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Chairman’s 2020 Review

Background to the Air League

Having been founded in 1909 to support and promote aviation in the ‘British Isles and Empire’, the Air League continues to maintain one of the principal objectives that the Founders sought to pursue, namely to support and encourage the next generation of British youngsters to achieve goals of their own through aviation. For many years it has been a significant and well known organisation granting scholarships so that some of our best young are able to become pilots. As is less well known, it founded the Air Cadets in 1938, anticipating a need to train future pilots and engineers. It continues to encourage this and actively supports the Air Cadets, with the Commandant Air Cadets an ex officio member of its Board of Trustees. As much if not more than any other UK charity of its kind, it grants scholarships, bursaries, other forms of aviation, aerospace and space awards, and organises activities on the ground, in the air and virtually via the web. Its activities now involve thousands of youngsters from all over the UK and beyond. It also promotes UK aviation and aerospace in Parliament and elsewhere.

The Air League’s support for the young has been recognised throughout the aviation and aerospace sectors within the UK and beyond, with senior members of these areas participating in its activities and giving their and their organisation’s time, support and finance to the League. 

The Changes Effected in 2020

The Trustees determined in October 2019 to change the emphasis of the Charity from granting awards for pilot training alone to seek in every one of its activities to focus on changing lives through aviation. In doing so it supports and encourages young persons from secondary school aged youngsters upwards, concentrating on selecting those with less privileged backgrounds and those from relatively deprived areas to participate in its activities and be awarded its scholarships and bursaries. This is in order that they discover for themselves job and career opportunities through participation in aviation experiences which would not otherwise be available to them, with exposure to UK companies offering careers in aviation, aerospace, science, technology and engineering, as well as piloting, airport, managerial and other career opportunities outside the aviation sector.

Soaring to Success™ and Project Slingshot™

The Air League’s recent ‘Soaring to Success’ initiative in partnership with Barnsley Council in South Yorkshire, was rolled out in 2018/2019 as a ‘pilot’ project when some 600 young students from 8 schools in the area aged 14 and 16 (years 9 and 11) attended an event in the early summer organised by the Air League with a number of aviation and aerospace companies, including British Airways, DHL Air and Rolls-Royce attending an exhibition and workshop day at Barnsley College. This was followed by students who attended the event applying to obtain a fully paid short training bursary to participate in an air experience day at gliding clubs in South Yorkshire and the Peak District, when nearly 170 were awarded a flying lesson, followed by the most eligible of those selected to fly powered aircraft. The purpose was not to train young persons to be pilots as such but to cause the students to believe that such an achievement was possible and inspire others to do so too. Over 1000 young people have been involved in the programme and we are aiming towards over 3000 in each year in the future.

At each stage an on-line application was required to be undertaken by each student, to learn life skills outside a job application environment, which had negative connotations for some. Certificates were awarded to qualifying students to increase self-esteem and to be used in job applications. They also had the opportunity to keep in touch with the participating companies, the latter seeking to tap into pools of talent in areas of the UK new to them. We found that some students had never made any application offering anything similar, in particular those from families who had suffered generational ‘worklessness’ (a term I learned meant unemployment without apparent hope of a job) since the mining industry in the South Yorkshire area had collapsed in the 1980s and early 1990s. The initiative was seen by both Barnsley Council and the participating companies to be a great success, with over 85% of the 150 students randomly surveyed (25%) saying that they would consider a career in aviation or aerospace as a result. We have since discovered that ‘Soaring to Success’ is the largest programme of its type in the UK and it is our wish to roll this initiative out in a number of locations in the UK over the next 10 years, in partnership with aviation and aerospace companies, educational establishments and local authorities.

The UK Government through the Department for Transport has given a significant grant to the Air League to assist the implementation of the Soaring to Success programme and a project called ‘Project Slingshot’, a plane building programme in partnership with MTC and Aston University among others, which is being initiated in Coventry with apprentices engaged in the actual construction of the aircraft under the tutorship of experienced qualified engineers and aeronautical assessors, with a number of local schools and colleges visiting and participating in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) projects of their own, based on the aircraft construction generally and focusing on the project itself. This is part of our National Youth Aircraft Building Programme which is to expand in due course to other areas of the UK when the first project is well on the way to being delivered. Boeing is also a great supporter of the initiative among a number of other Companies and individuals, including British Airways.

Other Initiatives and Events

Other recent initiatives of the Air League also include awarding a disabled flying scholarship supported by the Stelios Foundation, the participation of RAF Air Cadets in a ‘build a plane’ project in Northern Ireland sponsored by Boeing, and partnering British Airways ‘build an airline’ learning module. 

This past year 2020 has had its challenges as a result of Covid-19 and its lockdowns, but the Air League has continued throughout the year to ensure that its programmes and projects are promoted and supported. For example, in August 2020 there was a highly successful ‘Soaring to Success’ gliding and flying day for young students from Southend. We also launched the 2020 Innovators Challenge, a new national competition designed to encourage young people to think about the future challenges for aviation and industry. In addition to this, we have developed new ways to continue to engage future aviators and engineers, starting with a live online Q&A session with UK astronaut Major Tim Peake, followed by a number of other nationally known inspirers of the young. In the summer of 2020 we launched the AeroPortal, an online learning platform that connects young people to resources that span the myriad disciplines within aviation and aerospace. We are currently in the process of creating Virtual Soaring to Success which offers a unique learning experience for 14-18 year olds, many of whom would traditionally have little access to aviation.

The Future

The Council and Trustees of the Air League believe that the challenges brought by the pandemic can be mitigated and acted upon positively with initiatives such as those being pursued by the Air League. We are intent on playing our part in the recovery of the Nation from the pandemic in 2021 and beyond, in our case to focus on supporting the next generation of young in the programmes we are developing and implementing, and in so doing to Change Lives Through Aviation.

John Steel QC FRAeS

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