Wow, so many memories. Here’s a few for starters…
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 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 on Sunday. 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 dependent 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. 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 Cher 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, and 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 chickened out in that park, I was so scared.
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. After a few days of exploring, we finally 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, while waiting 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 flight 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.
The picture above means so much to me, and Chris loved it too. We made a poster of it which he pinned to the wall in our hut at St. Merryn. By sad coincidence it turned out to be our last flight together. It was a beautiful Easter Monday, a quiet day at the gyro’s nest for once, just the pair of us out to play. We spent a leisurely couple of hours in the sunshine, cleaning and checking over our gyroplanes, happy just to be there doing what we loved. Later we flew across to Bodmin to enjoy an excellent lunch, sat outside the clubhouse chatting about everything and nothing and watching the flying on that lovely grass airfield. It was a lazy sort of day, the colours bold, green grass, blue sky, bright sun. Chris wanted to treat me to an ice cream but I was too full to manage any more, so he bumbled off to order one for himself. Returning to our table, he realised his head was sunburnt: I fished a duster from the pocket of my gyroplane and he fastened it around his head with the two miniature bungees that he used to attach his radio in flight, thus Lawrence of Bodmin was born. When his ‘bocker-nocker-lorry’ arrived (he couldn’t pronounce knickerbocker glory!), the image was complete. I had to get a photo, never dreaming how poignant it would become. As he drove us home later that evening, he looked across at me and said reflectively ‘You some dear little gyrocopter pilot really, Shirley.’ – and reached over to squeeze my hand – after wiping his nose in his palm!
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 Ford Granada, 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. 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.
One of the lovely characters to come into our world at St. Merryn immediately became known as Brian the vicar – and yes – he actually was. He had bought a part built Everett Cricket after succumbing to the charms of the gyro-glider and Chris was finishing it off for him in the workshop. Brian loved flying the glider with us and became a popular member of the crew, always making the effort to pop down between Sunday services. To give Chris his due, he did try hard to curtail his language out of respect for a man of the cloth, but Brian was completely unfazed which was just as well as Chris had more than a few lapses in his good behaviour! Poor Brian, he needed a sense of humour with us lot. His Cricket was registered G-BWHT which I couldn’t resist naming God Be With Holy Terrors. It was Tony’s fault really, a habit that he had started after working out that my Delta-J stood for Better Visibility for Damsel Jockeys. Not sure about the damsel bit, though…
I was at St. Merryn with Chris as an extra pair of eyes, when Brian started the early stages of groundwork and getting acquainted with the machine. In those days we tuned our radios to 123.45 to talk between ourselves, being in the back of beyond it didn’t seem to upset anyone. So with our Holy Terror strapped into his pride and joy, burning and turning for the first time and beaming from ear to ear, Chris began to instruct him over the radio, complete with gestures and arm waving which grew even more animated as Brian remained sat there grinning happily from the cockpit obviously not hearing a word. Eventually Chris ducked under the spinning rotor blades and yelled his instructions in Brian’s ear, which had the desired effect. Chris scuttled clear and got back on the radio as Brian slowly taxied away and headed off down the runway, but there was still no response over the airwaves. After a while, the rattle of an idling Rotax grew louder and in due time Brian happily trundled past, completely oblivious to Chris’s increasingly earthy transmissions – and just as well really – you shouldn’t say things like that to a vicar! Getting more and more agitated, Chris finally managed to flag him down, only to find that Brian’s radio was indeed switched on and functioning correctly on 123.45, whereas his own set had one digit astray. Instead of 123.45, Chris had tuned to 123.40 which happened to be the tower frequency of nearby RAF St. Mawgan! Luckily they hadn’t picked up his broad Cornish expletives, although some of them had certainly been loud enough without the aid of radio. Chris was totally unabashed as always. Oooh ‘ell! he chuckled. Brian got on well after that.
Postscript. I also pay tribute here to Robin Morton, who sadly succumbed to illness earlier this year: a very clever man who had many an aviation string to his bow, including those of gyroplane inspector and enthusiast. At the 1997 PFA rally, stunned British gyronauts gathered from around the country, still reeling in shock two months after the double fatality. We were all in denial. No one could believe it: not Chris – not in a gyro-glider. The latest issue of Rotor Gazette International had been dedicated to him, featuring my unpolished outpouring. I don’t remember much about that weekend, but I’ve never forgotten how an emotional Robin approached me that day and clasped both my hands in his. ‘You must write, my dear’ he implored, eyes bright with tears. Holding my hands close in mutual sorrow, he repeated softly ‘You must write.’
