Thursday 30 September 2010


At last. Last week I was eventually unthwarted! Something that I had been trying to do and hoping for for a long long time came to fruition. It was.....actually let me tell you about Seal first.

Dark Lady and I went to the BBC to watch Seal perform his hits and tracks from his new album for a Radio 2 In Concert introduced by Jo Whiley. I have seen her many times over the last few months. Always on the stage of the BBC Radio Theatre though. So if I was a marginally stupider person than I am naturally I would assume that she lives behind the stage and from our vantage point is only 3 feet tall.

Seal however is far taller. He was enjoyable despite some rather rambling song introductions that made you wish he would get on it and a fantabulous clunker of a start to a song in which he was singing in a totally different key to the band. He sprung a nice surprise though with an amazing version of "Vienna" which I filched to play on my show a couple of mornings later.

If there was one thing I wish he had thought about was the lighting. I have grumbled about excessive volume produced by pub bands on this blog in the past. You don't need to mic up the drumkit in front of a crowd in a boozer. I checked with the pro's; the BBC sound engineers who told me it wasn't necessary. It was just bands living their "stadium" dreams in front of a crowd of 25 drunks in the Red Lion on a weekend as they fumble their way through some lacklustre AC/DC covers.

Seal as you would expect had a terrific band including a horn section consisting of four blonde women in skimpy black outfits. They could play but it immediately put us in mind of Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" video. Bet they thought it too. The sound courtesy of the BBC was perfect but the lights aaauuuggggh the lights!!!!!!!

Time was when going to a gig meant there were a few thunderflashes a bit of smoke, the odd strobe and spotlights. All of which were on stage and illuminated the band. Who had the bright idea of whirling rotating brilliant spots constantly changing colour and shining out into the audience? It was blinding and meant that we were unable to see him half the time as he was in silhouette. I had my eyes jammed shut for much of the performance as did the DL. (I have seen that face before but that is a different story). Alan "Barrowlands" Boyd producer of the Terry Wogan show was sitting next to me and it was annoying him too.

So to the main news.

A couple of years ago you may remember I blogged about a guy called Nick Marley of the Yeoman Light Aircraft Company (to visit the website click here) who had after some badgering got me to fly in his Dynamic microlight. He was insistent that I could learn to fly one despite being a rather poor student and not understanding sums and stuff as I had never passed my Maths 'O' Level.

I flew with him. Quite enjoyed it but went away and thought little more about it. However we are all susceptible to a seed being planted in our minds. I am a bloke as we know that means the answer is always a big fat NO! until somehow it becomes our idea.

Maybe this is why the DL begins every conversation with the words "Diamond encrusted Lamborghini". No idea what she is on about......hmm wonder if that car of hers needs an upgrade?

Months went by and suddenly I began to wonder if at 53 I was too long in the tooth to learn a new skill.

A quick look on the internet and up popped HADAIR run by a bloke called Steve Wilkes (click here to visit the website). He seemed pretty friendly on the phone and was quite reassuring when I voiced that my overriding concern was not to make a smoking crater in the earth and what happens when the engine stops as you can't get out and push it to the side of the road like you can with a car.

I also had to check the bank balance to find out if it was financially beyond me. Whilst not as cheap as sitting on a park bench with a couple of cans of Stella it is not beyond the realms of us mere mortals. As I got into it I noticed that my fellow students and qualified pilots were all normal folk from self employed painter and decorators to salesmen and a lady who worked in a pharmacy.

So at the beginning of February 2009 I took my first tentative steps towards becoming a microlight pilot. Another revelation was that it was all very friendly and totally free from snobbery as I thought aviation was riddled with chaps in crisp short sleeved shirts talking about "the deck"and "fillies". There were quite a number of women flyer's too which was a comfort.

So with some trepidation I drove to Halfpenny Green Airport near Wolverhampton to begin my "training". My first instructor was Les Richardson a tall bloke with glasses who seems to be able to fly anything from Microlights to the bigger stuff when he is not on a huge motorcycle riding around in Tibet. I think he looks at everything with a view "hmm will it fly" be it something with wings or even a cupboard.

Training progressed slowly and at times I got discouraged as I didn't seem to be making any progress. The plane I was learning on a three axis fixed wing with the unfortunate name of an "Ikarus" C42. Manufactured in Germany. (Who said the Germans had no sense of humour)? Was proving a bit of a beast to tame. The C42 is one of the most forgiving and benign aircraft ideal for beginners who are prone to mistakes i.e me!

I lost count of the times I nearly steered us off the runway. Or when we took off we went off sideways. It is a mite disconcerting to hear your instructor shout "whooooaaaaaaaa!!!!" as you leave the ground at a drunken angle and then proceed to fly sideways one wing permanently low as you wrestle with the controls whilst trying to remember to look out of the window, look at the instruments fiddle with the stick and press the rudder pedals with some sort of coordination.

