Realising very quickly that university wasn’t right for him, Alex decided to pursue his love of air sports as a career. Today he is the Managing Director of SkySchool, Europe’s leading Paramotoring school.
You left Radley in 2002, what did you do next?
My original plan was to have a year out, go to university and spend a number of years in the military. This was the expectation of both me and my parents because that was the environment I had been brought up in, with my father being a career soldier.
What did you do during your gap year?
I set myself a series of goals: learn to skydive, become a snowboard instructor, learn how to scuba dive, and do some mountaineering. It wasn’t so much a case of trying to ‘find myself’ more a challenge of what was right for me. So, I did the land, sea and air bit and obviously was very attracted to the airborne aspects. Whilst doing all of this I started writing about how adventure sports could be made more accessible to the layman. What I didn’t realise at the time is that this would form the basis of a business plan.
In 2002 the main source of information when travelling was the Lonely Planet series but that didn’t have much information about any of activities I was interested in. Questions like ‘Where is the best place to skydive in New Zealand?’ or ‘What is the best place to go climbing?’ And that’s when I came up with an idea; I could travel around the world doing all of these sports and then write travel guidebooks. Unfortunately, the internet soon destroyed that thought!
However, what I did come to realise during my travels was I was certain I didn’t want to be an employee, I wanted to be the boss and I wanted to be entrepreneurial.
Did you go to university?
Does attending one lecture count!? I stayed until I had exhausted the student loan. History and Media Studies was the plan – but when they ask the question was Kyle Minogue a celebrity or a popstar, I knew I was in the wrong place! My dad came to chat to me and said he had seen my ‘business plan’, what I had achieved on my travels, and my passion for the adventure sports. He said he would invest in my idea which really surprised me, especially coming from a traditional military family.
What do you think made him so supportive, and not to persuade you to ‘knuckle down’?
I think he had gone through a fair bit of adversity in his life and realised that you can’t always write a script and expect to stick to it.
How did SkySchool get off the ground? – no pun intended!
By pure luck I met an old family friend, Gilo Cardozo, who happened to be a skydiver as well. He was an engineering genius. A few years before he had borrowed James Blunt’s (the singer) dad’s paramotor, taught himself how to fly it, crashed it, rebuilt it, and realised he could do a better job with the build aspect. Out in Cyprus he had a company that made paramotors and at the same time was dabbling in teaching people how to fly them and he asked if I wanted to take on the school. Within two hours, and after a few drinks, we were business partners – I was 20 years old. Six months later I was an entrepreneur running my own business and within a year a Managing Director of a limited company. I learnt on the job and employed better people than me. I think that’s the great thing about the confidence of youth, you have nothing to lose; your experience might be zero, but your enthusiasm is full on.
What are paramotors?
You have a paraglider above your head and an engine on your back, like a rucksack. The great thing about paramotoring is that it is the most cost-effective form of powered aviation. You don’t need a licence to fly in the UK, though I recommend you get one. To get a private pilot’s licence will cost £40,000 to £45,000 compared to paramotoring which is below £12,000 for all the training and brand-new equipment. Then you have the freedom of the skies, excluding near airports of course!
This sport really appeals to people who like the idea of flying, want to be adventurous but not too extreme. I’ve trained people in their mid-teens to those in their 70s, from royalty in the Middle East to the bloke next door.
Is paramotoring a safe sport?
Statistically it is the safest air sport as you move quite slowly. I describe what we do as an adventure sport, not an extreme sport like base jumping which one day will have your name on it. The safe cruising altitude is approximately 500 feet/150 metres which is still low enough to see everything beneath you. Safety in aviation is about giving yourself options and giving yourself time, so height equals time equal safety. Which, ironically, means the higher you are the safer you are. You have more time to deal with engine failure, or turbulence, change in the wind, plotting where you’re going to land. I’ve been part of a pioneering movement to increase safety, spreading the word of how to do things properly, and encouraging people to be trained!
Has SkySchool changed much since 2005?
Now we’re based in the UK, and run courses in the UK, Spain and Portugal and established as Europe’s leading paramotoring school. We have flying trips in the UK, Europe and around the world, UAE, Oman. Over the years we’ve been in involved in many adventure air-sport projects. In 2011 I set up APPI which is responsible for issuing instructor licenses around the world. I have spent a lot of time travelling the world training the trainers and helping them to operate. It takes to me to all sorts or weird and wonderful places.Initially, I was teaching 30 to 40 people a year and now the school teaches nearly 400 people a year.
You clearly have an entrepreneurial mindset, spotting opportunities.
Actually, there’s a term for what I do, it’s called adventure-entrepreneurism. I’m not trying to be the next Elon Musk and take over the world but trying to make a living out of doing something that I’m passionate about while being able to take part in it at the same time. It’s a fine balance to make sure you’re not constantly working and having the lifestyle that you initially got into it for. That’s really important to me. Otherwise, I would lose the enthusiasm and the drive.
Have there been any tough moments when you’ve wondered if you are doing the right thing?
I think the toughest moments are when you have to deal with worst case scenarios. There have been incidents where people I know have died or had serious accidents. It is nearly always due to pilot error, over confidence. When the shock is over you assess the situation; could that have happened to me, is it something we can learn from, was it avoidable? The day I answer that could have happened to me and it wasn’t avoidable is the day I may change my mind about paramotoring.
How do you market SkySchool?
Social media is the best. We have a good presence on Google, a lot of time and money is spent on SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). You’ll find me on YouTube teaching people how to land or mend things; YouTube videos are a fantastic sales tools, it gains trust, and people can buy in to what you represent. We have an Instagram site, and while we do not get a huge number of enquiries its important because it’s one of the first things people do, check out your website and Instagram page.
In 2014 you ran an expedition to Kenya ‘Flying for Heroes’, how did that come about?
A good friend of mine was blown up in Afghanistan and lost both his legs. I thought ‘let’s get you flying’, paramotor trikes were the ideal vehicle as once you’re up in the air everyone’s equal. The idea became bigger; why teach just one person when you can teach a group. We managed to get funding from Help for Heroes, and not just to train people but enough funding to run the expedition to Kenya.
The idea was conceived in late 2011 and took two and half years to come to fruition. There was a point when I thought we would never pull it off, but it just shows you should never give up on your visions and dreams. To date it is still the biggest, and most satisfying, project I have ever been involved in. It was very humbling teaching these guys. We taught 8 to fly and took 6 on the expedition.
You live in France, but SkySchool is based in the UK, how does that work for you?
If I’m going be an adventure-entrepreneur I have to live that life. It would be hypocritical of me to sit back and make the money and then live a suburban existence. I’m in a fortunate position where I don’t need to be with the business all the time. I made a conscious decision seven years ago to move to the home of adventure sports in Chamonix and to pursue my love of flying, running, and getting out into the mountains.
How long do you see yourself living this lifestyle?
For as long as the body holds up! The lesson I need to learn is how to look after myself a bit better.
What could Radley have done differently to help you be better prepared for the working world?
My father described me as a fully signed up member of the awkward squad. What would have worked for me was a better understanding and acceptance of those that don’t fit into the ‘norm’, or what I saw as the Radley mould. I don’t resent that, ironically it gave me the drive to be a success – I wanted to prove any doubters wrong. Radley certainly gave me the confidence to believe in myself.
I think Radley could have done more about money, incomes and outgoings, and if you’re going to be an entrepreneur how do you gauge risk, where do you start? Overall, more encouragement for people to pursue alternative paths.
If you fancy having a go about at Paramotoring click here to visit the website: https://www.skyschooluk.com/
SkySchool’s Top Five Flying Trips on YouTube