Brian Milton was invited to give the Sir Alan Cobham Lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society in 2000. He talked about his record-breaking round-the-world flight and also about the challenges of New Aviation. Below is a transcript of the lecture.
Two years ago I flew a microlight around the world. It was the first time anyone had done that. I did it in 120 days, also claiming the record for the fastest open-cockpit single-engined flight around the world. That had stood at 175 days since four American Army pilots set it in 1924. Both my records have been broken in the last month by Colin Bodill, who, in the company of three other aircraft, is claiming the first solo flight around the world by microlight; he never shared his tiny cockpit with a co-pilot, as I did for a while with Keith Reynolds.
We are both of us, Colin and I, in the middle of the heroic period of the New Aviation, of hang gliding, paragliding and microlighting. There are still great things for us to do in our little craft, and we need to find within ourselves the same spirit of adventure and sacrifice that the Mainstream Aviation pioneers found in their heroic peacetime period between 1903 and 1939.
Before my own flight, a very good film-maker, Andy Webb, put together a promotional video to put the flight we were about to do into context. We did not know how it would turn out, of course, but I did, in writing the commentary – even if I didn’t speak it – have some idea of its historical context….
Most of you are from Mainstream Aviation, and obviously, we share an early history. This includes Icarus & Daedelus about fifteen hundred BC and the wonderful King Bladud, founder of the City of Bath and father to King Lear, who died jumping out of a tower in London. He cast a few spells first, but they didn’t work. There are other tower jumpers, many of them French like the Marquis de Bacqueville, who in 1742 tried to soar across the River Seine in Paris with paddles attached to his arms and legs. He tried, failed and fell into a washerwoman’s barge and broke his leg. But he did survive.
The nineteenth century saw the astonishing insight of William Samuel Henson, who in 1843 published this picture of his Aerial Steam Carriage. It was a monoplane, with fixed wings and a tail, driven by propellers, way ahead of its time, but it was planned to be powered by steam. Steam did work, though, in flying models. Henson worked in collaboration with John Stringfellow, from Somerset, who died in 1883. They designed another steam-powered monoplane in 1848. A model built to the design, with a wing-span of 10 feet, achieved a flight of 130 feet.
Then there was a brilliant, if obscure English baronet, Sir George Cayley, who slung his coachman off a hill in a full-size flying machine. The coachman survived the flight, but with a broken leg, and promptly resigned, saying, “sir I was hired to drive coaches, not flying machines”. Incidentally, twenty six years ago Yorkshire TV re-built Cayley’s machine, and towed it successfully into the air.
The most tragic of the nineteenth century pioneers was the Frenchman, Alphonse Penaud, who designed the rubber-band power aircraft that still fly today. You can see how close they are to what we fly these days. Slide, Penaud two. But though Penaud won all sorts of awards, he didn’t feel they were enough, and at the age of 30, in 1880, he shot himself because he felt no one encouraged him.
The last joint ancestor we have is the greatest of them all, a German, Otto Lilienthal (1848-1896). He was the first man truly to fly, to be seen to fly when he said he was going to, and to be photographed flying. His achievement broke the psychological barrier which, up to that time, had persuaded most of mankind that human flight in heavier-than-air craft was impossible. He is the key link between the Mainstream and the New Aviation.
Lilienthal re-examined Cayley’s research done 40 years earlier, and like Cayley, believed the “arched or vaulted wing includes the secret of the art of flight” (we now call that camber). In 1891, Lilienthal began experiments in his garden in Berlin with fabric-covered wings, leaping off a springboard and gliding to the ground. He jumped from as high as 8 feet and flew across his garden safely. The following year he built his own conical hill in Berlin in a place called Lichterfelde, running down it with wings and achieving flights of 50 metres. That hill is still there, but it’s now a suburb of Berlin.
Lilienthal explored the Rhinower Hills near Berlin in 1894, and many Sundays he would go there to fly. He leapt off hills of 50 metres, and achieved extraordinary flights of up to 380 metres. His control method, like a hang-glider pilot’s, was weight-shift, but he was much higher in the aircraft and therefore less effective, with his head through the top of the wing and his feet below. He shifted his weight as much as he was able to, back and forward for pitch, and from side to side to roll. In all, he conducted 2,000 flights, and achieved world-wide fame. Sometimes, inevitably, he had accidents, but he constructed a device like a rebound bow (he called it a “prellbugel”) which absorbed the energy of heavy landings and saved his life at least once. He did not fit one on August 9th, 1896, when flying one of his standard machines. A gust of wind tipped one wing up, he stalled, and fell to the ground, dying the following day of a broken spine.
