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