Amputee formation aerobatic pilots Alan Robinson and Mike Wildeman want to show the world that disability is no bar to top-level display flying…

Whoa, this is close! I am expecting a professional flying standard from these guys−they are after all under the tutelage of Jez Hopkinson’s Henstridge-based Yakovlevs−but the precision with which my pilot, Alan Robinson has slotted close in alongside, and now under team leader Mike Wildeman’s Yak-52 is breathtaking. I snap a couple of shots before thumbing the intercom switch and asking Alan if he can drop down and back a bit: having our nose tacked under Mike’s tail must look great from the ground, but for a good cover image I need a shot where his wings do not appear to be sprouting from Alan’s helmet. 

After our photo session, I congratulate the duo. I have flown as passenger with top-notch formation specialists, from Brian Lecomber’s Firebird Aerobatics team to some of Cranwell’s finest, and Alan and Mike are up there with them−which is all the more remarkable, since Firebird and CFS’s pilots were all able-bodied and the Team Phoenix pair, as they cheerfully admit, only have two good legs between them. 

Clearly, the lack of lower limbs does not constitute a disability when it comes to flying close formation−Mike and Alan may hobble around on the ground, but in the air, they are dancers. Both suffered amputations after motor cycle accidents, Alan’s soon after an overtaking car coming the other way slammed into his bike and Mike’s an elective decision after twenty years of complications and pain following his own road accident.

Today, Alan sports a carbon fibre prosthetic, including an articulated knee joint, from his right thigh downward. Mike is missing the lower part of his left leg, from below the knee. Both of them make light of having artificial limbs and there’s no awkwardness in discussing the issue−they are not about to take offence and are keen to talk about the problems overcoming the handicap of only being able push with the affected leg, no sensation−feedback, if you like−from the missing foot and finding suitable aircraft. In fact, the Yak-52s they lease from Jez are absolutely standard machines, lending themselves to amputees like Alan and Mike thanks in large part to their hand-operated brakes and a piloting position that allows good leverage on the rudder pedals. 

Mike, an A340 captain who’s been with Virgin Atlantic twenty-five years and is an A320 Type Rating Examiner for Wizz Air and L3 Harris at Gatwick, was before that an RAF tactical C-130 pilot. (Topically enough in the light of recent events in Afghanistan, one of his claims to fame is that he commanded the last flight out of Kigali during the 1994 Rwanda genocide). He had accumulated 18,000-odd hours of experience in big, multi-engine stuff before finally deciding the time had come to part with his troublesome left lower leg in elective amputation in January 2017. He got back into flying with remarkable rapidity: six weeks after the operation he was fitted with his prosthetic limb and immediately after that he was piloting light aircraft. 

This might not have happened−or certainly not happened quite so quickly−without the intervention of Rolls-Royce Chief Test Pilot Phill O’Dell (‘Pod’ to his many friends in the industry). Mike was one of the co-founders of Ultimate High, along with ‘Greeners’ (Mark Greenfield) and Pod, and although he’d long since sold his share, they’ve stayed in touch. O’Dell was involved in Alan’s flight training at the Boultbee Academy−more about this later−and on hearing that Mike was contemplating the amputation suggested that as motivation to getting back into the pilot’s seat, he might set himself the goal of joining his student for a try-out with ‘Bader’s Bus Company’, the putative formation display team funded by the Bader Foundation. 

In contrast to Mike, Alan’s flight training came after he’d lost his leg. Prior to the accident “I didn’t know disabled people could fly aeroplanes,” he says. Alan’s personal adventure came through motor cycle racing and by trade he was−and still is−an RAF aircraft technician. The fateful road accident came in Apil 2011, rather poignantly just after he had returned from Cyprus to attend his grandfather’s funeral. 

Alan’s rehabilitation was at Headley Court, which then specialised in treating Service people. His life took a new direction when he became involved with the Flying for Freedom project, a project aiming to take a Balbo of flexwing microlights piloted by disabled military personnel across the Arctic. Ultimately, the goal proved to be overly ambitious and the trip never happened−but it did make Alan a microlight pilot and infect him with the flying bug. 

Alan moved on to, unusually, learn in parallel on three-axis microlights, when he qualified for a Flying for the Disabled scholarship−but things changed gear when he won what he assumed was a flight in a Spitfire with the Boultbee Academy “only it wasn’t a single trip, but a scholarship offering training to fly the Spitfire solo,” he says today, his voice still alive with the thrill−not quite believing his luck−he must have felt at the time. 

