Tuesday, November 06, 2007

My early microlight tale

The First Hundred hours (or the first year)

by Bob Thompson

In May ‘95, I spoke to Richard Rawes. He was not only a leading figure in the microlight world, but he also worked about 50 yards from my desk. I told him about my desire to fly, I knew that it would be easy - I had taken off and landed so many times before, on the computer flight simulator! Richard gave me the options - Flex wing or 3 axis. I didn’t really know the difference but the 3 axis looked more like a ‘real’ aircraft with an enclosed cockpit and a tail plane, flexwing or weightshift aircraft look like an overgrown hanglider with a pod and engine slung beneath the wing. I opted for the 3 axis. Richard explained that I could enrol in a course at RAF Halton and hopefully obtain my PPL A (M) in about 3 weeks, the whole cost would be about £1200.

Two weeks later I sold my beloved BMW K100LT motorcycle and had the money available for the course. Richard made the necessary arrangements and my boss gave me the thumbs up for the time off work.

At the beginning of August I arrived at RAF Halton and started studying for the ground school exams. My first flight was a 30 minute air experience the same day. The aircraft was a very flimsy looking AX3 with a joystick in the middle, not like the computer at all. My instructor, Mike Robinson, taxied out to the grass runway and took off. I then realised for the first time that hot sunny days are not perfect flying weather, we were thrown about by the thermals, Halton is surrounded by different coloured fields and buildings each generating its own thermal. I was very shaky after the first flight. But I didn’t know then that the month was to be hot and turbulent all the way through.

I spent the first week studying for and passing ground school examinations in subjects such as navigation, meteorology, human performance limitations and more. I also completed 2 hours and 35 minutes flying instruction which was becoming easier as I lost my fear. I had yet to master the rudder pedals which were not fitted to the computer flight simulator.

While I was at Halton there was other training going on at the same time, the RAFMFA Quantum was being used daily by Dave Marshall to train a number of RAF guys. I noted the standard arguments between the fixed and flex wing pilots and felt obliged to side with the fixed wing or 3 axis people. I had seen the Quantum outclimb the AX3’s over the airfield but I didn’t realise that Dave and flexwings would be instrumental in my future flying.

The second week saw more flying instruction, climbing turns, descending turns, strait and level flying and more. On the Friday I had flown for 2 and a half hours under the watchful eye of Mike when he told me to land. I landed and stopped to find him climbing out of the aircraft, this was worrying. He explained that I was to do my first solo circuit. I had at this stage completed 11 hours of instruction. I opened the throttle to hear the little 2 stroke Rotax engine start to roar and before I knew it the AX3 was in the air, I couldn’t believe the climb rate whilst solo. My mind was occupied with the necessary radio calls until I turned onto the downwind leg, then I noticed how quiet it was, my headset was not saying, “watch your height, watch your speed”. Instead there was silence apart from the noisy little Rotax. I completed my downwind checks with a big smile on my face and before I knew it I was back on the ground taxiing to the hangar. After refueling I walked back to the office feeling about 12 feet tall.

Week three saw a different flying instructor, Mike was on leave. I carried on with my training including steep turns, emergency landings, unusual attitudes and was soon flying my dual cross countries. The first was from Halton to Finmere, land at Finmere, fly from there to Oakly and turn back to Halton, my instructor pointed out that both Finmere and Oakly could be seen from quite a distance away. The next was from Halton to RAF Henlow, this was a dog-leg affair to avoid Luton airspace. On the way to Henlow the weather was so turbulent that I was worried. Over the M1 about half way I needed to change frequency on the radio. On the AX3 the radio was just out of reach for me, I removed my left shoulder strap whilst holding the control column with my right hand. Removing straps seemed a silly thing to do in the turbulent weather despite a height of 2000 feet. I still couldn’t reach the radio. The instructor insisted that I must change the frequency and started to push the rudder pedals to and fro until I had completed the almost impossible task. I gave up and removed both shoulder straps, let go of the control column and changed frequency. I had to recover from an unusual attitude afterwards but was pleased that I had plucked up the courage to do it in the first place and had only lost about 400 feet in the process.

