“Sorry, it’s a little bumpy today,” shouts my pilot, television presenter and enthusiastic flyer Arthur Williams, as we suddenly drop through the air. We’re 600 feet above Warwickshire, sitting one behind the other in a 75-year-old light aeroplane with an open cockpit.
Williams may be sanguine about the fearful buffering our tiny Piper Cub is receiving from the wind and rising thermals, but I am, to use a technical term, bricking it. One man’s “a little bumpy” is another man’s terrifying hurtle towards doom.
I’ve been apprehensive ever since arriving at Bidford Gliding and Flying Club in Warwickshire – essentially a field and a very good café, where Williams gives me an informal and occasionally startling safety briefing over mugs of hot tea and cheese sandwiches.
“First off, don’t walk into the propeller. That will kill you very quickly,” says the 32-year-old ex-Royal Marine. “And if something goes wrong during the take-off run, I will simply bring the aircraft to a halt and we will evacuate out of the hatch, the same way as we get in. It’s the only way, actually.”
And if something goes wrong immediately after take-off, when we’re up in the air? “I’ll try to put her down in that field on the other side of the road. There’s no need to worry, I love this plane. I really don’t want to crash.”
Williams’s plane, a J-3 Piper Cub, call sign G-BDEY, was manufactured in 1943, one of thousands produced by the US before the Allies invaded Nazi-occupied Europe.
“They were spotter aircraft,” says Williams. “The pilot was in the front and the observer in the back, looking for enemy movements and positions and plotting them on maps. The Germans feared this dainty little light aeroplane more than the biggest bombers or fighters. When they saw a Piper Cub over their positions they knew a storm of artillery was about to arrive.”
That was three-quarters of a century ago, ancient history aviation-wise, and yet rather than walking around the machine at an aircraft museum we’re going to fly it across the northern tip of the Cotswold hills.
Radio Times writer Michael Hodges with Arthur Williams
We should be fine, of course. Converted to non-military use in the 1950s and sporting the J-3’s original late-1930s civilian livery of chrome yellow with a black art deco lightning stripe, this plane might be as old as Mick Jagger but it has safely completed hundreds of hours in the air as Williams filmed Flying across Britain, his new series for Channel 4.
From lonely Highland landing strips to giant Cold War-era air bases with runways two miles long, the four-part series explores the magic and mystery of Britain’s airfields, of which there are more than 900.
In his criss-cross, up-and-down journey around the country, Williams, who has presented Paralympic and Olympic sport and made Second World War documentaries, came across some remarkable stories.
Did you know that the replica propellers that keep Britain’s surviving Spitfires in the air are made in Germany, at a factory in Munich? Or that a pub garden backing onto a caravan park on Kent’s Isle of Sheppey was the birthplace of British aviation?
“Wilbur and Orville Wright went there in 1909,” Williams says. “So did Lord Brabazon, who was issued with the first-ever pilot’s licence in the UK. He had to take off, fly a circuit and land again, and then it was, ‘There you go, Lord Brabazon!’ As easy as that.”
Our own take-off is a horizontal gallop across the grass followed by a sudden vertical lurch. The Piper Cub is a beautiful machine, but once you’re inside the cat’s cradle of cogs, pulleys and struts that keep it aloft, it’s unnervingly like sitting in an overly ambitious Meccano project.
We are barely above the hedgerows when the plane pitches to the left and then back to the right. I don’t fall out only because I’m tightly strapped in. The straps keep me closely in touch with the dual-control joystick between my legs, which follows the movements of the front joystick and slams against the most vulnerable part of my fuselage whenever Williams manoeuvres the plane.
“Having fun?” he shouts. “Yes,” I gasp. “Lots.”
All of us spend much more time in the air than our predecessors, but we do so in the super-safe, sealed environs of modern passenger aircraft, where risk is virtually eliminated and much of the navigating and steering is done by computers that are very unlikely to fail.
We have gained the freedom to watch the latest Marvel Avengers movie at 30,000ft, but have lost the freedom to rise and fall through the firmament.
It’s a freedom that matters more to Williams than to most people, perhaps. Eleven years ago, when he was a serving Royal Marine, Williams was being driven back to his base from leave when the car left the road and rolled down an embankment.
“I snapped my spine in two places, and severed my spinal cord, and that’s why I lost use of my legs. I lost sensation from just above my belly button.
“I had anger management counselling for the first 12 months. The Royal Marines teach you aggression, but they give you a switch in order to be able to turn it off and on. And when something as bad as this happens, that switch disappears. It took me a long time to get used to that.”
Flying was Williams’s rehabilitation. “I had to fight for who I was again and the best way that I could do that was getting a career that would give me financial security and distraction from the daily grind of being in a chair.
“I love history, and I remembered the Second World War RAF pilot Douglas Bader who had no legs. It was a light-bulb moment. I thought, ‘If he could fly in the 1940s with no legs, I’m sure I can do it.’
“So, I bought the Piper for £18,000, put a new engine in, which was £15,000, and made some alterations so I could fly it.”
Williams is remarkably mobile. He drives an adapted car, whips around the airfield in a lightweight wheelchair and gets himself in and out of the plane’s cockpit in seconds. But he’s still, to some degree, dependent on others.
“I don’t have as many freedoms. I’m a disabled person and sometimes I need a bit of help. I’m in other people’s charge, and I get fed up about that. Because of my physical limitations, I feel connected to this earth more than most.”
All that ends when Williams takes the controls of his Piper Cub. “When I get in an aeroplane, and I put the straps and harnesses on, I’m allowed to do anything and everything that everybody else can do. There’s nothing I can’t do with that aeroplane that the next pilot can.
“The sense of freedom that you experience when you’re up there, for me, is amplified double. You want to go up there, I’ll go up there. You want to go down there, I can go down there. That’s the thrill for me.”
The thrill, for me, is surviving the rest of the flight and the landing. Anything more than a 15mph crosswind when a Piper Cub puts its wheels on the field and we could be in trouble. Conversely, as there’s less fuel on board, we might be less likely to explode on impact.
Not that Williams seems to mind. Whooping with pleasure, he puts the plane through an unfeasibly tight turn, points the nose at the ground and shouts, “Here we go!” I nod weakly, and my heart heads for my socks.
Flying across Britain with Arthur Williams is on Sunday at 7pm on Channel 4