has been a bit of a lifeline for me because I couldn't sit about with nothing to do. I feel so lucky that I am able to be on the radio.
"I would also love to go back to being a flying instructor and I am currently involved in a medical examination process and correspondence with the Civil Aviation Authority which I hope will pave the way to me regaining my pilot's licence. My hope is to be both on the air and in the air, but the jury is still out on that one."