The 60,000-strong Air Cadet Organisation (ACO) is one of the UK's largest national voluntary youth organisations. Part-sponsored by the Royal Air Force, the ACO has an outstanding record of investment in young people from all social and ethnic backgrounds. The ACO encompasses the Air Training Corps (ATC) and the RAF sections of the Combined Cadet Force (CCF), and provides a structured programme of activities and training opportunities designed to achieve the following broad aims:

  • To promote and encourage a practical interest in aviation, the RAF and the other Services
    among young people.
  • To provide training that will be useful both in the Services and in civilian life.
  • To foster a spirit of adventure and to develop qualities of leadership as well as good citizenship.

The ACO's success in achieving these objectives can be measured by the high degree of respect afforded to air cadets within their local communities, and by civilian and military employers alike.

So what exactly is the secret of helping young people to become high flyers? Air Commodore Jon Chitty, Commandant Air Cadets, explains: "Quite simply, we give our cadets the opportunity to gain self-confidence and develop strong personal qualities, whilst taking part in exciting and challenging activities. The air cadet training syllabus is comprehensive, and both cadets and staff can gain nationally recognised qualifications. We aim to develop enthusiastic and responsible members of society who strive to succeed in whatever occupation they choose - and the results prove we are successful."

The activities and opportunities available to members of the Air Cadet Organisation (ACO) are certainly impressive. From flying to community work, adventure training to BTEC qualifications and navigation to target shooting, the list is endless.

Knowledgeable About Aviation

It is the flying opportunities that most obviously distinguish the ATC from other youth organisations. Many air cadets take control of an aircraft before they drive a car! A comprehensive syllabus of aviation-related instruction is taught on a weekly basis. Subjects covered include principles of flight, radio procedures, aircraft recognition and meteorology.

The first flying experience for most cadets is gained in a two-seat Grob Tutor aircraft based at one of 12 Air Experience Flights (AEFs) around the country. AEF Instructors are recruited from current and former regular Service pilots. Flying is scheduled largely at weekends and during week-long camps during Easter and Summer holidays in order to enable as many cadets to participate as possible.

The ACO also has 89 winch-launched Viking gliders and 59 Vigilant motor-gliders based at 27 Volunteer Gliding Schools throughout the UK. Volunteer gliding instructors (some are VR(T) officers) are generally ex-cadets or civilians who demonstrate aptitude and have an interest in gliding. The gliding courses available to cadets stretch from basic level through solo courses, to advanced B Category instructing qualifications for cadets over the age of 20. Each year the ACO completes over 78,000 glider launches, 18,000 hours of flying and sends over 18,000 cadets solo. Some cadets also become staff cadets, assisting at an AEF or Volunteer Gliding School in exchange for extra flights. Other flying opportunities open to cadets include hang-gliding, parachuting and micro-lighting.

Another important element in educating young people about aviation is the close link between the ACO and the RAF. Each squadron and CCF(RAF) section is parented by an RAF station, some are adopted by RAF squadrons, and wherever possible cadets are given the opportunity to visit RAF stations. This introduces them to every type of RAF aircraft, and to the pilots, engineers and other ground staff who fly, maintain and support them. This experience also gives cadets a good insight to wider RAF life.

Adventurous

The ACO's commitment to fostering a spirit of adventure is reflected in the range of activities on offer to air cadets. Apart from teaching skills such as rock climbing, canoeing, and abseiling, adventure training is invaluable in instilling confidence, determination and developing teamwork. In addition to activities organised at ATC wing/squadron and CCF(RAF) section level, cadets can also attend residential courses at two specialist Air Cadet National Adventure Training Centres based in Wales and the Lake District.

Air cadets are encouraged to participate in numerous sports including athletics, cross-country, hockey, football, netball, rugby and swimming. There are also opportunities to compete at local, regional and national levels.

The ACO is also the Commonwealth's highest achieving Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme operating authority. At any one time there are 15,000 cadets participating in the scheme, and 3000 per year gain gold, silver and bronze awards.

Responsible

As befits a military organisation, high standards of behaviour and appearance are expected from all air cadets. A strictly regulated target shooting syllabus, regular drill practice at parade nights and First Aid are three examples of activities which contribute to developing mature and responsible young people. Such attributes cause cadets to be well regarded within their local communities, and they are encouraged to play an active role. With 930 ATC squadrons, 189 CCF(RAF) sections and the support of over 15,000 adult volunteers throughout the country, air cadets make a significant contribution to their local communities in many practical ways. For many people in isolated areas, air cadets are the visible face of the RAF. Cadets can be found offering support to senior citizens' homes, helping to improve the local environment and assisting at community events. Air cadets also raise over 200,000 for charity each year.

For 80 senior cadets each year there is also the option of acting as 'ambassadors' for Britain by participating in the International Air Cadet Exchange (IACE).

Employable

Both civilian and military employers recognize that former air cadets make good employees, and training and qualifications gained by cadets are recognised at a national level. Qualifications offered by the ACO include BTEC Certificates in Public Service and Aviation Studies, Sports Coaching and Officiating Awards and RAF Gliding Instructor Categories. Air cadet activities are also acknowledged on individuals' National Record of Achievement. Experience gained by staff may be used to contribute to NVQ Level 3 certificates, and a City and Guilds Adult Education Teachers Certificate is currently under trial.

Many major civilian companies say they look favourably on cadets because they demonstrate qualities vital in the workplace, including teamwork, discipline, confidence and self-motivation. Many former cadets are recognised as leaders in spheres such as industry, science, sport and entertainment. Notable luminaries include Nobel Prize for Medicine winner Sir Paul Nurse; Olympic gold medallist Linford Christie; senior BBC correspondent Laura Trevelyn; former England rugby star and RAF pilot Rory Underwood; Rolls Royce Chairman Sir Ralph Robbins, former James Bond actor Timothy Dalton; boxing champion John Conteh;- the list goes on..

Although the ACO is not a recruiting organisation for HM Forces, many air cadets do make the RAF their first career choice. In fact 52% of all RAF officers and 19% of all other RAF personnel were once air cadets.

The Future

Without doubt, the ACO's proven ability to instil a sense of adventure, teamwork, pride and responsibility in large numbers of young people fully justifies the Air Cadets' 'Next Generation' motto. Air Commodore Chitty's verdict for the future? "We look forward to building success upon success, and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so for many years to come."