So farewell 2019, and most enjoyable it was too. Highlights being the successful culmination of the Brookland Rotorcraft project: a rare Mosquito gyroplane preserved for posterity, and the place of Ernie Brooks now officially cemented in British autorotational history. Well done, Trevor and Peter! How do we top that…
It goes without saying, two wonderful trips to Bois de la Pierre to reunite with my Delta-J and make sure the Pyrenees are still there. Helping out with another safe and successful annual Gyro Club rassemblement is an essential part of every year. We had all kinds of weather: dramatic thunderstorms, torrential rain and howling winds to searing heat and skies of clearest blue. Delicious flights over a panoramic landscape with the song of the rotor blades in my ears, made even more special when shared with friends. How did I get to be so lucky?
August saw the 20th anniversary of Thenac aerodrome, near Bergerac. It was a pleasure to be part of the celebrations, despite the relentless heat that flattened the two visiting Brits! A fun weekend of feasting and ultralight flying in great company. Congratulations to Marie and Martial, ably abetted by the Patrouille de Thenac.
It was during that weekend that I was treated to the wildest ride I’ve yet experienced in a gyroplane. Actually, I’m not sure it’s possible to get any wilder and still use the aircraft again afterwards. Ye gods, I enjoyed it thoroughly – afterwards – when my brain had caught up with the rest of me! Wow. Having flown with Patrick at Sainte Foy in 2012, I had an idea of what to expect, but that was a gentle stroll in comparison. He has an aversion to flying straight and level in his immaculate M16, and routinely pushes normal flight parameters.
Unlike me, Patrick is a very skilled and assured gyronaut. We’re total polar opposites. He knows his machine inside out and exactly what it’s capable of. The fact he has survived pulling those manoeuvres for all these years is confirmation of his excellent piloting skills, and a real testament to the strength and quality of Magni engineering. No way would I strap myself to a stainless steel airframe to be flown like that. Personally though, I’d be happier if he allowed himself a little more of a safety margin – especially when down in the dirt!
The very generous intention had been to let me take the controls in the front seat, but short-arse here couldn’t reach the rudder pedals and moving them back proved to be a little more problematic than anticipated. Patrick had been busy giving flights all morning and it was getting close to lunchtime, so I was happy to take the back seat, although he still insisted on bolting on the rear control stick for me to play with – not that I had it for long!
Snug in the rear of the high-sided pod, clad only in T-shirt and shorts, headset and sunglasses (no crash helmet), I fastened the lap strap as tightly as it would go. It’s a big regret that I didn’t have time to grab my video camera, what a film that would’ve been. All that remains of that epic flight are the snap-shot images in my head, such as peering straight down at the ground barely a rotor’s length away, with the disc bisecting the horizon at ninety degrees! But what a ride.
The temperature was a stifling 32 degrees C, with barely a breath of air to ruffle the windsock: my little Cricket would have struggled horribly in such conditions. A powerful beast is that M16, and Patrick didn’t waste any time. Barely attaining 300 feet on climb out, he stood it on its tail and pivoted the big machine through a 180, powering back in a low pass along the runway to swing up over the field of sunflowers at the end. We went up, we went down, fast and fluid, our wheels seemingly inches above the dry earth as we blasted between the trees at impossible angles, accompanied by the heavy beat of hard-working rotor blades. No roller coaster could ever produce such a thrill. Supremely confident and smooth on the controls, Patrick was in his element as he handled the big Magni like a jet fighter, twisting round in his seat to give me a beaming thumps-up, which I was delighted to return.
Back over the sunflowers again, we roared down the runway at a matter of inches, using the momentum to swing up and stand the machine on its tail for the obligatory hammer head. Poised in mid air, nose to the sky, the airframe spun like a compass needle beneath the span of rotor disc to point back from whence we came, floating in for a gentle touch down as the rotors expended their energy in triumphant song. Hell yeah – that was absolutely awesome!
One time when staying at Thierry’s house in the foothills of the Pyrenees, he decided to further my culinary education after hearing that I had never experienced steak tartar – and an experience is exactly what it turned out to be!
