The Worshipful Company Of Spectacle Makers

Pilot Scholarship


Cadet Flt Sgt Lewis MacDonald.


October 2011. We arrived at the Dundee train station and went straight to Tayside Aviation, Dundee Airport. Our kit, still in our suitcases was stored in one of the classrooms and we went through to meet the instructors and flying school staff. I had hoped to have the same instructor as Sarah Wilmott, who completed the SMC pilot scholarship last year, but was instead introduced to Miss Montse Mas Arcos, from Barcelona, a lover of paella and Ferreo Rocher. The chief flying instructor (CFI) Mr John Stewart, greeted us and ran through the basic house keeping rules that we all had to abide by. The usual stuff about smoking and alcohol, where the rubbish had to go and even a rota for the washing up. He explained that a huge fog bank had descended and was unlikely to lift for the next few days. Visibility was very poor, and it would be impossible to fly until the weather improved. 

However, we were not allowed to be idle. There were lessons to be learnt and an aircraft to familiarise ourselves with. We spent that first day going through a huge pile paperwork, licences, insurances, and the coursework for the flight exams that we were expected to pass. We toured the hanger to locate our aircraft and to get acquainted with its layout.

Near the end of the day we were stood down and taken back to our hotel. Sarah had stayed at a little B&B near the flying school. Now the the trainees were billeted in the local Holiday Inn – result! Myself and the other trainees spent the evening checking out the hotel facilities; swimming pool, gymnasium and Corby trouser press. 

The next day after breakfast we were picked up and taken back to Tayside Aviation by minibus. We were ferried to and from the hotel by minibus most days. The weather was still too bad to fly so that first day we had a tour of the Dundee Airport to familiarise ourselves with the layout of the airport. This would prove useful once we were flying.  

The first days were filled with aviation subjects, like theory of flight and aviation law. The instructing staff were diligent in their preparation of us. Making us go through all the drills and protocols need to fly. We would have to pass examinations in these subjects before we could go solo.  

All our meals were taken at the hotel, and after the evening meal we were free to spend the evenings as we saw fit. Sometimes we would go to the local shops or enjoy a walk around the area. Most evenings I chose to enjoy a session in the gym followed by a swim and relaxing sauna. As I was still doing my A levels I had brought my course work with me and was able to work on 'homework'. Between the work for the pilot scholarship and the A levels I was able to keep myself occupied for most of the time.

The week progressed in a similar and all too familiar manner. Each morning the instructors and trainees met for the morning brief to be greeted by the same message – too much fog to fly. However, it was forecast that by next week there would be enough visibility to fly.

Day 10, Wednesday morning and we woke to see that the airfield was not covered in fog! We were all very excited about the prospect of flying and only on the minibus was this excitement quashed. “Too windy for flying” said the driver.

However, that morning the CFI described the weather as variable. The slight break in the weather would allow us to fly, so long as the wind dropped. We were therefore told to expect to fly and make preparations. The instructors and trainees went in pairs to the hanger to thoroughly check their allocated aircraft. Montse & I went through the long list of things that need to be correct before we can fly; airframe checks, no chips, cracks or faults; properly fuelled, battery charged and radio working, tyre pressures etc.

Eventually the waiting was over, and the chief flying instructor gave the go ahead for the first flights to occur. The big doors of the hanger were opened and the aircraft towed out onto the airfield.

Finally it was time to climb in and strap up. The engine started up and we were given the all clear to move off. Away we lurched,  forming a queue of aircraft, all heading to the end of the runway. “Ok, you take it from here..” Montse called over the radio, and I tried my best to steer the aircraft on the ground. By the time we reached the holding area I was getting the hang of it. After a brief wait at the holding area it was our turn to take off. Montse took control of the aircraft, moved onto the runway and opened up the throttle and we were away.

My first flight was ninety minutes long. We went through the basic flying lessons; flying straight and level; trimming the aircraft; turns to the left and right; we also had to keep a sharp look out for the other aircraft  as we knew the whole school had gotten airborne virtually one after another. My airman-ship skills were tested to the limit. Before I knew it, we were heading back and landing. Then Montse took her other student for a similar time, doing the same sort of lessons. We all went back to the hotel feeling very pleased with ourselves that night. We were learning to fly.

