Air Race Day, Kemble Airfield, Wiltshire
PUBLISHED: 17:59 29 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013
Thrill-seekers of the Cotswolds now have a new way to get their kicks. Kemble Airfield is home to a very special Air Race Day on the second Tuesday of every month. Candia McKormack donned a flying suit and took to the skies
Now, I thought I'd done some exciting things: explored the cave systems of the Mendips, performed on stage in front of 24,000 people, given birth... but nothing has come as close to the pure, unadulterated thrill of flying an Extra300 in an air race over Kemble Airfield.
Pulling up in the car park outside the Control Tower, butterflies a-flutter in my stomach, I started to wonder if this was such a good idea; I'm a mother of two, for God's sake, and someone who generally gets their kicks in bite-size chunks of a comfortingly familiar flavour. I love the taste of excitement, but what exactly does terror taste like (and can I spit it out if I don't like it)?
Helen Tempest (what a name, and what a woman - 25 years of wing-walking, no less) greeted me and promptly placed a welcoming mug of coffee in my hands. She too has tried the air race challenge, and assured me that nerves and being a complete novice were both fine and that I would have the time of my life. Really? I had my doubts, but the words of reassurance from her and the rest of the team were a huge help. Also on hand to give words of advice and racing tips were Red Bull Air Racing ace Steve Jones, and Alistair Allen, current British and European Air Racing champion.
Impressed? I certainly was.
The rest of the day's racers arrived - there were to be five of us altogether - and tried to glean from each other how much, or indeed little, experience each had. There were just two with a pilot's license, but even for them this was something of a new experience. There was a cheeky little manoeuvre called a half-Cuban which they were discussing. I don't smoke, and have not even tried a full Cuban, so obviously didn't understand the mysteries...
In the briefing room - kitted out in our flying suits and feeling all Top Gun - we were talked through the day's activities by our instructor pilot Mark 'Greeners' Greenfield (chief executive of Ultimate High and top chap with a personality akin to a likeable Jeremy Clarkson). Mark outlined the objectives of the day:
* It was heartening to hear that the 'having fun' bit was most important: "I want you to leave the plane with a smile the size of Wales on your face."
We were told we would be flying at 750ft, with penalties being awarded for dropping below that height, clipping the (thankfully) virtual gates and over-rotation in a turn. After learning that a 30-second penalty would be awarded if I rolled past 90 degrees in a turn, I vowed to fight that particular temptation.
The whole business of 'G's is an interesting one. It seems that about three of them is perfect for a turn, but that it is necessary to clench 'in a constipated fashion' during the turn to compensate for the blood beginning to 'pool' in the lower half of your body, and that it's best not to be too heavy-handed on the stick. As Mark elaborated, "If you pull the stick right back into your stomach, 'til you reach around 10Gs, you'll black out. But that's never happened here before." Fab.
So, after drawing names out of a hat to decide the flying order (yes, I was last of course), it was out to the sexy beast that is the Extra300. The four chaps did their training laps with Mark while the rest of us watched in amazement. Then it was my turn...
After being fitted into my parachute, I was introduced to my nemesis - all white and red with nasty, pointy, scary teeth. If they wanted to put rookie pilots at ease, maybe a different paint job would have been an idea. Maybe pink with a smiley face? Just a thought.
We taxied to the runway, with Mark constantly talking me through what was happening and what was about to happen. I tried to filter out his voice among what seemed like a barrage of commands from the Control Tower. I failed miserably and was chastised for not obeying the simple command of letting go of the joystick. "What? The stick? Do you want me to let go of the stick? Sorry, what was that? Do you want me to keep holding it? Eh?" Feeling more than a little embarrassed, I learned to tune into the frequencies of Mark's voice and ignore all else - including the voices in my head that were screaming at me to bail.
Now we're airborne. What a rush! The patchwork of green fields and the lakes at South Cerney were stretched out beneath. The beauty was breathtaking, but I tried to keep my mind on the instructions in my headphones. In very little time Mark was saying to me, "You have control" which I knew meant that he had removed his hand from the joystick. "I have control," I said. "Who are you kidding?" I thought.
Gently does it. I knew from the briefing that the slightest movement was needed to take the turns so, on the command I tweaked the stick to the right then pulled it gently back towards me. Wow! So that's what 'G's feel like. Not an unpleasant feeling at all, but really rather exhilarating. Another, tighter, turn to the right, then it was time for the half-Cuban.
This manoeuvre actually involves looping the plane to five-eighths of the way round until it's coming back at 45 degrees, holding that position for a few seconds, doing a half-roll and finishing the loop until you're back on a level flight path in the opposite direction. Baffling, but complete fun, so I was happy for Mark to take control of that one. Fortunately, you're not expected to take off or land the plane at any point during the day, so after you hear the command "I have control" you can relax and hand over to the expert to get you down safely.
Once back on the ground, we had lunch and studied the map of the course ready for the race in earnest that afternoon. This was really going to separate the men from the token woman...
All seemed to go pretty smoothly. The five of us completed our laps in reasonable time, incurring a few penalties along the way, though that pesky half-Cuban still eluded me. But the absolute highlight of the day had to be when I'd finished the race and Mark asked if I wanted to try some aerobatics. Did I?
The rest of the flight was a bit of a blur with me screaming, whooping and (apparently) swearing in such a way that would make a celebrity chef with Tourette's blush as Mark took me through some incredible aerobatic manoeuvres. What kind of monster had been unleashed? Don't know, but she certainly wouldn't be welcome in polite company.
Back on the ground, and we're taken inside to be debriefed and to learn our places on the all-important leader board. Dan, the experienced pilot and editor of Go Flying magazine, came first, while I came a respectable fourth place. Mark, ever the marketing whizz, urged us to return to better our position on the board, saying, "Every time you do this you're going to get faster and faster, and your time will get better and better. So, if you keep coming back you're bound to get higher and higher on the board." Now there's a challenge.
Before I left, the demon that had been revealed in the midst of Mark's extreme aerobatics poked its head up and gave my conscience a little tweak. I tentatively asked whether the cockpit of an aircraft was like Vegas, and that whatever happens there, stays there. "Well, yes it would be," was the reply. "If it hadn't all been caught on video."
Air Race Tuesdays
The Air Race Day costs 495 per person, which includes practice flight, lunch with your pilot and the race itself and lasts all day. Dates for 2009 are: May 12, June 9, July 14, August 11, September 8 and October 13.
Ultimate High is a highly regarded advanced flying training school offering courses in aerobatics, formation and spin/upset emergency recovery training. All instructors are current or former military fighter pilots, including Red Arrows, Harrier and Jaguar display pilots.
Ultimate High also offers
hands-on flight experiences to individuals and groups with little or no previous flying experience which include Aerobatics and Aerial Combat flights.
Ultimate High, The Control Tower, Kemble Airfield, Cirencester, Glos, GL7 6BA
Tel: 01285 771200