Introduction to Ed Potter's Story

Hi Folks!

You have Phil Chettleburgh and Mike Lake to thank for this. It is my personal view of the history of hang gliding towing in Norfolk and Suffolk. I did promise Phil that it would be relevant to hang gliding (eventually) and to East Anglia (mostly). So here goes … and, by the way, if any of you are famous or unfortunate enough to be mentioned by name below, then please add your comments to correct or amplify my memories!

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Linked Names

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This article (all its sections) is Copyright © Edmund A. Potter 2008. All photos and images except where noted otherwise are included. Edmund A. Potter has asserted the moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
If you scroll to the bottom of this Wikidot screen you will see that the Content of this page is licensed under a Creative Commons "Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works License". This means that if you want to use it for commercial purposes, or to modify it, you must ask my permission. The intention is not financial gain but to ensure that the material is properly acknowledged if used elsewhere, so that any ensuing fame accumulates to the benefit of the NHGC - and me of course! I know a few of the photos were not taken by me. If they are yours, then please tell me, and I will happily credit you.

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In The Very Beginning & the Sixties & Seventies


My earliest memories are from Catfield, in the Norfolk Broads.

The big guy is my brother. The battleship was made by German PoWs. It had rotating turrets on the fore and aft decks, and pins in the turrets for gun barrels. If you click on the image and make it larger you probably still won't see these details - just trust me!
At night the occasional drone of an aircraft engine would traverse the sky. I did not understand about the war, and bombs. Mum, I asked, why can't we paint on our roof "We are not in the war"? It would have to be in big letters, of course.


After the war we moved to a small farm near Dereham. One day, whilst mucking about in the fields nearby, I was irrevocably imprinted by the completely terrifying crescendo of roaring Merlin engines as a Lancaster swooped over at 100 feet. The pilot's expression was clearly visible in the cockpit for the fleeting moments before the behemoth disappeared beyond the trees as quickly as it had come. Mother was pleased when she found I was slightly colour blind: "you won't be a Spitfire pilot, then".


By 1957 I was an aeromodeller. Control-line and flying scale models were my thing. This was 1/18th scale for four diesel engines. You can see it's going to be a Lancaster. I measured my bedroom to make sure I could get it out, if/when it was ever finished. By 1966 it was looking more convincing - and damn good on the tarmac. The undercarriage legs were made from 6 inch nails, but did not retract. However, yes - it did fly!


The Sixties, and my Twenties

From Swaffham Grammar School, I went to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, but ended up with a Chemical Engineering degree. During one summer vacation I could just afford a sailplane training course at Tibenham. After a week of relatively uneventful winch launch tuition, on the final day, the CFI (Joe Podolski, a former WWII Spitfire pilot) caught a thermal and wound us up to cloudbase at 5000' - waaheeeiyy! It was an inspirational experience, but nevertheless I simply could not see how to commit sufficient time or money to this pastime in the future.

My first job was with Hawker Siddeley at Hatfield, in the Wind Tunnels - not such an odd choice, just the application of fluid dynamics. At least I had followed my aviation inclinations. Living near Cambridge, I went to Cambridge model aircraft club. A fellow member (Clive Hall – maker of truly immaculate scale models) invited me to join the small firm he worked in. They made electronic temperature meters with new-fangled thermistors. I joined.

Single channel radio control model aircraft became affordable - but with dodgy range and reliability. My only successful one - an SE5A WWI biplane - flew out of sight from Waterbeach airfield and spent weeks in a sugar beet field before being rescued by a considerate farmer. Dreaming of thermals and model gliders, I copied a variometer for a model sailplane that would radio its signal down to the pilot on the ground. It used tiny thermistors. The vario bit worked but my radio frequency electronics was too inadequate to complete it - besides, I would have needed a multichannel radio glider too, and that was well beyond my budget.

This era was the late Sixties. Society decided to turn itself upside down. Arts labs, poetry workshops and anti-universities sprang up. Free concerts and Diggers’ conferences were held. The Beatles flew to America. Flower power floated back across the Atlantic, and the Communes Movement was born. I joined a commune group near Cambridge, and gave away my model aircraft to concentrate on starting some sort of “profit and decision sharing” business. This became Delta-T Devices, the workers co-operative that I still work in today.

The Seventies, and my Thirties

“Irrelevant! Not enough pictures!” I hear you cry.
Patience, gentle reader, all will be revealed ..

The exigencies of communal living and business development had not totally suppressed the aviator’s urges. In 1975 I motorcycled to Brighton for a weekend with the Hawksworth Hang Gliding School. Malcolm H stood with a radio in a field at the bottom of a very steep hill, whilst the wind blew a huley at the top. We (the novice pilots) stood at the top, strapped to a Hiway 220 glider (with frantically flapping sail) and launched when the radio said so. Nearing the bottom, when the radio said “flare!!” – if we heard it - we variously made contact with knees/nose/wingtip or whatever and the ground. Then we nursed our bruises, laughed with relief, and helped carry the kite back up the hill for the next victim. Expert pilots at the top took off and beat back and forth above the ridge to our immense envy. They would disappear behind the top to land, to be followed occasionally, moments later, by a pirouette of aluminium tube, coloured sail cloth, and odd arms and legs. Later on ambulances would wind their way up and down the access road.

I logged a modest 1 min 30 secs (total) for three intrepid launches. It was clear that you needed a 400’ high steep hill with a 40 mile an hour wind at the top for this form of aviation – not something readily available to East Anglians, alas.


Try sailplane gliding again perhaps ..?
I did: - at Shobden in Shropshire. We had a splendid week of winching and aerotowing, and I earned my A & B certificates, but not quite the C. However, as before, the combination of time and cost was going to be too much. I couldn’t really expect to proceed with it.
After three years, my circumstances changed. Hang gliding was developing, and I was incontrovertibly going to do it - somehow. February 1978 found me at Mike Adam’s IBIS school of hang gliding in Wales, the Brecon Beacons – in the snow. We trained on Hiway Harriers. None too impressed with the IBIS organisation I transferred to Gerry Breen’s Welsh Hang Gliding School at Crickhowell and trained on Hiway Scorpions (no, not yet the renowned Super Scorpion). The weather was such a lottery. Two more trips to Wales were needed to get my EPC. You can read the details in my log book.
Equipped with an EPC, all I needed now was a kite. By this time the Norfolk Hang Gliding Club existed, and through it I made contact with Alan Snowling, agreed to meet him on Cromer Cliff top, inspected his Scorpion B, parted with some money (£310 I think!) and became the eager but apprehensive owner of a kite. I guess it was an unflyable day, and I’d had to take Snowy’s word for it that the kite flew all right.
Amazingly, the next weekend, I was back in Wales. This time with James Moffat, both of us raw novices, and no longer under the protection of school instructors. We thought Hay Bluff was “on”. It’s a vast mountain slope (by East Anglian standards). The wind at the top was blowing a huley - far too strong for our fairly primitive kites (James had a Hiway 240, I think) and of course we were flying seated harnesses in those days. Half way down the mountain side the wind was only half as strong, so we took off from there … ! Yes, we were novices, and we’d come an awful long way, and we were desperate to fly. I remember having trouble getting down to the bottom landing. James made much greater height, but then couldn’t penetrate into the even stronger wind and disappeared tracking backwards round the side of the mountain. Miraculously he survived, but may have bent some aluminium.


The Hiway Scorpion

The image is of me flying the Scorpion from West Runton (in 1981 in fact). Compared with earlier more primitive "rogallo" kites the sail wing section was particularly pleasing: a beautiful convex lifting leading edge, with an elegant reflex at the trailing edge for stability. The wings had five battens each side (flexible PVC electric conduit tube) to define the sail aerofoil section – very advanced! You can also clearly see the deflexors along the leading edges of the wings: three vertical or forward pointing ministruts holding bracing wires that tensioned the leading edge against the bending forces of sail pressure. This was less heavy than a heftier piece of tube of equivalent strength, but it did create drag. You can also see the cross tube beneath the sail (another less than splendid drag producing device). My near-vertical position in the image is not unlike I would have appeared in the original seated harness (I had just launched, in this picture). Flying seated was “comfortable” but also had a significant drag penalty - more of which later.

Early Experiences

In the remaining few months of the summer of 1978 my logbook shows weekend trips to Dunstable, Cromer, West Runton and Bawdsey. These were the successful ones. There may have been more which didn’t result in loggable flights. Wind strength and direction at the chosen site were critical, and the weather forecasts were often wrong. My social life at weekends became totally subject to the Friday evening weather forecast. If it was allegedly flyable, then I was going to go flying. The gut-gnawing anxiety of the two or three hour drive to a site, watching the leaf movement on every tree, watching the development and track of every cloud, is something I won’t easily forget. But neither is the ecstatic exhilaration and excited anticipation of new adventures that one enjoyed whilst driving back after successful flights.

The Cromer trip was notable. Cromer was the highest coastal launch site in East Anglia and within tolerable travelling range. The first flight was logged as 3 minutes - probably an exaggeration for an immediate top to bottom. One always had to bottom land (i.e. on the beach) at Cromer. Cliff top landing was an aerodynamic no-no, on account of unpredictable turbulence behind the lip of the cliff. After a bottom landing, you had to derig the kite, and carry it (30 damn awkward kilograms) back up 200’ of cliff steps to the top, and then re-rig the kite before a second attempt was possible. So basically a three minute top to bottom was not something you wanted to start the day with. The second flight lasted 32 minutes (a personal best, then) and the log book says it included a height gain of 200', and four 360s!

The 360 was a high-status manoeuvre and difficult to perform in ridge lift, with seriously dangerous consequences if you got it wrong. The shaky attempts (my first ever) were pretty marginal – but where else was I going to practice? Terry Aspinall signed off the log book entry, and solemnly warned me against trying more 360s, mainly to protect the other club members from heart failure.

By the end of 1978 I had accumulated just over 2 hours in the air, and at times - when flying just above the rooftops of Cromer sea front hotels – it truly was flying “like a bird”. The childhood dream was starting to be realised. Why then the gap in logbook entries until 1980 ..?

Never try to lift a very heavy ladder when there is snow on the ground. I strained my back, and immediately had to spend a number of days horizontal. I couldn't shave, and grew a beard. Attempts to get back to the vertical were thwarted by sciatic spasms. Eventually “slipped disc” was diagnosed and I was encased in a plaster of paris jacket from hips to armpits for twelve weeks. Recovery did then proceed, but regaining enough mobility and strength to lift a hang glider again was a slow process.

The Eighties & a Map

Scroll down for the sketchmap of East Anglia.


In the meantime, a hang gliding revolution had occurred. Just look at this picture – Mere 1980. Kites all over the sky - and look at the altitude gained from that piddling little bowl of Mere! Zoom in more closely and you will see that every pilot is flying prone! Even if it was completely stupid to have your head at the front, where it would be the first thing to hit something, the fashion was set. I booked a prone conversion course with Howard Edwards who operated a school in the Quainton Hills near Aylesbury.


I suspect that neither of these people is Howard, but the motorised kite was his latest experiment, and the slope behind is a Quainton Hill . A number of brave souls around the country (e.g. Paul Whitley, Gerry Breen and others) had been trying out strimmer motors and the like. Regrettably Howard was later killed by such a creation when the prop severed a rigging wire in flight {Not so, apparently. See Comments below}. I had absolutely no temptation to motor round the sky - silent flight using the forces of nature to soar like a bird was my aspiration.

Another Dreamer


My dear late friend Peter Baker ("Wooster") was excellent company on East Anglian trips. Wooster had an ancient Cloudbase (only two battens per wing) seen here in the Commune garden, "tuning" it. Would you believe that he actually constructed a Mitchell Wing in a shed in Suffolk? More on that later, perhaps.


The next Scorpion picture was at Corton, on 30 May 1982. By now you can see I was coping fairly well with flying prone in a stirrup harness (but couldn't point my toes for less drag). Flying prone did make a difference. I stayed up longer. Flights of 45 and 30 minutes were signed off by Wooley (Bob Wooltorton). The following day we went again to Corton in great hopes, but there was no bl**dy wind. A top-to-bottom at Corton in nil wind lasted all of 10 seconds. Now do you understand why some people felt motors were important?


The first pic shows Brian Wooltorton (I think) and Graham Drinkall standing by, whilst Paul Whitley does final adjustments. Then Paul launches under power - with stunning commitment, control and style.


Ah, now, I bet you thought it would never happen …
Wooster and family bought a house in Newmarket. Thinking he hadn't enough to do, Wooster bought the plans for a Mitchell Wing as well. This was in 1980. Before he could start on the wing all he had to do was build a shed in the garden …
Here is the impressive structure, taking shape. I have faint recollections of seeing it later with doped fabric covering. Its ultimate fate is still being researched.
(Picture courtesy of and ©Rachel Baker)

East Anglian Delights

Greatly deterred by the travel involved in trips to Wales (or even further afield) I had to make the best of local sites. There are not many photos from this epoch, I am afraid, but if you'd like to know where you are in East Anglia, please see the map.
The second page of my log book shows visits to most of the flyable places in East Anglia. The Friday night weather wind direction forecast dictated which site was likely to be possible: NE - yippee! Cromer or Mundesley; E - urk, Corton (gorse bushes); SE - uuurk, Felixstowe or Bawdsey (beach huts and groynes); SW - uurk, Dunstable (sailplane warfare); NW - hmm, Hunstanton (sheer cliff - never got there); N - ok, West Runton (but low cliffs and lack of beach). For the other directions there was nowhere to go.


Whenever the wind was "on", at weekends you could rely on a migration of Norfolk and Suffolk club members to the appropriate site. Even if the wind was on, it might be too strong, or too weak, but you would be assured of hang gliding company and could listen agog to sky gods like Paul and Graham and other decent characters like Peter Bowden and the Wooley brothers tell tales of their latest derring-do, whilst huddled in cars or behind gorse bushes sheltering from the wind.

The Lakes - Mountains and Tears


By the end of May 1982, the frustrations and limitations of the East Anglian sites (and weather) were such that I decided I just had to find some big mountains for more experience. It had to work - right?
Wrong! In July, with borrowed tent, I drove to Keswick. That's Skiddaw in the background.


Big mountains = massive carry ups, even if you knew the way. Some days there was nil wind (yes!) - good for walks. Other days there was weather.


This was Southerfell and Blencathra - the only place I did get a couple of significant soaring flights, after an 800' carry up (not on this day, of course). Mid week there seemed to be no other hangies around. After a week of this, in moderate despair, I set off homewards, not knowing what to do for the best, but at least I thought I should look at the Yorkshire Dales on the way.

The Dales - First Thermal Flights

I arrived in the middle of a stable anticyclone which seemed set to last for days. In the Lakes, this meant nil winds, no flying - and lots of walking. Nearly crying with grief in the old station car park at Hawes, I heard a shout from behind the boundary wall, immediately followed by a hang gliding harness hurtling over the wall, further followed by a desperate pilot clambering after it. "Hey - give me a lift to my kite. I've just landed out!". Thus I met Tony Fillingham of the Dales club, and my fortunes began to change. Tony had a Comet - the latest type of double surface high performance kite. Oh wow! Camping next to him was a godsend. Each morning in the campsite, we would survey the dropped grass for the slightest sign of drift, then Tony would announce "Aaw - peachy! Semerwater!" or Weather Fell, or some other suitable nearby site.


This is Tony landing in the campsite. As you can see from the skyline, the thing about the Dales was that the hills were not so high (as the Lakes) and were flat-topped, and had roads up to the top (mostly). There were lots of hangies around all the time, too, with whom to spend wonderful boozy evenings in the pubs in Hawes reminiscing over the day's exploits before meandering unsteadily back to camp.
Page 3 of my log book shows the most memorable day of my life, 20/7/82 - the first time I gained height (probably 3-400') thermalling!!. It was at Semerwater, and the day started a near-disaster. Flight 134 notes "top landed heavily". What this concealed was that I had winged in and bent the starboard leading edge spar - a bit. The nearest source of spares for a Hiway Scorpion was probably Brighton (which would have been the end of the holiday). With the help of one or two pilots at take off, I propped the ends of the leading edge above the ground and then stood on it in mid span and bounced up and down on it (carefully, of course!) until the offending bend was reduced to more or less the same shape as the port leading edge. Thereafter I resumed flying. We used to do that sort of thing in the old days. My log book also notes that by now I had fitted a vario (a rate of climb or sink indicator).


