Mike Ling recalls how his grandad's encouragement saw him join the RAF Air Cadets, setting him on a path to success and creating lifelong memories.
My interest in aviation started back in 1982 – I was three years old and saw the Red Arrows display at Biggin Hill Air Fair. But it was my grandad who suggested that I join the air cadets when I was growing up. He served on 49 Sqn and, knowing about my passion, said that the best thing I could do was join the air cadets. And so, having done my research I did exactly that, signing up to 2427 Biggin Hill Squadron at the age of 13.
I was lucky enough to join the air cadets with a friend from school, Nick. He and I were in the same class and when we rode the school bus together, we used to talk about the RAF, both of us wanting to become pilots. I still remember my first parade night. At that time when you first joined, you would turn up in your school uniform, learning the basic parts of drill – how to form a flight and marching – all in your school uniform, in front of quite a large squadron.
When I finally received my air cadet uniform, I took such pride in getting it ironed, polishing my shoes and putting it on. My grandad came round one weekend and asked to see what it looked like. I remember him teaching me how they used to salute and march, and I was showing him how things were done now and what I’d learnt. Even now that memory makes me smile.
I was an aviation geek even back then, so I loved all of it – discovering the principles of flight, map reading, aircraft recognition. I didn't know it then but learning all of that as a teenager gave me a really good bedrock for going on to become a professional pilot. It wasn't just the aviation items that served me well. I was really involved in the sports opportunities afforded to me – rugby, hockey, swimming, athletics, I hoovered them all up all and was lucky enough to represent my squadron, Kent Wing and London and South East Region, across the country. Most vitally though, it was learning first aid which meant that I knew what to do if called upon. You never know when you might need such a vital life skill, but I was put to the test only a couple of years later, saving a lady's life when she had been hit by a car in front of me. Had I not been in the air cadets I would not have known what to do. There aren’t many organisations which can teach you that as a youngster.
I left the air cadets on Wednesday, 27 May, 1998 and joined the RAF that Sunday. From there, I've seen, learnt and enjoyed so much. From flying training and becoming an instructor in my early 20s, to becoming a frontline Tornado pilot and of course serving with the Red Arrows for 10 years.
I gained a huge amount from joining the cadets and have endless great memories from captaining the victorious pentathlon team, to my first flight in a Chipmunk. As an AEF pilot flying the Grob Tutor in 2011, taking a cadet flying for the first time was one of the most rewarding things I've done – knowing how special it was for me at that age and being able to be the person delivering that special moment was really rewarding. Even in my current role with The Blades, sharing that flying experience with someone who is doing it for the first time is just magical.
I stay in touch with my old squadron and speak regularly with many of my fellow cadets. In fact, my old school friend Nick, who I signed up with all those years ago, went on to become a pilot too – heading off to Oxford University before going straight to fast jet training at RAF Linton on Ouse, where ironically, I taught him how to fly. It just goes to show there is no 'best track' into the RAF. If you put the work in and have the skills, the opportunities are there for you to take.
2427 Biggin Hill Sqn is where it all started and after everything they gave me, I do what I can to give back. If they hadn't supported me I wouldn't have progressed as well as I did through training. They prepared me for so much of what I have achieved. The chance to engage with different peer groups, leadership, mentoring, confidence – the air cadets provided the perfect space for me to realise my potential. I'm passionate about what the air cadets can give to young people and I hope I've inspired even a few people to give it a go, to push their boundaries and reach great heights.
Mike Ling flies with the Blades Aerobatic Team, proud supporters of the RAF Benevolent Fund. To share your memories of being an air cadet or sign up to our 80 Miles in 80 Days challenge, head to rafbf.org/aircadets.