Flying deckchairs

· culture · films ·

On Monday, I watched a really wonderful documentary: The Real Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines. There’s still time to watch it on iPlayer, and I heartily recommend doing so, even if you have no interest in microlights. It was the kind of documentary I love, in which you let people with a passion for something tell their own story.

In this case, the cameras followed several participants in the ‘Round Britain Rally’, a gloriously Wacky Races event, in which the aim is to rack up the most points over three days by flying over designated waypoints dotted around the UK in a microlight aircraft. Some of the microlights looked quite fancy with semi-rigid wings and enclosed cabins, but all of the aircraft piloted by the three teams mentioned were rather more basic in design. Indeed, the vintage model flown by Antony Woodward and his team-mate appeared to feature rather alarming quantities of gaffer tape and string. Antony described a microlight as “essentially a chainsaw attached to a deckchair”. Or in their case, a chainsaw attached to a deckchair with string.

Anthony had suffered a dreadful crash in a microlight some years before while participating in the same race when his machine hit a powerline. I can’t help thinking that he was a bit crazy to want to get back into a microlight and compete in the same rally, but that’s what he did. Anthony and his team mate (whose name I can’t remember) were simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. Anthony cheerfully admitted that he has absolutely no aptitude for flying, and demonstrated that rather ably with a series of ‘interesting’ landings and haphazard map-reading skills, much to his team mate’s fury. In the end, they decided not to take the competitive aspects so seriously, and had a wonderful time. Antony even managed a good landing to end the race.

Paul flew his microlight with his teenage son Mikey from their home in Ireland across the Irish Sea to the start point. Mikey was determined to go with his Dad, but was visibly (and quite understandably) terrified by the prospect. Their relationship and the way they bonded during the rally was such a touching thing. Paul tried to take Mikey’s mind off the possibility of plunging to a fiery death by singing some rather excellent bawdy songs at top volume or playing ‘I Spy’, and Mikey was determined not to let his Dad down.

The final competitor was Richard Meredith-Hardy, for whom the rally must have seemed like a stroll in the park. He has flown a microlight from London to Sydney, and even flown over Mount Everest. Richard is brilliant. He’s a quiet, smiling man with an extraordinary pair of eyebrows, who does absolutely insane things in a microlight. At one point, he demonstrated his mid-air refuelling technique. When Air Force pilots do this kind of thing, they have millions of pounds worth of military hardware to help them. Richard had a few jerry cans full of fuel where his co-pilot would have been, and a bit of tubing. In a scene that I watched through my fingers, he undid his seatbelt so that he could twist around and fiddle with the cans and tubing, all while trying to hold the craft steady. Microlights — it hardly needs saying — don’t have autopilot, just a wibbly bar that you have to try to keep steady while the open cockpit in which you sit hangs and sways from the wings. Terrifying.

The views from the microlights were stunning but the pilots seemed so vulnerable. I can see the appeal, though — you really experience flying in a way that’s just not possible in any other kind of powered aircraft, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to actually try it.