The next week was week 4, my boss had let me carry on to finish the course. I needed to complete both cross-country navigation exercises again but solo this time and pass my General Flying Test (GFT). The first cross-country turned out to be a disaster, because of the wind my compass heading was a few degrees to one side of north. I passed the aerial farm that I had marked on my map and thought I could see Finmere in the distance, but instead of just following the compass I started flying towards what I thought was Finmere. I was wrong of course, so I went back to using the compass. After a while I realised that I was not following the compass bearing to the correct side of north! I looked for towns and flew towards what I thought was Bicester knowing that there was an airfield there which would have been the perfect landmark. I think the town must have been Milton Keynes or Buckingham as there was no airfield. I turned back to what I thought was the general direction of Halton with disappointment. I thought that by taking this course of action I must be able to recognise the Chiltern hills behind the rather noticeable RAF station. After about 10 minutes I was beginning to panic when I passed over the aerial farm again. I realised that all was not lost and turned onto my original compass heading and found Finmere. For those that don’t know Finmere, it is just a small strip of concrete at right angles and next to a road. I landed and went to sign the visitors book. I felt really good, the car at the roadside with waving children helped.

I completed both my solo navigation exercises that week and passed my GFT with Mike Robinson on the 31st August.

I did not have the money to buy my own 3 axis aircraft so I decided to syndicate on the Spectrum that the RAF Microlight Flying Association had just bought, but that was not ready and would not be flyable for a number of months. I joined the BMAA and scanned the adverts, flexwing aircraft seemed to be cheaper and more available. They were also generally faster and more economical. A friend of mine, Mel Thurlbourn, took me for an evening flight in the RAFMFA Quantum flexwing. We flew around the Halton area watching the hot air balloons for an hour, what an experience! I realised that this was more like 3 dimensional motorcycling and I missed the bike. My mind was made up I had to convert my new license to weight shift.

November came and I started my conversion. This was rather an involved affair as I had to travel from RAF Wyton to RAF Halton, a distance of about 70 miles, for the training, and it was only for a day at a time. My instructor, David Marshall, had to travel from his home at Banbury. This led to frustration on many occasions as the weather was sometimes not suitable and Dave did not make it at other times.

The RAFMFA AGM was scheduled for the beginning of November, an afternoon meeting at Halton, and an evening meal for the aviators and partners. At the meeting it was announced that there were to be two expeditions in ‘96, the first to cross the channel and fly to RAF Laarbruch in Germany and back and the second to cross Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic. I duly put my hand up and volunteered to take part in both. The Canada expedition would be completed in three legs - the first crossing the Rocky mountains. I was assured, by Richard Rawes, that due to my inexperience I would not be allowed to take part in this leg, little did I know that I would remember those words at 10,000 feet above the Rockies.

By the end of November I had completed about 7 hours on flexwing and flown over an hour solo. I was desperate to get the stamp in my logbook but the weather was bad and I couldn’t get hold of David. I had intended to syndicate on the RAF Quantum. After all the messing about getting to Halton where the aircraft was based and the stringent RAFMFA rules governing low hours pilots on that aircraft I bought my own. I opted for a Raven X, G-MNJT which was for sale in the BMAA magazine. The owner lived on the North Norfolk coast but the aircraft was at Sutton Meadows, about 8 miles from Wyton, where it had just been inspected for its new permit to fly. After some negotiation I sent the owner a cheque for £3,000 and persuaded Richard Rawes to trailer the machine to Wyton where it was rigged and put into the old fire section next to Richard’s Chaser. I then went through the procedure of obtaining insurance and my crown indemnity certificate (both necessary if you intend to fly from an RAF airfield even if it is no longer operational).

The fire section was ideal for flexwing aircraft, it had four bays each with their own doors. Mel Thurlbourn had made three wooden trolleys with casters on the corners, by putting the wheels of the trike on the trolleys the aircraft could be pushed sideways through the doors whilst fully rigged, up to 6 aircraft could fit in this manner. Richard and I then decided to start a microlight club at Wyton.

On the 15th of January, a windless cold day I announced that I would fly to Mount Pleasant airfield and ask Chip Smith to do a cross handling check. I pushed the aircraft out and started it using the method that Richard had shown me. I taxied out to the main runway, a huge concrete affair that had been used by everything from Lancaster’s to Canberra’s in its time. I opened the throttle fully and before I knew it the machine was in the air. It was climbing so rapidly that I started to pull the bar to my chest, I didn’t realise at the time that I had no backrest like the Quantum had and I was almost laying down. After a few seconds of panic I sat upright and flew in the direction of Chatteris but soon realised that it was very misty in that direction, I turned back. After a perfect landing I taxied back and put the aircraft away. I was exhilarated.

Over the February I completed a number of short flights around the local area. After the first experience I always carried a five gallon water container strapped into the back seat both for ballast and a back rest. On some of those flights I spent all the time flying short circuits to practice my landings. By the end of Feb I had completed 14 hours P1 and 23 hours dual and considered myself confident enough to take passengers. The first was a motorcycling friend Kevin Kealy on the 10th of March - he loved it. We took off and flew over Warboys to look at the old wartime airfield and flew over the road which he takes to work. Kevin was hooked. As soon as we had landed he was on his mobile phone to his girlfriend explaining how he needed a microlight. Kevin is now the proud owner of a Raven Hybrid and a PPL(A) M.

