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Naked and afraid at 300 feet

by on December 31, 2019


I am forced to accept that most of my readers clamour for some sort of salacious experience. Sadly, anyone searching here for such things is going to be heavily disappointed. But my last exposure (stop panting, you at the back) of some of the motivating factors behind my latest creation – Frank Eric Russell, variously Captain, Colonel, Commander and briefly an Admiral – seemed to be quite popular.

The plain fact is that I have drawn on some of my own experiences for Frank’s adventures. In the 1970s, I had been drawn by a combination of stupidity, impecunity, and a rash desire for airtime to dip a toe into the world of hang gliding. I had tried flying sailplanes, but that was too time consuming  and expensive. And could be quite dangerous, too. As a teenager I had done some flying at a lovely cliff top airfield called Perranporth, next to Newquay in Cornwall. Here, the preferred method of launching a glider was to tow it into the air on a long cable behind an old ex US Army truck. When the wind was directly onshore, the cliffs provided loads of lift and the gliders could soar the cliffs for ages. But the method of launch was to rev up the truck, engage gear and drive as fast as possible towards the cliff edge until either your nerve or the tarmac ran out. That was as exciting as the flying, and considerably more dangerous.   But great fun!

Frank is rightly suspicious of all forms of the media, fearing that anything he said would be misrepresented or even simply invented, at a reporter’s whim. In my experience he was entirely correct. The British newspapers initially raved about the hang gliding community, calling us ‘intrepid birdmen’ and other such complimentary epithets. Until the fatal accidents began to happen, as intrepid pilots took their machines far beyond their design envelopes, or intended usage. Then a different story took hold, and it seemed that half of the UK Parliament was demanding that we stopped using these new machines.


I was interviewed by one such reporter, a svelte young lady from the BBC. Complete with a camera crew and dressed appropriately for standing on a city street corner to do vox pop interviews, she was talking to assorted scruffy pilots on a cold, windy, Yorkshire hillside composed of boggy peat ground with occasional rocks floating sullenly on the surface. As the wind on the hilltop was about 22 mph, the camera crew were getting some good footage of the flying and in a good mood. The young lady, who hadn’t realised that hang gliding took place in the genuine Great Outdoors interviewed me for local television. I was unable to take her seriously as she questioned me earnestly while slowly leaning backwards as the points of her high heeled shoes sank inexorably into the peat bog. The camera team were having hysterics in the background. I don’t think the piece was ever shown. Probably just as well. At least one of us was laughing so hard at her that he messed up his launch and managed to crash taking off. The camera crew had missed the shot because they were trying to recover first the reporter and then her designer shoes from the peat bog. I recall that her report on us was unfavourable.

Crashing was an occupational hazard. We all did it sometimes. The most embarrassing was a ground loop. The poor pilot suffering one of these invariably found his glide inverted on the ground, with him(or her) held uncomfortably about four feet off the ground and quite unable to get free without help. You may have read some of the less complimentary things said to poor Frank about his flying escapades? Trust me, these pale into insignificance against the gleeful insults that headed towards the unfortunate trapped pilot after a ground loop.

Mind you, I did once suffer an even more embarrassing incident. No, not the naked hang gliding. Even worse than that. The favoured training site at the time was a hill above Rochdale with a curious history. During both World Wars, it had seen some use as a target for artillery training. Presumably on the lines of ‘Let’s see if you can hit that hill, lad, before we let you loose trying to hit a German. They’re a bit smaller than the hill!” As a result the lower slopes of the hill were pitted with shell holes. A curiosity for hill walkers, a death trap to hikers in the snow, and an annoyance to the golfers on the nearby golf course if they mis hit a drive.

I suspect some of you can already guess where this is going? And yes, I once managed a perfect landing in a shell hole. The keel tube and leading edges of my glider settled perfectly across the top of the shell hole, leaving me dangling from the seat over an eight foot drop. To my mates on the top of the hill, it looked as if I had landed and laid the glider flat on the floor ( a normal safety measure). Only after twenty minutes, when someone landed close enough to hear my hoarse pleas for assistance was my plight revealed…

I did mention that I wrecked my chances of an international team place, and my daughter badgered me until I told her the truth. So I suppose that I’d better come clean here too. Frank would have sympathized with me here as a combination of stupidity and bad luck left me in difficulties: an experience I’ve replicated for him. Was it cathartic? Not for Frank.

The trial took place in South Wales, on a beautiful, haunted mountain called Y Skirrid. At the bottom is an inn, reputed to be the most haunted pub in Britain. My shade nearly joined the others in their haunting, that day. The launch site was on the North West slope, above a deep, forested valley with a tree covered ridge beyond, and a small wood falling gently away to the landing ground. My Standard Skyhook 3A was rigged, and I was waiting my turn to go. There was a strict launch window of two minutes: fail to go in that time, and you were eliminated. The pilot before me had flown off the hill into a nice thermal, and lifted happily in warm rising air over the hazard and down to the landing ground.

