After a frustrating two-year hiatus, I finally got back to the Gyro Club on the 26th of September 2021. Yay! It took a marathon trawl through post Brexit regulations: what can and can’t be brought into France (mainly can’t) – no fruit, veg, dairy, meat, cereal, etc – which considerably narrowed the choice of camping provisions. Next: proof of funds for duration of visit, date of return, proof of accommodation (my miniature camping car plus address of Gyro Club), additional vehicle documentation and a partridge in a pear tree. I even had the stupid new UK sticker ready for my van, another pointless piece of bureaucracy when everyone knows that GB stands for Grand Bretagne. Now, as a French friend pointed out, we appear to originate from the Ukraine. Cheers Boris.

I hoped all the boxes were ticked with the ever-changing Covid rigmarole, and all my ducks were nicely sorted in tidy rows. Fingers crossed. 8pm Friday, sailed happily into Roscoff and joined the queue for immigration praying I hadn’t overlooked some new form or regulation, but… Passport, pass sanitaire – now sod off, it’s dinnertime. No checks, no paperwork, nothing! A weekend living off powdered soup and pot noodles when I could’ve had my usual camping treats of fried Spam, eggs and mushrooms after all. So if you’re going to France, try to arrive at mealtime and don’t worry too much about the paperwork.

Arrived at the Gyro Club on Sunday evening after a nice steady drive down, nursing a failing turbo. All my good intentions about keeping a safe distance in case anything nasty had joined me on the ferry, well, that went straight out the window, swiftly followed by the hopeful theory that kissing was now verbotten. Wrong on both counts, but what can you do! It was a bittersweet reunion all the same. So thrilled to see everyone again and be greeted with such a warm welcome, but a Gerard-sized hole in our midst really brought home the sad reality previously numbed by distance.

At long last I got my mitts on poor neglected Delta-J. She was in remarkably good nick having been stood for so long gathering dust and a generous portion of mouse droppings, although I had left her trussed up like an explosion in a Chinese laundry. Two blissful weeks went by, pulling her apart and trying to remember what I had wanted to do to her two years ago when the time ran out.

That left one whole wonderful week to make up for lost time together, blowing the cobwebs away in fine style. Yet again I thank the veteran mentors who trained me so well on the gyro-glider. Because of them, rotor handling is so ingrained – even after a two-year break – it came back instantly and automatically. What a joyous buzz to hear the rotors sing again! Temperatures were still in the twenties even in October and as usual there was sod-all wind, so it was mainly a matter of booting lazy Dragon Wings up the arse with the pre-rotator to get them interested. They really don’t like warm air.

Vallée de Luchon

But we survived with new memories to treasure. An idyllic sunset patrol with the Pyrenees silhouetted against a golden afterglow, the moon rising in perfect balance as the sun dipped below the horizon. A squadron fly-out to Sabonneres scrambling to keep up with the big boys, not forgetting two memorable backseat rides to Auch and Luchon, a spectacular flight through the mountains that I would never dare attempt on a screaming two-stroke. Merci beaucoup, Eric et Pierre.

Once again I find myself wondering how I got to be so lucky.

A bientôt et l’année prochaine.


Just another vegetable

So many thoughts running through my head today, the day that sees the completion of my sixth decade. I’m too young to be sixty! Thinking of my mum who went through hell sixty years ago, only to be saddled with me. Was I worth it, I wonder. Thinking of my old dad who died last Halloween. My great aunt told me how he had gone home that evening sixty years ago, thinking his offspring wouldn’t be born on the thirteenth after all, only for me to be dragged reluctantly into the world around half past ten at night, six weeks early and the first to actually survive. There might have been four of us had we all lived.

Sitting on a rock in the sunshine it’s a glorious day for a milestone, perfect visibility with a nice fresh breeze that I’d love to get swishing through my rotor blades, were they not eight hundred miles away. Damn you, Moyle. No, it’s too nice a day to be spoiled by the snake. The sea is a wonderful shade of deep turquoise, beautifully accentuated with white breakers lapping the rocks and rolling onto the sand. Early in the season there’s plenty of room at the moment, but soon the locals will be crowded out for the summer.

