PTT, Dave Unwin
Floating about the sky was an initially unidentified flying... what?
I honestly thought I was looking at a man who could fly
“What on earth is that thing?” We’re passing through 3,000ft in a strong thermal, nearing the cloudbase and closing rapidly on a true unidentified flying object. Initially I’d thought it was a big bird marking a thermal, then a bunch of helium-filled party balloons tied together, and now I don’t know what to think. Hesitantly, my passenger Mark ventures an opinion. “I… I think” he stutters tentatively, “I think it’s a man!” The sunlight catches it as I bank closer and the hairs on the back of my neck suddenly stand up. It is a man!
The day had started reasonably normally. I was duty tug pilot at the Buckminster Gliding Club and, along with flying the tug, a rather interesting task was scheduled for the day. Fellow tug pilot Al Munro had recently joined the vintage group with the express purpose of flying the group’s Slingsby T.31B Tandem Tutor, and for a very simple reason: his first solo had been in a Cadet TX Mark 3 (as the RAF called them) in 1958. The plan was I’d check Al out and then, all being well, send him off – sixty years to the day since his first solo, in the same type!
This presented me with an interesting conundrum. Not only had Al quite literally been flying before I was born, but his wellworn logbook evinced some interesting types. His first operational tour had been on the Gloster Javelin, and subsequently he’d been a pilot (and latterly an instructor) on both the mighty Phantom and the Tornado, before moving on to fly A320s for the airlines. However, even with (or perhaps because of) his vast depth of experience, Al knows that ‘currency counts’, and I’m a lot more current on the T.31 than he is. So, quod erat demonstrandum, I am P1.
The weather is perfect (six to eight knots straight down the centreline) the glider serviceable, and Al and I are giggling like a couple of little kids as we position the venerable sailplane on the runway.
But, as Robert Burns observed in To a Mouse: ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’ – and the principal reason why our best-laid scheme had gang agley was that – like most of us – Al is no longer the fit, agile and supple young lad he’d been back then. It rapidly became apparent that he wasn’t going to fit in the front without major surgery. The ‘go solo’ plan has, in reality, failed to get off the ground, but Al is determined to fly in a T.31 on his anniversary so (with a considerable amount of swearing, laughing, manipulation, and at one point a rather worrying “Shit – I’m stuck!”) we succeed in wedging him into the rear cockpit.
The aerotow goes well until we hit a strong thermal at about 300ft, ensuring that the next thirty seconds are best described as ‘sporting’, but eventually we release in lift, soar for a while and then return safely. Curiously, his egress – while still problematic – is a lot easier than his ingress, and we share a heartfelt handshake by the cockpit. “Well Al” I grin, “Happy Diamond Solo Anniversary – we did it!” “Indeed we did” he laughs “and we must never do it again!”
A few hours and several tows as tug pilot later, I’m now in the back of a K-21, flying with a trial lesson and being towed by Al in the Eurofox. The ‘lift’ is broken and not easy to work, but about 500 metres to the northeast what looks like a large bird is about 500ft above us, so I head that way. The variometer bleeps its approval and we’re soon climbing strongly towards something, but what? We draw closer and the picture becomes clearer. It isn’t a bird, and it isn’t a plane but, for several unnerving seconds, it is unquestionably a man! My mind reels as I swing the K-21 nearer. It isn’t a hang glider, paraglider or parachutist – it’s a man, about my height and build, and seemingly suspended in space, 3,000ft above the Vale of Belvoir. “Could he be wearing a jetpack?” asks my passenger, disbelievingly. I know that the JB11 Jetpack was flown at the Goodwood Festival of Speed recently, and that it could climb this high, but… “It can’t be”, I reply. And it isn’t.
I warily circle around the thing and eventually draw the conclusion that it’s almost certainly some sort of helium-filled balloon in the shape of a super-hero, possibly Spider-man, maybe Iron Man or perhaps a Power Ranger. I’m not sure, but one thing I do know – it is surreal. It has obviously attained neutral buoyancy and is at the mercy of the thermals, so for several minutes we circle it while Mark takes pictures. However, the south-westerly wind is carrying both it and us away from the airfield, so with discretion being the better part of valour we leave it to its own devices and head for home.
Back on the ground Mark and I babble excitedly to the ground crew. “You won’t believe what we’ve just seen” we tell everyone within earshot. I’ve done a bit of flying, and seen some amazing sights from some equally impressive cockpits, but the moment when I honestly thought I was looking at a man who could fly, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, will take some beating. So yes; it was an interesting day.
Pilot’s Flight Test Editor operates a Jodel D.9 from a farm strip and has logged stick-time on everything from ultralights to fast jets