Vne – the velocity that should never be exceeded in normal flight
I met Jim in 1964. That was the year that the UK gliding championships was at Dunstable, and since it was just two weeks after we got married, that was where we spent our honeymoon. It was an abrupt transition from blushing bride to dutiful wife and glider crew – neither of which I felt adequately prepared for, but since I felt that married life must inevitably bring its changes and challenges I would simply wait and see what each new day brought. We duly arrived on the Friday at Dunstable Gliding Club in a Morris Minor, towing Jim’s Skylark behind in a large wooden trailer, and spent the evening unpacking a tent, sleeping bags, cooking stoves and a week’s worth of bacon and eggs.
The next morning, I helped Jim pull the glider out of the trailer and attach the wings and tail plane. While Jim then went off to the competition briefing to find out what the task of the day was, I lay on the grass by the glider, trying to ease the throb in my back and thinking that despite its fragile appearance, the wood and fabric of the glider weighed a lot more than I had expected. Looking up at the early morning puffs of white cumulus in the sky above, it was a puzzle to me how something as ephemeral and apparently made of cotton wool could also generate the thermal lift that sustained the gliders in their flight over the countryside.
“Come on, let’s get her out to the launch point – there’s no time to lose,” Jim said. “They’ve set an out and return to Bristol. That’s over a hundred and twenty miles – so the sooner I start the better”.
We pushed the glider onto the runway and Jim climbed in. A helper attached the winch cable, and a few seconds later the glider rapidly disappeared down the runway and into the air.
I went back to the tent to fetch my paperback and to find a quiet part of the airfield where I could lie in the sun escape into a more romantic world.
It was four in the afternoon when the airfield tannoy made the announcement I had been hoping not to hear:
“Glider 496 has landed out.”
That meant Jim was in a farmer’s field somewhere. He had suggested that this might occasionally happen to a glider, especially in a competition.
“You could never be sure,” he had said, “especially in an English summer, that the soaring conditions would be as good as the forecast predicted. After all, that’s why it’s a competition. It’s a test of your skill as a pilot to make the best of the weather.”
“Maybe”, I thought as I walked over to the competition office, “Jim is not as skilled as he thinks he is”.
In the office, they gave me a copy of the message that Jim had phoned in:
Landed out 2 miles north of Chipping Norbury, grid reference SP310271. Meet at Royal Oak pub in village.
“Well, it’s all part of the adventure of marriage,” I told myself as I drove the Morris Minor round to where we had left the trailer and hitched it up. I’m not sure I sounded very convincing though.
Chipping Norbury turned out to be village very much in the traditional English style, complete with thatched cottages made of Cotswold stone the colour of honey and fudge. I half expected Miss Marple to be sitting watching the cricket on the village green – and for a fleeting moment the image of a body lying under glider popped into my mind – maybe I was feeling a bit light headed as I had not had anything to eat since the bacon and eggs at breakfast. It was nearly 8pm by the time I parked the car and trailer outside the Royal Oak. I was beginning to feel quite tired – it had been long drive, particularly with the trailer on the back of the car. But I perked up when I saw a sign that said ‘Best Bed and Breakfast in Gloucestershire’ by the pub doors. Inside I found Jim in the snug, playing bar billiards with a couple of the locals.
“Ah, well done, lass – you made it then!” he said as he saw me stumble through the door. “Come on, let’s go and derig the glider – it’s going to be dark soon.” Before I could reply he had started bustling me out of the snug, calling over his shoulder to his new billiard friends, “Thanks for the beer and the game, lads – keep the table warm for me.”
“Are we coming back then?” I asked as we got into the car. “That seemed rather a nice place to stay the night – it looked like they might have a nice comfy four poster, and I’ve hardly eaten all day.”
“I’m afraid not, love. Mind you they did have an excellent home made steak and ale pie, but I expect it’s all gone now,” he said. “Anyway, we’ve got to get back to Dunstable tonight, so I can be ready for tomorrow’s task.”
“But it will be well past midnight before we get back to the airfield, surely?” I protested.
“Well, we’ve got plenty of bacon and eggs. And I want to get back and see how well I’ve scored. I’m sure there must have been lots of other pilots landing out – it was really hard work today. I hope I haven’t lost any points on the leaders,” he replied.
I thought about this in silence while we spent the next hour getting the Morris Minor and the trailer up a long, rutted farmer's track and down to the bottom of a mown hay field, where Jim had managed to land the Skylark.
“Right,” said Jim, manoeuvring the trailer in front of the glider. “You go and open the trailer doors while I unhitch the trailer from the car. Then we can start by taking the tail plane off and then the wings. I’ve already disconnected the controls so there’s hardly anything to it.”
I did as I was told and went to the back of the trailer and opened the doors. It was quite a surprise, to say the least, to find that there already was a glider in the trailer. I looked across at Jim’s glider and then back at the trailer, and then it dawned on me that the number on the tail fin of Jim’s glider was 496. The numbers stencilled on the back doors of the trailer were 469. I had brought the wrong trailer.
“Jim,” I said, “You are not going to believe this….”
A year later Jim had swopped his vintage glider for a modern Cessna with an engine. Happily, I had swopped Jim for a different significant other too.