The sky's the limit for young people in the Air Training Corps 2478 Abergavenny Squadron, as LAURA LEA discovered.
IT'S safe to say I wasn’t sure what to expect when I turned up at the air cadets' base on a quiet Abergavenny lane on a drizzly Monday night.
My first experience as I entered the cabin – of uniformed teens in drill – certainly bolstered the dated pre-conceptions of an afterschool club for would-be officers. But who I actually met, was a group of smart motivated youngsters for who the sky, is quite literally the limit.
The 2478 Abergavenny Squadron on Pant Lane is one of nearly 980 Squadrons in the Air Cadet Organisation. They meet twice weekly and is made up of 32 cadets. Darran Williams is the officer commanding here and he has recently embarked on a recruitment mission.
“The numbers are down. I think kids have got a lot more to do these days and by that I don’t mean just sitting at home in front of the Xbox,” he said.
“It’s trying to do something different – something they can’t do anywhere else.”
Darran became a cadet himself aged 14 before joining the air force two years later. He became an RAF helper and spent 14 years in the air force.
After he left, he grew his hair and had a beard, but it wasn’t long before he came back and was commissioned as commanding officer – a role he has had for the last 11 years.
“All the guys on the units are volunteers. About 60 per cent of them have come through the units as cadets, then there are volunteer dads, others with previous military experience and some industry professionals who are used to dealing with leadership and management. We are all here for the kids at the end of the day. “
It is these volunteers Darran is now seeking to find. As a civilian instructor there is no commitment – you simply turn up when you want and teach what you want. On the uniform side of things, the officers are expected to commit to 12 hours a month.
You currently have to be 13-years-old to join the air cadets and the majority stay until they are 16 or 17 – around the age they discover pubs, Darran said. You can formally be a cadet until the age of 20, after which you become staff, but the amount staying over 18 is dwindling as most go to university.
Although there’s no denying the military component, Darran said there is no pressure to pursue a military career.
“It’s completely changed. It’s such a wide group of kids that join now. Some join because they want to do their Duke of Edinburgh awards, some for the adventures and others who are just interested in flying.”
Darran said the hardest part is just getting them through the door initially.
“You’ve got to sell it.”
Darran goes out schools for new recruits, where his winning line is quite rightly: “We can teach you to fly.”
“We can set you free in a glider on your own at 16, before you can even get a driving license. It’s amazing,” he said.
But this is only the start of it. The squadron’s vast array of activities range from hill-walking flying, shooting, adventure training, and bush craft skills, to sports like football and hockey- an impressive offer for a £5-10 payment per month.
Anyone can join and cadets I met were an equal mix of girls and boys from all different schools. On the night I visited, one group were sent to tackle a tent into a trailer, some made air fix models while another hauled a hoover cleaning the base.
Darran said those who join are sometimes shy or not part of big friendship groups in school. “It brings them right out of their shell,” he said.
With no one is this truer than 15-year-old Moira Taylor. Tough you wouldn’t know it from chatting to this confident, personable girl, Moira barely spoke a word in her first months as a cadet. She said: “I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone if I wasn’t a cadet. I didn’t use to talk to people in school either.”
The thing she loves most about cadets – “it’s just the group of people. It’s being involved.”
“They form friends for the rest of their lives,” said Darran, “You’d be surprised how many come here for the structure and discipline and then they just have a really good time.”
It seems you do the less appealing part to reap the rewards – and there were no complaints from the Cadets I spoke with.
For those considering a career in the armed forces, there’s no denying being a cadet certainly helps. These youngsters learn how to drill, parade polish their shoes to perfection.
For Chris Williams, 15, the military element is vital. “My dad was in the RAF and an ex-cadet and he told me about all his times here so I decided I wanted a career in the RAF too,” he said.
His experiences in cadets have only strengthened his motivation. “It’s given me leadership skills but also boosted my confidence. On parade there are hundreds of people watching you.”
Chris, who enjoys flying and gliding, said: “We wouldn’t get the chance to do it anywhere else. The friends I’ve made within cadets I know will be friends for life.”
The social side plays a huge part in the cadets. As well as meeting in the week, there are weekend excursions that only multiply as the summers draws nearer.
There are two annual camps where according to Darran, the youngsters eat sleep and breathe the air force. Some 650 cadets from across the country are expected at the two-week summer camp this year.
Rob Powell, 24, is a civilian instructor. He said: “They chose to be here and want to learn about things so we see a massive difference in their attitudes.
Rob was a cadet when he was younger and said: “I think it was an interest I never lost.”
Miles Isted s’Jacob [CORR] makes no denials that he joined for the free flying, but soon found he enjoyed the other things a lot more than he expected to.
“I’ve got into a lot of the leadership stuff. The more you put in the more you get out,” he said.“It’s all about opportunities.”
And the 16-year-old is definitely making the most of these opportunities, as he is now preparing to apply for the RAF.
But air force aside, the qualifications and skills on offer at the cadets can help with all different careers and futures.
Cadets can get a B-TEC in aviation studies, radio communication training and up to gold award in Duke of Edinburgh – all of which are vital additions to the youngsters’ CVs.
Chris agreed and said: “I’ve applied to a few colleges and it’s definitely helped. They know you can be trusted with responsibility. It’s life skills.”
Both boys, in immaculate uniform, said they used to be scruffy but now admit to having far better ironing skills than the average teenager.
This is an organisation full of the quirks of tradition alongside adventure in its rawest forms.
There are squadrons all over Gwent – in Blackwood, Blaina, Cwmbran, Caerleon, Newport and more. But to add to Darran’s commitments, he’s just set up a new group in Usk.
If you're aged over 20 and would like to volunteer, or if you would like to be a cadet, email Darran on OC.firstname.lastname@example.org