I’m not a great meat-eater although by no means vegetarian, but I’m very wary of meat dishes served in France as pretty much everything goes in. During one hangar meal on an early visit to the gyro club, one of our small group of English friends remarked on a particularly chewy morsel that he was having difficulty with. Further delving into his generous helping of cassoulet, he was shocked to fish out a pig’s ear! Personally, it’s the pinkly oozing cuts of meat bleeding into the gravy that turn my stomach, as French companions eagerly set to with knife and fork. Meat is invariably served rare, which to English sensibilities is practically raw. Inversely, a request for bien cuit (well-done in carnivorous terms) is regarded with horror by the French as burnt! So when Thierry decided that I was to be introduced to this gastronomic wonder of steak tartar, I was somewhat apprehensive, envisaging a bloody slice of some unfortunate creature with all the fat and gristly bits still attached and flash-fried in a pan for the briefest of brownings. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The kitchen was a hive of activity later that afternoon with great preparations afoot, much to my dismay. They were taking so much trouble to do something nice for me, how could I get through this without causing offence? The table was set beautifully in front of the wide-open hearth where a pile of logs burned merrily in the grate. It was witching hour. The four of us took our places in the warm glow of the firelight – three French diners relaxed over aperitifs in genial anticipation of a good meal – and one cowardly English gripping a fruit juice in a state of mild panic!
Well the melon for starters was delicious and I would have quite happily called it quits right there. Imagination had been working overtime but I had no idea of what was coming, so when Thierry proudly arrived with plates bearing mounds of raw mince and onion, each crowned with the golden yolk of a raw egg, I sensed a practical joke in the offing. He had to be kidding, didn’t he? My companions set about their mounds with a flurry of seasoning and sauces, which they proceeded to mash into a pink and sticky mess. Whaaat??? Seeing my confusion, Thierry explained that the blend of onions, sauces and seasoning would ‘cook’ the meat and egg after a few minutes of mixing. Okaaaay… I applied salt and pepper to my unappetising mound as instructed, passing on the fiery selection of chillies and pimentos, and mashed everything into a pink and sticky mess of my own. It didn’t look any better. After a few minutes pause, presumably to allow the ‘cooking’ process to do its thing (wouldn’t want to over cook it now, heaven forbid!), my friends tucked in appreciatively.
I didn’t want to be rude after all the work that’d been done on my behalf, but I couldn’t help but think of salmonella and other such unsavoury microbes associated with raw meat and eggs – or maybe that’s what the chillies were for – to nuke the bugs into submission. I sent my mind out for a stroll around the block to keep it occupied, and scooped a blob of pink goo onto my fork. Admittedly, it wasn’t as totally repulsive as expected in a raw mince kind of vibe, but ‘delicious’ was not a word that was immediately apparent. I failed to achieve the same sense of enjoyment as my fellow diners, who were obviously in gastronomical heaven and clearing their plates with enthusiasm. I managed to keep a few mouthfuls down before they took pity on the callow anglais and graciously polished off the remains between them, while Thierry very kindly conjured up a plate of fried eggs for me instead. France 1, England 0.
Snails. Why would anyone willingly eat snails? How deep would the hunger pangs have to run before throwing a snail in the pot? Strangely, slugs are not revered in the same way as far as I’m aware. Slugs presumably return home after a hard day in the vegetable patch, whereas snails park up wherever the fancy takes them – the caravan clubbers of the mollusc world. In terms of food, snails are filed under the same pointless category as oysters. And are those unfortunate creatures still alive when they get swallowed? Doesn’t bear thinking about.
‘You have never had snails!’ came the cry of disbelief. Oddly it was Thierry again. ‘Cover them in garlic butter, mmm delicious’ he enthused. Right, so clearly the garlic butter provides all the flavour to detract from chewing on a slimy garden mollusc with the consistency of a rubber tyre. Fine, so we can dispense with the snail and I’ll just take the garlic butter, please. ‘But you must try them, they are a delicacy!’ Oh god.
My French friends are the best in the world. Thierry disappeared that afternoon on a special mission to provide a banquet of l’escargots for my delectation. I was mortified. If the steak tartar had made me nervous, the thought of chewing on a snail filled me with horror. How could I swallow it without throwing up! Now I have no problem at all with snails in ordinary every day life: I pluck them from harms way lest an inattentive boot or tyre shatter their leisurely progress, and cringe with genuine remorse at the sound of an unseen shell cracking beneath my foot. I’m fine with snails – just don’t want them on my plate is all.
