This rambles all over the place... it's a little bit more'ish, ie. the more I write, the more I remember, the more I write.

 

I learnt to fly in Missouri at 22 and after getting my PPL I was offered a job as a crop spraying pilot, complete with Green card. The one man band business was in Louisiana, or some such, and the chap desperately needed someone, anyone. He didn't mind whether I had a commercial licence or not. Unfortunately, crop spraying pilots kept dying (hitting things like telegraph poles, etc) and I didn't particularly like that idea, hence I turned down the opportunity in favour of returning to blighty.

 

My parents subsequently volunteered to fund my commercial training, but I was too proud and stupid to accept their cash. And with hindsight that was probably one of my larger mistakes.  

 

I saved up the money I needed and came back to flying at 30. I started down the US commercial route with the intention to fly in Africa and build experience in bigger aircraft before converting my licences to the more expensive UK variants. Unfortunately, I realised that I missed my girlfriend and vowed my undying love to her during a transatlantic phone call. I subsequently switched to the UK licences as soon as I could. Ultimately, I got my IMC, Night, Multi Engine ratings and built up 250 hours in Cessna's whilst in Florida.

 

A part of that included doing a "long cross country flight" in order to tick the requirements of the US commercial course, and I took a single engined Cessna through the Bermuda Triangle to the Bahamas. On the return trip I was allowed to fly along the runway at Cape Canaveral (where the Space Shuttle used to land). It was after midnight, the skies were pitch black, and it was a fabulous experience. 

 

Sadly, upon returning to the UK, a recurring corneal ulcer got in the way of my commercial ambitions, and I binned flying in favour of a ‘proper job’. Joanna and I didn't last, unfortunately. 

 

In my early forties the eye had settled down and I bought India Zulu. She’s a microlight and I named her after one of my more fiesty ex-fiances, Samantha. Her nickname was Samson & that was the label I gave India Zulu. I’ve flown her to Canada, the Alps, and the Middle East. She and I (all aircraft are female) won the GPS category of the Round Britain Microlight Rally. I was lucky enough to be awarded both the Britannia Trophy by Prince Andrew and the Royal Aero Club, and the Chairman’s Trophy by the British Microlight Aircraft Association.

 

They tend to award prizes, like the Britannia Trophy, if you've successfully evaded death whilst doing something silly. It's kind of like the Darwin Awards for aviators who've survived a scary experience. They present you with the trophy, allow the photographer to do his stuff, and then take the thing back to the RAF museum. 

 

Incidentally, the first person from Manchester to win the Britannia Trophy was Captain Sir John Alcock. He and a chap called Brown were the first to fly the Atlantic in 1919. 

 

Additionally, and one of my prouder moments, I was a ‘runner up’ in the Bolton Hero awards (I recall that a taxi company won the big prize) for my attempted flight around the world in India Zulu.

 

In terms of the conditions I've flown in, I've landed in crosswinds approaching 30 knots (in Holland) and whilst the highest she’s supposed to be able to fly at is 10,000 ft. Part of that is the affect hypoxia has on a person and part is the limitation of the engine. Having said that I’ve inched her beyond 12,000 ft above both the North Atlantic and the Egyptian desert (or possibly dessert). The first instance was to avoid the ice laden clouds just below the wheels that would have engulfed the aircraft and turned her into a brick. The second was my being mucked about by the Egyptians who wanted me above my flight plan for some reason (I figured it was because they were fighting the Taliban and wanted me out of the way).

 

And whilst flying over the Med', on the return flight from Egypt to Crete, I recall reading a message from a friend of mine telling me to be especially polite to the Air Traffic guys. The authorities suspected that a bomb had blown apart an Airbus A320, mid-flight, and the military were looking for the wreckage. I vividly remember looking down past the wheels hoping not to see the remains of MS804.  

 

As an aside to this, a report was published years later suggesting it wasn't an act of terrorism, but that one of the pilots had been smoking in the cockpit and had accidentally ignited the oxygen leaking from his emergency face mask. I've always said cigarettes are unhealthy.    