I did, Robin. Thanks to you. I did.
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!
Another one from the archives…
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.
The French show us how it’s done!
I’ve never seen a French gyroplane without tail feathers. Look at the variety and innovation, while us Brits have barely progressed from the Bensen. They’re having a wonderful time, yet none of these machines would get off the ground in the UK – except the little red one without a horizontal stabiliser…
In 1993, my transformation from fixed-wing driver to gyronaut began with an old Bensen gyro-glider. For 19 wonderful years we were based at St. Merryn, a beautiful old wartime airfield on the North Cornish coast with 8 tarmac runways to play with – perfect for glider training. This is where I and many others learned about free-spinning rotor flight, courtesy of Chris Julian and Tony Philpotts. It was so much fun! Such painful irony that Chris, along with our friend Bob should’ve been killed flying another glider up-country, thanks to the stupidity of one particular individual who has never had the guts to say sorry.
Gyro-gliding should be mandatory for new gyronauts. Nothing else can match it for pure unadulterated rotor flight: no engine or instruments to worry about, all unnecessary distractions are removed – it’s just you and the rotor blades. Fly a gyro-glider and it will open your eyes to the sheer power of autorotation. You’ll learn to understand the rotors and their behaviour, how to read them without the need for instruments and discover the very heart of gyroplane flying. In the old days before the onset of two-seat machines, nearly every gyronaut began their training on a glider. Sadly, now that two-seat training is readily available, the glider has been largely forgotten by the ‘establishment.’ Considered an out-of-date-has-been by those with no clue, it still gives the best insight into rotor handling that no two-seater can match.
It’s a long time since I wrote the following piece, but what we did that day remains just as relevant to gyroplane training, and rotor handling in particular. In fact it’s even more relevant these days when newly qualified gyro pilots are so reliant on widgets and gizmos to tell them what they should really know by the seat of their pants.
The 2nd of September 2007 was quite a special day for a young lad who first flew the glider with me when he was only 12 years old. Now aged 15 and tall enough to reach the steering bar, Ed Weaver returned to St. Merryn to have another go. We had a good strong wind for him, blowing about 15 knots just a few degrees off the nose of the main north/south runway. To recap on what we’d done all that time ago, I parked the glider into wind and after going through the preflight inspection together, Ed started the rotors by himself and spent half an hour practicing feeding the wind into them, using the stick to regulate their speed by opening or closing the rotor disc to the airflow. The old RotorHawk blades were relatively tame and docile, but with quite a feisty wind coming in off the sea, Ed had his hands full to settle them down as random gusts blustered through, upsetting the blades and triggering flapping. He did very well and corrected the first kick of blade sail without any prompt from me – instantly shoving the stick fully forward to kill off the wind (a manoeuvre never to be performed in the air, by the way), letting the rotors stabilise before gently bringing the stick back, inch by inch to let them accelerate once more. Excellent handling practice.
Later we hitched up the 115 foot tow line and took the glider out to play on the main runway. The wind was slightly from the right, but no real problem. Ed brought the rotors up to speed, then followed through on the stick as we took off and flew down the runway about 10 feet high, settling down nicely at a respectful distance from the giant dung heap sprawled across the end. I showed him how to use the energy in the rotor disc to reverse the glider back and do a three point turn, as the tow car took up the slack in the line. Being towed back downwind is the worst part, bumping over ragged tufts of vegetation at 15 mph with no suspension on the glider – ouch! By the third take off, Ed was handling the stick on his own with only a few minor corrections from me, and 90% of the landings by the end of the first hour. For the second hour I was little more than animated ballast and if the wind had been more on the nose and not so gusty, Ed could have soloed if he wanted.
As it was we had to wait for the following Sunday, as the wind had gone to the other extreme with Saturday being flat calm. It was also westerly, which meant the shortest runway with more lumps and bumps of foliage breaking through the aged tarmac. The wind was about 8 knots maximum but a steady mild breath this time, so Ed could open the rotors up relatively quickly without setting them flapping. We did another short static session with the glider to recap again, but he’d mastered the starting bit easily, so I set him up with my gyroplane to show him the contrasting behaviour of different blade profiles.