Page 4 of the log book showed continuing progress. On 25/7/82 at Weather Fell (an exceptionally good site, with no carry up) I thermalled to cloudbase at about 1000' ATO (above take off) twice in the course of three flights, amassing over 6 hours flying time in one day. I couldn't quite believe that this sort of thing was now happening to me. As the end of my holiday approached I resolved to return via the Peak District. A good hot day on Mam Tor brought my first experience (at 7 pm) of "evening valley lift" - I could fly anywhere over the valley, and stay up. It also brought my first flight on a double surface kite. A pilot had just returned from the continent with seven "Azur" kites on his roof rack. He was flogging them. I took a test flight on one - with no little trepidation because this was a mighty step from a 2nd generation kite design up to a 5th generation "double surface" kite. However, my confidence was improving, and I survived. It felt good, and controllable, but I was certainly in no position to purchase one there and then (I guess it would have cost £500+).


This was Mam Tor on the day, but it certainly wasn't me, and it probably wasn't an Azur.
Life back in East Anglia would never be the same …

Double Surface Developments

Before the Lakes adventure, I had shared a few trips up north with Graeme Baird of the Dunstable club, an extremely energetic go-for-it experienced pilot. He thought nothing of motoring 180 miles to Carlton Bank (at 90 mph) on the chance of just a day's flying. He flew a UP Comet, and was trading up. After my Mam Tor experience, I thought I was ready to trade up too, and said I would buy it. We met at Dunstable early one morning for my first flight. It was nearly my last. Wooster was there. The wind was already up to 26 mph. It would soon be too strong, but I thought I would be able to "pull on speed" for safety with a high performance kite such as this. Immediately after launch the kite started to hurtle around the sky in a series of radical high speed turns. In complete panic I tried to fly away from the hill - my first thoughts were that the kite was rigged wrong somehow. However, my friends on the ground could see I was grossly over-controlling the kite, but they couldn't do anything about it, and probably thought I was a goner. By the time I had rumbled that less speed was the answer I was well down the hill and plonked the kite down into scrub in the bottom landing area. Wooster helped with the carry up, but by then the wind was even stronger, and nobody was keen to watch me have another flight. My log book says flight time: 1 minute.
I went through with the purchase, incredibly, and four days later tried another early morning flight with Graeme there again for some guidance. This time I logged 20 minutes (to our combined relief) but - "top landed in bushes". Dunstable was never an easy site for me. The photo album picture caption was "My new Comet - could I handle it?". I knew I desperately wanted to.


(Picture credit © Tom Bragg)
The magnificent beast was a WING not a sail (like the Scorpion). It had a double surface leading edge for 50% of the wing chord with mylar inserts to make a mouth-wateringly smooth top surface, and numerous pre-formed aluminium battens to create a genuine aerofoil wing section, not just a sail profile. The cross tube (so exposed on the Scorpion) was concealed within the leading edge to reduce drag, and was floating - allegedly to confer good flight handling. Yes, at 30+ kilos it weighed more than the Scorpion but, well, I would just have to learn how to lift the damn thing. A week or two after, I took it to Mere.

Mere 1982 - bl**dy Mere


The wind was light and variable. The only possible task that could be set was a knockout distance comp. Nil wind take offs have never been easy on a single surface kite. Brave souls lunged down the slope, nosed in, broke uprights, and an occasional arm. With the Scorpion, I would have been significantly fearful. With the Comet, I had a wing that wanted to fly if I kept the nose attitude right - which it seemed very willing to do despite its greater weight. And the glide angle was so much better than the Scorpion. I came seventh, and astonished myself. From now on, any weekend that was flyable found me trying to fly, almost irrespective of the distance travelled to the site. Wooster was a great travelling companion.


Dunstable began to contribute significantly to my flying hours (see p5). With the Comet's superior performance I could now get decent altitude above the top and almost came to like the site. This picture of me was taken on 13th November 1982 (nice looking clouds!), and more flights were logged well into December. Note the blob on the left upright, in the picture. These were instruments!

Instruments and Camera


In the Lake District I had fitted a vario: the Makiki pellet vario - quite a bulky item to strap to the upright, but at least it gave a visual indication of my rate of climb, or more usually, sink. Soon after acquiring the Comet, I attached a small plastic dial altimeter to it as well. This had an optimistic scaling up to 10,000', so most of the time its microscopic reading wasn't much help. From the earliest days I had possessed a Ventimeter for hand-held wind speed checks at take off.


A couple of months later I devised a stalk to mount this on the upright too. After all, the Comet was alleged to have a top speed of "50 mph" and I always wanted to know my airspeed. Other pilots didn't seem much bothered. The Scorpion's top speed was probably about 25 mph, but I never measured it. Affordable and practical electronic instruments for hang gliders had not yet appeared. Despite the growing Christmas tree of "draggy" instruments sprouting from my left upright, I dearly wanted to take photos from the air too, and so fixed a camera to the right upright. For me the fascination of flight was largely the view of the ground - from above it! The camera mount wasn't terribly easy to handle, but it could swivel through a range of forward angles. I had to guess where it was pointing when clicking the shutter with my right hand, whilst attempting to control the kite single-handed with the left. Unorthodox manoeuvres often resulted. It was of course a film camera - so no instant viewing of the results, but an anxious wait till the film was used up and sent away for development.


This was an example from my first photographic mission in mid December at Dunstable. The knoll at the north end of the site should be recognisable to pilots who have flown there. A corner of the London Gliding Club airfield is at bottom left, showing the scrub that I landed in on my first horrendously memorable Comet flight there.

1983 The South of France - First XCs

December 1982 saw five days flying - a surprising total for a winter month. Then January 1983, none; February, one; March one, and April three. With my frustration at boiling point, something else was needed - maybe a different country, and/or better weather. In May, with trepidation, I set off for the Montagne de Lachens in the Maritime Alps, not knowing what to expect, except that they had big mountains, and roads to the top. Everybody seemed to be going there, and returned with heroic tales, provided they survived the heart-stopping mountain top ramp launches. This was a technique that could not be learnt in the UK!


I did survive my first ramp launch, and everything came true: see p6 of the log book.


First an XC (cross country flight) of nearly 10km, then three days later a total distance of 48km out and halfway back along dangerous looking mountain ridges in dodgy valleys. The blodgy path on the aerial photo shows a gain of height above the distant ridge and then the flight along the valley to the right and back. "So where is Lachens?" I hear you cry.


This pic was taken from near orbit on one of my best flights … (only joking). The blodge in the SW sector near a river is Lachens. The town of Nice is just visible on the coast near the bottom, and Monte Carlo (yes, flew there as well - really did) is further along the coast to the east.
I brought home a load of slide film for development, and came back to the down-to-earth terrain of East Anglia. The very next Sunday the wind forecast was NE-erly. Wooster (with family, for once) and I raced to Cromer in bright sunny perfect-looking weather until we met bl**dy sea mist right on the coast. Paul Whitley was the only other pilot there.


We hung around in cold greyness for a long time. Paul and I did eventually fly - dicing with varying levels of mist and low cloud. The wind got stronger. Wooster wasn't going to fly. He now owned a massive Lightning (from a trike, I think). Paul asked to fly it, dual, with his girlfriend, which he did with complete confidence as you can see here. Amazing guy. Wooster is on the nose wires. Count the legs in the other pic.

East Anglian Towing

One weekend sometime later, in July by now, the wind forecast was again useless for coastal flying and more sea fog was forecast, however, I phoned Greg Thompson on impulse. There had been mutterings about towing starting up again in Norfolk after a fairly dreadful time with bureaucracy and fatal accidents - see Mike Lake's pages for the full story.


Yes! they were going to Foulsham, and it was happening! Their pay-out winch system was towed behind a car. Here it is (far left) with Paul Whitley and Greg and Wooster. Mike was there, somewhere, and maybe one or two other people. On the right is the view from the winch during a tow, and that's Paul taking off on his Cyclone, below. They generously offered us a go. The machinery looked very well designed; the launch process looked somewhat more hairy. I guess we were both too sh*t scared, besides, we didn't have the necessary tow bridles on our kites and harnesses. Caution, we called it. But the sight of Paul (and Greg and others) getting launches to 1000' was something that could not be ignored for much longer.


It took about a month. On August 14th at Flixton, fear was overcome. My log book records three tow launches with a "Lake Step-up bridle" (thanks Mike! and the winch team), eventually attaining a height of 1000'. A week later I was back there again with Wooster and took five launches, except that the first two tries were aborted at low level in very turbulent thermic air because I couldn't keep station. Heart failure was not far away. I seem to remember launching from the short peri-track which had aggressive piles of hardcore at 50 yard intervals alongside it. Dodging these on landing after an emergency release was … um, challenging. But we did want thermals, didn't we? I managed to circle in "reduced sink" for a 10 minute flight after the best launch to 1000'.


Flixton was an interesting scene - other microlights dropped in for a chat. Here's Dave Cook on the left in his own-design Shadow, and someone else (any offers?) in a Dragon on the right (I think). Wooster took a joyride in one of the visiting trikes.

Read Dave Cook's full story: Flying from My Mind: Innovative and Record-Breaking Microlight and Aircraft Designs by David G. Cook. ISBN: 9781844155880


On this same day, Paul and Mike created NHGC history. According to my diary, the wind was southerly. Paul had had a good launch, caught a thermal and disappeared northwards, to the envy of everyone. Activity had slackened off somewhat during the midday turbulence, when a small car crept hesitantly across the airfield to the launch point. A highly bemused farmer and his wife had brought Paul back from his landing 6 miles away! Paul won a fiver from Greg for the first tow launch XC of more than 5 miles. A little later Mike Lake caught a thermal too, and disappeared northwards. He said he made about 6 miles, landed in a field, knocked on the door of the nearest house - and was welcomed by the very same farmer's wife who then drove him back to the airfield too! It was to be a year before I took any more tow launches (I can't quite recall why) and a year and half before I too eventually XCd from a tow launch, and then it was with Tony Webb and Rona Webb and Phil providing the 'infrastructure'. In the meantime, I was keeping myself adequately airborne, and aerodynamically creative. A week after this towing episode, I set myself up for some coastal adventures once more.

East Anglian Out-and-Return

This was going to be serious point-scoring - if it worked. In the absence of thermal flights (hard to come by, as we have related) the only possible national point scoring opportunity for anything in East Anglia was the Norfolk coast Sheringham-Cromer-Mundesley ridge run. It would have to be a declared out-and-return, greater than 15 km (total) length, and it scored only single points, on account of being all in ridge lift. Such were the values reflected by the national hang gliding community who weren't afflicted with the permanent challenges of the flatlands and never-thermic coastal sites.
I should emphasize that although this was potentially a "first time" for me, the likes of Paul Whitley and others had already done this, possibly on numerous occasions. At this time the incredible Paul must already have accumulated hundreds (if not thousands) of hang gliding flying hours. He could have done it at cliff-top height all the way, and probably at half cliff height, such were his incomparable flying skills - on single surface kites too. The only different thing about my approach (I believe) was that (a) I suppose I was interested in national point scoring (nobody else in East Anglia seemed particularly bothered) and (b), I had a camera on my kite (ahah!).
Evidence of the flight was essential. This could be from competent witnesses, but the logistics required for such a problematical event were too burdensome to contemplate, so photos it had to be. A combination of other factors was vital too: the bl**dy weather, and the state of the tide. The tide needed to be out. If I "lost it" (the lift) at any stage I would have to land on the beach. To do this required beach, which in places became vanishingly small (from the perspective of my modest landing abilities) as the tide came in. Regarding the wind, I required a moderate N or NNE or NE wind. If the wind was N-erly, then I could expect to struggle for lift at the NE end of the run (Mundesley). Conversely if the wind was NE-erly then I might struggle at the Sheringham end. On the day 28/8/83 the wind was N-erly. That brought a disadvantage: the nearest take-off point was West Runton a couple of miles away along the coast. In those bad old days, the rules for O/R flights did not allow a "closed-circuit" out and return - I faced the necessity of flying from take-off at West Runton to Sheringham (to start), then Mundesley, then right back to Sheringham, before finally landing at West Runton (for my car!).


So here we are (from the left image) looking east, the Sheringham side of the Beeston hump (my first turn point). In the mid distance you may see a blodge marking the West Runton launch point. In the far distance you can just see Cromer church tower and pier. And, if I may say so (with a mite of self congratulation even after all these years), just look at all that lovely altitude! Wuhaieeegh - plenty of beach too. This was an auspicious start.
The reasons for the altitude were: firstly, I was flying a double surface kite; and secondly, my father was tall and skinny. At 10 stone (68 kg), I was at the lightweight end of the Comet weight range: best for "mininimum sink", but worst for maximum speed. Next we are approaching Cromer pier. At this altitude I wouldn't have been able to peer into the top windows of the Cromer sea front hotels (a distraction enjoyed in Scorpion days). The third picture is of Mundesley, and is very important - if rather dull! I had to photograph some identifiable object (not just cars, or sand hills) for my second turn point, and from the remote side of it - thank you, the Cliftonville Hotel (on the left side of the picture)!
Now you do remember that the camera was fixed to my right upright, don't you, and you know I am now flying to the right back towards Cromer, so the last place my camera could easily be pointed was to the left, inland, and you really don't want to fly inland past the cliff top … the lift transforms itself into an unsurvivable giant rotor of turbulent air. Somehow I managed it. The loss of height during these frantic manoeuvres was considerable, but was gradually recovered during the return leg towards Cromer into what was now a partial headwind - meaning much slower progress over the ground.


Then we have Cromer pier again from the return direction. Just look at those tiny figures on the foreshore! The next view shows West Runton in the far distance, with tons of beach - my goal was almost in sight and definitely felt achievable. To finish the job I snapped the remote side of the Beeston hump, before I flying back to West Runton to land.
Here are some flight statistics: flight time: 2 hours; scoring distance: a modest ~20 miles (~32 km); personal satisfaction rating: 1,000,000%! I still get profound enjoyment in sharing it with you 25 years after the event. If it gave even a small amount of recognition for what was then happening in East Anglia, I was very happy.

Now I realise there is something missing in all this so far …

Suffolk Coastal Floaters - those Magnificent Men

I must have joined SCFHGC back soon after its formation in 1979, having acquired my Scorpion. My log book records two attempts to fly at Bawdsey: 20 seconds and 30 seconds duration respectively - about enough time to drop from the stones at the top of the tiny cliff to the piles of stones at the bottom. Undoubtedly this would have been in the company of the likes of Peter Bowden, the Wooleys, Terry and maybe Mel. Later experiences attempting to fly the beach huts at Felixstowe (with beach groynes like a D-day film set), and other impossible sites (e.g. Corton in 5 mph wind) contributed to the unforgettable delights of my early days hang gliding. I owe a lot to these generous guys, and of course these remarks apply equally well to the NHGC veterans and Norfolk sites. As far as I was concerned we were all East Anglians in search of the near-unattainable.
Wooster and I attended SCFHGC meetings - was it in the Airport Flying Club at Ipswich? - when we could all shoot the breeze about our various hopes and dreams. Do you remember the great artificial hill proposal …? Peter Bowden (and others) had this idea: build a bl**dy great s-shaped ridge, one mile long and 500' high in Suffolk - then we could launch hang gliders and ridge soar in any wind direction! And how would the hill be built? No problem! - Greater London generated millions of tons of garbage and had nowhere to put it; they would pay to bring it to Suffolk! - right?! - Right!! - Brilliant!!! etc. After my trip to France (from which I returned with four boxes of slides, you will recall), Peter and Bob kindly invited me to give a slide show at the Club (in competition with the pool tables and slot machines) which I did with the same enjoyment as sharing the above coastal slides (and no small boost to my ego, no doubt).

Yes, yes, we need more pictures …

Raydon Cowpat Trophy - full horror revealed


This was an SCFHGC "Derby" held annually at one (the only?) inland site of minuscule proportions. The pictures were from 1984 - my first (and last) attendance. On a double surface machine, my options on approaching the hedge were (a) crash into the top of it, or (b) crash into the bottom of it. As it turned out, after two attempts, I didn't even manage to reach the hedge. Ego took a slight dent.
"Those cows are sheep!"
Left: Safety inspection
Middle: Judges requiring money (Bob and Pete)
Right: Big Dave receives the trophy.
How does Pete get himself into all the pictures?


What's more, if any of you have not yet suffered a surfeit of EA HG history, then you should look at Terry's page here


During the winter months of 1983/4 I flew the coast whenever I could, and in the dark winter evenings I sharpened up my slide rule, played around with Delta-T's new computer, and constructed an "Angle of Attack Indicator" for my kite. My log book on p8 shows some entries for testing this apparatus, and in March 1984 it records that I tested out my banana connection for the first time. I will endeavour to explain the evolution of these devices on a separate page Ed Potter's Instrumentation and Aerodynamics - never fear, it will be highly technical. By April I had become so frustrated with winter weather and coastal flying in East Anglia that I took some holiday and headed for the Isle of Wight - then the location of Airwave Gliders, makers of the Magic I - their copy of the UP (American) Comet.