Later in March I took my wife Jane for a 15 minute flight so that she could see why I was late home in the evenings and sometimes at the weekend too. She wasn’t very impressed.,. During the evenings after work I started to take people from work for flights, Pete Willett and Mark Hoggett were but two who are now training for their own PPL. The flight with Mark was most interesting. We climbed out from Wyton towards Huntingdon as we neared 1000 feet I leveled out and looked down to see a Tornado about 400 foot below us and on the same heading. It made me think what would have happened if we had taken off 3 minutes later. That afternoon I managed to speak to the fast jet pilot on the phone, he had seen me and had waggled his wings! I don’t know if he realised what his jet wash could do to my machine.

The flight with Pete was very different, he was terrified. I flew as gentle as possible and had completed only about 20 minutes when we landed, much to Pete’s relief.

The Meridian Microlight Club, as we had called it, was growing steadily. I persuaded the RAFMFA to let Dave Marshall come and offer some training here. It was agreed that he should come for two weeks initially but as the recruiting started we managed to keep him so busy that he did not return to Halton.

Richard Procter arrived one day in his Pegasus Q from RAF Wittering. As he landed Ray Ashman and I were getting out Ravens out. Richard thought it would be a good idea if we all flew over to Sutton Meadows. Shock horror, neither I nor Ray had ventured further that the safety of our huge concrete runway and Sutton had only got a small grass strip! We all took off and headed for Sutton. On the way there it was noticeable that the 462 engined Q did not have quite the performance of the two 447 engined Ravens. After an uneventful landing at Sutton we returned to Wyton and decided to fly to Deensthorpe. This was a new adventure, going to different airfields. If it wasn’t for the guidance of Richard Procter we would never have attempted it, for this I am in Richard’s debt. At Deensthorpe Richard was planning the next hop but unfortunately Ray only had a 25 litre tank fitted to his machine so as Richard took off to continue what was just normal airfield hopping to him, Ray and I headed back on the epic journey back to Wyton all 40 or so miles of it.

At Wyton the airfield is also used by the model aircraft club. On one occasion I was prepping the aircraft for flight when Dave Crang came across from the model aircraft area. He asked if he could look at the machine. I offered to take him for a flight if he had the time. 2 hours later Dave was working out how much he could sell his model aircraft for and what the cost of training for his PPL would be. Dave now owns his own trike and flies from Wyton.

At the end of May I was to fly to Halton in prep for the Europe expedition, unfortunately the day was extremely wet and windy. I waited all day but there was no improvement. I phoned Halton to ask for instructions, Peter Comina, the leader and pilot of a Cessna 172, told me that a car and trailer would collect me and my Raven that evening. Arriving at Halton I found that there was a Flash 2 alpha, a Rans S6 Dave Seeth), the RAFMFA Spectrum and my Raven on the exped, there were also Peters Cessna, a Beagle Pup and a Renault Traffic van coming along for support. I would take Mike Howard as my passenger as he had bent his Quasar a few weeks previously. I think Mike was a bit apprehensive about the journey, my Raven was on the small side when it came to seating and only had a 447 engine while the others all had 503’s.

On the 23rd of May the Spectrum took off and was landed again with the pilot complaining of lack of power, the 3 axis aircraft was fairly new to the RAFMFA and pilots for it did not have much confidence. Talking of confidence, I wasn’t sure that my little Raven was going to be able to keep up with the others especially with two fatties aboard. As we took off to head for RAF Manston in Kent my fears proved right, the others were way ahead and much higher than us. We eventually caught them. I wasn’t too worried at this time as I had my newly acquired GPS and a very experienced passenger aboard. We flew over the M25 and over the Thames estuary, Mike pointed out the various ships as we saw them, he is also a yachtsman. As we crossed Kent the weather was becoming turbulent, every time we flew under a cloud we were being sucked up, my reaction was to pull the bar in, this caused the ASI to indicate upto 90mph at times, the GPS however, was showing ground speeds of 115mph. As we approached Manston, after 2 hours of flying, the others went into circuit to land on the grass runway, as I was non-radio I just followed. The wind was about 20 knots and a little blustery so I kept some power on the approach, as I touched down I had the reassuring voice of Mike in my ears and completed the worst landing I had ever made. Mike patted me on the shoulder and said well done, at that point the engine stopped. We had made it all the way on the top fuel tank and had forgotten to switch over to the lower tank. It was very embarrassing to have to push the aircraft to the hangar after what was the longest and most frightening flight of my life. Mike and I spent some time in the hangar practicing switching tanks after that.

