X-treme: On a wing and a prayer

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The Independent Culture
If I had to take to the skies, my preference would be for some kind of computer flight simulation. Wiping- out is an integral part of extreme sports; sure, you earn a few cuts and scrapes, but nothing too serious if you follow safety procedures. But if you bungee, base jump, fly or parachute from a plane, the margin for error becomes narrow to non-existent.

If you don't think computers are extreme, then you should see my thumbs after four hours of PlayStation. On reflection, though, I had to go for the real thing.

Making my way to Chatteris Airfield in Cambridgeshire, I was beginning to wish that I'd gone for the simulated option, but my instructor for the day, Deepak Mahajan, from Microlight Sport Aviation Ltd, had the reassuring appearance of a man about to take a leisurely stroll through the park.

Microlight planes come in all shapes and sizes but must weigh less than 390 kilos. The plane we were going to fly cost around pounds 16,000, weighed 200 kilos, and had a 65bhp "tractor-type" engine and 10m wingspan.

When your entire flying experience consists of commercial flights, you expect a considerable amount of procedure - customs, check-in, passport control and at least 30 minutes' taxi-ing to the runway. Once strapped into the craft, we accelerated for what seemed like five seconds before climbing smoothly into the air.

The wind wasn't too fierce, but every other minute an air thermal would push the plane up or down without warning; "exhilarating" would be one word to describe the sensation, but my stomach registered a strong protest every time it happened.

Once I relaxed a little, the experience was incredibly calming. The countryside spreads out in front of you for as far as the eye can see. I've looked out of a plane window on numerous occasions, but this time there was no snoring stranger asleep next to me.

"Are you ready to take the controls now?" Mahajan asked. "Yes, why not," I lied. Taking hold of the joystick, I tried to keep the plane on an even keel and not to make any sudden movements. The feeling is difficult to describe: you begin by making tentative movements, and when you realise that the aeroplane responds, you're not quite certain what to do. The first hours of flight can cause an overload of information, but it's an unforgettable experience.

As a child in Bombay, Mahajan used to watch the planes fly over his home. This fascination never left him, and he set up his own flight school four years ago.

"Everyone who comes here has a deep seated yearning to fly," he says. "Most of them have never flown before."

You need 25 flying hours (expect to pay around pounds 70 per lesson and pounds 1,800 for a whole course) to get your private pilot licence for microlight aircraft. The course follows a syllabus that has to be learned with an instructor. If you're lucky with the weather, you can complete your course in five weeks, but it can also take up to two years.

"Anyone who likes excitement should give it a try," says Mahajan. "The human body has not evolved to fly, and that's part of the attraction. Many humans have killed themselves trying, but now anyone can learn in safety.

"Every flight is different, from the changing colours of the landscape to the weather, and that's what attracts people because you never get to see these sights from the ground."

Call the British Microlight Aircraft Association headquarters for additional information (01869-338888).

FIVE PLACES TO FLY A MICROLIGHT

Microlight Sport Aviation

South-East and Midlands, now at Chatteris and Boship Airfields (0181-325 0197).

Swansea Microlight School

Swansea Airport, Fairwood Common, Swansea SA2 (01792-204063).

Shadow Flight Centre

Hanger 3, Old Sarum Airfield, Salisbury, Wilts SP4 (01722-410567).

Aerolite Flight Training

Long Marston Airfield, Stratford-on-Avon, Warks CV37 (01789-299229).

Moorland Flying Club

Davidstow Aerodrome, Camelford, North Cornwall PL32 (01840-261517).

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