As a brilliant birthday present last year, my friend bought me a flight in an old bi-plane. I’d had several attempts at booking the flight, all of which had been postponed by the weather. I re-booked for Wednesday and at the last minute changed the date to today. I rang up the company this morning just before I left and was told that the sky had turned a funny shade of blue and it was ideal flying weather. I set off, nervous and excited and eager to get to the airport, in Gloucester. Staverton was an old RAF station that was home to training flights and played a part in developing air-to-air refueling at the end of WW2. I’d studied Google maps and the place looked like a maze but I drove slowly between the hangars and finally spotted Tiger Airways on the left.
The hangar was full of aerobatic monoplanes and two Stampe SV4Cs with their engines disassembled. Tiger, the half greyhound, welcomed me in to the office where Chris set up the Pre-flight Briefing DVD. Apparently, if I touched anything with yellow tape on it, the plane was likely to plummet to the ground and if I didn’t do the harness up properly, I was likely to plummet to the ground – no parachutes here. If I talked while the air traffic control were talking, I could make us miss something important and if didn’t plummet to the ground, people would shout at me. Then it was on with a flying jacket and white silk scarf and out to the waiting aircraft – a Stampe SV4C G-AZGE with a complete engine. After filling the tank, I climbed into the front cockpit, nervous and excited. Tizi, the chief instructor pilot, fitted the leather flying helmet and I did a radio check. Chris took photos.
Then, just like the movies, there was a lot of ‘fuel pumps on, brakes on, carbs primed, contact,’ stuff and on the second attempt and with the aid of a hammer, the engine started. They even said ‘chocs away’ just before we started off. After some contact with air traffic control, we taxied out to the runway and waited for a Cessna to land. It bounced quite high and Tizi laughed as only an experienced pilot is allowed to. Then, with the wind in my face, we bumped down the runway. In a surprisingly short time, we were airborne and climbing away from the airport. The wind buffeted the plane, making it shake and shimmy, but there was no stomach churning turbulence. I actually felt part of the plane rather than sitting in it. We always returned to the same heading and level flight. Tizi tested me out on the controls and then offered me the chance to experience some simple aerobatics. We looped, then we did a loop with a roll. The thought of both made me doubt I wanted to do them, but the reality was that they were exhilarating, fun and not nearly as bad as I was expecting.
Then I had a chance to fly the plane. The control stick was remarkably sensitive and required the lightest of touches from finger and thumb to make the plane bank, climb and descend. It was very simple to maneouver the plane and the bit of the briefing that said ‘it’s easier to fly this plane than to drive a car’ felt true. With Tizi’s guidance, we climbed up over the flooded Severn, over Tewkesbury and then circled gently around to fly over the airfield at around 2000 feet. We watched other aircraft landing and taking off from above. Then we circled again to join the landing circuit. I was just about getting the hang of the tiny movements required to guide the plane as we dropped in behind a Cessna that was ahead of us in the queue to land. Tizi only took over again as we descended and slowed on final approach. The landing was smooth and we taxied back to the hangar.
Sitting in the cockpit waiting to fly, I thought about WW1 pilots and how flimsy their planes were to take into combat. I was feeling nervous at that point and it must have been similar for them. As we taxied, I felt excitement too, but it wasn’t like the flights to and from Lukla. I felt more in control as I could see more and feel the plane – as I said before, it felt as if I was part of it. In the air, it was nothing like flying in a passenger plane. I could see clearly out but the height wasn’t an issue. I guess because I was looking sideways rather than down. Watching the ground above me was odd but not frightening. Diving towards the ground coming out of the loop and roll was disconcerting but not scary.
When I got home, I looked up the history of the plane on the Internet. It was built in 1947 in Belgium and was probably a trainer. But the most fascinating this for me was that in 1976, it was modified to look like a WW1 SE5a fighter and used in the film ‘Aces High’. Look at this link to see the plane itself – scroll down until you see the plane on the ground with the tail number E-940. I sat in the front of that!
What a great experience!