We spent next day waiting for a weather window of opportunity (Peter Cominas words). When the time came to go I decided to fly solo, that way I was only responsible for myself and I didn’t want to put Mike in danger. We donned our immersion suits and life preservers and waited while Concorde landed. We then got the go ahead to depart. The plan was to climb to 4,500’ and cross from Dover, this would give us plenty of glide range should the engine stop. The crossing was spectacular but unexciting, I was amazed by the amount of ships that could be seen. The thought that the passengers on the cross Channel ferries had paid a large sum of money and waited around for hours to cross made me smile, after all we would take 20 minutes to cross and spend £3 on fuel to do it. It was interesting to see the end of the tunnel in France but we had no time to linger, we turned east and headed for Ursel in Belgium.

During this hop I found that my aircraft was trimmed to fly much faster than the other two, they were flying at about 50mph whilst mine wanted to fly at about 60mph. A bit of zigzagging sorted this out. As Ursel came into view I could see the 2 mile concrete runway with 5 meters of long grass either side and bordered by tall pine forest. The Rans landed first with me following, as I came down to tree level I was thrown about all over the place and had no Mike in the back seat to advise. I opened the throttle and came down again, same thing. The turbulence off the trees was causing the problem. I eventually pointed the nose down with some power on and landed on the runway at an angle of 45 degrees, there followed a short spell in the long grass (18 inches high) impersonating a lawn mower and after coming to a halt I inspected the trike, took note of the now green propeller and rejoined the runway. Andy Harvey in the Flash 2 alpha had similar problems behind me but stayed on the concrete. That was the end of my most adventurous flight so far, 3 hours, 140 miles and a Channel crossing. We were all fatigued and hungry. The ground party turned up some 2 hours later.

The next day was fine for flying but we didn’t know at the time that this was to be the last weather window. We set off for Liernu - a small 250 meter microlight strip in southern Belgium about 100miles away. When we landed we were made welcome by everybody, they were amazed to hear that we had come from England. There was a clubhouse which served food and beer and two hangars full of microlights. There seems to be no annual inspections in Belgium, that would explain why some of the machines had had the 400 cc engines substituted with a VW beetle engine.

The club committee handed us the keys to the clubhouse and the hangars and told us to make ourselves at home - we did. Mike enjoyed the Belgian ale more than most however, and ended up being inserted into his sleeping bag and zipped up very tightly, he was destined to have a bad head in the morning. After the bar had closed we moved the tables and slept in the clubhouse. The next two days were windy and wet so we never made it to Laarbruch.

On the third day we turned back and headed for Calais. Again I was the last to land, the throttle had stuck slightly open on landing and as I had no brakes on my machine I was to land long. I missed the first taxiway off the runway and went on to the next. A quick glance behind to check for other traffic sent shivers up my spine, a large Cobra helicopter was following me. I wondered what I had done wrong and then started to think up excuses, “I was only doing 30” and “Sorry I am English”. As it happened he was an American returning from an air show in England. We cleared customs (which consisted of “hello monsieur”, refueled and got ready for the Channel crossing. I took Mike Howard in the back and didn’t bother with the immersion suits this time, I thought that it would make it more exciting. The extra weight meant that we were still at 1200’ over the French end of the Chunnel, we turned towards England and carried on climbing. The lack of immersion suit didn’t make it any more exciting but the view was still spectacular.

While over the channel on the return leg we had lost sight of the other microlights but that wasn’t really a problem as the visibility was perfect. I remembered Peter’s words at this time, “whatever you do don’t buzz any cross channel ferries!”. About halfway across the Cessna came up on out port side flying with flaps down and a photographer in the back. We were doing around 60 mph at the time and that proved to be a little slow for Peter. He put his nose down and went ahead. He had checked that I was behaving myself. As we crossed the white cliffs of Dover we were pleased to find the Spectrum in the Kent sky, it was found to have a damaged exhaust and after repair we flown down.

On arrival at Manston the Station Commander turned up to view the aircraft and speak to the pilots. We were invited to use the facilities anytime. We also made contact with another couple of people who intend to take up microlighting. One of them, Tony Howe, is now training at RAF Wyton.

The flight back to Halton the next day saw us flying through drizzle at times, this can damage a wooden propeller but luckily it didn’t rain hard. We followed the M25 and flew back. There was no reception committee but there again only idiots fly microlights in this weather don’t they. For some reason I was given a nickname at this time - Suicide Thompson.