My bird wears Dragon Wing rotor blades which are much lighter in weight and have a more streamlined, efficient aerofoil section than the RotorHawks – and they’re absolute pigs to spin up by hand! With Ed in the seat controlling the stick, I pushed the rotors round as hard as I could to see if he could get them to catch the wind and accelerate. There’s no way I’d even bother attempting it normally, but the wind was docile and steady enough not to seriously upset them, so I thought it’d be a good demonstration – and it was. Try as we might, despite hurling my entire 8 stone bulk behind them, and with Ed’s careful coaxing on the stick – we could not get those rotor blades to show any interest in picking up at all – whereas the tame old RotorHawks had settled easily on the light breeze with little effort. You only get to know a true feeling for the rotors by learning to start them by hand: a machine relying on mechanical drive and tacho’s can’t give you the same insight. It’s like trying to ride a horse without an empathic understanding of the feel of its mouth against the reins.
With another lesson under his belt, we hitched up and took the glider out for Ed to try some tamer conditions. Light winds mean towing at a faster ground speed to compensate the lack of airspeed, which I don’t like doing as we’re forcing the machine to fly. Luckily both Ed and myself are lightweights so we didn’t have to drag the glider along at an excessively fast pace to keep it airborne – which was a good thing as we didn’t have much runway to work with in a westerly direction. With two of us onboard we were lifting off just before the intersection with the main runway (a particularly rough patch to accelerate over), and the car had to begin slowing almost immediately, being some 80 feet ahead of us. Ed flew well, doing everything himself except the three point turn at the end, and after several runs he felt happy enough to attempt it solo.
I strapped him into the middle of the seat and positioned the glider on the threshold, aiming for the smoothest possible take off path between the weeds. I explained what was going to happen and questioned Ed as to exactly what he was going to do, making sure we both understood who was doing what, and no one was going to scare the pants off the other. All he had to do was repeat what he’d been doing all morning (which he’d now find much easier sitting in the middle of the seat) and remember to ‘plant’ the machine firmly on the deck as soon as the main wheels touched down. I gave him the traditional St. Merryn salute, pretending to bite my fist in mock terror (just as Chris had done to me all those years ago) getting a broad grin in return. Perched backwards over the passenger seat of the tow car, I could see the rotors were turning as fast as possible with the glider stationary, and we began the tow with a steady acceleration, increasing by 5 mph at a time. The nosewheel lifted nicely and my youngest student became airborne, flying sedately to the end of the runway and settling down to a text book landing. I ran back to join a relieved fledgling gyronaut on the seat, giving in to the obligatory high-5 (well, he’d earned it!) before reversing the glider round for the run back to the hangar. Ed’s beaming face told me all I needed to know.
What a great feeling it is when someone clicks with the machine like that – be it glider or powered gyroplane – and suddenly realises what it’s all about. Ed can be proud of himself: he has a skill that very few do these days. When new people come in to the sport, no matter what kind of gyro they choose to fly, they need and deserve to be taught the essential basics of rotor handling. And for that, you can’t beat a gyro-glider.
(Thanks to Ben Mullet for the photos)
I wrote this in 2015, after an idyllic afternoon with my gyroplane on a special day. It was only meant as a private musing but it’s from the heart, so I’ll put it here in tribute to those who have been part of our autorotational journey.
G-BVDJ is 21 years old today. It was exactly 21 years ago on a Sunday afternoon at St. Merryn, when Chris Julian took her into the air for the very first time. The pile of metal we had carefully cut, shaped and bolted together now transformed, the process of creation hadn’t been in vain. I still remember how elated I was, how pretty she looked in the sky – how impossibly tiny. There were teething troubles naturally, little niggles to be ironed out over the following months, but now I owned a real flying machine. How cool was that!
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that 21 years later (29th May 2015 to be exact) we would be in the south of France, stirring the air together under the imperious gaze of the Pyrenees. Back then I had rarely left British shores and certainly had never ventured abroad by myself. To actually drive alone, some 800 miles on the wrong side of the road in a language I can barely speak, not to mention towing the most important part of my life behind on a trailer – nah, don’t be daft! Yet here we are, and it’s all because of gyroplanes.
