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.
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.