Flying as an ‘Ulmiste’ in the south of France is very different to being a gyronaut in the UK. Gyroplanes are a class apart under British regulations: a very special class, which automatically excludes them from any concession granted to other flavours of homebuilt aircraft – and always for a very good reason that no one can actually explain. They don’t understand us so they trap us in a time warp, unable to evolve and barely tolerated. Such a huge contrast in attitudes.
French gyroplanes fall into the microlight (ULM) category – even the big factory-built machines qualify. What a world of opportunity this presents! The freedom to investigate and explore: to try out ideas and improvements, to nip down the local hardware store and gather all you need without certificates, batch numbers etc, and the inflated aviation prices that come with them. It took a long time to get used this new approach after 20 years of negativity and heavy over-engineered 1960s gyroplane designs – I just couldn’t believe it was all so simple – surely there was a catch? But it never came.
When I took my Cricket down there in 2009, it was the first time they had seen a British designed single-seater, and without fail, she drew the same three reactions in exactly the same order. First impression, the exclamation invariably ‘How small and cute she is!’ (like her pilot. Ahem). The French machines are half as big again, with tall masts to accommodate large propellers. A second glance, the glaring deficiency is all too obvious: ‘Why do you not have a stabiliser?’ Basically because our authorities are still in the dark ages where gyroplanes are concerned. I’ve yet to see a French autogire without one and our distinct lack of tail feathers caused great consternation among our new friends, a fire which continued to burn unabated until I was later able to join them in the 21st century.
The third reaction without fail was total conviction that the British are quite insane. And who could argue? Fastened inside the pod of my machine – my tiny single-seat open cockpit flying machine as per British regulations – is a ‘No smoking’ sign. The hilarity was absolutely justified. They do not allow a horizontal stabiliser, yet you MUST have a No smoking sign??!! I couldn’t explain it either. (10 Years on, British gyronauts have now been permitted to bolt a cumbersome and inelegant flat plate to the tails of their Crickets. The ‘No smoking’ bit still applies.)
Flying down there is very different. I don’t pretend to know all the ins-and-outs, my understanding of the French language remains at a very basic level despite all efforts to improve. My friends credit me with far more intelligence than I actually possess, and regardless of attempts to understand pertinent ULM web sites, I still rely heavily on them to keep me on the straight and narrow. I’ve always hated radio and have struggled to cope with it ever since fixed-wing training. While the jargon poses no problem, the mental block to get the words out and broadcast to one and all across the frequency is an almost insurmountable challenge – a hang-up deeply rooted in my general inadequacy with verbal communication. I’m sure I was a mouse in a previous life (still got the teeth), preferring to remain hidden and not draw attention to myself, anony-mouse as it were, but it’s very frustrating at times.
Any attempt to transmit in the French language therefore (as used exclusively on the more informal ULM frequencies), is highly likely to cause some potentially dangerous confusion. And there’s also a minor matter of not possessing a French radio licence. Instead, I rely on observational skills, steering well clear of airstrips to avoid conflicting traffic and only fly alone over places where we have previously been accompanied on club excursions, hopefully ensuring that we don’t infringe anyone or anything. It limits our range somewhat, but just to be in the air and autorotating is pleasure enough – and of course – a tremendous privilege. I never forget how lucky I am.
During the week, the aerial prerogative over the plain belongs to the Armée de l’Air. I’m not too comfortable flying on a weekday! It’s not uncommon to be happily minding our own business at the club, only for the peace to be shattered by an unearthly roar and dark shapes ripping through the circuit, sometimes a fleeting glimpse of fiery jet pipe barely 200 feet above. And they’re always in pairs. The Patrouille de France take no prisoners either. Nine Alpha Jets blasting through the area at minimal height, at least two of them directly through our circuit. A hapless gyronaut would be chewed up and spat out before they even knew what hit them. Even their wake turbulence would be enough to ruin your day.
Climb high enough to possibly avoid being ingested by a passing Mirage, and you could well encounter one of the large military transports that habitually traverse the plain. While these are considerably more leisurely than the jet fighters (and much easier to spot!), you certainly don’t want to argue with them. Having been encouraged to aviate one pleasant Thursday evening by Jean Marie, who casually refuted my nervous queries that nothing fast and dangerous was likely to spoil the moment, I was therefore alarmed by the dark bulk of an A400M sliding across the landscape below us. It was right where I was about to position ready to rejoin the circuit. Well to be fair, it wasn’t jet fast, but it would have certainly spoiled the moment…
So we have Mirages, Rafales, Alpha Jets and their ilk at 200+ feet, the transports slightly higher, and above them a whole host of commercial heavy metal heading in and out of Toulouse Blagnac, a mere 40km away as the A380 flies. Toulouse of course, is the home of Airbus and the remarkable Guppy and Beluga transporters, so we’re basically in their back yard. Stir in a smattering of light aircraft, helicopters and ULMs from the many surrounding aero clubs, and we can have just a little too much excitement for my liking.