Isle of Wight


Why swap one pathetic bit of coast for another you might say. The ulterior motive was to get Airwave to thoroughly overhaul my kite, because - in fit of knee-shaking bravado - I had signed up for a trip to India in May: the first ever Grand Himalayan World Hang Gliding Rally. I was therefore desperate for as much flying experience as I could pack in, before the event. When I told the organisers that I was merely a club standard pilot with just 100 hours flying time, they said Yes! absolutely fine! There'll be some Indian Army pilots there with much less experience than that. So that was okay, wasn't it!? The picture on the left (taken with my feet firmly on the ground) is the Isle of Wight's 'Blackgang run' - a picturesque 10-mile stretch of coastal cliffs. However I didn't get to fly it - the wind direction was never right.



The weather wasn't co-operative and after accumulating only 3 hours flying in a week, I took the ferry back to the mainland and headed for Crickhowell in South Wales. For two days there was no wind there either. I went to look at Rhossili. The picture is taken with my feet on the ground. I didn't fly. The next day was Sunday, the wind was in the East, the sky was blue, I went to Pandy and flew. For eight successive days, I went to Pandy and flew. The sky remained clear. The wind was always "on".



I did three modest XC's in the mountains (my first in the UK); failed to cross 'the gap' once; broke three uprights; had another kite land on my wing and puncture the sail in two places, and added 14 hours flying time to my log book (see p9) - fantastic, for the UK. Pictures at the left are Mrs Clayton's farm at the top of Pandy (near the kites), and the dreaded gap in the Pandy ridge - a nail-biting mile to the spur in the middle of the picture.


The Himalayas - 1984

The link between this and the early history of the NHGC is somewhat tenuous, but it concerns the development of a pilot who dearly wanted to fly like a bird above the countryside of his youth. So if you will indulge the memories of an increasingly old and not very bold (former) pilot, I will proceed.
Offer an Englishman with a hang glider the opportunity to fly in the Himalayas and what do you expect? It seemed a jolly British and natural thing to do. Not many other Brits thought so, apparently, but Jack Donaldson did: he was 70 and didn't fly without a shirt and tie. Judy Leden was there - all expenses paid; one of five invited world-class pilots. Maybe the £800 cost deterred them, but since this included flights and free transport for the kite, it seemed worth it. Looking back, the list of other world class pilots was impressive: Larry Tudor and Chris Bulger (USA), Steve Moyes (Australia), Gerard Thevenot (France) and Joseph Guggenmoss (Germany). This was a one-on-one competition. I was seeded 20 out of 30 pilots, which seemed about right. Yes, there were other brave souls with much less experience than I had. After my Pandy experience, I packed five spare uprights!

Setting the Scene


If you like to get the feel for a place, then take a close look at the mountain vista. This is Himachal Pradesh in North West India. Everest is way off to the right. We were based in Palampur (4000’). Take off was at Billing (8000’). The main landing ground was at Bir. One set task was to fly along the mountains to the west to Dharamsala. Yes, the heights in the picture are in meters (x3 for feet, roughly). The experts did it fairly frequently. I never got past the first major ridge en route. Another task was the triangle out from the launch (marked on the map). The day I was pitted against Chris Bulger I did actually achieve this (my first ever triangle). Chris had landed before me and so won the round, and he had flown round the triangle twice!


On the right is the dirt track road to the top: 4000’ and a couple of hours of purgatorial, bouncing, gut-wrenching, stifling, hair-raising, sweltering ascent in the back of army jeeps stinking of fuel – the ultimate daily test of stamina and character, especially if you were suffering from the trots. Many of the pilots were. Fortunately I remained fairly secure in that region. Judy suffered, and yet did extremely well to place third in the contest. In fact, if you want an account of the competition, you really should read the “Himalayan Highs and Lows” chapter in Judy Leden’s book “Flying with Condors”. At the top, it was … very crowded; half the local population had walked up there. Jack Donaldson is on the left. Don’t ask where the loos were.

Flying with Condors; Author Judy Leden; Publisher: Orion Press 1996; ISBN 0 75280 133 3


The main landing ground was a decently vast area, on the left of the picture. Take off is way up the mountain slopes beyond the top of the picture. The rest of the terrain was pretty hostile for landing: narrow terraced slopes, criss crossed by telephone wires almost invisible until the last moment. On the first day, a practice day, I managed to miss the landing ground (!) and scraped and bounced onto a terrace, miraculously not bending any aluminium. 'Did you think you had the glide angle of a Mitchell Wing?' was the amused comment of an American pilot.


Storms and a Death

On the second day, we were all late taking off (jeeps breaking down on the road up). Clouds developed with ominous rapidity whilst we were in the air. There was a rumble of thunder. Suddenly what had looked to me like comfortable altitude (it was the day of this photo) became a dreadful race to get on the ground. Look closely at the picture in the top left hand sector and you wil see a few kites way below me circling to get down. I spiral dived as fast as I could to lose height, but my vario said I was still going up - the effect of the updraught into the storm. In desperation I circled even faster, but rotated so fast I got dizzy and couldn’t maintain it. Being sucked up into the cloud was not a survivable option. Then I saw the outflow from the storm thundercloud: a great swathe of rain advancing down the mountain slope towards the landing ground. The air there had to be going down, didn’t it?! I headed straight for it … (don’t do this at home). On breaking into the rain band I immediately had to fly as fast as possible to match the increased windspeed and even so only just maintained station vertically above the landing ground. Certainly I was going down now - about 2000’ in a couple of minutes. The kite descended vertically like a helicopter.


As I neared the ground the cadets rushed underneath and leapt up to grab any parts of the kite they could reach and then I was safely anchored on the ground, relieved indeed but not fully comprehending the risks I had taken. The cadets told me that a German pilot had hit a rock on landing and was killed. Read Judy’s book.
On the third day, the clouds were also building up early. I decided not to go up the hill, but to stay in the hotel and consider the wisdom of what I was doing. Storms developed that day too. There was a 10 day cycle to the weather, we were told. The storms would clear the air for five or six days before the next stormy spell built up. We flew the next day.


Gloomy faces of Judy, Chris Bulger and Joseph Guggenmoss at the top on a day when we didn't fly. Despite the fatality the contest continued. It was a heavily sponsored event - it had to. The next picture was a typical view 'over the back' in clearer weather towards mightier and mightier mountains. 'Don't go there!' was the instruction - a retrieve might take a couple of weeks.

Co-operative Aviators

My primitive altimeter never showed more than 10,500'. The pointer had gone round the clock once and was probably hard against the stop. I guess I was thermalling up when this picture was taken. What I regret most is that I never got a picture of companions in the air. Not hang gliders (we couldn't launch quickly enough to fly in gaggles), not condors either, not eagles - although they were big birds - but vultures! Ugly, bald-headed consummate aviators, they were unquestionably a good omen. Join a group of these circling and you would go up a lot faster than anywhere else in the sky, and with no worries at all about air traffic control (mid air collision being the most scary aspect of flying in hang glider gaggles). So there I was: an Englishman with my hang glider in the Himalayas flying with … well, vultures.



Landing out in the hostile terrain was almost as high stress an activity as the launch. Fortunately the natives were friendly. As they saw you descending they would gather in the fields beneath from all directions. Usually the first thing I had to do was to try to speak. My mouth and throat would be completely dry with fear, exhaustion and dehydration. "Pani, pani" (water) was the first word uttered. We didn't have camelbaks in those days, and stirrup harnesses were not equipped with suitable pockets. Most of my flying decisions were probably made under extreme dehydration - I don't recommend it. Towards the end I did reluctantly tape a bottle of water to the upright (more drag producing encumbrance) but I couldn't access it during flight. Plenty of free help and enthusiasm (too much) was available to de-rig the kite (aaah - mind those battens!) and to carry it back to the nearest road (phew - thanks!). Wonderful Indian hospitality, sweet tea, and Hindi language tuition were offered whilst awaiting a retrieve vehicle.


Home Again

I survived seven rounds to the end of the comp, placed 15th=, won a small amount of prize money which I donated to Deepak Mahajan for Indian pilots, and returned with five spare uprights. My attack of the trots delayed itself until I was driving home from Heathrow at 3 o'clock in the morning. Looking the thinner for it a week later, I surveyed the transit damage to the kite - fortunately only cosmetic scuffs and minor sail repairs were needed. Altogether this had been a totally incredible unforgettable adventure. I had added 13 hours to my log book (see p9) and for the rest of my flying career retained a huge respect for - and avoidance of - thunder clouds. Of course I brought back plenty of films too and ended up giving ten slide shows to friends including SCFHGC in Ipswich and NHGC in Norwich. Look closely at the picture and you will see the Ventimeter/Makiki/Altimeter instrument cluster on the upright, and my banana connection suspended from the hang point.

East Anglia Towing Once More

After the Himalayas it was six weeks before I flew again. Apparently some Norfolk people were again towing. Wooster and I travelled over to Eye airfield, met Tony and Rona Webb (and Phil!) and proceeded to sample Lejair's flying school activities. They were using a pay-out winch system just like Mike Lake and Paul Whitley's. I couldn't wait. Even Wooster was persuaded to take some initial training.

Eye, July 1984


That's Rona, with another student pilot in the winch trailor; and this is Tony ready for take off. Wooster is being kitted up by Tony and Nigel (Webb) and briefed for a "man tow". Man power (sorry Rona) was provided by Phil, Rona and Nigel, and yes with Tony instructing alongside, he's off! Then Wooster graduates to a fixed line car tow.


A busy place Eye airfield, when there are signs of aeronautical activity. Snowy and Judy drop by in a trike, and John Sharpe (plus ?) turns up in a novel canard pusher microlight. Finally I take some launches. Look closely and you will see the tow line disappearing down to a tiny vehicle in the middle of the runway. Splendid runway!


But you did need a runway, preferably a long one, and what's more, you needed the wind up or down the runway. Nevertheless, this was a much less stringent condition than was needed for coastal flying, as evidenced by the log book (pp10 & 11) recording nearly 50 launches on 10 occasions at Eye and Flixton by the end of the year, whereas I flew only once more on the coast at West Runton.


Learning to take off when there was a cross-wind component was essential - especially on light wind thermic days when the wind could swing rapidly.


We tried various ruses to defeat the capricious wind - like doing dog-legs: starting along the main runway then swinging onto the spur runway or a peri track (provided the wind was in the sector between them). This considerably increased the hazard (towlines passing over crops or vehicles) and didn't always yield much extra altitude.


Flixton airfield was the only other place that Tony and Rona had access to. The runway was less convenient - and was being grubbed up for hardcore - but they had to use what they could. Here we are on a very cold 27th October. Paul Whitley had come along to try out his new Magic 1.


Here he is putting my kite into the usual radical Paullian manoeuvres. I didn't dare try to emulate them, besides my mind was taken up with experimentation. This was a day when I had fitted my angle-of-attack-indicator device, and flew at various constant airspeeds whilst memorising the angle of attack. For these tests smooth air (not necessarily wind-less) was the preferred condition, but my first two launches had resulted in extended flights of 10 minutes or so in weak lift. It was all part of the development of a computer program to try to maximise the gain of height from a pay-out winch launch in different conditions. The details of this will eventually appear on my theory page - I swear! Although tow-launching was showing promise, I was disappointed at the year end in not having achieved any XCs from the tow. The following year would change all that.



My first flights of the year in mid March were coastal, from Cromer and West Runton. 4 hours flying time logged in a day - probably as much as my total flying time from all my tow launches in the previous year! I never tire of looking at these aerial shots. There will be more. Note the long shadows: it must have been getting late in the afternoon.

First XC from the Tow


This picture is not so dramatic, but it is significant. I had landed six miles away from Flixton. My first XC from a Norfolk tow. One thermal, one cloud, which dissipated before I had got half way to the coast. I never forgave Tony for enthusiatically pressuring me to launch as soon as I could. We both knew it was thermic, but I thought it was too early. It was. Just look at those clouds developing soon after I had landed. Phil Chett drove up and down the coast for hours hoping to find and retrieve me, but I hadn't got that far. Never expect gratitude from hang glider pilots: they are unforgiveable egotists.

BHGA Ripon - April 1985


Mike Lake has written of the troubled history of relations between the BHGA and the East Anglian towing community up to this time. I could easily understand the difficulties and suspicions experienced by both sides, but now with some solid achievements - and, most importantly, no accidents - to talk about, Tony was persuaded to take the gear and demonstrate it at the BHGA AGM meeting at Ripon. Here you see some of the BHGA worthies (Graham Geary, Terry Prendergast, Brian Milton? and Ian Trotter) in deep discussion. I believe it did help to establish credibility with the BHGA that Tony and Rona could run a training school with adequate safety provisions. It really was important for us flatlanders that their initiative should succeed, but it was equally important for the BHGA that some operation given their blessing did not lead to future fatal accidents.

Magic 3


Around this time I must have felt the need to "trade up", and purchased this Magic 3 from Robin Rhodes who had flown it for a year in the League, and placed fourth. Maybe it was the very wide streamlined uprights, or maybe I felt some of his expertise would be inherited with the kite. The image on the left was early in May on its first outing at Flixton, where after one of my launches I managed to land on the aforemention pile of stones. Somewhat red-faced, I blamed my grip on the wide uprights. A week later we ventured to Lavenham. By now I had fitted a speed bar with neat wheels, and you can see the banana connection at the hang point, my trusty ventimeter and a smaller (electronic) vario (plus garden altimeter) on the left upright, with the camera on the right upright, and an airmap rolled up around my left arm! So I was definitely in go-for-it mode, but a 1000' cloud base prevented any XC prospects - it didn't stop Graham Drinkall doing a loop on his kite though!

May 1985 - An Irish XC


Why was it so difficult to do a significant XC in East Anglia? I took a couple of weeks holiday and drove to Ireland with the Magic 3, met up with Ian Cross of Ulster HGC near Belfast and tried some of the beautiful sites (mostly coastal though) there. This is Magilligan, looking east towards Coleraine. Great friendly flying experiences, but no XCs. Then to Eniskillen to stay with friends and chance my arm with some solitary hang gliding in spectacular mountains. A 4.5 mile XC was all I managed. Launching unaccompanied in remote areas was just too risky I decided. The final few days were spent down south in Dublin with Doc, Gerry, Declan Doyle and others. We flew from Mount Leinster. Conditions looked good. I got away in the northwesterly wind. Three thermals and 2 hours later I had run out of land and descended at Churchtown in the very south eastern-most point of Ireland. 36 miles!!


But of course, Ireland is not the UK, so I couldn't claim the flight in the National XC League for the NHGC. Aw, shucks! Nevertheless, I had the remarkable luck to meet Phil whilst returning via Merthyr in South Wales, and was able to brag unmercifully about it.

July 1985 - Sculthorpe & big Norfolk XCs!

Tow launching hang gliders with a pay-out winch was all about being able to find runways: smooth ones, long ones, that faced in all the important wind directions. This was becoming the limiting factor in our endeavours.


By some absolutely remarkable feat of quiet tact and diplomacy, the NHGC got permission to use Sculthorpe - recently moth-balled by the USAF. I am told that Pete Hammond deserves the credit for this (and for the negotiation of Watton too). A magnificent asset: just look at that runway - 1.6 miles of it! And the cross runways were a pretty good length too. It was a good job nobody seemed to mind that I had been active in 'East Anglia against the Missiles' - an anti-nuclear group active during the Cold War years. Such were the compromises of an ethical aviator.

The very first day I arrived at Sculthorpe, I 'went for it' on my first launch with Tony and Rona's payout winch. This picture was taken at the start of my flight, thermalling up and looking back towards Sculthorpe from well outside the airfield boundary. The wind was westerly. This was definitely a Good Thing, because one small disadvantage of Sculthorpe was that it was in the wrong place - too damn close to the sea on the North Norfolk coast. With this drift the wind would carry me roughly parallel to the coast, not into the sea. And look at those solid cloud shadows - a good omen for workable thermals!


