When were you first inspired to be a pilot?
Like many people in the Air Force I've been fascinated by aircraft and engineering for as long as I can recall.
I grew up in Northern Ireland which meant I was mainly exposed to helicopters from RAF Aldergrove. I used to see the helicopters flying low level past my house on a regular basis. That was what sparked my interest.
I joined the Air Cadets as a 13-year-old and went with them to my first ever air show at RIAT. It was like nothing I had ever seen before. There were all sorts of jets that until then I’d only ever seen in magazines or on TV. The chance to get up close to those fighter jets and see them display had me absolutely mesmerised. It was a kid in a candy store moment. That's when it clicked that this is the job for me and something I wanted to do.
Thankfully, through the Air Cadets, I started to do a lot of flying and became a gliding instructor. I spent all my free weekends as a volunteer gliding instructor, which cemented the idea that I wanted to make this my career. It was in this period I first became aware of Typhoon through talks and visits from Typhoon pilots.
How did your early career develop?
I went to university for a year to study Mechanical Engineering, but I had also applied to the Air Force, and thankfully they made me an offer. I then had to have an awkward conversation with my mother, to tell her that I was no longer going to university but instead was heading to England to join the RAF.
In my early years I went through a significant number of highs and lows. In the first couple of months of officer training, I managed to break my wrist mountain biking during adventure training. That resulted in me being held back waiting for my wrist to heal. Having just started my dream job, the delay was hard to take.
Then there was a long hold in flying training. Thankfully I was able to use my qualifications as a gliding instructor at the Central Gliding School. That gave me a real sense of achievement. I get a lot of pride from bringing students on, which is why I got a lot of fulfilment from my primary role on 29 Squadron as a Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI).
What are the key attributes you need to get to the elite level?
For me, you need a couple of things — persistence and determination. Becoming a Typhoon pilot takes years and a lot of very difficult training. You experience lots of highs and lows along the way. You definitely need the motivation to work hard and keep your head high — even after a hard day.
In addition, Typhoon can move at incredible speeds and has great manoeuvrability which means you also need good thinking and reasoning skills to be able to make quick decisions.
And finally, there are the missions that Typhoon flies. These can be long and arduous, demanding high levels of concentration and the ability to remain patient and calm in stressful situations. Missions can be ever evolving, and you need to be able to adapt within a split second.
What are your memories of your first Typhoon flight?
I was in the back seat, and at the end of the runway the instructor asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I just sort of laughed in reply saying, ‘Sure. Let's give it a go.’
And then the sensation… Well, it was just a total sensory overload. As he opened the throttles I was rammed into the back of my seat. I thought there was something wrong with my kit because it was a feeling I'd never had before. The sheer acceleration of Typhoon. That was a real smile on my face moment.
My first solo flight was on another level. I recall looking around a single seat cockpit, realising that it was just me strapped to a Typhoon. It's a memory I'll never forget.
From a pilot's perspective, what's the aircraft like?
The Typhoon is a sensational aircraft. It's performance, manoeuvrability and thrust is at eye watering levels.
Typhoon has developed into a world leading combat platform. It performs admirably in all domains. You can take the fight directly to the enemy, wherever that is, and whatever the mission or role. Its swing role capability means we have a tool for every job.
Having used the Typhoon both on operations abroad and on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) launches in the UK I have total confidence about the reliability that the Typhoon gives me every time I ask it. I’d say it’s a great aircraft.
Why do you think it impresses so much at an air show?
Its level of performance is almost unrivalled. There are very few jets at air shows that can take off, go straight into a vertical climb, and then continue to accelerate. It’s truly unmatched. And that's what makes it so popular with the fans and other pilots.
If you couple that with its agility and its ability to sustain 9G and continue to accelerate in turns — as painful as that is for the pilot — it puts a smile on everyone's face on the ground.
And then there are those Rolls-Royce engines and the rumble that people feel in their chest standing in the crowd line. The aircraft leaves people wanting more and more from every show.
What are you looking forward to most in the display season?
From a flying perspective, I'm looking forward to the challenge. It’s something that I've never done before. I’m looking forward to challenging myself to reach the level of flying excellence and professionalism required to be able to perform a safe and spectacular display time and time again — wherever the venue, whatever the weather challenge.
