I often used to pick up in waiting rooms the Readers Digest
Magazine. My favourite feature was “My Most Unforgettable
Character,” a collection of memories about a specific person in the
writer’s life. I could actually catalogue quite a few of these as
both my main jobs entailed moving on a lot and working and meeting
many people. Only a few, however, I would tag as “unforgettable.”
Then one day in June 1996 I met Tony Wells.
I had decided to have a few flying lessons, not really with the
intention of gaining a pilots licence but as something to try to do
in what I hoped would be a varied and early retirement from work.
I had seen a traditional powered hang glider type of microlight skim over a hedge where I lived
and land in a nearby rough
field. The pilot stopped the engine lit up a cigarette, strolled
around a bit then just
as casually started up, took off and disappeared. I thought this was a
wonderful thing to be able to do.
A liitle bit of research and speaking to someone who had a pilot's
licence at work I was
directed to Mercury Flying School and Tony Wells, CFI, Microlight
Pilot Sole Owner & Sole Employee. I had phoned and asked for
an appointment but was told by him , "Just turn up, you know where
we are." I didn't know at the time that Tony didn't really do
"appointments" in fact he didn't do anything formal at all really.
I arrived down at Tarn Farm, Cockerham on a very warm hazy June day
and unusually (as I was to find out later) Tony was on the ground.
eating a meat pie and a number of others were milling around in the
club hut and we were introduced. I had by then found out that there
were two types of microlight aircraft, Flexwing (which I had seen
land in the field) and Three Axis Control. I started to explain that
I wasn't too sure which type I would like to try but was quickly and
told, "Dont be daft, you are too old for Flexwings get in that one,
I will be with you in a minute".
He pointed to a Cyclone AX3,
registration number, G-MYKF which looked rather the worse for wear
and was in fact the complete Mercury Flying School Fleet. It
was being filled up with fuel with the aid of a plastic funnel and a
drum of two stroke mix and I was shown by someone the precarious
method of getting into an AX3 without treading anywhere that would
cause any damage.
Within minutes, Tony had jumped in the engine started on the
electric starter with a cry of "Clear Prop" and the aeroplane was
taxying across the rough field to the runway. I had expected a bit
of introduction of things like pre-flight checks, where the controls
were and what they did but apart from a brief halt at the end of the
runway a single test of maximum rpm and we were rolling forward,
accelerating and then much sooner than I expected climbing away from the
field. At about 1000 ft he headed due west and told me to hold it
straight and level. All I was doing was controlling the pitch and
roll using the stick which on an AX3 is more like a car handbrake
situated between the two pilots.
Unknown to me at the time Tony was busy adjusting the rudder, the power and
the aircraft trim but said , "Its easy isn't it ?". This was the Tony
Wells method of instruction, making it primarily a load of fun and
only telling you what you needed to know as and when the situation
changed. Someone told me later. "You teach yourself to fly and Tony
happens to be there" but I discovered later he preferred to let you
become comfortable in any situation before giving you any new
problem which was just the way that worked best for me.
Soon we were over the massive beach at Pilling Sands and Tony
throttled back the engine to tick over giving a pleasant silence put
the aircraft into a left turn and told me to keep it at 50mph in the
descent. "Just use the stick and don't let it get less than 50". He
didn't explain how but it quickly became apparent that lifting the
stick reduced the speed. "Try and get it pointing to the dry bit of
sand".I could see the bit he meant but it looked very small to me
and I commented on it.
"You could land Concorde on that he said reassuringly, you will be
alright, keep it at 50". It suddenly dawned on me that I was
actually being given the responsibility of landing it never having
been inside a microlight half an hour earlier. We seemed to be
hovering without any airspeed when he mentioned that soon as we got
lower it would seem to speed up but now it was even more important that I
keep it at 50.
"When you get to about toilet seat height you pull up the stick
and flare for landing". His hand
was reassuringly close or even on the stick when all this happened
and we gently skimmed on the sand. I dont know to this day how much
I had to do with the landing but it certainly felt good. With a
instruction "I have control", he opened up the throttle to full and
we were soon up again at 500 foot and he started mentioning important
things like wind direction and how to tell where it is coming from
and always land into wind. Another circuit and another landing
without me worrying about balancing the turn with the rudder or
setting the trim or setting the power just trying to get that
descent to 50 mph was the important thing.
