A Bird’s Eye View

And I dream I’m an eagle
And I dream I can spread my wings
Flying high, high, I’m a bird in the sky
I’m an eagle that rides on the breeze.
High, high, what a feeling to fly
Over mountains and forests and seas
And to go anywhere that I please. ~ABBA

This weekend I finally realized a childhood dream and got to fly a plane. The flight was a birthday gift from the One & Only, and I have been anticipating a clear, warm day with increasing impatience. This Easter weekend, the sky was blue, and the temperature was at last resembling something Spring-like. I called the flight instructor on Friday and made a booking.

We have driven around, across and over the Isle of Wight several times already. The One & Only is on a mission to circumnavigate it by foot. He also hopes to sail around it one day. (Yes, I will go with him, but only if I can lounge around with a glass of bubbles and no one expects me to do stuff with ropes.) We could cycle around it or join the International Scooter Rally (the Vesper Festival?) on a motorbike, but I loathe pedalling up hills, and nor do I fancy the crowds at a motorbike rally. I would rather take to the clouds and fly around the Isle of Wight. Like an eagle.

Admittedly, the plane I am proposing to fly is a far cry from a Boeing 747 or even a Cessna, but a flighty, light-as-a-feather Microlight. Jon Thornburgh, a microlight pilot I discovered on the internet, describes a Microlight as “seat of the pants” flying, which I find slightly disturbing. And my flight instructor is no more reassuring, as he outlines the differences between Microlights and larger aircraft.

Many microlights have very little instrumentation, most do not even have a compass. So, it’s risky to fly through cloud, or at night time. In other words, just don’t. A Microlight is also quite a bit slower than a regular plane. However, due to its relative simplicity, the licensing regulations for both pilots and aircraft are less stringent than for conventional light aircraft. I guess that’s a good thing. It certainly allows for a slightly cheaper hobby.
As its name suggests, the Microlight is incredibly light – it’s made of fiberglass – which means you can manoeuvre it around an airfield with a gentle push. It also means there’s a weight issue: there’ll be no squeezing an elephant into the back of this Mini. And it makes the Microlight more susceptible to the elements, so be prepared for a bit of bouncing about on the breeze.

As I was soon to discover, my perfect spring day was not necessarily the best time for a smooth ride. Contrary to popular belief – well, mine, anyway – winter is the best time to fly, as long as you have a decent coat. Firstly, there are no thermals to contend with – these are what creates the trampoline effect – so your flight will be much calmer and smoother. There will also be greater visibility. Whereas Brighton and Bournemouth are both a murky blur on the horizon on this hazy April afternoon, crisp, clear winter skies allow for 100-mile visibility. In winter, you are also less likely to run into a thunderstorm – unless you forgot to heed that looming mass of black cloud – and there will be fewer small aircraft to contend with.

A slightly less reassuring piece of information: the Microlight comes apart like Lego (my word not his) and can likewise be put back together with very little effort, so it can be maintained by unlicensed mechanics. If you are good at Lego. Hmmm.

Before I left home, I was pleased to read on a website that Microlighting has advanced so much over the last twenty years that it has become the safest and most affordable form of motorised flight in the UK. And much to my relief, I would not be flying in one of those one-seater, open-to-the-elements, glorified-paraglider-type microlights or gyrocopters, but a real plane with wings, two seats and a door you can shut. Albeit a small one. The Smart Car of aviation.

When ABBA released ‘ABBA: The Album’ in 1977, I fell in love with the first song, Eagle. The music swooped and soared like an airborne raptor, and likewise my imagination took flight. If I couldn’t have my own wings, I would fly a plane, I decided at the tender age of ten. Well, over the intervening years I have flown in many larger, commercial aircraft, and some not-so-large ones, but this will be the first time anyone has offered to let me take the controls. I am already ten feet in the air with anticipation.

Back down on the tarmac, I climb into the driver’s seat. Pilot’s seat. Aiden and I have a brief chat about the controls, then I pose for a photo or two. While I am awfully excited to try flying the aircraft myself, I am also a little relieved to learn that Aiden can take back control of the plane the moment the going gets tough – or I just want to take some photos. Then, as if dancing a Scottish Reel, Aiden and Number 2 Son twirl the little plane around, manually, towards the runway. At last we are off.

In seconds, we are bumping across the grass and onto the AstroTurf landing strip (it can get very wet and boggy at Sandown). A few seconds more, and we are airborne, high above the golf course next door, and heading east towards Bembridge.

Exhilarating, breath-taking, intoxicating, enthralling. I have scoured Roget’s Thesaurus for the perfect word. Put them all together and you may come close to the sense of freedom and joy of soaring through the sky in a plane barely bigger than a ladybird. We fly up to 3,000 feet, and across the Solent towards Chichester, following the coastline past Portsmouth and Hayling Island, where a rash of umbrellas and beach towels has sprung up along the sand during this exceptionally warm Easter weekend. We loop around and back towards the Isle of Wight. We soar past Southampton Water, ducking below the commercial air traffic route and dodging a mighty Spitfire by the skin of our teeth, who is too busy showing off its highfalutin’ tricks to pay attention to a sparrow-sized Microlight.

I have the controls at this point, which is probably why Aiden seems a bit edgy and less-than-impressed with the slapdash attitude of our unobservant aeronautical gymnast. I am thrilled, however, far too much of an amateur enthusiast to appreciate our near-death experience – and far too busy trying to fly a three-dimensional Smart Car in a straight-ish line through choppy thermals to worry about a clever-clogs Spitfire.

A microlight is a far more sensitive beast than I had imagined, and the joystick responds instantly to the slightest touch. As the actress said to the bishop. Which is fine, once I understand that it does not work like a stick shift on a manual truck.

We fly over the estuary at Newtown, and a flotilla of sailing boats, where last week there were half a dozen… turning left at Yarmouth, we fly through the narrow gap between Hurst Point Lighthouse on the mainland and the Cliff Point Battery on the north-western tip of the island… and then we are flying south-west towards the best possible view of the Needles. Then it’s “second to the right, and straight on till morning”, or more sensibly, another sharp left-turn and straight on towards Blackgang and Saint Catherine’s Lighthouse, following the cliffs below Military Road. The Isle of Wight spreads out below us, an irregular green and yellow patchwork, trimmed by a turquoise sea. The last leg back to Sandown takes us over Ventnor and Shanklin, before we swoop back over the golf course and the Alverstone Garden Village and glide gently down… landing with a rough sashay on the knurly airfield.

There is an unexpected sense of anti-climax at suddenly finding myself grounded again. Hedgerows and buildings rush up to meet me in sharp contrast to the enormous expanse of sky only minutes before, as we skittered above the sea. We drive up to Culver Down, so I can reluctantly re-acclimatize. I may never get to loop-the-loop in a Spitfire, but I can’t wait to fly a Microlight again.

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