Cloudbase is where you aspire to get to when thermalling cross-country. The next image is what it looks like: grey and foggy, and it is cold and damp. The air in which you have been ascending has expanded with the reduced pressure on gaining height. Expanding air cools itself. Water vapour in the air reaches the temperature at which saturation occurs and droplets of water form - the mist. Cloudbase is the natural limit to altitude whilst thermalling in a hang glider. You could enter cloud (and the air is still certainly rising into it) but (a) you can't see where you are, (b) you don't know which way up you are, and (c) it's against Air Law to do so (without adequate instruments and qualifications). This picture was taken on my first encounter with cloudbase on this flight, somewhere over Westwick between Norwich and Cromer, from about 3000'. With restricted visibility near cloudbase it does get difficult to know where you are. I did know (roughly) where I was at the time, and I was a very happy man. Having arrived at cloudbase, the next task was to head for another cloud downwind without delay - the clear sunlit air between the clouds was a pleasant relief from the gloom of cloudbase, but was usually sinking air. The next picture was taken in transit towards a good looking cloud judged by its shadow, and - exultant whoops of joy! - in the far distance I could see Barton Broad. So I knew exactly where I was, and that the flight was going well.


Having passed Barton Broad, I flew over Hickling Broad (it's not blue! look for the tiny sails). Catfield was down there somewhere! So there I was, flying silently like a bird, riding the natural air currents, over the countryside of my earliest memories - an overwhelmingly nostalgic and heavenly experience. But there was more to be done - I wanted to cover the maximum (straight line) distance from Sculthorpe. This meant bending my course southwards with the great sweep of the Norfolk coast towards Gt Yarmouth. I was heading towards the right of this picture, but the inexorable drift of the wind out to sea brought me over Winterton on Sea (marked with a blodge - ignore the fingerprint on the left) with 2000' of spare altitude to spiral off before landing in the sugar beet field, completely exhausted, and totally jubilant. Two hours flying time, and nearly 40 miles covered: a "personal best" in every respect and (I think) the longest XC achieved in East Anglia at that time and done from a single tow launch. (The journey back to Sculthorpe was an adventure of its own which is described under "Retrieves!" below - see 1991.) Jim Bowyer of BHGA League fame was on the airfield that day, observing Lejair's operations, and was cordially congratulatory when I eventually reported back.

Cloud Streets, and the best view of Cromer Pier

Two weeks later I 'went for it' again from Sculthorpe. This time I needed two launches to catch a thermal. The clouds were developing very rapidly with some menacing turbulence indicated - you can see this from the picture taken a bit later in the day (sorry lads about the picture quality under the wing). What's more, the clouds were "streeting": that is, they were forming continuous lines along the (westerly) wind direction, rather than being discrete scattered clouds.


This enabled me, on reaching cloudbase, to fly to the sunny side of the cloud street and then to fly fast and straight in clear air parallel to the clouds - the rising air forms a consistent line too. This is complete heaven for hang glider pilots (and is a situation that I have enjoyed only rarely ever since). At times I was a even few hundred feet higher than the main cloudbase, but still in clear rising air. You can get the impression of this from another of the pictures. Normally cloudbase (those flat bottoms to cumulus clouds) is at the same level all over the sky on a thermic day. And the best view of Cromer Pier? Yes, the image is blurred and small but it was taken from 4000' above Cromer - undoubtedly the best viewpoint!
The drift would have taken me quickly out to sea with this street - you can see the elongated cloud shadow over the water. To maximise my distance from Sculthorpe I needed to head south across the "blue" gap to the next parallel street, but had misgivings about encountering powerful sink (it tends to mirror the lift on the sunnyside) in the gap. In fact I made contact with the lifting part of the next street and very quickly was over the coast again, this time at Gimingham. Reluctant to throw away two or three thousand feet of altitude I flew back upwind in the lift line hoping to make enough distance inland to allow a further "street hop". But my progress upwind over the ground was much slower, and the streets were starting to develop into vicious rain showers - very unhealthy. It was definitely time to land. This flight covered 27 miles and lasted 1 hour 11 minutes. My actual speed over the ground whilst straight lining along the streets was probably in the region of 40 mph. That noble pilot Phil Chett came to retrieve me once again.

Lejair towing initiatives


Tony was always very enthusiastic and creative about trying out new methods for training. Here was one, to avoid the need to run alongside the student pilot whilst they mastered the basic controls at flying speed (as illustrated earlier). This one didn't make it into the BHGA training manual! Pictured are Tony and Phil aloft, with Angie Chettleburgh and Julian Floyd.

Hunstanton in November with a fair huley of a 20 mph NWerly wind presented other challenges. The completely sheer cliff top provides no place at all for anyone to hang on to the nose wires to assist a launch from the cliff top. So what do you do? Tie a long rope on to the pilot on the beach (it was a proper tow release bridle of course), then run and pull like the blazes. With luck the pilot took off and attained 200' close enough to the cliff to release from the tow and quickly crab into the lift band of the cliff. I had an hour's fairly hectic soaring on that day.


The wind was strong; so strong in fact that when Julian had a flight on a less speedy kite, he couldn't penetrate into wind and gradually drifted backwards over the cliff top. From the beach we watched in horror: this was a classic danger situation. We expected him to be immediately trashed in the rotor behind the cliff top. Somehow though, he top-landed normally, and lived to fly another day. Sensibly, no one else tried it.

1986 - A Fateful Year

Sculthorpe Extras


A little bit of snow didn't stop Tony and Rona either. They were out on the 4th January. In the stunning aerial picture, if you ask was it cold, I would say yes - bl**dy cold, but those are thermal clouds in distance! Here's a group of trainees about to take launches. It was on an occasion like this that I diverted to Newmarket instead of heading straight up to Sculthorpe, to pick up a new student. Kathy Rigg trained with Tony and Rona and went on to great things (see her page) - recently back after a five year lay-off taking 3rd place in the Women's World Championships in Monte Cucco.


Other vistors to the field were bird and man: Andy Hollidge - at this stage not (I think) a pilot, but clearly besotted with avian capabilities. Now a fully fledged pilot for many years, he has (September 2008) topped the National XC League tables, and has lifted the Cambridgeshire Aerotow Club (a descendant of the Norfolk Aerotow Syndicate) to the top of the Club league for the first time ever.

BHGA Tow Meet Grantham - January 1986


Towards the end of January we trooped off to RAF Barkston Heath near Grantham for a BHGA tow meet. During my first take off (captured on telly) in the beautiful smooth but frosty air I lost it somewhat, and allowed one wingtip to touch the ground. Fortunately Phil - the winchman - had enough experience to keep the towline tension on, which enabled me to straighten up and abort the take off without further ado. If he had cut the line at the first instant (arguably what he should have done) I would have cartwheeled into the ground and no doubt would have bent and broken numerous things. This incident sparked a "lively controversy" about towing techniques. I went on to take a couple more satisfactory launches, and it was only when I myself saw the incident on telly later that my knees wobbled a bit.

BHGA AGM - March 1986


A small moment of fame (but one of considerable personal pride): Noel Whittall, the BHGA Chairman presented me with the Dave Loxley trophy for tow launched XC flights the previous year.
(Photo credit © Weston Air Photography 1986, Weston Super Mare)

Lejair and the Koch Winch - March 1986

Around this time, Tony and Rona made a big financial commitment to the purchase of a Koch static winch. This would liberate them from reliance on Sculthorpe (or other suitable runway sites that were increasingly hard to find). Access to Sculthorpe could have been withdrawn at very short notice - not a comfortable situation if you were running training courses.
The static winch did things backwards, in my view. Instead of starting close to the (pay-out) winch - when you could shout at each other and see what was going on - you started off separated by about half a mile of wire. If there was a slight hump in the runway in between (there was), you couldn't see each other (properly), but of course you had radio walkie-talkies. So that was all right, or would have been, but what you needed were reliable radios, and mostly, these weren't. Furthermore, in order to generate the tension for launching, the winch wound in the cable making it shorter all the time, thus reducing the maximum height you could obtain, the longer you stayed on the towline. However, sailplanes had been using this sort of arrangement for a long time, and it soon became adopted. The great advantage was that such a system did not require a runway, and could be operated from a reasonably smooth grass field irrespective of the wind direction. The Koch winch had been designed around a Volkswagen motor engine (air cooled, you know). This made it serviceable, and affordable (just about) for small hang gliding groups. We couldn't have afforded the much more expensive and powerful specialist winches available to the sailplane community. I think SCFHGC acquired a Koch winch around this time, and in other areas of the country hang glider tow-launching became more accessible and accepted. I took my first three launches with Tony and Rona at Sculthorpe on a day in mid-March 1986. Sorry - no pictures of the Tony and Rona with their winch from this era.

Coastal Out and No Return


When the wind was "on" at the coast, the attractions of coastal flying were still strong. Early in March I had done a ridge-run from Cromer to Mundesley and back, reaching 750' above take off and spending three hours in the air to test my endurance. The Magic 3's superior performance was helping. I wanted to extend the distance covered in my previous year's out-and-return (point scoring for the new season National XC League was the temptation here), and I hadn't given up hope of getting away from the coast in a sea-thermal, sometime (allegedly there were such things).
April 5th looked like being a good day for the out and return attempt. Cromer was "on" for take off. The plan was to fly west, past Sheringham and the Beeston hump, on to Weybourne where the cliffs ended abruptly after quite a long, low stretch. Turning at this point would be critical because of my altitude would likely be quite low. Then I had to fly east back past Sheringham, Cromer to Mundesley, turn at Mundesley and fly all the way back east to Weybourne. If I couldn't turn finally at Weybourne to fly back to Cromer (for my car) then I could still land to the west of Weybourne for the flight to be valid (but I would have to retrieve my car somehow). In-flight photos were needed. I will indulge with yet another picture of Cromer pier, taken during the flight. The wind was from the sea of course, and yes! look: those are thermal clouds over the sea, and dense cloud shadows on the sea (ok - the clouds may have been over the land …) so who knew what thrills might be encountered!


This picture is of my chosen turn point (the farm) on the Weybourne cliffs. You can see how low they are - and how little space there would be to land on the beach. At this point I had made a turn with adequate altitude and was now heading east (into the picture) with no particular qualms about maintaining enough height to reach the higher cliffs at Sheringham.
The story on the return was different. I did fly all the way to Mundesley and back to here - it was about a two hours later in the day. The wind off the sea was no longer so strong, and I had less altitude (and was flying towards you, out of the picture). My last memory is of passing the farmhouse, but at the level of the cliff-top. I was close to the cliff top too, trying to stay in the reduced lift band. Apparently, I was told later, I had crashed into the cliff about six feet above the beach level, knocked myself out and had bent and busted significant bits of the kite. Various kind people (Phil, Julian Floyd and others) picked up the bits and looked after them. The camera film must have survived! I spent the next week in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital where Mr Watson-Farrar did an expert job putting a couple of screws into a fractured kneebone. Other kind people back at the Commune (I had moved out in 1980) made a room available and brought me muesli for breakfast whilst I started to convalesce with crutches and limited mobility. Thoughts of further hang gliding were definitely off the menu …

Not a Happy Man

During the rest of the year, recovery from the broken leg and concussion was eventful and protracted. After relinquishing crutches, my back went into spasm, then Valium given for muscle relaxation induced intense depression for months (I swear it did).


In January, having recovered somewhat, but still feeling fragile and sorry for myself, I signed up with Tony and Rona for a Lanzarote hang gliding trip - as driver. There was absolutely no way I was contemplating flying, nor did I know if I ever wanted to fly again, but I needed to do something.


I had loaned the Magic 3 (now repaired) to Tony to fly while he was out there - he deserved to have more performance than the training kites he would be taking there. It was an interesting and generally comradely time, with some adventures. When flying was not on, I would go rambling amongst the volcanic landscape and along the dramatic coastal cliffs.
Tony, whilst rigging the Magic 3 in quite a strong wind suffered the "clapped hands" syndrome. The spanwise rigidity is lost; both wing tips rise up and meet above your head with the horrid noise of aluminium spars bending. This does rather spoil your day, or week. In the event, we sold the wreckage (it was in principle repairable) to an eager local pilot and left it on the island.


On another less windy day - in fact with benign weather at Mala - Bob Barrett had just had a pleasant flight on his Clubman (this is he, on the right), and kindly said 'Here, Ed, why don't you have a go'. My weak mindedness was palpable: 'Well … er - OK!'. Take off wasn't a problem on the nice rounded slope, but landing - if I had to run fast on my weak leg amongst volcanic boulders - would not be a good thing. I had an enjoyable 15 minutes thermalling above the top, then came in for a top landing trying to fly slowly but close enough above the ground so that my concerned comrades could leap up and grab the rigging wires to pull me safely down to earth. It was a good experience, but I was certainly not ready to risk it again, and this remained the case for a year or more. Meanwhile, back in Norfolk, changes were afoot …

Fransham Fields


Tony and Rona had secured the use of some fields in Fransham (mid Norfolk) for Lejair's training school operations with the Koch winch. They weren't very big fields, but they were fine for training. That's Tony with John Burrell and James Oxbury - an excellent team of instructors.

I guess I must have dropped in a couple of times during the rest of the year 'just to see how they were getting on' and remained very ambivalent about resuming flying. To exercise my weak leg I went on long rambles - up the Peddars Way, and in the Pyrenees for example - always deliberately putting my worst foot forward. It didn't work: the muscles never regained their original size. This occupation had its hazards too because much of the time I was surveying the sky and the clouds, and not watching out for potholes in the track.




When the weather was unsuitable for hang gliding, other activities were devised. Phil and Angie got married. That's Tony and Nigel Webb, Stephen Partridge Hicks and Lucinda, and Rona in their gladrags. If the wind was too strong, Tony would sit under an autogyro that he found in a shed somewhere, willing it to leap into the air, whilst Paul Welton and others (names please) looked on, bemused.


Parades of the walking wounded were organised. That's John Burrell faking it, a genuine casualty in the centre (?Anthony Shaw) and the magnificent Dave McEwen on the right with a dislocated shoulder.
When the wind was impossibly strong - which made going to the field pointless - you could always go to the coast to watch the incomparable Paul Whitley soaring the barrier at the bottom of the pathetic slope at Corton, or potentially dragging people to their doom in a force 5 at West Runton.


The lunatics assisting this endeavour are recognisably Barry Freeman and holding the nose wires, Peter Bowden (?Suffolk guys … help please!). The stones in this image are probably airborne too; the sand definitely was. Later, on the coast road between Runton and Cromer, from the shelter of a car we watched a lone hang glider under angry grey skies pirouetting and figure-of-eighting well out to sea above the breakers whilst the force 5 wind whipped low mist and clag across the coast. The lift band would have been very wide. Paul had hours of muscular, balletic flying that day.


At other times, a purposeful person (Rona, taking a break from instructing) was going XC and - jubilantly - being retrieved from Bacton (I think) by Tony and ?Justin.

Elsewhere, aerial photos of Fransham were being taken by someone else whose mental judgement must seriously have been in question. Ah, you guessed! Very gingerly, two years on from the prang, that man was creeping back into the air. After some refamiliarisation on training kites without further mishap, he started to borrow Tony's Magic 155FR. The '155' meant it was smaller than the regular Magics (and sank faster), and the 'FR' designation ('Full Race') meant that it was tuned for high performance and consequently flew like a plank until Tony worked out how to de-tune it and make it flyable. But being kite-less at this juncture (remember Lanzarote) I was in no position to be unduly critical. Nice looking clouds up there …


That black lump attached to the keel was, I think, a recording barograph that Tony had acquired. The black lump at the nose of the keel was, probably, a wrapped-up kite bag. Could these have been for the eventuality of an XC out-landing … ? Probably, but by the end of 1988, despite quite a lot of launches, I hadn't logged any XCs at all. The damn fields at Fransham were too small. They didn't allow enough altitude to be obtained from the launch before you had to release, and then you could do little more than fly back to the launch point weaving between tall hedgerow trees.

Step Towing

On light wind days, the height obtained was even less. I do remember crying quietly behind the hedge in abject frustration whilst birds soared all around into a perfect thermalling sky. We experimented with step tows to overcome this problem. I won't try to describe the technique in detail - the memory of it still makes me ill. It entailed turning downwind on tow, with the towline still attached, to pull some towline back off the winch drum, before turning into wind for a further pull under tension from winch. After two or three hair-raising steps you could reach 1000' or more (1400' - so says my log book) which was well worth having, but it slowed down the launch rate significantly, so it wasn't always popular with pilots waiting in the take-off queue. By the end of the year I had received 96 launches, and apart from one splendid flight with XC potential back in May lasting 2 hours and thermalling up to 5000' but staying within range of the field on a borrowed kite (thank you Tony), none of these resulted in XCs. I had also overcome the possible trauma of flying the coastal cliffs from West Runton and Cromer on a couple of occasions. Looked like hang gliding was back on the menu …


More of the same, mostly. I logged 89 launches, one 7-mile XC in May (from a launch at 6 pm!) as a tantalising taster, and then one massive 44-miler to Woodbridge on August Bank Holiday weekend.


A significant improvement in the chances of going XC though looked promising for the next season: Tony and Rona had negotiated some much bigger fields in Beeston - close by, and just north of the A47.

