On Pocklington airfield the early cloud had broken away, and the sun came out as the afternoon lingered, offering the occasional bit of thermal lift for the adventurous pilot. I’d already had my three flights for the day, and was satisfied. There were plenty of people about to hold the wing, do control checks and keep the flying logs, so my presence wasn’t really necessary. I had been thinking of returning home and getting to work on the first chapter of my dissertation, but it came to me suddenly that I had a vaguely relevant book, a seat in the sunshine, and the occasional diversion of watching gliders taking off, whereas all my room could offer me was a blank screen and a sense of claustrophobia.
I was deeply into an account of David Garrick’s stage practice when the words ‘does anyone want to do a loop-the-loop?’ drifted through my ears. The book flew from my lap as I sprang to my feet instantly, but too late. Marit, a Norwegian girl on her first visit to the airfield had raised her hand before me, and the flight was hers. Jealousy overwhelmed me.
‘I’ve been here for months, and I’ve never got to do a loop-the-loop!’ I hissed to her instructor. Tony was a bearded Yorkshireman in the most eye-achingly awful flat-peaked cap anyone has ever invented. Foul Fashions, the label said, and didn’t lie.
‘I’ll take you up next if you like.’ he said.
‘Oh. Thanks.’ I said, nonplussed, my rancour swiftly deflating.
Five minutes later they were off, shooting upwards at 45 degrees on a winch cable. Some thousand feet of ascent later, they detached, and we watched attentively as they turned left, dove for speed, then looped back on themselves in a smooth, easy, beautiful loop.
‘We used to do those all the time in the bad old days.’ one of the duty pilots reminisced. ‘Loop-the-loop, chandelle, and a beat-up.’
A chandelle I knew – it was a turn so steep the glider seemed to stand upon its wing. ‘What’s a beat-up?’
‘It’s where we used to turn back towards the airfield, and buzz past without landing.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘We used to hold up scorecards as they passed, like diving judges. Six, seven, eight point five. But health and safety put paid to that, of course.’
I had seen a beat-up once, on a frosty morning, when ice had begun to form on the glider’s wing on the first flight up, and the pilot had brought it low and fast across the airfield, in the hope of shaking it off. Flying had been delayed for hours.
Something other than glider aerobatics now caught the attention of those on the airfield. A few miles away at Elvington, a Vulcan bomber had taken off, its distinctive delta-winged silhouette clearly visible as it engaged in turns and stunts similar to our own. It was only just visible above the tree-line and the industrial estate, but a large crowd gathered to speculate about its fuel consumption, swap plane facts, and watch in envy. Our attention was briefly drawn back to our own airspace a few minutes later, when Chris and Alexis went up to fly aerobatics.
‘Do you suppose they’re making Vulcan noises as they do that?’ someone asked, as the K21 went through some incredible loops and turns. No-one would put it past them. For all that the advertising material goes on about the joys of silent flight, there’s a fair bit of nneeeooowww braka-braka-braka that goes on – in people’s heads, if nowhere else.
Finally, it was my turn to go up. Clipped into my parachute, strapped into my seat as tightly as possible, I watched in excitement as the winch cable, lazy as a grass snake, slithered its way to tautness.
‘All out!’ someone shouted, and in five seconds we were flying. All through the thirty second ascent, usually so entertaining, my eyes were riveted to the altimeter. A poor launch, and we would have to abandon the aerobatics and do a circuit, and my dreams of looping-the-loop would be on hold till next time. I watched with baited breath as the needle swung around. 900 feet – 1000 – 1200…
The winch cut off. The cable detached with a clunk.
‘Oh no!’ the instructor cried, as the glider’s nose plunged and we began to hurtle towards the ground.
I wasn’t fooled for a minute – not for more than half a second of giddy terror. Then the stick came hard back, and the sky, the horizon, and open fields began to whirl in front of me. The g-force pressed me down into the seat, my nose beginning to run with the sheer strength of it. Then, with a whoop, we turned into a chandelle, levelled, and began another loop-the-loop.
I would have thought I would be frightened, or a bit sick, or at least giddy, but it was nothing like the edgy, out-of-control sense a roller-coaster cultivates. You could feel that the pilot knew what he was doing, the glider was well within its limits, and all that remained was the adrenalin rush, the g-force, and the sheer sensation of looping-the-loop. Now I’m properly hooked.