Pilot profile: Paralysed former-Royal Marine Arthur Williams
PUBLISHED: 04:30 27 January 2021
Arthur Williams 2020
He had everything, and lost it. But a passion for flying, and a Piper Cub, helped Arthur Williams to rediscover his zest for life.
Written by Pat Malone
You know what the Royal Marines say, right? ‘99.9% need not apply.’ Of the 0.1% who do, more than half won’t make it through the brutal selection ordeal that follows. A small elite will pass as ‘Originals’, those who survived eight months of finely-honed malevolence designed to break them in body and spirit, without ever being sent back to do it again, breaking any bones, or cracking up. Among the Originals, there will be one man who is deemed to stand out, an exceptional recruit whose physical and psychological qualities exceed even those of the crème de la crème with whom he crossed the finish line. This man will be awarded the King’s Badge, and he will be honoured as superior by his uniquely discerning peer group. He is marked for great things.
Such a man is Arthur Williams, King’s Badgeman among his intake, a man who in his own words “had everything – a fabulous job, future, girlfriend, motorcycle, life”. But pilots know him as a face on the TV, a presenter of aviation programmes who speaks with such passion about aeroplanes and flying that even the most disinterested viewer becomes engaged. He is the man who owns and flies his own beautiful and historic Piper Cub, and the fact that he flies and presents from a wheelchair seems little more than incidental.
Arthur Williams’ story is one of a guy who went from having everything to having nothing, who fought his bleakest battle against his own body and mind after he was paralysed in a car accident, and who slowly crawled his way out of a black pit of despair to build a new life, in an unexpected and totally different field. He has introduced millions to the de Havilland Mosquito, taken viewers flying to the most remote and uncongenial parts of the world, and flown with them across Britain in his Cub.
A Bafta award-winner, he has commentated on the Paralympics and World Championships and has been interviewed on many talk shows about how disability changed his life−for good and ill. He is a unique ambassador for aviation and a poster boy for the charity Aerobility, which at a time when there seemed to be little hope, opened up new horizons for him by teaching him to fly.
Ironically Arthur, now thirty-four, always wanted to be a pilot. Both his grandfathers were RAF engineers, one flight, one ground, and he was lucky enough to be raised where the sky was full of aircraft. “Our village, Eckington, near Pershore, was in a low-flying corridor,” he says, “and in the 1980s and 1990s RTE Defford were testing low-level IFF radar, bouncing radar off very low flying aeroplanes. There were lots of US types, transport aircraft, helicopters, Harriers, Tornados, I even remember seeing a Canberra. I would sprint out of the house when I heard one coming, I’d see a flurry of Hercules coming past and they’d always fly either singly, in threes or in fives, almost at rooftop level. And that was so cool.” He read the magazines, built the models, and his future seemed ordained until a chance remark on the school bus threw him off course.
A Royal Marine? You?
“I was a late developer, quite small in my teens – I wasn’t picked on, but I was the runt of the litter among my friends. We were discussing careers, and the subject of the Royal Marines came up. I must have said I’d consider joining, and they laughed… ‘You?’ they said, ‘you’ll never get into the Marines!’ and from that moment I was utterly dedicated to becoming a Royal Marine.”
Arthur went to the recruiting office in Gloucester but was seriously underweight. “Go away and eat burgers,” they said. That, it turns out, would be the last easy task they set him. Arthur did so, and he also adopted a rigorous fitness regime. When he presented himself a second time he had put on a stone, and was sent to Lympstone in Devon for the Potential Royal Marines Course, the PRMC. This course comprises three days of refined sadism, just to see if you stand a chance of withstanding the real thing−5am starts, using a number instead of your name, intense physical fitness tests, route runs, single runs, two or three gym sessions per day… physical maltreatment to the point of collapse.
“Staying power, that’s what it is about,” says Arthur. “It’s in your head. When you’re absolutely knackered they’ll say, now get down and do sixty press-ups. And I failed. I think I managed thirty-seven, then I completely flaked out. But the thing is, they’re not looking for the jock who can knock off sixty press-ups, they’re looking for the guy who will go to the absolute limit, give one hundred percent and collapse rather than quit−the guy who will die in the attempt.”
