Brian Discusses His World Flight and New Aviation

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.

The Dalgety Flyer as a Film Script

Dalgety FlyerBrian has written a drama-documentary script based on “The Dalgety Flyer” trip from London to Sydney in 1987/8. If any producers from the film or TV world want to know more – click here to contact Brian.

This is the story of a journalist who gets caught up in a billionaire’s dream, and when the billionaire rejects it as “too risky and too expensive”, finds the money to make it happen anyway, and throws up his career to complete it.

The dream is to race the ghost of Ross Smith, the first man to fly from England to Australia back in 1919. The billionaire is Kerry Packer. The journalist is Brian Milton, married, two children in private education, a mortgage on two houses, the presenter of financial programmes on TV-am, and a man haunted by a terrible accident which was caught on film. The race against Ross Smith is by microlight aircraft, under-powered by a tiny 447 cc engine. The object is to celebrate Australia’s Bicentenary on January 26, 1988.

Dalgety FlyerThe opening scenes outline Ross Smith’s race to Australia on black and white film, the “terrible accident”, Packer’s interest and then rejection, Milton’s decision to make the flight work, the conflict between training and career which ends with Milton walking out of TV-am and throwing himself into learning how to fly better, and some of the frights he has doing so.

On the flight itself, leaving London’s Docklands in headwinds on December 2, 1987, Milton nearly crashes twice in cloud in the Rhone Valley. On December 9, his Flyer is wrecked by cross-winds on a Greek island. Assisting his mechanic, Mike Atkinson (who has a first class ticket to Sydney with 30 stopovers, and carries a spare engine as hand baggage), Milton glues the Flyer back together again in six days, and flies on across the Mediterranean. The wrong fuel – kerosine instead of gasoline – puts him on the ground by the Dead Sea in Jordan, trying to cross mountains into the Saudi desert when the engine stops. Atkinson again comes to help him, and the following day they fall under the patronage of King Hussein. The crossing of the Great Saudi Desert is plagued by poor fuel and sandstorms. Milton has two dozen partial engine failures, and two real ones.

Dalgety FlyerOn Christmas Day, 1987, Milton has another engine failure – a fuel blockage – trying to cross the Persian Gulf in the middle of the Iran/Iraq War, and ditches at sea. He is pulled out of the water by helicopter, but with Atkinson’s help he goes back out into the Gulf six hours later by helicopter and rescues the Flyer, despite Iranian gun-boats attacking two tankers, and killing seven people, just to the north of where the Flyer ditched. Atkinson and Milton clean the Flyer between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, change engines and get more instruments from England, glue together the bits that fell off, and on December 31, Milton flies across to Muscat, and then on to Pakistan and in to India.

On January 6, 1988, he has another out-landing on a remote track south of Allalhabad because his fuel filter collapses. That evening, lost and map-less (the Indian Government had changed his route but had not made maps available for his new route), Milton is haunted almost to death by a Djinn that tries to force him to jump out at 5,000 feet. This haunting lasts three days, all the way to Calcutta, and halfway around the Bay of Bengal, and is only beaten in a bizarre way (erotic thoughts of his lover). Milton goes through Rangoon just days before the massacre in late January 1988, and from Bangkok onwards he has a daily struggle against monsoon weather. In Malaysia, he is forced to land in a paddyfield by a broken earthing wire, which Atkinson repairs the following day. Monsoons force a landing on a plantation track just north of Singapore, and the helicopter sent out to guide Milton to safety loses him in cloud, so Milton has a second road landing to ask the way. The helicopter pilot is so pleased to see him at his base that he “bounces” the microlight, nearly killing Milton.

Monsoons feature daily down Sumatra, and along Java and the Indonesian islands, driving Milton out to sea each day while storms rage. At Timor, his sponsor, Dalgety, sends out a plane full of journalists, the first Australian journalists in Indonesia since 5 of them were murdered “pour encourager les autres” for covering the troubles in East Timor.

On his flight to a remote island in Northern Australia – Milton has not the fuel to reach Darwin in one leg – he is given directions by a helicopter from a floating oil rig that just happens to be there that day. He reaches Darwin on January 21, 1988, and races across the Outback to try and get to Sydney in time for the Bicentenary. He has a night landing in Tennant Creek, 550 miles south of Darwin in the Outback, to catch the biggest earthquake in Australia in 100 years. Atkinson, chasing Milton by van with an Australian journalist for company, nearly dies when his van breaks down in night temperatures of more than 100F. When Milton reaches Charleville, he learns that Sydney doesn’t want him for the Bicentenary, but Brisbane does, so Milton spends Bicentenary Day in Brisbane.

On a rushed early morning flight the following day heading for Sydney he lands on the wrong golf course looking for Greg Norman, and breaks an under-carriage leg. This he repairs, but poor weather drives him out to sea and back again to a landing in a disused airfield which ruins his propeller. Atkinson has this fixed, and the following day, 59 days after leaving London, Milton circles over Sydney Harbour Opera House.

This is a “buddy” story, built around the details of a desperate man forced by the logic of his decision to have an adventure, to take the risks he does. No matter how bizarre his luck, he survives in the end because of his refusal to give up. He is supported in this epic adventure by his great friend who keeps putting the aircraft back together again.

