‘It’s dying he should be thinking about, not flying’

The Man Who Wanted to Fly tells the remarkable story of 80-something Cavan man Bobby Coote

Bobby Coote: ‘I’ve had more lessons. And it’s getting more exciting all the time’

Whatever feel-good picture Hollywood lobs at us this year, it’s unlikely to feel anywhere near as good than the Cavan-based documentary, The Man Who Wanted to Fly. Frank Shouldice’s film, a recent winner of the best feature audience award at the Irish Film Institute’s Documentary Festival, tells the story of Bobby Coote, an 80-something-year-old Cavan bachelor pursuing his lifelong dream of flying.

“I’ll bring you back 50 years now,” says Bobby as he tries to make himself heard over some particularly noisy sheep, on the phone from outside Bailieborough. “I flew a plane 50 years ago. Oh, I did. I had great fun with it. I went over mountains, I went over rocks, I went down through valleys, you name it. Ask me how did I land? I woke up. I looked around and said: My God, where am I? It was a dream but that dream stayed with me.”

He laughs: “You can make of that what you like.”

Despite a lack of formal education he is, as his brother Ernie notes, a genius

Several years ago Dave Perry, the director of photography behind The Man Who Wanted to Fly, was flying a paramotor over Co Cavan when he spotted a white dot that appeared to be following him on the ground below.

The official trailer for The Man Who Wanted to Fly, the story of Bobby Coote - a farmer from Co Cavan with a decades old dream of learning to fly. Video: Galway Film Fleadh

“He got home and the bell rings and he opens the door and it’s this elderly man in a baseball cap standing there,” says film-maker Frank Shouldice. “He sees the man has a white Micra behind him and figures out this must be the white speck. So the man asks: ‘Was that you up there in the sky?’ Dave’s first thought is that he might have worried sheep or cattle. But instead the man says: ‘I’d like to do that.’ So that’s how we met Bobby.”

Unconventional genius

Bobby left school at 13 and says his reading and writing isn’t great. Despite this lack of formal education he is, as his brother Ernie notes, a genius. He can fix any clock. The violins he fashions from old furniture were once featured on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly. (One of his instruments was used on the score of The Man Who Wanted to Fly.)

Flying, one might imagine, ought to be comparatively easy. With the help of his neighbour Sean McBride, and to the bemusement of Ernie, six years ago Bobby starting building a runway and a hangar.

“A nice friend of mine had a lot of land, and he said ‘I might be able to help so you can make a runway’,” says Bobby. “It started there but it took a long time to do it. You see, the winter set in and you can’t fly in winter. And then the plane wasn’t trustworthy. A lot of things didn’t go right. I could be telling you until the cows come home.”

As the director notes, Bobby’s idiosyncratic approach to realising his lifelong dream was very much a case of putting the cart before the horse. “It was a completely unconventional way of doing things,” says Shouldice. “He builds the hangar, then gets the runway, then he gets a plane and only then does he consider doing lessons. But that all became part of the story.”

The Man Who Wanted to Fly features Ernie as a second central character. Ernie lives in an adjoining property. They are very different people. At night, as Bobby heads out to the pub with his accordion, Ernie looks for a western to watch on TV or operates his CB radio. He has a collection of postcards sent to him by CB radio operators from all over the world but has no interest in travelling to the places they depict. “What would I be doing?” he says. “Looking at buildings?”

Dying, not flying

Ernie, the older of the two brothers, scoffs at Bobby’s plans: “It’s dying he should be thinking about at his age, not flying.”

“I really like the idea of someone pursuing his dream,” says Shouldice. “That has its own romance. But what really turned it for me was when we discovered that Bobby lived at home with his brother, and they both are unmarried and they live independent lives. They have both been away and come back to Ireland. It wasn’t like they hadn’t seen the world. They just preferred home. The idea that you could share the same space as someone but have two separate front doors, that really fired my imagination. I knew that if the other brother came on board, then we have something far richer than just a nice story. It helps that Ernie has no interest in this and thinks that flying is for the birds. So we went to put it to them and they thought about it for a minute and said: ‘Sure, why not?’ ”

Bobby, on more than one occasion, turns to the camera and asks: "How is this film going to end?"

It required 5½ years to shoot The Man Who Wanted to Fly. Ernie liked to rib the film-makers about Hall’s Pictorial getting an entire programme done in a few hours. Bobby, on more than one occasion, turns to the camera and asks: “How is this film going to end?”

Ultimately, it took a village. The local community pitched in, as did Gerry Snodden, a flying instructor from Newtownards.

“I hope that comes across in the film,” says Shouldice. “The way people came on board to help Bobby. As the film went on I began to really appreciate the generosity of people around. People never said no.”

Bobby’s riveting attempt at a maiden voyage makes for exciting viewing. The thrill, he says, hasn’t gone: “I’ve had more lessons. And it’s getting more exciting all the time. I can’t wait now until the good weather comes on and the field gets dry and I’ll get back up there.”

The Man Who Wanted to Fly is released March 29th