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A tug pilot’s day


[By Dave Unwin]

It hasn’t been much good for flying lately has it? I was thinking just this a couple of weeks ago, then realised that a cold front was forecast to go through around midnight, bringing with it some much dryer, fresher air. That evening I laid out my flying kit, checked the NOTAMs and set my alarm clock.

The next morning the front garden shimmered and shone beneath a heavy frost. I now clearly understand the phrase “blade of grass” as it seems that a million tiny steel swords have been planted in the ground by an army of miniature warriors. The vast vault of the sky is ice blue, but the glowing yellow orb of the morning sun is compelling. Breakfast and coffee consumed, it’s time to dress. I’ve often said that one should always dress appropriately for the occasion, and on this occasion it’s going to be cold! Layer after layer goes on, and then it’s off to the strip.

Buzz seems to share my enthusiasm for the day, and starts first swing. While the little VW engine warms up I put a few more layers on, and then wedge myself into the tiny cockpit. Minutes later and the raucous cacophony of a barely-silenced Beetle motor at full chat shatters the stillness as Buzz races across the frozen turf. There’s almost no wind but the cold, crisp air is thick with lift, and after barely a hundred metres I sense the wing taking the weight and just think about flying. There’s that magical, almost mystical metamorphosis as my curious contraption of metal, wood and fabric somehow changes into a lithe, gravity defying flying machine, the wheels stop their urgent pattering and Buzz slides into the sky.

All right! It never grows old, and I hope it never will. I love flying early in the morning; – the air seems to sparkle – fresh, pure and full of possibilities. We arrow upward in a long, graceful slant and as the horizon slowly begins to expand the opening lines of one of my favourite poems, ‘Per Ardua’, suddenly springs to mind.  “They that have climbed the white mists of the morning, they that have soared before the world’s awake.” 

After pleasantly bimbling about low-level for an hour or so I notice that a few, wispy cumulus are beginning to form and decide to climb above them. Approaching the diaphanous flanks of the cloud it becomes apparent that the tops of the quickly-forming cumulus are rising faster than Buzz is, so I circle around to the sunward-side and enjoy the spectacle of my trusty little aeroplane’s shadow against the dazzlingly snow-white cloud. Interestingly, the cloud is continuing to grow, becoming bigger and more solid with every second. A large, canyon-like crack has appeared on one side and I plunge joyously though it. From a distance this cloud now probably looks quite substantial, but up close its ethereal nature is obvious, and Buzz plunges through the gap with wisps of white vapour swirling around his wingtips. Bursting out onto the other side I convert my speed into height and swing back towards the translucent top. The cloud has finally stopped growing, and within minutes I’m level with its bulging summit and then climbing above. Despite the cold a grin as wide as the wingspan splits my face; – what a view!  There appears to be a quite pronounced inversion, but all over the sky great white icebergs of cloud are bursting through, and it looks absolutely amazing. A practically-full moon completes a truly remarkable sky as I turn to keep the sun on my face, hunker down into the cramped cockpit and look around. Sailing along the sunward edge of the pristine snow white cloud-slopes, I’m struck once again by the beauty of its perfection.  It’s simply breath-taking, so for several minutes I skim along the sides, frolicking around it like a dolphin playing in a ship’s bow wave.  At one point I spot Buzz’s shadow, surrounded by the vivid rainbow hues of one of the most glorious ‘glories’ I’ve ever seen. Time seems to compress and expand simultaneously, and the raucous blat blat blat of the four little exhausts have faded so that I barely notice them, nor the avalanche of freezing air that is battering against the tiny windscreen. There’s something a little special about being above the clouds in an open cockpit, an intoxicating combination of power and poetry that is hard to describe and difficult to resist

Floating across the vapour floes at a heady 5,000ft I realise that there’s less and less ground in view and that perhaps I’d better start down. A gorge appears in a nearby cumulus, and I plunge gratefully through its wispy, misty veils into a dark, shadow world of drab greens and browns. Without the sun everything seems colder now, and I note with considerable pleasure that I’m very close to the strip. My thirst for flight slaked, Buzz slides earthward towards the welcoming runway, and settles softly onto the freshly-thawed greensward.

Farmer John approaches with an amused grin on his face as I climb stiffly out of the cockpit. “Cold enough for you was it” he asks “I didn’t think you’d fly today.” “Well mate” I smilingly reply “to paraphrase both Oscar Wilde and The Pretenders, – we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the clouds !”