There are two sub-plots. One is that Milton’s much younger lover, thinking he might die, gets pregnant by him – and tells him 4 months later – and this occasional story runs in parallel until the baby’s birth. The second sub-plot is the air of boardroom menace around the bosses of Dalgety, the sponsoring company, pegged to the fortunes of the flight (a year later those tensions forced the removal of Chief Executive Terry Pryce, and ultimately, the demise of a great company that had lasted 150 years).

Milton went on, ten years later, to become the first man to circumnavigate the world by microlight.

Chasing Ghosts: Origins of the Atlantic Attempt

Chasing Ghosts

The text from Chapter 2 of Chasing Ghosts is reproduced here. If you would like to read more, click here to find out how to order the book.

I was down in a small old house I have in France in August 1999, struggling to put together a novel and keeping half an eye out for two microlight pilots, Mike Blythe and Olivier Aubert, endeavouring to fly around the Pacific Rim. I had been the first man to fly a microlight around the world, completing the journey the previous year. Now I was following the attempt at a similar journey, in terms of distance covered, by two very experienced pilots.

Mike was a South African, and Olivier a Swiss. They each flew their own flex-wing, but operated as a pair, as much for company as for safety. Four years earlier, they had flown from Cape Town up the east coast of Africa and across the Mediterranean to the North Cape in Norway, the furthest north that Europe goes. They found funding for their flight in bits and pieces, and enjoyed the leisurely experience of the journey, never under time pressure as I had been because of the way I outlined my projects to sponsors, against the clock. If Mike and Olivier liked somewhere, they stayed to enjoy it better. Their flight around the Pacific took them up the west coast of South America, and they were due to go on up the North American coast via Canada and Alaska to Siberia, then down roughly the route I took on the world flight, through Japan and China and Malaysia and Indonesia to end in Australia.

They had all the usual adventures expected on such a flight, but as they reached the United States, the political problems of getting through Russia and Japan daunted them. The authorities in both these countries, for separate reasons, put the intrepid pair off. Mike and Olivier had seen what happened to me in Russia and could not find their own way through. At the same time the Japanese, who do not want foreign microlights flying through their country, opened negotiations (and closed them again, probably giggling as they had with me) by suggesting a landing fee at each airfield of $25,000. Mike and Olivier decided, mid-flight, they would change their ambition and fly around the Atlantic Rim instead.

It was a matter of a few days, calling on the precedent of my flight across the North Atlantic route, to get their permissions changed to allow them to cross Canada via Quebec, Labrador and Innuitland. They took a slightly different course to me to reach Greenland, flew over that, and then “hopped” to Iceland, adding a long flight missing out the Faeroes Islands to get to Scotland. Their new route would take them through France and across Spain, and essentially around the west coast of Africa to Cape Town. There was an epic quality that I would not have enjoyed myself in some of the flights they made in Africa, especially in those two dreadful centres of corruption, Nigeria and Cameroun. But while they were still in Europe I managed to get an invitation through to them from Villefranche du Perigord, and they stopped the night at my house to swap stories and dream. I had a flight in both their machines, just to see how they handled.

Olivier and I soon fell out. He believed I had too easy a flying life, raising sponsorship before making the flights I had done. In his opinion I should be more earthy about my flights and do it in a different spirit, seeking freedom, as he does it. And having heard from Keith Reynolds in England why Keith had left me in Siberia, Olivier wanted to challenge me about that too. He was sitting out on my terrace, chilling out with some exotic weed after we had aired blunt views about our different approaches to adventures, and Mike and I were chatting in the kitchen in a desultory fashion.

What was he going to do after he finished in Cape Town? He thought he would settle down for a bit and recover, financially as much as physically, and wanted to spend time with his family. We looked over possible flights, Everest, Pole to Pole, and eventually, the Atlantic proper, the way it was first done, rather than the way he and Olivier and I had done it, around the edges.

“What is the distance from St Johns in Newfoundland to Ireland,” I asked, idly, ” the way Alcock and Brown did it?”

Mike had a computer with a programme that enabled him to make this calculation easily. He mumbled away for a few moments.

“It looks like 1,915 miles,” he said.

“Is that nautical miles, or statute miles?”


“Do you know, that’s do-able!” I exclaimed, and then wondered if I had blurted out too much. Among pilots whom I thought would also have a go, when it was generally realised that we were capable of making such a flight in microlights, Mike was a prime candidate. But it did not catch Mike’s attention in quite the same way it caught mine. I was afire with the idea. In still air, which I would not have but you have to calculate that way, it would take more than 30 hours to make such a flight. How much fuel would I need? On my longest Atlantic hop, from Kulusuk in eastern Greenland to Reykjavik in Iceland, 450 statute miles, I had used 11 litres an hour with 8 hours, 15 minutes flying. I needed a safety margin, a big one, so if 30 hours used 330 litres, I probably needed 400 litres. I knew that a Frenchman, Guy Delage had carried 350 litres on his microlight flight across the South Atlantic back in 1992. Would current British microlight wings be capable of carrying the same load?

