Those magnificent men in their flying machines

By - Thursday 10th January, 2013

Join John Lavabre as he takes a glider flight above the southern fringes of the Borough.

The experience of being dragged 2,000 feet into the sky by a huge mechanical winch is one I will not forget in a hurry. The acceleration and angle of ascent is, shall we say, very impressive, and you won’t have experienced anything like it on a commercial flight.

Although told I might be able to take control of the flight, it wasn’t to be on this occasion. You are relying on the thermals and air current, and unfortunately the pilot (you fly in a two-person glider) didn’t feel they were strong enough for me to have a go. C’est la vie.

Once up in the sky, and travelling at around 45 miles per hour, my heart rate returned to normal and I was able to take in the views. South London Gliding Centre (also known as Surrey Hills Gliding Club) operates from Kenley Airfield on the absolute southern fringes of Croydon. As we took off in a southerly direction I was, at least at first, looking out across Tandridge and the North Downs with all its chalk hills. The sight was truly stunning. Turning in the opposite direction I was able to see the Gherkin, Canary Wharf, and various other London landmarks in the distance.

It was as we turned to face London that the Iron Maiden song ‘Aces High’ came to mind, a song about the men of the Royal Air Force in World War II. Bizarre, yes, but also surprisingly fitting.

Kenley Airfield was an integral part of London’s defences during the Battle of Britain. There is a War Memorial at the airfield and some of the Royal Air Force personnel that died in the conflict are buried in the military section of the churchyard at the nearby St Luke’s in Whyteleafe. You’d be surprised at how many of them were from Poland and the Commonwealth, and touched at how young they were when they met their end.

Anyone that’s walked around the airfield will know it takes the best part of thirty minutes. From 2,000 feet, however, it looks very small but the details you can pick out from that height are amazing.

The members of the club itself were incredibly welcoming and the briefing beforehand was very good. They were only too happy to educate me about the technical aspects of gliding, and once you’ve done a flight you get membership of the club for 90 days at no additional cost and flights at a reduced price.

Would I do it again? Without a doubt. If I were to give advice to any first time flyers I’d simply say the take-off is fast and steep. You will feel the G-force but once in the sky it’s very pleasant and it’s the only way to see the North Downs. Oh, and yes, you do wear a parachute.

John Lavabre

John Lavabre

Apart from a short period when he was exiled to Essex, John Lavabre has lived in Croydon for nine years. He owns the PR, media relations, and copywriting consultancy Hillcrest PR Ltd. A father of two, John spends what little spare time he has blogging, reading books about theology and Biblical history, and listening to dreadful rock music.

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  • Kake

    Brilliant! I’ve been gliding in Scotland but I didn’t realise it was going on around here too. Possibly also worth mentioning that it didn’t trigger my fear of heights in the slightest, so others shouldn’t be put off if they have the same fear.