 

The lowest India Zulu and I have flown on an international flight was circa 20 ft above the sea just off the Greenland coast. I was dodging icebergs and trying to stay alive at the time. Humorously, we were that low my GPS data kept suggesting we'd landed on the surface of the sea. With a microlight you either fly under or over freezing clouds, but definitely not through them. There's a choice to be made, and then you're stuck with it (no matter how low or high you need to fly).  

 

Flying across oceans and seas is not the wisest idea in microlights. They can't deal with ice, don't have toilet facilities, can't generally contact ground radio installations, and don't have autopilots, hence the awards. And I’ve flown within 20 miles of the Arctic Circle whilst traversing Iceland. On the same trip I landed at Narsassuaq in Greenland, and that occasionally features as one of the top ten most dangerous airports in the world.

 

In the same list of dangerous airports, a place in Scotland seems to get in on the act. I remember trying to tick off as many airfields as I could whilst flying around Caledonia a handful of years ago. I was flicking through my airfield guide and Barra was on the track I wanted to follow. I called and asked if I could fly in and the lady in the Tower said yes. She sounded lovely. I asked what would happen if I was late and whether they would keep the airfield open for ten minutes or so. The lady said, no, no chance. And that was when I looked closer at the airfield plate and realised the runways are on a beach. The tide is quite inflexible about certain things, but I managed to land and take off in time, though. 

 

Incidentally, I nearly thumped a member of the fire crew during that landing. It was just before the Scottish Independence referendum and tensions were high. I'd just bought thirty quids worth of swag from the airfield gift shop and was walking past the fire crew area heading back to Samson. Just the other side of a wooden fence I could hear one of the crew telling anyone who'd listen that the English were leeches. I wanted to return my purchases, I wanted to confront him and "have a word". Unfortunately, I didn't do either. I just climbed aboard India Zulu, as the tide was inching towards her wheels, and flew away.    

 

The longest I've flown in India Zulu is circa 8 hours in one flight. When you climb out of the cabin, you immediately want to sit down. And then your legs start working again.  

 

I’ve also authored two really badly written books about my flying experiences (neither is worth reading). The first is called "Decision Height", and the second is called "Phoenix - 12 months in a microlight". They're available on Amazon and are somewhat embarrassing, hence if you ever read them there's no need to tell me. The latter book will detail how strong India Zulu is, and I'll leave it at that. I wrote them so my daughter will have something of me to look back on in the decades ahead.

 

I’ve flown around thunder and lightning storms at night in Florida whilst undergoing the start of my US instrument rating. I would suggest the instructors seemed to think I was getting a little cocky (we used to have impromptu landing competitions) so they decided to take me down a peg or two. Hence one of the senior flying instructors and I went flying on a horrendous night. I was "under the hood" at the time, basically blind, trying to fly headings, and do all sorts of pilot stuff, and then there'd be a flash of lightning and the roar of thunder as a storm menaced it's way down the coast. I will admit to sweating buckets on that flight.

 

On another occasion the chief flying instructor and I went flying and, again, I was under the hood. We were pottering along practicing holding patterns, and that kind of thing will mess with your mind. I remember him saying that an aircraft had flown above us and that parachutists had tumbled out. And then I started sweating. With that kind of training flight the poor soul flying is essentially blind, and then Adrian would say, "there goes a parachute". And, "oh, that one was close", etc. At the same time, he kept asking me to work through maths stuff, whilst sweat rolled down my forehead. 

 

There's a moral here. If you're reasonably ok at something don't tease people who are in a position to make your life overly exciting.

 

That particular chap, Adrian, was one in a million. One fine Florida day myself, Adrian, and another student flew off into the skies in an elderly twin engined aircraft. The previous evening the other student had gone out for a meal to a local restaurant, and hadn't left a tip. This news had made it back to Adrian and he must have decided action was needed. I was sat in the back of the aircraft waiting for my turn to fly and my young colleague was sat in the front flying. The wheels had just left the surface of the runway and we were climbing away. And 300ft into the air Adrian shut down an engine and told the chap he had an engine fire and he had to deal with it. 