21 years. That little red machine changed my life completely. With the encouragement of the late, great Ken Wallis, I left my home and moved 200 miles to be near our beloved airfield at St. Merryn, where a small group of veteran gyronauts patiently kept me the right way up as they shared their wisdom with the neophyte. ‘She won’t fly’ said the critics, ‘girls don‘t fly gyros.’ ‘She flies’ said my mentors, ‘like a bit of silk.’ And thanks to them and the gyro-glider, I did. They’re all gone now, the gurus whose autorotational roots traced back to the 1960’s, but the memories we made together and the skill they gave me to survive lives on, encapsulated in Delta-J. The little red machine they helped me to create and to master exists because of Chris Julian and Tony Philpotts. Along with Bob Partridge and Les Cload, their knowledge and friendship remains a vital part of the fabric that made me a gyronaut. They fly with us always.
As does the man who has done (and continues to do) more for the ordinary British gyronaut than any other – the unassuming and unsung hero that is Tony Melody. He took this gyro-glider fledgling who some said would never fly, and defied expectations by moulding a bundle of nerves into a qualified gyro pilot. A female one at that. Whatever next! And not forgetting Mark Hayward, who with his yellow Bensen lead us on many adventures, helping to build this new gyronaut’s confidence in straying from the local patch. Tony and Mark, to share your experience and great sense of fun has been an honour and a pleasure. You too will always be part of us.
That little red machine changed my life. Cursed with shyness, it’s almost impossible for me to make friends. People don’t notice you when you’re shy, normally I’m invisible. Delta-J defines me: with her, I become someone. People see who I really am and want to talk – ‘What is it? How does it work? Do you fly it?’ Since I took my first step on the autorotational path in 1990, all the friends I have are the direct result of becoming a gyronaut. People all over the world – many of whom I have never met – but brought together by the love of my little red flying machine. There are people who have travelled many miles to trust me with their lives, learning vital skills while enchanted with the magic of the gyro-glider; even now they keep in touch. I’m truly privileged.
The pioneering spirit that infused St. Merryn no longer survives in Britain these days. Any sign of enthusiasm for the homebuilt gyro is immediately crushed by the ignorant, and with it dies the innovation and curiosity to evolve. My veterans would be saddened by what we’ve become. Individuality is frowned upon and commercial clones have no soul. Even the basic skills are gone, the essential now re-labelled ‘old fashioned’ by those with no clue. But cross the English Channel and a whole new world of possibility opens up, and it’s here that Delta-J and me have rediscovered what we thought irretrievably lost.
21 years of memories, the strong roots that hold us firm as we begin our new incarnation with the friends who have become as important to me now as those of old. On this beautiful grass airstrip of Bois de la Pierre, the Gyro Club Toulouse has embraced our lost soul and given us new purpose. A positive attitude does wonders, innovation and ingenuity are alive and flourishing. The spirit of adventure and shared passion for gyro flight binds us in a strong community that’s joyful to be part of. The few commercially built machines co-exist in harmony with the homebuilts, just as it should be. If only the Brits could be so open minded.
So it’s nicely fitting that Delta-J should commemorate her 21st birthday with a flight from Bois de la Pierre today. A very different landscape from that where we began: huge open countryside with no sparkle of ocean on the horizon, just a colossal barrier of snow capped mountains to the south. It was an emotive flight through an overcast sky as we celebrated her coming of age and remembered all those who had made it possible. She’s more than just a machine, you see, every part of her holds a memory.
Sometimes I just can’t believe how lucky I am – and it all stems from Delta-J. I can’t imagine where life would’ve led me if I hadn’t discovered gyroplanes, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be a patch on this!
So you put in years of effort slaving over a hot keyboard, trying to decipher pages of hastily scribbled notes on what seemed like good ideas at the time – if only you could remember the context. Seasons pass by unheeded as disjointed paragraphs are battered into submission, rounded up and herded into chapters that begin to form something vaguely resembling a manuscript. Life is confined to the margins of the page, scrutinising endless lines of type for elusive errors until the familiar pink elephants begin their march across the screen, trampling the remains of your sanity and failing eye sight.
But you hung in there and now it’s done! The elephants have packed their trunks and the pigs have taken wing, performing joyful aerobatics in celebration. Sacrifice a large chunk of the bank balance for the cause, and the moment has finally arrived when all the labour pains and swearing produces the small wad of tightly bound paper wrapped in a crisp new cover, clutched proudly in your hot little hand.
