Mark Radcliffe’s already living his boyhood dream. Now he’s got his heart set on helping others do the same.
When the 27-year-old realised the potential of teaching injured servicemen how to fly helicopters, he saw it as a chance to give something back.
But what started out as a kind gesture has snowballed, and Mark’s now on course to help more men take to the skies.
Based at Goodwood Aerodrome, Wings 4 Warriors aims to train the war wounded to become commercial helicopter pilots.
With the picturesque South Downs in the background and the domes of Goodwood racecourse just visible on the horizon, it’s certainly a beautiful place to learn how to fly.
Yet the lads being taught by Mark aren’t here for a jolly.
When they’re not in the air they’re in the classroom – sometimes for up to six hours a day – learning about aviation law, weather patterns and the nitty-gritty of flying helicopters.
For many soldiers, life outside of the forces can be daunting, especially when they have a life-changing injury to deal with.
But by giving them an exciting challenge to work towards, Wings aims to give them hope for a future outside the military.
‘It’s like a boyhood dream,’ explains Mark, who left his own career as a policeman to retrain as a pilot.
‘They might have moved backwards in their lives but it’s still a dream and we’re helping them move forward.
‘When they’re 50 they can look back on this year and know where it started.
‘But without public support it won’t be possible. We’re talking about making a difference to people’s lives.’
It was a chance meeting with a Royal Marine called Billy Sewell that triggered the inspiration for Wings.
Billy had been shot in Afghanistan in 2007 and his injuries made it impossible for him to keep going with the career he loved. Starting again was his only hope of moving forward.
Billy had always wanted to fly helicopters and Mark volunteered to help him see if it would be possible. With a prosthetic leg, Billy would have to adapt to the challenges.
‘Initially I thought it would be a good way to support the guys coming home in whatever small way we could,’ explains Mark, from Southsea.
‘I thought he could have a trial flight, it would put a smile on his face and give him a little slice of that dream.
‘But it was pretty obvious that he had a clear capability. He’s now qualified as a commercial pilot and is going to become a flight instructor.
‘If you can take anything from Wings 4 Warriors it’s that if you want to make it, once you believe you can do it, you can.’
Mark adds: ‘There was an obvious gap there that I could see but to be honest it was just as much inspiration from Billy’s family. I got a lovely letter from his wife, Emma, saying “Thank you for giving my kids their dad back”.
‘Now we just want to do that for as many people as we can.
‘If we can change the way they think about themselves, it will be very special.’
Once the idea had been sparked, Mark got in touch with Hasler Company, the marine’s own rehabilitation unit, to see if Billy’s success could be replicated.
The Poppy Factory – responsible for making and selling the poppies we wear with pride to remember the fallen – came in with an initial donation. And Mark’s now waiting to see if Wings has been granted charity status.
He aims to train up to five guys a year and it could cost as much as £65,000 to put each one through their training and exams.
At the moment, Alec Robotham and Matt Bryant are both coming to the end of the first module of three. In a few weeks they’ll have a private helicopter licence, but there’s still more work to be done before they’ll be trained to take passengers.
Ultimately, Wings will give injured marines like Alec and Matt a shot at a second career.
And that’s something Mark believes in with a passion.
‘We believe that exceptional people deserve exceptional opportunities.
‘These guys came to us to do a trial flight and they both showed the same promise that Billy had shown.
‘Not everybody can do it but if you’re taught in the right way you can get the most from individuals.
‘Now we’ve got to try and find the funding.’
‘I’m developing myself a new life’
Matt Bryant had dreamed about being a Royal Marine since he was a lad and worked hard to earn the green beret he was so proud to wear.
But when he was shot during a fire fight in Afghanistan, Matt’s injuries were so bad he had to accept that he could no longer rejoin his mates on the front line.
Frustrated at first, he moved to Portsmouth to take up a training place to fly helicopters.
And the 22-year-old – standing on the left in this picture – began to have something he’d not felt in a while – hope.
‘There’s so many good things that can come out of this,’ he explains. ‘I’m developing a new life for myself.’
Matt was sent to Helmand Province in 2010 and was involved in an assault on an enclave of insurgents when he was injured. When his section commander got shot, he was one of a small group tasked with going to his aid. But the lads were ambushed and caught up in an exchange of fire.
Matt was shot in the hand and shoulder and as he passed in and out of consciousness, his saviour came in the form of a brave helicopter pilot who landed despite heavy rocket fire.
‘The aircrewman dragged me into the helicopter and the pilot sat there while they got us,’ says Matt.
‘It must have taken a crazy amount of courage. It saved my life.
‘That’s the last thing I remember. I woke up back in this country. I was quite frustrated. I knew that all the guys were still out there, three men down. I don’t think I had realised everything had changed. I thought I was going back in a few weeks. That was three years ago.’
Matt joined Hasler Company and it was while he was there that he heard about Wings 4 Warriors.
Since January he’s been learning to fly helicopters under Mark Radcliffe’s tuition.
‘I thought “This is something special, maybe there’s something in this”,’ says Matt.
‘It’s one of those things that you don’t think you’ll be able to do. I guess I had to come here first to be inspired. I was quite down at the time because I knew that I wanted to stay in the marines. But I knew I couldn’t do the reality of what I’d joined up to do.’
Lance Corporal Alec Robotham is so grateful to Wings 4 Warriors that he’s organised a fundraising night to show his support.
The Bat and Ball pub in Hambledon will host the event on May 4 and tickets cost £20 a head for a burger and a pint.
A barbecue, band and raffle will help raise money for Wings so that more people can get off the ground.
Live music and an auction will also raise funds. Email email@example.com for tickets.
For more information, or to donate, go to wings4warriors.org.uk.