A few expeditions to other parts of the country did not yield much reward.

Mere - again

September 1989. Yes, seething with inactivity, as usual, but winch launching also featured - a vital innovation for Mere, where the wind was so often in the wrong direction. I took 5 launches, which lasted about 3 minutes each. Enough said. I can see Jayu and Barry and ? in the foreground.



More recognisable mugs at the NHGC AGM in Norwich in December. You know who you are. Come on, own up.

The Nineties

Ed's first Kiss - 1990


Phil has had to wait an awful long time for this (he had one first, anyway). Reputedly it was a "hot ship" with a reputation also for horrendous oscillation at speed. Nevertheless in January, I took to my new Airwave Kiss with eager anticipation and more or less mastered its wayward foibles. I loved its performance so much that I flew it for the next six years.

More Diversions

Life on the field continued to provide some amusement on windy days. Here's how to test a reserve parachute: get Rob Sinclair and Tony Beckett to hold on to it with Phil hesitantly in command.


Dave McEwen did it differently and tied the 'chute bridle to his car bumper before lobbing the packed chute into the air. It opened instantly with an explosive report, ripped the bumper off the car and dragged Dave (supine and shouting) to the far hedge before the retrieve crew got to him. See Stories We Tell for corroboration!

This is Roger Pearse after a failed cliff launch incident. He is looking surprisingly chipper having recovered enough to accompany the NHGC team to an Airwave Club competition in the Peak District. The site is Rushup Edge in Edale, in May.


Some of us returned to the Sheffield area on subsequent weekends, but none of us achieved any significant XC's. Whilst we were pretty damn good thermallers, we were not at all practiced in catching thermals in crowded airspace close to a hill launch take off point. In September we took an NHGC team to the South Coast (Devil's Dyke region) for another Airwave Club comp but failed to distinguish ourselves there too. My log book shows rather few winch launches during that summer and mostly we were back at Low Farm, Fransham (the small fields) - not my favorite scene. By the end of the summer I had done only one meagre 10-mile XC from the winch and decided to hibernate for the winter.


Flying Starts


By the beginning of March I was dead keen to get back into the air, and flew all the flyable weekends in March and April - which was nearly all of them, and some on both Saturday and Sunday. This was the benefit of combining Lejair school activities and NHGC winching on the same field: there was nearly always a good crowd of people there - essential for the teamwork required in winching, and jolly useful for retrieve drivers if one went cross country and landed in some corner of a foreign field. Declaring a goal destination to land at (or fly over) added a sense of purpose flight planning for the day - and would have scored extra points for the National XC League. This was a typical modest distance declaration of about 10 miles (photographic evidence was required). The wind was pretty strong N-erly that day and the launch took me to 1400' but I 'didn't go nowhere' except to land back on the field, and straight way derigged to race off to West Runton on the coast where I managed 25 minutes flying in clag at 200'. By the end of March I had accomplished only one mini XC of 8.6 miles to Carbrooke and a non scoring 3.7 miler to Holme Hale from 22 winch launches.


By the end of April (another 13 launches) however my efforts were rewarded with big XCs on successive days: 40.6 miles to Whittlesey near Peterborough on the 27th in 3 hours (from my fifth launch of the day), and the next day 38.2 miles to Lavenham in 2.5 hours (after 3 launches). Ho-ho! I thought, it's all a piece of cake, I'll do big XCs every weekend … but then 27 launches in May yielded only a single successful goal flight to Watton (8.6 miles). There was still an awful lot of luck in being launched just at the critical time to capture a thermal passing near the field.

Tony, as ever, was trying new things and (here) is courageously running a training course for paraplegic pilots (yes - they flew!). The yellow buggy with Rona and Simon was, I think, a grass field version of the payout winch trailer plus car system, and the flying plank was a Fledge - a rigid wing hang glider controlled not so much by pilot weight-shift but by aerodynamic control of tip rudders.


I think Tony found it in a shed somewhere. Potentially it had better performance than flex wing hang gliders, but I don't think it ever realised it.
Then - ohmigod - what is that thing with a string hanging out the back?! Tony and Rona had heard about the routine aerotow launching of hang gliders. They went to Hungary with a few other adventurous souls to find out how it was done and came back enthused and ready to start. All you needed was an adapted microlight and a 100 foot length of tow rope. You attached the tow rope to your chest bridle; the microlight took off, and wuheeeighhh - you followed!


With this arrangement, and with a canny microlight pilot you could be spirited up to 2000' and released into lift - a truly enormous advantage over being winched up at random to half this height, missing the lift and landing to queue again for another launch. There were one or two little difficulties to be overcome of course.
A microlight with aerotow attachment cost about £5000, and (oh, you've guessed already) the BHGA and least of all the CAA were not ready to countenance yet another 'dangerous' activity involving hang gliders. The hair-raising aspect of this form of launching from the hang glider pilot's point of view was that you were separated by a mere 100 feet from what looked like a gigantic meat slicer: the prop on the microlight. Did I want to try it? NO WAY! - they must be crazy. Tony and Rona couldn't get clearance from the British aviation authorities to do anything like it, so - they arranged a trip to Hungary to do it out there. Would I like to join the group? Eurggh … well no, er but maybe … well yes, OK then.

Hungary - July 1991

Hungary in July was hellishly hot. We camped in the "forest" beside the hotel. Kecskemet was in the middle of the vast Hungarian plains. At breakfast outdoors each morning with minimal clothing we were already sweating. Touching metal parts of vehicles or hang gliders was painful. Marton Ordody and his Hungarian compatriots knew what the problem was with hang gliders in the flatlands and they had solved it. They had three or four aerotow tugs with experienced and expert pilots ready to train us in two or three days. Then they ran a small competition for us during the following week.


You can probably see some familiar faces in the group shot (sorry the quality is a bit marginal). From the left, front row: EP, Sean Biggs, Rona, Roger Pearce (of neck-brace fame!), ??, James Oxbury, Tony. Standing from the left: Russell Mutton, ??, Simon Offord, then lots of ??s some of whom may be tug pilots, Hungarian visiting pilots or helpers and/or Sandy Argo, Hugh Jackson, Ian Smith, and elsewhere Stephen Partridge Hicks. A good crowd.
Taking off behind a microlight tug aircraft is one thing - you don't have much option but to rocket along horizontally at 30 mph close to the ground as the tug takes off. Staying behind the tug in left turns, right turns, figures of eight, and finally in tight climbing turns in turbulent thermals (the whole object of the exercise) was another - but we did it! One or two members of the group took training as tug pilots too.
Altogether it was a prodigiously successful trip for me. The statistics were:

  • 9 days flown out of a possible 11 days
  • 3 days training, 6 days comp tasks
  • 22 Aerotow "starts" received
  • 23 hours 12 minutes flying time
  • XC distance flown 326.0 km (202.6 miles)!

On the second day whilst most of us were still doing qualifying flights a task was nevertheless set for Szeged airfield - nearly 70 km (km numbers always look more impressive than miles) to the SE of Kecskemet. There it is, on the right. From my fourth aerotow of the day, and after 3.5 hours flying I arrived above it with 4000 feet to spare (for altitudes, feet sound more impressive than metres of course). Cloud base on the way had been up to 7800 feet! - about twice what you might get on an average day in East Anglia. What a phenomenal achievement - a personal best distance to goal on my second day, including navigating over unknown territory! Hells bells! As I landed, rather cockily expecting to be the only hang glider there (having seen no other kites since Kecskemet), Sean Biggs came over and welcomed me down. He had landed there earlier. Oh well, it was good to have company whilst we awaited a retrieve vehicle.


On the last day of the comp, Szeged was again set as the goal task. By this time I knew the way, so to speak, and did it in 3 hours with a ceiling of 6300', and this time I was alone. The Antonov lived on the airfield, a monster lumbering biplane used by free-fall parachutists. The other pilots on the field were very friendly and pushed me on board for a joyride over Szeged (but not with a 'chute!) while I awaited another retrieve. The big river you see down there was important. At the morning's comp briefing, Marton had said 'If you get to a big river do not fly across it. They will shoot you!'. The other side was a troubled country then still called Yugoslavia.
With that final goal flight I won our little comp and was inordinately chuffed with my exploits. It had all been a formidable experience - not least the …

Retrieves - Hungary


Hungary is a land with a semi-impossible language. If you are English and think you recognise any word in it, the only thing you can be sure of is that you are wrong. Just have a look at the sheet we had to carry with us and you will see what I mean. That's the impossible bit. I'll come to the language's redeeming feature in a moment.
Perhaps I haven't explained before - and it may seem incomprehensible to the lay person - but when intending to go XC in a hang glider in those early days the almost inevitable consequence was that you would land somewhere, and not be too sure exactly where you were, and nor would anybody else.


As if that wasn't enough, after de-rigging your kite and packing up your harness and other flying gear, you then had no predictable method of reuniting yourself with your car - which would generally be back at the take-off point with the winch. A folded hang glider was about 5m long and weighed maybe 35 kg - just about carryable on your shoulder, but not something you would want to walk a mile with (carrying your harness as well). So you had to do two things first: find out where you were (not always too easy), and then find a telephone.
This of course goes back to the days when we didn't have mobile phones, and phones in Hungary were few and far between. On one occasion, some kind Hungarians drove me 15 km through the countryside to the nearest one. On another occasion (see the image), I was pointed to a wall. Thinking there was some misunderstanding and nonplussed I had to ask again, and was shown a box hidden in the wall, inside which there was a telephone! The problem was not so simply resolved however: this was not subscriber trunk dialling territory. There was a handle on the phone, which made a bell ring somewhere presumably, but when the operator spoke Hungarian (only), I had to plead for help again. After waving my save-your-life piece of paper even more agitatedly at the bystander, I persuaded him to follow the instructions. Or so I hoped. There was no real way of telling but to sit there by the road, and wait for Marton to turn up in his car. We all had some long, anxious waits, and some very long ones!
The splendid feature of the language though was that (unlike the stupidly inconsistent and bizarre spelling of English) if you could see it written down, you could pronounce and speak it recognisably! I always took a pocket phrase book with me, and was able to spend many waiting hours in friendly and sometimes hilarious conversation with the local people as a result. English was not widely spoken in the countryside.

Retrieve - Norfolk

The story of the retrieve after my first long Norfolk XC (promised above) went somewhat differently. That was five years previous to this, and although in England, Tony and Rona did not have phone access on the Sculthorpe base. (When they did at last acquire "the latest" mobile phone it cost them £1000 - a hideous sum.) Ergo, my problem on landing at Winterton was basically to get myself back to Sculthorpe, then to collect my car, then to drive to Winterton and collect my kite, then to drive back to Burwell. A local resident who had seen me land in the beet field helped me hide my de-rigged kite in the hedge, and took me back to his house for a cup of tea. On hearing of my intended travel plans he was going into Norwich and generously offered me a pillion ride on his scooter (useful things: hang gliding/motorcycle helmets!). We got half way to Norwich when his rear tyre went down in the middle of the countryside. I said thanks but awful sorry I would have to continue - hitch-hiking (what else? we all did in those days). Three or four lifts later - after skirting Norwich on the ring road and passing through Fakenham - I was close to Sculthorpe base, walking along the road wondering if I would dare climb the boundary fence - it would save miles of walking around the perimeter. Fortunately another motorcyclist saw my helmet and thumb out and delivered me pillionwise to the Sculthorpe main gate. The rest of the retrieve in my own car was much less eventful, and I eventually arrived home in the dark, pretty late, but of course incredibly bucked by the day's adventures and achievements.

1991 Airwave Challenge - Ager


My appetite for flying was if anything even greater after the Hungary trip. Tony and Rona were taking another group to Ager of Spain in August to participate in the Airwave Challenge comp being held there. This was fearsomely different country from Hungary, in the south of the Pyrenees, with dramatic precipitous cliffs - and roads to the top. It too turned out to be an epic series of adventures with a good crowd of people. On the first day I only just survived overshooting the tiny campsite landing field and miraculously avoided serious damage to kite or person. You can see the ridges in the backgroundof the picture. We took off from the top of these and regularly thermalled to 4 or 5000' above take off before going XC above murderous looking terrain. It was a gruelling test of mountain and gaggle-flying skills and endurance, where my recently acquired aerotowing prowess brought no advantage, so I wasn't surprised to place somewhere low down in the scores. It was indubitably a valuable character-forming experience, however we must return once more to the main story.

Other Antics


September: back to the flatlands of East Anglia, under sombre grey skies a lone Dambuster Lancaster with bomb doors open makes a daring daylight raid on Swanton Morley. Glyn Charnock displays the spectacular wounds that he received.
On the field once more: in October Charlie Richardson wins the Ed Bowman competition, and has the club trophy presented to him by Russell Mutton at the end of the day. The now rather mundane business of winch launching in autumnal weather retained few attractions after such a heroic summer that I once more retired into hibernation for the winter.


Winching Tensions

For East Anglian coastal fliers, before the advent of winching, there had always been a strong need for co-operation and camaraderie and when hoping to fly. It was no good arriving at Cromer on the perfect day with a beatiful 15 mph NE-erly wind and yet to be at the cliff launch point with no other hang glider pilots there. Self-launching from a cliff site was too dangerous. To launch from nearly all our cliff sites, you needed an assistant on nosewires to stabilise the kite nose-down over the cliff edge before you could judge the moment to shout RELEASE! and lunge into the void. Enlisting the help of any curious bystander on the cliff top was not recommended!
Around the rest of the country with inland hill sites, hang gliding was a very much more individualist activity, with a pilot free to rush off to his or her favorite site to self launch whenever conditions were good. This did create something of a them-and-us attitude in the BHGA which did not appreciate how much the NHGC and the SCFHGC had to operate as clubs. Nearly always we could only consider flying at week ends, and then only if we were sure which site to go to (the wind direction forecast could be horribly capricious) and that other hang glider pilots were going to be there (hang glider pilots could be horribly capricious too, at times).
To add a further frisson of anxiety to the day's potential flying prospects, you did of course help other pilots to launch, but you didn't want to end up last in the queue - when you couldn't launch yourself! Your only options then were to wait for other pilots to land on the beach and carry up (add an hour or two), or to beg divine providence to lure new pilots to the take off.

More Tensions

Towing and winch launching from our inland sites were becoming an accepted practical reality, so team operation became even more de rigueur. The sailplane fraternity have had to live with this ever since they started clubs back in the 1920s. However, hang glider pilots did tend to be a rather more anarchic breed, and probably had been attracted by the most minimalist form of aviation. You needed (qualified) winch operators, bikers (motorcycles used to pull the static winch lines back across the field after each couple of launches) and launch marshalls (with radios, to talk to the winch operators).


So you always required a minimum turnout of hopeful souls wanting to fly. And of course, you all wanted to fly (some of us, exclusively), so in fairness you had to devise a rota system. See the blackboard in the picture. The fly in the ointment was not difficult to imagine. If you did go XC then you wouldn't be on the field to do your stint later, would you?

At least the wind direction forecast didn't matter quite so much - you just went to the field and towed up into wind. If you went to the Lejair field, you had the added advantage that there were usually lots of people there; if Tony and Rona could fit you in, you could pay them for a launch with the School; and if you landed out, you might just be pleading (Lejair had a phone on the field by this time) for somebody to drive your car to wherever you were to retrieve you. You have guessed this is why I went to the Lejair field most flyable weekends. But there were plenty of members of the NHGC (it was a club, after all) who wanted the club operation to be self-financed because the cost of launches would obviously be less than the School had to charge.


Then there was the knotty question of the field rent. We were using significant acreage of prime arable land. There was no way the Club could afford to buy it. Tony and Rona needed the security of a site for their School activities, and they had negotiated the lease with local farmers. To further confuse matters, Tony and Rona were also members of the NHGC. Looking back, I am amazed at how much co-operation was achieved in such potentially fraught circumstances with very marginal finance.

I'm a Winchman, man - and I'm OK! …

I obtained my winch operator qualification in August 1991 after having gven nearly 200 supervised launches. By this time other noble club members had probably winched up thousands of kites (and had supervised me as well). I enjoyed winching (and all the marshalling and biking jobs too) and was very happy to do it - but … (and it was a pretty big but) only when the sky didn't look XC-able. Given a straight choice I would always have gone to Lejair to pay for a launch. The other side of that particular coin was that Tony and Rona couldn't make a living from pilots choosing to turn up only when they thought conditions were XC-able. Compromise is a wonderful thing.


Mundesley in May


Coastal flying, when it was possible, was still an attractive option. Yes - more Cromer pictures! My log book says I did in fact self-launch (despite my rantings above) from Mundesley. Mundesley has one small take off area that is almost like a rounded hill slope where you can run down it to take off. The wind was NE 14 mph - this would have been very manageable, and I seem to remember I was desperate too.


