Ex-RAF hero leaves troubles on the runway at Blackpool Airport

Darren Donnelly in the cockpit
Darren Donnelly in the cockpit

Ex-RAF officer Darren Donnelly was left in constant pain and trauma after being injured while serving in Iraq.

Since returning home he has, by his own admission, found it hard to cope with the legacy of his injuries and a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Darren Donnelly in uniform

Darren Donnelly in uniform

However, Darren, 43, who struggles to walk, has been able to soar above his problems thanks to regular flying lessons at Blackpool Airport.

Despite having served with the RAF for 12 years, ending up as a senior aircraftsman, Darren had never flown a plane until last year.

Put him behind the stick in a cockpit, let him soar into the sky and he leaves his troubles behind on the ground.

“Although I challenged myself to learn to fly, I didn’t actually believe that I could physically do it,” said Darren, from Fleetwood.

“So when the wheels left the floor that first time and I became airborne, I was euphoric.”

The years since 2003 have been tough for both him and his wife Charlene and their four children.

Darren was inspired to learn to fly after hearing of a fellow veteran who, despite being paralysed and wheelchair dependant, had got his pilot’s licence, flying an adapted plane.

Living so close to Blackpool airport, Darren called in one day to see if they could help him achieve his dream – and the Air Navigation Training (ANT) school of flying said yes.

A grant from the military charity, Help for Heroes, is funding 10 hours of lessons for Darren. That’s not enough to earn him his licence – he needs 45 hours under his belt for that – but it’s a start.

More importantly, it has given Darren the confidence and the self-belief that he lost when his military career ended so tragically.

He said: “With my physical condition – my left leg doesn’t work, I have toe-drop, extensive spinal ligament damage and an injured shoulder and arm – I shouldn’t actually be able to fly but I have found ways to compensate that seem to work.

Darren is determined to overcome the physical and financial hurdles to gain his flying licence.

“Learning to fly has proven to everyone that I will not give up,” he said.

Claire Barnes, head of grants at Help for Heroes, said: “I am thrilled to hear how our grant is helping Darren rebuild his life and fulfill his potential beyond injury.”