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Headbutting a rock, and other hobbies

by on December 4, 2019

Headbutting Rocks is a strange hobby

Both my publicist (doesn’t that make me sound upmarket?) and several former publishers have encouraged me to write blog posts in which I ‘interview’ the main character, and perhaps a few other characters, from a forthcoming book. With Galactic Fugitive launched, and Star Spy -the final planned book in this first Space Opera collection – now in editing, I have been reminded by them again that this would be a brilliant idea.

 

There is a problem. A big problem. You see, and I haven’t admitted this before: there is something about the main character, the hapless Frank Eric Russell. Now the name may be vaguely familiar to some of you. I make no apology for thoroughly enjoying the 1950s and 1960s sci fi scene. One of the writers then was Eric Frank Russell, and I would commend all his works to you. If you like your sci fi dotted with wit, humour and bad puns, then I would particularly suggest that you seek out his book Next of Kin. You will love it. I did. In fact I still do, as my 40 year old paperback edition still graces my bookshelves.

Sorry, I digress. I do it a lot, it drives my partner mad. Anyway, there is something about Frank that causes me a problem for such an interview. Frank is me. Or rather, he is the 20 year old me who was mad about hang gliding. In the early 1970s, this was a risk sport. Not just because the Insurance Companies thought so, but because it genuinely was dangerous and I have a lot of missing friends from that time who never grew old enough to reminisce about the old times. My online friends know that I’m really rather reticent. Quite private in many ways. You will not find out very much about me from my bios on line, and I rather like it that way. But I’m going to break the habit, and actually reveal a corner or two. Just bear in mind that it is to shed a bit of light on Frank, rather than on me, okay?
Hang gliding was something that I fell into, just as Frank rather fell into being a scout pilot. He had not planned his career that way, and I hadn’t planned mine like that either. But I did discover when I was 18 that the severe, indeed almost deadly, dose of measles I had at 6 years old had in fact damaged my eyesight so badly that the job I dreamed of having – flying passenger jets – was not to be mine as my eyesight, on test, was deemed to be too close to the minimum limits for a commercial pilot and was expected to fall below those limits by the time I was 28. That meant that the cost of training me as a commercial pilot, in those days borne by the airlines not the prospective pilot ( and that second option would not have ben available to me either with only one retired parent left alive), was not a commercial prospect. But as it happened, a close friend had come across hang gliding in an American magazine, had discovered that it actually happened over here too and was keen to have a go. He involved me as I a) had a car, and b) actually had flying experience because I did some gliding in the summer holidays and was allowed to be solo on sailplanes. I was dragged, half protesting, into an activity I knew little about and viewed with the greatest suspicion. If you’ve read Space Scout of The Free Union,  you might just recognize a little of Frank’s circumstances in there, and how he came to be part of the Reconnaissance Unit.

 

The first hang glider I acquired (actually I had a part share) was an elderly glider actually reconfigured from a machine previously used for being towed behind a speedboat, and quite unsuitable for free flight. Dark green, to blend in with the grass, and with solid steel tubing rather than aviation quality aluminium, it was appropriately called a Grasshopper. It never rose far from the ground except on one memorable occasion. The first time my friends and I took it out to a flying site, the wind was quite strong. The two or three other hang glider pilots on the site had their machines flat on the floor, tied down, and were sheltering from the blast in a hollow. We took a democratic vote and then strapped the smallest of us into the glider, dragged him to the edge of the steep hill and let go. The Grasshopper shot vertically upwards to a height of about 20 feet, a feat it never managed to repeat. The hapless pilot hung there, quite motionless in the air, and called down: “How do you control it?” As we didn’t know, we were unable to tell him. We did however shout loads of well meaning, if contradictory and confusing, advice and eventually the Grasshopper returned to earth.

