Thursday morning. Early drizzle has blown away in the general direction of Cornwall. We are cruising along at around 130 mph. The tacho needle nestles between 2000-2500 rpm. Almost 60 mph per thousand rpm. That’s what you call relaxed.
So where are we? Ambling along some deserted Scottish highway, enjoying the flexibility and hush of a long-legged V8 mated to a trick seven-speed gearbox?
Er . .. actually, we’re less than half a mile from the centre of London . . . and the rush hour is in full swing.
Two choices then. This is either a weird dream, or we’re about to have the biggest, most irresponsible accident of all time as we pile into a queue of stationary traffic somewhere near Southwark Bridge.
Wrong again. We’re fully conscious, we haven’t been smoking banana skins and we aren’t showing callous disregard for the Highway Code. Not even slightly. In fact, we aren’t even bound by it.
There are plenty of traffic jams, too, but from where we are they appear to comprise Scalextric cars.
Anyone familiar with the grind of commuting to and from central London might by now have a clue. For those who don’t have to put up with measuring their daily forward progress in millimetres, welcome to Capital Radio’s Flying Eye, a four-seater Grumann American Cougar GA7 Twin, registration mark G-FLII, operated by Cabair from a base at Elstree Airfield.
The Eye takes off twice a day, circulating London during morning and evening rush hours and observing traffic congestion from the cosy distance of 1500 ft. For the past seven and a half years, stalwart of the morning stint has been Russ Kane. A performance car enthusiast who works as a freelance copywriter during sporadic terrestrial moments, Kane arrives at Elstree at around 7.15 each weekday morning. If clearance is given to fly at the required 1000 ft minimum, the Eye goes up. While roads are at their busiest, Kane regularly updates the situation live on air, reporting alternately to each of Capital’s two London stations, Capital FM and Capital Gold. In addition to monitoring traffic flow with his own eyes, Kane keeps in touch with the latest police and AA reports via Paula Southern, with whom he has direct radio contact, in the Capital studio. Thus he is able to expand upon his own notes.
As a commuter, I always found that the service holds a malicious fascination. OK, so it’s frustrating to hear that traffic is at a standstill around Kennington when you’ve known as much for the past half an hour through personal experience. But when you finally peel off from City Road and head for the safety of the office car park, it’s always nice to try and catch one last aerial report.
Good. The jams are three times as bad in north-west London as they were in Clapham, and the only burst water-main of the morning was in far-off Edmonton.
Such knowledge somehow eases the frustration of the previous stop-start 75 minutes that it took you to cover 12 miles. As a guide to what the average commuter has to contend with around here, the aforementioned journey is approximately 20-25 minutesfaster by pushbike if you leave home at 8.00. If you drive, it is imperative to leave the house before 7.00. Anti-social, certainly, and you get to work miles too early, but at least traffic volumes are tolerable and there’s time to relax with a slice of toast and a cuppa before you need to contemplate the subtleties, or otherwise, of the English language.
The runway at Elstree looks a bit like a slightly shorter version of Mallory Park’s Stebbe Straight, only bumpier. The adjacent airfield windsock gyrates furiously. Kane, festooned in full flying suit (“I don’t like to get my clothes filthy”), frowns. Pilot Gareth Trevarthen doesn’t bat an eyelid. Despite a strong breeze on the ground, he insists that conditions are easier at our pre-determined jam-spotting altitude. Consumption of black pudding, fried bread and scrambled eggs has, in any case, been put on hold until after touchdown.
For the most part, progress is indeed quite smooth. The route takes us from Elstree over the M1, M25, A1, Lea Valley, Edmonton, Tottenham, the Blackwall Tunnel, Canary Wharf, A2, the Dartford Tunnel (relatively unclogged since the opening of the Queen Elizabeth II suspension bridge last year), Dagenham, Barking, Canary Wharf (again), the City, the West End, Battersea, A3, Tolworth, Chessington and back towards the congestion-sensitive thoroughfares of the city centre. We flit briefly over the Thames, checking the various crossing points.
It is slightly bizarre to note that the pilot has a large-scale London street map on his knee.
Curiously, Canary Wharf has a flashing beacon installed in its roof. Standing 800 ft high, you’re hardly likely to miss it. Kane insists that the warning light serves a valuable purpose. On a murkier day, its dark grey silhouette isn’t quite so obvious, and London’s City Airport isn’t far away.
Occasionally, the Grumann twitches violently as it encounters an invisible change in air-molecular structure. Briefly, you feel like a crisp packet in a force nine gale, but without the torsional rigidity . . . There is a sign on the control panel which advises ‘No aerobatic maneuvers (sic) approved’. Momentarily, you’re not so sure.
Spectacular views of London aside, the abiding memory is one of noise. Conversation is possible only by means of scribbled notes. The tacho reads 2200 rpm; it sounds more like 22,000. A set of headphones is provided. If you squash them tightly into your earlobes, you can just pick up the faint sound of Capital Gold.
Primarily, they serve as noise defenders.
For all that, the Grumann offers a comfortable perch from which to watch others’ morning torment. It seats four in comfort, although your stomach is more likely to be turned by the electric blue ’70s trim than fluctuations in its aerial path. It will cruise at 11,000 ft (17,000 if supplementary oxygen tanks are fitted) and has a top speed of 150 mph. It covered every square inch of rush-hour London in around two hours without once being carved up by a kamikaze motorcycle courier.
That’s something you can’t do on a pushbike.