After I saw Mike and Olivier off the following day, heading for Spain, I drafted a one-page proposal which I had ready at any time to present to a potential sponsor. This is the gist of what I proposed:

The distance between St John’s, Newfoundland, and Shannon on the west coast of Ireland, is just 1,915 statute miles (3,064 kms). It was first flown in 1919 by John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown in a Vimy bomber. They took 16h30m to reach Ireland, flying at 100mph with a tailwind. It is possible to cover this huge distance non-stop in a flex-wing microlight, flying at 65mph, and assuming a tailwind of a mere 15 mph (for which I will wait) and do the flight in 24 hours. But in the worst-case scenario, I would have a still-air speed of 60 mph, and no tailwind, taking 33 hours to reach Ireland. This is the same time as Lindbergh took, non-stop, to reach Paris from New York in 1927.

The microlight in which I want to repeat their flight is a Pegasus Quantum Sport 912, the same type of microlight I flew around the world in 1998. It has a Rotax 912 engine, developing 80hp, and using 11 litres/hour; 4-stroke, 4-cylinder, dual ignition, it is one of the most reliable engines in the world. I will carry 400 litres of fuel, a tenth of A&B’s, but fly slower than them. Navigation would be by GPS – global positioning system – so I don’t need to fly in the ice-forming regions above cloud, as they did.

The flight will be made in June/July and take advantage of the better weather forecasts we have today. It is not really about being technically competent; my engine is so much better than A&B’s. It is about character and stoicism. For sponsors, this is a huge event, with a chance to promote themselves world-wide, repeating one of the most famous flights ever made, non-stop from America to Europe.

Over the next sixteen months, I wafted this idea in front of anyone I could find who might be interested in sponsoring it. Whenever I saw an advertisement for a product that aimed to come across to the public as adventurous, I found out who the marketing agency was, and wrote proposing they sponsor my flight. I culled biographies of rich and powerful businessmen from the financial pages of newspapers, especially if I saw they had a private aircraft, or really wanted to be a fighter pilot, and sent them letters with the idea.

Nothing came of it.

The year 2000 could reasonably be described as the worst of my life. Nothing seemed to work. I tried for jobs in television, and even if suited, at 57 I was too old. I got as far as a screen test as a financial reporter, ad libbing two minutes off the FTSE screen, and being deemed excellent. But it did not lead on to work. I lived by occasional talks drummed up by the London Speaker Bureau, and selling part of my store of shares.

It was towards the end of that year that I felt enough was enough. The following year, 2001, was not going to be the same. I had two adventures on the stocks, one to chase the ghost of an early American aviator, William Devoe Coney, across America, the second the flight across the Atlantic. Coney was the first man to fly coast to coast across the USA in a flying time of less twenty-four hours, though because of poor weather back in 1921, his elapsed time coast-to-coast was 57 hours, 27 minutes. I wanted to race that time in a microlight. I had got close once to raising the sponsorship for the Coney Run, which would have covered all my expenses and left me enough for the Atlantic, and even got as far as drafting a contract and sending it out. But the stock markets in which my potential backer was invested either went through the floor, or did not go through the floor quickly enough. Anyway, he called it off. Perhaps in the future, he said, but not now.

In the late Autumn I talked things over with my children, James and Jade. James, 25, was a First Lieutenant in the Army at the time, an Arabic specialist, while Jade, 22, was in her third year at Trinity College, Dublin, studying English and History. I told them I was dying of frustration and that I proposed selling my liquid assets and funding my own adventure. There might, I said, be a possibility that I could sell a TV documentary about one or other of the adventures, but in any case, I wanted to do them both, the Coney Run and the Atlantic. It was their inheritance I proposed spending, but James and Jade both agreed. They are accustomed to seeing me on adventures, and this was just another one. Jade might have worried about who was going to pay her university fees if anything happened to me, but I made adequate provisions against an accident in my last will and testament, which I always leave behind on such adventures.

I had an adequate aircraft, the GT Global Flyer, with about 550 hours on it. Of these, 405 hours were spent going somewhere on the world flight. There was at least another 650 hours of life before I would have to pay out for an major overhaul of the engine, so both adventures were easily within its current service life. The GT Flyer was a Pegasus Quantum 912, built by Pegasus Aviation near Marlborough in Wiltshire, and powered by a Rotax 912 engine, 4-stroke, 4-cylinder and dual ignition, one of the best engines in the world. It had carried 117 litres of fuel on the world flight, 50 litres in a belly tank, 25 litres each in tanks slung either side of me, and 17 litres on the floor of the cockpit. I needed to carry much more fuel than that, but would the wing take it? I phoned Dr Billy Brooks that autumn, the aircraft designer, whose name I had successfully put up for an award coupled to the Segrave Trophy. Billy mumbled while he made his calculations, and then said he thought the wing would take the weight. I asked if they could build me a fuel tank to fit on to my existing wing. He grew vague.

My relationship with Pegasus was an arms-length one. The company had been founded at least 15 years earlier by amalgamating a firm called Solar Wings which made hang glider wings, with other companies that built microlight trike units. I had owned 25% of Solar Wings, and had always used their wings while hang gliding or microlighting. When I flew around the world I had paid the market price for everything, including the aircraft, and during the flight the official Pegasus line was, “nothing to do with me, guv”. Pegasus boss Bill Sherlock was worried, as was most of the British microlighting community, that I would crash and burn in my modified aircraft. Pegasus disclaimed any responsibility for what I had done to make the GT Flyer capable of flying around the world, and for my flying it.