It was his death that set the Wright Brothers off on their flying experiments. Mainstream Aviation went on through the Wrights, Bleriot crossing the Channel, Hubert Latham (my favourite, the first man to smoke a cigarette in flight), Roland Garros, Louis Paulhans, Cal Rodgers, Claude Graham-White, all before the First World War, mainly led by the French. If you look at a list of the first hundred people killed in aviation after 1903, it is significant to see where they came from. They include passengers as well as pilots, and like hang gliding in its very early days, it was often machine failure that caused the deaths. Eight of those hundred killed were British, nine Italian, fifteen American, sixteen were German. But the French had obviously thrown themselves heart and soul into flight, for thirty-five of them died. By 1914, almost every aviation record of note was held by a Frenchman.
After the War, in 1919, we came more into our own. Alcock and Brown crossed the Atlantic, Ross and Keith Smith flew to Australia (also in 1919), the US Army team including Leigh Wade flew around the world in 1924, Lindbergh flew New York to Paris in 1927, Amy Johnson, Wiley Post (around the world in 8 days), Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Sir Alan Cobham, Bert Hinkler, Frank Whittle’s jet engine, Chuck Yeager and the Right stuff, getting into space in 1957, flying to the moon in 1969….after 1970, regulation, regulation and more regulation….
…..and where has the passion gone?
The real end of the heroic age of Mainstream Aviation probably came with Howard Hughes’ flight around the world in July 1938 in a specially built Lockheed. It had all the latest technology, and Hughes completed the trip in 3 days, 19 hours and 8 minutes, New York to New York. Afterwards, he conceded that almost any pilot could repeat the journey, 14,791 miles through the Northern hemisphere following Wiley Post’s route. “All you need is the right aircraft”, said Hughes.
But you also needed dozens of people to back up each pilot, hundreds to allow him to take off and fly and land. It ceased to be an individual matter and became a team effort. You did not any more need an Antoine de St Exupery, the poet of flying, or an Alan Cobham or V.M.Yeates or Cecil Lewis. The pilot could as easily be flying a bus. Because the trend in the Mainstream had to be bigger, higher, faster, those inside such aircraft had to be protected. Who could stick their head out to smell the air and experience the clouds if they were whizzing by at 300 mph? Flying became less an experience, more a matter of getting from one place to another.
Cockpits were enclosed, dashboards packed with instruments, pilots forgot the seat of their pants and relied totally on instruments. They were insulated, as were passengers, from the air itself through which they passed. What happened in the weather was only incidental, because they soon flew above it and looked down at the earth from inside a silver tube; they emerged hours later, often in another country. The pilot, nowadays, might as well not be there at all except as a reserve, because computers can do the flying for him.
Even in private aviation, cockpits became fully enclosed, radios were introduced, strict flying patterns, clubs to join, behaviour to be regulated. You don’t buy maps that show you the way a river flows, or where a motorway crosses it, or which identifies a town or village. Aviation maps take you from one radio beacon to another and give you a bearing to your airfield; you can even use a satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) and hardly look out the window at all, except to make sure you don’t hit someone else experiencing “flight”.
In modern airliners it is hard to describe the experience as being graced with the word “flight”. You go from one place to another, breathing other people’s air, but it is not flight. This is an aesthetic judgement, that by the end of the 1960s the soul had gone out of flight. We were, unconsciously, betraying the sacrifice made by all those people who wanted to achieve flight. If the pioneers came back and saw that what they were reaching for, the stars they dreamed of, had turned into a Jumbo jet or the average club flyer, would they think it was worth the sacrifice? It is significant that, even in his late 70’s, Chuck Yeagar, the hero and defining figure of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”, and the first man to fly through the sound barrier, took up hang gliding. He saw it for what it was, the “flyingest flying there is”.
