The Children of the Wind
When he was a very young man, Alvin Russell set a British hill climbing record. So far as I know, it still stands. I met him on the Long Mynd in Shropshire, a ten mile hill running north‑south with west‑facing slopes already claimed by conventional sailplanes. It looked the perfect hill for me to have a go at the hang gliding duration record, then set at eight and a half hours, but in the event I never tried. Alvin was the founder of the Long Mynd hang gliding club, and lived in an Elizabethan cottage, with black wooden beams and leaning white plaster walls, at the foot of the hill.
He was bearded, heavily spectacled, had an accent I thought came from Birmingham, but then I am a southerner, and he owned a garage in Montgomery, a market town in Wales which persisted in voting Liberal decades after the death of Lloyd George; the rest of the Principality has long gone Labour or Welsh Nationalist. The Mynd seemed to cut off the region from the rest of Britain and produce quiet but determined individualists. Alvin was one.
It was early 1975, and in Britain we were moving from standard hang gliders, so‑called bog‑rogs, on to wings where it was not always necessary to fly to the bottom of the hill. If we ran off and turned close to the hill, it was possible to maintain height, even increase it, but at the risk of incurring the anger of the gliding club, which looked upon us with contempt and alarm. They were contemptuous because they could soar high and it appeared we could not. They were alarmed because if we started to soar high, as Alvin did and the rest of us were beginning to, we would get into their airspace. They thought it was their air to dispose of as they wished.
I drove to the Mynd almost every weekend from my home in St Albans to stay at Alvin's house. If the wind blew from the west, as it often did, we would drive to the top and walk over Eddie Bowen's land to set up our wings to fly. Eddie, a kindly farmer, lived at the base of the Mynd, and was the president of Alvin's club. We used his fields to land in if we could not land back on top. Eddie was not open to blandishments from the gliding club to ban our flying.
Alvin was a complicated man, with skills he never boasted about and which were a surprise to learn. He played the cello to a high enough standard to belong to an orchestra. He was a noted rally driver, and drove brilliantly. During the seven months he took hang gliding by the scruff of its neck and shook it into safety, he also studied and qualified as an RAC scrutineer. He collected porcelain of high quality which was scattered around his house. He had not the intellectual capacity or education of John Le Carre's George Smiley, but there was that quality about him; from time to time you learned something new and startling that he was an expert on.
Alvin was the driving force behind the small group of hang glider pilots who used the Long Mynd. He was so self‑effacing about his talent that, when we totted up the experts on the hill we forgot to include his name, though he had taught most of them to fly. He was curious about the air, not reading about it or learning from books, but being in it to find out for himself how it behaved.
That winter he broke his leg on a heavy landing, and had to stand and watch while the rest of us flew. It was too much. He persuaded two other pilots, Tony Jones and Graham Driscoll, to go out on to the Mynd on a moonlit night to rig in the cold rushing air and launch him gloriously, like a huge paper dart, hopping into the sky in a seated harness, his plaster cast a ghost in the smooth lift. After half an hour of sublime flight Alvin swooped into Eddie's field and hopped breathlessly down for a safe landing. I would love to have been with him then.
We flew a lot together because I had done a number of soaring flights, but he was always a better pilot than me. He was there the day I launched into a high wind, trying to tape‑record a flight for the BBC, where I was a radio reporter, and slipping backwards over the hill helplessly. I apologised to the tape‑recorder because I had to concentrate on staying alive and Alvin caught me as I landed, running backwards, before I hit a stone wall and ground-looped.
In the evenings we dreamed of where we were going, and what we might do. Neither of us, each in our early thirties, was in the first flush of youth. But hang gliding was fulfilling atavistic dreams of flight. We wondered where we would go and what we would see. After a visit to the club by BHGA Chairman Martin Hunt we decided to get more involved in the national organisation. Martin spoke well about developments, but let slip he was pushing for a world championships in South Africa. As he did not fly at all during his weekend with us, despite perfect conditions, and instead spoke movingly about a system he had for stowing his hang glider in a garage, none of us was impressed. Who was he, we thought, to get us into a political row over South Africa? He doesn't even fly! It mattered more to me than others, because a few years earlier I had been one of the six journalists a year expelled by the South African Government under Apartheid. I knew nothing about politics and little about racism at the time; the expulsion gave me some opinions.
