Microlight flying over Sandbach
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A field near Sandbach is the base for a group of microlight pilots who enjoy flights over the county and further afield, as Paul Mackenzie reports
At first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything remarkable about the field at the end of a bumpy pot-holed lane close to junction 17 of the M6. The lush grass blows gently in the summer breeze and birds dart in and out of the perimeter hedge. But once the huge barn doors are opened, the field is transformed. Within minutes the birdsong is drowned out by the whirr and thrum of small aircraft engines.
An orange windsock is one of the few clues that this field is home to the Cheshire Flyers microlight club who use a 400m mown strip across the field as a runway for their machines. Members fly flexwing – a three-wheeled buggy suspended below a triangular wing – and fixed wing, which look more like mini aeroplanes, from this field and seven others around Cheshire.
Local flights can see them cruising at about 2,000 feet above Cheshire, but the microlights are capable of longer journeys too. The club has regular jaunts to the Channel Islands and members have flown to mainland Europe.
John Bradbury is an experienced microlight pilot who trains new flyers at the club and has flown his flexwing to France and Spain. He said: ‘I know every inch of Cheshire and I don’t tire of the views. I love the seasonal changes and the colours and the freedom you have up there.’
John has thousands of flying hours under his belt, all of them in microlights, but his father was a navigator in Lancaster Bombers during World War Two. ‘I don’t know if my dad subconsciously inspired me but I knew I wanted to fly. The cost of general aviation was prohibitive though so I tried microlights and loved them. They are great fun and very affordable – it’s possible to buy a perfectly good second-hand flexwing microlight for £5,000.’
The club now has about 160 members – not all of whom fly – and chairman Ian Shaw added: ‘Our members come from all walks of life – we have doctors, plumbers, lay preachers – once you’re here everyone’s on common ground. We have some commercial pilots, some ex-RAF pilots, all sorts of people.
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‘Microlights are so accessible and you can land in so many places – at larger airports, small airfields or some farmers’ fields – you’re never far from a small strip. It is weather dependent though, so some of the flights we plan can’t happen but that just makes the ones that do come off even more attractive.’
As a young man Ian, who took over as chairman from John earlier this year, watched his father fly gliders and the club’s youngest member also has her dad to thank for her new-found passion.
Lucy Griffin was 18 when she became the youngest female flexwing pilot in the country last October. ‘I got started because of my dad. He had a trail flight for his 60th birthday and loved it so much he had lessons,’ she said.
‘He used to take my twin sister, Amy, on his motorbike and he took her up with him. One night she came to me saying she didn’t want to go and asked me to go instead. I was scared of heights and I was feeling sick on the way there, wondering what I’d let myself in for but I loved it. I knew I had to learn. I was just old enough so I signed up straight away.’
Now 19, Lucy added: ‘When I was up there with my dad he went between the clouds and I was almost able to reach out and touch the clouds. I can’t put into words how wonderful it feels to be up there. It really lifts a weight off your shoulders, it really relaxes me and nothing else matters when you’re flying. The novelty will never wear off. It’s very quiet up there, very peaceful, it’s just you and your thoughts. I’m not too scared of heights any more but occasionally I realise there’s nothing beneath me.’
Lucy, who received a bursary from the British Microlight Aircraft Association to help pay for her training, currently works at a soft play area in Alsager but said: ‘I don’t know what career I want but I know I don’t want my feet on the ground.’
Although the club is one of the biggest of its kind in the UK, very few of the flying members are female, which puzzles newly qualified pilot Sharon Cox. She took her first flight in December 2013 and was hooked.
‘I am probably one of the oldest new flexwing pilots and I’m here flying along Lucy who is one of the youngest so that shows it’s open to anyone,’ she said. ‘I don’t understand why they aren’t more women involved, though. There’s only three or four female flyers in the club but I hope that if more women see it’s accessible and affordable, then more of them will give it a go.’
And the 58-year-old added: ‘It seemed like something that would be too expensive and would be for other people but I picked up a leaflet at the Nantwich Show and my husband bought me a trial flight. I realised then how affordable and accessible it is.
‘It is a challenge mentally and physically and I really enjoy the social side of the club as well. Everyone’s really supportive and genuinely friendly. I love the whole aerial vista in front of you when you’re flying and the bird’s eye view and sense of adventure you get.’
To qualify as a microlight, an aircraft must weigh no more than 450kg at take off (including the pilot, passenger and fuel).
Flexwings can reach speeds of 70mph, fixed wing microlights are faster and can top 100mph.
As with a car, costs vary. Second-hand flexwings can be bought a few thousand pounds, while a top-of-the-range fixed wing model could cost £75,000.
Microlight engines can run on aviation fuel or regular unleaded petrol.
To find out more, go online to cheshiremicrolights.co.uk