After the packing and clearing up the next day it was wet and windy and even with 40 hours P1 in my logbook I didn’t want to fly alone back to Wyton. I left the Raven at Halton. Three days later Richard Procter once again flew into Wyton, he put me into the back seat and took me down to Halton to collect my baby. The flight back was uneventful. I spent some time thinking about the fact that I had landed at more foreign airfields than British ones. I also remembered my course back in August when Dave was teaching on the Quantum, I should have started with flexwing in the first place.

The month of June saw me once again flying around the Wyton area, but with a difference, I now had much more confidence, the thermals didn’t worry me and I was flying much more aggressively. On about the 22nd of July Richard Procter and I caught the 747 for Vancouver. I needed to drink a couple of small bottles of wine on the jumbo as I am afraid of flying in large aircraft.

Our brief from the RAF Microlight Flying Association was to try and fly the RAFMFA Pegasus Quantum flexwing microlight from the Pacific ocean across the Canadian rocky mountains to Winnipeg, a distance of around 1700 miles for charity. At Winnipeg we were to hand the aircraft over to two other RAF microlight pilots who would fly the second leg and in turn hand over again for the third leg to Halifax on the Atlantic coast. The first leg was to be flown by Richard Proctor, from RAF Wittering and myself. Richard is a very experienced pilot with hundreds of flying hours in his log book, whereas I had held my licence for 8 months and had about 45 hours in mine. Also taking part was an army chap flying his own Quantum, his machine was without a pod and with the 503 engine rather than the 582 which ours was fitted with.

We started at Tofino airfield on Vancouver Island. The army lads that were with us looked after us very well, they had pitched a large tent in the rain forest amongst the weird and wonderful plants that were growing there, and had cooked our food for us. The first few test flights on the machine showed us that we would be flying over dense forest with no roads or fields to land in the event of engine failure. We took a climbing rope and locater beacon with us so that we could descend from the tree should we have to land into the tops. I am not sure what we were going to do about the bears. Flying here was fantastic. Other pilots had told us about the Catalina flying boat that was in the woods, it was impossible to get through the dense forest to it but could be seen from the air. The machine had crashed during the war. We followed the bare patches in the wood where the Catalina had jettisoned its bombs and located the aircraft. It was a sad sight. We took a local journalist, female of course, for a flight up and down the coastline, she was impressed.

The first hop saw us flying down the spectacular coast for about 45 miles and turning into the tree covered mountains, after an hour we were at the point of no return deep into a mountain valley with no clearings or signs of life below us. We pushed on at 55 mph through a few small rainstorms and eventually found Duncan airfield just where the GPS said it would be. Duncan was interesting as it was on the top of a small hill. The hill was owned by a quarrying company and was getting smaller and smaller, the manager told us that the runway would fall over the side in the next couple of years! While we de-rigged the aircraft for an overnight stop the manager handed out canned drinks, it was the first and last time I shall ever taste rootbeer.

The next leg was my turn to fly, 35 miles of water over to the mainland and through US airspace. This was not as daunting as it seemed - I had crossed the English channel twice with just 25 hours in my book. Richard and I joked constantly, we were whale spotting and every dark shape in the water was scrutinised, I don’t think we saw a real one but you never know. We stopped at Abbotsford and waited out the thermic early afternoon drinking coffee in the cafe there, this was going to have to be the pattern for most of the journey, fly in the morning, wait out the early afternoon and fly into the evening. Abbotsford air traffic control provided a few hours interest and we discovered the FSS office where we were given weather and airfield information. Richard and I also spent some time wandering around the aircraft parked outside waiting for conversion into water bombers for forest fire fighting. The cafe had a British Nimrod squadron plaque on the wall which was left over from an air show years before. We ended the day at our destination airfield Chilliwack. At this point we realised that our microlight with it’s 582 engine was using about half the fuel of the army machine with it’s smaller engine, despite the fact that we were always flying two up and theirs was always solo.

Our stop at Chillewack lasted for a couple of days, sitting in the cafe, giving radio interviews and taking the Army support team up for short flights. The airport itself was a reasonable size with around 150 private light aircraft stored in the open, none of them like our flexwing microlights, however and this ensured a crowd of spectators whenever the aircraft were near the airfield fence. We were accommodated at a local Canadian army camp, it was nice to sleep in a bed without having to have mosquito nets draped over you.

Because we were about to enter the foothills of the rocky mountains, we were now dependant on the weather and winds. Richard had flown in the Alps before but they were toys compared to the 13,000 foot mountains which we would see later in the journey. We watched the weather forecast everyday, looking for the right wind direction and strength to continue. Eventually it was right.

