2012 Articles

NOV 26 2012
Aviation Events >> UK: Aerobility and the Paralympic Opening Ceremony

The story of disabled flying starts as early as 1932 when a young RAF pilot, who had lost both his legs in a flying accident, was given the opportunity to prove that he could still fly an aircraft, using his artificial legs. This was of course Douglas Bader who, having proved he could still fly, fell foul of the bureaucracy of the time as there were no rules to cover his situation and he was subsequently medically discharged. However the outbreak of war and Bader’s persistence resulted in a change of heart and he returned to flying duties in 1939 and the rest, as they say, is history. For those not familiar with his story, he was immortalised in a book and film of the same name, “Reach for the Sky”, both of which are well worth a study. He continued flying privately after his wartime service, finally hanging up his headset in 1979, at the age of 69. He also campaigned tirelessly for disabled people, being knighted in 1976 for his efforts. Following his death in 1982, the Royal International Air Tattoo, of which he had been President, set up the Flying Scholarships for the Disabled (FSD) scheme in his memory. One of the supporters of this scheme was King Hussein of Jordan.

Wind the clock forward to 1993 when a group of disabled aviators who had been awarded flying scholarships through the FSD scheme formed the Delta Foxtrot Club. This club was joined by former RAF pilot Tim Ellison who had been left paralysed from the waist down when the Harrier he was flying crashed after suffering an engine failure whilst in a high hover. He had the same problem as Douglas Bader; the rules didn’t cater for his situation. Also like Bader he was determined to carry on flying and didn’t see his disability as a block to that. However unlike Bader he wanted to fly professionally, but the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had other ideas, and were adamant that Tim’s chances of ever flying solo again were zero.

Frustrated by the lack of progress in the UK, Tim moved to the United States, where attitudes to disability were more positive, and had been for a long time. In 1972 a group of paraplegic aviators in Southern California had got together and formed the Southern California Wheelchair Aviators (SCWA). Founders of the group included Bill Blackwood, a former US Navy pilot who was injured and made paraplegic ejecting from an F-9F Cougar in 1962.

Bill had developed the first portable hand control that allowed a pilot with no leg function to operate an aircraft’s rudder pedals. This device was certified by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in July 1968. Another founder member was Dan “Rode” Rodewald, a former USAF pilot injured in a landing accident, who became the first wheelchair bound pilot to fly solo around the world, a feat he achieved in 1984 in his Piper Comanche. Whilst Rode hadn’t pursued a career in flying after his accident, he had returned to flying after retirement, when the Blackwood Hand Control became available. This group is still in existence and is now known as the International Wheelchair Aviators (IWA). As well as promoting opportunities for disabled people to experience flight it has affiliations around the world, including the UK.

There have also been a number of disabled pilots on the display circuit in the USA. Anyone who’s been to an airshow in the western part of the country may well have seen a display by Dan Buchanan in one of his hangliders (he has two, one motorised, one glider). Dan is also a paraplegic and has been displaying since 1989, and he wasn’t the first disabled display pilot in the USA. The FAA had no qualms about allowing Dan to keep his licence and to perform displays.

With this supportive attitude Tim Ellison was able to gain an American commercial pilot’s licence in 1994, and use it to earn a living. Not satisfied with this he went on to become the first paraplegic pilot to obtain an Airline Transport Pilots Licence (ATPL), which was issued to him by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) in 1997.

Tim returned to the UK and, with a number of other disabled pilots including aerobatic pilot John Askew, reformed the Delta Foxtrot Club (which had fizzled out) as the British Disabled Flying Club (BDFC). One of the main aims of the BDFC was to work with the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to get them to change their legislation, thereby allowing disabled people to fly and ultimately to enable them to earn a living from flying related jobs. Their other main aims were the development of modifications to aircraft so that disabled people could fly them and setting up suitable training facilities for disabled flyers.

Tim found that in the intervening years attitudes had changed at the CAA, and he also found their medical department to be supportive. Having been shown that being a paraplegic was no barrier to flying, in December 1998 the CAA issued Tim with a UK Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL). It took a little longer before the CAA completely changed their rules and made it possible for any disabled pilot to hold a commercial pilot’s licence, provided they could show that they were medically fit. By 2003 the UK had two paraplegic pilots with commercial pilot’s licences, one of whom held an ATPL.

Meanwhile in 2000 the BDFC had become a charity, and in 2003 it had a major boost when it was gifted four Scottish Aviation Bulldogs by the Royal Jordanian Air Force. It was at around this time that Mike Miller-Smith joined; an experienced glider pilot and newly qualified commercial pilot, he’d had his ambitions of a professional flying career thwarted by a diagnosis of muscular dystrophy. However he had gone on to have a successful career in industry, experience which was to become very useful in his roles with the BDFC. It was also at around this time that the BDFC changed its name to the British Disabled Flying Association (BDFA). The Bulldogs needed a lot of work and eventually only one, registered G-DISA, was made airworthy, the others being used for spare parts or sold. It was used to give disabled people an experience of flying, with the added bonus of aerobatics for those that wanted it.

