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Sickbags at the ready! Belfast Telegraph spends day with pilots hoping to lure high-fliers into RAF

Top Gun in Ballymena: Our reporter takes to the skies above Northern Ireland as the Universities Air Squadron celebrates a year in the air

By Allan Preston

Published 29/07/2016

Belfast Telegraph Journalist Allan Preston took to the skies with RAF pilots
Belfast Telegraph Journalist Allan Preston took to the skies with RAF pilots
RAF pilots Andrew Dickens and Johnny Finbow
Below: last-minute checks at the RAF base in Aldergrove
Last-minute checks at the RAF base in Aldergrove
Soaring over the skies of Co Antrim

Most assignments do not begin with a guide on sickbags or how to escape a burning plane.

But this week the RAF spared no effort while giving the Belfast Telegraph the full fighter pilot experience over Ballymena.

"I'm going to put you through hell," one flight instructor promised unnervingly before casually explaining how to avoid getting shredded by the propeller when leaping from your aircraft.

The Top Gun-style experience at the RAF's Aldergrove base was launched to celebrate one year of the Northern Ireland Universities Air Squadron.

Twelve students from Queen's and Ulster University have signed up so far. Most of them have reported being so hooked by the thrill of flying that they want to spend the rest of their lives in the RAF.

While students have no obligation to sign up permanently, the air force wants to bring in around 24 hopefuls this year, with the eventual ambition of recruiting 60 from universities every year, each with the talent to become an officer.

With the flight suit on, and aviators at the ready, it was time to check the parachute. We were informed it was not a sports parachute, meaning the landing would feel like leaping from a two-storey building - so it was probably best to keep our feet together and our knees bent.

Worst-case scenarios prepared for, it was time to take to take off, with pilots Andrew Dickens and Johnny Finbow flying in formation.

Unlike commercial airliners, the light aircraft we used on the day have the luxury of being able to fly at a low altitude, giving a stunning overhead view of the Co Antrim country landscape.

Once air traffic control gave permission to soar to the skies, the planes flew towards Slemish mountain, just metres away from one another.

While circling close to the peak, Commandant Dickens said he landed his first plane at the age of 13 and never looked back.

"The pilot gave me the opportunity to land the plane in RAF Woodvale near Liverpool, and that's where I got the bug and where my imagination was caught," he explained.

"By the age of 16, the Air Cadets gave me a gliding scholarship. I was flying solo before I even had my driving licence."

Everything was going well in the skies until a nudge of the control stick sent the plane into a gut-wrenching sideways dive that saw us plummet hundreds of feet in mere seconds.

Thankfully the command to abandon the aircraft - "jump, jump, jump" - was not needed on this occasion. The plane's small size gives it an exhilarating agility, needing only the lightest tap for aerial acrobatics.

After 20 minutes in the air, Commandant Dickens decided it was time to hand over control.

One push of the throttle lever rocketed the plane forward, while pulling back slowed it down considerably. A slight push forward on the control lever and the plane's nose dived. To someone with no experience - like me - it felt like trying to control a roller coaster at full speed.

But despite the fear, after handing the controls back to a professional it was easy to see why student pilots could not get enough of flying.

"A spirit of adventure is normal," said Commandant Dickens when asked what makes an ideal RAF recruit. "We give them a flavour of what the air force does and also try and develop them as individuals, so they are potential officer candidates."

With a huge variety of roles in the RAF, three students told me why they were ready to sign up.

An aerospace engineering student at Queens who had his first flight the day before said: "I've always been interested in aviation and wanted to be a pilot from a young age so I'm just following that dream."

A biological science student added he dreamed of becoming an RAF regiment officer. "It's basically the infantry of the RAF," he explained. "It's a unique job that won't keep me in an office and (will let me) go out and about to explore the world.

"Obviously, it's fun to fly in a plane, but I've always enjoyed being on the ground in the mud."

A recent geography graduate from Queen's said she too preferred life on the ground.

"I always thought I'd join as a pilot, but when I joined the Universities Air Squadron it made me realise just how many roles were available to me," she added.

"I was actually more interested in stuff like logistics and working in the background. I'd say come to freshers fair and we can explain what we do better - don't be scared to come and put your name down."

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