We flew on into the valleys. They were still covered in trees and had white water flowing through them but at least here there was a decent sized road to land on should we have an engine problem, we would have to find a stretch without power cables though. The views were spectacular and so was the knowledge that we were the first flexwings to ever fly the Rockies. The words of the British Airways 747 captain kept coming back to me, “I think you should seriously reconsider what you are intending to do”. At the time I knew that I would rather be microlighting than in his bean tin 747 for 12 hours. We were at this stage heading towards Kamloops. We needed to stop every 2 hours or so because of the fuel consumption of the army machine, our aircraft could have probably flown for 5 hours without refuel. The army machine was holding us back. It meant that there were times after landing when we were waiting for the ground party to catch us up. We spent this time laying around in the sun. At this stage we had ditched the flying suits in favour of a windproof jacket for Richard and me wearing my fleece.

At one point both aircraft were approaching an airfield on finals with a small airliner waiting at the side of the runway to take off. He had to wait for us to land. The army machine landed and trundled down the runway past the airliner, we landed 30 seconds later and rather than inconvenience him any further we promptly turned right onto the grass and waved. I think that pilot was amazed. We parked on the grass in front of the terminal building noting that there was no air traffic control here. The army machine parked next to us and the pilot asked the controller on the radio if it was OK to park in that location, the reply was amusing, “I don’t know, I can’t see you as I’m 60 miles away at the next airport!”.

As we were approaching Kamloops we noticed a pillar of smoke coming from over the next hill, this was unusual because the air is so clean and clear that it stuck out like a sore thumb. We knew it was Kamloops. As we flew over the hill with the wood pulp mill below we called up the airport. They seemed quite amazed to see these two tiny specks appearing in the distance. We landed and taxied to the grass. Within hours the British Columbia Forest Fire Service chief, Mac Morrow, was handing out huge salad sandwiches. This was the airport where all the forest fire fighters (mostly students) were assembled, kitted out and flown out to the fires from.

When we went to set off the next day the ground party had left, the army machine had started to taxy and we could not get our aircraft to start and run smoothly. It was lucky that the army pilot looked back before he joined the runway otherwise we would have been left behind. Richard and I stripped the carburettor down but could not find the fault. Eventually it was decided to call the ground party back, we needed to enlist the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The ground party consisted of a truck and a car. When located and stopped the RCMP said to them that they had two problems; firstly that they were speeding and secondly that one of the aircraft was unserviceable. They were let off the first but had to return to Kamloops.

Mac enlisted the help of a friend who worked with Rotax engines. Eventually a new float was produced free of charge to replace the damaged one on our microlight. A TV film crew turned up and stood next to the runway with their camera on a tripod. Richard and I took our aircraft up and did a 20 foot flypast both flapping our arms as we passed them, we then repeated the exercise but behaved ourselves instead. During the couple of days we were at Kamloops, Mac looked after us magnificently, and took us to all the local drinking establishments and fed us many jugs of beer, as did many local people who had seen us on TV. We had flown a few local people while we were there but could not get Mac into a suit at all, eventually we fed him a few cans of beer as a courage substitute and took him for a short flight which he thoroughly enjoyed. The few days spent at Kamloops were probably the best of the whole trip.

We headed north from Kamloops and passed 100 mile airport and landed at 108 mile airport, it was just a strip of tarmac on a hill with no one around. We continued to Williams Lake. Upon landing we made our way to the FSS office and checked the radio frequencies and weather conditions. The controller asked if we had anywhere to stay that night and offered us his 5 acres to put our tent up and the use of his swimming pool and sauna. He sent us into town first of all to watch the rodeo. When we got to his ranch his wife was calling all her friends to arrange a BBQ for the visiting Brits. We had a great time.

The next day we moved on, heading north. We arrived at Prince George airport to a marvellous reception, the airport firemen took us in and fed us coffee and muffins which they had rushed out and bought when they saw us land. The airport was full of aircraft including 737s and 146s. I offered to take the airport manager for a circuit and found that the whole airport was closed down for 15 minutes whilst we were in the air. The Canadian press found us interesting and we spent some of our time speaking to newspapers and television. Glen, one of the firemen, recruited a friend and took us out panning for gold. We found a hermit living in an abandoned mining village who was surviving by panning for gold, he like all Canadians, was very friendly and wanted to share his whiskey with us. We all went back that evening with a few specks of gold to a moose and bear steak BBQ and beer supplied by the airport. The next day the wind was blowing in the wrong direction and we were invited to the house of a chef who had bought the biggest joint of beef I have ever seen and threw a party just for us. While at the airport we were given discount rates at the restaurant as we were aircrew, and spent many hours at the free internet terminals reading the UK newspapers to find out what was going on at home.