That’s only the taster, but Arthur took to it like a natural and went on to the next stage: thirty-two weeks of hell to prove your mettle in which fewer than half get through unscathed. There’s bull, and bawling, field exercises where you learn to survive, weapons training, route marches and runs, navigation, sea survival, always with crucifying levels of fatigue and sleep deprivation, and you’re provoked and harried by the sort of person whom under normal circumstances you’d call the police and have arrested.
Next comes specialist military training. It’s many things together: heavy weapons, machine guns, more exercises, more complex navigation, working with landing craft, ships and helicopters abseiling down cliffs, fast-roping from Chinooks, and firefighting. Then, after eight months, there comes a day when you cross the bridge at the end of a thirty-mile run, in full fighting kit with a forty-five pounds pack and a rifle. You’re far beyond exhaustion and somebody says “Okay, you’re in”. They have a ceremony and you go home to your village with your green beret and the King’s Badge on your sleeve and you meet mates who said you couldn’t do it.
When Arthur talks of all this, his eyes shine with pride and it’s obvious that he’d give everything he has to be with the Royal Marines today, enveloped in the sort of all-for-one camaraderie you’d hardly know anywhere else. Even when he went to his fighting unit, Lima Company of 42 Commando in Plymouth, and at the beginning was treated like something unfortunate they had stepped on in the street, the gloss did not go off the experience, and he never regretted his decision. Flying was largely forgotten. “When I was in the helicopter, I never thought I ought to be up front doing the flying,” he says. “I was more psyched about being in the back with a gun, focussing on the job in hand. There was one time in Sierra Leone when we were being transferred from ship to shore in a Lynx with the doors off, we knew the pilot and he showed us a good time, hanging on the straps while he pitched vertically, nose-down, towards the sea at perhaps one hundred feet, and it struck me that this could be fun. But in fact I’ve had two ‘moments’ in aviation and both of them involved helicopters, so they’re not my favourite mode of transport.”
One day he woke up late at his mum’s home and was in a tearing hurry. He had to get to the M5 to meet a mate who was picking up his fellow Marines at various points en route to Plymouth. Arthur’s girlfriend was driving him to the M5 meeting point, the morning was freezing cold and on a bend she lost control and the car left the road. “It rolled over and it was my side that took the impact when we landed on the roof,” Arthur says. “I remember waking up upside down, lying on my back with the mass of the car above me, I remember the most excruciating amount of pain one could ever imagine, I felt like I’d been snapped in half. You’ve broken your back, it feels like someone’s pulled you apart… and Hayley was out of the car running around screaming her head off, unscathed… I couldn’t feel my legs, but even then I was thinking that I’d get to hospital, get stitched back together and it would be okay. Then I fell asleep.” The fire brigade cut the car off him and Arthur was taken to Worcester A&E, where he lay in a coma in intensive care, his body riven by shock and subjected to strange trembling fits. His mother told him later that some people had given up on him. But after five days he was still alive and was transferred by air ambulance to a specialist spinal unit in Oswestry, where he began to have periods of lucidity. “I came to realise that it was very serious, just picking up snippets of what people were saying,” he says. “So I knew it already when a doctor came in, stood at the end of the bed and made the formal announcement: ‘Mr Williams, I have to tell you that you have severed your spinal column, this leads to paralysis for which there is no cure. You will be a wheelchair user for the rest of your life’.” Arthur was twenty-one years old.
Everything, then nothing
“They were extremely bad times,” he says quietly. “You’re in a brace, you can’t even move your neck, you’re in so much pain that any slight movement is excruciating. I lay like that in daylight and darkness for three and a half months, and I had time to think. Before my accident I was the fittest bloke in Worcestershire, I had a great job, had my health, my girlfriend, my Yamaha R6. Life was good. And now I was helpless, I’d never walk, couldn’t ride my bike, lost my girlfriend, couldn’t even live at my mum’s because it was up some stairs. I’d had everything, and now I had nothing. And to tell the truth, even today, thirteen years later, I still haven’t come to terms with it. I used to follow medical research, read every day about this breakthrough or that development in spinal injury treatment… but hope is something you need to be very careful with. If you spend all your time waiting for a bus that’s never going to come, you’ll always be upset. You just need to get on with your life, and if it comes, then great, but I’m not waiting for it.”