Thierry was gone for over an hour, leaving me to stew queasily over the impending rubbery feast. I really wasn’t happy, fixated by the thought of their eyes, those oozing stalks extending like periscopes from the slimy body – ew! But salvation was at hand. My good-hearted friend returned empty handed, lamenting the lack of suitably fresh molluscs with which to expand my gastronomical education, and although frozen specimens were readily available (the mind boggles) they just didn’t cut the mustard in comparison. I hid my disappointment with some difficulty. What a relief, that really wouldn’t have ended well!
I’m not sure Thierry was being completely honest though – I reckon he just couldn’t catch them…
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. 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 my 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’m well aware of 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 Alphajets 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, Alphajets 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 thirty miles 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 late 1960s 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 the French. 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 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 with 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 a slap around the face 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 and the pedals held firm against my feet, even though it felt like the rudder was flapping. Engine gauges were all reassuringly normal, so mechanically we appeared to be fine but 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 that he had flown out in company with three others, 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!
Driving down through the back roads of France, I never fail to be struck by just how massive a country it is. You can literally go for miles (or kilomètres) and not see a soul. Tiny communities appear without warning, widely scattered in the vast rural countryside. Narrow streets deserted, tightly bordered by higgledy-piggledy houses with windows invariably shuttered to the outside world. A cloud of dust hanging in the air marks a distant tractor at work, the only hint of life. Fields stretch as far as the eye can see, a rich palette of colours packed full with nature’s bounty. The bright scarlet of wild poppies enhance pale golden swathes of cereal, a timeless memorial to the blood spilled for this now peaceful land. The vine-covered slopes display every verdant hue, and the vibrant yellow of hemp and sunflower adds a joyous touch against a wide canvas of the bluest sky. And everywhere you look, there’s food.
No space is wasted. Plump cattle and goats graze serenely on lush grass, while hens, geese and ducks waddle and scratch freely in contentment. Woods and forest shelter plentiful game: pigeon, rabbits, pheasants and elusive deer. Scars of raw earth attest to the transient foraging of wild boar. Trees and hedges offer fruit, nuts and berries, and rivers team with fish – food just comes up and taps you on the shoulder. It’s no wonder the French take such pleasure from dining. How different to my tiny sceptred isle, bursting at the seams with a population it can no longer sustain. It’s said that any society is only a few meals away from anarchy, but while the proud and volatile French never shy from protesting their rights, they have no fear of starvation in this abundant land.
So when a scrawny 48 kilo anglais arrives in their midst, chaos naturally ensues. Not programmed to eat multiple-course meals at set hours, I (like many Brits) graze on the hoof when prompted by a demanding stomach. Not hungry, don’t eat. This causes total bewilderment to my French friends (and I love them dearly!), but when time is as limited as mine always is down there, I don’t want to waste it sitting around eating, especially if I’m still stuffed to the gills from the previous meal. There’s no such thing as a quick snack!
This is actual heresy. Twice I was rounded up from the flight line where I was happily filling my camera with unique and wonderful rotorcraft, and herded protesting to the dining table to fill my poor tum instead. Five courses halfway through the day when temperatures were hovering around the high end of the twenties was more than I could – er – stomach. Consequently when corralled for the evening meal, I just couldn’t manage another morsel. Quelle horreur! This was beyond all comprehension bless them, they just didn’t understand. Was I ill? Did I not like what was on offer? Would I prefer to have something else cooked? Some cheese then? Perhaps a slice of apple tart? I absolutely know they meant well, but it was relentless. It was mealtime – how could I possibly not want to eat?
The last day of my stay before heading north coincided with a large family function, a feast to which I was also kindly invited. Not wishing to intrude and having been under their feet for two weeks already, I thought to slip away early and leave them in peace while I spent the precious final day with my gyroplane. Caught in the act of escape that morning, I was actually pursued down the length of the driveway by a frowning countenance scolding me not only for missing breakfast, but declining to take half the contents of the fridge with me for lunch! Munching a snack with one hand while engaging in something more useful with the other is a totally alien concept to my friends, and I – their only experience of a captive anglais – am disturbingly alien at times.