 

With a twin engine aircraft when you lose power in one engine it can be difficult to instantly diagnose the problem. Plus, some twins won't climb on one engine. As extra spice folk sometimes close down the working engine by mistake, and they sometimes crash as a consequence. I was sat in the back, watching the trees flit by 100 ft below the wings, thinking please guess right. And then the chap panic'd and Adrian took over. He revved the pants off both engines and we climbed skyward. He then looked over at the poor trembling wreck of a student pilot and said, "maybe you should leave a tip next time".

 

Adrian was incredibly clever, he had some Black belt in something, and there was definitely a dark side to him. His wife became a little too friendly with me whilst I was alone in one of the training rooms. Of all the strange ways of approaching a liaison she started off by talking about Rington's tea. I felt really flattered, she was an absolute stunner, but very embarrassed. I made my excuses, packed my stuff away, and fled the room. Adrian was in the next office watching cctv coverage of the room I'd just been in. He smiled at me as I hurriedly walked past. 

 

A week later a friend of mine took up the offer I'd been presented with. This chap was a rally driver from Northern Ireland, I recall, and he was what folk these days might call "buff". A week after that he came to see me resplendent with a blackeye. He said Adrian had beat him up and kicked him off the commercial course. He left that day... I'm not sure why I've scribbled this down, but it stuck in my mind as a flying story.     

 

I've faced wind shear conditions at Nuuk, Lille, and possibly one other place. Samson's engine threatened to quit above the Mediterranean courtesy of what you might call "unnerving" fuel starvation messages popping up on my screen. I'd taken a bag of fuel with me on that trip and it was sat next to me on the passenger seat. I came up with a plan and there was a slightly awkward period where India Zulu dropped out of the skies like a sycamore seed whilst I gave up on flying and tried to become a mechanic. 

 

I released my harnesses, fought gravity whilst we spun around and around heading towards the ocean, and delved about in the equivalent of the footwell trying to connect two sets of fuel hoses together. I managed to climb back into my seat, got the additional fuel pump online, and fortunately the engine stopped being daft and came back to life. I can't remember how much height we lost during that plunge towards the sea, but it was circa 3 or 4,000 ft before we managed to climb skyward again. 

 

Not long after, the fuel pressure readings started to spike and the worry was that a hose would burst inside the engine compartment, so I reverted to the main fuel pump, and all seemed well. 

 

Alas, the engine grumbled again some ways to the west of Alexandria and I watched as the propeller came to a stop in front of my face. That was an interesting moment. I had another think and moments later tried hand pumping fuel into the engine. I was flying with my left hand, and using my right to get a billows action going. Flying above Egypt, specifically what you might call no-man’s land, is quite an interesting experience when you're trying to hand pump fuel into an aircraft engine. It's the kind of thing that's probably funny to watch on TV.

 

Additionally, I’ve flown through sleet and snow in the North Atlantic, and at other times flown directly towards sandstorms in North Africa (because that was where the airfield was). In terms of Britain, I worked out that I’d landed at two thirds of all the airfields in the UK.

 

If I ever want to show off, I might buy little stickers to adorn India Zulu. I probably won't do this, but if I did, I'd need to buy flags for; Austria, Belgium, Canada, Egypt, Eire, Faroe Islands, France, Germany, Greece, Greenland, Holland, Iceland, Italy, Jordan & Spain. In Cessna's I've flown around half a dozen US states and over to the Bahama's. 

 

By far the busiest jet airfield I've flown into was Orlando International. You realise your place in the world when you're sat in a single engined Cessna vying for position with Boeing's and Airbuses. After touching down I parked up at the executive jet centre, shut down the engine and watched the propeller stop, as two US Marine Corp Harrier Jump jets landed a little ways off. Both guys climbed out and walked past with their visors down (show offs) and I smiled as if it was the most natural thing in the world.