This attitude changed instantly once I had got back safely. From “not me, guv”, the company then spent more than a year, heavily advertising in the aviation media that they had built the first microlight to fly around the world. A photograph (my copyright but who cared? or even asked?) of me flying across the New York skyline was the centrepiece of the advertising. Unknown to me at the time, the company produced a limited edition of ten Quantum 912 microlights, all looking like the GT Flyer. I found it disconcerting to fly into a meeting at Popham, for example, to see four other aircraft almost exact clones of my own. It would have been nice to have known. I think it is reasonable to say that my flight around the world benefited Pegasus.

thought Billy Brooks would be excited about designing a one-off tank for a flight across the Atlantic. In fact, nothing happened for weeks. I phoned again and checked that it was possible to build one, and again Billy said it was. Next, I had a phone call, I think it was from Pegasus marketing man John Fack, with whom I had flown hang gliders for 25 years, demanding a formal letter exonerating Pegasus from anything I was going to do with the big tank. I sent off such a letter, nothing happened again for more months. I lost heart. If Pegasus were not interested, I still had one of their aircraft, but where could I find a fuel tank big enough for the job?

There are three significant microlight manufacturers in Britain; the other two are Medway Microlights near Rochester in Kent, for whom Keith Reynolds had been test pilot, and Mainair Sports up in Rochdale, Lancashire. Colin Bodill had flown a Mainair Blade 912 around the world. Mainair was owned by Eileen Hudson, widow of a man I had done a lot of hang gliding with, John Hudson, but the company was run by Jim Cunliffe. I had met Jim once, a big straight-speaking Northerner with a shy manner, when I saw Colin off on his world flight. Jim had been closely involved in Colin’s flight, and we hardly knew each other well. One day I phoned Jim and told him about my dilemma, saying I had no sponsors, was planning the Atlantic flight on my own using an aircraft built by his main rival, but would Mainair build me a huge fuel tank? Without hesitation, Jim said yes.

The more I talked to Jim, the better I liked him. I went through what I required in detail, and he was so friendly and helpful that I asked, in the end, whether he would rather I did the flights on his aircraft. He said he would. I told him I could not afford to buy a brand new Blade, costing more than £20,000, but I would find the money for all the modifications, including the big tank. In return, I would give him whatever publicity I could get on the Coney Run before the Atlantic.

“Will your wing be able to take such a load, though?” I asked.

Again, we went through the calculation stage, this time with Mainair’s chief designer, Roger Pattrick. After calculations, Roger said it would, but that the safety margins would come down. If I pulled more than 3.5G the wing would collapse. I could pull 3.5G with a 90 degree wingover, well outside the envelope of the wing, if I was so foolish enough to attempt it.

“What about the design of a tank? Guy Delage had one which was virtually part of his aircraft. Could you fit a 400 litre tank into a Blade?” I asked.

Again Roger said he could, but that he needed time to design one. I ended the conversation happy to have allies, and was particularly taken with Jim Cunliffe, an opinion, unlike others, I have had no cause at all to revise after all that happened.

I needed an organiser, and already had a volunteer. Two years earlier at the British Microlight Aircraft Association AGM, I had met Liam Abramson, a smart-looking South African living in north London. I was selling Global Flyer, my book about the world flight, and Liam came up to buy one. From the first he was very impressive, intelligent, decisive, and, I thought, full of character. He urged me to consider him as an organiser if ever I went on another adventure, and I filed away his name. His normal job was lecturing on the business side of music, but he assured me he would be able to fit whatever I needed into his working life.

When I decided on a shoestring budget that both adventures would go ahead, it was a terrific relief. Whatever happened, I could start to plan, and I felt I had come back to life. I phoned Liam and outlined what I was doing. Even though two years had gone by since his initial approach, he was keen to be involved. He had made a couple of microlight flights, in 3-axis rather than flex-wing, but I thought then that actually having experience of flying was secondary to being a good organiser. We met and came to an agreement. He would do the organising for the flights, and look after the media for both of them. I would not pay him a huge sum of money, just £300 a week for a set number of weeks, but the understanding was, if I raised any sponsorship money then his pay would rise to £600/week, much more reasonable income, plus his expenses.

Normally, I do adventures for what the Irish call the craic, because they are there. This time I wanted to involve a charity. I had met Nikki King at aviation functions, introduced to her by Tony Iveson, a former 617 “Dambuster” Squadron pilot and a friend. Nikki had the special attraction for me of being the daughter of Dave Shannon, one of Guy Gibson’s pilots on the famous Dambuster Raid in World War Two. She had recently taken over fund-raising for the Artificial Heart Fund, based at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. The AHF was said to be one of the two foremost pioneers into artificial hearts (the other being a hospital in Texas) and it funded research into the use of artificial hearts. These were used either as a way of resting an existing heart which may suffer temporary damage, or as replacements for worn-out hearts. The supply of human hearts from accident victims was, of necessity, limited, and there was always a much bigger demand for hearts than there was a supply.

