Sunday, 6 March 2011

Oh, for the wings.

Aerophobics have got it all wrong. God *does* want us to fly and he *has* given us wings. And rotors and jet engines and rockets and propellers and helium and... everything that our fellow aviators, the birds, would seem to lack.

Flying with feathered-wings, like a bird, seems an incredible waste of energy. The amount of effort those poor little things put into each flap must be tortuous. And what's with that slapping sound that comes from pigeons at take-off? That's got to hurt, right? Poor birds. No wonder they're always squawking.

It's worth noting that early man-made flapping machines singularly failed to get off the ground. Aviation would-be pioneers who tried to fashion feathery wings out of wood and wire never got off the ground and very often plummeted into the sea - we've all seen the funny film clips. It was only when mankind steered sensibly away from this route, electing to pursue a more mechanical means of getting airborne, that things really started to take off.

Watching the International Space Station streak overhead this week at a height of some 200 miles has been a fantastic experience. I urge everybody to have a look at it when conditions permit. It's the 21st Century pinnacle of our achievement in getting (and staying) off the ground - the latest stage of a journey that started with Montgolfier and his chums in their hot air balloons.

Balloon flight is a fine thing, I'm happy to be able to confirm, having had the pleasure of one myself. My first and only balloon take-off was intense, as this joy-flight (alongside my late photographer chum Colin Wallace) was from a busy agricultural show ground. We were tethered to the ground by a bloody great big strap while the vast bubble over our heads was inflated and heated. The basket buffeted and rocked about until the strap was released and - rather like an empty shampoo bottle blobbing to the surface of a hot bath - the ground shot away from under us and we were sucked at runaway speed into the skies of East Exeter.

Once up there, the silence and windlessness was astounding. We were lighter than air, so every little puff of wind carried us sideways without restriction - the net feeling was of being in a weird vacuum. I quickly identified my house and neighbouring fields and roads from above and, as we gained height and started to drift towards the coast, I could not only see but hear clearly what was going on down on the ground.

Kids waved, people in traffic jams pointed through their windscreens. Horses ran away from us while cows stood their ground and stared, mooing faintly into the sky from their meadows hundreds or thousands of feet below our fragile-seeming basket. We crept closer to the treetops at sunset and our eventual landing, in a farmer's field close to Sidmouth, was relatively gentle - although we did end up being tipped onto one side. It was a good feeling, to finally clamber back out onto the green grass of terra firma with that special new experience tucked away.

I've always enjoyed flying, before and since that fantastic balloon run. My first time aloft came courtesy of my dad, who'd paid for me to have a pleasure flight around Exeter Airport during an air day. He had been a corporal in the RAF, so he knew all about it already - and left me to enjoy this short and fascinating prop-driven flight by myself.

The school's RAF cadet corps opened up yet new flying opportunities - including one-on-one flying lessons in a battered and paint-chipped RAF Chipmunk training aircraft. This noisy beast gave me and my early-teenage school pals an opportunity to strap into a parachute suit, grab a joystick and throttle and take these beasts into the air ourselves (under the watchful and unshockable care of a qualified flying instructor, of course). We would spin the Chipmunk around the skies a bit, maybe do some aerobatics, then bring them back towards a runway approach. Much, much better than lessons and kind of like an Atari video game - only not rubbish.

Summer camps overseas gave us even wilder opportunities which I remain massively grateful for. Thanks to the cadet force, I enjoyed three separate helicopter flights - including a tree-clipping adventure in a Gazelle and a classic feet-over-edge dangling adventure tethered to the open sides of a Sea King air-sea rescue chopper. Priceless.

But perhaps the most outrageously spectacular flying experience I have yet had (apart from maybe a stunning aurora borealis display seen through the windows of a 747 bound for Heathrow from Seattle) was in the humble Hele's School cadets glider.

This was a peculiar beast in several parts that would need to be assembled, by hand, using the combined strength and skill of several boys over much of an afternoon. The open cockpit would be bolted to the fuselage and each of the enormous wings fixed with butterfly bolts. 'Flight' (and our teachers-cum-cadet officers insisted on calling it that) would be achieved by stretching a very long elastic band in two directions away from the front of the craft, and then twanging the glider forward. The unfortunate lad in the cockpit would be catapulted forward at high speed across the school field towards a busy-looking dual carriageway, getting airborne for about ten seconds and up to an altitude of maybe four feet.

It was scary, uncomfortable and not really worth doing, to be honest. I imagine health and safety execs soon put an end to it anyway.

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