Arthur was moved to the military hospital at Headley Court in Surrey, but little physical rehabilitation was possible. “In the Marines, it used to be that if you broke your finger, you were out,” he says. “But at that time attitudes were changing because we were getting a lot of injured people back from Iraq and Afghanistan: PTSD, lost limbs, blindness… and the Marines were saying that whatever your disability was, they’d find a job for you. So I stayed in because I was still a Marine, I had career aspirations. I became part of the company at Lympstone, and I remember wheeling around the camp in a wheelchair with my green beret on, as a Marine, thinking that it was the most alien feeling I’d ever had. Whopping blokes were running past, jumping, doing all sorts of things, and I was thinking, ‘This won’t do’. I was what they are, but I am no longer like that… and I knew at that point I had to come out and start afresh.”
Doing what? “I had no idea. You go through a Naval resettlement board, and my dad was running the course as a civilian contractor for specialist employment training! Very embarrassing. I got hold of the Yellow Pages and I ran through every vocation known to man. There were a couple I was interested in. For instance, I went on a carpentry course. I had to do something−the most important thing to me was getting work, your work is a vital part of you. My plan was to get a job, therefore financial independence, find a house, find a girlfriend, restore my self-worth, take my mind off paralysis”. In Arthur’s plan, everything relied on having work. But, for some time, nothing stuck.
If Bader could do it...
“One day I was at home−I’d bought a bungalow with money from the accident−and I looked at some of the things I’d moved over from mum’s house and there was lots of flying stuff: Airfix models, calendars, WWII books, and that made me think of Douglas Bader, my childhood hero. That guy, back in the 1940s, had no legs, but managed to fly Spitfires. If back then he could fly a front-line fighter with no legs, I surely can fly in 2009 with no legs”.
With his mind made up on trying to fly, Arthur looked for help. “I looked online and found the British Disabled Flying Association, now Aerobility. But a part of my brain was saying that it was going to be a brick wall−pilots have to be fit, alert, not have any physical problems−how would I get into the blinking aeroplane in the first place? But this was something I had to do, so I called them, and much to my surprise they couldn’t have been more accommodating. ‘Come down, we’ll get you in an aeroplane and you can see how it’s done’, they said”.
So Arthur went to Lasham−he was driving himself by then−got into a PA-28, and flew with his instructor, “a great guy called Mike Owen,” he says. “I took hold of the controls, and I was in control of an aeroplane, as a disabled person, and it was absolutely the best feeling. It had the Visionair hand control, which is a metal bar bolted to the right hand rudder pedal, so I had full control. I moved the yoke and made the aeroplane go up and down, and I was absolutely hooked, not only enthralled by the experience, but by the ability to have the experience”.
In a way, that flight for Arthur was almost like being born again. “Flying reconnected me with that passion I had as a kid. It gives everybody a sense of freedom, but I felt the restrictions and constraints of the earth more than most because of my disability, and for me the feeling is exaggerated. In an aeroplane I can do exactly the same as anybody else, so I feel that freedom on a different level”.
The zest for life was back, along with plans. “I was full of questions. Can I get my pilot’s licence? Sure you can. Can I do this commercially? Sure you can, nothing in the rulebook says you can’t work commercially. So that was me on my course, I had absolutely no idea what sort of job in aviation I was going to do, I didn’t know if it would be an airline pilot, a flying instructor, whatever, all I knew was that I needed to fly.”
Not surprisingly, Arthur is enthusiastic about the people that helped him rediscover aviation: “Aerobility is just fantastic,” he says, “Mike Owen is CFI and he’s one of the best. And the PA-28 lends itself very well to the disabled person. You go to the wing root, transfer onto the walkway which is about the same level as the wheelchair, and there’s a compartment at the back of the fuselage where you can stow the wheelchair through a flap−pin it up, dismantle the wheelchair and put it in, then move up the wing and into the cockpit, brilliant!”
