Darren Donnelly struggles to walk and has been in constant pain since being injured whilst on duty in Iraq in 2003. He also has PTSD. The intervening years have been tough for both him and his wife, Charlene, and their four children.
But when you put Darren in the seat of a cockpit and let him soar into the sky, he leaves his troubles behind in the contrail!
“Although I challenged myself to learn to fly, I didn’t actually believe that I could physically do it,” said Darren. “So when the wheels left the floor that first time and I became airborne, I was euphoric!”
Despite having served with the RAF for 12 years, reaching the rank of a senior aircraftman, Darren had never flown a plane until last year.
He was inspired to have a go after a fellow Veteran who, despite being paralysed and wheelchair-dependant, gained his pilot’s licence by flying an adapted plane. Darren called into his local airport to see if they could help him achieve his dream. The Air Navigation Training (ANT) school of flying said yes.
A grant from Help for Heroes is funding ten hours of lessons for Darren. Although it's not enough to earn him his licence – he needs 45 hours under his belt – it’s a great start. More importantly, it has given Darren his confidence and self-belief back, something he lost when his military career ended so tragically.
“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.
“Now, when I seem quiet and reclusive, Charlene suggests that I go flying because she has seen what a difference it has made to me.
“And, after watching me do a turn and bank from 1,000 to 3,000 feet above our house, my children are in awe of their Daddy.”
Darren still has some hurdles to overcome – not least how, on his medical pension, he can afford more lessons to increase his flying hours once his Help for Heroes grant runs out – but he is determined to get his licence.
“Having a goal to focus on keeps me busy and active and stops me being negative,” he explained.
“Learning to fly has proven to everyone that I will not give up!”
Claire Barnes, Head of Grants at Help for Heroes, said: “Help for Heroes is all about getting the very best support to the wounded servicemen and women and their families whose lives are changed by their injuries and illness.
“I am pleased that our grant is enabling Darren, like so many others, to take up an opportunity which is enabling him to rebuild his life post injury.”