It doesn't help my nerves when the pilot says: 'I built this myself'


Flying through the sky, looping-the-loop and waving at the mortals below can be exhilarating, even for those with a fear of heights, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

I SOMETIMES WISH I had been dropped as a baby. I fantasise that such a fall might have prevented the fear of heights that has dogged me all my life. The fear has ruined visits to areas of breath-taking beauty from Dun Aengus to the Cliffs of Moher. On one of my first visits to Paris, I had to crawl on all fours off the first-level viewing platform of the Eiffel Tower. I get dizzy putting the star on the Christmas tree, feel unsteady on the top of a double-decker bus and can never be accused of getting on my or anyone else’s high horse.

So the thought of climbing into a two-seater aeroplane, taking to the skies and performing a series of tricks, including loops and barrel rolls, is about as appealing to me as a root-canal operation.

The airfield is at the back of former RAF pilot Gerry Humphreys’s house on a farm in east Limerick. In a shed where you might normally expect a few rusting Massey Fergusons or High Nelly bicycles, Humphreys has a collection of aircraft, some just small enough to fit one person and others that can seat several comfortably with room to stretch out.

There’s an old 1930s two-seater in one corner and a plane that looks more like a small helicopter in another part of the shed, which Humphreys says came from the same factory in Russia that makes the MiG fighter jets.

Humphreys’s father flew for the RAF in the second World War and was one of the first to fly a helicopter for the force in combat, so there was a sense of inevitability that he would would carry on the family tradition. His son is now studying for his commercial licence and although Humphreys is retired from the RAF, for which he mainly flew Harrier jets, he still flies commercially for a company based in Shannon.

You’re more likely though to see him taking part in flyovers and air spectaculars, such as the one coming to Bray this weekend, for which he will fly three planes, including the one I am to get a spin in. The aircraft is hard to miss; with its distinctive black-and-white colouring, it resembles a Friesian cow.

It doesn’t help my nerves that just as we are getting settled into the aircraft, Humphreys says: “I built this myself at home.”

I have visions of him with a tube of superglue, bent over the kitchen table, trying to make panels stick as the light fades after milking the cows. But he assures me that it took him several years and a high level of expertise to put it together.

“The kit cost about $27,000 [€22,000] and that includes all the nuts, bolts and metal. You then have to put an engine, radio, seats and all that stuff on. So the total outlay on this plane has been about $40-50,000 [€32,500-40,600]. In terms of how long it will fly for, well it will outlast me, put it that way.”

We then talk a bit about G-force. The upshot of it is, if I feel like I am passing out, I am to try and let Humphreys know. Again, this is not exactly reassuring.

“If you’re fit and healthy, the G-force doesn’t take any toll, but you’d want to be fairly fit,” says Humphreys, as I pat my paunch and we ease down his grass runway.

Suddenly, we are in the air. Not only that but once we are airborne he tells me to grab the stick and take the controls. I do so for perhaps a minute, and am actually flying the thing.

I grab the stick a little too vigorously though and we dip slightly and I can feel my stomach churn. (Note to self: the full Irish is not ideal preparation for taking part in an aerobatic display.)

After that, I leave the flying to Humphreys, a calming influence in the cockpit. He explains in detail what we are going to do at each stage and checks every few minutes that I am okay.

To start, we do a barrel roll, which Humphreys describes as a gentle and graceful manoeuvre.

“Imagine a stretched spring. The plane starts by diving and rolling, let’s say to the right, and then we pull up and start a co-ordinated rolling pull to the left to guide the aircraft up and around the inside of our imaginary stretched spring,” Humphreys says.

“It’s not a beginners’ manoeuvre from a pilot’s point of view, but I find it by far the best for giving people a gentle, pleasurable introduction to aerobatics.”

From there we do a loop, which is pretty exhilarating especially when the world turns upside down for a brief few moments. After that, probably the most terrifying moment is when we climb high and then it feels as if the plane just stops and we head for the ground fairly quickly, before levelling out.

I am not relaxed at any point, and in the video of the flight, there is a pretty constant look of terror on my face. But it does become less nerve-wracking the longer we are in the air.

At the end, we slow down and do a fly-by near the farm, and I manage to look out the window and gesture to the mortals below.

I won’t say it has cured my fear of heights, but I’d like to think I might occupy some high ground in the future, other than moral.

Bray's blue skies

The Bray Air Spectacular takes place on July 22nd at 3.30pm. Visitors are encouraged to arrive early. It is one of Ireland’s largest free air shows, with up to 80,000 spectators expected. Participants include the Black Knights Defence Forces Parachute Team as well as aerobatic displays from Gerry Humphreys, and four aerobatic pilots from The Blades in the UK are set to perform a series of technically demanding manoeuvres. Irish pilot Dave Bruton will also be taking the high-speed Sbach 342 into the air.