At that time in Britain, artificial hearts had been used four times. The hearts themselves, made in the USA and costing £50,000 each, were about the size of a human thumb, but the battery pack to drive it, worn outside the body, was somewhat bigger. The first use of such a heart in this country was on a 19 year old girl called Julie, who was thought certain to die when her heart was infected by a virus. But heart pioneer John Westerby inserted an artificial heart in Julie for just over a week, stopping her own heart and giving it time to recover. He later restarted her by-now rested heart and removed the artificial one. Julie recovered fully and went back to leading a normal life. AHF’s latest patient, Peter Houghton, who had survived 11 months when I met him with the functions of his real heart taken over by an artificial one, planned to walk from John O’Groats to Lands End to raise money for the charity, and to show how fit he was. I was to give him his first microlight flight.

Nikki was happy to allow me to associate her charity with my flight, essentially to raise its public profile rather than as a direct fund-raiser. I had no experience of raising money for charity through adventures, and we could not think of a way to do more than get publicity.

I started planning the flights in detail in early 2001, first the Coney Run and then the Atlantic. I spent as much time researching the Coney adventure as I did the Atlantic flight, and it threads through the Atlantic story. Much of February, for example, I spent in America, eight days in Washington tracking down the official reports on Coney’s 1921 flight, and ten days in his home town of Brunswick, Georgia, finding his grave and the original house he lived in, still standing. I would not have been able to take all the financial costs had it not been for the network of campanologists that I was introduced to by a girlfriend at the time, Elva Ainsworth, one of the country’s top bell-ringers.

In early March, Liam invited me to a reception at a legal firm in the City of London. He told me his brother John was an up and coming lawyer at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, a large international law firm. One reason I was invited was because of my world flight, as a “notable” pilot, and there I met a couple of American women pilots who were due to set out on an air race to Australia. At that reception I was introduced to a man who seemed central to the aviation establishment. He was called David Gleave, his card described him as chief ATC Investigator for a company called Aviation Hazard.

He was a client of Liam’s brother, which gave him great credibility, both in my eyes and in Liam’s. Gleave was very taken with the proposed Atlantic flight and volunteered his help, specifically with Canadian permissions. He seemed to know a great deal about the subject, who to speak to, the procedures to be gone through, and we welcomed his offer. He also volunteered two other jobs, to find us a large Russian aircraft called an Antonov 124 to get me and the microlight to America, and to get me permission to fly off an Antonov wing in my trike, when it is on the ground, of course, to demonstrate its flying characteristics.

From time to time over the next three months I checked with Gleave that all was well, both by e-mail and by telephone. I was assured it was, that there were no problems he was not capable of coping with, and he would let me know if there were. I met him again at the annual fly-in at Popham, full of charm and enthusiasm. It turned out that getting a lift to America by Antonov 124 just never quite happened, and nor did the wing take-off. But at least the Canadian permissions were going without a hitch.

There were two odd aspects about the flight that I feel worth recording. The first is that I now often saw Helen Dudley, the amateur actress who was then a PA in a City company, and who had been a muse on the world flight. We used to meet at her flat near Bow, or my house in Bethnal Green, for dinner. Helen had once had her stars read by my friend Stephen Lewis, a brilliant City economist whom I had known for 15 years, and trusted more than any man in the world. Fluent in both forms of Roman Latin and in Ancient Greek, Stephen had regularly led the institutional polls as best economist in the City in the 1980’s, and we had got to know each other when I was TV-am’s Financial Correspondent. Stephen had learned all the various forms of astrology in the certain belief that one cannot understand Greek or Roman (or Chinese) history without such knowledge. He thought Helen was very gifted in these airy arts – reading palms, astrology, tarot cards – in which I myself do not believe. But when a beautiful woman offers to read your Tarot cards, what do you say? One evening early in January, I picked nine tarot cards and Helen read my future. I do not claim to understand what it was all about, but they were these:

1. King of Staves – light colour, fair skin, slimly built. Likes me but is not getting involved with me. Cheers me up. Good at marketing.

2. Justice – Fairness, balance, taking the outcome as good. Fairness in a wider sense. Terrific if joint venture is to be entered. If marriage, would work. Agreement through discussion, even if I am honest and others are not, I am right.

3. Three Cups (R = Reversed) – A fun card (wedding? a child? house-warming?). Even a reverse is fun, frivolity or sex. Expected marriage. If an affair, marriage will not follow.

4. Strength – Someone ill recovers soon. Tired, down-hearted, then things will improve. I will overcome obstacles, even against pressure. Achievements and success ahead. It’s a good card for interviews. Quiet courage of the unexpected kind. Good wins over evil.

5. King of Swords (R) – Aggressive man stirs up trouble. Lawyer in opposition? Medical, professional man whom I will be against. May be evil because he cannot help it. Expect aggression, tantrums, even violence from this man.

6. Death – Never means death (except sometimes with old and sick). Means change. Current situation will change. Death of old self, new way of life. Initially unpleasant, even financial losses, a change in health, but always a chance to make good. Changes from unnecessary past rubbish to a new start.

7. Knight of Swords (R) – Tough, brave, intelligent, young man will help me soon. Assertive dark young man. Reverse is an aggressive destructive dark young man, or just active ambitious man, will come into my life. Arguments. Medical, surgical treatment soon.

8. Page of Staves – Intelligent, restless youngster shows up when I’m on a journey. Young visitors a long way off. Surprising news on the way about work and old friends, minor property matters go ahead now.