I flew westwards towards Cromer with good altitude, just managed to turn at East Runton (the far side), and came back past Cromer to photograph the church - with a lot less altitude (you can enlarge the Cromer pic to see just where the church is). I was probably sh*tting bricks at this stage. Old timers will no doubt point out that if they had had this amount of height on their single-surface kites they would have been real pleased. I did get safely back to Mundesley, I'm glad to say.

Hungary for More


Progress on getting aerotowing permission in the UK was painfully slow, and wasn't guaranteed to deliver a result anyway. We couldn't legitimately do it. Tony and Rona organised another trip to Hungary in July. This time Marton Ordody found us a grass airfield beside Lake Balaton, far away from the scorching plains of Kecskemet. The organisation was good, many of us already had our aerotow endorsements so we could start straight away, and the lake scenery was beautiful. But … Lake Balaton is vast, more like an inland sea - and there was the rub: much of the time the air was just like stable sea air, and not thermic. The XC flying prospects turned out very disappointing for me - eight days out of eleven were flyable, but we only managed to set four comp tasks, and only two of these produced results. On the positive side, other members of the group gained their aerotow tug pilot qualifications, and we all had quite of lot of flights in beautifully smooth air … Oh dear!
I have included the picture so that you can see the pilot's view of an aerotow. Believe it or not, that towline was attached to my harness chest bridle. I can't quite understand why it doesn't look possible, but I may have been experimenting with the camera mounted mid wing, not just beside me. The blodge in the towline is a small drogue 'chute that inflates to provide some drag on the line after the hang glider pilot releases it.
That's Lake Balaton of course, we're just heading out across the shoreline. The scenic mountains in the far distance are across about 10 km of water. No! we weren't going to fly across it! The lake itself is about 80 km long. I guess this was a smooth air evening flight.

1993 - The Norfolk Aerotow Syndicate!


What a stunning turn-around! So much for my customary pessimism. This was the first meeting of the Norfolk Aerotow Syndicate (NATS) in Fakenham, in March (I think). That is Stephen PH in the chair, Rona as secretary (probably) with Martin Woodroffe and Glyn Charnock on the top table, and it looks as though it was a well-lubricated event. Syndicate membership cost £500 per share. We had 10 syndicate members, a microlight tug aircraft, and we were flying! My log book lists three aerotows on the first weekend in March, with tug pilots Tony Webb and Stephen PH. Each launch was to about 1700' altitude, and the flights lasted 10-15 minutes each. It can't have been thermic then - it was early March after all. I don't recollect just how so much progress with aerotowing was made by the BHGA, but I think it was largely due to the enthusiasm and drive of Mark Dale - the BHGA's Technical Officer - who himself was involved in an aerotowing group in North Yorkshire {See Comments below}.

Aerotowing Tensions

If we thought we had enough potential conflict on the field between school and club operations, then we undoubtedly added to it with aerotowing. Aerotowing was necessarily a much more expensive technique and it did thereby exclude some people, but for those of us who wanted to go XC and could afford it, it was without question the prime choice. In the same way that winching required devoted winch operators, aerotowing required qualified microlight tug pilots - absolutely self-sacrificing heroes, in my view. It was never anything that I would have dared contemplate training for. Besides, it would have totally cut across my personal free flight hang gliding aspirations. People who seemed happy to fly to 2000' towing a hang glider, dive back down to the field, land, attach another hang glider from the queue, and then repeat the process deserved my most heartfelt gratitude, and admiration.
The job required considerable flying skills, courage and stamina. The times when hang glider pilots were most insistent on launching were very thermic and likely to be really turbulent close to the ground. These were the conditions when normal microlight pilots would stop flying because it was too rough!
We couldn't pay our tug pilots either. Air Law deemed this to be 'aerial work' for which they could not be paid within a 'club environment'. We could all contribute equitably to club expenses (i.e. the aerotow syndicate running costs) but we couldn't pay our tug pilots. I guess they did it because they liked it. Amazing!
The impenetrable convolutions of Air Law also cast doubt as to whether we could expand the number of members in the syndicate beyond the initial ten. We had more pilots wanting to join, and it made sense to spread the fixed overheads more thinly. We never got a definitive ruling, but it didn't seem to be prohibited so we later enlarged the syndicate membership to twenty.
Tony's unpaid services to hang glider pilots on the field were therefore stretched even further than they had been, but it certainly added a significant buzz of activities that attracted people to the Lejair training school and the NHGC. A number of club members did also get themselves qualified as tug pilots. My undying thanks go to Tony of course, and all the aerotow tug pilots who appear in my log books over the years: James Oxbury, Mel Thurlbourn, Roger Wood, Stephen Partridge Hicks and Pete Stevens were the earliest in East Anglia.


For me this was a year of high activity with some significant "firsts", and no flights on the coast recorded.

Sea Breeze Front


At the end of April, my first major XC of the year (from a winch launch too, it must be said) took me diagonally across East Anglia in a light northwesterly wind, with clear blue skies initially. After tracking over Wymondham, Hethel (Snetterton), near Tibenham (sailplanes), I saw Metfield in the distance. Metfield was by this time frequently used by SCFHGC for winching with their Koch winch. To fly overhead at 4500' and see them on the ground was an enormously headswelling - if somewhat unsympathetic - reaction. I think the kites were at the right hand apex of the airfield, being winched up into what was still a light north westerly wind. My track was from left to right in this picture - and do you see those two cloud shadows in the middle distance? They were my clouds!


'On raising my eyes to the coast I immediately realised that I was facing a perfectly unmistakable classical sea breeze front …' I wrote in an article published in SkyWings magazine a month or two later. This was illustrated with satellite pictures of the cloudcover over East Anglia, and diagrams of the clouds and massive air movements involved as cold dense sea air flows across the coast and underneath the prevailing light northwesterly warmer air.
Flying in the sea breeze convergence zone was not a picnic, but to fly through it towards the coast would have brought me down very quickly in the non thermic sea air. Flying along it was the only option, but it was extremely turbulent, confusing and exhausting. I landed eventually in a field near Ipswich suffering the usual mixture of fatigue and dehydration - the brain doesn't function too well in those conditions. As I de-rigged the kite, facing the unknowable prospects of a 40 mile retrieve, a car drew up. Anthony Shaw of SCFHGC said hullo! He lived in Claydon, a few minutes walk away. Later, after many cups of sweet tea to restore my hydration balance, I was rescued by Paul Welton who brought my car from the field in Norfolk to collect me. Such was the occasional good fortune and generosity that one encountered during these adventures.

East Anglian Thermallers


There was lots of activity throughout East Anglia during those summer weekends. Wishing to share our successes and failures, I would phone around after the weekend to gather stories. The 'East Anglian Thermaller' sheet evolved from this. Here is one issue illustrating the achievements of a Sunday in July when unstable northeasterly winds - the best possible forecast for us - actually materialised. You can see that despite the NE forecast, not everybody went to Cromer or Mundesley, although there was considerable traffic on the 'coastal motorway'.


North Norfolk Hang Gliding Club were operating their winches at Sculthorpe, which had been regained as a flying site once more, and was favored by those fiscal refugees who couldn't afford the Hill Farm scene. Phil had some thermal flying but couldn't get above 2000' - probably a result of being much closer to the coast. SCFHGC were operating their winches at Mendlesham and had a good crop of modest XC's, but once again the proximity of the sea was probably a limiting influence. Hill Farm had a very successful time with both aerotow and winch launching contributing, and quite likely benefitted from the sea air having travelled further inland. Peter Deer did best. Stephen and I bungled badly: we landed just inside the Air Traffic Zone of the big USAF airbase at Alconbury - 'Nul points!'. Stephen was flying his new Swift and could have gone hundreds of miles. Ooh dear!
If this picture exaggerates the advantages of Hill Farm, then in fairness I should show the August Bank Holiday weekend picture. SCFHGC regularly did an annual hang gliding demonstration and promotion event at Banham Zoo. This year the weather was good – every day. By contrast the flights from Hill Farm were minimal but that was largely influenced by the fact that the more active XC pilots had gone to Spain … for the League.

Swift Flying


The posy picture of me and my Kiss ('What? Again?' …) is included not primarily for me, but for the Swift. Do you see that elegant form just behind me on the Hill Farm field? It was an incredibly sleek fibreglass flying wing designed for foot launching, but with joystick control rather than weight shift. The pilot sat reclining in a cage beneath the centre of the wing. Perhaps inspired by Tony’s earlier efforts with the Fledge, Stephen had set his sights a bit higher. News of the new Swift design came across the Atlantic. Potentially it had about twice the flying performance of the best conventional flexwing hang gliders.


Never one to hang around, Stephen took himself to California, bought one, learned to fly it, and brought it back to East Anglia. For transport purposes the wings and other bits could be separately dismantled quite quickly, all you needed were some little extras …
like a box to put it all in, then you needed a vehicle to carry it on without too great an illegal overhang, and then you probably needed a driver, and of course in the first place you needed the £10,000 or so to purchase it. Was I envious? … heck, yes just a little bit, but only for the mouth-wateringly aerodynamic wing, you understand, and after all, the additional weight would have been too much (for me) - even thinking about it made my back hurt. In the picture you can see Stephen himself, of course, and from the ground upwards, the 'Swiftmobile', Stephen’s flexwing (red) and the Swift box (?green).

Piedrahita – and the League


I will treat myself to another non-East Anglian picture, which also has the virtue of showing the Swift much better. By now Stephen had fitted fairings to the pilot’s cage, improving its performance even more. This view was from the Peña Negra take-off at Piedrahita, a much acclaimed site for cross country gliding potential in central Spain. Long mountain chains stretching west and north of Madrid through Avila and Segovia seemed to have an admirable propensity for creating convergent air zones hundreds of miles long. This was a magnetic prospect for the (British) League (nowadays called the National Championships) who would hold at least one comp a year on foreign soil. The League comps comprised the League pilots (the top 50 hang glider pilots in the UK) plus various invited high class foreign pilots. So what the heck were we doing there? Well, on account of our increasingly higher scores in the National XC league, we had been invited as guest pilots! Modest fame at last. In addition to Stephen and myself, the other East Anglian pilots so recognised were (I think) David Drake, Gary Aldous, Peter Deer, and Malcolm Stoodley.
The weather was good. The tasks set were at international competition level, and tough. The top pilots were turning in amazing performances. On the penultimate day, conditions looked particularly promising so a race to goal at Arcones was set. Arcones was … a mere 154 km away (96 miles). Thirty four pilots out of about 100 got to goal! Stephen arrived first (or fastest – I’m not quite sure which). I arrived in goal last, or nearly last, and almost totally out of my mind with dehydration and exertion after 4½ hours of flight.
All that was then needed was for our retrieve driver (Francis Forsythe-Yorke on this trip) to drive 100 miles from Piedrahita in Stephen’s Swiftmobile to collect us, and then to drive 100 miles back again (picking up David Drake and Garry Aldous on the way, I think) whilst we argued about where to eat on the way back.
The next morning – the last day of the comp – we mustered at the Peña Negra launch for a final time, hoping for equally great achievements. Stephen got to goal first again (a not-so-distant goal for this last day). He did it so quickly that he arrived there before the marshalls and couldn’t see any goal indicators on the ground, so he flew off elsewhere for another half hour until they arrived. I bombed out in 'The Pass' - a notorious bottleneck in the mountains just 6 miles from take-off - and was so mortified and deflated by this performance after the jubilation of the previous day that I remained miserable about it for weeks afterwards. The highs and the lows of hang gliding you could say. Plenty of room for an improvement in ego-management too, I guess.

1994 Gallery

If you have lasted this far you deserve some more pictures. These are mostly from the Hill Farm flying field taken during 1994. Advance apologies if I have got some factual details wrong. Let me know and I will correct them. You can’t do much about any of the personal opinions expressed – they are mine of course, and they do tend to reflect my impressions at that time (but I am open to reason).


Apologies also to many other very worthy club members and participants for whom I do not have sexy enough photos from this period – the selection has been determined somewhat by chance. If you see that your name is a link then Phil has already allocated you a personal page - so you can retaliate. Just send Phil the details of what you want to say and he’ll fill it in – or show you how to. If you haven’t got a page ask Phil to create one for you.
Paul Welton, pilot, winchman and stalwart NHGC member for many years poses under this kite. Phil reckons it was not Paul’s own Rumour, but Phil’s Kiss that he was about to test fly. It probably explains why he was looking pretty serious. (Ahah, and it was from 1991).


On the right is Rona, looking happy - the ultimate hard working outdoor girl and tireless partner with Tony in the Lejair training school. A vastly qualified instructor, winch person, and - not least - expert pilot in her own right. Had she been motivated (and funded!) to fly in national competitions I think she would have been among the top half dozen women pilots for years.


Jim Thomas and Lynn. Just look at those clouds! You ought to know by now that this was about the most perfect thermalling sky one could wish for. Jim flew a Clubman, and (how can I put this?) it would be fair to say that he had been one of Lejair’s more challenging trainees. Was this the day, the first day, that he caught a thermal? From the ground we heard a strange noise – it came from Jim, aloft, singing and shouting with whoops of delight as he, for once, gained height 360-ing a few hundred feet above those trees!


On the left Bob Cogman under the kite and Barry Freeman holding the nosewires. Very experienced pilots from the early days of hang gliding (and probably still flying as I write this now), equally likely to be found with the North Norfolk club at Sculthorpe or with the SCFHGC in Suffolk, or most likely on the coast if the coast was flyable. And on the right, Bryan Youngs holding Ian Alexander's nose (you know what I mean).


On the left, the inimitable John Vernon – 'Jolly Veg' radio call sign. Esteemed good egg and companion on foreign trips. A raconteur in his own right, and latterly a rigid wing hang glider pilot. He could tell us a story or two.
On the motorcycle (for pulling winch lines back across the field) Francis Forsythe-Yorke (splendid companion on the Piedrahita trip), and Anna Wright trainee pilot, with small passenger. Don't ask where the crash helmets were.
Francis was tragically killed in a mid-air collision between his kite and a paraglider at Devil’s Dyke in 1996. Definitely one of the appalling lows of hang gliding.


On the left Malcolm Stoodley (accomplished hyperactive hang glider pilot and airline pilot) with Rose. Lounging on the grass (flying is such a drag anyway): Jo Matthews, Rona Webb, James Oxbury and David Drake – some more of many exceptional companions (and occasional competitors) on the field and in foreign climes.

1995 Leagues & the Klassic

If I am to remain true to the original purpose of this story, then I must confess that most of the relevant material – my recollections of the history of towing hang gliders in East Anglia – has now been included. However, I can’t leave you hanging in mid-air so to speak so let’s round it off with a fast-forward to the present day.

The League and Ager Again


In 1995 I entered the League as a member – no longer a guest. It involved committing to some League comp weekends in various hilly parts of the country, when the weather was unpredictable and often unflyable. This was normal, and I didn’t think much of the idea. Nor did I score highly, being well outclassed by the majority of very competitive and experienced hill flyers who dominated the scene. Sour grapes, you may say, but it was a privilege and a salutory educational experience to be amongst such expert fliers, who on the whole were a very friendly crowd.


It showed me what a flatlander had to learn: jockeying for take off position on very crowded small hilltops; judging the critical moment to launch; thermalling amongst a gaggle of fifty gliders; not to mention the simple business of navigating to goal, taking photos of turnpoints and working out what the Early Bird bonus score meant.

The overseas League comp was held in Ager in Spain. The terrain hadn’t got any smoother since 1991. The pressure to compete was much stronger. I made some unorthodox landings, only just survived to the end of the comp, came well down the list, and collected some trophies – painful ones!

1996 Hungary Again

Hell’s Bells and Hang Gliders! The overseas League in this year was to be an AEROTOWING comp - and in Hungary!! I certainly didn’t want to miss that, but I was quite ambivalent about being humiliated once more in the UK hill-launched comps, and resented the time and travel wasted by bad weather. In East Anglia, I could decide on the day whether to go flying or do something useful instead. So in the end I did not apply to join the League, but did guest-fly in the Aerotow comp.


This time the venue was Dunaujvaros, on the Danube about 80 km south of Budapest.
Can’t really do justice to the Blue Danube without a widescreen lens I’m afraid, but it gives you some idea.


For the League organisers, this was an adventurous and brave decision. It would inevitably exclude some League pilots who had not got the necessary Aerotow launch endorsement. The logistics of aerotow launching about 50 hang gliders per hour were a formidable challenge. Here’s how it was done (see the picture): the redoubtable Marton Ordody mustered his forces - eight tugs! In Norfolk we were lucky if we saw two hang gliders from aerotow launches in the air at the same time.


