The freedom of the air

WHEN the London School of Flying advertisements first appeared in this magazine last year, it jolted a few of us die-hard motorists at MOTOR SPORT into wondering aloud if a mere enthusiast for earthbound machines could enjoy the so-called freedom of the air. Whilst mulling over these thoughts at Silverstone earlier in the year, we watched Graham Hill bring in his twin Piper, followed shortly afterwards by the Gold Leaf Team Lotus Twin of Colin Chapman. This occurrence, which takes place at almost every major race meeting, decided us to have a closer look at why some of these top drivers (Brabham, Elford and Rindt also fly everywhere) had taken to the air.

As the advertisement in MOTOR SPORT was the quickest and easiest method of contacting a flying school, it was decided that an expendable member of the staff who could just scrape through a medical should be sent to Elstree in his spare time to become an intrepid aviator or “Snoopy”, as the rest of the staff promptly dubbed him.

Alistair Welch, Sales Director of London Aviation (which is one of the Elstree companies), was soon explaining the whys and wherefores of clocking up air hours in the strange language of aviation which is spoken almost entirely in initials. This complicated jargon, spattered with Dls, ASIs, VMCs, QFEs, QNHs, Pre-FHTs and FHTs, etc., makes the ordinary landlubber feel very inadequate, but it’s all a smoke screen to make flying seem more complicated than it really is. Any semi-intelligent individual with a slight mechanical flair and a reasonably well-paid job can obtain a PPL (Private Pilot’s Licence).

The half-hour (£5) trial lesson was dispensed with, as our aviator to-be had hundreds of hours of air commuting to his credit spread over half the world’s airlines. Similarly, it would be unfitting for MOTOR SPORT to record a blow-by-blow account of the ensuing 35-hour training schedule. But there are many highlights which a motorist can appreciate without ever getting out of his bucket seat or letting go of a steering wheel.

Initially, we “pilots” check our machines much more thoroughly before starting up than a car owner would ever do. Whoever heard of checking the brake pipes, lights, tyres, steering or oil level before popping down to the shops? Of course, when a car breaks down it rolls to a halt (with luck), but if the ‘plane suffers a mechanical failure it cannot remain stationary in its own medium and the resultant thump can be very embarrassing. Next, when seated firmly behind the rather small, odd-shaped steering wheel (known as the control column) with feet firmly placed on the rudder controls (placed, like a car’s throttle and brake pedals, on the floor) the driver (or pilot in the making) is facing a much fuller and more interesting facia than his car, one studded with elaborate instruments. At first glance the only dials which make sense are the fuel and oil pressure gauges and the oil temperature gauges. Here again, this is all to confuse the outsider, for within a short while these instruments fall into a natural pattern which is easily understood by all except the very dim.

The “steering wheel” is the one item of equipment used by aviators which can be confusing, for as you taxi away and lock hard over at the first corner, nothing happens. One has to be taught that the feet steer on the ground and also, to some extent, in the air. This steering control can affect natural reflex actions, for in later lessons, when one drops a wing in a practice stall, it seems to the sub-conscious mind that full opposite lock is needed, but no, it is the feet which overcome this problem with full opposite rudder.

As the hours begin to mount you finally begin to radiate sufficient confidence for the poor suffering instructor to climb out one day and say: “Okay, do a circuit on your own.” This first solo flight is something about which one cannot be blasé, for it does stand out as one of life’s highlights, like the first time you go over 100 m.p.h. or your first spin in a Lamborghini Mints, or being driven round Riverside in a time equivalent to the middle of the grid by Bruce McLaren. Depending on your temperament, you either crack a bottle of champagne or sit quietly in a corner with a contented smirk. But no pilot seems to forget that first time up on his own.

After much solo practice, always in sight and radio touch of airfield control (Elstree insists on radio proficiency, although Government regulations don’t enforce it, yet!), comes the next stage when your instructor takes you off into the unknown and shows you how to lose yourself in one easy lesson. This stage, known as cross-country practice, can be the most nerve-racking, but again it sounds more difficult than it is and within a short time the first solo cross-country is under way. All on your own, you find yourself far too busy mouthing instructions to be scared:

“Clear of Elstree, call Luton and attempt a clear concise request to cross their centre line at Stevenage without giving the crew of a Comet heart failure. Find Letchworth, yes; that must be Baldock, so that must be Letchworth . . . Tell London information you are now heading for Buckingham . . . sorry at 2,500 feet. What’s this on the map, Woburn Abbey? Ah, yes, there are those roads we used at that Vauxhall release. Blast! All this looking over the side has put it off course and the giro-operated direction indicator is out with magnetic compass, panic. What did the instructor say about this triangle ? . . . ‘You can see the whole area from almost any point!’ Ah, yes, those two lakes on the horizon, that must be Buckingham just this side. . . that towering thunderstorm over there doesn’t look too good . . . right astride the return leg . . . better go round, it doesn’t look at all friendly. London information, when told of the altered route, kindly gives a bearing that will bring Cherokee Gulf Tango Hotel back on to the correct track . . . must know it’s a first time. Shouldn’t be long now . . . oh, there’s Radlett and Leavesden aerodromes, and there’s the reservoir right alongside and the M1 across the end of the runway—Elstree must be one of the easiest airfields to find with these landmarks—call Elstree Tower and try to sound as if this is a routine everyday occurrence rejoining their circuit . . . downwind . . . checks, nearly forgot . . . now turning finals . . . gently, must make a good landing . . . blast! Well, it wasn’t too bad and perhaps no-one was watching.”

The rest of the course moved on to the Pre-FHT (Final Handling Test) and the FHT, usually with an examiner with whom you haven’t flown before. After an hour of stalls, spins, dropped wings, emergency landings and procedure in a couple of landings and takeoffs you have passed, and with the written examination (questions and answers, ABC) you can apply for your PPL so long as you have completed the 35 hours minimum. Our pilot had three hours in hand which is about average.

Having been bitten by the bug, there are new goals to be won (twin conversion, night rating, instrument rating) so that we can prove on paper that MOTOR SPORT can get to and from Continental races by hiring a club ‘plane more cheaply, faster and more efficiently—irrespective of weather—than regular airlines.

It is difficult to know whether the instructors are good or bad, or to compare the London Flying School with any of the other 225 schools in England. But LFS does take flying more seriously than some schools and has a reputation for producing courteous and responsible pilots. Positive attempts are made to standardise the instruction, but some personal touches from instructors creep in. Students who stick to one instructor get nervous of examiners, so our long list of Tighe, Conway, Kay, Burridge, Higgins, Roney and Budge reads like a merry-goround and helped in many ways.

One thing that stands out is that this is not just a businessman’s luxury transport or a rich man’s sport. For £410 over six months you can become a pilot: club hire of £6 to £10 per hour for future flying can give immense pleasure with a minimum of five hours per year to keep your licence. MGs and E-types are often known as “bird catchers”, but to complete the image there’s nothing like taking the girl friend for a quick flip round for as little as the cost of a good dinner.

Graham Hill and Colin Chapman are both flying enthusiasts getting considerable pleasure as well as saving lots of time by owning their own ‘planes. Graham, in fact, spends some of his time away from the race track in the Elstree Club House playing table tennis and talking flying with the same enthusiasm that he talks about motoring and rowing.

Air freedom is a thing of the past. But you still don’t have to sit in stationary jams like the average frustrated motorist. And there is still a lot of air space not being used by the airlines.—M. J. T.