Les rather relieved I think went off on one of his extended Himalayan motorcycle jaunts to recuperate so my training then fell to Steve or "Wilksee" as he likes to be known.

Progress had been slow. All those things to remember and after about half an hour my brain would be waving a flag of surrender from my ear. It continued to be slow as the voice of my new instructor yelled "Whhoooaaaaaaaa!!!!!" as we took off sideways for the umpteenth time.

Then there was the ground school and the exams. Would I be able to do the Meteorology, the Navigation, the Human limitations the Air Law? To my surprise yes. Not always easily. The Navigation I found the hardest. Plotting the "Triangle of Velocity" In other words if you are flying along how to stay on course when the wind is blowing you in a different direction.

Everyone pitched in to help the flying Dunce. Jim, Debs, Steve, John, Alan Voyce as well as Roy and in the control Tower Clive who was effortlessly good humoured and kept his calm as a stammering radio call would come in "India Yankee inbound from the North West" no the South....well I can see the airfield".

Gradually progress began to be made. My brain didn't seize up and I learned what happens when the engine stops. It seemed to stop a lot too as 90% of the syllabus is geared to safety.

One day in September last year. Having sputtered to a halt outside the Hadair hut and switched the engine off. Wilksee turned to me and said:

"Off you go"




"That is what we usually mean by solo...yes"

So heart in mouth I taxied to the holding point where I radioed the tower.

"Golf India Yankee holding at Alpha 5 ready for departure."

"Line up on the runway" came the reply from Clive.

My mind went blank. What on earth did he mean? I had not heard that expression used before.

We had been chatting the day before and he had said to me. "If you ever have a problem and you don't understand something just ask us in plain English. That is what we are there for".

So in my best Douglas Bader I stammered: "ER Clive I am sorry but I have no idea what you mean"

"Drive your little plane out onto the runway. point it in the right direction with the nose lined up with the white line. Wait there and DON'T TAKE OFF UNTIL I TELL YOU"!

I did I was bidden and then I was off. With only one on board we went off down the runway like a rocket and with 100 metres or so we were in the air climbing fast (and sideways of course). I was up to 600 feet in seemingly seconds turned left. Looked to my left to see the airfield disappearing fast and then my right to check everything was clear and then I noticed something.......


It was a long way down and it was up to me to go once round the block and land back at the starting point. Somehow this happened without mishap despite the words from the tower echoing around the airfield and in my headphones:

"If the gentleman who has just landed would like to taxi the remains of his aircraft to the apron"

I felt like Lindbergh as people crowded round me shaking my hand and congratulating me.

That was a milestone. Once that hurdle has been overcome the training quickens. Including two trips off to other airfields by yourself as a navigation exercise. First one was off down to Shobden in Herefordshire which has a fabulous cafe in a nissen hut. So down I went landed strode confidently into the reception area to pay my landing fee and sign in. They could tell I was a fresh faced novice . Why else would his hands be shaking so much he could hardly hold the pen.

The following day it was off down to Great Malvern and a farm strip. Never landed on grass before.....I did it and when I switched the engine off there was a deathly hush. There was not a soul about. I was surrounded by fields. It occurred to me had I made a smoking crater in the ground no one would have known.

Took off for the return leg brimming with confidence until I opened my mouth to speak to the Airfield to announce my impending arrival.

"Halfpenny Green Information this is erm er this is er a er plane thing er from golf foxtrot sort of yankee thingy erm coming in from the er north east or somewhere". My brain was completely frazzled. No one laughed (that much anyway) as they had all been in the same position themselves so knew how I was feeling.

Progress had slowed somewhat earlier in the year due to sciatica, bad weather and American Adventure 3. So it was a bit of a surprise when Wilksee announced that he was putting me in for the test the other week when I was on holiday.

Hence last weeks blog about being thwarted. The weather didn't play ball.

Last Wednesday it did.

I had done the show gone back to bed. Not slept a wink and then caught the train up to the Midlands. Out to the airfield and a rendezvous with Gordon Faulkner. He is a softly spoken calm man who arrived for the test in his own plane and quickly put me at ease. We went through all the checks and he asked me a few questions and then we taxi'd out to the runway.

"Golf India Yankee holding at zero four ready for departure." I said calmly and confidently.

"Take off at your discretion" came the reply.

"You ready, Gordon?"

"Yes when you are ready, no rush"

"Whhhhooooooaaaaaaaaaa" we chorused as I charged down the runway and took off sideways as I had not allowed for the wind.blowing across the runway. Grate start Alex!

