I remember when I was about 10 years old my brother Graham started assembling model aircraft, the ones made by Airfix, which were made of plastic and were quite detailed but not designed to actually fly. I remember him assembling Spitfires and Hurricanes, and a model of the Convair XFY-1 Pogo, with its contra rotating propellors. He also made a couple of rubber band powered balsa wood aircraft, I remember watching them fly breifly, and then crash land and result in a pile of bits.
He also used to subscribe to a magazine, Royal Airforce Review, and I read those magazines with much interest. Maybe it was all of that but when I was around 12 years old I became very interested in aircraft, and the possibility of actually getting into the air.
My first experiment involved attaching three Umbrellas to a length of wood, with the idea you would jump into the air at the same time as being hit by a strong gust of wind, so you would be blown a short distance before coming back down to earth. Needless to say, it didnít work.
From somewhere, maybe inherited from my brother, I aquired a History of Flying book and became very interested in the early pioneers of flight, Otto Lilienthal and Percy Pilcher. One of the aircraft flown by Percy Pilcher appeared to be a lifting body, and I decided to have a go at making one. I determined the dimensions of it by comparing the size of the aircraft with the size of the pilots body, and began to put it together out of pieces of wood. I also told my teachers about it at school, and they alerted my parents who were not aware of what I was up to. My father told me to take it apart, I guess they were frightened I was going to kill myself !
After that I pretty much put my flying ambitions aside until in 1982 when my mother died, and I used some of the money I was left in her Will to get flying lessons. I went to Biggin Hill Flying School, and began training for a pilots licence in Gulfstream American Cheetah. All of their aircraft had numbers with cat like names, there was G-Paws and G-Claws and G-Purr.
I remember flying G-Paws, but I may have flown G-Purr also
I had the training at Biggin Hill, Elstree and Denham, and achieved a total of about 10 hours flight time as pilot in command, but because of the high cost of the lessons I was going through money like water and I had to stop the lessons because it was costing too much.
To the left is a picture of the instructor teaching me to fly. I don't remember his name, but I remember the endless stream of instructions that bugged the hell out of me, "keep the wings level, watch your altitude, don't look at the instruments, keep a sharp look out for other aircraft, now your drifting off course, do you see the airfeild? - and I'm like, why doesnt he shut the hell up and let me fly this thing ?
I remember I had no problems with take offs, and with actually flying it, but landings scared the shit of out of me because of the steep angle required when coming into land, you would aproach at what seemed like a steep angle and then level off just before landing.
Taxiing on the ground was another strange situation. The plane was steered by applying brakes using the rudder pedals, but I seemed to be fairly good at that, as far as I remember.
Pictures taken from the aircraft whilst I was flying
With the cost of the flying lessons being so expensive, I decided to look for some lower cost way of getting to the air, and I learned about Trikes, which are basically a Hang Glider wing attached to an undercarrage fitted with an engine and a propellor, sort of a "flying motorcycle". I also learnt there was someone teaching people to fly them out in a field near Upminster, Essex, so I went out there and had a few flights. I remember I had to meet the instructor at his home, and watched whilst he stuffed the Trike into the back of his Fiat Panda, and strap the folded up wing onto the roof of his car. Essex Airsports was operated from a farmers field, I don't remember the exact location.
Essex Airsports - sorry for the poor picture quality
I remember the trike was fitted with a Rotax Engine, and it was very noisy. I also remember there was no fuel gauge to let you know how much was left in the tank. When I asked how they knew how much fuel was left, they said - we just screw the cap off the top of the tank and stick our finger in, if we don't feel anything, we know its time to land !
I will admit that flying on the back seat of this Trike was very scary, not for the faint hearted. Since there is no cockpit when you look down all you see is your feet on a couple of pedals and a thousand feet or more of empty space, and some tiny houses below. The Trike was so underpowered that when we flew into the wind, the instructor told me we were actually moving backwards. When we did a turn, we turned in the length of the aircraft, and that made me scream !
