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Head in the clouds
I’m 2,500 feet up in the air, in a plane flying over Bradford city centre – and the pilot has just handed me the controls.
This is no nightmare scenario where I turn into Bruce Willis and attempt to land a stricken plane in the nearest open space.
I’m on a trial flying lesson, taking control of a Cessna 172, which has taken off from the Multiflight training centre in Yeadon.
A trial lesson in an aeroplane or helicopter – Multiflight offers both – is a wonderful way of experiencing the freedom of flight first-hand, whether for a fun one-off experience or an introduction to a training course.
Multiflight, based at South Side Aviation next to Leeds-Bradford International Airport, has a fleet of aircraft and also provides a maintenance service for private planes kept in its hangar.
The flight training centre provides trial lessons and courses designed for beginners to work towards a private pilot’s licence. Some go on to train as commercial pilots.
I’m met by instructor Dick Cunnings and, before we climb into the plane, he briefs me on what to expect. He says that, once in the air, the student gets a feel for the aircraft and takes control.
We’re flying in a Cessna 172, a four-seater single engine plane. Walking towards the Cessna, illuminated by sunlight bouncing off the icy ground, my excitement turns to nerves as it sinks in that I’m actually going to be flying a plane.
Thankfully, I’m in safe hands. Dick has been flying for 40 years. He flew jets in the RAF and was a flight instructor in Hong Kong before joining Multiflight in 1989.
A trial lesson can be half-an-hour or an hour. “They make great Christmas or birthday presents,” says Dick. “Some people go on to train for a PPL (private pilot’s licence). The Civil Aviation Authority requires a minimum of 45 hours flying for a private licence, and the minimum age is 17. But you can have a lesson from the age of 13.”
After eight to ten lessons, depending on how they have progressed, students can fly solo for the first time. Climbing into the Cessna, with a dazzling array of knobs, buttons, levers and discs in front of me, flying solo seems a very distant prospect.
Dick talks me through the controls – the plane has dual controls – and I fasten my seatbelt.
“I usually ask where people want to go, sometimes we fly over their homes so they can take a photograph,” says Dick. We decide to fly over Bradford city centre, then on to York for a view of the snow-capped Minster.
I get the same adrenaline-fuelled rush I get in a roller-coaster about to tip over the edge of a sheer drop.
Dick’s calming voice comes through the intercom into my headphones. “If you can learn to drive a car, you can learn to fly a plane – except in the air there are no traffic lights or roundabouts,” he says.
Suddenly we’re moving along the runway, and within seconds we’re up in the air, flying above the frozen Yeadon Tarn. The snow-covered landscape is like a white quilt, stretched as far as the eye can see.
We head out over Bradford, to a fabulous bird’s eye view of the Telegraph & Argus building, City Hall and the Interchange, where buses and coaches look like toys.
Further on, flying towards Dewsbury and over the M62, Dick takes his hands off his controls and says I’m in charge!
Gripping the yoke with both hands, I pull it out a little to bring the nose of the plane up slightly so the skyline is level in front of us. The blue line on the altitude indicator gives me an idea of how level the plane is, and I’m told to keep the vertical speed indicator at zero.
Gently guiding me, Dick says to push the yoke back in to bring the nose down a little when we rise too high. Trying to get the hang of it, I feel like I’m taking the little plane on quite a roller-coaster ride, 2,500 feet up.
Dick tells me to bring the yoke to the left; careful not to pull it down too much, I tilt it a little, turning the plane left. “Try and think ahead of the aeroplane. Let it know you’re in control,” says Dick.
The weather conditions are good for flying as there’s not much wind. It’s a bright, sunny morning, enabling us to see for miles.
We’re flying at a speed of 100 knots, heading over Wakefield Prison. “Can you spot the mulberry bush?” asks Dick. Peering down, I see a tree in the grounds which inmates traditionally walked around for exercise. Steam pumps out of cooling towers in the distance.
I head towards York and, over the city, Dick takes control, pulling the power out a little and lowering the plane so we can take photographs. We fly over Clifford’s Tower and the magnificent Minster, standing like a proud lion among narrow slivers of snowy streets.
Heading back, York Racecourse looks like a shimmering ice rink. We fly towards Wetherby, following a tree-lined avenue up to Harewood House, then over the Emmerdale set, which looks like toy town. Frozen reservoirs look like puddles.
Suddenly we’re approaching Otley Chevin, then we begin to descend at 300 feet per minute. Dick says landing is the most challenging part of flying. At three or four feet above ground, as speed decreases, the plane is levelled by gently bringing the nose up. The landing feels smoother than it does on a big commercial passenger plane.
As we land, the Great North Air Ambulance Service helicopter, which is based at Multiflight, is setting off on a job.
Thanks to Dick’s expert guidance and good humour, I loved every minute of my flying lesson. Being in the air, with my hands on the controls, was a huge thrill.
And it was wonderful to have such a peaceful, strangely-moving bird’s eye perspective of the county. Being back on terra firma seems pretty dull in comparison.
What was that about flying solo… ?