Eating in France is a very sociable affair. Everyone gathers round à la table for several hours to share the pleasures of dining – and to which I conform to please for most of the time. While they really appreciate their food and make great effort over the most casual meal, that’s not to accuse them of gluttony in any way, shape or form. It’s just a very different culture to the heathen British, whose idea of a picnic is a packet of supermarket sandwiches and maybe a bag of crisps, washed down with a can of pop. After 14 years, I’m still amazed by the amount of food we routinely hike up a Pyrenee as my biannual treat when visiting the gyro club. It seems absurd to my culinary-uncultured English mind to haul the weight of a large loaf, boiled eggs, lettuce, shredded carrot, sardines, cheeses, tomatoes, ham, sausage, cake, biscuits, pots of yoghurt or crème dessert – and don’t forget the two bottles of wine, flask of coffee and two bottles of water! Cups, plates, cutlery and condiments are crammed into any remaining corner and lugged up a mountain for an average three and a half hour trek by the four (and occasionally five) participants. The first time I helped them pack for a pique-nique, I genuinely thought they were joking. To be fair, on the last hike they did limit themselves to one bottle of wine. Like I said, I love these guys! Scrambling up a Pyrenee aching in every limb to feast beside a thundering waterfall of purest melted snow – in an avalanche zone with several hundred tons of rock poised overhead – it really puts life into perspective. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Great friends, I’m so lucky. They are comical though and no doubt, I unwittingly am as equally entertaining to them! The opportunities for misunderstanding are endless, especially with the strong regional accent which I’ve now learned to differentiate from the northern tones of my audio language lessons. In one particular instance, I was slightly confused by Pierre inquiring if I ate mice, as he proffered a rumpled paper bag. All became clear as he unfolded the top to reveal not a seething mass of rodents, but a wealth of crimson cherries freshly gathered from his garden. To me it sounded like souris, when he was actually saying cerises. It’s a minefield! The boot was firmly on the other foot one evening, when two pals dissolved into laughter after asking me what I was doing outside the hangar. I was sure I had replied correctly that I was watching the bats (chauve-souris), but what they heard was not bats – but chaud-souris – hot mice! It just adds to the fun.
A breathalyser is kept at the gyro club to be produced before heading home of an evening, should the conviviality have surpassed itself. Often they have to wait around and drink coffee for a bit until the levels of alcohol subside. Jean Marie was among those who failed the test one evening after an impromptu session, although none of them were drunk by any means. After half an hour of coffee, he was still considerably over the limit and it was already past midnight – so he handed me the keys. Me who doesn’t drink, but me with no insurance for his vehicle, and me who had only driven a left-hand drive very briefly once before. Despite being half asleep and unsuccessfully (yet repeatedly!) trying to change gear with the window winder, we made it home through the dark at snail’s pace, remarkably unscathed. I was more of a liability than he was, but the logic was exquisite.
I never hoped to find the same camaraderie and grass roots gyroplane enthusiasm again after the loss of St Merryn, but the lovely folk of Bois de la Pierre have accepted us unconditionally which I find extremely touching. It’s an absolute privilege to be with them.
Norman Surplus is a very brave man. Having overcome a life-theatening battle with bowel cancer, he went out and learned to fly a gyroplane, shortly after which, in 2010 he promptly set out to fly it around the world. After many setbacks that would have thwarted a lesser individual, Norman and G-YROX returned safely to the playing field in Larne, Northern Ireland, from where they had taken off on their epic adventure, five years earlier.
I will never forget being glued to the little dot that represented Norman’s GPS tracker, watching it cross from the American continent to Greenland, all the way down the coast of that inhospitable terrain and over the dangerous waters of the north Atlantic, willing it on to the relative safety of Iceland. I was at my desk supposedly at work, flicking rapidly between the multiple databases of military logistics and Norman’s website, unable to tear myself away from the magnetic pull of his progress. Then the long awaited final stretch, down from Iceland to Scotland and back across to Larne, triumphant!
All alone around the world. A microscopic dot above the heartless expanse of oceans, mountains and tundra, wholly dependant on a single engine in an open cockpit machine with the gliding ability of a house brick. To say that Norman Surplus is a very brave man, doesn’t do him justice.
