Spare time: Chocks away! Don't forget to duck

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The Independent Online
For pure thrills, nothing beats flying in an old-fashioned, propeller plane - except being the pilot. Eric Kendall gets a taste of learning to fly.

Just climbing aboard under the wing is hard enough. Low over the forward cockpit, it gets right in the way. And as for the foothold in the fuselage, a brisk step up would send you crunching head first through taut fabric, to protrude unaerodynam- ically from the top of the wing. Cat-like flexibility and nimble footwork, rather than 20/20 vision, would seem to be the primary requirements for flying vintage-type planes.

Though not remotely antique, this was an authentic-looking version of a Pietenpol Air Camper, built by the man who was to take me for a flight. Interestingly, he was neither a plane builder nor a pilot when he started the project - he learnt on the job.

Once on board you can barely move for fear of inflicting damage. Remember, it's made of thin bits of wood with cloth stretched over them. It's also important to keep knees, feet, elbows and torso from touching the vital- looking bits of Meccano connected to wires which obviously have to do with going forwards, upwards and, presumably, downwards.

Of course the pilot, sitting behind you, has a more thorough array of switches and levers, and with luck, the little plaque which states that the plane is not to be used for aerobatics is also duplicated. What with that and the dials, non-fliers could be forgiven for thinking they were in the wrong seat, especially when taxiing and coming in to land, when the pilot tells you to keep your head down so he can see where he's going. I made a mental note to duck, when the time came, as I'd never ducked before.

Communication under way is limited by the shattering roar of the engine and the breathtakingly tight harness - forget all that swooning, English Patient nonsense; you're trussed like a Christmas turkey. Backward, neck- straining glances and brief nods to the pilot are all that are possible.

If your only previous experience of flying is row 28, seat C, "please keep your seat back in the upright position", you are in for a shock. Someone really does start the engine by swinging the propeller, one arm behind their back so that it doesn't get chopped off as the engine fires with a splutter, and chocks really are pulled away once the pilot is on board. It doesn't take much to get one of these planes off the ground; even a reasonable breeze has the whole structure keening to lift off. You can see why they used to call them kites.

The smooth lift as we accelerated down the runway was broken only by a momentary plummet, and anyway the roar of the engine drowned out my screams. (On regaining the ground, I was told it's quite common to find cooler air beyond the warm Tarmac causing the opposite of thermal lift.)

Having gained a reassuring height above the fields, it's surprising how quickly you get used to the exhilarating feel of the open cockpit. The boom of the engine almost swallows you and just a small flap of a windscreen gives protection from the propeller's blast. Your stomach's travel-worthiness determines just how much the plane can be put through its paces - there's a big difference between flying and being flown, not least because of the staggering agility of a lightweight two-seater. It may not go fast but it can be instantly banked into the tightest of turns, wrongfooting a following plane by performing a swooping curve. Deep in the cockpit, you may feel more gobsmacked than graceful, but you certainly feel the swoop. Look to the right and you see treetops blurring by, hundreds of feet below; to the left is sky. This is laugh-out-loud, stomach-churning fun - the kind that might not be bearable for too long.

It's soon apparent whether flying is for you; the idea of being in control of a plane rather than at the mercy of the pilot suddenly has huge appeal after about the third tight turn or any of the bouncy manoeuvres which feel like a warm-up for looping the loop. The best bit is that you don't have to fly a Cessna, the aeronautical equivalent of an Austin Allegro, which scores zero for wind-in-the-hair appeal.

Ducking thoroughly as we came in to land, I saw we were going to miss the Tarmac completely. I ducked harder, but to no avail. It turned out that a grass landing was part of the plan; I just wished they'd told me.

Learning to fly

The Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA), 50a Cambridge Street, London SW1 4QV; send sae for details of how to obtain a private pilot's licence and Where to Fly Guide.

The Popular Flying Association (01273 461616) deals with home-build flyers who make aircraft from plans or kits. This may save you money, but is a major undertaking. Once you get airborne, it's closer to the roots of flying than more conventional light aviation.

To find out whether flying's for you, a trial lesson is easy to arrange by contacting AOPA. Alternatively, visiting a local airfield and chatting to pilots may yield the odd trip as well as give a flavour of the scene, though airfield users will be security-conscious; don't lurk around behind a hangar looking shifty.

The PFA organises "Young Eagles" days to give children a free introduction, and has an annual rally. If your kids get the bug, this could be the worst money you never spent - subsequent training for a licence involves 40- plus hours at around pounds 100 an hour (cheaper if you've built your own plane).

Thanks to Arthur Mason for a memorable flight in his Pietenpol Air Camper G-Adra. To get involved with a Pietenpol build in aid of Great Ormond Street Hospital, contact Carl Wych (01344 884232).

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