As it happens, throughout the great rush of Mainstream Aviation in the twentieth century, there were always small groups of what I call “holy lunatics” who denied this was the way aviation had to go, who dreamed of other means of flight. The New Aviation has a different history. It’s the same as the Mainstream up to Lilienthal, but after that, it goes a different way.
It is comparable in mountaineering, to the difference between Sir Edmund Hillary and the big team that made it up Everest in 1953, and the solo Alpine-style climb by Reinhard Messner more than 20 years later.
Our line goes from Lilienthal to an American scientist called Francis Rogallo who patented the Rogallo Wing in 1947. No one took any notice, except to make toy rogallo wings, until Sputnik in 1956, after which the Americans blew $50m testing the rogallo wing as a re-entry parachute. They didn’t like it, and in 1962, allowed the publication of some former top-secret drawings.
These were seen by an Australian engineer called John Dickenson. This obscure figure, hardly known even within hang-gliding, made the great breakthrough, inventing the triangle control-bar, and all the rigging we use today, and he did that back in 1963. It took 8 years before the rest of us picked up on this, promoted by two Australian wild men called Bill Moyes and Bill Bennett. A second strand occurred in Southern California, where a small bunch of men, including Paul McCready – later famous as the supreme exponent of man-powered flight – were experimenting with foot-launched flying. They used to circulate a hand-printed roneo’d magazine called “Low, Slow and Out of Control”. One of the group, a chap called Richard Miller – a real 1960’s man, into exotic substances and transcendental aviation – wrote to another, a teacher called Jack Lambie, saying that May 23, 1971 would have been, had he lived, the 123rd birthday of Otto Lilienthal; why not celebrate it with a meeting?
14 people turned up that day on a California sand-dune; most of them with “hang looses”, a bi-plane wing promoted by Jack Lambie, based on an 1899 design by Octave Chanute. But one of the aircraft on that fateful day was a rogallo. The Readers Digest reported the meet as “the flyingest flying there is”; those who attended started getting up to 3,000 letters a week, asking for more details; it was the rogallo that attracted the most attention, and which blossomed into hang-gliding, and later microlighting and paragliding.
The longest distance flown that day was 196 feet, and the longest time in the air was 11 seconds.
It’s worth saying, in passing, that in a direct descendent of that rogallo, 27 years later, I flew around the world. There was an explosion of media interest in what is now known as the First Lilienthal Meet; the first soaring flight was done six months later. The following year, British pioneers started, Nick Regan, Geoff McBroom, Len Gabriels, there were stunts like Ken Messenger leaping off Snowdon with a hang glider in 1974, and that’s how the New Aviation began here.
There was a rising scale of deaths through the middle of the 1970s, the most we had here in one year was ten in 1978, but then we all got parachutes and worked out standard methods of teaching.
Cross-country flights were started, slowly in 1976, enthusiastically in 1977; soon a hundred miles was done in the USA, then a hundred was done here. Wings got better and better, and flights up to 300 miles were achieved. Rogallos were superceded by paragliders in the last ten years, and this has boomed; there are 80,000 hang-glider and paraglider pilots in Japan, for example.
We stuck engines on as soon as we could, wherever we could. You saw the brief results of my own early experience with engines earlier this evening. Engines went everywhere, on top of the king-post, in front of the keel, at the back, underneath, but then someone would get killed and we’d say, “oh, not there”, and we’d try somewhere else. The trike appeared in 1980.
In motorised flight, we are still in our own heroic age. Richard Meredith-Hardy, an Old Etonian, flew London to Cape Town in a weight-shift microlight back in our Stone Age, 1985. Eve Jackson flew 3-axis in a microlight to Australia, as I did, in 1987, with only a 447 cc engine, though she took 15 months against my 59 days. In 1990, the Dutchman, Eppo Newman, made the first Atlantic flight in a microlight, a weight-shift, again of 15 months because the Danish authorities were keen to stop him flying. Three years later, in 1993, the French pilot Guy Delage flew the South Atlantic in one flight of 26 hours, again on a weight-shift machine. He was emulating the epic flight, 60 years earlier, of Jean Mormuz over the same route (Delage, another holy lunatic, later went back to swim the same stretch of water.
It is in that context that you might look at my world flight, and that of Colin Bodill. We are destined to explore, in our aviation, all the early records in the mainstream, to see which ones we can challenge, but we are heading in a different direction than you did.