Sadly this was to be the only day good enough for flying, as the weather closed in the next day. However we were able to concentrate on our flying exams and we all passed. On Friday the CFI conceded defeat and stood the school down for the weekend and sent the students home. I needed to concentrate on passing my A levels and therefore arranged to return the Tayside Aviation after I had sat my exams in March & April the next year.

April 2013.  Yet again, I arrived by train. The hotel, the flying school and the train station all seemed oddly familiar. On the train journey up from London, the weather had gradually improved and I was quietly confident that on this second trip to Dundee I was going to be lucky enough to have good flying conditions.

There were only two of us at the school for the first week as the previous students had all managed to complete their respective training courses and were allowed to go home. Only Lee, a cadet from Manchester remained. He had been there the week before and was progressing really well. So we had the school to ourselves thought we would be able to maximise the flying opportunity and complete before the week was out. Sadly, this didn’t go to plan. Not a cloud in the sky but the wind was too strong for trainees to fly and we settled back into the routine as before.

However, with so few students I had a distinct advantage. Whenever the wind died down long enough, Montse and I were able to go flying. So, slowly we were able to progress through the lessons; stalling, gliding, navigation, airman-ship, radios and the like. With each flight I was expected to take on more and more of the management of the flight under Montse's knowing gaze. Gradually, it was all fitting into place and becoming second nature. All that is except the landings. Unfortunately, landing the aircraft proved to be the most difficult aspect of learning to flying. No matter how hard I tried, I'd miss the turning points, I'd miss the the height points and make a hash of the landing itself. Montse was concerned by this and we repeatedly went through the drills. If I could not land, I could not go solo.

The second week brought better weather which was a relief. But, it also brought a new batch of trainees, who proved to very pleasant and really keen. We all connected well, and became firm friends. All the trainees needed to fly, but I'd find myself cursing my new made friends as they went flying instead of me. These rogues were taking advantage of the good weather.

On Tuesday of the second week, we were flying to the North of the aerodrome. Dark clouds were not far away and the weather was closing rapidly, when Montse made the call to head home. However, the storm clouds closed in rapidly and before we knew it felt as if we were flying right though the storm. We could see lightening as it sparked between the ground and the clouds, and the roar of thunder as it clapped and rolled. Being this close to the storm, was a little frightening as the thunder was much louder then anything I've experienced before. The air was quiet turbulent and we rocked and rolled, but for me this will be the lasting memory of the whole flying scholarship - Flying in a thunder storm. Montse quietly brought the aircraft home and as we landed it started to rain, “Good job we missed the storm” she said with her Spanish smile!

The new trainees were progressing well and there was a real buzz at the school as we shared experiences of flying. On Thursday Lee did his final check flights and was allowed to go solo. He had done really well but my landing still alluded me. I was continually having trouble landing the aircraft without Montse's help.

On Friday, we went up for my twelfth and final hour of flying. We went to nail the landing, and if I impressed Montse the she would call for the CFI to do a check flight and then I would be allowed to go solo. We practised stalls, circuits and landings but I just could not put all the parts together. My dream of going solo would not happen.

Once we landed Montse and I had a long conversation about my flying. Generally, she was impressed with the flying in the air, and she felt that the landings would come eventually given practice and time. She was keen that I should continue with the training and go solo, and she encouraged me to supplement the scholarship with some extra flying time. However, she informed me that any additional flying hours would have to be paid for by myself, and this was simply not an option given my personal circumstances.

That night was a night of celebration, Lee and I had completed our courses. In the morning we were back on the train and heading home.

It is unfortunate that I could not complete this final element of the course but I had a fantastic time and met some great people in the process. I am happy that I managed to complete the training course and I am truly grateful to the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers for their financial support that allowed me to undertake this pilot scholarship. It was something I have always wanted to do and having done it, I would like to think that someday I will manage that landing. I still want to join the Royal Air Force and I am told that the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers pilot scholarship will be a considerable and positive addition to my cadet CV.

Thank you,  Lewis MacDonald.

[edited by OC358]