I think, after my scary experience with Essex Airsports, I decide to let flying slide until I could find some other way that felt safer. However on a vacation near Fuengirola in Spain, I noticed an ultralight flying about, and went to investigate. It turned out to be a Lazair twin engined two seater, and I was able to have a flight with the pilot. I have to admit it handled very nicely, and I have since learnt that this must have been one of the very first ones of that model to be manufactured. Since I didn't have a photograph of the one I flew in, the photo below is taken from the internet ( Thanks to Lazairinfo.com )
Shortly after this I returned to the U.K, and during the flight back to England the Captain kindly alowed me to go into the cockpit and take a few photos, as you can see below, showing the flight crew and also the view out of the cockpit window.
Some months later I had to return to the Costa Del Sol in Spain for business reasons, and I returned to the airfield where the Lazair had been flying, only to be told that the Lazair had crashed and the Pilot had been killed, - he had been doing aerobatics in it, something that plane was not designed to do. I was told this by some people who were flying a weightshift Trike, the photos of which are below.
Next, probably around 1989ish, I decided to have a go at Hang Gliding, which when you think about it is the nearest thing to flying like a bird, and Hang Gliders are probably the lowest cost aircraft you can buy. To this end, I went to South Downs Hang Gliding and had some basic instruction and attempted some flights. My results were less than sucessful. I as strapped into this huge wing which was very heavy, and I had to lift it into the air and run down a hill. OK, the wind did most of the lifting, but there was still some initial weightlifting involved. I was told that once I got airborne, the aim was to find the right angle of attack. I never found the right angle of attack, and instead nose dived into the ground. Then I had to carry the Hang Glider back up to the top of the hill, so I could try it again, with a similar result. After a few attempts at this I decided maybe Hang Gliding wasn't for me and I gave up and went home. Below are a couple of photos I took at the time.
As far as I can remember, the last flying attempt I had in the U.K was a trial flight in a Glider ( Sailplane ) at Booker Flying Club near High Wycombe. I remember we took off after being towed into the air, flew out over a motorway and thermalled around a large roundabout in the road, and then returned to the airfield and landed. I liked how comfortable the Glider was, and the silence, but for some reason that I can't remember I didn't take it any further.
So, i'm in my back garden in London and I hear the sound of engines up in the sky, and I look up and see this airship, and it seems to be telling me that I should go to the United States, so who am I to argue with an airship ? So I move to America. ( well it wasn't exactly like that, but in 1998 I did go to America, and again in year 2000, and again in 2002 )
Ok, after moving to Arizona to live there, in 2007 I again got the flying bug and began to think again about Trikes, and I made contact with John (ole) Olson and had a flight with him. It didn't exactly go well. Maybe it was because I was older with Arthritis, or maybe because of the way his trike was rigged I found it very uncomfortable, actually quite painful pushing the control bar, and I didn't get along well with "Ole" either, so that was that. Below are some pictures I took at the time.
After looking at the internet, I came across the name of Norm Bjornstad, and went to visit him at Phoenix Regional Airport, which is close the Casa Grande. Norm and I got on straight away, and talked about flying and all sorts of things. I also had a couple of flights with him in his Trike, I think it was a Cosmos, and operated the control bar myself from the rear seat. I think this was the only time I wasn't frightened flying a Trike, and I began to think seriously about buying one, and I spent a lot of time on the internet searching for one to buy. There were some obstacles, like the price and where I would store one, but Norm suggested I could store one in his Hangar and I could do all my flying from there. I was grateful for his suggestion, but since that airfield was about 80 miles from where I was living, I was hoping I could find somewhere to fly from that would be closer, and somewhere to store it closer to home.