The next colourful picture was taken on the first practice day. You can see there is no nonsense about mountains in this part of Hungary. A practice task had been set – to goal at Szeged! Ho-ho! I knew where that was (see the arrow on the right of the picture). The only difference from previous trips was that it was 116 km distant from here, and navigating across the flatlands with just an airmap (no GPS in those days) was quite a test of trainspotting, or following railway lines. After 3 hours and 95 km I ran out of clouds and ideas. In truth the remaining 20 km would have been significantly cross wind and unlikely to have been achievable. Nevertheless, I was mightily pleased. After packing up the kite, a phone message back to base was made for me, then I sat down to wait … and wait … and wait. By that time there was no way to confirm that a retrieve was coming. This was Hungary, you must remember. Kind locals took pity and found me a room for the night. The following morning, contact with base was re-established and this time the message was relayed. John Vernon’s good lady Di Jones heroically motored the 150 mile round-trip to rescue me (I hope you are bilingual in miles and kilometres by now).
I did well in the comp, coming 16th in a field of nearly 60 pilots, just ahead of David Drake at 22nd. From the flatlanders point of view, we could at last say 'see what difference a level flying field makes!' They never held another Aerotow League again. My log book included some remarkable statistics from this League: personal best flight durations of 5hr 52mins and 5hr 40mins; and distances of 100, 95 and 89 km (only bettered by 154 km in Piedrahita in 1994). It was the peak of my flying activities so far.

Camera Film and Tributes

You may have wondered why the picture of the tugs was in black and white, not colour. On every League competition day, photographic evidence was required from each pilot to verify turn points. Routinely, each day, the organisers had to collect a film from each pilot, take these 50 or 60 films to the nearest commercial processing place, get them developed quickly, inspect every film, analyse the critical turn point photos, and publish a list of missed turn points the next day.


This eye-watering and brain-numbing heroic endeavour was faithfully and diligently carried out by devoted scorers and officials often working through the night, knowing they would be immediately assaulted at dawn by aggrieved pilots appealing against their decisions. Analysing a colour film for turn points was no fun at all, because they were colour negatives, and the colours were all wrong. Dave Bluett is a name that comes to mind. He did this job for many years for very modest (or no?) rewards and little public recognition. Dave (and others too: tell me who you are) – I salute you.
These days there are GPS traces to argue about. To get back to the initial point, normally colour film would be used. In Hungary, there was nowhere local that could process coloured film quickly enough. So we had to use black and white film for all our comp flights. It gave everything a very wartime feel – like flying over the marshalling yards at Hamm from the bomb aimer’s position (the cross was our turn point). The colour picture of my route to Szeged was taken on a practice day.

Airwave Klassic


In task 6 on the penultimate day – another flight to goal at Szeged, but this time a race - I flopped across the Danube after just 7.5 km, landed in this field and cried with mortification. Gradually however it became apparent that other big name pilots had landed not much further down the road, and my spirits improved magically. Schadenfreude, it is called (oh god, go and look it up in Wikipedia). On the final day of the comp, one of the tugs crashed through mechanical failure, killing the pilot and bringing activities to a sombre close. It was a sad end to one of my best ever comps. But what I really wanted to show you in this picture was that I was now flying an Airwave Klassic. After six years of flying the Kiss, and smarting from my miserable score in the 1995 League, I decided to blame my tools and upgrade to a newer, supposedly better kite. What, you may ask, are those funny black things on the wing tips? Very innovative for their time, those pathetic winglets were a complete pain in the bum. Nowadays jumbos and airliners all have them, allegedly to save a few percent of fuel – not much of an issue on a hang glider though. The hassle factor was significant, and the performance improvement was imaginary. One time back in Norfolk, one of them came adrift (ok, that was my fault) as I was thermalling. I saw the winglet flutter down towards the ground. From my pilot’s position under the wing, I couldn’t see which one I had lost, and from the handling I couldn’t tell any difference at all!. Q.E.D. Oh yes, you can see this kite still has a kingpost – now that was something which was to be blown away by the unstoppable aerodynamic logic of the 'topless' flexwings. I never did love the Klassic as I had loved the Kiss.

1998-9 Monte Cucco & the Topless

1996 set the pattern of my flying for the next few years. Each year I would try to fly in one exotic foreign comp, but for the rest of the season I would fly my socks off XCing from aerotow launches in Norfolk, or occasionally anywhere else in England that was sensible enough to offer aerotow launch facilities. BHGA 'All Out' comps at Kemble, Wroughton and Long Marston provided good opportunities, whilst the friendly Midland Aerotow Group at Swinford was within tolerable motoring range if for any reason aerotowing was off in Norfolk.

Monte Cucco Leagues


The Umbrian mountains in Italy are a splendid place to hang glide – if you like mountains. Like the foreign Leagues before them, these adventures too were a similar heady mix of sheer terror, exhilaration, humiliation, utter despair, jubilation, dehydration, and rehydration in invigorating company. Schizophrenia won the day. This picture is the Monte Cucco take off in 1998 with a flock of sheep in the background. The flock of hang gliders in the foreground are all folded flat because there was a stonking 50 mph wind whistling across the top. I had no illusions about my prospects that day and had been too frightened to rig. Three of these kites did blow away and were variously destroyed. The only exercise worth doing was counting the kingposts. Not many – huh? My Klassic would have added one more. It wasn’t the wind that blew away the kingposts but the urge to shed that draggy appendage, to fly faster, and flatter. Just look at this closer up. Ok, so there is a harness on the nose to stop the whole thing blowing away in the wind, but the elegance of the wing shape and section, and the taughtness of the fabric … it makes you drool.


The small white thing at the back is a tailplane. It wasn’t to help you go faster, but (arguably) helped prevent a “tuck”. In very rough thermic air hang gliders could be tucked or tumbled (turned upside down) in the turbulence. Massive structural failure immediately resulted often with fatal results, but sometimes the pilot survived if they managed to throw their reserve 'chute. I should perhaps explain for the mystified – you don’t bail out of a hang glider. The reserve, whilst mounted in your harness, is however attached to the kite. You do have to throw the 'chute, but the theory is that you and the kite together descend under it.
Topless gliders dominated the top half of the final scorecard. I was close to the bottom of the list, on account of my serious lack of acquaintance with hills, so I blamed the Klassic and started to think about alternatives.

The McCarthy Team


Steve Cook (from the right of the picture) was a gardener and a phenomenal pilot. Tony Lucchesi and Ozzy Haines were others in the McCarthy team. Johnny Carr should be in there somewhere, too, I think. They were a league of gentlemen - but splendidly maverick gentlemen - and were a privilege (and possibly slightly dangerous) to know. They flew La Mouette Topless gliders. The McCarthy Corporation had sponsored their gliders, and the League for that matter. (This will be become relevant, I promise you.) In the busy skies of the comp Steve was involved in a mid-air collision with a woman pilot. They both threw their 'chutes. Steve’s opened. Hers did not. They descended rapidly onto the mountainside below. I heard the chatter on my radio (we had 2m radios by then). The task continued. Miraculously neither pilot was hurt. Steve rebuilt his kite that evening and flew in the comp the next day. A very tough cookie indeed.

Topless into the Millennium

In March 1999 Tony Lucchesi got in touch. They were selling the McCarthy kites to trade up to new Toplesses. Ace League pilots did this sort of thing. Did I want to come down to Devils Dyke (Brighton) to test fly one? I did - instantly, but with misgivings on a number of counts. My expectation was that the tightness of the sail and the higher performance would result in stiffer handling and a lot more effort to manoeuvre it. My Klassic was very soft in this respect – part of the reason I had chosen it (and why it wouldn’t fly very fast). A single test flight on the Topless completely eliminated that misconception – it handled beautifully. Afraid that someone else would snatch it, I bought it on the spot, without even remembering to ask if it was the one that had been mid-aired in Monte Cucco.
One other misgiving was bypassed by the decision to purchase – would I be able to lift it? Somehow, I would have to manage. Whilst I might make disparaging remarks about the drag of kingposts and their associated rigging wires, they were a very lightweight way of supporting the wing spars. Without the tension in the top rigging wires, the main spar in the wing would have to be cantilever, and of impossibly massive dimensions if made in aluminium. Hi-tech glass fibre composite spars became the solution, but they did increase the weight by some kilos. And there was that fibreglass tailplane thing – even more vulnerable to carry around than the Klassic winglets were.


The 1999 League was again in Monte Cucco. I did better this time, not only because I was now more familiar with the territory, but because of the Topless’s improved performance enabled me to speed-fly between thermals and keep up with the gaggles of hang gliders – a vital strategy for comp flying. Friendly help and advice from the Topless gurus Steve and Tony was invaluable too. But it was no good flying fast if you didn’t get to goal. This picture was the culmination of 4 hrs 32 min of flying when I did get in to goal. It was the final frame on the film of (hopefully) all my other turn points. Dare I say I was at last beginning to relish the prospect of mountain flying tasks, and was starting to love my Topless.
So I was starting to get into goal – which was good. On that day however, 83 pilots got into goal. I was last but one, and my ‘speed’ score amounted to just one point. Well, that was better than a zero, and I was pretty pleased about it. So you had to get to goal and you had to get there fastest, to win.

The VB

I haven’t yet burdened you with an explanation of the VB, but it is important for a later section, so here goes – and do pay attention. The VB (variable billow) – sometimes referred to by those hard of hearing as the VG (variable geometry) - was a device on the kite which enabled you to make it fly faster whilst in the air. It worked by deforming the main spar so that the whole sail was tightened up. This flattened the sail, reduced its camber and washout and reflex and increased the speed it could fly – so you wanted it. The disadvantage was that in tightening the sail, it became more like a rigid wing but without the aerodynamic controls i.e. a flying plank (see Tony Webb’s Fledge, shown earlier). Attempting to use weight shift on a rigid wing perversely produces the opposite effect from a flexwing. Shifting your weight to the right turns a flexwing to the right (right!) but on a rigid wing makes the nose yaw to the left. Achieving any semblance of steerage in approximately the desired direction required great exertion.


The justification for this picture (Monte Cucco again) is that it is the only one in my collection that shows any evidence of the VB. Near the base of the right upright and the wheel on the base bar is visible a short length of white cord. In fact the cord was about 5 metres long and disappeared into the upright and thence eventually was attached to the main spar through a four-gang pulley block. In flight, the pilot pulled on the cord and locked it in a cleat to increase the VB. That was the principle at least. In practice, to fully apply the VB you had to pull about 2m of cord through the cleat, against ever increasing tension, single handed. It required the strength of Hercules. All the top pilots used it to good effect of course.
A better reason for showing this picture is that, lying on the grass, is the ebullient, ever helpful, very special good egg Johnny Carr (McCarthy Topless team etc), hang gliding champion from the earliest of days; and sheltering under the wing from the glaring sun is Dave Rayment, revered pioneer hang glider manufacturer from early times too, who was our cool retrieve driver.

2000 South Africa & Sutton Meadows


John Vernon went to South Africa in the summer of 1999 in a group led by Steve Cook and Tony Lucchesi. John returned with horrifying tales of an incredible mountain ridge range, suffocating temperatures, alarming ramp launches, bomb-outs, close shaves, occasional triumphs and all the usual constituents of a hang gliding adventure. He said they were thinking of doing another trip in 2000 - but in March ‘when it would not be so hot’. I put my name down to go. To be flying in close company with Steve and Tony on Toplesses was bound to be an educational experience. Besides, I hadn’t been to South Africa before. The ridge was impressive. It curved away continuously to the left in the far distance, and went a similar distance in the reverse direction, about 2000’ above the plain. We were based in Porterville, a small town in the plain near a ramp launch on one of the few roads to cross the ridge.


Here we are, a grand group of chums bonding in the Porterville Hotel, a frequently patronised refuge after a hard day. From the left: John Vernon, Steve Cook, Rob Clems, Clare (accomplished retrieve driver) and Tony Lucchesi, Andy Hollidge and John Aldridge. Steven Partridge Hicks was in close formation too, somewhere, (but with his Topless, not the Swift) and sometimes buzzed us in a borrowed Jet Provost (only because they wouldn’t let him fly a Lightning – an English Electric Lightning). {Not quite right! See Comments below.}

The VB Masterclass


What you have here are some active hang glider pilots sitting on the top of the Dasklip ramp, surveying the plain and the Piketberg range of mountains in the far distance. My kite is in the foreground – definitely mine because you can see where the tailplane was mended – and the black thing mounted just in front of it was John’s video camera. OK, it has got a hood over it to protect it from the scorching radiation, but in flight it would be filming the back of the pilot’s harness, the control frame and enough of the scenery ahead to give a jolly good impression of how close to the ridge you were flying. Each day, the camera was attached to a different kite, and in the evening the video would be analysed by Steve with helpful advice. It was always absolutely compulsive viewing for all of us, whoever the pilot was. I should say briefly at this point that Steve’s superlative flying technique was almost matched by his command of English … expletives! The sessions resounded with many choice expressions: ‘ … look at that plonker … you’re supposed to RUN down the f*cking ramp … don’t just walk a couple of steps and flop off the bl**dy end, you DoD (= Doddery old Duffer, i.e. anyone 60 or older) … etcetera. It was all very kindly meant, very apt - and extremely motivational. There was no better way of getting personal tuition from an acknowledged maestro. Steve and Tony went out of their way to help us lesser mortals improve our flying. Their observations of me went as follows:
• You were flying a bit fast.
• Flapping jacket arms create drag – get a lycra top.
• Your VB technique was f* pathetic! Learn to use it!
• Push the (control) bar further out when thermalling. Your arms should go full stretch.
• You were pushing you body up on the bar at times – it creates more drag.
• Make your pitch control inputs smoother – you were jerky.
• You were flying too b* close to the ridge at Dasbos – don’t do it!
Plenty of challenges there for me, then.

Steve’s VB philosophy was consistent with a number of points.
• The VB ‘on’ improves the glide angle; reduces bar pressure; makes handling stiffer; changes the batten profile, and removes twist from the outer wing sections.
• With the VB off, pulling on speed is inefficient, and hard work.
• If you are ‘scratching’ (close to the ridge, barely able to maintain height) you need maximum manoeuvrability i.e. VB off.
• With the VB partly on, you can fly at medium speed with good handling, but thermalling requires a lot more effort.
• With the VB full on, the handling is stiff, but going straight at speed is very efficient (provided you are heading in the right direction!).
• With the VB full on you can be tempted to fly too fast. Then when you slow down searching for good lift, the stiff handling is a real pain.
• You have to be prepared to operate the VB very rapidly, and frequently! Wrap the VB cord round your hand. Wear gloves for grip! Brace your whole body with your left arm on the base bar. Yank the cord through the cleat with two or three successive mighty tugs.

Watching Steve’s technique on the video was a revelation. He would be flying fast, above the ridge, with the VB on, gradually losing height and seeking to find another good thermal source (probably a gully) for a fast climb-out. A surge of lift, then instantly: VB off; reduce airspeed; stab the rising wing downwards vertically into the core of the thermal; arms out full stretch to 360; half way round the first 360 put back half the VB to gain another 30’; assess the vario; 4 up, 6 up, (“4 up” etc is jargon for 400 feet per minute climb rate) centring … strengthening, 8 up, rocketing upwards now; 6 up, starting to diminish; 3 or so 360’s by now, and time to go! Last half 360, whack on full VB with three rapid yanks on the VB cord, and straighten up along the ridge at 50 mph once more. Height gained: probably 2000’ in about 3 minutes. Wuhaiieeey! Phenomenal.

So that was how it was done! Inspired, I started to practice on my Topless in my harness, on the ground, but I could barely get the VB full on, with all my strength. To do it more than a couple of times in a flight would leave me exhausted. You needed the physique of an Olympic gymnast. Steve had this; he was a gardener. I did not. But the dream and the vision stayed with me, back to the chillier climes of East Anglia.

Norfolk Towlines Fray

The ever-increasing cost of the field rent for the Hill Farm flying fields finally broke the back of the combined operations of the Lejair Flying School, the Norfolk Hang Gliding Club and the Norfolk Aerotow Syndicate. A less expensive option was to limit the land used to a few narrow runways across the fields. This allowed Lejair and the NHGC to operate winches in a somewhat restricted fashion, but did not provide enough room for the Aerotow tugging. The Syndicate started to look elsewhere for a suitable flying ground. Tony and Rona found the financial (and in fact the meteorological) climate more and more difficult in this country, and started to look for Mediterranean alternatives for Lejair in Spain. Sadly it was to become a parting of the ways. The Aerotow Syndicate found an alternative home at the Cambridgeshire Microlight Club's field at Sutton Meadows near Ely and moved there in October 2000.

