What a stunning turn-around! So much for my natural 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. We had 10 syndicate members - who had each bought a £500 share - a tug microlight and equipment, 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 …

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 option 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 were prepared, time and again, 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, and courage. 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 carry out 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 created 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.

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