The view from the top of Sutton Bank in the North York Moors National Park must rank as one of the best in Britain. The Yorkshire Gliding Club has been perched on the edge of this dramatic ridge for 80 years. The view gets even better if you launch yourself off the side in a glider. A young local named Erik Addyman was the first to pluck up the courage to try this in 1911. ‘He made his own glider and threw himself off the edge to see if it worked,’ explains Michael Smith, Yorkshire Gliding Club’s Marketing Manager. ‘It did.’ Perhaps Addyman was inspired by aviation pioneers the Wright brothers who had begun their flying forays just a decade earlier. Addyman intended to follow them into powered flight but his mother had other ideas. ‘When she found out she got their gardener to burn the glider and sent Erik off to naval engineering college,’ explains Michael.
Gliding really took off (!) after the First World War. Local clubs amalgamated to form the Yorkshire Gliding Club in 1934 and the primitive nature of gliding led them to the top of Sutton Bank. ‘In those days gliders had no penetration – that means the ability to fly into the wind. So you would look for a hill or cliff top that was facing into the wind to launch from and soar off in the updraft.’ Resourceful club members purchased an old Rolls Royce to aid the early launching process. ‘They took its rear wheel off and put a winch drum on it with about 800 metres of steel cable attached. I think they bought this Rolls Royce for about a fiver. The car was started, the drive engaged and the cable (with the glider attached to the other end) was wound in. The glider would 'kite' and at a suitable height the engine was put into neutral and the glider would release.’ Another Laurel and Hardy-esque launch method was the use of a bungee cord to literally catapult members off West-facing cliff edges with just the glider and a westerly wind to combat gravity.
Gliding developed rapidly in the Thirties. One of the club’s early members was Amy Johnson, a legendary aviator from Hull who would go on to set numerous long-distance records for powered flight. She cut her teeth gliding with the club at Sutton Bank. ‘We have her photograph in the club and a letter from her saying she was leaving gliding to move down south and focus on powered flying.’
The outbreak of war slowed gliding progress. Barricades were placed at Sutton Bank after the British Army grew concerned about invasion by glider, having seen the same happen in other countries. ‘The land was no use to man nor beast, the club leased it originally, then bought it at a relatively cheap price. Today you couldn’t buy it for love nor money because we’re part of the National Park.’
In its 80th year the club is one of the best in the country in terms of facilities and fleet. Gone is the Rolls Royce winch and in its place are tug planes like the Eurofox, a kit plane the club recently built themselves. ‘It’s a superb thing,’ Michael enthuses. ‘It tugs the gliders up into the air when you’re not launching with a winch.’ The distinctive clubhouse was designed in the Sixties and the views and catering are good enough to attract walkers, tourists and locals for a bite to eat while they spend an afternoon watching the activity. Michael describes the scene. ‘I’m looking out of the clubhouse window right now and the sun is sparkling on the airfield. To the South I can see beyond Selby and Doncaster, to the North I can see sunlight glinting on windows in Harrogate, and beyond that Menwith Hill. Then to the West there are amazing views across the Pennines.’
It’s a dynamic club proudly basking in the glory of its 80th year, but at the same time busily planning for the future. There are new aircraft on order and developments planned for the airfield itself, with planning permission for a new hanger in its final stages. They’re growing too; members new and old are made to feel very welcome. Michael himself didn’t get into a glider until he was 50. ‘When I turned 40 my wife started giving me birthday presents she thought might kill me. Then for my 50th she got me a trial glider flight here. It just blew my socks off.’
The club employ a full-time Flying Instructor who trains novice gliders. The general consensus suggests you need a training flight for every year of your life, plus ten, before you can consider going solo. ‘It completely depends on the individual, but you can go solo on your 14th birthday if the instructors are happy.’ Once you’re up in the air you can fly across the entire country. The flight record from Sutton Bank is 750km by a member who flew down to South Wales, across to North London then back up to Yorkshire in about 11 hours.
The height record at the club is 31,000ft though restrictions today mean that can’t be repeated. ‘You have to use oxygen after 12,000ft,’ explains Michael. ‘The speed depends on the glider, single-seater gliders fly faster, but are restricted to around 140 knots [roughly 160mph].’ In terms of equipment a modern glider will generally have three instruments: a variometre which tells you the rate of climb, an altimeter which relays the height and an airspeed indicator. Gliders are radioed up but pilots try to avoid jamming up the airwaves with chatter other than radioing the club when landing and letting any controlled airspace know who they are. After that it’s basically you and the clouds.
‘It’s flying in it’s purest form,’ says Michael. ‘I was flying two weekends ago on a Friday evening and hit a type of airmass called wave which is when the airmass starts to ripple for whatever geographical reason. It’s as smooth as silk and you can get up to incredible heights. The sun was setting, I could see all the way North to the Cheviots, I could see North West to the Lake District, I could see the sun glinting on York Minster to the South, on the Humber Estuary further East – it was just a joyous experience.’ Michael has also found himself sharing the same airmass as a peregrine falcon (‘he was doing better than I was’) with a flock nesting in the ridge on Sutton Bank. ‘It’s a privilege, but a privilege that is attainable to anyone, it’s not that expensive to fly gliders,’ says Michael. Nonetheless the experience is priceless.
Yorkshire Gliding Club
A one-day course at the club costs £180 and includes a three-month membership. For more information visit www.ygc.co.uk