So here he was, an aircraft technician and private pilot with a couple of hundred hours on microlights, looking at taking command of an aeroplane generally reserved for RAF pilots and those with thousands of hours flying experience−and every one of those people able-bodied. It is a tribute to Alan’s innate abilities as a pilot that he did it, and did it after a surprisingly small number of hours training on Chipmunk and Harvard.

“I converted my licence to a PPL(A) on Cessna 152s at Wickenby and did thirty hours on the Chipmunk−originally as my tailwheel conversion−and twenty on the Harvard, for the ‘complex’ bit” he says. “I was supposed to have done more on the Harvard, but it was very hard work. The seat was very upright and the angle was just wrong for my prosthetic leg. I had to lower the seat right down and it really compromised my forward visibility but it gave me the leverage I needed, and I did solo it”.

Clearly, he’d impressed his Boultbee instructors, because they were happy to allow him to go back to the Chipmunk for the final element of his training before getting into the Spitfire.  After ten hours of dual on that, he was sent solo. “I suspect that I am the first amputee to solo a Spitfire since Douglas Bader. It was an amazing journey that I just didn’t want to end.” It should come as no surprise to learn that Alan’s dream is to one day display a Spitfire.  

It is hard to imagine that flying a PA-28 Warrior with Bader’s Bus Company, even in close formation, offered quite the same level of excitement, laudable though the aim was in demonstrating how able a disabled pilot can be in an aeroplane. Sadly, the agreement between the Bader Foundation, which stumped up the cash, and Aerobility, which provided the aircraft, came to an end but this was Mike and Alan’s opportunity to branch off on their own and do something more ambitious: not just a formation display, but a formation aerobatic display. 

Casting around, aircraft like Extras−with their reclined seating position−had to be ruled out but the Yak-52 proved to be the ideal mount. Not only could it accommodate Mike or Alan without modification, but its classic WWII fighter look and lovely-sounding radial engine would be appreciated by airshow spectators.  

Converting onto the Yak has not by any means been easy. Mike says no quarter has been given by Jez and admits that, having no feeling in his left foot, he found it difficult to master the rudder input required in flying aerobatics (not that it shows for a minute in his flying today). “What we are doing is a quantum leap from what we did before.”

Alan says he had a moment “when my leg fell off”. As Mike obligingly demonstrates, modern prosthetics are held in place by virtue of the cup being a close fit on the stump, which is covered by a liner (something you might politely liken to a rubber stocking). In normal circumstances, the only way the artificial limb will come loose is by opening a valve to allow air to enter the cup and release the suction. However, sweating profusely in a Yak cockpit on an especially hot day−“it was about a million degrees,” says Alan−is not normal circumstances and Alan’s leg lost its grip as he taxied in at the end of the sortie.

What would he have done had it happened in flight? “I’d have used my good leg to pull on the rudder, relying on the foot strap.” As belt and braces, taking extra care to keep the liner clean and dry before flying should preclude the problem. One further test was a recent near-miss, ironically with a PA-28, which split the formation but did prove that Alan and Mike are capable of dealing with every eventuality.  

More of a problem for Team Phoenix has been the pandemic, which has curtailed Alan and Mike’s opportunities to train together and inevitably added to the time and flying hours required to get them to the point to their planned display routine can be authorised. The Yaks, while they are ideal mounts in terms of suitability, handling and appeal, are expensive to operate and the cost of training has exhausted the funding available from the Bader Foundation−so Mike and Alan are “treading water” at the moment while they seek further sponsorship. 

“Our aim is to prove what disabled people can do,” says Mike. He and Alan want to be up there with The Blades−and, to judge by the precision and professionalism they demonstrated in flying this writer, Team Phoenix shows every sign of being capable of operating at that level. However, the duo are going to need a fair slice of funding−£20 – 30,000, they estimate−to complete their training and build-up, and secure the necessary Display Authorisation.  

Here are two fellows who have worked hard to show that disability is no bar to display flying brilliance, never mind being able to fly an aeroplane. They are promising a show that stands comparison with the best in the airshow world−and what better platform could there be for a bit of corporate exposure at what by advertising standards is a pretty small price. It would be nice to think that this ‘Profile’ might draw attention in a boardroom somewhere in this country and that in 2022 we will see Team Phoenix arise on the display scene. They are so tantalisingly close to doing it… 

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