The year was… well, back when. We were in England, motoring through the Cotswold, when the two-lane became a car-brushing one-cart-track of leaning-in bushes and birds. We curled around the tree-shaded green hillsides, happily running across again a two-track, and suddenly found the roadway to be oddly wide, sunlit – and concrete. Vegetation intruded over the edges. Ka-bing! The lightbulb went off. “Hal – this is a runway!” I exclaimed. We were on an erstwhile WW2 runway, well absorbed into England’s roadways system. The wartime RAF had many of these, mostly now defunct and overgrown, deep in the countryside.
As we poked along, near Moreton-in-Marsh by now, we came upon another of those huge runways – this one adapted to creative reuse as both a truck-driving training school at one end (lots of maneuvering room) and a flight school of ultralights and microlights at the other. It would never happen in the USA. We were bemused. And drawn in. As pilots, we were itching to get the overview of all the hedgerows and villages, sprawling picture-book pretty across the rolling countryside. Would the school sell us rides? Hesitating, we idled the car down the concrete till we found a shed, a few winged moth-like contraptions parked outside. Neither of us had been in one before – this could be a first. Inside, the instructors acted as if they had been waiting for us. Fiona would be mine, Hal got the very heavyset guy. And the microlight. Hal was tall and hefty… he hid his angst over the strain the two of them would be putting on the little craft – quietly sharing his worry with me. Fiona liked the enclosed ultralight, so that was that.
Fiona was a slender, lovely, fair-haired young woman, coolly assertive and authoritative. Tall. I felt like a shrimp, beside her. But we were to be cabin mates for a brief half-hour, and I could take that. My logged flight time, many more than hers, had been built in single engine aircraft and gliders – this invention I was climbing into was another class… like a glider with a motor. But smaller.
So we signed up and rolled out… belted in firmly with the advisory to stay at or below 2,500’ – Fiona stated that was the permissible layer of airspace available to us in that area. The ceiling was flat and pale gray above us, a little disappointing.
I of course acquiesced to Fiona’s know-how. The little winged thing was, well, worryingly kite-like. At least we were out of the slipstream. Took a moment or two to get used to it. Then I found a bit of lift and attempted to circle in it to gain altitude – an action that startled and sent pretty Fiona into a dither. “Fiona,” I chided, “I’m a glider pilot!” Never mind. She reminded me of the altitude restriction for us in this area, so I straightened out and flew level. And did what I was there for – enjoy the overview, while carefully managing the controls. The hedgerows did indeed mark off one field from another, with intriguing peeks at medieval villages here and there – we could even see ancient footpaths trailing town to town across lots, avoiding roads. (Author Bill Bryson has written a definitive tome on his walk-about through Britain. Amazing place.)
The half-hour whizzed by, and we aimed back towards base (always within sight) to compare notes with Hal. He was happy. The avoirdupois of the two men seemed to have no effect on the microlight’s performance; they leaped aloft quickly upon the initial acceleration, much to his relief. He had no desire to have his corpse shipped back to the States. Me neither. Fiona was relieved to offload her curious American passenger.
We paid and thanked the flight school, clambered into our car, and wound our way through the byways onto an A something or other, and got back to our digs high on our day’s discoveries. In the air or on the ground, travel is wonderful, from tight little one-track roads to soaring the overview. Life was good.