"Halfpenny Green Information this is Golf Charlie Foxtrot India Yankee inbound from the south requesting overhead joining instructions"

"North" sighed Gordon. "You are inbound from the North but don't worry we are nearly there and they can see us.

So an hour and half later we were back on the ground and Gordon was very generously filling the forms out to say that I had passed. There had been some mistakes but most importantly I was deemed safe to fly and to carry a passenger.

I was/am a pilot.

It has taken some time and has been frightening, frustrating, worrying, infuriating and exhilarating. However it has most definitely been worth it.

Not only because I have learned the basics of a new skill but also I have made many new friends along the way.

So thank you Instructors Steve and Les for your endless patience and gritted teeth.

Thank you to everyone at Halfpenny Green who have watched me develop over the last 18 months.

Mitch, Ruth, Jo, Rachel, Lisa, Saad, Tom, loads of people called Steve and Dan. In fact too many to name so apologies if I have missed you out. Without exception everyone has been unfailingly good humoured and encouraging. They have egged me on when I began to have doubts that I was making any progress. They have commiserated when things didn't go according to plan. They have cheered when things did.

The Dark Lady has agreed to be my first passenger. However I am going to take some time to fly around before I risk such a valuable cargo.

So if you are thinking about it, why not go take a trial flight and see if it suits. If I can do it you most certainly can.


Don't forget you can follow me on Twitter by clicking here and, using the same login details, you can listen to my Audioboos here.

Plus, get thinking of that record you would like me to play on Listener's Library: maybe a song you haven't heard in ages that is special to you, a dedication, a song you once owned but now don't and you are desperate to hear it again, or maybe just a weird song that you think will annoy me. Click here


Unknown said...

Congratulations! Now the birds are worried Alex, tally ho!

Annie said...

What an amazing achievement, Congratulations on your success! Great photos too!

Unknown said...

Wow. I'm very jealous. And, therefore, I have to insult you :-) Why are you dressed like you work in a hospital?
Surely, when dicing with death, you want to wear something that will hide the stains better than bright white trousers!

Maid of Kent said...

Congratulations and well done for sticking with its its good to surprise yourself every now and then!

mwhite229 said...

Don't know what I was expecting but am much impressed by your news. Well done you. Does this mean you will be moving to the Silly Isles (!!) and flying in each morning to do the shoe; won't be much air traffic at 2am so should be safe enough. Look out John Travolta, The DL will be looking for a 747 soon...........

Mike from Pudsey said...

Congratulations Alex. When will the leather flying helmet, goggles and Biggles jacket make an appearance?

The Pea Pod said...


I had a crack at flying lessons an age ago. I managed 9 hours flying time but gave up because I had a thing for dive bombing cows, freaking out my instructor...I enjoyed it though

Martin Lower said...

Congratulations Dark Lord!!! I take it the Lear jet is on order?

stroppymedic said...

Live not too far from Halfpenny Green. Suspect airspace over field where we walk dog is where they practice stalling. Most disconcerting when small plane suddenly cuts out overhead (especially if you're an off-duty paramedic who doesn't fancy picking bits of pilot out of a crater). So far they all seem to splutter back into life though. Was one you??

stroppymedic said...

Live not too far from Halfpenny Green. Suspect they use airspace over field where we walk dog to practice stalling. Most disconcerting when little plane overhead suddenly cuts out (especially if you're an off-duty paramedic who doesn't fancy picking up bits of pilot from craters). Fortunately so far they all seem to sputter back into life without mishap. Was one of them you??

Twix said...

Congratulations! Sounds brilliant. You can now be called Biggles.

Sorry to hear about the pier though. :(

Andyc said...

Well done ........ when are you taking the extra time at the end of your current show ao you can be on an extra 90minutes !!

Amanda Christine Cox said...

Chocks Awaaayyy!!

If you fancy flying to Redhill Aerodrome they have a fab little greasy spoon there and I'll buy you a "Full Monty" breakfast if your stomach isn't doing butterflies.

Congrats. I cant even manage a manual car!


Nick Marley said...

Alex I'm a bit slow in commenting, but belatedly let me publicly congratulate you on your achievement in passing your GST.

I'm sure you'd agree that flying isn't "hard" - but it takes a great deal of application and persistence to complete your license - especially when the inevitable bad weather and setbacks halt progress - and for this you can be very proud indeed.

It doesn't seem as long as 2 years ago that we took you for a trip in the Dynamic, but as I have said I take full irresponsibility for getting you into this hobby! More seriously, I hope that the privledge of being a pilot gives you as much joy and fulfilment as it has given me for the last 18 years (now over half of my life!).

Very well done!