I always wanted to fly from an early age. A career in the RAF was scuppered before it had the chance to start by very slight colour blindness but, to be honest, I don’t think the military life would have suited me anyway. I first flew gliders with the Air Cadets and was solo at 16. Did a bit of gliding after leaving school (Silver C) but I always found it frustrating that you couldn’t just leap out of bed one day and think, “Cor, I’ll go flying!” It always depended on whether the club was open, if anyone was there to work the winch etc, etc. Not very spontaneous. Glider pilots always seemed to have a bit of a chip on their shoulder too. They always strut around, declaring “Oh, yes, flying without an engine makes you a much better pilot than someone with an engine..” They are almost certainly right but what a lot of them really mean is, “I love flying but I’m too skint to be able to afford to fly an aeroplane with an engine…”
My flying career began with the most incredible bit of luck. In fact it was so serendipitous that it convinced me that it was a ‘sign’ that I was destined to do it.
My dad was really, really late dropping me off for school one morning and I knew I’d be one of the lads who’d miss assembly and have to hang around outside waiting for the summary handing out of a detention. About 30 seconds after I arrived though, the teacher in charge of the air cadets appeared and quickly, almost furtively, pinned something to the air cadet noticeboard. When he’d gone, I slinked over for a look and couldn’t quite believe my eyes. It said, “Two places available for a week long gliding course at Easter. Strictly first come, first served.”
I whipped one of the many pens out of my jacket pocket and put my name down at the top of the list. I was in shock for several hours afterwards, in fact it barely registered when I got the inevitable detention. I can still remember sitting in detention later that week grinning like an idiot. It was definitely the ‘easiest time I ever did.”
The gliding course at 644 VGS was awesome – a week of lovely weather, most of it spent arsing around at RAF Syerston. When I wasn't flying, I taught myself to drive, thrashing the nuts off an old Landrover round the peri track. I remember snapping the gearstick clean off one day and replacing it with a screwdriver, hoping no-one would notice. I really took to the flying though. We used the old Venture motor gliders like the one on the right. Me and a really posh lad, Joe from Winchester College, got skimmed off very early on in the course and got special attention. We were the only two on the course who got to solo and we did it in something scary like 5 hours. A brilliant, brilliant time.
There was another lad on the course, Gavin (one of those bad lads that my mum was always telling me not to hang around with), who said one night, “Bugger this, anyone fancy coming into town for a beer?”
‘Town’ was Nottingham about 15 miles away and we were only 16 but it seemed like an ace adventure. We sneaked off the base, hitchhiked into Nottingham and embarked on a gruelling pub crawl which left me skint for the rest of the week. After about 3 hours sleep I was preflighting my aircraft with my first ever hangover the next morning, absolutely dreading taking off as I just knew I’d end up puking during the lesson. As it turned out I was fine, thank God. Yep, a great week.
Little Bird - "Remember, each flight control has a primary and a secondary effect. Relax and just fly straight and level for me. Ok, you have control..."
Big Bird - "Er, blimey, er, I have control sir... woooaaahhhh....."
I loved microlights from the moment I first saw one. I was on an adventure holiday in Arnside, Cumbria aged about 14. One evening, I spotted a little microlight like the one on the right buzzing up the river estuary, chasing the incoming tidal bore just inches above the water. The guy buzzed past wearing nothing but a T-shirt, shorts, flipflops and a huge grin. Cor, that looked like ace fun…
As soon as I’d got a well paid enough job at 19, I went straight out and bought one and got a local instructor to teach me to fly it for something silly like 10 quid an hour. I solo’d in about 5 hours, although it was a bit of an old banger and broke down quite a lot. I upgraded a couple of times and ended up with a Flash II Alpha (below) which was a real hotship in the late 80’s...
I did loads of flying for a couple of years, did a few competitions and even ended up at international events but slowly got a bit bored with it all.