The last time I came to Poldhu was a very different occasion. A bright and crisp winter’s evening, I walked down to the beach carrying my dad’s ashes in my backpack. It was remarkably calm for February with a gentle swell causing the briefest of ripples in the bay. The sleeping waters shone like a sheet of burnished steel that perfectly mirrored a scattering of low cumulus drifting above. It wasn’t a particularly spectacular sunset – it was just nice to see the sun! – but the evening was perfect all the same and as darkness fell in the chill of night, it felt right to set dad’s ashes free.

So many thoughts today, such a time of reflection was completely unexpected. Chris Julian, my autorotational mentor was killed ten weeks after his sixtieth birthday. I well remember how perplexed he was about reaching the milestone, he just couldn’t get used to the idea. ‘Tiz terrible when you’m sixty’ he would complain in bewilderment. His brother Terry gave him a £50 note to mark the occasion – none of us had even seen one before! – but unlike his shrewd sibling, Chris could never hold onto cash and this was no exception. We were all rounded up and driven down to the Port and Starboard to indulge in fish and chips and mushy peas, with the obligatory ‘big mug o’ tea!’ courtesy of Chris’s £50 note. Poor old sod, sixty was the end of the line for him, but I doubt he would’ve coped well with old age.

I had no plans to celebrate (never do) and the few people who matter to me are all far away. Next weekend is Whitsun. In normal times pre-Covid, I would be deep in the south of France by now, heading for the Gyro Club Toulouse. Normally I would be with my friends tonight. We would celebrate together the five May birthdays of club members, four of us within days of each other this week. I think of them a lot and hope that they are all still there when I finally get to return. We lost founder member Pierre Cena last year, the day after my dad died, and back in July, Gerard fell to a terrible accident that shook us to the core. But he was doing what he loved – what we all love at the Gyro Club – doing what binds us together and makes us family, what we will continue to do, remembering our big bear of a friend and all the fun we shared.

I can’t wait to fly again and be with my friends, to get my hands on my gyroplane at last after what seems like an interminable delay. To spin my rotor blades and feel them come alive on the wind and hear their song, such joyous energy – oh yes please! This is such a perfect flying day, I’d love to go to St. Merryn now and wind up the rotors for old time’s sake and catch the spirit of Chris and Tony. For now though, this sixty-year-old kid is going to sit on the beach and have an ice cream to celebrate my continued existence, albeit irrelevant in the great scheme of things. Just another vegetable in the great stew of life.


After darkness comes the light

And so begins another year of uncertainty. The less said about 2020, the better: two friends gone and my old dad as well, none of them remotely connected to Covid. Gotta love the irony.

No travel to France to fly Delta-J with my friends, no music of the wind through the rotor blades – how I miss their song! But they will sing again. It may not be this year, it maybe the next, but as soon as the chance arises we will spin on the wind together once more, I’m determined of that. Many people have far more serious concerns, and I have nothing to complain about.

This site grows more slowly now, my aerial adventures being herded into a possible ebook instead of just padding out these pages. But the site remains active and always monitored: there’s plenty here to read of autorotation past and present, still much to do and people to help. Positive vibes, adapt and overcome.

Be it on the ground or in the air, stay safe and continue to make the best of things. There’s always a bright side – you just have to find it.


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!

Incidentally, it was the stories of Ray Bullock’s exploits that caught the imagination of a young local tearaway. Later, Ray would help to mentor the lad’s developing interest in homebuilt aircraft. That lad was Chris Julian.

Autorotational musings

And that was that

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!

Random ramblings

One man’s meat…

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 struggling with. Further delving into his generous helping of cassoulet, he was shocked to fish out an entire 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 about as appetising as a pencil rubber. 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 couldn’t catch them…

French gyroplanes

The learning never stops!

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 as 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.

Over the plain: Pyrenees on the nose

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.

The ground will rise up and smite thee

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!

Random ramblings

Vive la différence

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. Hens, geese and ducks waddle and scratch freely, plump cattle, sheep and goats graze peacefully in contenment. 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 teem 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 St Merryn was stolen, 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.

And never fear – they always get their own back!