One by one we upgraded to more effective gliders. Mine was a Skyhook 3A. On that I became one of the handful of pilots in the UK to keep a hang glider aloft for over an hour, a feat I chiefly recall as being monotonous , bladder stretching and cold, at a place above Bolton called Winter Hill. Frank would fully understand the monotony of flying slowly from one end of a four hundred foot long slope to the other – and back again. Lots and lots of times. Truthfully, on those early gliders it was quite a feat of skill and endurance, but I thought little of it at the time. It certainly did not fill me with confidence in my own ability, or any recognition that I might have done something remarkable. Does the parallel with Frank’s view of his skillset seem familiar now? On that Skyhook 3A I flew from the upper reaches of Mount Snowden in North Wales, was first introduced to my favourite place in the world, Rhossili Bay in West Wales, and even tried a few competitions. I did manage by accident to be a finalist in the 1976 National Hang Gliding Championships, and still have (how sad am I then?) the badge I was awarded as a finalist for accidentally achieving a precision landing. I had actually flown down the course rather faster than I had intended, and had needed to land carefully to avoid crashing into a previous competitor who was a bit slow vacating the landing zone. As a result I had a trial for the International squad, which I blew from a lack of confidence.

everardskyhookiiia1975augustbritchamps

Photocredit: Everard  Cunion launches a Skyhook 111A at Mere, 1975

At a later competition, I was hit by a rogue gust of wind just after launch on the second task. I was told later that a pilot from my club who was watching, and who was standing more or less where I would have crashed if I had lost control, remarked: ‘Nothing to worry about. See how fast he reacted? Will’s more than capable of handling that. But watch: he’ll then duck out of completing the task when he could go on to do well.’ He was right, that was just what happened. No self confidence, see? Just like Frank. That’s why I can relate to him.

It has been said in reviews that Frank is too cowardly to be realistic or entertaining as a hero placed into unlikely situations. I didn’t feel a hero as I grimly held onto one corner of the control frame of the glider, preventing the aircraft from spinning to the right and crashing into the (rapidly scattering) crowd behind me. Nor did I feel especially skillful, just a bit of a failure. Again. But you will agree that it does represent a bit of an unlikely situation.

Some memories are fun, and do feed into Frank’s adventures. On one visit to Rhossili, the wind was just right in direction and speed. It was possible on my Flexiform Spirit, the glider I look back on with the most affection, to launch from the main hill on Rhossili Down and after gaining a little height soar past the outdoor cliff top dining/drinking area of The Worm’s Head pub (accepting the admiring stares of the girls as a pilot’s rightful dues) and then continue across the churning, sphincter clenching, watery chasm beyond to soar along to the end of The Wyrm’s Head itself before returning to the safer cliffs near the pub: and one of the most beautiful beaches in the world (according to Trip Advisor) as a landing ground. I did it once. Just like Frank I lacked the bottle for a second performance, although inevitably several of my friends did the trip a number of times and lived to tell the tale.

Flexi-Spirt- Rhossili

Crashes: yes there were a few. A badly broken arm, reset without any pain relief at Blackburn Royal (“That’s self inflicted damage and you don’t deserve any anesthetic,” said the surgeon) and per the headline on the blog, narrowly avoiding headbutting a rock at 40 mph during a crash on an attempted landing at Parlick Fell in the Trough of Bowland. Not on my beloved Spirit, but on a Flexiform Vector, a radical and ultimately unsuccessful design. I had a prototype cheap, as a test pilot. The coach for the national team, who sadly subsequently died on his glider, tried my Vector and told me that day: ‘On that glider you are either going to get very good, or very dead’. I flew it a lot for the next two years, and survived without any other injury. Perhaps I did get very good. Like Frank did, flying his Speedbird. I don’t know. I did avoid getting dead, though.

Lost: I’ve flown other aircraft too. Perhaps another time I’ll talk about that. But I recall flying solo in a Piper Cherokee to the north of Cheltenham when haze obscured the ground entirely, and in moments I had even less idea of where I was than I had enjoyed a minute or so earlier. Roads, rivers, villages, towns: all vanished below this silvery sheen. It was very pretty but potentially deadly. And worse, to the east lay a whole series of military bases whose airspace was forbidden to private pilots who didn’t ask permission first. Straying into one of those would cause me a world of trouble. When Frank was lost, I knew how he felt – or maybe it was the other way round? Like Frank, I relied on my basic training to get me out of danger, and it did. A lesson that created a part of one story and hopefully helped me make it feel real for the readers.

