PTT, Dave Unwin

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Dave­un­win

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

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