The club agreed to back Alvin against Martin Hunt for the Chair of the BHGA the following year. I would try to support him by getting on to the governing Council. It was not a popular move. Most people at the AGM were flyers; who cared about politics? All flyers want is to fly. We played down the South African issue, but it rumbled along underneath. Alvin lost convincingly to Martin, but I was elected to Council; the votes of the club were enough for me to scrape in. I could see that those in charge thought just one of me would be containable, and they waited for me to raise the South African issue so they could squash me. I waited, too.
In the Spring of 1976, Bill Bennett, an Australian living in America and one of the giants of the sport, came out with a new hang glider called the Phoenix 6B. Alvin secured the Bennett agency in England. I needed to change my glider and there were a number on offer, including a British Cobra and the American SST, Super Swallowtail.
"Don't touch the others, Brian" Alvin told me on the phone. "This 6B is a magic machine, and you must have one"
"Is it better than the Cobra?" I asked, dubiously. I was not happy about buying an American wing, though it was hard to say why.
"It's in another world," said Alvin. "I am going to fly one, and you won't live with me unless you do too."
My first flight on the 6B was on a tall hill called Cornden. The wing was so delicate and responsive that I was as curious as anyone else to discover where I was going to land. Its performance was far beyond my ability to judge it in the minutes I had going to the bottom, and I aimed for the biggest field and just hoped it would deposit me safely there. It did, to my relief. Alvin, back on the hill where the wind had risen, showed me how to soar.
That year's National Championships were held in the Hole of Horcum in Pickering, Yorkshire, sponsored by Embassy Cigarettes and covered by BBC Grandstand TV. To compete, I had to accumulate 5 hours flying to get my pilot rating, in a sport where a 2 minute flight was considered good. The week before the championships I cruised up and down the Mynd on my Phoenix, putting the minutes and then the hours in, flying seated rather than prone because I was nervous. In the competition itself, bedevilled by rain, Alvin and I survived through to the final, our gliders showing up well against the others. To everyone's surprise, including my own, the Phoenix carted me to equal first place with a pilot from the south, Bob Wiseley on an SST, who became British Champion because he was in the air a shorter time than I was. My performance was almost entirely due to my wing. Alvin placed 10th ahead of names like Keith Cockroft and Bob Calvert who were later to reverberate around world hang gliding.
The competition was so arbitrary and unfair that I resolved to make them better, and I persuaded BHGA Council to make me competitions chairman to shake everything up. The job was considered a nest of thorns anyway, so no one else volunteered. At the same time, that summer saw two early deaths in the sport, Guy Twiss and Barbara Jones, and an MP, Marcus Lipton, was persuaded by the media to attack us for being dangerous. Colonel Lipton was a member of the OFT, the Old Farts Tendency, nice enough in himself, but an old‑fashioned rent‑a‑quote parliamentarian. He was not particular about the effects of his attack, obviously knew nothing about hang gliding, but he was happy to be quoted in the Sun, which labelled us "Poisonous Butterflies". Lord Boyd‑Carpenter, then Air Minister, whom I met in the House of Lords, actually talked about the drain we were on the National Health Service, all two deaths and various unspecified injuries. It was easy to forget about the tragedy of the deaths, Guy Twiss in a downwind stall, Barbara Jones who put on her harness wrongly and could not in consequence control her machine. We felt in danger of being strangled at birth.
The governing Council of British hang gliding, on which I sat, had to meet this threat, but was not sure how. Something had to be done, and be seen to be done. Alvin, at this time, had sold his garage in Montgomery and was restless, thinking of going to America to fly. We talked over the media attacks and decided a public investigation had to be made into how the sport was taught. Two years earlier, I had learned by being told how to control the kite ‑ "simple really, just push, pull, left and right" ‑ and then I was thrown off the 400 foot Devil's Dyke near Brighton, and expected to learn how to fly the wing during the one minute before I hit the ground. At least I had been 'coached' by experts that day. Alvin had just rigged his machine, read the instructions, lined up and ran off. We had both lived and thought little of it. But it was a less than ideal way of learning. Perhaps an investigation into training would stop the daily media baying?
