Happy Birthday AirBourne Aviation

Happy Birthday

This is a special kind of post. This year, AirBourne is celebrating 40 years of trading. 40 years of sharing the wonderful world of flight with thousands upon thousands of people. So as a celebration of this great milestone, nicely timed with our return to the air, I’ve put together a post celebrating key moments from across those 40 years. Following lots of research (all sources mainly provided by Mac!) which if I described as fascinating and touching would be a total understatement, together let’s wish AirBourne, Mac, Matt, Sarah, Ben, Chris and of course Shaun a happy birthday and many more years filled with showing people our wonderous hobby.

A shed and a dentist called Peter

It started in 1979. In a shed, at the back of Mac’s garden. He painted it in white emulsion stuck a few pictures of the Pterodactyl they flew at the time and a TV. Mac put an advert in the Bournemouth Echo to see if anyone would be interested in learning about the principles of flight for £5 each on a Friday evening. He was not disappointed. At 1900 on that Friday his shed was full! This was where it all started.

During that same year, Mac met a chap called Peter who was a dentist, a trained hang-glider pilot, and keen to start a flying school. He had already registered the name ‘AirBourne Aviation’.

Where the name came from

Like most people, seeing the name “AirBourne Aviation” and associating it with a flying school probably doesn’t strike at anything unexpected. It just makes sense. However, there’s a small but nonetheless interesting story behind the school’s name. Originally, Peter wanted to call it simply ‘AirBourne’, much like the spelling of ‘Bournemouth’ and inspired by the river ‘Bourne’. However, Mac recalls that the name was already taken, by a shoe shop no less, so they added on the ‘aviation’ bit! Who knew!

The Microlight Aviation Club

By 1980 AirBourne Aviation was operating out of a farmer’s field at Rockbourne having been unwelcome due to noise at several other locations across Dorset and Hampshire! Their quaint clubhouse consisted of a caravan that housed ‘The MAC’ (The Microlight Aviation Club), coincidentally (or not as the case may be) Mac’s name.

The MAC caravan

So, at the Elm Tree pub in Ringwood, they had their first official meeting. That night around 240 people joined their flying club all eager to learn to fly these new-fangled microlights. At the time, the school had two aircraft, a fixed-wing Mistral and a Titan flex wing. Certainly a far cry from the C42s we find ourselves in! A few pictures found below with Mac as the instructor. Note Mac’s ‘Gosport pipes’ in the second image inspired by the similar tubes used by WW1 pilots to help communicate more clearly between instructor and student. Mac received some odd looks in a local shop while testing them! Worth also noting the cracking set of white pins Mac is sporting too …

2 seat microlight Mac
2 seat microlight Mac

The Red Arrows and Fred Dinenage

During the school’s early years it was doing splendidly and much like they do today, they spent time at local shows and fairs drumming up interest. During a show at Hurn airport, Mac was asked by two Red Arrows pilots if he could take them flying, he could hardly say no! During one of the flights with the men in red suits, he noticed the aircraft shuddering. After asking his passenger if they were okay the pilot replied “No, I’m SH*T scared!” and realised that the vibration was being caused by the Red Arrow pilot’s foot shaking and knocking against the airframe!

A similar affair happened with Fred Dinenage. It was a straight-forward shoot involving a single circuit. However, the cameraman decided he was too scared and Peter was entrusted with £6,000 worth of camera equipment while Mac flew Fred. Having just taken off, apparently, Fred’s language became increasingly colourful as he decided that he was absolutely not comfortable being in the air in that machine!

Mac and Dinenage
Mac and Fred Dinenage. A still taken from the video produced.


1981 – BMAA first adverts and a Ltd company

Having scoured the old BMAA magazines from the early 80’s I came across a few mentions of AirBourne and Mac specifically. It is also when Peter and Mac made AirBourne Aviation a limited company.

Mac, being the microlight pioneer that he is (and the many adventures and buckets of knowledge he has is far too much to cover in a blog post and would require a sizeable novel), Mac was also a very active member of the BMAA training committee and wrote a column in the BMAA magazines. At a later date I also understand Mac became Chairman of the training committee. Here’s one column I found from the January 1984 issue:

Training Committee BMAA Mac Smith

The move to Popham and the Tiger Cub

Having been pushed off by land developers, Mac and Peter moved to Popham which is where the school is to this day in 1982. By 1983 they were representing a manufacturer and selling (16 out of the 32 total made) the new Tiger Cub kit – an extraordinary microlight biplane (the below also from the old BMAA club magazines). There’s a video of the last one in the UK flying:

This aircraft had a 50hp, 2 cylinder, 2 stroke engine and its wings could be swept back for hangarage or trailer use. It was designed by Micro Biplane Aviation and had a take-off distance of just 60 feet and a landing distance of just 80 feet.