There is an aesthetic difference between us, the Mainstream and the New Aviation, and bearing that in mind, I want to charge you – the Royal Aeronautical Society – with ten tasks, some easy, some not so easy. Hercules had ten tasks, and there’s no reason why you can’t have the same.
I want to take you back to the roots of aviation, back 3,500 years, to look at it again with our eyes, from our history, with our imagination.. Slide, Daedelus and Icarus…. We all know about Icarus and Daedelus, how the father succeeded and the son failed in flying off Crete. But could it have happened? More to the point, could we make it happen? Can you help play the role that Thor Hyerdhal had with the Kon-Tiki Expedition, and replicate the flight of Daedelus, the safe one?
Just to refresh your memory, in Greek mythology, both men lived fifteen hundred years before Christ, but the first written sources we have of their flight occurred nearly a thousand years after the event. Before that, it was oral tradition, and you can imagine how that can distort matters. Daedelus was employed on the island of Crete by King Minos to build the great labyrinth as a prison for the Minataur, the half-bull, half-man which had the anti-social habit of eating young people. King Minos, who had lost a son in Athens on mainland Greece, had a powerful fleet of ships, and in revenge for his son’s death threatened to destroy Athens unless the city paid him fourteen young Athenian hostages a year. These hostages he sent in to be eaten by the Minataur, who was kept inside the labyrinth from which he was not expected to escape. When the labyrinth was first completed, King Minos decided to detain Daedelus on Crete because, having designed it, he knew the way out, and might tell someone. Icarus, his son, was also detained.
The accepted myth is that Prince Theseus of Athens entered the labyrinth, helped by Minos’s daughter Ariadne, killed the Minataur and freed the fourteen Athenian hostages. Theseus, hostages and Ariadne then took ship back to Athens. Minos was so upset at the loss of his daughter and hostages that he blamed Daedelus, claiming Daedelus had said no one could get out of the labyrinth alive. As a result, Minos wanted to roast Daedelus alive.
King Minos had control of the seas around Crete, so there was no way Daedelus and Icarus could escape by sea. But Daedelus, said to be the greatest sail-maker of his age, saw the link between wind and lift, and constructed wings for them to fly on (the feathers and wax which later appear in the myth do not, apparently, appear in the original Greek, and may have been added in the fifteenth century). Father and son were said to have climbed Mount Ida (Idhi Oros) in the middle of Crete, just over 8,000 feet high, and used it as a launching site to fly. They headed north, but Icarus flew too near the sun, the wax allegedly melted, and he fell into the sea. In the myth, his father made it to the island of Icaria, named it after his son, and appears in other myths later in Sicily.
There is a Yorkshireman called Arthur Quarmby who has the holy lunatic theory that this could have happened. A TV company sent me out to Crete a few years ago with Arthur Quarmby himself and one of the world’s best hang glider pilots, Bruce Goldsmith, to see if it was possible for two men to foot-launch off Crete and fly to another island. We concluded that it was.
Quarmby’s theory, which he developed with a glider pilot called Walter Neumark is that in certain weather conditions Crete has a ‘standing wave’. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a weather feature where the wind blows over a mountain and ‘sets’ into a particular shape. There is an up ‘elevator’, where the air climbs thousands of feet, followed by a down ‘elevator’, where it falls steeply, in a sort of vertical zig-zag down-wind through the sky. Certain areas of the world, such as New Zealand, for example, or the Scottish Highlands, are famous for ‘wave’ flying. All conventional gliding height-gain records, up to nearly 50,000 feet, are made in ‘wave’. The phenomenon is very powerful, smooth for the most part, but with strong turbulence at the edges.
The thesis is, that if Icarus did make his legendary flight, his fatal fall could have occurred because of this turbulence at the top of the wave, rather the wax melting too close to the sun, because of course, the higher you go the colder it gets. Why should wax melt with height? In certain conditions you can see ‘wave’. The rising air, which cools as it climbs, carries moisture which turns into cloud at the top of the wave. As the air falls again, it warms and the cloud disappears. ‘Wave’ cloud, called lenticular, looks like a fat white cigar lying horizontal across the peak. It is stationary, or moves back and forth as the ‘wave’ itself changes frequency with the wind strength.
