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Trailblazing skies: A tale of three Air bp Sterling pilot scholars’ soaring achievements

Release date:
May 2024
Left to right Zoe Burnett, Max Ellison and Elise Hammond
With our Sterling pilot scholarship continuing to support aspiring young aviators, we catch up with three of our previous pilot scholars to see what they’re up to now.


While the prospect of becoming a pilot is undeniably exciting, it comes with a set of challenges, including the financial investment required, which for many aspiring aviators can be a major hurdle. Air bp established its Sterling pilot scholarship in 2015 to address this challenge and every year since then (with the exception of 2020 due to Covid-19) has collaborated with the Honourable Company of Air Pilots (HCAP) to support a young person in achieving their Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL). We look back at three Air bp Sterling pilot scholars who have now completed their PPL to find out what it meant to them and how it’s progressed their flightpath to their future.



Zoe Burnett

Completed PPL in 2016

The first female Air bp scholar, Zoe Burnett completed her PPL eight years ago when she was just 17.  “I grew up in Aberdeen close to an airport, so was used to seeing aircraft flying around. But it was after being flown on an air experience with the Air Cadets that I knew being a pilot was the career for me, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to fund my training,” she says.


While researching pathways into a career in aviation through the HCAP, she came across Air bp’s Sterling pilot scholarship. “Funding a flying career is a huge challenge, which is why opportunities such as the Sterling pilot scholarship are critical in enabling more young people to learn to fly when it simply wouldn’t otherwise be possible.”


Zoe completed her PPL at Tayside Aviation in Dundee, Scotland and much to envy of her friends had learnt to fly a plane before she could drive a car.


Achieving her PPL was the first step in her pilot training and at the age of 18 she was then accepted on Flybe’s cadet scheme at FTEJerez in southern Spain. “I lived there for around 14 months and completed my commercial flight training, before being employed as a First Officer for Flybe flying a 78-seat turboprop - the Dash 8 Q400 – at the age of 19.”


Following flying with Flybe, Zoe’s experience as a pilot and her determination to continue flying saw her gain employment with Scottish carrier, Loganair flying passengers around the Highlands and Islands. She has since joined a UK based charter company and at just 23-years-old is currently flying an A330.


Reflecting on the highlights of her flying career to date, Zoe says that her first ever solo flight as a pilot scholar is a highlight of her journey, as is the time she flew her parents and grandparents for the first time. “The first time I flew solo to another airport was also a milestone in my PPL,” she says.


In what is traditionally seen as a male-dominated industry with women pilots representing only 6% of total pilot population, Zoe reveals her experience as a young female aviator has been really positive. “Since starting out on my PPL I have had plenty of support from colleagues and peers. I don’t feel that I’m treated any differently from my male colleagues, but it’s exciting and inspiring to see more and more females embarking on a career in this industry.”


Commenting on the challenges faced by the industry going forward, Zoe agrees sustainability is a major hurdle facing the industry. “However, recent developments in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) are a real step in the right direction.” She adds that with safety and security at the core of the industry, she was also fortunate to visit Air bp’s headquarters and gain further insight into the technology behind safe and efficient fuelling and “get a perspective from industry experts that pilots often don’t get to see.”


An inspiration to those following in her wings, Zoe might have come a long way since completing her PPL, but she hasn’t forgotten the opportunity and foundation the scholarship afforded her. “It gave me the confidence I needed to achieve my goal as a commercial pilot and I am immensely grateful for that opportunity,” she concludes. “I would encourage any young person looking to pursue a career as a pilot to explore scholarship opportunities.”


Max Ellison

PPL completed in 2021


Even from a young age, Max Ellison’s ambition has been to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) as a fast jet pilot. Having completed his PPL at Redhill in the UK three years ago, he’s on track for achieving just that. “I recently completed my Aeronautical Engineering degree at the University of Limerick and in April learned I had passed the final stage of selection for Officer & Aircrew selection centre (OASC) for the RAF. I am now counting down the days until my Aircrew Medical in May. Hopefully not long after that I’ll be given my start date.” he explains.


Born in the UK, Max grew up in the west of Ireland near to Shannon Airport. Although he currently flies as often as possible, it’s not quite as much as he would like. “Brexit has made it difficult for me to use my licence in Ireland, so I have maintained my currency flying occasionally in London. I am aiming to build my hours so I can covert my Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) PPL to a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) licence,” he revealed.


