Flying for all

Travel Talk

There is not much going on in Britain just now of course due to the lockdown, but there is a little light glowing at the end of the tunnel. Opportunities for flying a real aircraft will return and the cost of the training will be much the same as a luxury cruise. I know about flying from my background. The Air Training Corps send me solo in a wood and fabric glider so long ago. I was only fourteen, and it was the best experience of my life at the time.

When our freedom returns they will unlock the hangar doors to let the gliders and microlight aircraft back into the sunshine. There are many clubs scattered all over Britain that will be advertising their wares. The quality of the training is constantly supervised by the Civil Aviation Authority under the control of the British Gliding Association and other organisations. The standards sustained are admired right across the world. In Britain, gliding and microlight flying is extremely safe and exciting.

Streamlined glider A modern glider can present the most pure form of flying. Pilots can use the natural and constantly changing currents in the atmosphere to stay aloft. Such flying can often be for long periods and distances, especially in the summer. Pilots learn what they need to look for among the clouds for thermal lift. They know what goes on by observing the constantly changing sky.

Current gliders are built of incredibly strong yet lightweight carbon material. Aerodynamically they are smooth and clean. Air resistance drag from the airframe is as low as it ever could be I suspect. They also have long, thin wings that keep aerodynamic drag low. For the technical, they have a high aspect ratio. Find a picture of the ASK 21 that is frequently used for training, and you will see what I mean. Once a student has been solo they often just join a syndicate for part ownership of a glider and share all the bills. Most clubs rent out gliders as well.

A glider can be launched into the sky to about a thousand feet above the surface by a ground based winch. Some might find this a little alarming initially, but you will soon get used to it. The angle of climb is steep. Some glider pilots just like to soar the ridge of a hill that faces the westerly prevailing wind. Stay up all day if you wish and just plod along above the hill crest without actually going anywhere. It’s fun.

Many clubs operate an aerotow service that is provided by a powered light aircraft. Higher altitudes and greater distances from the departure point can be achieved in this way. You can study the sky before you launch. Ask the tug pilot to tow you to under a cloud where you think there may be vertical currents underneath. Pilots quickly develop an eye for these things. However, an aerotow does require a little extra training for a glider pilot. The pilot has to practice keeping in close formation with the towing aircraft. It is all quite easy really.

Ready for flight Rules regarding medical standards for solo flight have changed in recent years. Nowadays, a valid driving licence is acceptable or simply a carefully made self-declaration. You can also consult your GP, and he can provide you with a certificate of fitness based on his knowledge of your medical history.

Many gliding centres provide initial flying training to solo pilot standard. They will provide watchful supervision for the new starters after that for a period. The average number of ‘dual’ flights varies from about 20 to 40. Everyone is different and all take their own time to find their confidence. An initial introductory or ‘trial’ flight might cost around 20 quid to see if you enjoy it. To complete and go solo might cost between £1,000 to £2,000. Annual membership for most clubs will be in addition to that; say around £350. Have a look on the BGA website for local clubs and look at their fees.

Gliding itself depends much on manpower. You might get around six ‘dual’ flights during one of your training days, but there is much to be done in-between. Man handling of the landing gliders, record keeping, walkie talky radio usage and winch wire recovery. Lots of fresh air, lots of new friends and a good appreciation of a couple of pints afterwards.

There are microlight aircraft to learn to fly if you prefer. These are powered by an engine and are treated a little differently by law. You will be awarded a National Private Pilot’s Licence at the end of your training. It will be endorsed with a Microlight rating. A microlight aircraft has a maximum loaded weight not to exceed 390 kg. The rules are always a bit more formal for any aircraft that has an engine. You will need to pass a series of ground exams. Really all quite simple in reality. The training for the flying and the ground school will be provided by your chosen club. A microlight training course must consist of not less than 25 hours of flight training which will include 10 hours of solo flight before the issue of the NPPL. Medical standard is simply maintained by self-declaration.

Microlight Microlight aircraft cannot soar in the atmospheric thermals but can launch themselves. Recently electric powered microlights are becoming available. They are silent of course and won’t annoy the neighbours. Aviation in all its classes, like motor vehicles, is slowly moving over to electric power.

Some powered microlights are controlled by the pilot’s weight shift and others by conventional aerodynamic control. Whichever one you get your NPPL issued against you will need a log book rubber stamp certificate from your instructor for flying the other version. I am a great supporter of gliding though in every sense. Gliding is pure flying like the birds. It is probably much more rewarding than relying on power.

An associate of mine is a very committed, powered microlight pilot and has much experience as an instructor. He has sat on the formal organisations governing the microlight sport. Some years ago he was asked to demonstrate his powered microlight from the deck of HMS Illustrious whilst it was at sea. The Royal Navy wanted to see if there were any useful military characteristics that they could exploit. The aircraft was a weight shift machine so of course was a very light craft.

Microlight cockpit Gliding and microlight aircraft flying might seem dangerous to some, but the safety record is almost beyond reproach. It is like all forms of flying though; you do not have to be a brilliant pilot, but you do need to obey the rules and use good judgement. Very talented pilots sometimes break the rules and sometimes come unstuck. All flying is about not breaking the rules; the Wright Brothers began to figure that one out over a hundred years ago. Your training organisation will make sure that you know them.

I spent one summer as the tug pilot at the London Gliding Club on the Dunstable Downs. David Jason, (Del Boy in Fools and Horses), kept a fairly elderly glider there. I towed him up on a number of occasions and his approach to flying was sheer caution. He loved flying, and he knew the weather, wind and the sky. I admired his approach to all that the elements placed in front of him so much.

Gliding or microlight flying can become a lifelong passion. The minimum age for solo flight is 14 years and the maximum is whenever you feel that you have had enough. Operate from an established club with others around you and learn to love the sky.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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