Tiger Cub sales Tiger Cub

This particular aircraft unfortunately suffered from problems due to a balance of airworthiness acceptance and an overheating engine causing seizures. This was eventually fixed with a firewall to keep the red tape at bay and specially designed ducting to keep the engine cool. This was a short-lived venture and one I get the impression from Mac that he was not keen on repeating. His advice is to stay away from selling airplane kits! Apparently, they were more trouble than they were worth!

First 3-axis aircraft and a target for a Spitfire

In 1986 Charles Church took over Popham and started making huge changes to the airfield environment including the additional runway. The main inspiration for these changes were so that he could start a ‘working museum’ of WW2 aircraft. He originally intended on having a working Lancaster at Popham alongside his several Spitfires. How amazing would that have been! Mac also had the pleasure at one time of being Charles’ ‘target’ for some pleasure flights he conducted in a Spitfire. Mac would sit above the airfield at 2,000 feet while Charles took a friend flying and used Mac as a target for pretending to shoot at! Simply incredible. Unfortunately, Charles lost his life in one of his Spitfires attempting an emergency landing at Blackbushe in 1989. The below is a picture of him which you can find in the restaurant at Popham.

Charles Church

In 1987 AirBourne Aviation purchased their first 3-axis fixed-wing microlight which was the second machine off the factory line. The Thruster, a picture of which is found below, although not the exact machine. This newer style of fixed-wing microlight, much like the Titan and Mistral, revolutionised instruction for AirBourne allowing for an easier and more comfortable teaching environment. The school continued to go from strength to strength.

Thruster T600 Microlight

Modern fleet and modern training

The company soon moved to its fleet of today, the Ikarus C42a and expanded into the flying school we all know and love. A significant milestone for the school was engines, more specifically the Rotax. Before the modern 4-stroke engines we have, engine failures were extremely common, I gather to some degree they were even expected. I read a column by Paula Smith in the BMAA magazine for the 1984 Popham trade fair. Within this column Paula put “Still, no microlight show would be complete without a couple of engine failures; you could almost say it’s part of the fun.” The reliable Rotax engine has seen an end to that, with thousands and thousands of hours flown and just 2 engine failures in all that time. Also a testament to the wonderful maintainance job Shaun does of course.

Mac also started to pay attention to simulators from 2004 onwards, as a way of aiding the training of student pilots and began making one. Following an email from a strange chap called Matthew Myatt, this relationship soon flourished into a successful business partnership and the creation of a world-class simulator many of us have spent hours honing our skills in recent years. This true world-class simulator has even caught the eye of the original aircraft manufacturer Comco who is looking at widening the scope of availability based on Matt’s work. Find out more about using the simulator here.


In 2018 AirBourne Aviation expanded into other areas of licensing covering the SSEA with their acquisition of a Diamond DA-20 Katana, affectionately known as ‘Biscuits’ due to her G-registration! You can find out more about the SSEA training and what the syllabus requires here.

Da20 Katana

A final mention to a lady not to be forgotten

A key part of the school’s success was Paula Smith, Mac’s adored wife who was cruelly taken from him in 2003 from cancer. It wouldn’t be a true look at AirBourne’s history, no matter how brief, without mentioning this lady. In Mac’s words “She was mad as a hatter, bubbly, cheeky, full of beans and always smiling wherever she went.” I’m sure many of us who enjoy the company AirBourne Aviation provides and the services that AirBourne Aviation provide us with can relate to that quote as it is inherent in the club’s veins.

Paula Smith and Geoff Ball

It was not until I started researching for this post that I realised just how rich and deep the history of the club is. There was simply too much to include in a single post. Plus, the sheer volume of incredible knowledge and experience there is, especially behind the mind of Mac is astounding. This brief blog post does not do full justice to any of this really but hopefully provides some interesting background. I certainly learned a lot!

Happy and safe flying everyone and Happy Birthday AirBourne Aviation!

Image source for Thruster