On cloud nine as airborne dream takes wing

30th May 2003 at 01:00
Shaun Eason likes to get high at the weekend - as a licensed pilot. He tells Gary Hayden why flying gives him such a buzz

As a boy, Shaun Eason went to an air show. Seeing the aeroplanes swooping and tumbling across the sky set off a fascination with flying. Back home, he would play with a model glider, and dream of making one large enough to carry him through the air.

Two years ago, Mr Eason got the chance to indulge his dreams when colleagues at Elemore Hall school in County Durham gave him cash as a leaving present. "It was a generous gift, and I wanted to use it for something worthwhile," he explains. "So I rang a flying school and asked if they could fix me up with a lesson. They said, 'No problem - how soon can you get here?'. Within an hour I found myself 3,000 feet up, taking the controls of a Piper Tomahawk. I was hooked."

He booked another lesson, but this one didn't quite go according to plan.

"Flying over Whitby, the engine started to pack in, and we had to limp back to Teesside. My instructor remained calm, and we landed without a problem."

Despite stuttering engines, emergency landings and a fear of heights ("Take me to the top of Canary Wharf and I'll start to feel dizzy"), Mr Eason's enthusiasm for flying remained undimmed. From Monday to Friday he was teaching ICT at Ferryhill comprehensive school in County Durham, but come the weekend he could be found hurtling through the skies in a single-engine aircraft.

With the aid of a pound;5,000 loan, he spent the next six months learning to fly, finally receiving his private pilot's licence in February 2002.

This allows him to pilot a plane and carry passengers almost anywhere in the world, and he has since gained an IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) rating, which allows him to fly in poor weather using the aircraft's instruments, and a night rating, which allows him to fly in the dark.

"A lot of people get their licence, fly around a bit, and then get bored," he says. "I didn't want that to happen to me, so I set myself some new challenges. The commercial licence was a huge undertaking, but I decided to go for it."

The ATPL (airline transport pilot's licence) involves a gruelling course of study, culminating in 14 exams on subjects such as aviation law, principles of flight, and general navigation. It also involves a lot of flying. Most flight schools recommend you notch up 150 hours of flight-time before you even begin the practical sessions.

Training for an ATPL is hugely expensive. Mr Eason estimates that by the time he completes his training he will have spent pound;40,000. "A commercial licence allows you to fly for money, but this isn't my main motivation. I'm doing it because it's a challenge. I want to prove to myself that I can acquire the knowledge and skills needed to pass the exams and practical tests. It's all about achieving a goal that I've set for myself."

He's quite open about his high-flying hobby, believing it could help to fuel his pupils' aspirations. "It's good for pupils to realise that teachers have lives outside the classroom. Some of them seem to think we're put into a cupboard on Friday afternoon, and dusted off again on Monday morning."

Of course some children want to come along for the ride. "Maybe I will let them when they've left school. Some of the staff have already been up with me."

Mr Eason sits exams in August, and is having to cram in revision alongside his school work. He studies for two hours a night on weekdays, and more at the weekend. It's only possible, he admits, "by burning a lot of midnight oil". He hopes to get his commercial licence by Christmas 2004. After that, he plans to combine aviation with teaching.

"There are several ways to earn money as a pilot. You can tow banners, operate an air taxi, become an instructor, or perform aerobatics for cash.

In the short term, I see myself continuing to teach on weekdays and working as a flying instructor at weekends. That would be a great way to fund my hobby.

"Who knows, perhaps one day I could fly for an airline during my summer holidays. I believe the aviation industry in the UK will expand massively during the coming years. But becoming a professional pilot often appears beyond the reach of ordinary people. It doesn't have to be that way. And I want to teach my students just that."

Details of your nearest flying school can be found at www.flyingzone.co.uk.

A trial lesson can cost as little as pound;60

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