Max might have always been focused on becoming a pilot, but achieving his PPL was no mean feat. “The cost of funding flying lessons when I was a student were prohibitively expensive, so being awarded the Air bp Sterling pilot scholarship was a life-changing break for me. But it took me three years of applying before I won a place,” he reveals.


Looking back at the highlights of his PPL training, Max recalls one of his first flights when he was able to watch Spitfires in the distance performing aerobatics as a favourite moment. “Flying solo along the cliffs of Dover for the first time is another flight I’ll never forget. But beyond the training in the cockpit, completing the PPL in London enabled me to move overseas from my home in Ireland. Living alone, away from friends and family was a valuable life experience and a brilliant opportunity.”


The PPL training also exposed him to the challenges faced by aviation and what the flights of the future will look like. “Sustainability is obviously a huge talking point across the industry, but I find it difficult to imagine electric propulsion becoming the norm for commercial aviation within the next couple of decades. Similarly, there is a long way to go before the issues regarding hydrogen storage are solved. With that being said, I absolutely believe that SAF is a solution until other technologies mature.”


While young people coming into the industry are looking ahead to an evolving sector, this shouldn’t put them off, says Max. Certainly those interested in pursuing a career as a pilot but struggling with the financial commitment should explore opportunities such as Air bp’s scholarship programme. “Being an Air bp scholar jump started my journey. It set the foundations for my aviation career and I have gained many valuable contacts in the aviation industry because of it. I have no doubt that I would not be in the position I am in today without the help of Air bp.”


As for his advice to aspiring young aviators? Max is clear. “There’s no easy way into aviation, it’s a long journey and everyone has their ups and downs. If you know a career in aviation is what you want, my advice is to be committed and persistent. Don’t expect to see results overnight, but if you continue to gain experience and build connections, you’ll get there in the end.”


For Max that “long journey” is well underway and with his focus on becoming a fast jet pilot for the RAF at the forefront, he concludes that his dream aircraft would be the Eurofighter Typhoon. “I remember as a child seeing a picture of one for the first time in an Airfix model catalogue.  I was instantly hooked and knew there and then I wanted to fly one.”


Elise Hammond

PPL completed in 2022


One of the most recent Sterling pilot scholars, Elise is currently based in Reading where she is working as a Combined Cadet Force Adjutant and is training to join the RAF initially as an aircrew or in air traffic control. Ultimately her plan is to complete her commercial pilot’s licence and fly commercially.


“Air bp’s Sterling pilot scholarship provided me with solid foundations for my current and future career in aviation,” she says. “It allowed me to gain my PPL at an early age – something I simply couldn’t have afforded to for the foreseeable future. But thanks to the connection with the HCAP, it has also enabled me to build a network with a community of experienced aviators who provide fantastic support.”


Like her fellow Sterling pilot scholars, Elise asserts that achieving her PPL at such a young age would not have been possible without Air bp’s support. “Schemes like this are incredibly important. It provided me with an invaluable steppingstone on my path to becoming a commercial pilot and I simply wouldn’t have been able to complete my PPL for the foreseeable future due to financial constraints.”


Being a young female aviator, says Elise, means “having an opportunity to set a new stereotype for pilots and to make the industry more diverse and appealing to a wider range of people. It’s about pursuing my passion for aviation, while hopefully inspiring the next generation of young aviators to do the same.”


One of the unexpected benefits of the Sterling pilot scholarship for Elise was the understanding she gained of how critical safe and reliable fuelling is for the sector. “High quality fuel is essential in aviation as it reduces the likelihood of engine failures during flight. Knowing we have constant access to good quality fuel through providers such as Air bp is not only reassuring but also vital to daily operations as a pilot.”


Elise also underlines the role that companies such as Air bp play in developing SAF supply and production in line with the industry’s net-zero goals. “Sustainability is a major challenge across the industry. It’s encouraging to know that fuel suppliers are investing, researching and developing sustainable products, such as SAF.”


Although it’s still early days in her flying career, Elise has some words of wisdom for aspiring young aviators: “They should make the most of every opportunity presented to them. For school children, organisations such as the RAF Air Cadets are brilliant to gain knowledge and experience, while initiatives such as Air bp’s Sterling pilot scholarship are a valuable steppingstone to making your dream a reality.”


As for what her dream aircraft would be if she could fly anything in the world? She doesn’t hesitate. “I would love to fly a chinook. The sound is incredible and the aircraft is amazingly manoeuvrable for its size!”


Given her ambition and drive, it would be no surprise at all if that’s exactly what Elise ends up flying.



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