Some people mistake ‘wave’ cloud for UFOs. Only advanced flyers know much about ‘wave’. They also say that the first wave, the primary wave, is virtually impossible to get into with a glider, and you have to join on a secondary wave perhaps 10 kilometres down wind.
By definition, Daedelus and Icarus were not advanced flyers if they stood on Mt Ida all those years ago, looking south from their launch site, over their shoulders to the north where they wanted to go, and up above at the lenticular clouds, presuming that the wave started south of Ida. The two men had to go down-wind to go north, so they needed a southerly wind, the prevailing wind, funnily enough, in Spring and Autumn on Crete.
To be successful, we would have to find a point from which to launch. Our pilots would have to be able to soar the mountains in ridge lift, and then catch the wave to climb thousands more feet, before turning north and diving through the down-cycles to catch the next ‘elevator’ up, all the way to Icaria.
For Bruce and I, it was enough just to fly off the island, using any sort of lift there was with a foot-launched aircraft, so we were interested to see if we could fly to the nearest island off Crete, Antikythera, 17 miles away.
We concluded that it would be more possible to thermal off the island from a site near its north-western corner, not far from the little airfield at Maleme where 17,000 German parachutists were killed in the 1941 invasion of Crete. We thought the two pilots could make Antikythera, with a normal cloud-base of 8,000 feet and a bit of nerve, by following a thermal in a southerly wind out over the sea. When it dissipated, they could make the island on a down-wind glide. It would be safer on a paraglider.
We even found a take-off site. But in looking to repeat the ancient flight exactly, there was one moment on Crete that made us all thoughtful. We were halfway up the north side of Mt Ida in a little village called Anoyia where all males – men, boys and babies – had been murdered by the Germans in the last war after a British commando team captured a German general and sheltered in the village. We found a priest, Papa Nikoulas Andreadakis, who had kept weather logs three times a day since 1952, information he used to telephone through to Athens for the forecasters there. We had language problems between us, and he had a book with photographs of different cloud formations. We turned to the page with wave cloud to ask if he ever saw them.
“Yes, I do see these clouds from time to time,” we were told. “But only when the wind is blowing from the south!”
So the first task is, would the Royal Aeronautical Society, or commercial elements associated with it, back an attempt to reproduce the flight of Daedelus?
The second task concerns Leonardo da Vinci. Working in Florence in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Leonardo actually devised the first flying machine. But it was not with the flying designs and flapping wings which everyone has seen in his drawings (and which were dismissed in a tabloid English newspaper as “a Turkey”). These wings just couldn’t be persuaded to fly, because we don’t have enough muscle power.
The aircraft that could, and did, fly was not the parachute that achieved such publicity earlier this year when it, too, worked. I am saying tonight that five hundred years after Leonardo put pen to paper with his doodles, one of his aircraft actually achieved flight, and you’ll be pleased to learn, it did it in England, made by an Englishman, not far from here.
This drawing (Leonardo’s hang glider) by Leonardo was part of a collection buried in the vaults of a museum in Madrid for 150 years. It first came to light in modern eyes in 1967, but no one recognised it for what it obviously is, and it was shuffled away again. Its true worth was only realised in 1989 by an English researcher called Michael Pidcock, who, as soon as he saw it, exclaimed: “why, that’s a hang glider!” I am sure you can appreciate the irony. In 1967, when the drawing was first re-discovered after 470 years, it was still ahead of its time. Within a few seconds, Pidcock determined to build it.
He wrote, later, that more than once Leonardo wrote in the margin of his aeronautical studies: “Get an apprentice to build the model”. But he didn’t. Leonardo specified “Canes, wood, varnished silk and ropes,” and Pidcock made one change, going for sail-cloth instead of varnished silk. But all the other materials he used were available in Italy in 1493.
Leonardo specified that the “pilot” should be positioned with his feet at the base of the inverted mast and his chest at the cross bar. He suggested that the machine be flown from the top of a hill, to get the assistance of the wind, and that the aviator control it by pulling on guy wires. From other designs Pidcock surmised that the curved undercarriage was a leaf spring, for soft landings. This was 400 years before Lilienthal invented the prellbugel, the leaf spring he used to protect himself from bad landings.