It was hell of a trip that he made, setting several world records in the process, but due to political and bureaucratic complications, pieces of the puzzle were missing. There were unavoidable gaps in his achievement. But not anymore. Accompanied by another gyroplane pilot who is trying to equal their success, Norman and G-YROX have crossed the vast expanse of Russia and this week they have reached the Pacific coast. Fantastic effort! And they’re not done yet.
Norman is raising money and awareness for his cancer charity. Please support him and give a donation to the cause.
May 4th 2008 was the day that I first ventured onto foreign shores in my own vehicle. As usual, gyroplanes were the cause of all the trouble! Three times previously I had visited the annual gyro meet at Bois de la Pierre, near Toulouse in the south of France, and was seriously inspired to make the trip with my own gyroplane one day. It’s heck of a long way down by road and never having driven abroad in a language I can barely speak, I thought it best to see if I was actually capable before exposing my precious flying machine to continental traffic. It went something like this…
After leaving Portsmouth at 23.00 for an exceptionally smooth Channel crossing, the Norman Spirit arrived bang on time in a sunny Le Havre, at 8am Sunday morning. Having passed a somewhat restless night randomly sliding out of my reclining seat, I was an excited bundle of nerves as I watched the ship manoeuvring herself into the dock. The nagging thought occurred as I took in my first view of a deserted France, that here I was, alone on a huge continent hundreds of miles from home, and still many hundreds more from the few people I knew in-country, none of whom spoke English! Matters were not improved when reunited with my little van down in bowels of the ship, I tried to get a fix on the satnav to help us find our way back in twelve days time. Not surprisingly, shielded as we were by several tons of metal, not one satellite made itself known before we were unceremoniously swept into France on a tide of disembarking vehicles. It was all I could do to concentrate on staying to the right side of the road and avoid any turnings that would potentially lead to motorways. I had no idea which way to go – my carefully prepared route out of the city bore no relation to anything I could see. Momentum and fear alone took us through empty streets, until by chance I spotted a nearby park and headed towards it with the desperation of a drowning man to a straw. We’d only been driving for a matter of minutes, but already I felt completely wrung out and seriously doubting my ability to make this trip.
A few people were starting to appear on the streets and dog walkers strolled through the park in the early sunlight. No one paid us any attention but strangely I felt very conspicuous sat there, obviously a foreigner with our UK plates and right hand drive. I ate a few biscuits for breakfast and tried to calm down, mentally taking myself by the scruff of the neck to either sort it out, or spend two weeks in Le Havre and miss the highlight of the year. Well – when I put it like that! We were close to a main trunk road and I could see a big sign, from which I deduced that we were in a suburb called Harfleur. The satnav tried again to find some satellites to talk to and after a worryingly blank few minutes, finally locked on to some healthy signals. I gathered what remained of my shattered wits and began to pick out a route on the map. Given the mind-bogglingly massive size of France, along with its metric measurements, I had no clear idea of timescale other than to arrive at Bois de la Pierre on Thursday evening, preferably via Millau to see the new bridge if I could find it. It looked heck of a long metric way away.
Somewhat calmer now that we had satellite assistance, I took inspiration from a certain book and decided to take it stage by stage (or rather page by page) and tackle the journey in short hops, giving wide berth to any area that looked large, urban and complicated. Three years earlier as a passenger along with my companions, we’d followed a mainly motorway almost due south route which I still basically remembered. Now I was pilot in command, I wanted to stick to smaller quiet roads and take a more easterly track than before – but we had to start somewhere. I programmed the satnav for a Rouen direction avoiding motorways like the plague (the actual option available was somewhat less explicit, unfortunately), took a deep breath and gingerly pointed the van back towards civilisation.
I’ve never used a satnav before, but then I’d never driven outside of the UK before and had been really worried about forgetting to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, especially at roundabouts and junctions. After the initial terror of disembarking, however, I settled relatively quickly into the new regime and tucked the offside wheels into the right hand kerb with determined intimacy – I wasn’t going to overtake for anything! There were plenty of other hazards to worry about. The satnav was purely an audio aid, as being fully occupied with trying to remember speed limits in kilometres and concentrate on the inner dial of the speedo so as not to lapse into mph, I didn’t dare risk the distraction of trying to follow the display. Overhead traffic lights were a new and startling concept – never expecting to see them up there – and frequently didn’t! It was a good thing that the roads were still quiet as I began to learn about continental driving the hard way.