Sutton Meadows & CAC


If you look at your road map of East Anglia, to the West of Ely and North of Cambridge you shouldn’t have much difficulty in locating roughly where Sutton Meadows is. Actually, I didn’t manage to get it into the aerial shot – it's is just off to the mid left hand side. The settlement in the middle distance is Sutton, though.
The Sutton Meadows field had a number of potential advantages: it was a thriving Microlight Club with hangars - and toilets! – and possible synergy with the Microlight pilots and their activities. From the XC hang glider pilot’s point of view, it was further from the sea and therefore had better XC distance potential. It was closer to London and we might entice more pilots to travel up from the South. For me it was a mere 20 miles distant from home. However, whilst being in the Fens and undeniably East Anglian it was 50 miles from Hill Farm in Norfolk, and we knew this was going to stretch the allegiance of Syndicate members resident in Norfolk.


Most importantly, we needed to retain some tug pilots without whom of course we would be completely grounded. Clearly we would lose Tony, but fortunately Roger Wood and Pete Stevens carried on their stalwart efforts.


This is Roger standing alongside his delightful microlight biplane and passenger; and that’s Pete and Jackie (but not at Sutton Meadows and not in the Syndicate’s tug – was it at Stephen P-H’s place?).

We made the move to Sutton Meadows, installed a caravan on the field, changed the name of the Syndicate to the Cambridgeshire Aerotow Club (CAC) and started to gear up enthusiastically for a splendid new season of XC opportunities from Sutton Meadows in 2001. I swore I was going to master my VB technique - but hardly had the New Year started and we were beset with … ooh No! …

Foot & Mouth Restrictions

XC flying to other airfields was banned. The National XC League was cancelled. This didn’t mean we couldn’t fly - but you had to do out-and-return or triangle flights back to base, successfully. At times we were even discouraged from driving to the flying field. The restrictions were eventually lifted towards the end of the flying season. A BHPA Aerotow comp was held at Long Marston (Stratford upon Avon). A 69km race to goal at Newport Pagnell was set. I got to goal, the slowest of the seven who did - so I hadn’t quite forgotten some of the South African lessons.


In the whole year I logged a mere 12½ hours flying time. It was not an auspicious start for the CAC, but we had survived. Here are some of the survivors (from the left): George Freeman, Pete Stevens, EP, David Drake, Charlie Richardson.

Surely 2002 would have to be better?

2002 Brazil & Top Secrets


After no flying during December and January (weather, Christmas, or inertia were probably the main excuses for most of us) John Vernon passed me the word: the boys were going to the Pre-Worlds comp in Brazil in February! Did I want to come?
Feeling very unprepared and uncertain but not wanting to miss anything, I said yes - definitely. So here I was in mid-February after the winter lay-off, at Sutton Meadows, frantically preparing for more adventures. We were to be in Governador Valadares (600km north of Rio de Janeiro, in bumpy country) at the end of February. Hell's Bells! That was a damn tight schedule. I had three shaky aerotows that day, trying to sort out new bits of kit, not to mention older bits of kit that had suffered battle damage during the previous season. With barely thirty minutes of flying time, I then had to pack up the kite and get ready for the great trip.


This may be the time for a brief explanation of the plethora of stuff attached to kite, or the harness, or to the pilot that was by now pretty much essential for flying in comps or with other groups of pilots. In the image you can just see, at the bottom of the left upright, a grey box - the Davron 808 recording barograph, which included airspeed, variometer and altitude displays. Above it, on the upright, was a Garmin GPS12 with a GPS map display to show your position and log your track. This was now the preferred method of validating flights in comps - you had to download your track at the end of the flight into the Comp Director's computer. Farewell to cameras and the dreaded intepretation of film photos. A Good Thing, really - except that I dearly wanted in-flight pictures to show off to friends at home. So I continued to carry a camera tucked into a pocket in the harness (for streamlining). On the speed bar (the kite's streamlined carbon fibre base bar) there was a magnetic compass. Unlike the electronic, state-of-the-art, battery-powered equipment I have already mentioned - which required a brain the size of a planet to set it up correctly, and was quite capable of failing in mid-flight anyway - the compass was a relatively reliable navigational aid, if somewhat limited in scope. There would also have been an airmap attached to the right upright if I had been intending to go XC.
Now, to move on to the gear attached to the pilot, starting at the top: the helmet. Built into the helmet were radio earphones and a microphone. These were attached by wires and connectors to a 2m radio in another harness pocket, from which emerged a PTT (push-to-talk) wire that was fed inside the right arm of my flying jacket, inside the glove, to a microswitch velcroed to my index finger. Radio communication in flight was brilliant - when it worked. But as you can imagine, it was electronic, state-of-the-art, battery-powered equipment requiring a brain the size of a planet etc … and it was even more capable of giving up just when you needed it (like for retrieves in foreign countries).
Strapped to my back, inside the harness, would also have been a Camelbak 2 litre water container filled with isotonic drink, with a tube and 'bite-valve' that had to be positioned strategically close to your mouth. This added a further 2kg of weight to an already gravitationally challenged pilot - but for Brazil I knew it was indispensable.

Ah dammit! I've forgotten so far to say anything about the drogue chute that was nested into yet another pocket on the back of the harness. This was nothing to do with the reserve (safety) chute on the front of the harness. It looked like a toy parachute 1 metre across that you deployed on your final landing run to shorten the landing distance when trying to get into a small field.
Finally, inside the helmet, and arguably the most important equipment of the whole lot: a pair of eyes with matching spectacles, backed up by a well-functioning brain. The spectacles were desperately important for good distance vision and for reading instruments and maps only a few inches from your face.

What did I used to say about wanting to fly like a bird …

Top Secrets?


By now you have probably rumbled that a Top Secret was not a top secret, but the latest hang glider produced by La Mouette, and it was in fact a rigid wing with much vaunted performance, superior to the Topless, no less. Steve Cook and some of the lads were now flying them, and John had acquired one too …

This was Steve Cook sitting at the top of the ramp under his Top Secret judging the best time to launch. That grey patch in the middle distance is not smoke from a forest fire going up into the sky but a cold thunderstorm shower outflow cascading downwards like a waterfall and spreading out over the ground. Not a sensible prospect for lesser mortals (which was why I was taking the picture). You can see the refined elegance of the fabric covered wing section - even more slender and less twisted than the Topless. It had draggers (a bit like ailerons) on the top surfaces for directional control, and was equipped with flaps on the trailing edge of the wing that were adjustable (and essential!) for slow speed short landing runs. The T-tail was John's special innovation - John had started manufacturing these. I think the idea was to improve the effectiveness of the small tail plane by lifting it out of the wing turbulence zone, and the fin was supposed to help in directional stability. Very beautiful carbon fibre work, it made your mouth water.


A Bump too Far

On the subject of water, the wet season hadn't finished when it should have - some weeks previously. Thunderstorms still developed on many days. The ground was very green, covered with high vegetation and often waterlogged. It did not make for good thermalling conditions, nor for good out-landing choices.
The first couple of flying days showed my lack of preparedness. The logbook reported: new helmet noise; PTT broken; 'wheels got in the way'; base bar slippery; nose batten broke again; and later: GPS failed; PTT still wrong; couldn't use VB (uurgh).
By the third flying day, I was beginning to get things together: 95km task set; good flight (for me) 2hr 10 mins, 45km; landed in a nice green field with the drogue, and a … splat! It was a paddy field (well, that's what it seemed like).
I made my bad out-landing choice on day four: got trapped near the river; harness zip broke; completely left behind by other kites; almost engulfed by monster thunderstorm; heavy landing and nose-in; shoulder injury. I couldn't afterwards lift a beer glass to my mouth with my right arm. The doctor who accompanied the French Hang gliding team (yes!) said it was a slight disjonction de clavis and an allongement du muscle. 'Put the arm in a sling for a couple of weeks, and take anti-inflammatories'.
So that was the end of my flying this trip. I lent my kite to another lad whose kite had disappeared during a retrieve and was never recovered. Then all I had to do was sit in the swimming pool (aqua-therapy), listen enviously to the radio conversations of those flying, or play chess with other occasional walking wounded like John Vernon (grazed knee) and Tony Lucchesi (twisted foot) whilst unsuccessfully learning Brazilian Portuguese - much harder than Hungarian.

Back in the UK it was clear that my recovery was going to take longer than a few weeks.

2009 Finale & Still Rambling

After Brazil, intensive physiotherapy for the shoulder and arm was the only solution. Progress was slow - it always was, for me, with physiotherapy. In July 2002, in a bout of premature enthusiasm, I took the Topless to Sutton Meadows and somehow found the strength to rig it, but was unable to lift it onto my car without help.
The BHPA had arranged a tow meeting at Condover in Shropshire in August. We agreed to take the CAC tug. I went along as supporting cast and for solidarity, but not to fly. The rest of 2002 passed with occasional visits to Sutton Meadows to demonstrate the gradually improving range of movement of my arm, but not with a realistic hope of flying. I certainly didn’t want to risk a set-back to any progress that had been made.

Wimping Out


In 2003 after the winter lay-off I was still reluctant to face the likelihood of flying, but I did decide to sell my Topless (we were both getting older) and tidied it up for sale. From time to time I would fantasize about replacing it with - hey! - a rigid wing or even, say, an Aeros AL12 (ultralight sailplane) that could be aerotowed with our microlight tug, but, but, … I only had to start thinking about the logistics of rigid wings and the weakness of my arm for the visions to dissolve in practicalities.
What with a weak left leg (from 1986) and now a weak right arm, I felt a bit like a very wobbly table. Could I really countenance the risk of further attrition of essential body parts? And maybe it was the prospect of leisurely Sunday mornings without the angst of the weather forecast, and whether to go flying.


Roger Wood was always enthusiastically encouraging. ‘Here Ed: put this helmet on; sit there; put your feet there (those are my feet in the image); we’ll give you some air experience in the tug!’. Did he think I was going to be another tug pilot? I was scared!

I took the Topless to Hill Farm in Norfolk in May to find likely purchasers. Good old Barry Freeman gave it a demonstration flight for me. The NHGC had an amicable social scene going on, but without aerotowing of course. Tony and Rona had moved to Spain for most of the year. There were no takers for the Topless, but I can’t say I was surprised. Country-wide, the (flexwing) hang gliding scene was declining whilst the popularity of paragliders mounted. The NHGC was by now competent to winch launch paragliders, but this was only possible in light wind conditions.


My house had inconsiderately developed a leaky roof the previous Christmas. During the midsummer months, I helped a roof-tiler friend re-roof it. Clambering up and down ladders with armfuls of pantiles should improve my general health and fitness, I thought. Perhaps it did, but in August I turned out for the Sutton Meadows Microlight Club Charity fly-in. It was a splendid blue day with light winds and thermals up to 5000’ hanging over the field. There was my Topless (still unsold) in front of the CAC caravan, rigged and ready to fly. But I was not.


At the AGM in October 2003 I stepped down as chair of the CAC feeling that a club needs actively participating officers. Charlie Richardson was elected. The CAC membership had reduced from the Norfolk days but was starting to recover. Here you have new faces Hugh Gordon-Roe and Ian Gilbert either side of old faithfuls Charlie and Roger. Not least, we were visited more frequently by national sky gods in search of reliable aerotow launches (but only when the weather had good XC potential of course!). They were putting in some very good flight scores too.



My efforts to sell the Topless continued as soon as the flying season started. Having advertised it in SkyWings - along with harness and instruments - I went to the Devil’s Dyke (Sussex) to talk to Tony Lucchesi and Steve Cook and the lads. This was Steve, de-rigging, on Firle beacon. ‘Hi Ed - you wouldn’t like to buy a Top Secret would you?! Lovely kite – much easier to fly than your Topless. You’d manage it a treat … ’.
Aaah dear.

By August Tony and Rona were back at Hill Farm for a month or two, running training courses in this country to escape the unbearable heat of southern Spain. Yielding to the approaching inevitable, I took the Topless to Norfolk for a last time and was really glad to donate it to them for use in their school or however they saw fit.


This was Tony taking a winch launch on it. It was a seemly fate for the kite, that eased me out of active flying with more equanimity than I might have expected. The next year I changed my estate car to one without a roof rack, breaking the habit of two and a half decades. That says it all.


But I hadn’t ever stopped looking at the sky. Despite never before having seen a hang glider in the sky over Burwell, one day in June two flew over, but under a deadening sky. I went to fetch one of them from a neighbouring field. To our hilarious mutual astonishment it was David Drake, buddy of adventures in Piedrahita, Hungary, Laragne, Monte Cucco and the like. He had taken an aerotow launch from Sutton Meadows - so he got a very quick retrieve! And damn me, just a couple of weeks later, I saw a paraglider over Burwell in a northwesterly wind. It was a jolly good sky too (look hard near the centre left for the pg). The only place the paraglider could have launched was the Sheffield area – surely that had to be a record?! It was. The pilot, Nigel Prior, landed near Newmarket after 187km. He held the record for just two weeks, and was capped by a flight of 204km! Paragliding performances and XC distances were increasing phenomenally.
Did I ever consider migrating to paragliders … ?
No. Never. Somehow it would have seemed a retrograde step, even though these distances were more than the best I had ever achieved on my flexwing kites.


A further 5 years passed before the consuming passion to write about it signalled to me that the fait accompli (no more hang gliding) had at last been assimilated. Re-reading my notebooks and photo albums from years past has been an absorbing creative experience, without stimulating too many regrets for what can no longer be. And it is also about sharing these experiences again with any of you who have been companions on the way.

As just an ordinary person, one feels humbled and incredibly privileged to have been able to do these things. I have, so to speak, spread my wings; stepped off hills to soar into the skies; flown silently like a bird in thermals across the flatlands of East Anglia, the countryside of my youth, from whence maybe came the early urges to fly - if not from Daedalus and Icarus themselves …

Yes, I am still reading Skywings, still looking at the sky, and still capable of boring my rambling friends with explanations of why that cloud up there has just formed with air that has risen all the way from the ground, and why those birds are circling, and why it is (or isn’t) going to rain in the next half hour, and - no - the best conditions for thermals are not when the air is hot but when the air is cold and the ground is warm

But hang on, before I get carried away, this was all supposed to be about the history of towing in East Anglia, not the sentimental memories of a DoD (see glossary), so what better, relevant, achievement to finish with than:

2008: CAC - National XC League Champions!


For the first time ever in hang gliding history one of our East Anglian Clubs has topped the National League for Club and individual. Andy Hollidge's magnificent triangle flight (remember the bird man on Sculthorpe?) clinched the individual scores by a mighty margin. The devil is in the detail. Here is the detail. Never forgetting of course the irrepressible Roger still delivering the goods: i.e. hang glider pilots to 2000'!
Nice rigid wing on that trolley there …


Photo credit © CAC 2007
NXCL table courtesy of SkyWings © SkyWings 2008

A response (12/1/2010) to your comments below, from Edmund :
Hi Pete and Jac, Bob B, and others,
Very delighted to see your kind remarks. Much of the enjoyment of writing this was the anticipation of showing it to other people, and I suppose while I was writing it I always had in mind an audience of all you guys who shared the journey at various times.
Best wishes to you all.

Ed Potter's NXCL flights

This is taken from the website of the UK NXCL (National Cross Country League) much of the credit for which should go to Phil Chettleburgh and Tony Southwood. It is a brilliantly useful and accessible implementation of a database. Would that all databases were so well presented!


The National Cross Country league started in 1982(?) Computerised data before 1992 was in a form that could not be carried over into the new system. Reference to years prior to 92 means scouring through the Pages of "wings / Skywings! "

In the process of doing this we discover that in terms of the NXCL Ed was the first person to carry out a recordable Cross Country from the Winch. Only Six and a bit miles, but without doubt a milestone.

With a few more XC's later in the year recorded Ed became the first recipient of the "Dave Loxely Trophy" awarded on the 8th or March, 1986 at the BHGA Agm held at the Cwrt y Gollen army camp, Crickhowell, Wales.

Note: The dave Loxely trophy fell to pieces in the early 90's, and was replaced with a wooden shield. Over the mists of time any there are only 2 known picture of the Original trophy. The first one, as shown above does not do it justice.

Fortunately, Ed was aware of this. So, At a BHGA meeting held later in the year , Ed collared Noel Whitall (BHGA Chairman) and got him to re present the trophy to get a better view.


The above Picture is credit “Weston Air Photography 1986, Weston Super Mare”

The first NXCL winch tow Cross country Report

From "Wings", May 1985

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