From The Sunday Times
Motormouth: John Aizlewood

Flying is the new golf, Jeremy

John Aizlewood

A little while ago Jeremy Clarkson, writing in another part of this newspaper, declared war on people who had earned their private pilot’s licence – the so-called weekend Top Gun. Contrary to their moniker, they are, he said, sad men, obsessed with safety checks who eat cheese and Branston sandwiches. Nothing in all the world, he concluded, is likely to be quite so boring and pointless as flying a private plane.

Well, as Samuel L Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, allow me to retort. I am a weekend Top Gun. Or at least I was recently when I found myself flying a four-seater DA40 TDI G100 light aircraft 2,000ft above Sussex.

This being my debut behind the joystick, I banked so steeply my torso was parallel to the ground. A combination of fear and exhilaration turned my knuckles white and my stomach was doing a passable imitation of a gymnast on the parallel bars. More importantly I realised this piloting lark was not the impossible dream I’d thought. Truly, I believe a man can fly. More to the point, that ham-fisted man is me.

The reason I was flying was that a friend whose opinion I rarely trust but has a habit being right, told me that flying is the new golf. More of his friends were buying aviator shades and flying jackets than were buying Pringle sweaters and studded shoes. "Stands to reason," he went on. "Everyone wants to be a weekend Top Gun and flying’s easier, too."

A glance at the figures suggests he has a point. Until recently, flying was the preserve of the super-rich such as John Travolta, who keeps a former Qantas 707 airliner on the runway in his back garden. Now, flying is for everyone. The Civil Aviation Authority estimates that this year 32,000 people will have a private pilot’s licence (up from 22,955 in 2004).

Obtaining a private pilot’s licence means a minimum of 45 flying hours and completing a theoretical and practical skills test. It will cost around £6,000; a sum not to be sniffed at, but within the reach of empty-nesters and cheaper than some personalised numberplates, while being less likely to result in a V-sign from fellow travellers. Flying jackets are optional, but it can be quite cool up there and, let’s face it, so are the aviator shades.

Clarkson was right about one thing, though: pilots are obsessed with checking things. I counted 64 external safety checks. Internally, there are 34 more, from making sure the avionics master is off to ensuring the ACL is on: you don’t want to mix up those two, believe me. There’s another 16 when the engine is started and a further 18 while we taxi. Statistically, you’d have to fly for almost a million hours before being involved in a fatal crash. Knowing that should be reassuring, but sometimes when you’re in the cockpit it isn’t.

As I descend to attempt my maiden landing, I’m going too quickly. There’s a little bounce when we touch ground and the plane is launched back into the sky. Try again. This time I misjudge my turning angle and for a moment we seem destined to cause carnage in Shoreham high street, but I cut the power and lower the landing flaps at roughly the right moment. The front wheel touches the ground and we’re home. Time to break out the cheese and Branston sandwiches.

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