UPDATE: The crowd funded book on Indiegogo, you will get in the post, is now at a soaring 50%!
What an astonishing day driving through the Meon Valley today to Phoenix Aviation in Lee-on-Solent, to take a very first flying lesson with the commendably calm and efficient CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) Steve Cockshott. Out of a perfect misty morning the plumping wheat fields were almost russet as the harvest begins here and the blue skies near crystal glass clear, skirting through lovely morning Hampshire. A very different experience then to the Air Ambulance that I once found myself stuck behind when I once drove to write about Accelerated Freefall, skydiving from 12000 feet in Kent. With little wind, until we landed, near perfect flying weather then, given a touch of royalty at the Argus gate to the airfield too when we learnt that Princess Michael of Kent was nipping in to do some work for the coastguard! Past the old hanger still labelled Overlord, from the war effort, the offices of Phoenix Aviation are housed inside the small control tower and there, with a confident handshake and the remark that he recognised me from the Dragon In The Post Indiegogo film, Steve took us into the briefing room for a quick lesson in Lift, Bernoulli’s Theorem, Ailerons, Control yoke, flaps and something reassuringly called a Stabilator, instead of an elevator on the tail. Basically it makes the 4 Seater Warrior plane we were going up in more stable.
So, when the red wooden model had been put aside, nerves began to calm as we crossed the runway and learned that reassurance is always about knowledge and the intimacy of being hands on. Phoenix have seven planes in all, including 2 microlights, and I was rather amazed to discover that you can reach the level of a solo flight after only 12 hours! But the first real thrill was climbing onto the wing and then into the cockpit, to belt up and don the headsets that allow everyone to communicate with each other and the control tower too. The training inside had taught us the basic movement of the rudder pedals, the brakes just above, you must never use until the last moment and the flaps, while Steve was very clear in showing us how things really and rather simply function. A marked contrast to the bewildering display on the instruments panel, which pilots only glance at, except in cloud, because awareness and real sight is the key, while you must navigate towards the horizon with something through that glass in front of you called a ‘Picture’. So, accompanied by some colourful Hampshire butterflies in the stomach, to taxiing down the short turn to the base of the runway, with nothing but a firm grip on the control yoke and the movement of those pedals. The engine had fired up and I learnt the foolishness of wearing my pointed spanish boots, as too-long toes brushed the brakes but no disaster happened. Then to a sharp turn and stop to check everything, a Roger from the tower and pushing the throttle forward to head down the take off strip. The routine exchange of “I have Control’ ‘You have control’, since every plane has dual controls, had returned that mastery to Steve, since no novice can take off or land, and soon we were near the 65 Knotts needed to take off. Chocks away.
So a novice pilot quickly learns, although there is a great deal to learn, that the art of flying is most essentially about the science, the effect of the wind moving at the right speed across the top of the curved wings, so producing reduced pressure above and the necessary ‘Lift’ to carry the 900 Kilogram Dragon bird into the sky. That you have to both know and rely on, because it is a far less dangerous exercise than driving and a very different kind of thrill to say taking to a racing car. It is all somehow dreamier, more peaceful, far more majestic. Then the enemy of the mind is always fear and an over active imagination, not exactly helped by the remark of a flatmate that morning that the average life expectancy of a pilot in the First War was 20 minutes! Not sure it is true, but no dog fights today. We have all experienced it in commercial aircraft but it is a far more thrilling thing too being in your own little cockpit, in potential control, feeling those racing vibrations and suddenly you are in the air, rumbling up a stairway to heaven, with a propeller flashing and breaking light before your eyes. Up to a thousand feet and then that “Picture” before us was like the most brilliant, dreamy oil painting, by a Master of the world and all there is.