Out of the cockpit I am absolutely buzzing at the thought of getting to meet everyone — the sponsors, industry partners and all the fans.
I’m looking forward to being able to meet young enthusiasts — the equivalent of the 14-year-old me at RIAT — and hopefully encouraging them in the same way I was to follow their dreams. I want to be able to inspire people in whatever way that is. Whether it's to join the military, go into industry or to study science, engineering, maths or technology. That’s what I'm looking forward to.
Have you started working on the display?
Yes, the hard work of getting me from a novice to a highly trained display pilot started in the winter. It began with me pulling together some very basic drawings and then jumping in the simulator to see if they work. Once we get a basic display that I’m happy with, I sit with my supervisors and last year’s display pilot to really scrutinise it in the simulator before taking it airborne.
What are you going to try to bring to it?
Everyone loves to see fast jets going fast. I want to design a sequence that will show off the incredible speed of Typhoon and also its ability to regain that speed quickly from a slower approach.
I want to take it to the maximum possible limit — obviously we’re governed by display rules — and I want to make sure I put smiles on everyone’s faces. I know that everyone likes to have that rumble in their chest when they feel the reheat kick in and, at those high-performance moments, I’ll be doing my best to keep the back end of the jet pointed towards the crowd. That way they will get a real sense of the raw acceleration and power from the two big engines.
Are there any past displays that you will be drawing inspiration from?
The short answer is: all of them. Most people would agree that all the previous Typhoon displays have been incredible. Each display pilot puts their own unique touch on it, and that's what I'll try and do.
Unfortunately for me the past display pilots have set the bar incredibly high. It definitely feels like some tough acts to follow. But that's the challenge.
Of course, there are only so many manoeuvres the Typhoon is allowed to display but it's my job to come up with something different.
I want to do something that the crowds haven't seen before. I hope that when people see the display, it leaves them wanting more. I want it to be the talk of the car on the way home from the show. That's the aspiration.
Given your experience, what attracted you to the display pilot role?
It's the box that I haven't checked yet and it’s the culmination of my childhood dream.
First, I wanted to become a fighter pilot. Then when I achieved that, I wanted to put all my training to effective use. I have since done numerous missions in Syria and Iraq, carried out Baltic Air Policing, and been on middle of the night, no-notice scrambles defending UK airspace on QRA. I have ticked all those boxes and have a real sense of achievement.
Now in my role as a QFI on 29 Squadron I instil all that knowledge, experience and training into our new undergraduates. I've been doing that for two years and have reached my A2 instructor category, which is generally the highest we go to.
My next challenge is display flying. It's going into the unknown. I’m looking forward to a sense of achievement at the end of next year when we've had a successful season.
Do you see display flying as more of a mental challenge or a physical one?
I have sat in the back seat during a display from last year’s pilot, Sainty, so I have a little bit of an insight and I have already done a lot of work in the simulator.
For me, I think it's clearly going to be demanding both mentally and physically. The body is going to be put under some immense pressure during the display. That one trip with Sainty was probably the equivalent of the most intense workout I've done in a gym. Ever.
Take that forward into the season and you're going to do that intense workout up to three times a day at three different locations. You need to be in great shape.
That leads into the mental side of it. You must maintain the highest levels of concentration throughout the display. You can't relax at any stage. Safety is absolutely critical throughout the entire display, so you must remain focussed.
That's why we do so much training in the simulator and it’s also why we start so high when we first train for the display. We start at 5,000ft, then drop down to 1,500ft, then to 1,000ft and then finally down to the minimum. It’s a step by step approach to build me up — both body and mind.
Is there one display that you're really looking forward to?
Thankfully there are one or two displays on the cards for Northern Ireland, including the Portrush International Air Show. Typhoon hasn't been over there for several years in a display capacity — what a way to return.
For me, being from Northern Ireland, the place where my inspiration started and where I first flew with the Air Cadets, to have a chance to take it home is special.
It’s a chance for men to show the future generations what is possible. The Royal Air Force is not as prevalent now in Northern Ireland, and because of that a lot of the Air Cadets might think, ‘It'll never be us; we don't live in England and we don't have the same opportunities.’
So, for me to be able to bring such an incredible machine over and display it — well, hopefully that will show them that it is possible.