Renowned as the Red Arrows' longest serving pilot, Squadron Leader Mike Ling retired from the Royal Air Force after 21 years in April this year. After more than 1,765 flying hours during ten years with the Reds, Mike left to take on a new challenge as an aerobatic pilot with the Blades, proud supporters of the RAF Benevolent Fund.
However, those ten years and 2,500 flights in the Red Hawk weren't all turbulence free. In this guest piece, Mike tells of how his dream job almost came to a catastrophic end following a mid-air collision, and how with the help of the Fund, he was able to get back on his feet and back in the air.
Biggin Hill Air Fair 1982, that's when I first saw the Red Arrows display.
My mum still tells the story of how I was in awe, watching the team perform when I was only three years old - I can honestly say I haven't looked back since.
I was 19 years old when I joined the Royal Air Force. Following operational tours with the Tornado F3, I had the best time in the world with the Reds, not just because it was a lot of fun, but because there was immense pride in being able to represent my country.
But it could have been quite different. In March 2010 myself and the Reds were practicing in Crete. I was on my second trip out on day two, leading the Synchro Pair with Monty (David Montenegro), when my accident happened.
It was one of those split second things – it’s all still crystal clear: as we got closer together mid-air I remember thinking that we were going to hit, I remember us hitting and I remember, vividly, making the decision to eject from the aircraft.
I remember the force of the ejection, but I got knocked out just after that moment. I remember coming to with the awful noise of a fire raging behind me – my crashed jet.
I could feel a lot of grit in my eyes, a pain in arm and in my jaw. The first thing I could see was that my watch on my wrist seemed like miles away from where I lay, and I remember thinking "that's it, I've lost my arm".
When I managed to sit up, and my arm came with me thankfully, I tried to move my fingers and was relieved when I realised I still had my arm, and although hugely painful it was just dislocated.
All I could think about is where Monty was. When I knew he really was okay I could start thinking about my situation - I was alive, albeit not in a great way, but I was alive.
The ambulance drove for an hour to the hospital. I was strapped to a spinal board as there were worries that I had broken my back. At that point I was concerned that I’d never be able to fly fast jets again.
I had badly injured my legs, my arms, had sustained burns, a dislocated shoulder, had lacerations on my face and damaged my lungs.
A few nights were spent in the Greek hospital before I was evacuated to hospital in Birmingham, where I spent a further three and half weeks before moving to Headley Court.
Due to the extent of my injuries, I was confined to a wheelchair, but I felt so lucky - I had all my limbs and my life, so I had everything to be grateful for.
It was then that the RAF Benevolent Fund came into the picture. Although I was thankful to have my life, the wheelchair I was in wasn’t ideal. Not being able to use one arm and both legs, I couldn’t move freely or even make myself a cup of tea – I felt like a burden on those who were caring for me.
The Fund stepped in to help, providing me with a powered wheelchair for the remainder of my recovery. It sounds like such a small thing I know, but it made the world of difference. Having that ability to do things for myself was amazing, it gave me that extra level of independence – it made a huge difference to my confidence and to my freedom.
Without a doubt, without that wheelchair I wouldn’t have been as positive as I was nor would I have recovered as quickly. When my mobility was so swiftly taken from me, it was incredible to think that through something as simple as a powered wheelchair I was able to feel normal again.
I didn’t have to rely on people to do things for me – it made a massive difference to not only my quality of life and but my family’s too.
Since leaving the RAF, I've joined the Blades, an aerobatic display team of former Red Arrow pilots. But I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the Fund. The Blades are proud to champion the RAF Benevolent Fund and for me, I am incredibly honoured to be giving something back to the charity that gave me so much.
When I see the Fund on our aircraft and on my flying suit, it reminds me that I'm proud to be a part of a partnership that puts RAF personnel at the heart of what they do – just like they did for me.