Alvin was chairman of the HIA ‑ the Hang Gliding Instructors Association ‑ at the time a loose collection of people banded together to look after their own interests, but who had not agreed a common standard. BHGA Council agreed the princely salary of £19.23 a week, at a time when £100/week was good money, to send Alvin around the schools and report back on training methods. We told the media and Colonel Lipton what Alvin was doing, both of whom subsided and looked for other stories to talk about, but we realised then that we were just holding them off for a while.
Alvin toured every school in the length and breadth of the country, and then borrowed a typewriter, learning to type as he put the report together. It was full of spelling and grammatical mistakes, causing snobbish sniffs among Council members who saw the early draft, but it was full of insight and good sense. He not only pulled together the various methods of teaching, but laid down a standard, in equipment as well as teaching methods, for schools to adhere to. BHGA Council agreed to endorse his recommendations in a hurried fifteen minutes at the end of a 7-hour meeting ‑ never leave a committee meeting until it is officially wound up, we agreed later ‑ and journalists appeared happy that we had come up with something to show willing.
It took a few tough hours of debate to get BHGA Council to agree that we needed a permanent Training Officer, that he should be paid a living wage of £3,500 a year, and that Alvin had won the right to the job because of the work he had done on £19.23 a week. Probably the main case against Alvin was that he and I both acted together, virtually as brothers, backing each other in anything. This can be a dangerous relationship between a paid officer and an elected Council member. But it was, with grumbling, accepted.
In the Autumn of 1976, Alvin was one of ten pilots who laid down the rules for the National League of hang gliding, a series of six competitions I had proposed as a substitute for sending British teams to South Africa. I had won that vote on Council, with those originally opposed going off to find out more about Apartheid to put up a case against me, deciding there wasn't one, and they did not wish on this issue to press the case to the point of resignation. I would, of course, have had to resign if we had sent a team there; as a result of which, the championships in South Africa were cancelled. I hoped the League would produce a worthy British Champion, and be the means whereby teams could be chosen to fly in any other foreign countries. In general, and again with Alvin as an ally, this was accepted, though I heard later there were always cabals being formed to find out what I was currently doing, and then see if there were ways to stop it.
Alvin was rated one of the best pilots in the country by those who saw him fly. The only way we would find out how good he was would be in the League, due to start the following year. But he had been chosen as one of the group of elite pilots to fly in a meeting called by one manufacturer, Ken Messenger's Birdman Company, to see which had the best glider. The Birdman was the best hang gliding competition run in Britain up to then, testing flying skills and not the landing skills that dominated competition. Alvin flew for Birdman, and had a narrow escape when, coming out of prone and banked over into a tight landing area, his stirrup wound around the back rigging and he could not recover from the turn. His glider smashed into trees and was wrecked. Alvin was unhurt. We learned to put stiff plastic tubing over our stirrups to stop the same thing happening to the rest of us. Accidents were often the way we were taught how not to fly. Alvin was lucky he did not pay a higher price for the lesson.
His reputation was enhanced by a published account of a flight he made on the Long Mynd in the middle of battles with the gliding club to be allowed to use "their" ridge....
…Saturday night came with an air of expectancy. The wind was west, 6 to 8 mph. Tomorrow was the big day, the end of four months negotiating. We were to be able to soar the big ridge at the south end of the Long Mynd again. After a restless night, Sunday dawned, wind still west, but had it freshened? By mid‑day it had. This was it, 26mph straight on, first time in our new second‑generation kites.
Most of the other lads had gone for lunch so I was first in the air. My flying rival Graham Driscoll with his 21/20 American Swallowtail had yet to arrive so I decided to get as high as possible and rub it in as he walked the hill. At about 500‑800 feet above the ridge (Alvin had no flying instruments, nor a parachute), the lift stopped, so I wandered around doing 360 degree turns and passing the time. Where the hell is he? I thought. I had been tweaking my Cobra so I wanted to fly it against Graham's Swallowtail, as in the past Graham had always had that 50ft or 100ft edge.
