As I lay in the shade of the glider’s wing, waiting for the buggy to come back and give me a tow out to the launch point, I looked up and watched the kestrel circling, painting invisible circles against a perfect, azure sky. I had noticed it an hour earlier, as we pulled the gliders out before readying them for the morning’s flights. Then it had been perfectly still, hunched in the morning cold, perched on the apex of Lasham Airfield’s ageing WW2 hanger. Now the sun had put some warmth into the tarmac apron and the day’s thermals were just starting. The kestrel had left its perch, with a just a few dozen leisurely beats of its wings, and was now slowly being carried aloft by morning’s gentle up currents. I imagined it looking down at us, no doubt amazed by the paraphernalia of winches and tug planes we needed to drag our clumsy sailplanes into the air. Perhaps though, it simply had thoughts for the rats under the hangar floor or the rabbits in the field at the end of the runway. As I watched it drift downwind towards the airfield boundary, climbing a few feet in each easy circle, my thoughts also drifted away - back to the very first time I flew.
It was 1964, and I was eight. My family had just moved from Scotland to Sussex. That summer, I was sent back to Edinburgh to stay for a while with an old school friend. I was too young to make such a long unaccompanied train journey, so my parents sent me by plane. Looking back on it now, this must have been a remarkably expensive decision for them, but maybe it reflected my family’s newfound affluence in England.
I gave it no thought at all and simply regarded it as quite normal when they took me to Heathrow and gave me into the care of stranger who looked and spoke rather like Lulu, but was in fact, the BEA air hostess who was to chaperone me. I remember very little about the aircraft and the flight. There was of course no in-flight film, or indeed any sort of entertainment – so I amused myself by looking out the window and pretending the clouds were castles as they gradually passed by. There must have been some sort of meal though because I distinctly remember the individual cardboard salt and pepper pots that were provided and my joy at keeping those as souvenirs of the flight. By far my strongest memory though was after landing being taken and shown the cockpit by my stewardess. I was fascinated by the almost overwhelming array of buttons, switches and dials but the thing that struck me most was the dark blueness of the captain’s jacket and the easy way he was chatting to my chaperone. Someday, I decided, I would gain access to their world.
The buggy had still not arrived, so I stood up to see if there was any help in sight. The rest of the club members were either out on the runway, busy working the launch point or working the winching system. I could just see the buggy retrieving one of the gliders from the far end of the airfield. Above it, I thought I could make out a tiny speck, slowly circling over the wheat field at the end of the runway. Periodically the speck seemed to blur a little. The kestrel was having to flap its wings occasionally. I was happy to wait a while for the day to warm up and the thermals to strengthen so I lay down in the shade and turned my thoughts to the past again.
It was a warm evening in September 1987. I was a member of that summer’s ‘Friday Evening’ group – an assorted collection of accountants, hairdressers, bank managers, farmers, pensioners and others who spent each Friday evening operating the winch and learning to fly in simple, wooden, 2 seater gliders, making short circuits around the airfield, often of only a few minutes. Each member of the group generally had three flights and then spent the rest of the evening helping the others fly, retrieving gliders from the various odd places they landed on the airfield. The group had a couple of experienced glider pilots, each with a full instructor’s rating. One was a Polish emigre, Jan Wysocki, who reputedly never flew without a preliminary vodka, a habit he was said to have formed when flying Hurricanes in the war and which he never saw any subsequent need to stop. My instructor was John Williams, who worked as a confectionary salesman for Mars, and who split his time between teaching people both powered and soaring flight and restoring vintage MGs. He was a popular instructor, not least for his inexhaustible supply of chocolate bars.
Under his careful tutelage I had gradually worked my way through the various lessons and flying exercises in the British Gliding Association syllabus. After 42 flights and 400 minutes in the air I had managed to get a tick in all the necessary boxes on the pre-solo progress card. That night I had already had two flights, the second of which had been a simulated cable break – a favourite trick of the instructor in which they pulled the cable release at some unexpected point in the launch, perhaps only when the glider was three or four hundred feet in the air.
They then waited to see if the student followed the appropriate
recovery procedure. Basically, this meant moving the control stick forward to manoeuvre the glider from its steep launch climb back to level flight while maintaining sufficient speed for the air to continue to generate lift as it passed over the wings. But the instructor did not wait too long - if the student did not respond fast enough, then they suffered the ignominy of the instructor taking over the controls and demonstrating what was required.
‘Never low and slow’, was John’s constant reminder before each flight.
He said it one more time as we towed the glider back to the launch point for my third flight, and then told me he would not be coming with me for the next flight.
John closed the canopy and I was alone in a glider for the first time. I felt a mixture of anticipation and relief that I was finally independent, unwatched by an instructor in the seat behind me. Under the Perspex bubble of the canopy I felt as if I was now enveloped in the atmosphere of my own little planet, isolated, self-sufficient and independent. The launch point controller signalled the winch and the glider accelerated rapidly down the runway, and no longer inconvenienced by the extra weight of the instructor, it seemed eager to leap into the air. It took less than a minute to reach the top of the launch.
The altimeter told me I was at 1600 feet above the airfield. In one direction I could see as far as the south coast, with the Isle of Wight just visible on the horizon, like the hump of some enormous sea monster, waiting to gorge itself on an unsuspecting Portsmouth. To the north I could see the smoke rising from Didcot power station, nearly 30 miles away. For a moment I felt that I owned the world in front of me, it was some magical kingdom all of my own. The feeling rapidly vanished though as I realised that unless I put the glider into a turn I would simply fly further and further away from the airfield and eventually come to rest in some angry farmer’s field. To my delight I found that the glider happily, indeed willingly responded to my touch – apparently, I really could fly without an instructor. Five minutes later I was back on the ground, eating a Mars bar and sipping a vodka.
The put-put of the buggy finally interrupted my thirty-year-old memories. It was time to take my single seater out to the launch point. A sleek, smooth racing machine, it had seemingly impossible thin carbon fibre wings, and the slipperiest of polished surfaces. Predictably the German manufacturer had given it the worthy but unimaginative name Discus II. I could never understand why they had not chosen something less muscular and more poetic – Skylark or Swallow for instance. That afternoon I swooped and danced under the clouds simply for the joy of being in the air and returned to the airfield in last of the evening thermals, having seen half a dozen English counties. As I put the glider away in the hanger, I looked up half expecting to see the kestrel, but no doubt he was safely snoozing in a tree somewhere, dreaming of the next day’s thermals.
* * *
A week later, just after breakfast, the world started spinning around me, and continued to spin intermittently and at unpredictable times for months and years to come. In the following months I had various medical tests and was told I had Meniere’s disease, a disturbance of the inner ear, with no practical cure. Life had changed forever, and I never flew as a pilot again.
Eventually I bought and restored an old MG. Now when driving in the quiet country lanes amongst the South Downs I often think of that summer when John Williams taught me to fly. When the weather is good and the sun heats the fields and the thermal start weaving threads of cotton wool cumulus on the pale blue weft of a hot summer sky, I’ll park the car by some farmer’s gateway, and spend a moment or two looking up, hoping to see a kestrel soaring, once again painting circles in the unreachable, untouchable air.