In 2004 Mike Miller-Smith joined the BDFA’s management team, in 2006 he became Chairman and in 2008 Chief Executive. In 2007 the BDFA had acquired its first Piper Cherokee Warrior, with a second one following in 2008, which are cheaper to operate than the Bulldog. The advantage of low wing aircraft is that are easy for pilots with impaired or no leg function to operate. They can get to the aircraft, get in it, attach the rudder control, get the wheelchair in it and therefore be completely independent. Another name change occurred in 2010 with the BDFA becoming Aerobility. Having originally started at Biggin Hill and subsequently moving to Lasham, in 2011 Aerobility moved again to its current home at Blackbushe. Finally in 2012 its fleet was bolstered by the acquisition of a Cherokee Six and by its first Tecnam, donated by National Air Traffic Services (NATS) and its employees. Aerobility aims to give disabled people an opportunity to fly an aeroplane, which for some can completely change their outlook on their disability. Their catch phrase is “If I can fly a plane, what else can I do?” The opportunity also exists for people to train for a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) and even for a commercial licence. Aerobility works with all disability types, not just physical disabilities, but also supports those with learning disabilities. As the representative body for disabled aviators in the UK, Aerobility has worked alongside its European disabled aviation cousins to ensure the new EASA licensing structure and medical standards consider the needs of disabled people and permit both private and commercial licensing where possible.

The Story of the Paralympic project goes back to 2005, when it was announced that London had won the 2012 Olympic Games, Mike felt that there should be a place for disabled flyers to be represented. Fast forward to 2008 when the first of a series of chance meetings occurred, that would sow the seed for what was eventually achieved. David Morris, then a Senior Policy Officer to the Mayor of London and subsequently Olympic Diversity Coordinator, came for a trial flight with the BDFA. Whilst chatting Mike suggested that it would good for the BDFA to participate in the Paralympics in some way. This started the ball rolling, but David wasn’t able to see the result as sadly he passed away in 2010.

Another chance meeting in 2010 saw Mike meet with Danny Braverman, the partner of Jenny Sealey who was to become one of the artistic directors of the Paraylmpic Opening Ceremony (POC). Jenny was also a friend of David Morris, so had heard of the BDFA. Mike subsequently met with Jenny and Bradley Hemmings, the other artistic director, in August 2011 where they told him they were keen to involve Aerobility in the POC, and that it would be held during the evening. In October 2011 Mike was approached by Clare Amsel, the POC producer to discuss Aerobility’s involvement and this was followed in December by a meeting with the CAA and other interested parties, such as the police and security teams. At this point Mike didn’t have a definite plan but it became apparent to him that a single engine aircraft would not be appropriate.

Any form of flypast for the POC was going to have to be over the Olympic Stadium after sunset. This posed a few problems as it would see the aircraft operating over the congested area of London at night. There are restrictions on operations by aircraft operating on a Permit to Fly, and as a single engined aircraft had already been ruled out, this effectively narrowed the choice of aircraft down to a multi-engine aircraft operating on a Certificate of Airworthiness (CofA). This produced further complications as any modifications required would need to be certificated. Mike was keen that the pilot should be recruited from Aerobility, so this meant that the chosen candidate would need a licence, a Multi Engine Piston (MEP) rating and a night rating, and either a Display Authorisation or an exemption, issued by the CAA. All of this added to the complexity and the cost, and Mike still didn’t have a definite plan!

One of Mike’s friends from his gliding days was Guy Westgate, and Mike had seen Guy perform at the twilight display at the 2010 Bournemouth airshow, both in his Swift glider and with Pete Wells in their Twisters. These displays had been some of the first pyrotechnic shows in the UK, with the fireworks attached to the aircrafts’ wingtips, and Mike had been most impressed by the spectacle.

Whilst considering what type of aircraft to use, in December 2011 Mike contacted Tecnam UK run by retired Concorde pilot Tim Orchard, who was marketing the Tecnam P2006T Twin. To Mike’s surprise Tim agreed to help out, offering an hour or so’s flying time with the aircraft for the display.

In February 2012 Mike met up with another friend from his gliding days, Afandi Darlington of Optimal Aerodynamics. Afandi is an aeronautical engineer, and together they developed a design for a pair of gloves to fit over the wingtips of the Tecnam, which could be attached without having to modify the aircraft and would provide a mounting for the pyrotechnics. Meanwhile Mike had also found some strips of LED lights on a well known auction website. A plan was starting to come together!

Afandi produced some drawings of the wingtip gloves, along with some ideas for positioning the LEDs and a mounting for a battery to power them. This ensured that the aircraft systems didn’t require any alteration, thereby simplifying the design and certification process. The next problem was to find a company that could manufacture the gloves and certify them. Both Mike and Afandi felt that Tim Dews of Airborne Composites was the man to construct them, and Tecnam UKs marketing manager, Andy Patsalides, also happened to be the marketing director of the Gama Group, which includes Gama Engineering at Fairoaks. Gama are a European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Part 21 approved organisation which means they can design and certify modifications, including ones that require a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC). Following a meeting with Gama Engineering’s Managing Director, Harry Lees, it was agreed that Gama would take on the job. The CEO of Tecnam, Paolo Pascale, generously sent Tim Dews a pair of winglets to aid his fabrication of the wingtip gloves, and these gloves subsequently became known as Timlets!

