Karl Hinett first hit the headlines when his armoured vehicle was set alight by militants in Iraq. Nine years on, thanks to personal determination and the support of Aerobility, this former infantryman is making the news with his plans and acheivements in the flying world
I knew I wasn’t going to die but at the same time I knew that these were lifelong injuries… the medics were pouring water all over my body… my arms had suffered most — where my sleeves had been rolled up. I could see my hands were in a terrible way.” Talking in a quiet voice about the awful burns he’d sustained as an eighteen-year old infantryman, Karl Hinett gives the first hint of the insight and strength of character that allowed him — an ordinary bloke, he will insist — to bounce back from a setback that could so easily have derailed his life. Today he is close to qualifying for a Private Pilot’s Licence and is contemplating a career in commercial aviation: nine years ago, he was serving as an infantryman in Iraq. “I’d left school at sixteen with no decent qualifications for a job with a firm manufacturing double-glazing units.
“I had a decent income and no great overheads, but I came to see that I could end up working there, with no great chance of any change, for my whole life. The Army offered me an opportunity to do something challenging, to see the world.”
Finding at last some real motivation to do well — he’d just not seen the point in studying at school — Karl distinguished himself as best recruit, winning the top award. At the age of eighteen, his training complete, he was sent to Iraq.
“The deployment was in Easter 2005. It was all an adventure to me. I was really enjoying it — everything was new to me, it was a different culture but our presence was welcome and a large part of the job was bonding with the locals and helping where we were needed. At that time aggressive confrontation was rare, although things were beginning to take a turn for the worse.”
Karl had just three weeks of his six-month tour of duty to run when on 19 September he joined a search team, sent to free two British soldiers held in Basra by militants. “We were in a Warrior — a 26 ton armoured personnel carrier which is practically a tank. I’d had weapons system training and was in the gunner’s seat in the turret. We were providing support to troops on the ground in riot gear.” The group of locals they faced were more vocal than physically aggressive at first, but as the hours passed the situation began to deteriorate.
“Bricks were thrown, and then there were some shots fired. We closed the hatches.” The inside of an armoured fighting vehicle might have been reckoned to be a relatively safe place to be in the circumstances, but there were individuals amid the mob who were aware of the Warrior’s vulnerability. “They attacked the periscopes pretty much rendering us blind. We needed to see — we didn’t want to risk moving and running anyone over — so we had to open the hatches, popping up our heads when we could.
“Suddenly I was doused in fluid. I realised it from the smell it was petrol and in the same instant it went up. In flames from head to foot, I was panic-stricken. Through my headphones I could hear my commander, George saying ‘Keep calm, keep calm’ as he baled out. I was trying to get a hold of myself — it seemed to take a lifetime to get out.”
Engulfed in flames, Karl finally scrambled out of the turret. Searing his bare hands terribly on the hot metal, he stumbled across the top of the vehicle and collapsed, falling to the ground. “Without realising it, I’d been holding my breath. I came to as my friends dragged me away.”
Unlike soldiers wounded in past conflicts, he received immediate medical attention and within fifteen minutes was being transferred from military ambulance to helicopter. He’d been given morphine but the pain was kicking in, now the initial shock had worn off. “All I wanted to do was go to sleep,” he recalls. Mercifully, this was not long coming as within another twenty minutes or so surgeons at a field hospital were ready to operate on him, and he was put under anaesthesia.
“I woke up two weeks later in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham. It took two days to fully come round — I was in and out of it — and there I was told I had sustained burns to 37 per cent of my body.”
A keen student of military history, if not academic subjects at school, Karl was all too aware of what burn victims could look like. He’d been wearing helmet and headset but had no covering over his face when the Warrior was set alight — and he knew full well that he had a long road ahead to recovery. “While I wasn’t ready to look in the mirror for some weeks, I had read about the mental trauma others had suffered and I was determined to set myself up mentally and not let anything build up in my head.”
Karl is the eldest of his siblings and he also wanted to keep it all together for the sake of his young brothers and sisters. Ironically, his first weekend at home with the family in Tipton coincided with Guy Fawkes Night. “I felt no fear of the actual bonfire — just a more healthy respect for it!”
