My First Solo

Mike Ling

When he was three years old, Mike Ling already knew he wanted to be a Red Arrows pilot. 

How did you get into aviation?

Growing up at Biggin Hill, it was hard not to get engrossed in aviation. Back then it was the RAF Selection Centre, so apart from airshows, we’d also see new cadets all the time. Joining the Air Cadets at 13, I had my first passenger flight in a Chipmunk. It was absolutely exhilarating, especially the aerobatics. Whenever I get into a vintage aircraft and smell that special mixture of oil, fuel and the cockpit, I remember that first flight.

How did your flight training go?

At 18, I was awarded a 20 hours RAF Flying Scholarship at TG Aviation, which was founded by former Red Arrows pilot Ted Girdler. Ted was a real inspiration, he showed us his logbook and talked about his experience. The scholarship was quite a steep learning curve, we flew twice a day and had lots of teaching. However, the instructors were very good at imparting their knowledge. 

“At Biggin Hill in 1982, aged three, I told my mum I wanted to be a Red Arrows pilot”

There were six of us, all starting from scratch, which I liked. You can learn a lot from your peers. I learned almost as much from talking to other students as from the actual lessons. 

Did you expect your first solo?

Yes, the course was structured, so the dual-into-solo lesson was planned the day before. However, this didn’t mean it was a given. You still had to perform, which added to the pressure. It was really nerve-racking. When I opened the throttle and the wheels of the Cessna 152 left the runway, I realised there was no way out of it. I was so apprehensive and focussed on doing everything right, it was almost hard to enjoy the flight – but of course I did, immensely. Taxying back, having achieved my dream of becoming a pilot, I felt an incredible sense of pride.

You’re the longest-serving Red Arrows pilot, which display stands out?

My first show at Biggin Hill, for personal reasons. Biggin Hill is where in 1982, aged three, I told my mum, “I want to be a Red Arrows pilot.” Then in 2009, I got to perform there as Red 7, part of the Synchro Pair. During that display, the planets aligned and everything came together.

What’s most important for a successful airshow?

The inspirational element. Airshows offer a chance to inspire people and show them the enjoyment that aviation brings. Therefore, you need as much engagement as possible with the crowd – by performing a great display, as well as by having pilots on the ground sharing their flying adventures with the public. As I was inspired by airshows, I know how they can influence younger people. In bigger shows, having a varied programme is important. Not everyone wants to see loud, fast fighter jets – some might prefer helicopters or vintage aircraft.

What are you up to now?

I fly for The Blades. The world’s only aerobatic airline, we offer close-formation aerobatic flying experiences in our Extra 300s. Every passenger reacts differently, and we manage the flight based on their reactions. Last summer I took a woman in her 80s flying who was really quiet on the ground, but in the air giggled the whole way through!

Last year, I achieved my second childhood dream, soloing a Spitfire, and this summer I’ll be flying Spitfire Experiences for Ultimate Warbird Flights. The Spitfire is such an evocative aircraft. Its iconic British sight, the sound of the Merlin engine, it’s just so special.

To be able to hopefully give people the best aviation memory of their life, is quite something. We also offer fly alongsides, with The Blades flying in formation, so passengers really get to share their warbird experience.

What do you love about flying most?

I love that every flight is mentally challenging. Even after 4,500 hours, there’s always something new. Another big part is being able to give something back. I’ve been very fortunate to have done some pretty cool flying, but giving Air Experience flights in a Grob Tutor was among the best. Seeing the look on these kids’ faces, knowing the opportunity is as special for them as it was once for me, is incredibly rewarding.

Solo stats

Former RAF Red Arrows pilot Mike Ling has been a part of over 800 aerobatic displays all over the world.

When 30 June 1997
Where RAF Manston
Aircraft Cessna 152
Hours at solo Approx. 10
Hours now Approx. 4,500
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