The August bank holiday was given an exciting lift when five novice flyers from Edenbridge discovered they had won an experience of a lifetime: a flight in a light aircraft at the world-renowned Shuttleworth Aviation Collection.

In May 2017, the Cleary family joined over 23,000 people at The Big Church Day Out, Europe’s largest Christian music festival.

With limited aviation knowledge and no experience of flying, the family avoided heavy showers by jumping into a dry marquee hosted by international NGO Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF), and signed up for the charity’s interactive Rescue Challenge.

The Cleary family and their team enthusiastically managed to complete the challenge and rescue a boy in Papua New Guinea who had suffered a deathly snakebite in a winning time of 10:09 minutes.

'I absolutely loved it. You feel so small up there, seeing everything from above' Lizzie 

A winning time

The time trial was designed to replicate real-life scenarios experienced by MAF pilots - who fly in some of the world’s most dangerous, remote locations - and raise awareness of the charity’s worldwide relief operation.

When Lizzie Cleary received an email from MAF a few weeks later inviting her team to Shuttleworth for an adrenaline-pumping day out, she could hardly believe they had beaten a rival group by just four seconds, which had included a trainee pilot who ironically crashed-landed the flight simulator.

Lizzie was shocked and thrilled to hear from MAF, saying that none of the team had any real knowledge of planes. But she thought it was their range of practical, mathematical and problem-solving skills that helped them win. With none of her three boys having ever set foot in a plane, the family’s day at Shuttleworth would be their first ever flying experience.  

Arriving at the airfield in glorious August bank-holiday sunshine, Lizzie her husband Ronan, Jack (12), Tomas (10) and Henry Cleary (8) were greeted by Shuttleworth’s Chief Engineer and longstanding MAF supporter Jean-Michel Munn, who donated his time to take the winners on their celebratory flight. Joining the Clearys was local Edenbridge friend and team-mate Asher Higham (11), who had only flown once before on a holiday to Spain. For the first-time flyers, nerves were running high.

Crossing the safety barrier and walking towards the six-seater Dornier Do-28 aircraft, the boys were clearly debating their pending flight experience. Asher commented how different the little plane looked in comparison to a big commercial jumbo jet, to which Tomas replied: 'I’m petrified,' and clutched a small go-pro camera.

With safety checks complete, the boys were strapped into the back of the aircraft. Looking nervously out of the window, Jack said, 'I know I will regret it if I don’t fly. It’s like the best rollercoaster ever and I don’t want to let my fear beat me this time. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.'

'We just flew over some fields in England, but those MAF pilots fly over the jungle and into storms. That’s inspirational!' Jack

Flying high

Touching down less than an hour later, the boys’ nervous faces were contrasted by huge smiles and laughter. Bursting out of the plane and jumping excitedly onto the grass, Jack shouted: 'That was higher than I’ve ever been before! It was totally amazing!' Tomas added: 'Wow, you can’t compare that to anything else! I’m so happy I did it, I got to film from a bird’s-eye-view!'

Lizzie had only flown on a few commercial flights, and chooses holidays in the UK or France to avoid air travel with the family. But she was equally thrilled to be part of the experience. Lizzie said: 'I absolutely loved it. You feel so small up there, seeing everything from above.  It was fascinating to learn about the local landscape and recognise places we have visited as a family, like Centre Parks and Woburn Safari. It was just amazing – thank you Jean-Michel, and thank you MAF!'

Relaxing in the Shuttleworth restaurant with a cold drink and sandwich before taking a tour of the world’s largest collection of historic aircraft, the boys couldn’t stop talking about their first time in a small plane.

Henry said: 'The best bit was seeing the horizon at a crazy angle when the pilot banked the plane. The bumps were cool too, when we hit some thermals. But it was so quiet up there, like being in a different world.' Jack added: 'Today I wanted to embrace the moment and overcome my fears. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.'

Down to earth  

Reflecting on winning the Rescue Challenge and learning more about the world of aviation and MAF’s charitable cause, the family agreed that they were grateful for that rainy festival day back in May.

Tomas said: 'Never in a million years did I think we’d win! I think it’s unbelievable how brave you must be to fly these crazy small planes. We just flew over some fields in England, but those MAF pilots fly over the jungle and into storms. That’s inspirational – it must be their faith that helps them do it.' Jack added: 'They fly relief into developing countries to help people, and the MAF pilots land in the most challenging places. It’s amazing what they do.'

Asher was also impacted by the international relief flights carried out by MAF. He said: 'To have someone who is great at flying, but is also very kind – that’s rare. Being clever and kind is a hard thing to find. You can go into a hotel and the staff might be good at making beds, but they might not be that kind! MAF people are good at their jobs, and are really, really good people at the same time. They give up their lives to help. That takes courage.'

Lizzie believes that encountering MAF and experiencing their first flight will be a lasting memory for her boys. She said: 'I loved hearing their nerves turn to excitement in the back of the aircraft. We’d never heard of MAF before the Big Church Day Out, but we can’t stop talking about it now! I’m so glad we decided to escape that torrential downpour, and coming to Shuttleworth has made the whole experience very personal. It brings home the true impact of what MAF do, using small planes to reach remote people in need. It really has helped us see the world from a totally new perspective.'

'MAF pilots land in the most challenging places. It’s amazing what they do' Tomas