It struck Pidcock as ironic that this was Leonardo’s only winged machine that did not closely follow the structure of a bird wing. For most of his life Leonardo was working on his detailed study “The Flight of Birds”, and his machines that went nowhere were born of these observations. “The Machine lacks nothing but the life of the Bird and this shall be supplied by Man” he had written earlier.
Yet this design appears as a purely geometric shape. After some time Pidcock came to see it as a stylised form of the end two sections of a bat’s wing. Covered with membrane rather than feathered, da Vinci had adopted it for all his later wing forms, and changed his advice to “Let your Wing imitate nothing other than a Bat”.
Pidcock scaled up from a typical Renaissance man, 5ft 6 inches tall, to calculate a length for the flying machine of 25 feet, what we would now call the keel. That gave a sail area of 250 square feet, about the size of an early hang glider before they got efficient. He built a 1/10th scale model, took it to a public garden, climbed on to a compost bin, launched it, and with ballast, it flew ten yards.
After great labours, and staying as much as he could to materials available 500 years ago, he built a full-scale aircraft, and load-tested it to 200 kilograms. It didn’t break. After this, the story falls off for a couple of years. Pidcock didn’t real know very much about hang gliding, and he fell in with people who seemed to spend most of their time looking for ways to profit from his venture. He was also broke much of the time. He did look for help, and sent out 30 proposals, well-documented, bound and with colour photographs. All the major PR companies turned him down. The Science Museum aeronautical department laughed and said they wished they had the money to revamp their own gallery. Sadly, he also applied for help to the Royal Aeronautical Society. First he says his file was lost, and he says then you said “No” anyway.
This is very sad because, in 1993, he actually got the wing to fly. If that had been done in 1493, how much different the whole history of the world would have been!
There is no doubt Leonardo would have seen how impractical the single-column control bar was in his untested design, but actual tests would have revealed that. So the second of the ten tasks I am putting to you is, you should back a project building this machine to the exact specifications of Leonardo, including the varnished silk, and get it to fly, first in this country (just to make a point), then off a hill outside Florence in Italy specially marked down by Leonardo for its inaugural flight.
You should be able to find a suitable pilot, and include me in the equation, to test it. It’s a lot easier these days, because the rocket parachute has evolved in hang gliding, which opens in half a second and lowers both pilot and wing to the ground. I’d like a British sponsor, but if pressed, an Italian one would do, but I’d like us connected with it.
The other tasks belong to the future of the New Aviation, and are less “out of the box” than the first two. It isn’t just that we want to repeat the flights of the Mainstream pioneers. We want to relearn how to fly the way we dream of flight. In unpowered flight, that means migration. I wrote the outline rules for migration flight by hang glider nearly twenty years ago, and there is now a small band of pilots, mainly Swiss and French, the Knights Templar of the sport, working in the Alps at learning migration skills. One of them, Didier Favre, a Swiss, actually flew from Monte Carlo to Slovenia, a distance of eleven hundred kilometres over a 3-month period, without any help at all; no car to the site after day one, no help with his wing, entirely on his own.
I am suggesting the Royal Aeronautical Society’s third task is to adapt the rules for migration flight and give substance to them, finding someone like Henry Kramer to reward those achieving the goal. The task is very difficult but one day it will be possible:
1. Length of Flight – Should follow migration pattern from Latitude 50N to 10N. The northern limit of 50 degrees in Europe is just south of Frankfurt. It is south of the Central European summer nesting place for most birds. In North America, 50N is north of Vancouver, about level with Winnipeg. The southern limit, 10N, is north of Addis Ababa, south of Kano in Nigeria, about level with the eastern Horn of Africa. In North America, 10N is just above the Panama Canal, about level with Caracus in Venezuela. A crude measure of the distance between the two latitudes is 2,600 miles. In Europe, that is the distance covered by a big migrating bird in the Autumn, on one of the two most-used routes, via Gibraltar and the Western Sahara, or via Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt and the Sudan.
2. Duration of Flight – Should not exceed 120 days, about 4 months, giving an average southerly distance of 22 miles/day.
3. Ethics – If you come down on a flat plain, you must launch from where you land or walk back over your previous route carrying your glider to find a launch point. All launches must be made by foot, and no use is allowed of a winch or any other kind of aid.
4. Glider – You may only use one glider, although it can be extensively repaired.
5. Sporting Spirit – Flyers are expected to take all sensible steps to certify their flight. They are also expected to conform to the sporting spirit of the challenge.
