Happy landings

For a while his light plane was his pride and joy. But when his first son arrived, Alex James had to sell up. Here he describes his final flight

Aeroplanes promise total freedom, and anyone with disposable income should be very wary about getting into a light aircraft. I was hooked after my first trip. It was overwhelming for lots of reasons; the thrill of unusual acceleration, the steady composure of the captain, the boxes, the buttons and lights of the cockpit, a giddy new perspective on familiar sights, and most of all it only took an hour to reach Manchester from London. An hour of wonder, rather than the usual half day of misery. It seemed to be a miraculous answer to the humdrum routine of going from A to B. A practical and cost-effective way of impressing girls while taking care of business.

Aeroplanes promise total freedom, and anyone with disposable income should be very wary about getting into a light aircraft. I was hooked after my first trip. It was overwhelming for lots of reasons; the thrill of unusual acceleration, the steady composure of the captain, the boxes, the buttons and lights of the cockpit, a giddy new perspective on familiar sights, and most of all it only took an hour to reach Manchester from London. An hour of wonder, rather than the usual half day of misery. It seemed to be a miraculous answer to the humdrum routine of going from A to B. A practical and cost-effective way of impressing girls while taking care of business.

People who fly aeroplanes will try to tell you that it's not expensive. I would argue that it depends on how much money you have. Naturally, you always want the aeroplane that's one better than the one you currently have. But what it really takes to become a pilot, and what most rich people can't afford, is a lot of time. To be a competent pilot, you need to devote a day a week to it. There's nothing difficult about any particular aspect of learning to fly, apart from understanding the vagaries of the weather, but there is a lot to learn.

Learning to fly is a profound experience - and the tuition is excellent value. Pilots are enthusiasts who love to share their knowledge. Obtaining a basic pilot's licence, which enables you to fly in sight of the surface of the earth (ie not in cloud), takes most people about 50 hours of lessons and a fair amount of time at ground school, where you learn about the mechanics and physics of engines, lift, thrust, navigation, meteorology, air law and human physiology.

It was a voyage of enlightenment as far as I was concerned, and I went on to take further qualifications. It was a challenge, and although initially I flew with the idea of going places I eventually became absorbed in the process of flying, rather than with where it could take me. Which is fortunate, because you discover that a light aircraft is actually the most impractical way of getting anywhere. Flight plans, weather briefings, reading all the notices about things that might affect your flight, checking the aeroplane over, staying on top of emergency procedures and maintenance schedules are a nightmare. Also, girls do like flying, but only once. It's too noisy and blokey. Then they're just happy to tell their friends that you've got an aeroplane.

We weren't really using the aeroplane, so it had to go. It's also something of a tradition to sell your plane when the first child is born. I thought I'd take my wife, Claire and our baby on one last jaunt before it changed hands. Where else to go but France? The most aviation-friendly place on earth.

We were up early for the final voyage. It was a cracking day. Even before breakfast there was plenty of activity at Enstone aerodrome, our local, near Oxford. It's an old military air base. The runway is big enough to land the Space Shuttle, but only part of it is maintained. There are vast hangars that are now full of chickens. There is always an old Rolls Royce or two parked near the control tower, where you can buy Kit Kats and Pot Noodles and make yourself a cup of Nescafé. It's more friendly than an AA meeting. There's always someone mending something, someone who's been somewhere, someone going somewhere.

I felt my heart thumping as I opened the throttle and the 285 horsepower flat-six cylinder continental power plant roared to life. It's the same feeling as playing a guitar through a huge amplifier. Sheer power.

"Golf Sierra Tango rolling two six," I announced over the radio, and as we gathered speed I ran through the take-off checklist: "Twenty nine, twenty seven; airspeed increasing; seventy knots - rotate; brakes - on, off; undercarriage - up; flaps - up; power twenty seven, twenty five; airspeed - one hundred; engine - Ps Ts - good; lights - off; altimeters - set radios." As a pilot you are encouraged to talk to yourself. Passengers appreciate it, too. After the flurry of take-off, everything becomes a lot calmer as you gain altitude. Small towns nestle easily in the green below, and London looms stinking and large in the distance.

In single-engine aeroplanes, the thinking is that it's always best to take the shortest route across water, and for this reason we decided to cross over the Channel at Dover, which meant transiting London's airspace. If it's not too busy, and you sound confident on the radio, Thames Radar will usually let you over-fly Canary Wharf and then head down the river. It is magical to fly over somewhere that you know very well at ground level, seeing everything familiar from a new vantage point. It's up there with being in love. It was a quiet morning, and it felt like we were the only people alive as we flew down the Thames.

I know the way to Le Touquet from London without looking at a map, so we sipped coffee and enjoyed Kent unfolding beneath us. Coasting out at Dover, France is only a stone's throw across the water. It's surprising how physically close it is. Just 21 miles. French air traffic were very helpful as usual. We planned to have lunch in La Rochelle, because the airport café there does the best sandwich in Europe. It's a Camembert baguette, no butter, no nothing, and it's gorgeous.