9. Six Coins (R) – Money shared out soon. May be the result of an inheritance. Too many people are draining me of energy. Also, could be in a good position to help out others.

Then Helen asked me to think of the most important question in my life this coming year, and pick a card. I thought the question was: Will I be alive at the end of it? I pulled a card called Magician. This is said to depict new opportunities, new relationship, more likely business than romance. There will soon be a chance to use existing skills, education, perhaps something in politics? Bold step, chancy element, but the card says, go ahead, have a go. Put ideas into practice, get rewarded. It presupposes self-reliance.

From time to time as this story unfolds, go back to this tarot reading.

The second oddity came from another woman, Judy Leden, a friend for twenty years ever since she came into hang-gliding, when she felt that I had steered her into becoming a great pilot. As she was at one time and simultaneously, the British, European and World Woman’s hang gliding champion, and also held, in three separate flights, the British, European and World distance record, she was undoubtedly great. In microlighting, in 1994, she and a second separate pilot, Ben Ashman, flew two microlight aircraft – each 100 kgs overweight – from London to Amman in Jordan. In the process, they raised £100,000 for a cancer fund commemorating a young Jordanian girl, Yasmin Saudi (Judy’s daughter was named Yasmin) whose death prompted the journey.

Judy’s book, Flying with Condors, was beautifully written and there was talk of it being filmed. Now married to another good pilot, Chris Dawes, and with two children, I had seen much less than usual of Judy in recent years. But she sent me a note before I left on the Atlantic flight, commenting on the feeling that sometimes comes over her when friends get into danger. Her husband had recently broken his leg hang gliding (in horrendous conditions) and Judy, who was 20 miles away, knew while it was happening that it was going on. She was already on the way to find him long before anyone else knew about the accident.

She told me that when she had last seen the great young American hang glider pilot, Chris Bulger back in 1985, she clung to him crying, as if she knew it was the last time she would see him; he was killed soon afterwards, ahead of their next rendezvous. Judy said she had these insights as a matter of form, even though she did not like them. Her 6-year old daughter, Yasmin, may have the same “gift”; Yasmin was at home when her mother took off recently into difficult conditions, and the nanny heard Yasmin say, at the exact time of take-off, “Be careful, Mummy”.

At no time during my world flight, or earlier during my Australia flight, did Judy have these feelings about me. She “knew” I was going to be all right. She told me that so far she had not had these feelings about my Atlantic Flight. It was a question of, so far, so good. I was not sure I wanted to know if Judy ever did get these feelings.

There was little risk attached to Coney, but much more to the Atlantic flight. Was I capable of doing it? I had been “on the road” for 121 days on the flight around the world, but never been more than 10 hours in the air on any one day. This is a lot of hours, especially as there is no automatic pilot and all the flying is “live”, but it was still less than a third of what I was planning in repeating Alcock and Brown’s flight. My normal daily diet on the world flight had been simple; eat and drink as little as possible in the morning so as not to want to go to the toilet in the air, chew gum all day, and in the evening eat and drink as much as I could.

Dr Carl Hallam, the BMAA’s doctor and a Blade 912 Flyer, was a former Royal Marine with experience of work in the Arctic. He suggested a number of precautions I must take:

” I am not an expert in the academic sense, although having worked for three winters in the Arctic, I am very conscious of the practical problems. I suppose that it is fair to say that if all goes well with electric clothing, that you will probably not get cold at all throughout your flight. However, at the expense of being tedious I would like to outline the mechanisms by which we generate heat and keep warm as this knowledge will make the experts advice more understandable.

We need fuel, but have no reliable fuel gauge, so P.P.P.P.P.P. is our only reliable safeguard (Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance).

To generate heat, all our food is ultimately broken down in our bodies into glucose, our actual fuel. When we move our muscles, we metabolise the glucose, carried in our bloodstream from our gut. This produces carbon dioxide and water with the release of energy, which actually makes the muscle contract and heat, which keeps us at 37C. We blow off the carbon dioxide in our expired air. The blood, acting like a central heating system carries the heat from the muscles to the rest of the body. The bigger the muscles, the more heat they generate; digging the garden or running on a hot day makes us very hot. Standing motionless on a very cold day will make us even more cold. Therefore moving the large muscles like legs and arms will be your only source of heat if other systems fail. I am anxious that you will not be able to do this, strapped into your Blade.

This whole process can only continue provided there is a sufficient supply of fuel. We are not talking about huge quantities here. Our daily ration pack in the Arctic provided 5,500 Calories in two meals which enabled us to ski with large packs both uphill and downhill, as well as keeping warm. These activities at minus 20C or less in fact made us very hot.

Various parts of the body can function below 37C, hands and feet for instance, but the brain has a very narrow temperature tolerance, and must be kept at or near 37C to function normally. Below this, one becomes progressively confused and ultimately unconscious.

The problem is the lack of a fuel gauge to give us an “at a glance” estimation of our nutritional state.

Bearing in mind the ‘reward’ aspect of eating, all you need do is literally fill a bag of all your favourite treats and munch your way across the Atlantic. This way you will undoubtedly consume sufficient calories and your spirits will be far higher than if you were sucking some awful sweet and sticky fluid through a tube. You MUST of course actually eat your goodies and not be so British that you arrive in Shannon with them still all wrapped up in the bag.

