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Not so different after all…

There’s been a recent effort to twist gyroplane history to suit an agenda and blame the pioneers of the sixties and seventies for the current attitude of British authorities towards our fabulous rotorcraft. The claim is that there’s no parallel with the early days of the aeroplane when isolated people had to find things out by trial and error just the same, with all the peril that entails.

I found this forgotten copy of an essay tucked in the back of a book. Written by J. Courtenay Thomas, it records a talk he had with one such enthusiast from the early days of homebuilt aircraft. It captures beautifully the keen adapt and overcome attitude which resonates with striking familiarity through the early days of the homebuilt gyroplane.

It’s an echo from a lost era so I copy it here in tribute to the spirit of all those like Ray, who helped to lay the foundations for all of us who love to fly. The story takes place in Cornwall, at the bottom south west tip of the British isles.

Ray Bullock, the Flying Man of Fraddon.
The story of a Cornishman who built, flew and crashed his own aeroplanes
by J. Courtenay Thomas.

It was early in the 1930s when it all began, the older residents of Fraddon may still remember Ray’s flying escapades, long before the sight of aircraft in the sky was commonplace! It was almost half a century later when Ray asked me if he could make one more flight in an open cockpit aircraft. He was then a cheerful elderly gentleman, born and bred in the Fraddon locality, with a delightful sense of humour and optimism. I was fortunate enough to take him up in an old Tiger Moth and afterwards he told me of his flying experiences, relating them in his natural Cornish accent.

All day long my lorry had kept me busy carrying grass cuttings for the Highways division of the county council. That evening, I settled myself in my favourite armchair alongside the kitchen range. Somehow I had got hold of an old magazine on DIY flying and in it was an article on the Flying Flea. It suddenly occurred to me that I could build one in the shed at the bottom of the garden. The more I thought about it the more I like the idea, and then plucked up enough courage to ask Mother what she thought about it all.

‘Don’t be daft Father’ she said, ‘what are you going to do with a flying machine, you have never been up in the air, and I don’t think you have ever seen one close up let alone talk about putting the contraption together.’

A few weeks later I made up my mind to go ahead. The advertisement read ‘Send us a postal order for £3.3s.0d and you will soon be in the air.’ The plans were not difficult for me to understand as there was nothing I loved more than putting bits and pieces together. Most of my evenings were spent in the garden shed, making parts and very soon my new creation was ready for its firing up. After wheeling the machine out of the garden I was on top of the world when it started first time. My biggest problem was now getting it into the air. At the time I knew nothing about flying technique, but I felt certain I could handle things.

Very early next morning, I hoisted the Flying Flea onto my lorry and drove the half a mile along the main road running from Indian Queens to Bodmin. Traffic was non existent in those early mornings, so it never occurred to me that I might upset anyone. After all I was paying enough in rates for the upkeep of the road. Swinging the propeller, I started the engine and lowered myself into the cockpit. For a time I taxied up and down the roadway, the noise of the spluttering engine and fresh morning breeze made everything well worthwhile. After a few hopskip and jumps to see how she behaved, I then made a momentous decision. Turning the machine around so that there was a clear stretch of roadway ahead, I pushed the throttle fully open and made up my mind that I would soon find out what the flying business was all about.

The Flying Flea clattered down the roadway, increasing speed all the time and then, on my giving the stick a mighty yank, the wheels left the ground. It never occurred to me that the machine would fly itself, because I was convinced that you needed to move the stick violently back and forth in order to keep her up, just like working the village pump. The wheels kept whacking the ground again and again until, at last, the bottom of the cockpit dropped out, leaving my legs dangling in mid air. I put the parts back in the lorry and it was not long before I was flying again.

This time, I did not pump the stick and found she flew quite smoothly, straight and level. After a few minutes, I decided to turn around and go back home. Making flat turns to the right, skidding all over the place, I finally got the machine facing in the opposite direction, but the roadway was completely out of sight! In the distance I could see a zigzag of black smoke and realised that this was coming from my engine on the way out [this refers to a steam traction engine, not the aircraft!]. Heading for the road I soon found Indian Queens, closed the throttle and pulled back the stick. The machine bounced a few times, causing a noisy crunching on the stone roadway and then settled down, just like a broody hen on her nest!