A group of Dutch cognac cognoscenti had also touched down for lunch. They were doing a series of little hops around the region, a group of three or four aeroplanes flying around together. At these coastal aerodromes you also tend to run into newly qualified pilots flying to Casablanca. The idea is that you keep the land in the left-hand window and the sea in the right hand window and when you see an airport, you land. Eventually you get to Casablanca. Or Cape Town, if you keep going.

It's around La Rochelle that you notice the scenery has changed and it doesn't look like England any more. Grapes and chateaux mark the landscape; different colours, different physical geography. The huge bristling backbone of Europe. Claire wanted to see the Carmargue ponies, so the plan was to fly low along the French coast east from Montpellier. There is a corridor here for light aircraft, which involves not flying above 500 feet along the length of the Cote D'Azur. It's the Cresta Run of aviation, and as long as you stay low you're not in anyone's way. Normally flying low is frowned upon - it's pretty dangerous if you have an engine failure, as you don't have time to react. Flying very fast means that if it all goes quiet, you can use your excess speed to climb. In reality it's like driving Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

As we passed above the coast, flamingoes and ponies scattered and swimmers waved. The place names start to evoke a Roger Moore/Joan Collins kind of glamour. Marseille, St Tropez, St Raphael, and pretty soon we're talking to Cannes Mandelieu, our destination. Our instructions from a very sexy sounding air traffic controller are, "follow ze Lear Jet". Which is about what you expect from such a glamorous airport. The amount of money sitting on the Tarmac in the form of jets is just obscene. The really horrendous thing is that the bigger ones have to land next door at Nice - these are just small fry. They only let jets park out front in view of the terminal. They hide all the light aircraft around the back. I dropped the passengers off at the terminal and came puffing round with the bags later, after having had to park miles away.

What is luxury? I've been trying to find out. In order to appreciate luxury you have to step in and out of it, like you have to be really hungry to enjoy food. A life of constant luxury would be nauseating. There are very nice places to stay that aren't luxurious at all. Like the Sahara, or Brixton. It's also much easier to enjoy luxury when someone else is paying. The Four Seasons resort gives you three super-size luxury towels and the restaurant serves the finest food I've ever eaten. It really does. It was a bit golfy though, and full of loud Americans. Four Seasons hotels the world over are really little American embassies.

The next night we ate in a café up a mountain. I couldn't remember what rognons were - I thought they were medallions, when in fact they were kidneys. Claire chewed her way through them. There was also a fairly scary sausage. You still have to be careful ordering off piste in France - that's what I like about it. It's different. I like France and I like French people, and part of the joy of having an aeroplane is the ability to explore. It's such a huge and varied country, and countless trips later I was no clearer at all about even what part of France I'd like to live in. We were going home a different way, right up the middle.

I annoyed the man in the tower and delighted Claire by parking our little Beech Bonanza, which it has to be said is a pretty handsome machine, on the end of a long row of Learjets, Cessna Citations and Gulfstreams after I'd refuelled. The weather was getting a bit lumpy, especially in the foothills of the Alps and the gorges, but pretty soon we were coasting through cheese country, pointing out castles and cathedrals. We refuelled at Reims in Champagne, but it was deserted and we couldn't get anyone to sell us any pop. "No, we don't 'ave 'ere, justa fuel,'' said a man with a helpful smile.

The really, really nice thing about going away is coming home. There is nowhere as pretty as England from the air. It was a calm Sunday evening, so we just carried on zooming around for a bit. Flying over Chequers, nothing doing. Blenheim Palace, awesome. A minor stately home near Charlbury also took the eye. We flew around the local area for a while just looking at everything and taking photos. We buzzed a few neighbours for good measure before heading back to Enstone for the final landing in this machine that's taken me all over the place and back. It's already sold, so I was extra careful to put the wheels down before the final landing.

I'll always have a pair of Ray Ban aviators. I think they're a good product. I emptied out my pilot's case. The ephemera of flying were laid out before me; coloured pens, rulers, charts, weather bulletins, a GPS handset, a torch, taxi numbers in Paris, Valencia, Marrakech. Old flight plans, a stop watch, a log book, my pilot's licence. I know it's not the end really. I think ballooning could be next.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

For those without planes, Nice Côte d'Azur airport is accessible from the UK on BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.co.uk), Bmibaby (0870 264 2229; www.bmibaby.com), BA (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyJet.com).

STAYING THERE

Alex James stayed at The Four Seasons Provence at Terre Blanche (00 33 4 94 39 9000; www.fourseasons.com). Doubles cost from €245 (£175), room only.

TAKING OFF

The Enstone Flying Club (01608 678204; www.enstoneflyingclub.co.uk) in Oxfordshire offers trial lessons, training for the National Private Pilot's Licence and aircraft hire.

MORE INFORMATION

French Travel Centre (09068 244 123, 60p per minute; www.franceguide.com).

Sophie Lam

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