The fourth and fifth tasks concern Everest. There are three great pilots, two of them American, one an Englishman, who have conceived the idea to fly hang gliders up and over Everest. They don’t plan to drop out of a balloon.
Larry Tudor is the world distance record holder, more than 300 miles in one flight; he and Steve Pearson, a fellow-American, and Darren Arkwright, an English pilot, plan to climb to 19,000 feet, on foot. Larry has found a place to rig, accessible from a base camp on a good flying day. They plan to rig there, and thermal up over the top of Everest, at 29,028 feet. If it is possible to do, and they think it is, they are three of the best pilots in the world, and should be backed doing it. But they are going to need a bureaucratic format within which to work, which you can provide.
Of more interest here in Britain perhaps, is the fifth task, finding the money to repeat in the year 2003, seventy years after the original event in 1933 – and 100 years exactly from the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 – for two microlights to fly over Everest. It’s been tried twice; both attempts, one British, one Czech, failed. There was a great film made of the original 1933 flight, which was sponsored by Lady Lucy Houston, the woman whose hundred thousand pounds had earlier rescued Britain’s Schneider Trophy bid and incidentally laid the groundwork for the birth of the Spitfire in the last war. The 2003 attempt should repeat the original event, even to shipping the wings to Karachi, and flying across India, to compare the sub-continent then with the sub-continent now, with the film made then compared to what we would film on our flight.
The sixth task, again for 2003, is to set up a competition and endorse it, to foot-launch and fly the English Channel without a motor. It was done originally, in conventional gliding, before the last war, by a glider out of Dunstable, long before there were the restrictions on air-space that there are now. But a small group of us think is possible to do such a flight in a hang glider or paraglider, taking off from Brighton and thermalling along the south coast to somewhere between Lydd and Dover, before setting off across the water. I was one of the original pilots to try flying the Channel in a hang glider, dropping out of a balloon in 1977 – I didn’t make it – but my flight, dropping out of a balloon piloted by a chap worried about going too high because he’d run out of fuel – did not have the purity of a foot-launched flight. Yet the idea of walking off a hill in England, and landing in a French field, having made the journey alone, by your own efforts and no one else’s, is surely noble, and worthy of being backed. I couldn’t do it, I don’t have the skills, but there are pilots who do, and it would really catch the imagination.
The seventh task may actually happen next year anyway, if Nikki King of the Artificial Heart Fund (who’s here tonight) and I can get a suitable sponsor for it, but it would help to be endorsed. That is, repeating Alcock and Brown’s great 1919 flight across the North Atlantic, but in a microlight. It looks beyond the bounds of possibility, but it isn’t. They made the flight in a twin-engined Vickers Vimy, neither engine as reliable as my Rotax 912, and as the Vimy was not capable of staying airborne on just one engine, they ran far more risks than I would. They took 16 and a half hours to cover the 1685 nautical miles from Newfoundland to Ireland; I think I will take 33 hours, about the same time as Charles Lindbergh on his New York – Paris flight in 1927. I would need 400 litres of fuel, but I am assured my wing can carry this load. It’s a flight of a day and a night and a day, and it would be terrific to do. It fits modern-day TV culture better than my flight around the world, in that it’s over rather quickly, and doesn’t tax a TV editor’s attention-span.
The eight task is concerned with where we are going in the microlighting side of the New Aviation, and that is, sun-powered flight. The brilliant American, Paul McCready is working on a new aircraft that gets all its power from the sun, with sufficient battery power to keep it flying 24 hours a day. But it cannot carry much of a load. One day though, and the Royal Aeronautical Society should be in the forefront of making it happen, one of us will set out to fly from England to Australia, powered only by sun-power. It’s been done, coast-to-coast, across the United States, but linking London to Sydney by an aircraft powered just by the sun is another terrifically noble ambition. The experience that pilots like Colin Bodill and myself have had, among others, would be relevant to this attempt, and the technological spin-offs for those manufacturers able to build us the photo-electric cells that do the job would be tremendous. It would be a preview to such a flight around the world. You can see how many interests, scientific, technical, engineering, political, environmental, would be tied up in such a flight, and it is a project you should endorse.
