Be a brickie, squadron leader was advised

RAF pilot Duncan Swainston had always wanted to take to the skies when he was growing up in Weisdale.

So he was surprised when a careers adviser urged him to take up a more down-to-earth career as a brick-layer.

The Squadron Leader decided against following the advice and followed his dream of learning to fly. That proved to be a good decision.

The 35-year old – who has served with the air force in troubled hot-spots – has flown in locations all over the globe. He has also been an instructor, helping a new generation of pilots realise their ambitions.

His story came full circle this week when he flew an RAF King Air to Sumburgh Airport to meet would-be pilots – and offer some more encouraging advice than he had received.

Fifteen young sea-scouts visited the airport on Monday night to learn more about flying – and have a nose around the aircraft. High school youngsters from the isles were also given the chance of a look.

Squadron Leader Swainston said the visit helped undo the “bad karma” done to him when he visited the career’s convention at the Clickimin Centre as a senior pupil at the Anderson High School.

“When I went to the careers convention at the Clickimin when I was in fifth or sixth year, and mentioned to the career’s adviser that I fancied a career in the military as a pilot, I was kind of told, ‘well, there’s not much chance of that, but have you considered bricklaying’?”

He stressed there was nothing wrong with being a brickie, but he was surprised to have received the advice as he had never shown any indication of wanting to enter the construction industry.

“I had never hinted I had been interested in bricklaying at all, so I was a bit surprised. There was maybe a bit of a dearth in bricklayers for Shetland at the time.

“I grew up in Weisdale and went to Whiteness Primary School and on to Scalloway Junior High and then to Anderson for fifth and sixth year.

“I guess I knew from a pretty early age that I fancied joining the air force. A couple of times I’d seen the [low-level aircraft] Buccaneers flying up and down the valley from Weisdale.”

Spurning the unexpected advice, the young Mr Swainston became ever-more determined. He attended lectures at Glasgow University, opting to join the university air squadron at the same time to gain some flying experience. He joined the air force full-time after graduating.

“Essentially when I went to be interviewed by the air force and they said, ‘what support have you been given from school?’ I told them about my career’s advice.

“They asked me, ‘why didn’t you take that advice?’ and I said, ‘Well, if you take that kind of advice you’re not going to get anywhere’.

“I got my pilot qualification in Australia, and then I came back to the UK and did my first operational tour on a Hercules C-130 transport plane.”

Having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, he became an instructor – taking new pilots through their initial flying training for the air force. From there he went to Las Vegas and had a hand on the controls of UAV – unmanned aerial vehicles – “that were causing a bit of a stink in the news”.

After his stint in the States he flew the large surveillance aircraft, the Sentinel R1. But it was as Squadron 45 Leader, a multi-engined pilot training squadron, that he was given the chance to come back to his home island to offer some – hopefully encouraging – careers advice.

“We were invited by the Aberdeen air force careers office to collaborate on a visit up to the Shetland islands to engage with isolated rural communities to hopefully spark a bit of interest.

“I thought I would return and undo the bad karma that was done to me. On the Monday night we met with a group of sea scouts and I got to tell them what we did and what we were up to and took them about the plane.

“The next day a group of school students came down from Sandwick and Brae and the Anderson High and we talked through some stuff.

“The chance to take an aircraft up was offered. I thought it would be a good idea to come back up to Shetland and create a bit of awareness.”


Add Your Comment
  • Robert Cumming

    • June 30th, 2013 12:02

    I’m 37 and in 2nd year at Aith Junior High I received careers advice – to be a truck driver or a digger driver – despite not showing much interest in that line of work. I have nothing against those professions and have good friends in it, but at the time I struggled to see where the adviser came up with that career path.

    I decided to ignore that advice and follow my own path. Since then I went to university to study engineering and have worked in the design of Formula 1 cars and military aircraft.

    Today I design (civil) aircraft, specifically the design of the Airbus A350XWB which entered the test flight stage a few weeks ago.

    Live your own dream – tomorrow is what you make it.