 

I then sheepishly trundled off and went to get the paperwork the flying school had asked me to collect. And whilst leaving the airport I was sat on a large taxiway with an Airbus in front of yours truly, and a Boeing behind. I looked up at the jet in front and saw Jesus staring down at me. A second later I realised it wasn't his holiness, it was a large print of an Eskimo on the tail section of an Air Alaska aircraft. That I would say, is the nearest I've ever come to a religious experience. 

 

In Jordan I was trundling along a taxiway and saw a shadow, and felt India Zulu tremble, as an Apache attack helicopter ghosted above us. I've seen Apache's land at Barton, but the one at Amman wreaked of death... it was quite an interesting moment. The outside temperature was something like 38c, but I felt myself shiver.

 

And in Crete I faced a bunch of American F-16's on an opposing taxiway. I was sat on one taxiway with my propeller spinning, the jets were on the other, and the runway was between us... Staring straight ahead at an F-16, makes a chap feel inclined to be extra polite. It was my turn to take off, but I told the Tower I was happy to wait for them and their missiles to depart first (the US was bombing the Taliban at the time). Manners cost nothing, and I didn't want a jet up my bottom.

 

It's not a military aircraft, these days, but I took off behind a Dakota when leaving Freeport in the Bahama's. For the most part heavy aircraft tend to head butt their way into the skies, but the Dakota just levitated. She was being lifted into the sky by an invisible hand, and to my mind the aircraft was a thing of beauty. Incidentally, on that trip another aircraft flew with me. Unfortunately, the flying school only had enough money for one life raft and the other aircraft had it, and then I lost sight of him above the seas.

 

That was the first time I'd been out of sight of land, without radio contact with anyone, without a raft... and that induces a certain level of loneliness.

 

Over the years I've flown Cessna Aerobats and tried dogfighting with other aircraft and that's really exciting. I used to do this with a young German chap called Wolf whilst we were both in and around Missouri. Good fun, but you end up with a neck ache. 

 

My highs and lows ?

 

High's include flying around the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang Castle in Germany. And blagging my way into an Austrian airfield (so I could put it in my logbook). It was a glider airfield in the Alps and they were pretending not to speak English every time I radioed, but when I said I was desperate for a pee someone took pity on me and gave clearance to land. Austria is stunningly beautiful.         

 

I recall herding cows round a copse of trees in a Cessna Aerobat somewhere in the middle of Florida. Absolutely no one around, trees as far as I could see, and a field with cows minding their own business. In the UK some airfields have sheep on them and they will readily move if something with a propeller approaches them. Cow's really need a sight and sound show before they'll start moving. I was a lot younger, and it was very stupid of me, but I got the beasties moving around the trees by swooping up and down and shouting and hollering as loudly as I could. I guess you could say that was one of the happiest days of my life.       

 

I also did the levitation thing. There's a jet in the US they call the vomit comet and it gives trainee astronauts the zero gravity experience. I didn't do it in a multi million pound jet, but I spent a while practicing the manoeuvre in a Cessna 152. The trick is to get objects, like maps or pencils, to just float in the air above the seat.  

 

Any time I land on the beach at Pilling Sands is a good day.

 

The low's ? None, really. Every experience is an opportunity to learn. Although, I would say that charity flights can be hard for me sometimes. Most passengers aren't at the end of their lives, but some are. Flying folk who know they're about to pass away weighs heavy. I want the person to have a day in which they experience life in a carefree way, I want them to feel safe, I want them to feel free, and I want their families to get what they can from the day. 

 

I have two sad stories that come to mind and two more, let's say, light hearted stories that are difficult to get out of my mind. 