Piper Cherokee

Frank never seems to learn much about himself. I would love to be able to say that hang gliding taught me a great deal about myself. It didn’t. I lacked the introspection because, like Frank, I was too busy having fun. I have a video clip – originally on Super 8, then transferred to video and now on DVD – of this impossibly young long haired idiot with a big grin strapping into his red, yellow and white Flexiform Spirit and lifting off the edge of a hillside into the air before turning to fly along the hill and climbing away into the distance. “I’ve never seen anyone get so high on this hill! That was amazing!” another pilot said to me after my return to terra firma. But all I could think about was the firm terror I had experienced when an extremely strong thermal had refused to let me land on my first, frantic, attempt and had nearly thrown me backwards into the power lines that run across Baildon Moor; before pushing me several hundred feet up into the sky, tossing me around like a leaf and then releasing me to glide down with some semblance of dignity. I can’t recall what I said in reply. I’m sure Frank would have found a pithy retort. I envy him that. How come I can’t do it and he can?

Occasionally, Frank’s natural caution slips a bit and he does something foolhardy. I can relate to that. It’s an error of judgement. Rather like the one I made that led to me being the fourth person (as far as I know. Claim not tested by independent fact checkers.) in the UK to fly a hang glider at night. In my defence, there was a full moon, if that makes things a little more understandable. And snow. A lot of snow. And enough wind to mean that even though I was launching from a site called Nont Sarahs, close to the pub of that name, I would be able to land back on the top of the hill close to the car park rather than at the bottom of the hill, which was littered with dangerous boulders and rabbit holes. And had a partly frozen lake as a drowning hazard. Unlike Frank when he was being uncharactistically adventurous, I was accompanied by a small group of friends. Not that they helped, as they all insisted that I should be the first to try the conditions for suitability.

One of the clichés that swirl around authors is the saying ‘write what you know’. If I ever need to write about a character experiencing bowel loosening terror, I only have to reflect on my own feelings when, at 150 feet above some of the most jagged and inhospitable rocks Yorkshire has to offer, a cloud covered the moon. The ground became invisible. I had no way of knowing if I was tracking along the face of the hill, and thereby safely maintaining height, or drifting off to the right of the hill with a half frozen lake beckoning me to a watery grave, or to the left where the rock teeth offered an unpleasant prospect, or moving forward out of the band of rising air, in order to sink down amongst the leg shattering boulders. After three lifetimes, or possibly as long as 30 seconds, the cloud drifted away and the glorious moonlight appeared again. I was able to set up a landing approach without further delay. To my amazement, two of my friends tried the experience as well. In the welcoming warmth of the pub afterwards, we agreed that while memorable, we probably would avoid the experience in future.

So there you have it. An interview with Frank Eric Russell, revealing some of the formative experiences that made him who I am; sorry, I mean who he is, of course. Anyone know where I can find a second hand Speedbird?
Frank Eric Russell’s adventures are chronicled in: Space Scout of The Free Union; Infinity is for Losers; Rogue Pilot; Interstellar Mercenary and Galactic Fugitive.

All are presently available for Kindle and paperback via Amazon, with further outlets planned for next year.

From → Space Opera

11 Comments
  1. Love it. Maybe that’s why Eric rings so true. 🙂 Oh and you were clearly a nutter as a young man, although I’m probably on thin ice throwing out accusations like that! 🙂

    • Me a nutter? Moi??? Now I want to hear your confessions Mind you, I didn’t get round to mentioning the naked hang gliding for a bet, did I? Or why I blew the international trial… they may be for another post. Perhaps.

  2. Reblogged this on Jim Webster and commented:
    I love his stories, but I’m never going hang gliding with him 🙂

  3. Eric actually seems a exemplar of sensible conduct now 🙂

  4. The answer to why you can’t give pithy answers on the spot is that neither does he: writers have the gift of hindsight – they can rewrite until they get it, and the character appears to get it (he really doesn’t – witness leaden first and nth drafts).

    Unfair competition.

  5. Rebecca Douglass permalink

    Fascinating bit of personal history! I’m glad you shared. I’m also glad I finally figured out why I wasn’t getting any notifications about your posts (or anyone else, for that matter). You’ve published several books in a new series while I was distracted!

    • Do we get to find out why you were distracted? I wonder…

      • Rebecca Douglass permalink

        Oh, with one thing and another. Moving, graduating my sons, traveling the world… Mostly I missed it because a) I wasn’t getting blog notices, and b) I haven’t seen you around on Goodreads.

  6. Thanks for the comments guys. Now I haven’t exhausted all the stories, so there may be more. There is the naked hang gliding – for a bet, obviously – and the reason the International Team Trial didn’t quite work out… maybe another post next week. I’ll have to think about it.

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