At 21 000 feet I open the air brakes but I’m still climbing, only just, but climbing nevertheless: this is madness! The North East of Scotland is lying under a gin clear polar maritime air mass today, lovely straight isobars, with the wind strength increasing steadily with height. Every bit as good as the met’ man hinted at. To a glider pilot this means mountain wave! Standing atmospheric waves with updrafts that you can ride like an elevator to incredible heights.
An hour earlier I was sat in one of the club’s Pawnee tug planes working my way through a fleet of gliders each of which was waiting for an aerotow towards the Grampian Mountains and a ride in the elevator. Someone’s been to 30 000 feet already today, so my measly little climb isn’t exactly breaking news; but it’s enough though to qualify for the “Diamond Height” gain of 5000 metres, a little over 16 000 feet. Twenty minutes later, frozen stiff and with very little oxygen left, I’m back on the ground, grab a sandwich and jump back in the tug: Next!
I’m sat in this smelly old tug plane because of a minor dispute with a neighbour five years earlier: nothing serious, but the point is that life is often not linear. By way of a break from the neighbour, my wife drives us into the country where we find a gliding club, and subsequently take up gliding. I become an instructor a few years later, meet a guy there who takes me up in a Cessna to remind me how much I like all aspects of flight, because I seem to have forgotten. The day job becomes a bit tedious, so I start a Commercial Pilot’s course as it’s one way to earn enough money to fly aerobatics. Next, resign from the job and set off in February 1990 to Aboyne in Scotland to tow gliders into wave. The long journey North is interrupted a few miles South of Edinburgh as I allow myself one brief cry, reality having just set in: I’m 28 and I’ve just resigned from a nice safe job as a Mathematics Lecturer. My wife will stay at our home and I’ll be living on the bank of the River Dee in a caravan until November earning £30 a week, flying during the day, running the bar and studying for the licence in the evenings. On arrival the darkness of this new Northern sky is crystal clear. The caravan door is hanging off and the temperature is -14 Celcius: I allow myself another little sob, find some sticks, and light a fire!
I need to remove any sense of linearity prior to this, so I’d better mention that I was born in Wigan near Manchester in 1962 aged 14, or so it would seem, as I have few really vivid memories of childhood. Apparently, I wanted first to be a bus conductor and then an astronaut. We prayed for Jim Lovell and crew of Apollo 13 in school assembly in 1970. 45 years later we meet at a lecture he is giving close to my home. Apollo 8 he says is the highlight of his career, the first time anyone had achieved a high enough earth orbit to be captured by the moon’s gravity, stay there in lunar orbit for a while, and then return safely. After the astronaut phase I wanted to build First World War aeroplanes. Nowadays in England a child like this would be referred to as “special.” So where did it all go wrong?
Wigan then would have been easily recognisable to readers of George Orwell. Coal mining was still a major industry, and the landscape was dominated by the “slag heaps” of coal waste on which we searched for fossils and “played army”. I was a keen naturalist, loved science, but hated school, had long hair when everyone else’s was short, but was never picked for the school football team. I failed selection to Grammar School because I disliked Intelligence Tests. Even to a small boy Intelligence Tests seemed great at measuring your ability to pass Intelligence tests and very little else. Fossil hunting, fishing and pressing wild flowers was punctuated by periods of bad behaviour, and one day this caught up with me big time. The “world fell…, rather the “bottom fell out of my world” on that day. My behaviour had to change, and it did. Being a late starter meant studying hard. The Air Training Corps also provided an opportunity to fly, so I joined in. I got into Mathematics and Physics, and went off to Leeds to do Mathematics and Philosophy; did a year’s subsidiary in Physics, while the Philosophy department breathed life into a passion for the history of science which survives to this day. A one year Post Grad led to a job in Mathematics at North Manchester College.
Seventy years earlier in that same city University Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr had kick started the first Quantum revolution by lending weight to the idea that atoms exist and have a nucleus. In the 1980’s students came from all over the world to our college as a means of working their way to Manchester University. The ones with the best work ethic came from China! I never had lunch to myself. “Please Mr Steve, show me how to solve this problem.” I am not just saying that, they had incredible stamina and wouldn’t leave us alone!
Fast forward again to the tug flying and I met a guy there who was something big with a Regional Airline. I didn’t mind that he sometimes fooled around behind me on tow in his glider; and because I was nice to him he promised to ring me up when the company got this wonderful new aeroplane, the Saab 340. Two years later, after a lean period due to the Gulf War, he did and life got better again. I flew the Saab day and night until 1999 when I was asked to help Kick start our operation with the Embraer 145 regional Jet. We headed off to Houston, Texas, for six weeks to learn all about it, during which time we had a look around NASA. I’ve been working as a line Captain, Type Rating Examiner (TRE) and Instructor (TRI) since then. The bit I probably like most is acting as an instructor coach in the sim’ teaching new instructors. We look at the “how to” of flying training, and as my father would say “act the goat” a bit pretending to be different personality types!
The point of this is that by the mid 90’s I could afford to start flying aerobatics. A chance conversation lead to the purchase of a Pitts S2S, which we flew and learned to restore: In doing so I got to do the First World War aeroplane thing, if only by way of technique. By 2003 curiosity lead me one day to look at the ad’s in a flying magazine in a local newsagents: There was the Extra 260. I didn’t have a mobile phone, so made a call to the owner from a phone box before anyone else got the chance to. Thanks to my neighbour all those years ago, I am in Zhengzhou for the second time, this time with the Extra and my friends and team mates the Global Stars.