Gyroplanes of yesteryear

Remembering a legend

Chris Julian was killed on the morning of May 17th 1997.

Chris with his beloved Wombat Gyrocopter

Sunday the 18th of May 1997 was a beautiful day, bright and sunny with blue sky. As usual, I went outside and sat on the wall to look at the weather and the wonderful view of Cornwall stretching away into the distance, watching the windmills turning through the tears in my eyes. The familiar scene gave no clue to the tragic events of the previous day, the only difference was that Chris Julian didn’t come out to join me as he often did. We would watch his two dogs playing in the field, and wait for our new friend Bob Bond to arrive on his motorbike from Exeter. After the obligatory cup of tea, we would all pile into Chris’s old car – me in the back buried under three lots of flying gear, tools and crash helmets – and hurtle off to St. Merryn laughing and joking all the way and often completely on the wrong side of the road. It was very quiet on Sunday the 18th of May.

Chris was a legend in the British gyroplane world. Many of us gyronauts survive because he taught us how to do so. It’s sad that so few remember him now, or even know who he was. I’ll add to this in time, but tomorrow is May 17th – a particularly poignant day to remember Chris Julian and also Bob Bond, who died beside him when the rotor assembly detached in flight.

Everyone knew Chris back then, or knew of him. Larger than life and always laughing, he was a proper character – and helluva gyroplane pilot. Partnered by Tony Philpotts in the tow car, Chris tutored many hundreds of student gyronauts in the art of autorotation, patiently hauling back and forth on the gyro-glider over and over again and loving every minute of it. Learn rotor handling first and everything else will fall into place. I wonder what he would make of it all now.

I was watching some of the self-styled ‘new generation’ in action recently: hammering the pre-rotator with the disc held flat until the last moment (even though there was a cracking bit of wind right down the runway), then flogging the poor machine to climb out on the back of the power curve. What’s all that about? As for the chap with the navy blue Cavalon, turning the propeller while stood right inside the prop arc with his arms draped around the blades – that doesn’t bear thinking about. Chris would have put them all straight, in no uncertain terms.

Chris: on a diet

The picture above means everything to me, and Chris loved it too. We made a poster of it which he pinned to the wall in our hut at St. Merryn. By sad coincidence it turned out to be our last flight together. It was a beautiful Easter Monday, just the two of us at St. Merryn where we spent a leisurely couple of hours out in the sunshine, cleaning and checking over our gyroplanes, happy just to be there. Later we flew across to Bodmin to enjoy an excellent lunch sat outside the clubhouse, chatting about everything and nothing and watching the flying on that lovely grass airfield. It was a lazy sort of day, green grass, blue sky, bright sun. Chris wanted to treat me to an ice cream but I was too full to manage any more, so he bumbled off to order one for himself. Returning to our table, he realised his head was getting sunburnt, so I fished a duster out of the pocket of my gyroplane and he fastened it around his head with the two miniature bungees that he used to attach his radio in flight, thus Lawrence of Bodmin was born. When his ‘bocker-nocker-lorry’ arrived (he couldn’t pronounce knickerbocker glory!), the image was complete. I had to get a photo, never dreaming how poignant it would become. As he drove us home later that evening, he looked over at me and said reflectively ‘You some dear little gyrocopter pilot really, Shirley.’ – and reached over to squeeze my hand – after wiping his nose in his palm.

So who was Chris Julian? Rosy of face and cheerful demeanour, his bald head framed by a shock of unruly white hair, this dumpy figure clad in open-necked shirt and corduroy trousers could easily be dismissed as a quintessential yokel – the country bumpkin persona thrice enhanced by his broad Cornish accent. I remember we had stopped by at Bodmin Aero Club for a cup of tea one time (Chris never went far without a cup of tea), when a group of young RAF cadets were in residence. Chris in his tatty old pullover was chatting amiably and chuckling away as usual, and I could see the cadets looking down their noses at him and sneering between themselves. ‘Stupid old fool’ – you could almost read their minds. But Chris was no fool. It was a shame we were visiting by road as had we flown in that day, they would’ve seen just how wrong they were in their assumptions. Chris was a virtuoso of the free-spinning rotor blade: there was nothing he couldn’t do within parameters and even a few things beyond. The Wombat was his pièce de résistance and in the skies above St. Merryn he made her sing. Poetry in motion, they were a joy to watch – from a suitably sheltered vantage point where you couldn’t be dive-bombed! He was a terror for that, the old devil.

While only the best was good enough for the Wombat, Chris’s old cars were something else and driving with him was never dull. He always referred to my mum as ‘Mother,’ which tickled her no end. Once when she was down for a visit, he decided to treat us to a cup of tea at one of his favourite local watering holes. Chris never touched alcohol, incidentally: his chosen haunts were greasy-spoon cafes and roadside snack bars. So we piled into the back of his old blue Ford, with Chris and Judy in the front. Chris did his usual out-of-the-gate speedway start, at which point the bench seat on which we were perched shipped its moorings, upending Mother and me onto our backs, knees in the air! Twisting round to look over his shoulder, Chris was mortified, but we couldn’t move for laughing and his anguished cry of ‘Ooh ell Mother!’ only made it worse! Too funny. He was so spontaneous, we never knew what the day would bring.

