I developed a passion for aviation from about the age of ten. Nobody in my family flew – but before I was born my grandfather worked in the Air Ministry, and narrowly avoided being killed in the R101 airship disaster. As a lad I pleaded with my parents to take me to the big airshows like Farnborough, Mildenhall and Duxford – my younger self would be surprised to see me flying at them years later!
When I started secondary school I got to know Mark Hanna, who was then in the sixth form and encouraged my interest in aviation. I remember joining Mark at Duxford for his first flight in the Spitfire.
I flew at school with the air cadets – my first aerobatics were in the deHavilland Chipmunk. It was a great trainer and years later it became the first aeroplane I owned a share of.
After school I was given a sponsorship by British Aerospace to study aeronautics at university. The Formula One motor racing teams also visited regularly to test in the university’s wind tunnels. After graduating I got recruited into F1. It was an interesting and exciting few years, with myself and my boss Adrian Newey responsible for the aerodynamic design of the whole car. We were first to apply computational aerodynamics to racecar design, and I left to set up a company to develop it further, with two professors from Bristol University. Since then we’ve worked with all the championship winning F1 teams. We also applied our computer modelling skills to the design of the yacht ‘Sailrocket II’. In 2012 it smashed the outright world speed sailing record (65 knots – a record likely to stand for a while!).
When I got back to flying regularly we based our shared Chipmunk at Little Gransden, Mark Jefferies’ airfield in Cambridgeshire. This was when I first met Mark, who is now my team mate and leader of the Global Stars. Little Gransden had become a hotbed for UK aerobatics and I was only too willing to get sucked in! I was soon having fun flying a Pitts biplane, and thought about having a go at aerobatic competitions. I remember entering at both Beginner and Standard levels in my first competition, and to my surprise winning them both. After this I entered competitions occasionally rather than religiously, also winning the National Championships at Standard in my first year.
My first taster of air display and formation flying came as a member of Captain Neville’s Flying Circus. Balloon bursting, flour bombing and flying ‘limbo’ underneath bunting was fun! Initially this was in the Chipmunk and later in the Pitts (good fun but deemed incompatible with team mates’ Tiger Moths!).
Aerobatics is a bit like a drug once you’re hooked; you usually crave more. So it was both inevitable and (in my mind at least) essential that I start flying a high performance monoplane – in my case the Extra 300S. Your body adjusts to the higher ‘drug dose’ quite quickly! The Extra is a very ‘honest’ aeroplane, but like all machines of this class it takes a lot of experience and practice to fly it consistently to its limits. It was fun learning to perform the advanced and unlimited repertoire of competition aerobatic figures. But discovering the gyroscopic freestyle figures led me increasingly to the ‘dark side’ of freestyle and airshow flying.
These days I have a very busy schedule of air display flying – sometimes solo, but more often as part of an aerobatic team. It’s normal to be busy flying over the summer, but increasingly we are also off on trips during the European winter to far flung destinations. As I write this we are recently back from a Global Stars team trip to display in India. Formation aerobatics brings another dimension to flying – it truly feels like a modern day Sport of Kings. The satisfaction you can gain from mutual trust and teamwork is way beyond what you can achieve as a rather lonely solo performer. In my years before active display flying I did a lot of climbing and winter ski mountaineering. I recognise parallels between the expeditions I had then, and the trips to major overseas events we have now. The ‘team dynamic’ is very important in both – in the intensity of the moment when you are putting your life in someone else’s hands, but also in the downtime and for the tall stories in the bar afterwards!
I’ve been privileged to fly in memorable displays around the world. Travelling and meeting people is a big part of the fun. My first visit to China with the Global Stars was to Zhuhai as part of the launch event for a new car. Our performance was screened live on the world’s largest TV display. In Bahrain we were sponsored by DHL and the display involved flying in close formation with one of their enormous Boeing freighters. At the other extreme of formation partners, I sometimes fly synchronised aerobatics with a radio controlled scale model of my aeroplane, expertly flown by Mike Williams.
With Twister Aerobatics (led by Peter Wells) we fly twilight displays, with wingtip mounted pyrotechnics which can be fired from the cockpit. Flying in close formation in gathering darkness, with intensely bright fireworks streaming off our wingtips, can be a surreal experience. Sometimes, as wingman, I have no idea which way up I am … trust your formation leader or don’t fly!
It’s exciting to be a part of the inaugural world Formation Aerobatic Championships. To do something that you love, and to be compared with the best in the world, what could be better? Big thanks to my long suffering family for allowing me the time away from home to indulge my passions! I look forward to seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and taking part in new adventures.