One day, Mother said ‘I don’t think that it is fair on the milkman, he comes out early and there you are flitting up and down, frightening the horse something terrible!’
It had already occurred to me that the fellow might be a bit nervous, because every time I taxied and flew by him, he would jump down from the cart, run up to the horse’s head and hold on like grim death. Anyway, I went straight away to see the farmer who owned the land at the bottom of my garden and he gave me permission to use his steep meadow, providing that I did not use the meadow when his cows were in feeding and to take care not to frighten them. From now on I used the meadow instead of the main road, always taking off downhill and landing uphill. I was asked by someone what I did about the wind, but told him that you don’t take no notice of that new fangled notion, always take off downhill and land coming up, but never forget the sheep and the cows!

The postman arrived one morning with a very official looking buff coloured envelope marked ‘Air Ministry: Civil Aviation Division.’ The letter read something like this: It has come to our notice up here in London that you have been operating a flying machine in the Fraddon locality and it concerns us that you do not have a licence for such carryings on. Will you therefore present yourself at your earliest convenience to the examiner at Plymouth Airport, so that the necessary formalities can be attended to.

Early next day I took off for Plymouth. Below me I could see the airfield and commenced my approach and landing. This was a corkscrew, spiral operation. What you do is this. Have a good look around and pick a spot to put her down on; keep looking at the spot, never allowing your eye to wander, make tight turns and cut your throttle. When you think you are going to hit the ground, straighten up proper like, and heave back on the stick. Everything when ‘fitty like’ and I put her down exactly where I wanted. Waiting for me was an ambulance, a fire engine and about six officials with anxious looks on their faces.
The senior officer approached and questioned me as to what I thought I was doing, coming in like that! I explained that it was the only landing I knew of and, as he could see nothing was hurt I then addressed the officials and explained that I had come up from Fraddon in Cornwall on the written orders from their superiors in London and that, in my pocket, I had a signed document ordering them to give me a testing. Fishing the letter out of my overall pocket, I handed it over to their chief. The poor man seemed completely flummoxed and told me to stand by my machine and await further instructions.
Rushing back to his office, the official examiner collected all the text books he could find on pilot’s notes, navigation, meteorology etc, and staggered back to the aircraft. They were handed over and he instructed me to return home to Cornwall and that he did not want to see me again until I knew everything that was written in the books. I thanked the gentleman for his kind attention and guidance, at the same time piling the books on my seat, which meant I would be sitting a little higher in the cockpit. Bidding them all farewell, I added ‘Today is Friday, so I will be back here for this testing on Monday morning.’ With that, I headed south to Fraddon. Many months later I returned to Plymouth Airport and got my licence to fly ‘all types of land planes.’

My Flying Flea had a very strong will of its own and one day suffered considerable damage. I don’t think that we ever ‘hit it off’ all that well.

My second construction was a BAC Drone, a far more friendly aircraft, built from made up parts and odd pieces of the Flying Flea. It was a delight to fly and one day I decided to go to the Scilly Isles. The only thing which niggled me was the 2/6 landing fee I had to pay [2 shillings and sixpence]! Unfortunately, the Drone also had a rather short life and was broken up on landing.

Another machine had to be made and this time I decided on a Parnell Pixie, Tom-Tit. This was a high wing monoplane made from parts retrieved from the old machines, coupled with items made up in my shed. The petrol tank was fitted high over the cockpit. In order to ‘top her up’ during the flight, I would stand up in the cockpit, hold on to the control stick with my knees and then, by bending over, extract one of the petrol cans which made up my seat. After unscrewing the cap, I inserted a funnel into the tank and poured the petrol, just like I did for the lorry. The can was then replaced, so that the seat was just right for seeing out of the cockpit. Only about half of the petrol went into the tank, but the rest was very useful for washing down the aircraft.
Sadly, one day I loaded too much petrol on board, making the machine excessively heavy. When I crash landed at Colan, it cost me a broken arm and a leg with the Pixie on top of me. My flying activities were certainly not over and while my limbs were mending I started to build another machine in the shed. The outbreak of war stopped my flying antics for the time being. I suppose the neighbours must have thought me crazy but, if I was a younger man, I would be building another machine today!

‘Did not have a licence for such carryings on’ – what a wonderfully Cornish turn of phrase! They don’t make characters like Ray any more. It’s our loss.

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