After what seemed ages he arrived. I could see by the frantic way he was climbing the hill that he wanted to be up here with me. I flew over his head, holding station, making rude gestures to spur him on. Eventually he rigged up and was airborne. Well, this is it. I was high, I knew where the lift was, having had an hour or so feeling my way around, so I made capital and went for height. Slowly, ever so slowly, Graham kept coming. He couldn't make the last 100ft or so ‑ I was delighted. For the first time I was "standing on his head".
I 360'd twice, dropping below him, climbed up above him again and then did it again to prove it wasn't a fluke. Graham was furious. Off he went, sniffing for lift. He found some, he was with me and then, while making my way back to my known source of lift, it happened. I started climbing, higher, higher, higher (my God, will it ever stop?) and still I kept climbing. I looked down. Graham was just a small white kite hundreds of feet below. I could see him coming after whatever it was that I had found, and still I was climbing. I was beginning to get worried now. The Long Mynd was three quarters of a mile behind me. It looked so small it wasn't true. I could see ant‑like figures in a cluster on the take‑off area. All the other kites had landed except Graham, who was gaining height 500ft or so below and behind me.
The clouds were beginning to whisk by, the lift stopped and I began to get used to the height. Gradually I felt my way around, but the lift seemed to be everywhere. No matter what I did, 360s, figure 8's or whatever, I could still climb back up to cloud base. I could do a 360 and lose nothing. I could climb, downwind! In fact, gravity was lost. I was free. I could do anything I wanted ‑ Oh boy, Oh boy!
I now turned my attention to Graham only to find that he had entered the latter stages of top landing. I could see him eating height with consecutive 360s, and then he landed. So here I was, all alone save for a couple of conventional gliders 500ft or so below me. A very gratifying feeling indeed.
I can well imagine the looks of utter disbelief and dismay when the glider pilot had to admit to being "sat on" by a hang glider.
My feet and legs were getting cold now so I decided to land. A series of consecutive side‑slipping 360s lost me 1,000ft or so, then a quick beat up the hill, three or four more 360s over the top and I was down.
I had been airborne for 90 minutes, prone, and what height had I reached? We telephoned the glider station. They confirmed cloud base 1,500ft above the ridge, and there it was, 2,200ft above the valley. What a day, what a feeling and what a memory to cherish! It makes me feel very humble that God chose me to place his magic upon. I shall always be grateful.
My wife Fiona Campbell and I resolved to spend Christmas of 1976 with my parents in Dublin, driving there in an old VW combi with our 16-month old son James, and of course, my Phoenix 6B. Alvin had a son of his own, 6 years old and mortally ill from leukaemia, but his wife had left him and taken his son with her. Fiona and I were not sure how Alvin was spending Christmas, so we invited him with us. At first, he said yes, but when we passed through Shrewsbury and he was not at the rendezvous, we phoned him and learned his red setter had torn open his leg on barbed wire, and he had decided to stay with the dog. I dearly wanted Alvin to fly with me, and dangled visions of the flying in Ireland in front of him in an attempt to persuade him to leave his dog with his neighbour. In the end Alvin said yes, but he would meet us at the ferry in Holyhead. He got there in his little Alfa sports car with just minutes to spare, and walked into the ship carrying his luggage and hang glider on his shoulder.
Alvin had moved on from the Phoenix 6b. He did not blame that summer's tree accident on the aircraft he was flying, and Ken Messenger was keen to get such a good flyer on his new Birdman wing. Ken was one of the pioneers of the sport in Britain, and like other British manufacturers was trying to stay level with development from the US and Australia. The Phoenix had been outshone by a new Australian wing made by the legendary Bill Moyes which had thrashed all-comers at the 1976 British Open, and like other manufacturers, Ken had copied much of what Moyes invented. The key new idea was a keel pocket, lifting the sail off the keel and allowing easier control and performance. But while Moyes had a keel‑pocket holding down only the back part of the sail, Messenger's new prototype, called a Moonraker, had a pocket all the way through the sail. Alvin was flying the Moonraker prototype, which had all sorts of adjustments to allow him to change the billow of the sail and so on. It was this kite he took to Ireland.