 

Firstly, one chap, a Liverpudlian called John Barry, was passed onto me by the hospital and they asked me to do a "bucket list" type flight. The family came to Barton, we lifted John out of his wheel chair, got him comfortable in India Zulu, took pictures, and they all cried. John didn't, he just looked peaceful. We took off and managed to gain clearance to fly into Liverpool's airspace. We orbited the Liver building and just pottered around his home city. He smiled the whole time and, whilst flying, he invited me to his funeral.

 

Maybe a month later I got the call to attend. I turned up late for the Crematorium thing (I didn't really want to go), and as I walked through the anteroom there was a framed picture of him in the aircraft. The flight had made it into the Liverpool Echo and someone had printed that out, too. I tentatively walked into the room where the ceremony was taking place and maybe a hundred people turned around to see who the johnny come lately was. I stood at the back and tilted my head down. When matters resumed, I looked up and realised that a picture I'd taken of John had been framed and sat atop his coffin.

 

Afterwards, I was invited to the wake at a working men's type social club somewhere between Anfield & Goodison Park. John's widow came over to see me as I was trying to look inconspicuous in a corner. She wanted me to meet the family.      

 

John's widow had been in bits when I'd seen her at the airfield. I guess going through the process of saying goodbye to someone you've known for 50 years, or so, is tough. I made small talk as she introduced me to John's friends and family. She seemed so very, very, strong. And then she told me they'd put a picture I'd taken of John, in his coffin. I asked why, and she said, "that was the last time we saw him happy". I just burst into tears and could not stop blubbing.  

 

I flew another chap who was facing a terminal time. He was a former lawyer and my guess was that he'd been incredibly switched on during his younger days. The aging process was taking its toll, though, and he also needed lifting in and out of India Zulu. He could see the local TV antenna, Winter Hill, from his home so I suggested we fly above it. It was a warm day and thermals were bouncing off the wings and nudging us around, hence the higher we flew the comfier the ride.   

 

We passed the mast and the plan was to gently descend towards Rivington Pike. Unfortunately, he let me know he was having a problem with his incontinence bag and I tried to help. I reached over and was trying to ease his harnesses, slightly. That was when I realised we'd accidentally climbed into Manchesters airspace. My SkyDemon software said we'd infringed their territory by 6ft. I internally shouted at myself and we slowly descended. Some moments stay in my mind and, as we were levelling out, he looked over at me and said, "I wasn't always like this". 

 

There've been a couple of more light hearted moments.

 

With charity flights I don't let on if I know someone isn't well. They can talk to me if they want about their situation. Other than that, I'm just cheerful and happy to either make small talk, or simply listen. My mum was a social worker and my sister is a social worker, maybe I have that gene.

 

The next chap wanted to fly towards the coast and off we went. We were just chit-chatting. He was good fun and were were getting along really well. And then he said, out of the blue, "I have leukaemia". A couple of seconds later he pointed out the window and said, "I lost my virginity in that field". I will admit to not being sure what to say to either comment. From memory I frowned, smiled, and then we both laughed.   

 

There isn't a picture of this lady on my Facebook list of fliers, so there's no point looking. We went flying and somewhere overhead Bolton she said she wanted to go topless in the aircraft. I recall feeling somewhat awkward and then said that it was against the rules imposed by the civil aviation authority, and she wasn't allowed to do that. In future years I'll probably look back on that moment and decide I made the wrong call.        

 

I guess what I’m awkwardly trying to say is that if you’re going to fly with someone, it would be handy if they can absorb a little pressure and still crack on. Flying passengers can be much more stressful than flying solo. Ultimately, I’ve put myself and India Zulu through hell, so our flying around the skies of the North West of England is within the capabilities of myself and my aircraft. I’m certainly not the best pilot at Barton, but I’m reasonably experienced these days. 

 

As a general comment, if anyone ever suggests you might want to go flying with them…. please check how much experience they have before you climb onboard. Don’t feel awkward about asking. The ideal is that they've scared themselves witless and have learnt to both control their emotions and stay calm when the pressure mounts. I personally wouldn’t want to fly with anyone who had less than 250 flying hours (but I’m a bit of a scaredy cat).

 

JH

 

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