Flying for lightweights
A novice microlighter takes inspiration from the Wright brothers.
‘Ease the throttle to full’, says Graham’s voice in my ear. I floor the pedal and we start rolling forward, three small wheels bouncing over the rough grass.
‘When we reach 30 miles per hour, push the bar all the way forward and hold it there.’ I push hard, the nose of the wing lifts, and the gathering speed lifts us off the ground into a steep climb. It takes just under 30 seconds to reach 500 feet, bring the nose down, and we’re flying over the fields and hedges.
I’m in France, a couple of hours south of Le Mans, where Wilbur Wright wowed the crowds in 1908 – five years after the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, USA. Wilbur was a huge celebrity in France as he demonstrated his control of the Wright Flyer, using the racecourse as his first airstrip. He set several new records for altitude and endurance, and sold the franchise to build and sell reproduction Wright Flyers to a European company.
In some ways, I’m getting a taste of what Wilbur must have felt. Like him, we’re using mown grass as our runway, we’re relying on a single petrol engine and a propeller, and our aircraft is a delicate little thing of struts and wires. It’s a microlight, meaning that it weighs less than 450 kilos on take-off – and that includes pilot, passenger and fuel. As we lurch into the air in our open cockpit, the thrill of primitive flight fills me. If it seems miraculous that basic engineering can permit us to defy gravity with apparent ease, how much more must the French crowds have wondered at Wilbur’s flights.
In other ways, of course, everything is different. This machine looks fragile, but it benefits from modern lightweight alloys and composite materials. A rough landing won’t shatter the wooden framework as it did the first Wright Flyer. The engine too is a modern four-stroke with dual electric ignition systems, so if one set of spark pugs fails the propeller would keep us flying. It’s been designed and tested with far more sophisticated equipment than the Wright Brothers’ homemade wind tunnel – and with a far more advanced knowledge of aerodynamic theory.
Wilbur won a prize at Le Mans by setting a new world altitude record of 110 metres: 350 feet. Microlights are now forbidden to fly at less than 500 feet, except during take-off and landing. A common cruising height is 2500 feet. We could easily fly at 6500 feet and stay in the air for four hours: Wright ended 1908 with a record-breaking flight of two hours 20 minutes. It’s not just passenger jets and fighter planes that have come a long way in the past 100 years.
I’m also in a dual-control training plane with intercom. I have an instructor not only telling me what to do, but able to grab the control bar or ease in the throttle if necessary – and it often is necessary. I’m working towards my private pilot’s licence and, though I can usually take off unaided, my landings are still hopelessly bad. I’ll have to sort them out, pass a General Flying Test, a medical and five written papers before I can fly unsupervised.
Though I like to pretend I’m a thrillseeking desperado, I am aping the pioneers of flight under very controlled conditions. Many of Wright’s contemporaries paid with their lives for being among the first to fly. More recently, many of those who developed hang-gliders and later (by adding chainsaw engines) microlights, also found out the hard way what works and what doesn’t. When you build your own lightweight craft, you are your own test pilot.
And it really is a different world today from the one in which the Wrights won the international race to fly a powered machine heavier than the air below it. At the beginning of the twentieth century, advances in manufacturing techniques, especially the inception of the lightweight petrol engine, meant flight was technically possible. The importance of world trade, political influence and outright conquest meant that transport was key to the development of the industrialised countries of Europe and America. It was clear to everyone that a workable aeroplane would open up the world, and the early fliers anticipated changes to human life that they could only begin to imagine.
They would have been disappointed to read much of the coverage of flight’s centenary. Nobody seems able to look back over an astonishing century of human achievement without a large dose of gloom. The past 100 years may have got us from a short rickety hop to international air transport that’s within the reach of the average British pocket, but it seems unfashionable to celebrate that trajectory. Instead, we must be reminded that aeroplanes burn fossil fuels, that airports are noisy places, and that – unlike microlights – international jets need concrete runways.
Like other early aviators, the Wrights optimistically expected that aeroplanes would contribute to peace by making warfare too horrific to contemplate. Perhaps, having spent so long slaving away in their bicycle workshop, they had forgotten that not everything can be solved using engineering. Now, we seem to be more open to the idea that engineering brings only problems.
After a week in France, my instructor Graham says he thinks I could ‘probably land the thing’. I’m heartbroken to leave my dream of flight and head back to my real life. On the way, I stop off at the Wilbur Wright Memorial in Le Mans. On one face, a list of les victimes’ from Icarus onwards, those who risked all in the pursuit of flight and lost. On another, images of Wilbur, Orville and their plane, and above, a human figure stretching yearning arms towards the sky.
Birds do it, bees do it, because that’s what nature evolved to do. A century after Kitty Hawk, let’s remember that humans alone have achieved flight through intelligence, daring, and the will to defy the limitations of nature.
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