Flyers tailored to the Schneider Cup

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THE fliers were unamimous. Racing planes (rubber bands stretched to breaking) was infinitely safer than a Sunday afternoon on the M25. But it is not easy to believe this when you are bouncing along the runway seconds before take-off and the pilot casually remarks: 'Of course, effectively, we have no brakes.'

Terrific] In the spirit of journalistic accuracy, I had boarded a single-engined plane called a Condor, donned an ancient leather flying helmet and wedged myself into a space smaller than a Mini's back seat, only to be told that we are heading over the sea at 130mph (flat out for the old girl) and this contraption cannot stop. I just know the insurance won't cover this. As the plane wobbles alarmingly before taking to the skies, I experience what must be that Condor moment.

But Brian Manning is merely testing my fear quotient. Runner-up in the Royal Aero Club's national championship last year, he has been flying small planes for 15 years, and within a few hours of frightening you to death, he will compete in the Schneider Trophy, air racing's most prestigious award. Stopping is not a problem on a tail-wheel plane, he assures me. 'These planes love to land on grass, which slows them down. Did you know that the RAF still have a lot of grass-only airfields?'

You might wonder how Manning's beautiful but slow Condor, made of wood, fabric and glue 25 years ago, can race against a Beech Baron owned by a flying instructor, Spencer Flack. His twin-engined executive jet, with every possible extra, whizzes along at 260mph. (Flack got it by writing to every Baron owner, asking if they wanted to sell.) But the race is handicapped so finely that if all works out, 33 planes will finish at the same time. So Manning, who won the Schneider in 1991, gets a 40-minute lead over Flack on the 127-mile course. Then it is down to the pilot's skill, with clever use of wind and altitude.

Manning, a Worcester travel agent, bought his plane five years ago for pounds 8,000. It is as economic as a car, doing 30-35mpg. 'You don't have to be a millionaire,' he said. But small planes are soaring in value. You just cannot buy them now. American product liability cases have shut all the small makers. Most of the Schneider's 33 entrants were built at least 20 years ago - though you would never know. It is reminiscent of a vintage car rally, as owners meticulously polish every already gleaming inch. Yet in a few minutes, they will thrash them like joy-riders through the Shoreham skies.

'Safety requirements are so high that these planes are like new,' said the Royal Aero Club's chairman, Richard Clarke, holder of the world speed record flight from Leicester to Lyons. 'Actually, no one had ever done it before,' he confided. 'Although these planes fly flat out, we've only had one serious accident in 10 years. But the sport gets lumped with microlighting and hang-gliders, when accident statistics are produced.' Safety is second nature to every pilot.

The Schneider is aero history. The French industrialist Jacques Schneider dreamed of a world connected by flying boats, and in the early years, the contest was purely for seaplanes. Great names such Gloster, Savoia-Marchetti and Curtiss vied for the trophy from 1913 to 1931, when Britain won it for good (it is now in the Science Museum) by taking three consecutive races.

The aircraft that cleaned up was the Supermarine SB-6, the first plane to break the 400mph mark. Its designer was R J Mitchell, who later designed the Spitfire. After that, interest waned and the event was only revived in 1982.

An air race is strictly for flying buffs. With almost 50 minutes separating a tiny Cessna from Flack's flying gin palace, it will never supersede a grand national as a spectator event. As the planes buzz overhead on their three circuits, it is impossible to work out who is doing well. But the last two minutes, when the hares are really whizzing past the tortoises is terrific, mini squadrons charging for an invisible finishing line 1,500 feet above Shoreham airfield.

Today, it is a win for the fliers rather than the flappers. A piper Cherokee takes the coveted trophy. Manning, second from last, is furious. 'We never had a chance. The handicapper got it all wrong,' he said, polishing unconsciously as he speaks.

(Photograph omitted)