We wound our way through a housing estate, bouncing over speed ramps and gradually emerged into open country. A huge modern concrete bridge towered above us carrying the motorway towards Paris. I began to feel a bit better as we left the ‘burbs behind, taking it steady, totally dependant on the satnav to guide us. So it was, about an hour later that we found ourselves directed into a small and lifeless industrial estate and ordered to ‘take the ferry’ to which the immediate response was what ferry??? I drove round the block in all possible directions, but there was a definite lack of water and no signs to indicate anything remotely nautical, so I parked on some waste ground next to a cluster of recycling bins to have words with my navigator. Further requests for a Rouen type course were met with repeated instructions to ‘take the ferry,’ but the onscreen directions didn’t seem to know where this mythical vessel was either. Faced with implacable computer logic, I studied the map once more, chose a different aiming point in the same direction as Rouen and what d’you know, the obsession with imaginary ferries vanished.
It was not yet mid morning but the heat was relentless. Making our way into a deserted narrow town, I stopped at a T-junction where the main traffic lights had been replaced by a temporary set. A red light was showing and suddenly a flashing amber lit up beneath it. There was no green light. I remembered that flashing amber meant proceed with caution – but red for stop and flashing amber at the same time could seriously confuse a stupid person! Fortunately the only other car on the road appeared behind us and its impatient beep was encouragement enough to proceed.
A love/hate relationship began to develop with the satnav after being directed the wrong way up several one way streets, or catapulted onto a peage when I’d programmed to avoid motorways: my stress levels rocketed as we were funnelled into a row of automated barriers from which there was no escape, and all naturally arranged for the convenience of left-hand drive vehicles. Switching off the engine, I grabbed the keys and ran round to the machine on the passenger side, which spat out a ticket and immediately raised the barrier as I scuttled back to start the van, expecting a karate chop to the roof in punishment for my tardiness as we squeaked through. Then I had to do it all again to get off at the next exit! Imagine that with the gyro on the back as well.
Street markets (of which there are many in France) and diversions completely flummoxed the satnav, eliciting repeated demands of Turn around when possible in a tone that seemed to get more and more irate. The stubborn device was determined to herd us back to the barricaded road, until I learned to head off in the nearest available direction until the querulous voice finally fell silent after several miles and grudgingly worked out a new route. No doubt the total mileage was substantially increased by frequent unplanned excursions into the wilds, trusting to the whims of my electronic companion – I had no idea where we were most of the time – but I would never have made it by map reading alone. My little van has been in places it was never meant to go!
I copy the following from notes written on my very first evening alone in France, under my own steam…
After the fear and stress of today, my first solo journey in foreign lands, a simple lay-by provides a tranquil oasis and I feel completely at ease now. Clear bird song echoes all around and only the occasional grumble of passing traffic disturbs the scene. The sun’s rays are gentle now after the searing heat of the day and I’m sitting at a concrete picnic bench bathing in its warm glow, watching the birds busy feasting on the insects that swarm all around. Beautiful trees shade my little van; not tall but bushy with small, dark crimson leaves shaped like the Canadian Maple. To my left, a thick green wood runs down the valley. The river Dordogne maybe ¾ mile away, like a swathe of the palest blue silk winding its way through the fields. Pastel shaded meadows are lined with verdant woods of rich deep greens. A town on the opposite bank provides the only eyesore of industrial units. A wonderful old manor house nestles at the foot of the hill below me, almost Cotswold stone in colour, but classic French style. A row of arched Gothic windows and one large round one like a Tudor rose makes me wonder if it’s a priory of some sort (driving on next morning, I find a nearby signpost – it is indeed, an abbey). A grand avenue of sturdy trees line the drive, their foliage and lower branches all neatly levelled bringing to mind a row of fair weather cumulus. Heavy white cattle graze the meadows, plump and content. Bright yellow patches of hemp in the distance recall the day’s drive down through northern France, and the huge open fields of startling yellows and greens. Are those trees Copper Beeches, I wonder. Mum would’ve known – and how she would’ve loved this adventure! A terrible waste to have all this beauty to myself and no one to share it with. The grass is thick with buttercups and daisies, and just a touch of warm breeze brings a scent of pollen to the nostrils as it ruffles their delicate coloured heads. The sun is slowly working its way around to the west, but any fiery display will be hidden behind the hill down which we came to rest. Very tired now, a stressful day but here we are 300 miles on fuelled by fear and momentum alone, yet no major carnage so far. At least I have some idea of what to expect now – unlike this morning! I almost bottled it in that park, I was so scared. Those overhead lights are a worry, I so nearly missed several sets today.
