Born in Cheltenham, I was brought up in rural Worcestershire – the perfect stomping ground for a boy, with miles of open fields to explore and plenty of adventures to go on. It’s probably this love of the great outdoors and what lies beyond that sparked my passion for travel.
My curiosity about the world is doubtless behind the other obsession I’ve had since my youth: my love of aeroplanes. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been utterly fascinated by anything that can fly. Even today, if you asked me to explain why I love aviation so much I’d struggle to give you a perfect answer. I guess I’m just wired that way!B
Becoming a Royal Marines Commando
Both my parents came from military families, and my Dad had spent 17 years in the Navy, so I’d decided from an early age that this was what I was going to do. It’s fair to say I didn’t excel at school and I couldn’t wait to leave, so at 17 I started my journey with the Royal Marines.
Having eaten pies for three months to meet the minimum weight requirements, I began training to become a commando in September 2004. It was a shock to the system. I knew it was going to be difficult – I’d read about it – and I’d heard countless people say I wasn’t strong enough, either physically or mentally.
Nevertheless I pressed on, each day bringing me closer to achieving my goal. That’s the only way you can tackle such a huge obstacle: take each day as it comes. Quitting was never an option, and before I knew it I was marching up and down the parade square in front of my tearful family. I’d passed the course, and was now the proud owner of a coveted green beret.
The training taught me a lot more than how to just shoot a rifle or assault a beach. They proved that I was capable of achieving anything I really wanted to. When you undertake something that you’re convinced isn’t possible and you make it possible, it’s the most empowering feeling you’ll ever experience.
The day my life changed
My new-found mental empowerment would come in handy over the next few years, but I could never have imagined it would be tested to near breaking point as it was from 5 February 2007.
Travelling back to Plymouth on a routine Monday morning, the car I was travelling in lost control and left the road. It flipped over and landed on my side, crushing me and breaking my back. I still remember the whole thing so vividly. My driver running around outside screaming, the smell of petrol, the pain, and no feeling in my legs.
I’d been paralysed, and after being pulled from the car and sent off to hospital the reality started to sink in. Fortunately, it was looking likely that I would survive – but I’d never be able to walk again. Being told something of that magnitude instantly throws everything you know out of the window. I wasn’t the only one confused and uncertain about what my future life looked like; my family were devastated as well. Would I need 24-hour care? What would I do for work? Where would I live? A million questions and no answers. Only time would tell.
I eventually left hospital and spent the next six to twelve months getting my life back on track: getting a roof over my head, learning to drive, getting my strength and fitness back up. The biggest challenge now was what to do with my life. I realised that if I could find a new vocation in life, everything else would fall into place.
Looking to the skies
Figuring that out proved to be easier said than done. Most of the jobs I had in mind were physical, appealing to my love of the outdoors, but they would be very difficult to pursue now. I had to start from the very beginning, and luckily one day, that eureka moment came to me when I remembered my early love of flying.
As a young boy, I’d wanted to become a pilot – so why couldn’t I do that now? I thought of Douglas Bader, the legless WWII fighter ace. If he could fly spitfires in the 1940s, I was sure there would be something I could fly in the 21stcentury. I started making enquiries and found an organisation only too happy to help – and so began my association with the charity Aerobility. I made great progress with the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, gaining a Class One commercial pilot’s medical along with the assurance that if I wanted to fly commercially, they wouldn’t stop me.
That was it, then: I was hooked! I was going to be a commercial pilot. Quite what shape and form that would take, I didn’t yet know – but I was once again like a dog with a bone. I had a focus, and once again I had found a purpose in life.
Getting in front of the camera
It was around this time that I also discovered a love of sport, and wheelchair racing in particularly. It was great exercise and I was quite good at it, training alongside Paralympians including Dave Weir.
In 2010, a friend sent me an article stating that Channel 4 were looking for half of their presenting team for the London 2012 Paralympic games to have disabilities. Needing a job to pay for all my flying lessons, and never one to turn down an opportunity, I made enquiries. After some interviews, screen tests and training, I signed a contract with Channel 4 to present the Games!
By this point it was early 2012 and my flying was going really well, but my attention was firmly focused on doing a good job as a presenter. Once again, I found myself in an overwhelming situation terrified of the outcome, and it’s fair to say that the prospect of broadcasting live across the nation was causing me quite a few sleepless nights!
Nevertheless, come the first day of our coverage I was there, front and centre, presenting in what would turn out to be more than just a brief ‘experience’. After the Games, Channel 4 offered me the chance to remain with them and cover more sports and events. I also started having conversations with documentary makers, commissioners and production companies, who were interested in my flying and military background.
From these conversations I got my first specialist factual commission about an aeroplane that I particularly loved: the De Havilland Mosquito. It was my first hour-long film and it did really well. As a result of its success, the channel commissioned a three-part series entitled Flying to the Ends of the Earth,which was recommissioned in 2016. I’ve since done another four-part series called Flying Across Britain, and I’ve now presented four Paralympic Games, two World Athletics Championships and two European Athletics Championships, along with a host of appearances for documentaries and news programmes.
From a tiny chance and opportunity, I’ve managed to create a career for myself that I love. I get to travel the world and tell people stories about the things I love. I get to celebrate the resilience of the human spirit with disability sport, but I’ve also combined my love of flying with my enthusiasm for broadcasting.
Amazingly, I’m now one of the most recognisable aviation presenters in Britain. I love it! Away from the cameras I still live in rural Worcestershire, and I love spending time with my family and flying my beautiful 1943 Piper Cub aeroplane.