SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD ASLAM COMPLETED PREMIER RAF COURSE WHILE ALSO PREPARING FOR GCSE
by S NEERAJ KRISHNA
AS A child, Zain Aslam was fascinated by “all things that fly”, from birds to bomber jets. Later, that fascination transformed into a passion that has led the 16-year-old to recently earn his blue lanyard as UK’s youngest qualified aerospace instructor.
The cadet corporal from 495 (Sutton Coldfield) Squadron of the Royal Air Force Air Cadets — who graduated from this year’s prestigious Qualified Aerospace Instructors Course (QAIC) — had another challenge at hand too: his GCSE deadlines.
“I was the only one undergoing my GCSEs,” said Aslam, as he participated in the UK’s Virtual Air Tattoo 2020 (July 18-19). “Other cadets on the course were either preparing for A-Levels or in their first year of university.”
According to the defence ministry, Aslam was among 40 of “the highest calibre students” picked after “an intense selection process” for 300 applicants to the premier eight-month RAF programme.
Now in its 12th year, QAIC was launched to provide youngsters in the UK training and insight to pursue careers in aviation and aerospace.
Being a premier aerospace course, it has a “challenging syllabus” that requires “a high level of commitment”.
Wing Commander Ian Revell noted that Aslam completed the course “under what can only be described as challenging circumstances”.
“Attaining a solid set of results on all aspects of the course, Corporal Aslam rose to the challenges of different venues, different instructors with a positive attitude,” said the commanding officer of QAIC. “He should become an asset to his squadron, wing and region as a Qualified Aerospace Instructor.”
Aslam thanked his friends and staff at King Edward’s School in Birmingham for being “very supportive”, and recalled teachers smiling whenever they saw him “depart [for the aerospace course] on Fridays in my suit… transforming from a shy pupil to a confident, independent young man”.
Aslam, who is determined to be a fighter pilot, also received praise for using his newly acquired knowledge to launch a school-level Aerospace Society for pupils at home in April.
English teacher James Butler, who leads the RAF section of the school’s Combined Cadet Force unit, described Aslam as a “once-in-a-generation” cadet “lifting the aspirations and knowledge of our cadets and pupils to a truly professional level that always exceeds expectations”.
Aslam’s aviation journey started with his interest in birds, and his first ‘mission’ was being part of a bird-watching group.
“Being a huge Harry Potter fan, I was also intrigued by Quidditch, and wanted to explore the options of flying in reality.
“While travelling on planes I would be fascinated by the aircraft’s wings, and curious as to how they operate. The best part of my holidays would be at the airport and when pilots allowed me into the cockpit. Most of the pilots I have met have been ex-cadets, and they have always encouraged me to follow my dream.”
By the time he entered secondary school, Aslam started research on becoming a pilot. “Soon, I fell in love with fast jets, and decided that was the route I wanted to follow,” he said.
Aslam was drawn to QAICs while researching on the Air Cadet wing, and he applied to the course during a family vacation in Sardinia, Italy. “While everybody was sunbathing or in the pool, I hibernated in the hotel room for a few days so that I could concentrate on my online application,” he recalled.
The course was “demanding”, he said, explaining that cadets were continuously assessed throughout the eight-month course to maintain their place. They were expected to communicate from home and complete group tasks within set time frames.
Cadets also attended weekend training once a month on various RAF bases, with experts training them in subjects such as air traffic control (ATC), pilot studies and aerodynamics.
Aslam’s focus areas were ATC and the importance of space power, on which he did his research at RAF Shawbury. “Other QAIs introduced me to the ATC simulators, and I absorbed the knowledge quickly, which helped prepare me for the course,” he said. “On my journeys to school, I would often run through ATC scenarios in my head, acting as both the controller and pilot.
“Similarly, having visited the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida, I have always been intrigued by space. It’s an important topic as both civilians and the military rely on it heavily. I had also completed my application for the Endeavour Space Scholarship, which would have taken place in America, but that was cancelled due to Covid-19.”
The course had its own share of ‘fun’, too, with Saturdays “always memorable” for “social evenings”.
“Saturdays were always intense, as we had an early start and a day full of lessons and assessments,” he said. “In order to have some downtime, we would place a very large order from Dominos and socialise together.”
Among the best moments as an air cadet, Aslam recalled the opportunities to fly the Grob Tutor (one of the RAF’s training aircraft), and the Viking T1 glider. “After achieving high marks in the selection process, I have been awarded a flying scholarship at Tayside Aviation , Dundee , where I will be flying the Aquila A211,” he added.
Attending the recent Virtual Air Tattoo was an inspiring “treat”, highlighted Aslam.
“To get in the mood, I wore my flight suit and was glued to the TV for the entire duration,” he said, adding that the “international displays were spectacular and informative”.
Aslam said he also cherished attending the Cosford Air Show 2019, and being “lucky to receive autographs from the Red Arrows display pilots”.
“I hope to soon become a staff cadet at Cosford’s flying school,” he beamed, adding that his dream was to become an RAF quick-reaction-alert pilot, flying his “favourite” Eurofighter Typhoon, or the hightech F-35 Lightning II.
Aslam said he was grateful to his family for having been “supportive of my ambitions to join the RAF.”
“I do not come from a typical Asian family, I’m an only child and live with my mum [CI Rubina Begum],” he quickly added. “The only other family member I had was my grandad, who passed away when I was five years old.”
Aslam’s grandfather had migrated from a Pakistani village to the UK as a teenager, shortly after the Second World War, and settled in the Midlands.
“He loved adventure and travelling, and even drove to Pakistan in the late 1960s,” said Aslam.
“My mother wanted to follow in his footsteps, but it was difficult as an Asian female. However, she managed to travel abroad and study part of her bachelor’s and master’s in Europe.”
Aslam said Begum made “many sacrifices” as she raised him as a single mother, “giving up her dream career in international advertising, to look after me”.
“Seeing me continue the family tradition [of adventure, perseverance] makes her very proud,” he added.
“She recently joined my squadron as a civilian instructor, and has arranged some of the largest virtual parades for cadets within the Corps. I always feel proud when I see her receive flowers at ceremonies for her hard work.”
When not in the flight suit, Aslam enjoys acting and photography. “I enjoy acting and have had the opportunity to perform at the West End. I often visit theatres to watch performances, The Phantom of the Opera being my favourite,” said Aslam.
“I am also passionate about Formula 1, as I think there are a few parallels between the drivers and jet pilots.”
Aslam has also been active on social media, connecting with “like-minded people”, and grabbed attention during lockdown by setting “daily challenges” for his followers.
An avid photographer, he also posts amazing pictures – mostly of aircraft, including fighter jets – on Instagram @flyingwithzain.