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Sportability flying day to be held at APT Old Sarum Airfield.
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APT & Sportability


Sean Walshe

A Pilots Dream Come True

I have dreamt of being a pilot since I was a little boy. Having spent my entire Secondary education wanting to become an airline pilot I "flunked" the tests twice and had to re-shape my career objectives.

Back in the 80's, I joined Limerick Flying Club in Ireland and flew a Rallye MS 880 as a student. In 1984 I moved to a new city and a new job and, due to pressure of work, didn't have the time to continue my flying. It was always being put off to "next year". Then, in 1990, disaster struck. While trying to prove Newton wrong by climbing an apple tree in my garden I fell and suffered spinal injury which changed my life. I could no longer walk, or work, and a whole new set of circumstances surrounded me. I thought of my flying and mourned the fact I would never realise my ambition. However, I still took the flying magazines from time to time and as part of restructuring of my lifestyle got linked to the Internet. It was there 1 found the 'International Wheelchair Aviators' site and was amazed to find a whole world of flying for disabled people which I had never known about. Two contacts were to prove pivotal in the realisation of a dream - APT at Old Sarum Airfield, Wiltshire, England and Brian Cannell, a former student at Old Sarum and also a trustee of APT.

About this time, I was also fortunate to buy a one hour flight at a charity auction. My intention was to take a pal for a "jolly"" and enjoy the countryside. However, when the pilot (a qualified instructor) heard of my previous hours he let me take the controls of the PA 28 (with him operating the rudder) and the old feeling was back. I vowed to follow up my leads immediately.

Having contacted Brian Cannell by e-mail and the Shadow Flight Centre at Old Sarum, I was put in touch with Lt. Col. Jack Simpson, the General Manager of Aviation for Paraplegics and Tetraplegics Trust, (APT). Jack was immediately supportive and soon I was booked for a week at the airfield. Living in Ireland, the logistics of travel to Wiltshire was not going to be easy - I had never left the sheltered support of my family or travelled alone since my accident. While we had holidays in France and Spain in the previous years by sea and air, it was a new departure to travel alone.

The first evening I arrived at Old Sarum I couldn't believe my eyes. So many aircraft; such variety. The Saturday evening was the end of a perfect May day and everything flyable was up there; microlights- (trikes and three axis), bi-planes, tail draggers, gyrocopters. I was in Heaven. Jack arrived and settled me into a delightful modern mobile home with all mod. cons., fully fitted out for wheelchair access and right on the edge of the field, where I could see and hear everything. Fortunately, Brian was in residence for the week-end in the other mobile home and I felt immediately at ease. We had a pizza and a pint in Salisbury and I was ready for a great week.

However, fate - or in this case Mother Nature took a hand, and it rained and blew for the week. I was holed up in my new home and not even the feathered creatures were flying. There is an old saying "It's an ill wind which brings no good". And so it was to be. I got out the books and studied like a monk. At the end of week one I only had an hour's flying logged, but three of the four exams done - and passed. This had been my bugbear in my previous flying career; I had loved the flying and just hated the study, and consequently, put it all on the long finger.

And so it was repeated through the Summer of '97. After two more week-long visits I had achieved my first solo for the second time in my flying career!!. I was almost ready for the GFT in the Shadow microlight. On my last visit in August, I wrapped up the final exam and got ready for the GFT. Again a near miss. With only two days left in my itinerary, the weather was looking positively "iffy". However, thanks to the ingenuity of Fiona, the CFI, we found a gap in the weather and took to the skies. Fortune had finally turned in my favour and, with good luck following good luck where should I be given my engine failure test? - precisely on the same spot where my Instructor, Raymond, and I had practised !!!. It was a perfect approach into the field. Of course I didn't tell Fiona; that is until I had seen the papers safely in the post to the CAA!!!. I was finally a pilot. Jack produced the champagne and we all celebrated. I was presented with my wings and it was one of the best moments of my life.

This is my story of how a boy's dream of becoming a pilot was fulfilled just before my 50th birthday despite a serious setback in life. It is also an example of how people with a disability can achieve many of their ambitions, and in so doing can give hope and encouragement to others in a similar position. None of this would be possible without the foresight and commitment of people like Jack Simpson and the benefactors of APT, together with the dedication of the instructors at the Shadow Flight Centre, Fiona, Raymond and Mike.

I have a friend who likes to have a joke at my expense by calling over my head to my wife, Ursula; "Does he take sugar". Happily she can now retort; "No - but he flies aeroplanes".

Sean C. Walshe

Also read Sean's amusing account of building his own plane.

I Wish

Often I Envy The Birds Of The Sky,
How They Swoop, And They Dive,
As They Pass 'ere and By,
Singing Songs, Always Merry,
They Soar Through The Blue,
How I Wish I Had 'Wings',
So I Could Fly Too.

S. Walshe 1961 (Age 14)

The Dream Fulfilled; at APT, Old Sarum, Sept. 2nd 1997