Don’t go too high, my friends warn after persuading me to partake of the week-day sky. They habitually fly around at 400-500 feet, which seems like hedge skimming as I look down from the relative safety of 800 feet. My flying opportunities are very limited being based some 800 road miles from my aircraft (depending how many detours the satnav finds), so confidence levels diminish accordingly with lack of hours. I prefer a decent bit of altitude beneath us, a few extra seconds of safety margin to compensate for my lack of practice should anything untoward occur.
Although we wear the same Rotax 582 engine as several other single-seat machines at the club, they (being unencumbered by draconian regulation) sport unique configurations able to accommodate much larger propellers and rotor blades. My gyro being based on a heavy 50 year old design, only has room to wear a petite 52 inch propeller, which coupled with our lightweight 22 foot diameter rotors cannot hope to match the performance of our French companions. Only a complete restructure would solve it. Consequently they don’t understand my reluctance to fly in the high temperature and light wind conditions that persist from late May onwards – we just don’t have the same oomph! On squadron fly-outs, the others casually breeze past and disappear into the distance leaving us to flounder in their wake, my poor engine screaming in protest, temperature gauge nudging the red as we struggle for a morsel of lift in the tropical haze. So yes, I’m wary. If we venture up on a hot day, I’ve learned to stay downwind of the airfield and not stray too far, so we can pick up some lift (theoretically) on our return into wind. It’s not a good feeling when your rotor blades have nothing to bite.
Wind shear is another interesting phenomenon thanks to our proximity to the mountains and those wonderful rolling hills that border opposite sides of the plain. The windsock by the runway is no indication of what’s happening aloft, which is generally the case anywhere and certainly on the narrow Cornish peninsula, but here it seems amplified. Frequently we’ve been teased by the wind coming at us from varying quarters, suddenly losing lift on the nose, only to be booted up the rudder by an impatient gust from behind. One particular time it came out of nowhere and rapidly got very uncomfortable.
We had flown about 25 minutes in clear calm conditions, not a cloud in the sky or anything else to suggest a hint of what was in store, when a couple of sharp gusts gave us an unexpected slap round the chops as an aperitif. Suddenly we were being battered from all sides. I immediately reduced power and slowed down, trying to make sense of what was going on: it felt so abnormal that I thought something had come adrift – but no – the controls were answering. The rudder pedals held firm against my feet even though it felt like the tail was flapping, and engine gauges were all reassuringly normal so mechanically we appeared to be fine, except that the altimeter and airspeed indicator were fluctuating wildly.
This was not the pleasant thermally bounce that we often enjoy over the sun-baked plain: this was a rough and random pummelling that hit us from all angles. There was nothing friendly about it at all. Having deduced that the bronco ride wasn’t down to a disintegrating gyroplane, all I could do was point her nose towards home and gingerly make our way back as invisible forces continued to vent their displeasure on the airframe. The windsock drifted casually at its pole as we skimmed over the airfield and settled on the runway in great relief. The deceitful sky appeared calm and inviting, not a cloud to mar the innocent blue. It sure had me fooled…
One pleasant Sunday afternoon returning from an autorotational amble, we tracked along the runway at 950 feet in a gentle descent ready to turn crosswind over the threshold – only to shoot up almost vertically to just short of 1300 feet. Where had that come from! There was no other traffic around, so nose up and throttle back to trickle slowly into the circuit pattern, almost hovering in attempt to bleed off our excess height. But despite extending downwind, we were still at 700 feet turning onto approach and she wasn’t showing any inclination to come down. I always bring her in higher than normal when using runway 31, as once over the village in the lee of the hill there’s also a thick wooded area to clear on the brow behind the threshold – not a good place to get caught if the elastic snaps. But even allowing for our safety margin, we were still too high.
It was at this point that I spotted Gerard’s Air Copter heading in from the west and knowing he was one of a flight of four, decided that discretion was the better part of valour (us being non-radio) and cleared off out of their way. Scooting back over the plain, I was reluctant to power up too quickly after the long spell of low revs in the circuit, except that I was now getting the horrible slipping sensation that occurs when the rotors lose their grip on the air. Easing up to full throttle as fast as I dared, we were barely holding at 400 feet. All the lovely lift that had given us such an unexpected boost on that same heading only a few minutes ago had vanished with impeccable timing. What the heck?!
I’m not at all confident in my hedge hopping abilities should it all go quiet at the back, and it felt uncomfortably low as we skidded out over the fields searching all points of the compass for an elusive breath of wind. The poor engine worked overtime to compensate lack of lift as we clung to the air by our finger tips, watching and waiting for a chance to rejoin the circuit, finally haring home for a straight in approach, grateful to put the wheels on solid ground. It’s a well-worn cliché, but it really is better to be down here wishing to be up there!