The ninth task is to endorse the New Aviation attempt at the longest straight-line flight in the world, London to London via the North and South Poles. It’s 37,545 statute miles, and it is likely to take ten months, to cross the North Pole in July, and the South Pole in January. But it avoids all the political hassles I ran into on my own world flight by a more conventional route. About the worst country to pass through, politically, would be Burma, while the journey across both poles would be epic. It would be expensive – every time a re-fuelling or rescue aircraft touches down on the ice around the North Pole, you get charged a hundred thousand pounds – but it touches all the world’s major markets except Japan.
Finally, the tenth task. The New Aviation has burst upon us, and it is still in a ferment. It is small aviation, though, not about billion pound contracts, but about the nobility and courage of individual human beings. It should have a special appeal to the young, and in some cases, it does. Prince Andrew, president of the Royal Aero Club, looked around the room at the awards ceremony last year, and asked, “where are the young?” I’m still in the game, but I don’t qualify to be called young. Yet I think the sort of flying I am advocating would appeal to them, if they thought it was open to them.
If you look at Mainstream Aviation, it’s hard not to admit there has been a collective loss of nerve in the last thirty years. The Space Race is hardly a race now, rather a cautious crawl, much of it on a pilot’s knees to Congress in Washington to get the money to keep going. The European effort, driven by the French, has a certain political vigour, but we, in Britain, are not involved. Concorde looks doomed, for safety reasons, and anyone in General Aviation will attest that one thing aviation should not be about now is having any aspirations at all to courage. All aspirations should be directed to safety. But the aspirations to courage and daring need to be kept alive, and part of my testament tonight to you, is that those aspirations are alive in the New Aviation.
Think of the adventures that are going on right now. Two pilots crossing the Himalayas using paragliders, covering in hours what it takes a climbing expedition weeks to accomplish, yet doing it on the power of the earth and their own skills. Think of the Intifada, in Israel, triggered off by a daring, doomed, but not futile raid from Lebanon by two young Arabs on powered hang gliders. Think of the two Germans who opened paragliders on a Calais beach, started their back-pack motors, and 90 minutes later landed in Dover; what would Hitler have done with a hundred thousand of those in 1940? Think of the whole of man-powered flight, going nowhere until McCready came along with his “quick and dirty” methods of construction, hang-gliding technology, and made it all possible.
The tenth task is to pull this all together and give Britain a dominant role in it, by creating a university fellowship to study the New Aviation. In a hundred sail-lofts across the world, research is going on, and a particular history is being made. It needs to be assessed, catalogued, interpreted, even steered, and we in Britain need to benefit from it. Most of the pioneers of this type of flying – Rogallo, Moyes, Bennett, Dickenson, Miller, Lambie, great pilots like Tomas Suchanek, Larry Tudor, John Pendry, Robbie Whittall, Manfred Ruhmer, Gerard Thevenot, Judy Leden, Richard Meredith-Hardy, Colin Bodill – are still alive.
We need to know where they came from, where they think we’re going. Ten years ago, the British hang gliding team was the best, by far, in the world, against which every other team measured itself. We might have been an Olympic sport then, but though we got exhibition status, for various banal reasons we never got the full Monty. Yet if hang gliding had been possible in Ancient Greece, it would have been the most classical of all sports. It tests the best in a person, courage, stamina, nerve, physical fitness, tactical and strategy skills, above all, character. We are still in a Chariots of Fire era, and the New Aviation is the way Leonardo imagined flying to be, clean, beautiful, sporting, free…but somehow we never got through the final cynical fence to become an Olympic sport. A Fellowship in a British university to study the New Aviation, to propagate it, could change that, and in passing, honour Britain.
It needs a driving force, and funding, but I urge the great and the good among you tonight to consider doing just that. The goal of Mainstream Aviation, whatever its failed nerve, one day has to be into space. We have to find the nerve to go there. To succeed, we must return to man’s more swash-buckling ways, especially rediscovering an ability to accept risk, and overcome the dreadful deadening modern fear of failure.
I set out to try and convince you tonight that the spirit you chaps have to regain is alive and well amongst us in the New Aviation. I sincerely hope the Royal Aeronautical Society takes a deep breath and makes as many of the ten tasks I have outlined come to life. There are risks, but there are also rewards.
It would put the joie de vivre back into flying.