In this excerpt from Short Hops, we enjoyed the most exceptional day at St. Merryn, playing with a pair of gyro-gliders in a wind so powerful that we were pulling the tow cars instead of the other way around. I’ve never known anything like it.
It was a cracking autumnal day of October 1995; an ice-white sun glaring in the pale sky and a howling wind from the south west that snatched the breath from our lungs. Perfect kiting weather for gyro-gliders! Normally the glider needs to be towed forward to gain lift, but with a wind speed like that it could be tethered and flown from a stationary point. No one would dream of flying in such conditions in the fixed-wing world, and as a newly qualified convert in the art of autorotation, I have to admit that I would’ve thought twice had our veterans, Chris Julian and Tony Philpotts not been with us.
There were five of us eager to play, so we dusted off Tony’s old gyro-glider as well to blow the cobwebs out. Chris Shilling settled into the seat as we hitched up to the car, and Tony pulled them out to the start of the Gyro runway, directly into wind. With Old Faithful tied onto my car and Derek installed at the wheel, I hopped onboard clutching my video camera and strapped in alongside Chris, as Derek began to drag us out into the teeth of the gale. Away from the shelter of the hangar it was difficult to move upwind, and even more difficult to stop going downwind – I was almost taken off my feet! Chris-S was already in position with his glider at the threshold, the car parked a tow rope’s length away with Tony wisely sheltering inside. Our ears were blasted by a seething tide of air, plucking the speech from our mouths and scattering words like paper in the wind: we had to shout to be heard.
Derek went to help Chris-S spin up, while I hung onto the stick ready for the difficult task of trying to coax the rotor blades into life as Chris began to push them round. It wasn’t easy. Chris and Derek were pushing like crazy, striving to give the blades enough rotation to cope with all that oncoming airspeed, while Chris-S and me grimly nursed the bucking control sticks, trying to stabilise the rotors long enough to form a disc in the relentless 35-40 mph wind. Perseverance eventually paid off, Chris-S being the first to lift with his lighter weight. Chris had joined me on the seat to help hold us down until the rotors had settled, and now I gingerly slid off and fought my way over to the centreline to do some filming, as Chris fastened himself into the middle of the seat. When he was ready he let the stick come back and freed the furiously spinning blades to the wind. The glider immediately sat back on the tailwheel, straining against the rope until Chris closed the disc a fraction to kill off the drag, and rose rapidly into the air. Synchronised kiting – you don’t see that every day!
The wind was shoving me in the back, threatening to bowl me over like a tumbleweed as I struggled to hold the camera steady and keep a pair of delighted Chrisses inside the viewfinder as they bobbed gleefully on the roaring torrent of air. Derek scrambled onboard with Chris-S when a brief lull settled the machines gently back to earth, but the extra weight proved too much and they couldn’t rise more than 5 feet, while Chris on Old Faithful waved mockingly from above, casually swinging his hands and feet. He yelled at me to come back, and planted the glider firmly on the deck for me to climb on. Our machine had longer rotors than Tony’s, so although our combined weight probably wasn’t far from that of Derek and Chris-S, the extra bit of rotor disc made all the difference and we rose easily.
Once into clean air, freed from the restraining influence of the ground, the glider went up like a lift as the wind blew even stronger – awesome!!! Chris let it climb to the full extent of the tow rope then handed over to me. The stick bucked in my hand and the airframe pulsed as the rotors fought against the constraint of the tow rope, and looking down its length to my little car some 50 feet below, I sincerely hoped Derek had put the handbrake on properly! Chris made a game of testing me, seeing how accurately I could position the glider where he wanted, being careful not to jerk the rope with visions of my car coming up to meet us, so powerful was the pull of the rotor disc above our heads. What terrific fun! Chris-S was happily floating alongside, so I gave control back to Chris and picked up my camcorder to do some air to air shots as Derek and Tony began to tow us very slowly down the runway, adding to the entertainment.
Chris-S crossed our path with some enthusiastic wide turns and steep banks as I tried to keep him in camera range from my own soaring perch that throbbed with the beat of the rotor blades. They were a rough fibreglass set of doubtful integrity that bounced enthusiatically at the best of times, and now they were spinning furiously. The cars crept down the runway in first gear, straining against the enormous drag of the rotor discs. When at last they reached the end of the line, instead of turning around to take us back to the start as with a normal gyro-glider run, Derek and Tony switched off their engines and surrendered to the forces of nature. It was brilliant! We opened the rotors to the wind and flew the gliders backwards through the air, pulling our cars along with us, how good was that! We played our new game for hours: kiting, then creeping forwards, kiting again before reversing back up the runway to kite once more, I remember it like yesterday – it was such brilliant fun!
I swapped over after a while to fly with Chris-S and take some film of Chris from Tony’s machine. That one had a shorter tow boom and tended to fly tipped back on its tail, so we had to hold the stick forward all the time. It also wore a rough set of home-made plastic blades, which unfortunately didn’t improve the precious recording of a memorable day – but at least it captured the spirit. The autumn chill began to make its presence known after several hours of riotous autorotation, creeping inside collars and cuffs through gaps in flight suits, numbing cold feet and fingers until we reluctantly called a halt and returned to the hangar, tired and stiff and absolutely elated. That was without doubt, the best gyro-gliding day ever!