Doncaster boy heading for pilots licence before he can take a car on the road
Alex Rollin is only 16. He cannot take a car on the road.
Yet the Doncaster youngster can already fly an aeroplane and could have his wings before he’s even eligible for a driving licence.
If he does get his pilot’s qualification before his 17th birthday he will be one of a pretty select number of young pilots. But he is far from the only boy of his age to have taken the controls of an aircraft at such a tender age.
Alex is a member of the Armthorpe branch of the RAF’s cadets the Air Training Corps.
Every week, he is one of dozens of youngsters who meet up in the corps’ hut, just around the corner from Armthorpe Library on Church Street. While they are there they take part in activities ranging from marching and drill, to sports and learning about flight. They event have a selection of flight simulators to learn their basic flying skills.
On arrival at the gates, they march into the hut together. A gathering of teenagers, they are polite and respectful when I ask them for directions to their hut.
Alex has been in 1053 (Armthorpe) Squadron for four years. He has always had an interest in aircraft, and his uncle Dave Jones, was a winchman on RAF Sea King helicopters, used in air-sea rescue.
In the summer of 2017, Alex was asked if he would like to go in an aeroplane. His hand shot up.
And on July 1 that year, he went up in a Grob Tutor aircraft, used by the RAF, for the first time. He feels like his friends at the ATC are like extended family.
He said: “They asked who wanted to go flying, and I said, ‘yes, why not’. That really kicked everything off for me.
“I have the first two sets of wings I need, and I could eventually get my private pilot’s licence through this. I’m not there yet, but when I get it, I can fly solo. I’ve got one more set of wings to go, and I would hope to be there by the end of next year.
“I could get my flying licence before I can get a driving licence. I used to be quiet and shy when I first came here. I don’t think that’s the case now.
“For me, flying is the best thing by a mile. There is such a sense of freedom in the are. You forget everything except your focus on flying.”
He is not the only one who has taken to flying.
Matthew Dowland, 17, from Cantley, has been a cadet for four years and has also been up in the aeroplanes, taking a turn to control the dual control aircraft under the supervision of the trainer.
He said: “It’s mad! I can’t drive a car, but I can be trusted to to take the controls of an aircraft and try some aerobatics.
“It felt a real privilege to be doing that, because I realise that there are so many kids who don’t get the chance.”
Yet his proudest moment with the ATC was taking part in a 100 mile march in the Netherlands to mark the 75th anniversary of Operation Market Garden – the World War Two battle that saw airborne troops land to try to take bridges on the River Rhine, including the famous on at Arnhem.
“The public lined the streets and the rooftops,” he said. “The reception was amazing. It was like a party all the way round.”
It is not an all-male group. Ella May Watson, from Wheatley, part of a sizeable female contingent, came too see what the group was like after her school, Outwood Academy Danum, received a visit from the squadron.
She plays hockey and netball for the squadron and is trying to set up a football team. But her real passion is shooting.
And she’s good at it. She was part of a team of three which finished in the top 10 of a competition run across the country, and she travels to various bases to practice and compete.
Instructor Paul Brackpool, 53, is proud of what the group does. He got involved as an instructor after giving a talk about his work as a police dog handler, before he retired from South Yorkshire Police.
He was already familiar with the group though – he was a member himself as a youngster before he left to join the RAF when he left Hungerhill School aged 18.
Paul loved his time in the ATC and went on to spend seven years in the RAF. His duties included evacuating people from war zones, while based at RAF Brize Norton, missions which he describes as ‘quite frightening’.
His time in the services resulted in himeing bnamed in the New Years Honours list, receiving the Air Officer Commanding in Chief’s Commendation – one level below the MBE. Now he’s running adventure training and camping, and running Duke of Edinburgh Awards.
Paul said: “I feel like I’m giving something back to the kids, the opportunities which we had, but hopefully making it better because I’ve got the insight from my time as a cadet. I think we give them a fantastic start in life.”
Paul is not the only instructor with RAF experience. Neil Goodson was an engineer on supersonic jets from 1971 until 1983, later working on aircraft as a contractor for airlines around the world.
He mended and serviced some of the air force’s most famous Cold War fighters, including the Lightning, Phantom and Jaguar jets.
The former Campsmount School pupil, now 65, returned home to Doncaster in 2013 and was asked to come and help at the cadets while he was working at Doncaster Sheffield Airport.
Now he teaches youngsters about flight and engines, as well as taking charge of uniforms.
Neil said: “We had one last year who tried stripping down a lawnmower engine. I was there to help him put it back together. They’re a receptive bunch, although I think they like things to have screens on them rather than oil and muck!”