This time, too, Arthur’s achievements did not come without efforts, or discipline. “Lasham was two hours each way from Worcestershire and I spent a lot of time on the road. I did my NPPL, and while I didn’t have to struggle with anything it particular, in every single lesson my mental capacity was overloaded. I remember being asked to make very simple calculations and judgements, and not being able to do that, I was so focussed on maintaining height and heading, but it comes.
“The qualifying cross-country was no problem with the wheelchair in the back, just roll it down the wing and go and pay the fee. I’ve never had any negative response to my flying, everyone’s always been incredibly encouraging and cheerful, from the little boy at the airfield fence to the Head of Medical and Engineering at the CAA, which is just one of the reasons why I love it so much. I thought with the CAA I would hit a bureaucratic wall where they would try to discourage me, but to their eternal credit, Medical and Engineering have always said to me, ‘Arthur, prove to us you can do it safely, fulfil the same criteria as anybody else, and you can do anything,’ something you don’t expect from a bureaucratic institution. They’ve never said that I can’t fly for an airline, that it’s not practical and it won’t happen. It’s an open door−I prove to them I can do it and they will support me.”
Arthur got his licence and looked around for the best route to becoming a commercial pilot. He built up his hours, started a night rating and an IR(R). Then in 2009 a friend sent him an article from a newspaper which changed everything. The article told how Channel 4 was looking for disabled presenters to cover the 2012 Paralympic Games. The friend who sent it wrote on the bottom, ‘Arthur, put in for this, because you need a job, you’re not bad looking, and you’re a gobshite.’
Turning to television
Arthur says: “I called the number and they said ‘yes, we’re looking for disabled reporters, presenters and production people for the 2012 Paralympics which we’ve just won the bid for. Go and make us a three-minute video of you talking to the camera about something you’re passionate about’. So I made one about my racing wheelchair−I was getting into the sport to stay fit−and I sent it in. Channel 4 absolutely loved it, they’d never even seen anyone getting in and out of a racing wheelchair and sitting there discussing it, and they offered me some money and training as a television presenter. Just like that. Amazing.”
There’s more to presenting than simply babbling to camera, and Arthur went to the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield to learn the ropes. “I put make-up on and presented live programmes from studios there−goodness knows how much it must have cost them to train me. I didn’t watch much TV but I knew something about Paralympic sport because I was training at the time, and I made it my business to know about it.
“Then I went on placement, following Aviva Premiership Rugby. When Austin Healey did his highlights show I would watch how he was doing it, take notes, and at the end I’d ask everyone of the staff if they’d mind staying where they were. I’d jump into Austin’s seat and I practised introducing some sport clips, and they’d stay for twenty minutes to help me out.
“In January 2010 I signed a contract with Channel 4 to present the 2012 London Paralympic Games, the biggest live event in their history. You’ve got six or seven million people watching everything you do: every slip of the tongue, every wrong statement will be jumped on, and you can’t dry up. Your concentration has to be super sharp. In aviation you fly the aircraft five minutes ahead, but with presenting, thirty seconds ahead you need to know exactly where you’re going. The most difficult skill I had to learn was listening to your interviewee while taking instruction in your earpiece, you’d be having a conversation meanwhile the producer is telling you to make this the last question and lead into a break. So, the worst moment I had was one day when I was listening to the producer and my interviewee cracked a joke, and it completely passed me by−I went deadpan into the break and I looked and felt a complete prat”.
But, despite that episode, the Paralympics were a success, and it became clear that the TV industry was ready for a presenter on a wheelchair. “I presented London 2012 alongside a small team with Clare Balding and Jonathan Edwards, and it went really well. I thought it would be a one-off, a stunt they wanted to pull, but we won a Bafta and I was a hit: they put me on a retained contract as a presenter. I had the World Championships in 2013, the European swimming championships, then the winter games in Sochi… so I could afford to finish my night rating, but my priorities were starting to change. At Channel 4 I was doing something that looked like it might turn into a proper job… so flying became an adjunct to life, rather than the whole reason for living.”
At the Channel 4 Christmas Party, Arthur found himself at the bar with John Hay, the channel’s commissioning editor for Specialist Factual, who knew about his military and aviation background and suggested he do some documentaries. “We kicked around some ideas but none of them hit the spot,” says Arthur. “Then he asked me: ‘What’s your favourite aeroplane?’ thinking I’d choose the Concorde, or the Spitfire or something like that−but straight away I said, ‘The de Havilland Mosquito’. John knew almost nothing about it, so I gave him an outline: I talked about the brilliant design, spurned by the government but produced anyway, and the 400mph speed that would outpace any fighter of the time”.