I well remember how terrified I was that first day abroad all alone – and the huge sense of achievement on arriving in Millau the following day, seeing the delicate web of the viaduc spanning the gorge above the town. We made it to Bois de la Pierre, my little van, the satnav and me, and the next year we did it all again with my gyroplane hitched on behind. I was so chuffed with myself!
We’re going again next week. My little van, the satnav and me…
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 GazetteInternational 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.’
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!
Sitting here on a deserted Cornish airfield, I feel totally at peace; deeply connected to those who have gone before, their echoes never leave. The sky above is deep blue, gently fading to paler shades towards the horizon, decorated by a few feathery wisps and blobs of cloud. The faded windsock barely stirs in the warm breath of air and hangs limply from its pole like a wilted flower. Directly overhead, the sun is briefly filtered by a passing cloud, a fierce white orb burning through the depths of downy fleece. All is quiet except for the drone of insects going about their business, the cheerful twitterings of skylarks feeding on the wing and crickets chirping in the grass. Hay bales dot the fields between the runways, silent sentinels waiting patiently for collection. Rabbits creep into vision from burrows deep inside the bramble thickets, cropping the sun-browned grass ever shorter. The brambles that shield their homes are heavy with ripening blackberries, almost covering the blockwork of the old air raid shelter in front of me.
Delta-J is parked beside me, her bright red pod a splash of colour amid the late summers day. Her tank is full and she’s all checked out ready to go, but I’m in no rush to fly, happy just to be here in the place I love beyond all other, enjoying the solitude. The old tower building which houses our hangar stands tall behind me, empty sightless windows gazing out into the infinite blue. It’s too nice to spoil the moment with engine noise, the spell would be broken. Respect the silence while it lasts. I hate the thought that one day this precious oasis of mine will be gone, all the history destroyed by voracious construction, buried under carpets of tarmac and concrete. Greedy eyes covet this wonderful open space and dream of filling it with caravans, holiday homes or supermarkets. Sacrilege. Leave it alone, true to the purpose it was made for. What it is with humans? Ravaging the Earth, hell bent on destruction, never satisfied until the last square inch has been plundered and desecrated, lost forever. I hate my species.
Around the side of the tower, a microcosm of time triumphs over us puny creatures. It restores my balance and I treasure it, a shield to ward off the inevitable fate. Nature has all but reclaimed what was once the signal square, a thick carpet of ivy bars my path, choked with briar, gorse and nettles. A hurried rustling in the undergrowth as rabbits take fright at my footsteps and bolt for the safety of their holes. Rusted iron rings that once secured the bracing wires of the signal mast are still embedded in the concrete beneath the derelict red brick tower – if you know where to look amongst the foliage which has encroached a good ten feet over the past few years. Homo sapiens are insignificant in the great scheme of things, our existence a mere blink of the eye, a virus on the face of our planet to be shrugged off like a dose of the flu. Nature will prevail, time is on her side.
It’s hot now. The turbines on the hill overlooking the airfield turn half heartedly like unwound clocks, each one pointing in a random direction as if uncertain of which way to go. The huge blades move lazily as if the effort of turning is all too much. St Eval church squats on the horizon to the right, the spider web of aerials marking St Merryn’s wartime twin, not yet under the threat of destruction – not since the war anyway. Fields of russet and green patchwork the land in between, rising up to meet the perfect blue of the sky. Lines of golden hay bales dot the landscape like giant swiss rolls. It’s too peaceful to fly today. Let it be.