My parents lived in Howth Head, north of Dublin itself. We were only a mile away from the east‑facing cliffs that look over the Irish Sea and an island called "Ireland's Eye". Howth is where the Irish Republicans received their shipload of rifles before World War One, and is a famous little port in Irish history. But until now, no one had soared the Howth cliffs, which lay 2,000 feet under the airway leading into Dublin airport.
On December 23, 1976, Alvin and I trekked to the cliffs with our wings, rigged, and walked around trying to summon up the nerve to fly. The wind was on the cliffs, a rare easterly, but there was no bottom landing. The cliffs just fell into the sea, and if we lost the lift band, that is what would happen to us, too. But the sea breeze was smooth so we had good conditions to test the Moonraker against my Phoenix, which we both agreed was that rare glider in a production run that is just better, no one knows why, than all the other gliders in the run. Seagulls were soaring, we reasoned, so why should we go down into the sea? Prudently, I let Alvin take off first. When he went up, I joined him.
We had more than an hour each in the air, trying to get higher than the other, pulling speed to see how fast we could go without losing height, 360ing back over the top of the cliffs when we were too far forward. It was smooth easy flying, and the Moonraker showed up well. But it was late in the afternoon when we came down safely, and I had no chance to test the Moonraker myself. Next time, we thought.
We sat, weary and content, in my parent's sitting room that night, while Alvin told my father how lucky we both were to be living through such an era. Like me, Alvin would have wanted to have been alive when Mainstream Aviation started, when no one knew that flying was possible, and heroic deeds were done. But as we were alive now, hang gliding fulfilled us, gave us more than we could have expected from modern flight, put us in the air next to birds flying at the same speed as us, and the same height.
A group of Irish hang glider pilots picked us up the following day, Christmas Eve. Flying conditions were poor, with little wind, a slight mist and about 800ft cloud-base. We were both sated with the previous day's flying, but the Irish were happy to have someone as famous as Alvin with them, and wanted to hear our stories of Howth Head. We took our wings with us, went out for lunch, and just to pass the time of day, went looking for a hill to fly together.
We were guided to the Sugarloaf Mountain, south and east of Dublin, a distinctive outline I look for whenever I am around Dublin Bay. It looks like a volcano from the distance, just a cone, but its peak was under cloud when we arrived at the landing area and looked up at the 600ft climb to a small ledge for take‑off. Alvin took his glider and gear and, hill‑climbing champion that he was, virtually ran up the mountain. At that time I smoked heavily, so I 'died' six or seven times struggling up the slope, and was wheezing when I arrived at take‑off to find Alvin talking to a group of pilots while rigging his wing.
When I came to rig I found, for the first and last time in my life, that I had lost a wing‑nut on the way up. The wing‑nut was to secure the ring‑bolt holding the bottom rigging to the wing; without it I could not fly. I was dismally contemplating de‑rigging to walk back down again when Alvin came over.
"I've lost my wing‑nut. I'm going to walk down," I said.
"Don't do that. I have about twenty wing‑nuts on my wing. You can have one," he said, and sure enough, he had wing‑nuts everywhere.
"Don't you need it?" I asked.
"No, it's belt and braces. Ken put wing‑nuts on the top and bottom of everything, and the kite doesn't need them. Anyway, why don't you fly my machine and I fly yours? You said you wanted to have a go".
But I felt that even though the wing‑nut he gave me fitted, I was flying a wing that wasn't standard. It would not have been fair to let Alvin fly it, though he was effectively a test pilot to the prototype Moonraker. If he had pressed me I would probably have said yes, but he didn't and I said no, I would stick to my own machine, and completed rigging. In passing, that is how I lived to tell this story.
