Novices spread their wings

28th August 1998 at 01:00
Your correspondent is 2,000 feet in the air and climbing when it occurs to him that his life is in the hands of a callow youth of 19.

The TES is in the back of a four-seater Piper airplane, rising steadily from Cranfield airfield over the flat patchwork quilt of Bedfordshire. Milton Keynes hoves grimly into sight beyond the fields and copses as we bank viciously to the left.

At the controls is Barry Lyall, one of 20 youths at the British Aerospace aviation summer camp. Beside him is Cabair flying school instructor Russell Woakes, hands poised over dual controls - though as we dip and bump in a flurry of turbulence, it's easy to forget. His flight chart looks worringly like a road map.

They ask if I'm going to be sick. In fact, the flight is pretty smooth. It occurs to me that getting up is the easy part ... but Barry, an Edinburgh air training corps cadet, is relaxed. My ears pop.

Below, other students on the three-day course await their turn in the skies.

Almost 100 teenagers will pass through the camp over four weeks. Selected by BAe for their enthusiasm, they're paying Pounds 250 to spend mornings in the classrooms of Cranfield University before taking off after lunch - one afternoon each in a plane, a helicopter, and earthbound on a flight simulator.

Former salesman Graham Stark started the course four years ago. He says he set up his Aerospace Education Services company to give youngsters the taste of flying he would have liked as a child.

It was eagerly endorsed by BAe. It is getting increasingly involved in education due to the growing demand for engineers for the expanding aeronautics industry.

Mr Stark says: "The whole raison d'etre is to encourage young people into aerospace - principally design and engineering. We're not here to produce pilots."

Some students come from the network of state schools BAe's military division has forged; others, like Barry, are air cadets or from private schools (AES has run one-day events for the independents). A dozen students come from BAe trading partners like Chile and Poland.

Classroom insight, into everything from designing aircraft to escaping from them, comes from retired Harrier test pilot John Farley and university tutors - Cranfield, with its aerospace department, wind tunnels and airfield, was a natural venue.

Mike Hirst, manager of BAe's international education centre, is unapologetic about the fee (heavily-subsidised), though it means a high take-up from public schools and air training corps. "If it were free, we'd be inundated and it would be difficult to separate out real applicants from bogus ones," he says. "I'm interested in any kids who are interested in aviation. We're putting through six for free this year."

Barry is typical of the group - extremely focused ("I want to fly professionally with an airline like BA") which is just as well given his hand's on the joystick. This isn't just a chance to muck about in planes - it's a career move.

"I'm here to find out about the industry, the training and sponsorship, " he says. Especially sponsorship - earning a commercial licence costs about Pounds 50,000.

On the other hand, Jo Locke, 17, of Reading is now totally confused, given her slightly fanciful first choice of career ("an astronaut - ever since I was tiny"). "We've had so many ideas chucked at us," she says.

Heading back towards the runway, we know from the flight simulator earlier that the four red lights by the Tarmac mean we're descending too steeply. Russell calmly takes back control and we hardly feel the landing.

"That was great," Barry grins. An aviator in the making.

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