left, Norm in his Cosmos, right, Norm fixing a Trike
What with searching for a suitable Trike to buy, wondering where to store it, and wondering if I seriously could pull a Trike out of a store on my own, and rig the wing and mount it on the Trike, on my own, bearing in mind I am not physically very strong, I began to wonder if some kind of aircraft that you could just wheel out of a box trailer, start the engine, and take off would be more suitable for me, and to that end I began to think about Gyrocopters. These were not some new idea for me, when I was about 17 I sent off for some plans to build a Benson Gyrocopter, even though I had no clue how to build it. Gyrocopters do have a lot of advantages. You can take off after a very short run, some with pre-rotators can take off nearly vertically, they are fast, highly maneuverable and can fly in winds that would not be safe for a Trike or many other aircraft, and if the engine fails they float down to an easy and safe landing, they can also be stored in the average home garage, with the Rotor Blades removed, and I beleive attaching them isn't a very big deal. Of course they can crash, and many have, mostly because of porpoising caused by the engine and propellor not being in line with the Pilot.
In my never ending hunt for the ideal aircraft and tuition in flying them, I aproached Charlie Mara who was teaching Gyrocopter flying at San Manuel, just north of Tucson,
and I had a flight with him in his two seater Air Command machine. I found the noise level was far more than I expected, and since it was January, as I remember, it was pretty cold even in sunny Arizona.
Charlie's Air Command Gyrocopter
Views of the Gyrocopter
left, the back of Charlie's head, right, the view over his shoulder
Even through this Gyrocopter was very noisy and windy, I really felt like this was the sort of machine I would like to fly, and I did a lot of research into buying one, and then I discovered the real problem. Most of the Ultralight
aircraft I have tried, like the Trikes, were below 254 lb and could be flown under FAR 103 which allows anyone to fly one without a license, ( assuming you find a place to take off from, and within unrestricted airspace) but the
heavier Trikes, and almost all Gyrocopters are more than 254 lb and so have to be flown at the very least with a Light Sport License. Ok, I could train for a Light Sport License, but that's a whole new ball game. There are a few
Ultralight Gyrocopters, like "The Butterfly" that are less than 254 lb, or maybe right on it, but whether they could cope with my 200 lb+ body weight, is another matter.
An additional problem is that the company that made The Butterfly is now defunct, they have gone the same way as many of the companies that produced Gyrocopters and other Ultralights, into oblivion, as a result of the U.S
recession, I assume, so its actually very difficult to find any Gyrocopter to buy new, nowadays.
You might say, well OK, buy a used Gyrocopter but the problem with doing that is it would be very difficult to know what stresses the airframe has already experienced. Most Ultralights are made from aircraft grade Aluminum
and this material only maintains its strength and integrity when free of defamation or micro fractures, which could easily occur when a pilot has a bad landing. Additional problems can occur when airframes are constructed out of
dissimilar materials, such as bolting together an aluminum frame with steel bolts, causing electrolytic reactions, which is especially bad if the aircraft is flown in damp locations. Such situations are often the cause of light aircraft
crashes, with resultant pilot death, and I really don't want to be another one to add to that list.
Now we have arrived at the point where I can talk about the last ( real world ) flying experience i've had. It was whilst I was over at Norm Bjornstad's hanger, I couldn't help noticing the Hang Gliders circling overhead and it turned out that they were teaching people to fly them, the company was called Sonora Wings. Run by Mark Knight, they had a couple of large travel trailers just across the airfield from Norm's place, and on April 6th 2012 I arranged with them for a "trial" flight using one of their tandem harness Gliders. Mark was a very likeable chap, and I enjoyed talking to him about flying, and he used his Dragonfly Ultralight to tow us into the air. Below is a video I shot of Mark in the Dragonfly.
I have to say that the flight I had strapped into the hang glider harness was the worst flying experience I have ever had, and I spent most of the flight waiting for it to finish.
This was because, I think, the harness didn't fit and so I had to spend the whole flight with my legs bent backwards at an uncomfortable angle, and with my Sciatica and Arthritis it was pure hell. Below are a few pictures of me strapped onto the Hang Glider, along with the Instructor. These pictures were taken from a video that was shot at the time, a video I don't like to watch because it reminds me of the bad experience.
I'm the one in the black helmet that's grimacing in pain !
All of this concludes my real world flying experience, but does not include my simulated flying. To learn more about that, and to see my videos and related pictures and comment, please go to the next page.