Then, I had a long stint away from aviation, concentrating on things like cycling and being a student. I did look up enviously from time to time and watch microlights buzzing through balmy summer skies though and I always knew I’d be ‘up there’ again one day.
Indeed, I did take to the skies again. In my third month of my first job after graduating, I bought another Flash II Alpha! It felt different second time around and I appreciated it for what it was rather than just a chance to show off and upset people. But I did get bored after a while though so when a nearby instructor suggested I ought to think about getting a Flying Instructors qualification so I could help him out at weekends, I didn’t hesitate. Within a year I was upgraded to a QFI and I’d outgrown my part-time status and reckoned I had enough business to take the plunge and go full-time. I set up my own school at another airfield and did just that for 7 years.
Mixed memories of my time as a ‘professional pilot’. I remember the pots of dosh every time I sold an aeroplane or had a really busy weekend. I also remember being on-my-arse skint for 3 or 4 months every winter, every year. I always got the impression that punters saw you as some sort of eccentric millionaire who was just doing it for fun, rather than it being my 'job' and was what I did to feed myself & family!
Pretty indifferent recollections of most of the people I taught to fly, a few were a complete bloody nuisance, but I’m left with fond memories of a handful who remained good friends afterwards. I can safely say I learned as much from them as they learned from me during those hours cramped up in the drafty cockpit. Flying really seemed to change peoples’ lives, it really liberated some people. I was at an airfield recently where a group of blokes were huddled around their aeroplanes laughing and joking and swapping tall stories excitedly. I’d taught most of them to fly and it was a real heart warming moment to watch them. Little things like that make it seem like it was all worth it.
One of the perks, however, was that I always had pretty much state-of-the-art new aircraft to teach in. Great for teaching of course but even better for going on big adventures in! Me and Sue had some mega long-distance flights, quite beyond the reach of the average old bangers flown by most people. I'll always remember one trip down to Salisbury (Old Sarum) when I nearly had a fight with Rick Wakeman at breakfast in the hotel because he wouldn't stop staring at Sue's boobs.
I love this pic of Sue. I think this was her first flight in the Thruster - she doesn't look too impressed by my flying skills! Looks like were up towards N Norfolk somewhere
But, unfortunately, it’s like any job and it does get a bit dull, especially when you’ve done the umpteenth pleasure flight that day and have had to pretend to laugh at all the predictable comments about crashing or soiled underwear for the millionth time. There are only about a dozen lessons you can deliver to people too, so it can get repetitive and hence difficult to stay motivated. Having to spend 12 hours trying to teach someone with little ability to just fly straight is soul-destroying. So, I got a bit jaded and my only regret is I didn’t pack it in a year sooner. I despised that last 12 months.
I still instruct but do it part-time, very low key. I do just enough to maintain my interest and my qualifications, that’s all. I do it ‘cos I want to, not because I have to and I’m enjoying it again. The only ambitions I have now involve learning to fly helicopters oh, and owning a paramotor…
Left is the best pic I think I've ever taken. It was at sunrise, summer solstice 2005 above Avebury. Sheer fluke, just point and shoot. We took off from the Mendip Gliding Club about 15mins before sunrise, overflew a few chums at Glastonbury Tor and got to Avebury about 15 mins later. Fabulous flight. We were in my Pegasus Quik 912S G-FLEX.
I still try and fly without an aeroplane now and then. If you get the chance, have a go in one of these freefall simulators. It's basically a wind tunnel stood on its end. This one is at Airkix in Milton Keynes. There's also a real snowboarding slope with real snow in the same building, so you have two completely different ways of abusing gravity in the same afternoon!! Simply persuade the missus to go by promising her a few hours in Ikea. Everyone's a winner...
This was my second flight. I'd just about got the hang of staying stable in the first one but in this one I do my first 360 turn!! Bloody fantastic feeling! You can watch it all here....
Andy was delighted that he'd finally got his new anti-gravity overalls to work....
A magazine article about an exciting jolly me and Sue had....
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