From Prince George we headed south east and into the bigger mountains, these were 8,500 feet high either side, the trees were thinner here and there were fields in the bottom of the wide valley. The flying was different here as the air moves in strange ways inside a valley, the side with the sunlight has rising air and the side in shade doesn’t. To ad to that any wind from abreast the valley will tend to curl over the top and when another valley joins from the side nobody knows what will happen! Richard and I decided to fly about 2000 feet above the valley floor whereas the army machine flew along the floor, we reasoned that if the engine were to fail then we would have time to find a suitable landing sight, or if the wind or turbulence were to affect us there would be room to manoeuvre. The mountains were covered in snow above the tree line. We were heading for Valemont airfield. On the way we passed the entrance to the Yellowhead pass, I flew into it to have a look at Mount Robson the highest mountain in Canada at 13,000 feet. The valley floor would come up to meet us through this bit and at times would be at around 9000 feet. We both looked in amazement. It was to be Richard’s turn to fly this pass as I had flown from Prince George. We landed at Valemont and had a BBQ before it was time for the big one.

We mounted a camera on the wingtip and set off in the early evening. This was the most spectacular flight so far. We flew at around 10,000 feet above sea level with the valley floor 1,000 feet below us and the mountains 2 to 3,000 feet above us on either side. The winds were not too strong but in places there were other valleys coming in from the sides and it is impossible to predict what the winds would do at these points. The Frazer river was below us most of the time and occasionally it was off one wingtip or the other as we were thrown around by the turbulence. The army pilot wanted to land at Duncan airfield half way down the pass for some reason but didn’t. We left the valley and landed at Entrance airfield just as the sun was going down. We then realised why the army pilot had wanted to land earlier as he rushed to the toilet, it must be the water in Canada.

Entrance airfield was deserted. There was a combination lock on the clubhouse door and a notice to say that to gain access you needed to know the radio frequency of the airfield. This was a very clever idea that ensured only aircrew obtained access to the buildings. We went in and fell asleep on the chairs and sofas. The next morning we drank coke from the fridge and left money for it. As we started to rig the aircraft we could see deer or moose around the edges of the airfield. I took one of the support crew up for a half hour early morning flight, they were working very hard and getting no flying time at all in the army machine, it was the least I could do to say thanks.

We flew on to Edson and Drayton Valley. The area to the east looked flat from here but we knew that we were still 4,000 above sea level and the mountains behind us could affect the weather. As we moved further towards the Prairies the midday weather was causing thermals and individual cumulus clouds to build, these would sometimes form thunderstorms. Because of the high work load associated with this weather we flew to 8,000 feet, just above the clouds, here the air was much smoother. At times we were looking for holes in the cloud, the GPS had packed up back at Chilliwack, Richard was reading the map behind me with pinpoint accuracy. He would tell me to drop down through a hole and the airfield would be there in front of me. The interesting thing about the airfields which we stopped at was the helpfulness of the people, a number of the airfields had courtesy cars which were there for the use of visiting aircrew, the keys were left in the ignition!

We left one of these airfields with thunderstorms chasing us from the west. The army pilot was wanting to give a TV interview and meet the local dignitaries and did not want to leave but we insisted. As we took off we looked back and saw the thunderstorms about half a mile behind us! We managed to out run them quite easily.

From Drayton valley it was Richard’s turn to fly to Wainwright. About halfway through the trip we had lost the army machine again, he didn’t want much to do with us for some reason and so we let him get on with it, we decided to swap over, the only problem was that there were no airfields. Ten minutes later we were parked in a lay-by on Route 36.

Richard watched for traffic as I rejoined the carriageway to take off. It is very easy to navigate in this part of the country as all the roads run north-south of east-west so following a bearing is just a matter of keeping the correct angle between you and the roads. Wainwright is a military establishment so we flew to a small farm strip a couple of miles away and obtained permission to fly in to the camp airstrip which was marked on the map. When the permission was given I let Richard fly this hop as the landing area at the other end seemed poor. Wise decision, it was just some grass covered in gopher holes. It was the most dangerous landing yet but Richard’s skill and experience got us down. We were quite surprised to find a pair of RAF helicopters here from RAF Odiham, they were quite surprised to see a microlight with RAFMFA written all over it!

