Tony Fuell

Tony 2008

I first heard of hang gliding in late 1973 when "Surfer" magazine - which I used to import at great cost from California - carried a small filler article about some dune flyers who were making and flying their own wings. I had been a long-time aeromodeller and aeroplane nut - one of my earliest childhood photos is of my brother and I sitting in the cockpit of a Tiger Moth at the Northolt Air Show.

At the time, I had moved to London with my wife and I was working in an office there. We had bought an old split-screen VW Combi and used to spend many happy weekends surfing at Rhossili, South Wales - driving down on Friday nights and back on Sunday. In those dear departed days, you could wild-camp in the dunes behind the beach, walk on the hill, surf in the sea, watch birds and generally commune with nature and there were very few people around, ever.

One Saturday in April 1974, I was coming out of the sea carrying my board, when I noticed a big blue thing up on the ridge above the camp-site. It turned out to be not a tent, (which was my first impression) but a hang glider and very soon it flew down to the beach. Well, it was love at first sight! I pestered the pilot (to this day, I have no idea who it was) and he gave me some information about flying and told me there was an Association, the NHGA. As soon as I got home, I joined and got the April issue of the "Flypaper".

I then ran into what was a common problem - that issue carried a very long article about John James's accident and the very next issue reported two fatalities. The problem was, I had a wife with a baby on the way, and she (understandably) wasn't keen on me taking up a sport where people fell out of the sky like bricks, or so it seemed. So I did no more about it at that point.

Later in 1974, we happened to be in Eastbourne and I saw Brian Woods flying at Beachy Head - as it happened he set a new British duration soaring record of something over two hours that day. But for me, the interesting thing was that he was obviously in total control of his machine - I was very familiar with the mechanics of slope soaring, having flown many model aircraft that way - and when Brian finished his flight, he turned back and landed, under perfect control, at the top of the hill. At this point, I rationalised it - he can fly, he has control, he can manouever, he can soar, he can land. There's no reason to crash at all!

The next week I was on the phone to John Malin, who ran (had just started?) a hang-gliding school based at Steyning Bowl. I booked a course and had my personal first flight on the first weekend in September 1974. It was glorious! I was instantly hooked, and the week after that, I was on the phone to Waspair, ordering a 229B3.

Thereafter, Rhossili was abandoned and I spent all my free time on the M23 up and down to Brighton and flew whatever site was on at the time. And nothing changed. In 1975, purely on the basis of going where the sites are, we bought a house in Brighton. I became a British Rail commuter and a weekend obsessive flyer. As the years went by, along the line I acquired two kids, Mark and Sarah - Sarah became "personality of the month" in Wings! This was in recompense for the fact that at her birth in 1977 in Brighton Hospital, I had been waiting in the 10th-floor wing of the tower block that housed the maternity unit and had become aware that people were flying the Dyke. So once the delivery had occurred and I had a new daughter and all was squared away, I went flying that very afternoon!

As the years went by and life changes intervened. I changed my Wasp for a Hiway Cloudbase which changed to a MW Gulp!, which changed to a Hiway Scorpion and later a Super Scorpion, later a Moyes Mega, a Typhoon and after I had moved to Belgium and was doing Xc's off very big hills in the Alps, an Airwave Magic III.

Somewhere round about 1988, I gradually detached from active involvement in flying. I had enjoyed a certain amount of success in my day job and was travelling a lot and the kids were growing up and demanding attention and on the few occasions I was able to get to the sites, I wasn't as confident or indeed as good, as I once had been.

Then sailing came along and my second wife and I bought a 28-foot yacht and sailed it regularly all over the North Sea - Holland, Germany, the Baltic and Denmark.

I still am a bit nuts about flying. Now I live by a beach in a very beautiful bit of New Zealand. My obsessions are still surfing, sailing and looking at the hang gliders and parapentistes who use the hill behind my house (which is very like Rhossili in many respects) and wishing I was up there with them. I have done a few flights in sailplanes - NZ is famous for glider flying - and as soon as I retire, will do a pilot's course so that I can get deeper involved. 

In the 14 years of so that I was actively involved in the British HG scene - both flying and writing articles about it - some of the highlights were: 

  1. Co-opted as BHGA Council's Public Relations Officer (1975-76) and appeared in many interviews and broadcasts in the early years.
  2. Was a spot-marshal at the first BHGA Mere event and close eye-witness to Bob Wills's one-foot, maximum-point landing which won him the event.
  3. Played a part in the development of the Pilot Grading scheme and wrote the introductory article about it for Wings! (1976)
  4. Was Editor of Wings! (February 1976 - March 1977)
  5. Was part of the BHGA's Accident Investigation team with John Hunter.
  6. Secretary (1975-79), later Chairman (1979-80), later Editor of Windsock (1980-82),  Southern Hang Gliding Club. During that time, we fought and lost, but honourably lost, the fight for Mill Hill to remain a flying site in the teeth of opposition from the Adur District Council. Our principled stand and willingness to use every legal route of opposition is thought to have deterred other councils in the area from trying to ban the sport in its early years,
  7. Founder member of the first 1977 British League. Came nearly last!
  8. Was Chief Marshal for the 1978 British League event held in Sussex and I devised what I believe to be the world's first HG competition task which HAD to be flown out of ridge lift to complete it. For many of the League's competitors, it was their VERY FIRST XC!
  9. In March 1978, John Hunter designed a British HG parachute system in collaboration with GQ Parachutes and I tested it at the Devil's Dyke. I believe this to be the first HG parachute deployment in the UK.
  10. After I moved to Brussels in 1982, I regularly flew sites in Belgium, France and Switzerland and was listed as a contact point for British pilots needing sites info.

I am very glad to see people taking an interest in the early years of hang gliding in Britain. They were great times, great people and great fun.  Good luck to all!

Tony Fuell at Devil's Dyke flying a Miles Handley 'Gulp' Boxing day 1975


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