• Dunge Bottom: Tales Of An Unconventional Aviator

    Section of the new book by John Clarke.

    It all started with a telephone call from, can you believe the
    name, Len Gabriels of Skyhooks, Oldham, Ltd. Manufacturers
    of hang gliders. I first met Len awhile back when I was selling
    hang gliders and as he made some of the best it was natural to
    deal with him. When ever I got an invite to meet up with Len I
    accepted with alacrity, for I found out that he was a real inventor
    and always came up with interesting ideas. At the time he was in
    his mid to late forties and working out of a mill in Oldham
    where his company was based. He had started out designing a
    machine for rolling wall paper which eventually sold all over the
    world before Len graduated to making things more aerodynamic.
    He was also heavily into radio controlled model flying so it was
    natural for him to get into hang gliding and more.
    “Can I come and test fly something on your airfield he
    asked?” Now this did take me a little by surprise as I cannot
    remember actually owning an airfield. He might mean the
    disused one at Ashbourne on which I did do some tow launched
    hang gliding from?
    “Of course no problem” I replied. This sounded intriguing
    “Right see you there tonight at exactly six o’clock, come
    alone!” he said he before ringing off. I admit I was curious as I
    had seen some of Len’s prototypes before. With one particular
    design he had stuck a small wing at the front of the main sail
    and it looked as if it was flying backwards. It didn’t work all that
    well, some of them didn’t, but an awful lot of his designs were
    brilliant and ahead of their times..What they all had in common
    was that they did need hills and things to fly from. The airfield
    in Ashbourne was not hilly at all.
    I arrived promptly at six o clock as per Lens orders. Equally
    promptly, at six thirty, Len and his Volvo estate arrived at the
    airfield. The light was just beginning to fall as he screeched to a
    stop and there was a very gentle westerly breeze ruffling the
    fallen leaves that scattered the rough broken concrete surface.
    He leapt out of the car, looked around furtively and whispered.
    “There’s no press about is there?”
    “I don’t think so,” said I, “Do you want some, because I can
    always call someone from the local paper, although I’m not sure
    that they could come out at this short notice?” I rambled.
    “No press” he whispered, “this is top secret.” We were in
    the middle of an airfield with a thousand yards of open ground
    on all sides…and he was whispering, what could this be?
    “Start rigging the glider for me will you?” he muttered whilst
    continuing to look round nervously.
    “Right oh,” I said thinking, lazy bugger can’t he rig his own
    glider. I should have known that something else was at the back
    or indeed the front of his mind. For he started to unload a lot
    of tubing, wheels, propeller, engine and a deck chair from the
    back of the car. I was too busy to take much notice as the light
    was beginning to fall even faster now and Len was obviously in
    a hurry to complete his mission, whatever that was.
    After about half an hour he had assembled a deckchair on
    wheels with an engine and propeller at the back. In front of the
    engine was a construction of aluminium tubing which formed a
    sort of triangle above with a metal bracket at the top and an
    enormous nut and bolt holding it all together.
    “What’s that then?” I asked in all innocence.
    “A powered hang glider obviously” he said looking at me as
    if I was taking the piss.
    “Of course it is” I thought.
    He was very keen to attach it to the glider I had rigged for
    him before anyone spotted it. He put on the necessary safety
    gear, a pair of gloves, pulled a chord on the engine which made
    the engine splutter into life, sat in the deckchair, made the engine
    rev louder somehow and sped off down the tarmac of the old
    runway. After a remarkably short distance it took off! He gently
    climbed to about a thousand feet, flew round the airfield a couple
    of times, then lined up with the runway and landed where he
    took off from.
    “Bloody Brilliant;” I was enthralled.
    “Len that was fantastic” I said running up to him, then
    running away again as the propeller was still whizzing around at
    the back. He stopped the engine and coincidentally the propeller
    stopped at the same time.
    “How many times have you flown it” I said, still in awe of
    “First flight ever” he grinned back at me.
    “Want a go?” he invited
    “You bet!” was my instant response. I could just imagine
    sitting comfortably in the deck chair, whilst gently climbing up
    into the wild blue yonder, although by now it would be fairer to
    describe it as the wild very nearly dark yonder. I pictured casually
    looking down on the darkening airfield and seeing the glow of
    the street lights firing up over Ashbourne, all without physical
    “How do you fly it then?” I asked expecting a detailed
    instructional package of lectures, presentations and examinations
    prior to my tyro flight in this amazing contraption. He responded
    by sitting me in the deckchair, not forgetting all the safety
    equipment… the gloves. Starting the engine he shouted:
    “Pull this bicycle brake lever to rev the engine to maximum,
    steer it straight down the runway and after you have taken off fly
    round a bit and when you want to land aim at the runway and let
    go of the bicycle brake lever and land.”