He had a unique method to avoid stopping at junctions in the dark. Barrelling along narrow country lanes at warp speed with wing mirrors brushing the dry stone hedges that boxed us in on either side, instead of slowing down towards an intersection, he would switch off the headlights and plunge the road into darkness! The theory was that this kamikaze method would reveal the lights of any approaching traffic: if darkness prevailed, nothing was coming (he hoped) and we would hurtle across without pause. Any unfortunate soul on a bicycle would have been flattened. Chris was a demon behind the wheel when the mood took him. Speed was everything and he was fearless.

It was a different story with the gyroplanes. When in instructor mode, student safety was paramount and his concern was absolutely genuine. He taught me everything about rotor handling, and our only instrument was a piece of string. It never lies: the batteries never fail, the readout never goes blank. Learn rotor handling first – proper manual hand-start rotor handling – and everything else will fall into place. 26 Years of flying with a bit of string and yet to ding a rotor blade. That’s because of Chris Julian, faithfully assisted on the glider by Tony Philpotts.

One of the lovely characters to come into our world at St. Merryn immediately became known as Brian the vicar – and yes – he actually was. He had bought a part built Everett Cricket after succumbing to the charms of the gyro-glider and Chris was finishing it off for him in the workshop. Brian loved flying the glider with us and became a popular member of the crew, always making the effort to pop down between Sunday services. To give Chris his due, he did try hard to curtail his language out of respect for a man of the cloth, but Brian was completely unfazed which was just as well as Chris had more than a few lapses in his good behaviour! Poor Brian, he needed a sense of humour with us lot. His Cricket was registered G-BWHT which I couldn’t resist naming God Be With Holy Terrors. It was Tony’s fault really, a habit that he had started after working out that my Delta-J stood for Better Visibility for Damsel Jockeys. Not sure about the damsel bit, though…

I was at St. Merryn with Chris as an extra pair of eyes, when Brian started the early stages of groundwork and getting acquainted with the machine. In those days we tuned our radios to 123.45 to talk between ourselves, being in the back of beyond it didn’t seem to upset anyone. So with our Holy Terror strapped into his pride and joy, burning and turning for the first time and beaming from ear to ear, Chris began to instruct him over the radio, complete with gestures and arm waving which grew even more animated as Brian remained sat there grinning happily from the cockpit, obviously not hearing a word. Eventually Chris ducked under the spinning rotor blades and yelled his instructions in Brian’s ear, which had the desired effect. Chris scuttled clear and got back on the radio as Brian slowly taxied away and headed off down the runway, but there was still no response over the airwaves. After a while, the rattle of an idling Rotax grew louder and in due time Brian happily trundled past, completely oblivious to Chris’s increasingly earthy transmissions – and just as well really – you shouldn’t say things like that to a vicar! Getting more and more agitated, Chris finally managed to flag him down, only to find that Brian’s radio was indeed switched on and functioning correctly on 123.45, whereas his own set had one digit astray. Instead of 123.45, Chris had tuned to 123.40 which happened to be the tower frequency of nearby RAF St. Mawgan! Luckily they hadn’t picked up his broad Cornish expletives, although some of them had certainly been loud enough without the aid of radio. Chris was totally unabashed as always. Oooh ‘ell! he chuckled. Brian got on well after that.

Postscript. I also pay tribute here to Robin Morton, who sadly succumbed to illness earlier this year: a very clever man who had many an aviation string to his bow, including those of gyroplane inspector and enthusiast. At the 1997 PFA rally, stunned British gyronauts gathered from around the country, still reeling in shock two months after the double fatality. We were all in denial. No one could believe it: not Chris – not in a gyro-glider. The latest issue of Rotor Gazette International had been dedicated to him, and featured my unpolished outpouring. I don’t remember much about that weekend, but I’ve never forgotten how an emotional Robin approached me that day and clasped both my hands in his. ‘You must write, my dear’ he implored, eyes bright with tears. Holding my hands close in mutual sorrow, he repeated softly ‘You must write.’

I did, Robin. Thanks to you, I did.

2 thoughts on “Remembering a legend”

  1. Thanks vm for all the Chris Julian info. He also taught me to fly the glider in September 1990, during a family holiday in Cornwall. Tony on car! Birds looked at me from not far beyond the rotor, and huge tasty blackberries at St Merryn… lovely memories. I hope to visit Cornwall soon, and I shall pray for them all, on the wind… safe journeys!

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    1. Thank you and very welcome! Lovely memories. Chris and Tony were the heart and soul of St Merryn, it was a special place at a special time. I miss them all. There’s more to add when I get round to it, I just wanted to put something up for Chris on the day he died. I hope you get to enjoy Cornwall again sometime.

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