Standing at the edge of the hill, I tossed some grass into the air and watched glumly as it sank rapidly out of sight. For those who don’t know, a thermal is a column of warm, rising air: surrounded entirely by a collar of colder, sinking air. “Now, or never”, intoned the launch marshall, his pen poised to strike my name from the list. I picked up the Skyhook, and with more fear than enthusiasm, trotted over the edge into the still, sinking air. The Skyhook plummeted like a stone, and when I had sorted her out with some flying speed, we were looking up at the trees on the ridge line. Like any other glider, a hang glider is always descending through the air and only soars when the air itself is rising faster than the glider is falling, if you follow me. The sinking air had carried us down into the valley, with nowhere to land except on top of some distressingly high trees.

Luckily, the launch spot had been close to one end of the valley. Trying not to think about the sharp treetops reaching for my tender regions, I turned right and flew carefully to the valley end. My sigh of relief was short lived. The woods ran down towards the lovely green fields with the designated and entirely obstruction free landing area. But the Skyhook was sinking fast. We were too low to get beyond the tree line to safety, and a crash – possibly a fatal crash – seemed imminent. The variometer bleeped.

A variometer is a cunning little device. A variety of altimeter, it works on the same principle. But instead of recording how high (or in this case, how low) you are, it tells the eager pilot if his glider is going down – or climbing. On the descent from Y Skirrid, it had howled in my ears like a demented banshee prophesying death and destruction: now it gently beeped, whispering that we were climbing. The beep could mean salvation, rather than an out of season impersonation of a christmas tree ornament.

I leaned to my left and the Skyhook responded. Flying as slowly as I dared and keeping just above the stalling speed, we crept back along the tree infested ridge line, slowly rising as we went. The treetops stopped groping at me with malicious intent and retreated to being dangerous. A glance towards the landing field showed me several of my fellow pilots running around and waving their arms frantically as they recognized my plight. I’m sure that it helped them, but it didn’t do much for my confidence.

The variometer beeped softly for a last time, and then fell silent. I guessed that I had screwed every foot of lift out of the ridge that I was going to get. If another thermal turned up, then the sinking air that surrounded the thermal would get to me before the life saving lift. It was time to go. I turned away from the ridge of trees and accelerated to the speed that gave the best gliding distance. Yes, I made it. The branches reached for me a last time as the Skyhook crossed the treeline, but fell away, disappointed. I touched down safely a minute later and pretended nothing unusual had happened. International competition flying was not for me. The Team Selectors concurred without bothering to ask my opinion which I felt was a little rude, to be honest.

Flying in North Wales was much more fun. Especially in the summer, when the favoured landing ground was the beach. A beach full of sunbathing girls on their holidays, who were fascinated to see an intrepid birdman swoop down from a distant hill to, well, fall over ungracefully with sixty pounds weight of hang glider on top of him. That’s what you get for being distracted. Frank would understand that all too well.

Then there was Snowden. A whole group of us started off up the Rangers’ Track, but sixty pounds of hang glider is a heavy weight to carry up a serious mountain so we didn’t manage to climb to the top of the highest point in Wales. A convenient ridge most of the way up was agreed as ‘being high enough’. Flying back down was fraught with interest as landing anywhere but back where we came from would mean a long, tedious, strenuous hike back to the cars…

hang glider hikimng

I do feel that I know many of my readers personally. That’s the reason I understand that you have plowed through all this waiting for the anecdote about the naked hang gliding. Yes, it happened. But there’s no photographic evidence, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Most of my fellows who joined in for the bet are either a) dead, b) entirely forgetful, or c) in denial. Except for my friend ‘X’ who; like the rest us, had strapped some clothes to the keel tube of his glider for decency after landing. But unlike the rest of us, he strapped his clothes close to the end of the tube… the wrong side of a securing bolt… and halfway down the hill discovered that his hopes of modesty were fluttering away in the breeze of his passage. Took him half an hour to find them, scattered across the hillside, and we decided that a sheep had probably made off with his underwear. ‘X’ will probably carry that memory, but I doubt that he will admit to it!

There’s no phot0 here. Sorry.

So there you go. Frank Eric Russell is about to fly off into the sunset in his final (for now) adventure, carrying with him several of my memories. And others that I haven’t used on him yet. I hope he keeps them safe – I might need them for him…



  1. So … So you still hanker for a bit of flying. I grew up near the South downs so hang gliders were always around and an interesting phenomenon. Most folks seen to use those parachutes now though.

  2. I’ve known a few too many people have accidents paragliding to want to do that. But yes, I do sometimes feel an urge to go hang gliding again. Maybe this coming year will see another type of flying. PLEASE!

  3. arkytom permalink

    Will this was an AMAZING story about your days hang-gliding! Wow. Double Wow. Loved the BBC news girl is stupid anecdote! And I really got a feel for what IS involved in hang-gliding. I only know the sport from TV programs. Mayhap (is that Brit enough?) I will give it a try. In the future. Far future!

    And yes I have enjoyed your first book in your scifi series. Sorry I haven’t read more. Been having fun with urban fantasy stuff.



  4. Tom, if you get time, YouTube has a lot of videos of hang gliding, particularly on Australian sand dunes, that are great fun. I still dream most night of the feeling of being lifted from the ground into warm air, to look down of the ants scurrying around below!

  5. Rebecca Douglass permalink

    Great stories. Love the idiot reporter tale. But I think you should have made the team–sounds like pulling out a safe landing from that launch took some good flying as well as luck!

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