We agreed, as always, a little competition, closest landing to the centre of a football pitch would win a beer from the loser. I watched Alvin line up to take‑off, fly off to the left, get in to prone, and cruise along the mountain losing little height. At the end of his beat he made a 180 degree turn to the right and came back towards us, still at the same height, about 400ft above the ground, and looking regularly at the landing field to judge how he would approach it. He was keen on winning, however often he had beaten me in these competitions. As he started to turn left a small cloud came through, obscuring my view. I turned, ran back to pick up my wing, clipped‑in and took off. I went much further to the left than he did, thinking I would crow about that when I saw him on the ground, but on the way back I found I could not see him at all. He was not lining up on the landing area as he should have been, and he was not at the same height I was. It was only when I looked vertically down that I saw him and his glider, one wing completely broken, smashed up against the side of the mountain.
I shouted and shouted and threw my wing out of the sky, seeing an Irish pilot scrambling up the mountain to where Alvin lay as I lined up to land. I jumped out of my harness and ran up too, but the Irishman was on the way down.
"I'm going to phone for an ambulance," he said.
"How did it happen?"
"When he turned left he seemed to lock into the turn. He just spiralled down, about six turns, and cracked into the mountain."
Full of dread, I asked, "How is he?"
I did not believe him (we had been joking together just five minutes before!) and I ran up to where Alvin lay. He was still. I eased his false teeth out, thinking he might choke, but I also got a handful of clotted blood. I sat there, rocking, trying to cradle his head, until someone else arrived. Then I walked back down the hill and waited until the ambulance arrived. When they took his body away a group of pilots started to build a cairn on the hill where he had crashed. Then someone else shouted "no, no!" and they dismantled it.
I phoned my parent's home to tell them what had happened, and cried on the way home. At midnight mass that evening I looked at all the shiny faces and the eagerness to be gone to celebrate Christmas Day, and left in the middle of the service. Fiona and I made love that night. In my mind it was for Alvin, my lost friend. Fiona and I had to keep a surface cheeriness for James's first real Christmas, but Fiona had lost our first baby on Christmas Eve in Ireland three years earlier, and Alvin's death confirmed her dislike of the place. I have only attended church since for funerals or weddings.
Johnny Carr, who went on to be one of the best pilots in the world, said "all the other deaths, you think, I could have got out of that situation or I wouldn't have got into it. But Alvin..."
We came to the conclusion, a month later, that Alvin was distracted in rigging his wing by talking to other pilots. There were three holes on each cross‑boom, which held the leading edges of the sail apart. A pilot could choose to have the wing taut, or floppy, as he wished. But Alvin missed his count of the holes, and made one sail floppy, and the other taut. As he offered to let me fly his wing, it was already set up to kill whoever flew it. It was, in fact, my turn to have a go, but the loss of that wing‑nut as I crawled up the hill, wheezing, made me stick with my own wing. Smoking saved my life.
Alvin Russell was buried in a little country graveyard on the outskirts of Montgomery, within sight of Cornden Hill, masking the Long Mynd from his view. I was not a pallbearer. I went back to visit the grave 17 years later; though I looked for half an hour, I could not find it. I do not know why.
When the League started and did all those things for British hang gliding that we had dreamed about together, we named the trophy the pilots flew for, The Alvin Russell Trophy. It is still awarded to the best hang glider pilot in Britain; only Johnny Carr of the current League pilots knows why.
Alvin is not just a few lines in a newspaper, or an unfound grave in Wales. Had he lived he could have been a contender, first for the British title, later for the title of World Champion. He was one of hundreds of people who dreamed the New Aviation into life and flew as Otto Lilienthal flew, and like the rest of us, took a different route than the Wright Brothers and all who followed them.
Hang gliding and the children of the wind that it has spawned, in microlighting and paragliding, are normally seen in terms of the deaths of some of us who try it. In the public's mind, hang gliding is about death first and then perhaps about flying. That is the wrong way around. Hang gliding is about flying, face‑in‑the‑air, wind‑on‑the‑cheek, smell‑the‑woodsmoke flying. Death is the price some of us have paid, and will continue to pay, to experience it. But, contrary to popular belief, it is not absolutely necessary.
Why do I leap and try
These wild rides through the sky?
Does not the pounding of my heart
Before the start,
The terror of Death's fall
It does, it does, but then
Safe home on lovely Earth again
After that fragile dive
I'm twice as glad to be alive.
© Copyright Brian Milton 1995