Reaching for the skies: the ever evolving story of manned flight
On the morning of July 4th, 1994, I held my microlight aeroplane at the hold point, at the end of my tiny airstrip in the Chilterns. It was overladen, well over its official all-up weight limit, and the atmosphere was heavy, too, with nervous anticipation. I felt my co-pilot shift slightly behind me, her nervousness palpable, like mine.
It was time to go; months of preparation distilled to this moment of truth. I opened the throttle fully, steadied the wing, probably gritted my teeth a little, as we all too slowly began to roll. There was, I recall, only a very light wind that hazy morning, not helpful in gaining us the airspeed we had to have to get airborne.
A few of the horses in the field beyond my boundary fence gazed at us as we gathered speed. Ten knots, twenty, thirty, now we were running downhill slightly on the strip, charging that boundary fence. Forty, fifty knots, but my ‘ship’ was heavy with the extra fuel cans strapped to the sides of the cockpit. It did not want to fly. Then, in seconds, it had to be now or never.
I pulled in the bar, we bounced a couple of times and then G-MYRT staggered, rather than rose, into the air, clearing the fence by a few feet. I held her low, as she gathered more speed, and then we were, at last, climbing away.
It was a huge leap into the unknown: in so many ways too ambitious, too bold, a flight too far. There was always the danger of hubris; as it turned out, fortunately, there was no nemesis. But that summer’s day, we broke a world record , one that stays unbroken, for what it’s worth. All that was a little later on.
The Trans-Europe Microlight Expedition of 1994 was born on the wings of a book proposal, about the Celts, the first ‘proper’ Europeans, and another story, not the one to be told here. From that proposal came another, to fly across a large part of Western and Eastern Europe, using a flex-wing microlight, the ones where you fly the wing, in effect a motorised hang-glider.
The aeroplane chosen to undertake this 13,000km route was a Pegasus Quantum, then the most sophisticated model on the market. The equivalent today, a huge beast of a machine costs around £40,000 for basic machine; ours cost around a third of that. She took the registration G-MYRT, Romeo Tango to anyone who flies, and her fuel was two-stroke mogas, which ought to have given us an early pause for thought. We were pioneers, explorers, and like so many before us, ahead of our time, planning for something too ambitious.
But the beginning was good, after that uncertain take-off and we flew uneventfully south, clear of the London control zone, before edging our way east along the M25 and then on down into Kent and Lashenden aerodrome, at Headcorn, for a fuel stop.
On take-off from Lashenden, with the sun now blazing down out of a clear blue sky, we should have turned for Dover, thence across 22 miles of The Channel, and back along the French coast, all the way down to Dieppe, our destination airport for that day, the place where our earlier dispatched ground crew were waiting for us.
But the day was turning into a classic English summer’s day and I had determined already on the ground, after we had refuelled, and with my co-pilot’s consent, that we could cut out a huge amount of time by flying directly to Dieppe. We would take our departure from the English coast at Hastings. The distance was a mere 75 miles over the water, about 90 from Headcorn.
We climbed slowly to 4,000 feet, the altitude at which we crossed the coast. I remember thinking, as we left England behind, how vast the sea ahead looked, the same sea I had sailed so very often, between England and France, taking up to 18 hours. We expected this journey to last no more than a little over an hour.
In the event, it took us 90 minutes, the last thirty of which was agonizingly slow. In the crossing, mid-Channel cloud, and a little drizzle, had forced us down to 800 feet, at which point, when the horizon ahead appeared to be above us, and the ships in the sea also appeared to be higher, we had seriously discussed what would happen if we had to ditch.
Mercifully the cloud lifted and we were able to climb to 1,500 feet, then to 2,000. It was about this point that the compass a d the GPS disagreed on our heading by about 30 degrees. It took a moment’s thought – this was 1994, and small GPS units suitable for aircraft were in serious contention over their accuracy – but I chose to follow the GPS.
A short while after the black line that denoted the French coast came into view, dead ahead. When we swept over the cliffs we could see Dieppe airport dead ahead. We had called already to announce our arrival (we had filed a flight plan from Lashenden so we were expected). ‘You’re number one,’ the tower told us, and didn’t we just feel it.
Landing, shortly after, on a huge runway, we felt like the gadfly we in truth were. But that record stands, as far as I know, for a flex-wing two-stroke engine powered microlight. I hope, of course, that it will never be beaten.
I cannot end this memorial piece without paying a huge tribute to my co-pilot, the coolest person ever to have in an aeroplane when things get a little fraught. Not because of the Channel crossing, but because of another time in the air and then, thankfully, on the ground; she knows when, where and why.
Flying: as the UK licence states ‘the privilege of the pilot’. Therein is a simple but apt truth. To be able to soar high above the earth, freed of its bonds, even for a short while, is an extraordinary privilege.