    “Oh” I was about to ask for a little more clarification, when
    he shouted something about hurrying up as there wasn’t much
    petrol left in it and it was very nearly dark. He then scurried away.
    “Oh dear now what did he say again?” I said to myself as I
    was confronted by the aluminium triangle of the hang gliders
    control frame on which was attached the said bicycle brake lever
    where the cable went up to the throttle on the engine. My feet
    were stuck out straight in front of me and were resting on a
    metal bar that ran side to side and which in turn was attached to
    the front wheel. Pull the bicycle brake lever. “Bloody hell” I
    gasped as this deckchair started to accelerate quickly down the
    runway accompanied by an ear piercing, screeching noise from
    the engine, positioned just behind my head. As the machine
    accelerated there were bits of grit and leaves being picked up by
    the front wheel and blown back into my eyes, which was
    somewhat distracting. Fortunately my path down the runway was
    arrow straight and seemingly without effort the machine took
    off and the ground just dropped away beneath me.
    It was magical for no longer was I being bombarded by
    leaves and grit, but I was climbing away quite rapidly whilst still
    being accompanied by the screeching noise from the engine. I
    was exhilarated and pooping myself, all at the same time and
    needed to work on my breathing rate to try and bring it back
    under control.
    “Shit what did he say next”, I said out loud. Then I
    remembered. After takeoff I was to fly around a bit. To my
    surprise the glider turned left and right, the same as a hang glider.
    After what seemed a very short space of time I appeared to be
    a lot higher than I expected and it also appeared to be getting
    much darker on the ground as well. Len later told me that it
    looked as if had reached about a thousand feet above the airfield
    and that it looked dead impressive. From that lofty position I
    looked down and saw tendrils of mist were slowly working their
    way along the valley bottoms, illuminated by the glow of the
    setting sun. A beautiful sight indeed.
    It really was getting very dark down below now and I had
    difficulty in making out Len’s Volvo so landing seemed to be the
    best option. I desperately tried to remember what Len had told
    me, something to do with the bicycle brake lever? I decided to
    apply logic to the situation. I was gripping the bicycle brake lever
    with a strength that made the phrase ‘death grip’ seem like a
    gentle caress. My fingers were bent in a claw and were rapidly
    losing feeling. I have often found that squeezing bits of aircraft
    very hard is a normal reaction for me when flying and being
    stressed. It is quite a reassuring feeling for me, like a nervous
    passenger that grabs the seat when an aircraft hits turbulence,
    momentarily ignoring the fact that the seat is an integral part of
    the plummeting aircraft that the passenger is riding in. Anyway,
    the logic dictated that if I pulled the lever hard to go up, when
    I let it out, I should descend. “Here goes” I thought.
    The loud screeching noise from the engine stopped and was
    replaced by a sort of whistling sound from the, still turning,
    propeller. There was also a heavy trembling vibration running
    through the whole machine as the engine struggled to keep going
    whilst ticking over. I could not help but notice (normal
    perception being somewhat raised in these circumstances) that
    I was going down a lot bloody faster than I went up. I was
    panicking a bit, unable to find the runaway, when my previous
    parachuting experience came to my rescue……. I looked down.
    And there it was, a very real relief I can assure you.
    It really was becoming difficult to make out the surface due
    to the sun disappearing below the horizon and the airfield now
    covered with an increasingly black shadow. Len must have started
    to become a little concerned himself as he put on his car
    headlights which helped illuminate the scabby pot holed runway.
    I lined up with the runway and continued to descend into the
    darkness and when nearing the ground, very near in fact, the
    deckchair landed, seemingly by itself. “Thank the Lord.”
    There was only one minor problem which manifested itself
    at this time. To give you an idea, have you ever perhaps, as a child,
    ridden in a shopping trolley? Cast your mind back and recall the
    little thrill when your parent pushed it faster making you squeal
    with delight, an early experience of the excitement that comes
    with danger. Now imagine you are in that same shopping trolley
    barrelling along a dark runway with no knowledge of how to
    stop yourself. I gave a little squeal, I can tell you. Len didn’t seem
    to have noticed me careering towards him but fortunately walked
    to the side of car as I stopped the flying deckchair abruptly by
    running into the back of it.
    “Sorry” he said, “I forgot to tell you where the brakes are,”
    wistfully looking at the bent parts of the aircraft and the dent in
    the rear bumper of the Volvo.
    “What do you reckon?”” he said, hardly hiding his
    “I want one!” I said gleefully.
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