  • David Spence

    • June 30th, 2013 14:58

    Robert, may be we should become a banker or politician and learn the fine art of how to fiddle ones expenses or charge the customer over-inflated, unjust fee’s for a rather pathetic, not worth the money service, the biggest ‘ rooks ‘ in society put upon us. What a fantastic situation they are in, the *ankers, a win-win one, based on the bail-out billions they have received from the tax payer and they still charge unfair fee’s for services rendered, and to add insult to injury, a pathetic interest rate of 1, 2 or, if you are lucky, 3%………but they make far, far more money off the interest using your money and not their own (mind you, the banks can easily make their own money and get the consumer to pay big time for it via the ‘ mint ‘ – in other words, they do not have to do anything to get rich or produce money)

    When it comes to the personification of evil, corruption, bringing the worst out in human nature, the *anker’s are the masters……..the sooner we………. the better.

  • Bjorn Sandison

    • June 30th, 2013 15:43

    I was in the same class as Duncan at school, and remember one sunny afternoon in 5th year went out of school instead of into higher maths, walked into town and went to the careers advice office as we had a mutual interest in becoming pilots. We were literally laughed at when asked what we wanted to do. Our advice was that we were wasting our time, and why do we want to fly anyway, as “all pilots are a bunch of b******s!” Not exactly the key to open the door of success we were looking for.
    Perhaps it was reverse psychology careers advice we were given, as it certainly made me too more determined to pursue my goal. I wasn’t offered an alternative choice like Duncan or Robert above, but I was determined to become a b*****d and got my commercial licence through my own hard work and determination, and am currently a training captain on the air ambulance based in Aberdeen.
    It’s funny how those words of ‘advice’ have stuck with me over the years, and I often wonder how many young people may have heeded such lazy advice and now regret not pursuing a goal because they were told they couldn’t.

    Don’t let anyone ever tell you you can’t be whatever you want to be.

  • Ian McGregor

    • July 1st, 2013 7:47

    I had the opposite experience with my career guidance officer back in 1974. Had just started 6th year and didn’t really want to be there and had no clue as to what I wanted to do. Was asked what I was good at and advised was good at woodwork and liked making things. You should become an engineer said the guidance officer. I didn’t realise I had all the required qualifications to go to university so within a few days the career guidance officer found me a last minute place on an engineering degree course which i started the following week. Several years later I had masters and batchelors degrees in engineering and was a chartered engineer. Am now in a senior position with an oil company and work international. Had it not been for that poarticular career guidance officer i could be stacking shelfs in a warehouse. Career guidance officers am sure can give the wrong advise however in my case and am sure in many others they get it right..

  • Johan Adamson

    • July 1st, 2013 9:23

    There was definitely a lack of ambition in our era too, in the careers service. If you were bright and female it was “well you’ll be a teacher or a nurse then”. Whilst there is nothing wrong with these careers, they weren’t for me, and there was scant information about other education or teaching related jobs never mind anything else. One primary teacher we had said ‘head for the stars then you have a chance of hitting the trees” I always liked that.

    I too wanted to join the RAF to become a pilot but at the time they didnt let women fly. They do now – go for it.

  • Lee cartwright

    • July 2nd, 2013 9:55

    I went to a careers evening back in the ’70s in my home town in Yorkshire.

    The three ‘paths’ that were expected of us (coming out of a Secondary Modern) were : Go into manufacturing, the woollen industry or go down t’pit.
    I remember idly wandering up to the National Coal Board stand, the representative looked at me and said “You don’t want to go down pit, lad – there’s no future in it”. Which took me aback, somewhat.

    How right he was.

    Me? I joined the Royal Navy, had a fantastic time and have never looked back.


Add Your Comment

Please note, it is the policy of The Shetland Times to publish comments and letters from named individuals only. Both forename and surname are required.

Comments are moderated. Contributors must observe normal standards of decency and tolerance for the opinions of others.

The views expressed are those of contributors and not of The Shetland Times.

The Shetland Times reserves the right to decline or remove any contribution without notice or stating reason.

Comments are limited to 200 words but please email longer articles or letters to for consideration and include a daytime telephone number and your address. If emailing information in confidence please put "Not for publication" in both the subject line and at the top of the main message.

200 words left

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.