John Hay was taken with the idea, and the result was the rather hyperbolically-titled The Plane that Saved Britain, in which Arthur told the Mosquito story, interviewed former Mossie pilots and even got to fly in the world’s only airworthy Mosquito, one of the great experiences of his life. If you didn’t see the original you can catch it on Youtube: not only will you learn about the Mosquito, but Arthur’s passion and enthusiasm for everything that flies will shine though. As a result of this first aviation programme, he was set to work on another aviation series for Channel 4, Flying to the Ends of the Earth.
The two series of Flying to the Ends of the Earth took him exactly where the title says. “We went to Nepal, Australia, New Guinea, northern Canada−and the point of the show was to tell the story of how remote communities are supported at the ends of the earth by aviation. In some areas you have pilots who are the only reasonable link with the outside world, such as the Himalayas. And of course we went to Lukla, the jumping-off point for Everest, quite probably the most beautiful and most dangerous airfield on the planet−although there’s a lot of competition. I went flying with missionary pilots in New Guinea, into some impossibly-forbidding airstrips, and went heli-mustering in Australia, which didn’t cure my suspicions about helicopters.”
Arthur had bought a Piper Cub in 2012 which led him to his next series, which found even greater favour with British pilots because it was close to home. Flying Across Britain saw him flying his Cub around the country looking at our GA airfields and their unusual stories. He got to tool around in some special kit, land on water, fly a Spitfire, and reach the remote fringe of the Isle of Sheppey where the British aviation industry first got off the ground.
“I’d bought the Cub, G-BDEY, in order to modify it with hand controls,” he says. “I wanted to fly tailwheel for the challenge, and with the help of an engineer we came up with a simple modification: a lever on the left side−forward for right rudder, backwards for left−with a twist-grip throttle on the top. It attached to cables running around pulleys where the pedals had been, and it worked really well.
“I had to put the bigger engine in it, the O-200, which apart from being more powerful had the electric start. Echo Yankee was built in 1943 as an L-4 which was delivered to Army Ground Forces in Belgium in 1944. I’ve got all the serial numbers and the build records, and I’ve been through all the American archives but I don’t know what she did in the war, it seems the records were destroyed [in a postwar fire at Fort Sill−Ed]. But given where she was and when, it’s more than likely that she was involved in some way in the Battle of the Bulge.
“She seemed like the perfect choice for me: benign, slow, relatively cheap, and the wheelchair fits in the back, the places we can get to in a day, the fun we have, I’ve always worked well with her.”
His adventures during Flying Across Britain were enough to make any pilot jealous, something he was acutely aware of. “First thing they’d say is, ‘There’s a guy out there in a Piper Cub, making a series and being paid for it… that can’t be right!’ So we had to make sure we covered all the bases, obtaining an expert opinion on the legality of it. And it turned out that as I was being paid for my broadcasting skills, not my flying, it was all legal−although I couldn’t carry a cameraman in the back of the plane, as that would have made it commercial work. But we had no complaints.”
Since then Arthur has done a two-part series on D-Day with Peter Snow and a one-hour documentary on the difficulties faced by disabled soldiers coming back from WWI. He has also done a three-part series with Michael Buerk, broadcast in recent weeks, for Channel 5 on the major battles of WWII.
Aviation and TV have, in a way, given Arthur a new life, and he is now a true broadcasting professional. But, in his own words, it’s not like being a Royal Marine. “This is really nice, I’m coming up onto a level where the worst of my disability is behind me and I’m kind of back in my groove again. I’m enjoying life with a great job, wonderful girlfriend, having overcome this blip, being my own man again. But there are still things, every single day, that I get frustrated about. I’m currently renovating a house and, if I need to point the chimney breast, I have to create some sort of frame I can hoist myself up on, while at one time I would have just turned a bucket upside down and got up there. I’m thirty-four, I should be able to do things.