Nevertheless, over the next five years he had to endure sixteen operations, amounting to 100 hours of surgery. He is unstinting in his praise of the care and support he received, and — looking across the table now at this handsome young fellow, married only a few weeks before our interview — they have done a wonderful job. Bearded, wearing his hair long and wearing casual clothes, you might today at first glance take Karl for a young backpacker. It is only close up you notice his scars and damaged hands but he’s not afraid of the attention — these marks are part of his life story and not something that he has allowed to define him. Indeed, as witness to adversity overcome, he bears them with quiet and justified pride.
Invalided out of the Army, Karl made his new career one of fundraising for charities, starting with a marathon of marathon runs — 52 in one year — in aid of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham. He has also been much in demand as a motivational speaker, an occupation he continues with today.
INTRODUCED TO AEROBILITY
Karl’s introduction to aviation came through Help for Heroes support group Band of Brothers, which has links with flying for the disabled charity Aerobility.
When he arrived at the open day at Blackbushe, driven down from the Midlands by his girlfriend, Karl really didn’t know what to expect. He’d never flown in a light aircraft and none of his family or friends had any connection with aviation. Now one of Aerobility’s instructors took him up in a Bulldog: “It was amazing — the view from the air was incredible and, when I was allowed to take the controls, I felt a fantastic sense of freedom. I wanted more of this!”
What Karl did not realise was that he was being quietly assessed during the flight as a candidate for a flying scholarship — and that his wish would be granted. In May 2013 he started on the PPL syllabus, and for all the expert tuition available from Aerobility, it proved a test of his resolve and ability. “I knew it was not going to be easy, but getting to grips with flying was the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,” he says.
Karl’s military training and that characteristic analytical approach of his were a great help. “The most important thing was not to be overwhelmed by the amount of information that I needed to take in — to break down the ground school subjects in a way that I could deal with.”
He soon found himself enjoying the flying more and more as the course progressed. This was, he quickly came to appreciate, the most incredible opportunity. “As a teenager, aviation seemed one of those things that would always be out of my reach — some kind of exclusive club. Now Aerobility had opened the doors, I found how welcoming the flying community was.”
Karl made his first solo on the eighth anniversary of that fateful day in Basra, and there was further irony in the name of the aircraft in which he did it. “My first solo was in a Piper Warrior and it was in a Warrior armoured vehicle that I was injured.” He says he never allowed the incident in Iraq to overshadow his life, but what greater contrast could there be to the terrible ordeal of being trapped in a burning tank than taking to the air alone, one’s fate entirely in one’s own hands.
Karl was Aerobility’s student of the year in 2013 — shades of his outstanding performance as an Army recruit ten years before. When he was awarded his prize at the Aviators Ball, his interest in pursuing a Commercial licence became public. A change of training base (he’s now flying from Tatenhill) and the little matter of getting married have conspired to slow his progress of late, but he has now logged forty hours and reckons he has one fifth of his PPL to complete.
“It would be a waste not to go on and do an Instrument Rating and fly twin-engined aircraft” he says with a smile. He is, however, in something of a quandary: while he’s been assured that there’s no reason he shouldn’t get a Class 1 medical, the scholarship takes him only as far as the very welcome PPL. Beyond that, he’s going to have to find funding. There’s also the issue of how hours away from home could impact on family life. “I think the next step is to sit down with some commercial pilots and discover what it’s really all about.”
Whatever the outcome of his deliberations, you feel that Karl Hinett is not going to miss the right opportunity. “During school visits I tell kids that the question to ask is ‘Why not?’ All too often people build up in their own heads a notion of what they are restricted to — they give up before they’ve even started.”
“Everyone has got that bit of positive energy in them, and you can get a long way by applying it. Look at the recent Invictus Games — those guys could have given up on themselves or retreated to a quiet life, but they kept on going.”
And you know, if one day on a commercial flight I hear over the PA “this is your captain, Karl Hinett speaking” I will not be the slightest bit surprised.
Thanks to Café Coco, Cowley Road, Oxford www.cafecoco.co.uk
Words Philip Photos Matthew Whiteman