After a period of two years training, Sargent Alan Robinson, an aircraft engineer in the Royal Air Force has successfully soloed an original Supermarine Spitfire. He is the first amputee pilot to have flown the Spitfire since WWII aces Douglas Bader and Colin ‘Hoppy’ Hodgkinson. One of two successful candidates in The Spitfire Scholarship, a private initiative supported by Prince Harry and the Royal Foundation’s Endeavour Fund and run by the Boultbee Flight Academy, Alan is the first to complete the goal.
In 2011, Alan was involved in a motorcycle accident and as a result had his right leg amputated above the knee. A lover of all things aviation, Alan feared that this would end his long held dream of becoming a pilot.
Alan said: “A little over five years ago l woke up in a hospital bed to find my leg gone. The simple things previously taken for granted were to become the greatest challenge, such as walking. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to ride a bike again and thought that gaining a pilot’s license would be out of the question. I thought being unable to achieve my dream would probably be a regret that would haunt me for the rest of my life.”
The Spitfire Scholarship – also supported by Rolls-Royce and Scott Investment Partners – draws inspiration from Douglas Bader, who flew during the Second World War and amassed 20 individual aerial victories despite losing both his legs in a flying accident in 1931. Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader DSO DFC flew his final sortie from the airfield where the Boultbee Flight Academy now stands. The scheme is intended to motivate those who have a disability to go on to achieve great things; to prove ability rather than disprove disability – a theme that is key to the Endeavour Fund.
During the war new Spitfire pilots went into battle with as little as 150 hours total flying experience. Nowadays only the very best and most experienced pilots, those with thousands of flying hours, are allowed to pilot a Spitfire. The scholarship used wartime aircraft and techniques to train two pilots as they would have been trained 75 years ago and Alan achieved his ambition with fewer than 150 flying hours in his logbook.
Matt Jones, Managing director of Boultbee Flight Academy, the world’s only Spitfire training school, explained why the scholarship is so important to the Academy and how it felt to see Alan flying alone in one of its prized Spitfires.
“We conceived the idea of the Scholarship three years ago and had immediate support from the Endeavour Fund and particularly Prince Harry. Picking the two successful scholars from the exceptional field of candidates that applied was very difficult indeed. However Alan’s impassioned and emotional closing interview set him apart from the rest. Two years later and having been a part of his journey, to watch an initially extremely inexperienced pilot now soloing the Spitfire is one of the highlights of my own flying career – especially seeing what it meant to him.
Alan added: “In the last month of the scholarship the need to learn about the Spitfire has been utterly obsessive. If it’s not an airspeed, oil pressure or emergency procedure it’s not been welcome in my head. I have thought about nothing else. Then, when the moment came, the emotion of five years of highs, lows, frustrations, successes, doubts, fears, the desire to make my family proud and honour the memory of my father, was all compressed into ten minutes of flying. It was utterly overwhelming and once the final switch had been turned off the tears came. It’s impossible to put the experience of this achievement into words. How it feels and what it means. Put simply I have achieved a childhood dream, but as a boy I could not have known a devastating accident would be the catalyst to that dream becoming a reality.”
Phil O’Dell, Rolls-Royce, Chief Test Pilot and a fellow Spitfire pilot, said: “This is a remarkable achievement by Alan. Not only has he overcome the odds to solo the Spitfire, but he trained to do it in a way that would be familiar to the young men who took to the skies in the Second World War. For those of us who are professional pilots, with many years of experience and training, what Alan has done really brings home the incredible effort and bravery of our predecessors in the Spitfire cockpit.”
And what next for Alan? “I feel a greater than ever respect and admiration for the veterans who flew this aircraft in combat and defended our country so bravely. I feel enormously privileged to have met some of them and hope to play a part in preserving their memories and stories forever as a part of my own flying. I also plan to become an ambassador for disabled aviation, proving a focus on ability not disability and challenging the perception of disability among able and disabled people alike.”
Matt concluded: “We are all very proud to have played a part and hope Alan’s success will go on to inspire others to overcome their own challenges. It’s wonderful too that the Spitfire, an aircraft that typifies the United Kingdom in its finest hour and that already carries the nation’s pride and admiration, has found a new way to inspire us all, 80 years after its first flight.”