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From North Sea rigs to Doncaster as helicopter firm looks to grow

He cut his teeth as a helicopter pilot flying in some of the most challenging conditions on the planet.

But today, Matthew Rake has swapped North Sea oil rigs and air ambulance duties in the Middle East for teaching in Doncaster.

Capt. Matthew M Rake, of Hummingbird Helicopters, pictured at the controls of his four seater Robinson R44. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-6

Capt. Matthew M Rake, of Hummingbird Helicopters, pictured at the controls of his four seater Robinson R44. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-6

Matthew grew up near Reading, with a love of flying. But after leaving education, he got a job in retail and become an area manager for a chain of off-licence shops.

At the age of 29, he took a taster lesson in flying helicopters. He was loved it and decided to follow his dream to become a professional pilot.

So he moved back in with his mum and dad and started doing a part time job to pay for his training. After qualifying as a pilot in the UK, he went over to America to get a qualification there too, and built up enough flying hours to be able to apply for flying jobs.

Initially, he worked as an instructor at flying schools in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and spent some time working in aerial photography in France.

Instructor Alasdair Hutt, pictured with a student in a two seater Robinson R22. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-1

Instructor Alasdair Hutt, pictured with a student in a two seater Robinson R22. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-1

Then he applied for a job in Saudi Arabia, working as air ambulance rescue service, and spent a year taking seriously injured people to hospital in the sort of Bell 412 helicopters the Americans used in Vietnam.

His next step saw him taking on some of the most difficult flying conditions experienced by pilots, taking passengers from mainland Scotland to the North Sea oil rigs in giant Sikorsky S92 helicopters.

“It was what you might call character building,” said Matthew. I did five winters on the North Sea, in what is arguably the most challenging environment in the world for pilots. It was flying in the sort of conditions people where would not usually use a helicopter. There was fog, there were high winds and there was ice, and you land on floating decks.”

“The community was good, and it was well paid, but it was really hard work.”

Capt. Matthew M Rake, of Hummingbird Helicopters, pictured by his four seater Robinson R44. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-5

Capt. Matthew M Rake, of Hummingbird Helicopters, pictured by his four seater Robinson R44. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-5

Then when oil prices fell, there were redundancies in the profession. Matthew took voluntary redundancy, and planned going back to teaching – but this time with his own flying school.

With his pay-off he bought a two-seater Robinson R22 helicopter, and set up his business – Hummingbird Helicopters.

He also heard about Doncaster Sheffield Airport through his girlfriend, Helen Spedding, who works in the film industry, and had worked with the airport in the past.

“When I wrote the business plan I wanted to be at a proper, functioning airport, not just a grass strip,” said Matthew. 

Instructor Alasdair Hutt, pictured with a student in a two seater Robinson R22. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-4

Instructor Alasdair Hutt, pictured with a student in a two seater Robinson R22. Picture: Marie Caley NDFP-04-09-18-Hummingbird-4

“Helen put me in touch with their airport, and they were keen for a helicopter school to open. I said I wanted exclusivity for two years to establish myself, and they were happy with that. 

“It was a great place to come. There are around 1.5 million people within an hour’s travel time, and it has not got the noise restrictions you find in some places. I think this area is going to be important in the future, as it’s ripe for development – it is a real asset.

“I wanted to set up a school that was customer focused and approachable, and not pompous. When I trained, the staff had gold bars on their shoulders – I didn’t want that sort of thing.”

He moved on the site in August 2016 with his helicopter and and wrote his training manuals, which were approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.

Shortly afterwards, he felt he wanted to expand the business – and moved into providing training in flying drones. He now teaches courses in Doncaster and Kent, again recognised by the CAA, which teach how to fly a drone, providing the sort of qualification that people need to fly them in building areas, or commercially. He hopes to expand that side of the business to sites in Manchester and Aberdeen.

He set up the drone business because he felt that as a helicopter pilot with 16 years experience, he was beginning to feel concerned about the unmanned craft and how they were flown by some untrained individuals.

“Helicopters take off and land anywhere,” he said. “I often pick people up from their own homes. Airports are protected from drones. Not everywhere is. I want people to understand the legal aspects of drones. It is illegal to fly drones in a built-up area without the correct licence.

“A drone pilot is sharing airspace with other users. They need to skills to fly unselfishly and safely.”

He expects the drone businesses to expand as more industries use them.

Now aged 44, he has a team of three instructors, and also has a second, larger, helicopter, a Robinson R-44, a four-seater aircraft.

In the future he hopes to further diversify the business, by applying for an air operator’s certificate.

This would open up the door to charter flying, or effectively operating an air taxi service. He believes it would allow people to make a grand entrance to venues like racecourses.

“We’ve grown really quickly, and I couldn’t have done it without Helen, who has done so much of the administration and the audit work,” he added.