You will need at least two litres of fluid, either plain water or two litres of the rehydration mixture correctly made up that I gave you.

As for Heat Loss, at every breath we take in about 1 litre of air at say, 0 – 5C at night. We breathe the same air out at 37C. We have to heat every litre of air to 37C in order to exchange gasses in our lungs. That means, unfortunately, that however well insulated you are in trendy Goretex nicks, socks, Long Johns etc. we cannot prevent the heat loss of respiration. You can see the links that exist between heat gain and heat loss and the crucial role that fuel plays in keeping us warm..”

It is as well Carl Hallam did not consider the diet of Alcock and Brown on the original 1919 flight, with Alcock in particular partial to swigging whisky to keep himself warm in the air. I decided I needed to know more about the two principal ghosts I was going to race against, and the third, Charles Lindbergh, under whose flight-path I was going to travel.

A Jolly Little Caper

Flying a microlight to Australia with the blind adventurer, Miles Hilton-Barber.

With just 12 hours notice Brian was asked to accompany blind pilot Miles Hilton-Barber for the first section of his London to Australia microlight flight attempt.

Brian successfully flew Miles to Cyprus, before handing over to Richard Meredith-Hardy for the long-haul to Australia.

You can read  Brian’s full account by downloading the free PDF, Jolly Little Caper

Meeting the Queen-for the 2nd Time

Brian Milton met the Queen for the first time in 1985 when she presented him with an award for his services to the sport of Hang-Gliding.

Brian was invited to Buckingham Palace for the second time on December 8, 2011, as one of Britain’s ‘explorers and adventurers’ to mark the centenary of Scott of the Antarctic’s last fatal expedition. Here is his account of that day.

There was a terrific wind on Thursday evening as I set out to meet the Queen. Up in the north a gust of 135mph had been recorded, and at least two of those wind generators had burst into flames through over-spinning. I finished writing all my Christmas cards and sent them out with presents, and then limped to the Underground before taking two lines in three stops via Liverpool Street and Bank to London Bridge Station, then further limping to the home of an old friend called Moira, whose daughter Matilda was seven years old that day. Anna, an artist who flies with me, was looking after Moira’s twins Hector and Ptolemy, and her own daughter Jessica, while Moira taxied off to pick up Matilda. Anna made me promise to filch a piece of chocolate from Buckingham Palace, but I was quite open about it all evening, also vowing to secure a second piece of royal chocolate for Matilda’s birthday. Moira turned up, and an unimpressed Matilda, while Jessica had the mother and father of a nappy rash and bellowed, Hector stumped around looking like a future Rheinhardt Messner, climbing everything in sight, and Ptolemy also had a whinge.

It was a simple four stops to Green Park station, then I had to stump through the trees of Green Park itself, in the gloom, other figures obviously heading the same way to the traffic lights on Constitution Hill. The lights shone through the black trees and wind noises were obvious; to the west was the now-building Bomber Command Association Memorial that my friend Tony Iveson had initiated. At the Palace, there was a line at the left entrance to the parade square – where the Changing of the Guard occurs each day – and I was picked out, not just to show my ticket, but to hustle around for my driver’s licence with photo to show I was who I was. The line stretched through an arch into an inner courtyard and round a square, walking now four deep, until we were met by Palace servants who sent the men to one cloakroom, and the women to another. Here I saw my first familiar face, RMH – Richard Meredith Hardy – with his large black beard and huge bush of hair allegedly trimmed.

It’s one of the oddities about this event that you can’t phone your friends before it and have a joint chortle, because you don’t know if they have been invited or not. If they were not, you have made an enemy for life, being big-headed. No list was published, I tried the previous day, so it was a question of wait and see. We walked upstairs into huge rooms with high ceilings and portraits of early nineteenth century princes, dukes and earls, and then into a room with alert pretty girls, two or three to a desk marked A-C, D-F, and so on. I picked up my own badge, marked with my name and labelling me ‘Journalist and Adventurer’, later yearning for the badge of the woman solo flyer Polly Vacher which just said ‘Solo Flyer’. Why couldn’t that have been my title? I wafted on and more familiar faces came into view as we were handed flutes of champagne. I checked later, it was Mumm, really good quality stuff, Ian Fleming had James Bond drink it, and we all began to warm up.

I saw Simon Murray on one corner, now Chairman of the of the mining giant Glencore, and his pioneer flying wife Jennifer, whom I had helped write her biography, ‘Now Solo’ after she was the first woman to fly around the world in a helicopter. Simon, mid-70’s, once labelled by my daughter Jade as ‘the great boy/man’, had joined the French Foreign Legion at the age of 20 for a 5-year stint for the lost love of Jennifer, and had gone on to Hong Kong and founded Orange as Taipai of the Chinese conglomerate Hutchinson Whampoa. He was said to have a fortune of $150 million, and had at least 7 homes around the world, in Hong Kong, Phuket in Thailand, in Paris and with an estate 30 miles from me in the Dordogne, in Knightsbridge with another estate near the Prince of Wales in Glocs, and a Manhattan apartment. When Simon appeared on Desert Island Discs, the BBC issued a public health warning, because, between choosing 8 records he would take to a desert island, Simon had told the story of fighting in the Algerian War of independence in the 1960’s. To prove he had killed the enemy, he had cut off an Arab’s head and carted it around in a bag. You have to wonder who the Arab was. Not many captains of industry have done that. He greeted me with his customary delight, commented that I had lost none of my hair, and – the oldest person ever to walk to the South Pole – scooted off to find his partner on that wheeze, Pen Hadow.