When we left Wainwright our radio had packed up, the batteries were flat and the charging system which was meant for our machine had been fitted to the army machine instead. The army machine took off and disappeared into the distance as usual. The next airfield was meant to be Davidstone but on the way there, with no sign of the army aircraft, we found ourselves heading towards two massive thunderstorms. As they were moving from the north we thought it might be possible to fly between them but the turbulence was so severe that we turned back and landed in a field. We waited and watched the storms about five miles away moving south. The farmer and his family turned up to greet us, his name was Isaac and they were Hotentots. As the storms moved away Richard and I walked the field to check for obstacles. The take off run was rather long due to the uneven surface but we cleared the fence at the end with a couple of feet to spare.

It was getting dark and we were low on fuel at this point, after 40 minutes or so we headed for a farm strip marked on the map. The strip was near a typical Prairie town: railway line, dirt roads and a couple of grain silos. We pushed the aircraft into a shed which contained some farm machinery and headed for the town half a mile away. We had to walk through the long wet grass which turned out to be the home to millions of mosquitoes, when we brushed them away from the back of a hand, another ten or so would settle within seconds. The town was closed, everything was dark. We found a closed cafe and a closed shop, this was not looking good. We eventually found the community centre complete with lights on inside. Once inside we phones FSS to leave a message should the others be worried about us. An elderly man asked if we needed help and before we knew it he took us to his house and fed us. After a night in his spare room his daughter made breakfast and drove us with a can of petrol to the aircraft. When we got there we found that the ground party had been there and refuelled the aircraft. We took off and circled the friendly people waving below before moving on to Davidstone where the others were waiting.

We found that we were behind schedule at this point and on my turn to fly I ended up flying 330 miles in one day! We landed at Lumsdon-metz, Lumsdon-Colhoun, Indian Head, Mousomin and finally Macgregor 80 miles short of Winnipeg. Both Richard and I took a couple of members of the ground party for flights in the evening, this was our way of saying thank you. The next day at midday we were due to fly out of Winnipeg airport to return to UK. We decided that we would fly to the nearest small airfield the next morning, we had found out how to get the aircraft to cruise at 65 mph and knew that we could make it.

The next morning we took off with Richard flying, it was a very sad time, the last 80 miles of a 1700 mile journey. We had each flown about 23 hours, consumed fuel at a rate of around 13 litres per hour and had met so many people. It was sad to say goodbye to the army ground support guys they had turned out to be very good friends. We managed to catch the flight out from Winnipeg with an hour to spare. I now had 65 hours P1 and 22 hours dual in my logbook.

On my return to the UK I found that I was single again, my wife had moved to Bristol. I spent the next few months flying almost daily, it is so therapeutic. I found that returning to my home base after so many hours away had changed my flying habits. I flew Dave Marshall’s Flash 2 alpha with him in the back, he taught me to side slip. This was very exciting and I spent many a summers evening side slipping that aircraft. The Raven doesn’t side slip so well, what I found works was to close the throttle and push the bar forward to bleed the speed away till it was about 30mph and then pull it right to my chest. The resultant dive builds the speed upto 90mph and the aircraft automatically pulls itself out of the dive, 800 feet can be lost very rapidly this way. One thing to note during this manoeuvre is that you should inform your passenger of what you intend to do, I have had many a set of fingernails dug into my shoulders! I clocked up my 100 hours total, one year and one day after taking my GFT.

The Meridian Microlight Club is now going from strength to strength, it is just a shame that a disused RAF airfield is such a magnet to fast jets.

I have sold the Raven X now and bought a Raven Hybrid 44XLR with carb heat, front suspension and lots of other goodies. I intend to restrict my flying to the UK for the foreseeable future, that is unless an expedition to Africa or across Australia is planned.

Bob Thompson 1997


At 1:57 pm, Blogger Riggers said...

Great story, Bob:
The first bit (learning at Halton) struck several chords with me. I learned on the same AX3 at Halton in '93, doing my first solo landaway to Finmere as a fast-appproaching front was coming from the North. At that time, Finmere was inside the active 'UHMRA' (Upper Heyford Military Reporting Area) and I had perhaps 1000' cloudbase, rain showers and an American lady controller to contend with. Fortunately, she was very gentle. Doing a quick turnround at Finmere, I was dismayed to note a large 'egg' on the mainwheel, where the tyre had split and the tube was sticking through. It wasn't me, guv. Gulp.
With the classic RAF line, 'It'll do a trip...' I climbed in and was airborne, the American lady mentioned earlier directing me to climb to 2,500'. She seemed a bit shocked when I told her I could do no better than 900', as I HAD to maintain VFR.
The front chased me all the way back to Halton in time for tiffin.

Happy days!


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