“So the problem that I have, and I realise this, is that I am forever, as a paralysed person, comparing my abilities now with my abilities before the accident, abilities I will never achieve again because I’m bloody paralysed. And therefore I’m setting myself up to be constantly disappointed, and I must not do that. I must look at it like, ‘Arthur, you’re in a wheelchair, you’re pointing a chimney yourself anyway, most people would get a bloke in, so congratulate yourself on being able to do that, and get on with life’. That’s the dark side of paralysis, and that’s the misery of it. But I’m extremely happy as a person and I feel extremely fulfilled in life. I live a very good life, and I love it.”
Artur Williams is not fond of helicopters. “Every ‘moment’ I’ve had involved one,” he says. “The first was in the Marines, where we used low-flying Chinooks for tactical insertion into difficult areas, and we’re all sitting there in sticks with our rifles facing the floor and feeling sorry for ourselves at the prospect of spending the next two weeks in a muddy puddle. Suddenly the loadmaster started running around like a headless chicken – he went up the front and stayed there, the helicopter landed unexpectedly and we were all told to get out and walk. “Why? We were nowhere near where we were supposed to be. We went on foot, and when we got back two weeks later, we found out the Chinook had had engine problems and had to put down that very instant. How close had it been? Well, I can say that it was not confidence-inspiring.
“Then in Siberia for the second series of Flying to the Ends of the Earth, we almost got killed again. Siberia’s not a very nice place, the people are surly and it’s cold and you fly in some strange craft that you might look at askance in other circumstances. We flew from Irkutsk to a tiny town called Oymyakon then took an Antonov An-2, the big old single-engined biplane. We flew an hour and a half out into the wilderness, and it was by far the most remote place I’ve ever been on earth. It was about three hundred miles from the nearest settlement and within that radius there couldn’t have been five hundred people.
“We were at a frozen lake where, supposedly, an Airacobra aeroplane had landed on the ice and sunk when the Americans were trying to supply Russia from the east during the war. We had a crew and some specialist divers, and we were supported by the worst example of a helicopter I have ever seen, the Mi-2. Along with the cameraman, sound man and director I went out to the hole in the ice on a skidoo and set up the camera, and it was minus 30° and snowing. We used the skidoos to compact the snow to make a landing area for the helicopter, but when he came in to land he ignored the landing area and seemed to want to get as close to the hole and the camera as he could. He came in to land ridiculously close, the rotors a few metres away from us, and suddenly there was a real violent blast, and we looked back to see the tail rotor has been smashed off by the ice and the boom was hanging down.
“So we had lost our helicopter, the An-2 had gone back to Irkutsk, we had a few days’ rations, it was madly cold and there was only a log cabin for shelter. We had a satphone that often couldn’t get a signal that far north and we managed to talk to London, then we sat it out for three days while they arranged to get us out. They spoke to Irkutsk, who spoke to Oymyakon in their own time, and they sent a tractor out to dig a trail through the tundra to get to us. And we didn’t know whether they were coming for us or not.
“I enjoyed it because I could use my Arctic training to get by, but some of the others got cabin fever and broke down… they were media, not military. There’s a big difference between going out on an exercise where you look like you’re taking a risk, and finding a real adventure. And it did make great TV.” Google ‘Arthur Williams helicopter crash’ for some entertainment at his expense.
Life transformed by Aerobility
A big part of starting anew, for Arthur, was finding the motivation and energy for a new type of life. And by the looks of it, it appears that a lot of that motivation came from Arthur’s first flight with Aerobility, a ‘born again’ moment for him. “I did Come Dine With Me recently, and whenever I do something for charity like that I donate the money to Aerobility,” he says. “I think Mike Miller-Smith, who’s their Chief Executive, is the single most motivated, cheerful, blue-sky-thinking guy I’ve ever met. Mike’s in a wheelchair – he used to be a commercial pilot but he’s got muscular dystrophy, and he commits every moment of his waking life, every second of every day to Aerobility, and to giving people with all sorts of disabilities this fantastic opportunity. They gave him an MBE but he should be bloody knighted.
“If anybody reading this wants to do a bit of good for flying and for people with disabilities, give some money to Aerobility. It transformed my life, and you can help them transform the lives of others who really need your help.”