Meanwhile, I saw Colin Bodill, second man to fly a microlight around the world – he and Jennifer Murray flew as a pair – and there was the usual badinage. He had been a world microlight champion, but I had twice beaten him to records – he had flown a microlight to Australia 10 years after I had done. He was always faster than me, but being Number 2 was, for him, a pisser.

Familiar faces floated by, RMH again, then Andy Green, fastest man on earth – having driven a car through the Sound Barrier – to win the Segrave a year before I did. To my absolute delight, I found ‘Wheely Dave’ Sykes, the paraplegic who, earlier this year, had flown a trike from London to Sydney with no sponsor and no carer – the best flight of the year – and he later gave me his book with the witty title, ‘On a Wing and a Chair’. I had thought no one remembered him in Britain, though he had stacks of media coverage outside Britain, because the royal wedding had completely wiped him off the British news scene. He left the country the day before Pippa Middleton’s bum became a star.

We were herded left and told to put away our drinks, and there was a line leading to the Queen, small and charming and dressed in cream, with a coterie of courtiers, and beyond her, Prince Phillip. I learned later that the Princess Royal – Princess Anne – was also there, and I saw Prince Michael of Kent – who had saved my arse on the world flight by persuading the Chinese to let us into their country – but the young princes, Wills and Harry, were not there, though Prince Andrew’s daughter Princess Beatrix was (I am told). I lined up, heard a voice say, ‘Brian Milton – Journalist and Adventurer’, bowed, took the Queen’s hand lightly, said ‘good evening ma’am’, and then went on and said ’good evening, sir’ to her husband, and bowed again and then wandered off in the company of a young black man called Dwayne Fields who was a Polar traveller and came from working-class Hackney and was zapped out of mind, having just shaken the Queen’s hand. I got his card and he can be googled.

When I found Colin Bodill’s familiar battered face again, we stood and gossiped. I thought the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC had taken his microlight for display, but they wanted it for nothing, and Colin couldn’t afford that. When I said I hoped Hollywood would take my aircraft to make a feature film of my flight, he asked me to sell his too, and he started telling me stories. He had met Prince Phillip three times, once when they stood and drank together for nearly an hour. My experience of Prince Phillip was from one previous meeting, when I was ‘saluted’ by the Air League – I have a paper proof hanging on one wall – after the world flight in 1998, and he spied me from the speaker’s platform. He walked over, shook my hand, leaned forward and said, simply, ‘you’re mad’, and walked back to the platform again.

I had a real gossip with Jennifer Murray, and with Polly Vacher – both have dropped out of the adventure game, Jennifer to take up running at the age of 73, Polly breeding donkeys. A man and a pretty girl came into view – I never knew who the girl was – but the man, John Penrose, was an MP, and – I discovered – Minister for Tourism and Heritage in the current Government. I’d had some champagne by now so I tackled him about what I call ‘The People’s Fly-Past’, running 60 microlights down the Thames in June next year to commemorate 60 years of the Queen’s reign. Penrose got very interested, despite me saying it was a political problem and the CAA would oppose it. We got on very well, and I sent him an updated history and an outline of the wheeze. Naturally, being me, I was disappointed that he didn’t send back an immediate reply.

Meanwhile, the Queen was being guided around to carefully orchestrated guests. I saw Colin and I were in the line once, and we vibrated with hope though I am sure this was not apparent, but we were assessed by pretty girls with clip-boards who obviously decided we were not suitable, and the Queen veered off to the other side of the room. Canapés were distributed, more champagne, and I saw familiar faces from television – Michael Palin, the TV wildlife expert Ray Mears, even Bear Grylls, the Chief Scout, luckily not with RMH because RMH has strong and vocal views about Grylls. The background is that RMH really did fly a rag wing over Everest, and had the photographic proof, while Grylls had a 90-minute TV programme in which he gave the impression of flying a rag wing over Everest, only he didn’t, and he cobbled together some mumbo-jumbo that obscured this fact.

We were ushered out into the cold at about 8.45, and I invited RMH over to Moira’s house where I was expecting to find my son James, who never turned up all evening. But Moira was there, one of the twins was poorly, and I gave Matilda the rather battered piece of chocolate I had purloined. She looked at it with suspicion. It was a white chocolate ball with cream inside.

‘What’s that green bit?’ she asked.

I couldn’t see one and said so, and she stuck out her tongue and licked it cautiously.

‘No, thanks,’ she said. I gobbled it up. Silly girl. Missed a good story.

I left the other battered bit there to go in the fridge for Anna. Moira began opening $50 bottles of Calornia wine, which we were drinking when Ed turned up from working.

Moira excused her extravagance. ‘Brian’s just been to see the Queen!’

RMH and I wandered home at 11.30 and I set him up in the middle room. He was off on an adventure to the South Pole next year, and secured introductions at the Palace to members of the British Antarctic Survey team, offering to carry out experiments for them. We both agreed it had been a good evening, and we were glad we had such a splendid Queen.