Meanwhile Guy was busy sorting out the pyrotechnics. Important requirements were for a firework that didn’t produce any ash and was safe to strap to an aircraft. Guy had seen a parachute display at the 2012 Bahrain airshow that had used a theatrical stage firework strapped to the parachutist’s legs, which seemed to fit the bill. A local firework factory took on the task to develop the pyrotechnic and another local pilot, Paramotor World Champion Michel Carnet was recruited to test fly some of the pyro prototypes, whilst the optimum duration and spark intensity were calculated. The pyrotechnics were to be fitted in clusters, fitted to the prongs of a fork, which was attached to the wingtip glove. The final trials of the pyrotechnics and LEDs were performed by Guy using his GliderFX Fox glider in the spring of 2012.

All that was needed now was a means to ignite the pyrotechnics and Chris Cain of Think Tank Electronic was recruited to design a control box to fit in each wingtip to sequence the firing. The initial plan was to construct a wireless trigger system but it was felt that it might be wiser to go for a hard wired solution, to prevent any risk of accidental ignition over the Stadium.

Apart from the paperwork, the other outstanding issue was finding a pilot and devising the actual display. All the members of Aerobility were invited to apply, with the proviso that the individual chosen for the task had to have a PPL and plenty of spare time. Dave Rawlins had been injured whilst serving in Afghanistan with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and had been hooked after having a trial lesson as part of the Help for Heroes funded Battle Back campaign. He had quickly gone on to get his PPL and was keen to represent Aerobility. However he needed to get a minimum of 70 hours flying before he could embark on his multi engine training, and also complete a night rating.

Probably the biggest hurdle was the paperwork. The advice from the CAA was to obtain a “permit to fly” from EASA for the modifications to the aircraft, and Gama were tasked to start the certification process. However, just as this was coming together the EASA office in Brussels announced that they didn’t have the resources to deal with the application and handed it over to the CAA to process, with only two weeks to go! To complicate matters even further the CAA insisted on a full Supplemental Type Certificate (STC). However everyone rose to the challenge and after a frantic week the aircraft was ready to be test flown. Test pilots Dan Griffith and Paul Mulcahy, CAA Chief Test Pilot, both flew it and after three flights they were satisfied, with the only restriction being a reduced maximum speed (Vne) and a recommended speed for deploying the pyrotechnics. The completed STC arrived two hours before the first practice flight was due to take off!

With Dave ticking all the boxes to be ready to do the display flight, his and Tim Orchard’s attention turned to planning the actual display profile, and also their route to and from the Stadium. Rehearsals were held on the 25th and 27th August and as a result of the lessons learnt, it was decided to hold the Tecnam south of the Thames and run in from the east. This was designed to give the VIP seats in the western side of the stadium the best view, but required some last-minute planning and there wasn’t an opportunity to have a third practice before the Opening Ceremony! The plan was to orbit the stadium for the allotted time, firing the pyros just as they came into view of the spectators. They were to be shadowed by a helicopter, broadcasting live video to the screens inside the stadium.

To start the ceremony, the creative team had secretly produced an introductory video, which introduced four people and gradually unveiled their stories. All of them were involved with the Opening Ceremony in some way and one of these four was Dave Rawlins. At eight and a half minutes into the video, Dave says “if you want to know what I’ll be doing tonight, I think you should all look up”, at which point he appears overhead flying the Tecnam (or Blue Whale, as Mike had christened it!) It can just be seen on the screens above the stadium in this video.

Whilst domestic television in the UK covered the POC, unfortunately the commentators missed the significance of the Tecnam’s flight, even though it had just been explained on the video, and the magic was lost on television. However the 80,000 strong crowd in the stadium “got it”, just listen to the roar at five minutes in! However this video captures the spirit in the stadium.

Aerobility had done it; despite all the barriers thrown up they had achieved what had seemed impossible. The Paralympic axiom is to triumph over adversity and to excel in everything that is possible, to concentrate on what you can do and not what you can’t. Mike’s vision, leadership and determination had won through and resulted in the first pyrotechnic display by an EASA certified aircraft, the first night pyro display in the UK, the first civilian flying display over central London and the first display by a British disabled pilot for many years. More details about Aerobility can be found on their website http://www.aerobility.com .

To thank all the people who had made the POC flight happen, Aerobility invited them all to their headquarters at Blackbushe on the evening of September 6th and recreated the spectacle, with Tim and Dave flying the “Blue Whale” over the airfield, lighting up what was already a beautiful sunset. They carried out several orbits overhead Aerobility’s building before a pass along the runway from west to east to finish off the last of the pyros. Whilst it didn’t have quite the same atmosphere without 80,000 people cheering them on, it was still a spectacular sight, and the small audience were all grinning like Cheshire cats, as were Dave and Tim when they landed! GAR was privileged to be invited to witness it and congratulates Aerobility on their achievements.

Global Aviation Resource's photographic and written work is subject to copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed in any form without express written permission.

If you would like to discuss using any of our imagery or feature content please contact us.