The three of us were heading out across the Solent now, that edges the airfield, towards the Isle of White and the feeling and the day were glorious. The dwindling patchwork tapestry of fields, roads and houses below, the flashing white yachts cutting slashes of cotton white in the turquoise water, the super tankers hulking the flowing sea and then the majesty and complexity of clouds seen at eye level or below. The colours were magnificent. It felt like suddenly starring in It’s A Wonderful Life, as Steve said ‘you have control‘ and I was flying too, gently holding the nose and wings level, with a splendid bit of machinery thrumming around us. You really begin to touch the joy and power though when you start to turn a plane and bank, as Steve explained more about the controls, awareness and trimming, the deeper mysteries of pitch and roll, unchallenged by today’s weather, with the little wheel between our seats. When you are not in control you have you hands and feet lightly on, just to get the feel, especially when landing or taking off and begin to really learn what must eventually become instinctive. I was perhaps a bit stiff armed with nerves, because relaxation is key, but it began to come more and more, as I flew in towards The Needles, that remarkable display of eroded hard limestone cliffs at the nose of the white island and came back in a cloud riding circle. The Dragon was airborn and starting to learn! The sea was dancing flashing horse tails 2000 feet below us, those all important checks were made for any planes around, and much of the time you are simply cruising, able to chat quietly about a forty minute flight to Cherbourg, Steve’s business partner Frank or the 130 members the little club have. Neither are paid for what they do, the essential cost is fuel and landing fees and any extra goes to help the club. The rates are very competitive.
So we turned into towards the grass airstrip at Sandown, maintained by the £15 landing fee and the very English little cafe, in airfields here purely for the benefit of private aircraft. You come into land downwind, as you enter something called The Circuit, the imaginary rectangle that surrounds any airfield, as you contemplate the kind of holding pattern we have all experienced too. No delays in this case. Two other training craft were coming in, although it seemed more to me, and one not very well, but suddenly after forty minutes we were descending again towards lush green grass, like a large croquet lawn: 100 feet, 30, 5 and down, with very little bumping at all, although moles can be a problem. All far less dramatic than landing in the cockpit of an Airbus, as I did on one travel piece, but far more charming and liberating too. So to another little taxi and parking among the other drowsing craft. I think I had already decided, as had Jim, who came for a flight too and to kindly help make a little film, that after our twenty-minute break and cups of tea this flying thing was the thing. The only problem being the cost, which, to hit those 45 hours needed for a licence, can be around £9000, although it is quite a bit less to master a microlight. It was Jim who took the controls on the flight back, as I perched in the rear of the four seater, with a confidence perhaps increased by his own sailing skills and experience, because although the wind rules are different to waves, up there in the heavens much the same principles are involved. His face was glowing all the way.
Actually as we came back to land again on hard tarmac it wasn’t such enormous exhilaration that I felt, that had passed, but a sense of calm and of expanded knowledge too, that once you have mastered all the things you have to take on board, from actual flying hours to nine exams, it would be a wonderful thing to be able to fly and land your own plane, wondering more and more what it is like to be up there alone in the skies and in such glorious weather. Perhaps a little like flying with your Dragon! It was in all a very lovely experience, only added to as we raced home in the car but stopped at old Titchfield Abbey. I had no idea that extraordinary fortified monastery, dissolved by Henry VIII, became the Hampshire seat of none other than the Earls of Southampton and Henry Wriothesley, Shakespeare’s greatest patron. The bard could well have visited a stunningly beautiful ruin, then a magnificent functioning house, and so many things at Phoenix Ark Press seemed to coalesce. A project is flying then and has further to journey too.
If you enjoyed this article and are interested in trying to help crowd fund a book and a little publisher you can do so right now by clicking on HELPING A DRAGON FLY If you want to know more about Steve, Frank and the flying club then visit their website at http://www.phoenixaviation.net/ In the next few days we will edit the film and put it up here and in the Indiegogo gallery. The photos courtesy of Jim Plumridge show DCD in the cockpit mid air over the Solent, on the ground thanking Steve Cockshott warmly and with the wooden model in the classroom.
Come on, let’s all go flying!