Around again same procedure and all too soon he said head for those
white bags. These identified the location of Tarn Farm in the
distance and only then did he mention having flying lessons. I said
I would like to but I couldn't as I was
colour blind and it had
stopped me training as aircrew in the Royal Air Force. "That
doesn't matter now in private flying" he said, "Get your medical formed
signed and sign up for our 15 hour block booking for £765, you can
put 50 minutes in your log book for today as exercises 1,2,3,4,5 &
We joined overhead and he took a short circuit in to what looked a
very small runway covered with sheep which obligingly seemed to hop
out of the way at the correct moment and soon we taxied towards the
"Who is next ?. Show him how to refuel it someone."
The weather was wonderful that Summer of 1996 and Tony seemed to
have an abundance of pupils with no obvious system of organisation
but it all seemed to work somehow. He and the poor little AX3 seemed
to be in the air from dawn until dusk and that was the
priority.There would be plenty of bad weather and time to sort out
your training syllabus and log book and do a bit of maintenance on
It is true that he would sometimes fall asleep during a lesson but
this was reassuringly good almost like being solo. He was always
alert for the landing though and think he did this for your
confidence. Other times he would distract you with a wonderful
view and secretly adjust the Altimeter before questioning you about
your height. "It doesnt look like 2000 feet to me, what do you think
?". He would make sure you got lost frequently, suddenly close the
engine when you least expected it for an emergency landing or
joyously demonstrate how to lose height quickly by side slipping
into the runway.
If during a flight you ever asked him how you were progressing his
answer was invariably. "you are useless, and keep the ball in the
middle". The trouble was he didn't tell you how to keep the ball in
the middle or how to know if you were at the correct height on the
final approach. I found that out from other pilots and following
their tips and tricks on subsequent flights would get a response
such as , "At last the penny has dropped".
He knew I was not comfortable in turbulence and would often say .
"Get up there, it's paper dart weather". He knew I was not keen on
practising recovery from a stall and when I questioned him about
doing it alone he said, " I wouldn't worry you are not going to ever
get accidentally near a stall. I know you." I was worried about
going solo and once said during a flight , "A mistake a day keeps
the Solo away". With that I was directed to head for Middleton Sands
with the reply, "Well we will see about that because today is the
It was always a lot of fun, he made it that way, and I went
solo on Middleton Sands, Heysham just before Battle of Britain
Day on Sept 10th of that year.
Every pilot remembers their first Solo but I was lucky enough to
remember both that and looking down on Tony Wells from 500 foot just a small dot
on the sand, an extraordinary character.
Later when I had my licence he had given me the confidence to switch
off the engine completely at 1000ft or so with no means of me
restarting it until I landed and side slip just for fun or fly the
length of the beach at about 10 foot high along the edge of the
waves his voice always with me. "Ball in the middle, you are a stick
and rudder pilot." It was supposed to be fun and it was then.
This was almost the end of an era in the 1990's and what I thought
was the imminent demise of the fun side of flying. Before then people were flying
around in non registered homebuilt aircraft without formal lessons
or licences and actually flying them to Tarn Farm for instruction
and be put on the straight and narrow to obtain a pilots licence. I
even became an Aircraft Inspector and Check Pilot myself.
Later years have become more and more
regulated obviously much safer but I am not sure better. We have
Radios & Transponders, Insurance, Flight Plans, Radio Courses, and Procedures,
Check Flights if you miss a few months. We have soaring fuel
costs and Hangar Fees all this in addition to all the extra
formality seem to be the opposite of what I wanted out of flying. I
just liked to turn up at dawn, just me and the sheep, take off
unannounced. I liked to change my mind about where I was going,
chase a cloud or two and land in remote
places take a stroll and return when I wanted.
I gave away my own aeroplane. G-MZEL, and stopped flying in September of 2003 having
flown 315 hours mostly on my own AX3 or a shared Rans S6 with my number of take offs being
exactly equal to the number of my landings
to Tony Wells CFI.
Tony Wells, died of Cancer Aug 11 2004, Age 65
He enjoyed careers as a Paratrooper, Fireman,
Ambulance driver and Deep-sea diving instructor
Instructor and unknown to most was a poet.
Crystal Clear Day
Two thousand feet above the farm
The air is crystal clear and calm
Five thousand feet above the bay
Hills and Lakes not far away
Three six zero is what I steer
Upon the day that's crystal clear
Over Cark and Barrow near
Ten more miles to Windermere
Lakes Coniston, Wastwater, Bassenthwaite
Hills and Valleys still bathed in morning dew
Oh give me the words that I may speak of
Speak of this fantastic view
And I think of pilots gone
Of Ian, Simon, Dick Clegg and John
And so I dedicate this to you
This crystal clear day that I flew.