Do you become the author’s equivalent of a baby bore? Can’t resist touching it, admiring it from all angles, bombarding family and friends with photos of your name on the cover, and regaling them for the umpteenth time how you cleverly resolved Chapter No-One-Cares after weeks of suffering from a particularly obstinate writer’s block. Nah.
Or were you somewhat disappointed that the end result wasn’t as perfectly formed as you had hoped? An important part of your cover design compromised to meet a deadline; the photographs not arranged to their best advantage, another compromise dictated by time constraints. So it wasn’t love at first sight, unfortunately.
The overwhelming sentiment in my case was relief that it was all over. Two months since publication, I still can’t bring myself to look at my modest tome for fear of finding yet another defect slipped between the pages beneath the radar. Post-publication stress disorder – is that a thing? There were times when I feared the book would never be ready, heartily sick of reading and re-reading my own words to catch unexpected mistakes that weren’t even mine, introduced at various stages of the publishing process.
When the first of the several ‘final’ drafts was sent for my approval, completely devoid of any caption to describe the twenty-nine photos, I was pretty much at the end of my tether (quite an exceptionally long and unflappable tether too, I might add). The buffers were comprehensively hit when the amended ‘final’ draft was returned with captions randomly inserted, bearing no relation to the photos that were in the wrong order anyway. Presumably I got the short straw.
But what the hell, the deed is done. I’ve written the thing and there it is warts and all, filling several boxes that represent a large portion of my life savings. Now what? Simply persuade the unsuspecting public that this unique and brilliantly written tale is worth parting with a few pounds to enrich their lives with. Advice on how to do such a thing is plentiful, and for those – let’s face it – vast majority of writers who aren’t hampered with chronic shyness, all perfectly feasible suggestions. Yeah, no problem! Bring on the book signings, line up those interviews, preen and pose for photo shoots and splash them liberally over social media. Me, I don’t even have my name on the cover.
So what’s left for the introverted author who communicates better on paper than in person? Interviews are not for me. I’m very uncomfortable being placed in the spotlight like some strange specimen to be gawked at until something more interesting comes along – which wouldn’t take much to be honest! Who cares what I might think, I can’t take myself that seriously. Having suffered a few such meetings for the autorotational cause when first qualified as a gyroplane pilot, I view journalists with extreme suspicion. Why bother to ask questions, take notes, or even talk to me at all when the resulting articles bare no resemblance to anything that actually happened. One report by a regional rag stated that I liked to ‘land in a field and go for a walk.’ Utter fictitious twaddle! Walking can be done anytime anywhere, whereas every airborne moment with my gyro is a rare and precious gift not to be squandered. And as if I’d leave my little bird parked alone in some random field. Honestly.
Invest in a professional photographic portrait for promotional purposes. Yep, can’t think of a better way to scare people off. What a challenge for Photoshop! Airbrush all the character that is now perceived as imperfection from my ugly mug, and there’d be nothing left. My face isn’t a pristine show home, it’s been lived in for 57 years and the cracks are showing. Imagine the waiting audience deceived by this glossily polished creature displayed on the poster – and then I turn up! They’d all want a refund. No, HD wasn’t made for faces like mine; it frightens horses and hens stop laying. I feel stupid signing books anyway, never know what to write and why deface a nice crisp new copy with my scribble. Next.
Inevitably there’s no escaping the ubiquitous F word: the dreaded Facebook. I don’t want to put myself out there. I like my privacy and fail to understand the relentless urge to publicly broadcast every mortal mundane moment of existence to people who have no idea who they’re reading about, and care even less. Anti social media, that’s me.
But authors MUST have a website! It’s a fact, engineered into genetic code and carved in tablets of stone. An online presence to promote themselves and their scribblings, somewhere to be followed, linked, shared and connected to by other unknown forces floating in cyber space. The lesser of two evils (possibly), only time will tell. So here we are, albeit warily in truth: reluctantly dipping a digital toe into the ether, poised to flee at the first hint of approach.
Sorted. But wait, there’s a catch! Not only must you promote yourself, your book and further scribblings – now you have a website, dear unsuspecting little author – you have to promote that as well! Where does it end? Do I need another website to promote this website to promote the book, ad infinitum etc. etc.
Oh dear. The pigs are on finals…