Dunkirk Spirit Pt.2


In Pt.1 I described the preparation behind our attempt to fly an electric model across the English Channel. I could have no better comrade on board than electric flight supremo Brian Collins, and we'd managed to convince ourselves that it was possible. The organisation was in place, and indeed a TV crew was also in tow!
Outdoor model flying enthusiasts are always at the mercy of the weather, and when controlling a model from the confines of a 6.5 metre RIB (rigid inflatable boat), the sea conditions are also crucial. Imagine our frustration then, arriving in Dover after 'perfect condition' forecasts all week, to hear that the weather was about to break on the day we planned to make the attempt!

Having spent a restless night I peered through the curtains of my hotel room at about 6am the next morning, to be greeted by a perfectly calm sea and not a wisp of a breeze; if only we could have gone there and then, I would have been completely up for it! Bleary-eyed, I stumbled back into bed for another couple of hours of much needed sleep before opening the curtains in earnest. No more calm sea… it was positively choppy and the trees were dancing to the tune of a brisk westerly, bringing with it a horribly opaque bank of cloud.

After a minimal breakfast and a travel sickness pill each, Brian and I set off for Dover Marina where we met up with the boat crew of Lance and Nelson, along with Mike, who were all worried about the weather prospects. Mike's expert opinion was that we either went then or not at all, given that it wasn't just about having suitable conditions for the flight, but also for the return trip. In addition to this the documentary film crew were there, capturing the drama and desperate for us to make the attempt to conclude things, so there wasn't time for contemplation… we decided to go for it.


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When I'd first seen the RIB, high up on a trailer, it looked fairly large, but when sitting in the water it suddenly looked awfully small and low. Brian looked aghast at what he was going to have to be strapped into for the next couple of hours, and indeed the first major task was to manhandle him off his wheelchair and onto one of the benches – a task made much easier by the help of the ever-present and ever-believing Steve and Jon Sales, who have been behind every project that I've ever embarked upon. Whilst Brian and his lifejacket were being strapped in, I ran back to the car to prepare the Tucano for its record-breaking flight.
Brian and I had decided to fly the model without a spinner as we hadn't really established whether the motor temperature would be critical and wanted to offer as much cooling as possible.

With the battery pack in place but not connected, I joined Brian on the boat for the journey to a large, tapering concrete groin on the beach. This little trip, as it turned out, would provide our first real experience of what controlling the Tucano from a boat might be like.

When I say the 'first' experience, we'd previously attempted to prepare ourselves by effecting a simulation using a moving platform test at Kirkbride airfield (just west of Carlisle). As neither Brian nor myself had ever flown a model from anything but a stationary position, we got Brian's friend Alfie (who is also paralysed; they met in hospital) to come along with a trailer he’d made for an adapted quad bike.


With Brian and I on the trailer and Alfie at the wheel of his Freelander, we made several runs up and down the main runway getting used to the unusual concept of flying a model (Brian's Twin Star) whilst facing backwards on a moving trailer. There's no doubt that this was absolutely vital experience, without which we would definitely have struggled in the boat, especially since the English Channel was becoming increasingly rough! Travelling from the harbour to the groin at just 20 – 25 knots the little RIB was bouncing out of the water, and I could imagine us later being like a cork in the ocean, halfway between Dover and Sangatte, searching the English Channel for pieces of Tucano wreckage!

We reached the groin and as I jumped out of the boat I noticed that all eyes and cameras were on us… no turning back now! Steve and Jon had already brought the Tucano from the car park and I feverishly readied it for its seaward launch, connecting the mass of parallel wiring and making final pre-flight checks. I then made a hand signal to Brian, who flexed the Tx stick to fire the Hyperion motor into life. With a firm underarm lob the Tucano leapt away and was soon circling the harbour as I scrambled back to the boat.
Since Lance was forced to leave the harbour at reduced speed the model had to be circled with the minimum possible height loss, although as we'd established in testing, it excelled at this. As we got out into choppier water Brian handed control over to me so that he could steady himself better on his bench seat. Then came a call from the crew, "Hang on!" The little RIB accelerated into the open sea, giving us quite a handful of tasks: hang on, keep the model in the sky and try not to be seasick!


Mike had warned us that the first couple of minutes would be the roughest, as we cleared the mouth of the harbour… and he wasn't wrong! Even at around 20 knots the RIB was leaping out of the water and we all got tossed about. The Tx aerial kept whacking the emergency beacon on the rear of the boat, and on one or two occasions the body of the Tx got crunched against the metal hoop on the back of the bench seat. I wondered at that point whether the actual physical torture of the journey was more likely to jeopardise the flight than any model-related issues!

Fortunately the sea did get a little smoother further out, and as the mission progressed we further perfected our flying technique. On a millpond-type surface the boat could cruise towards its maximum 35 – 40 knots, but in these conditions 20 – 25 was the safest practical speed; as a result, even at its lowest possible power setting, the Tucano was faster than the boat in a straight line. There were a couple of ways to counter this, the first being to fly the model virtually directly overhead and then do a circuit a reasonable distance behind the boat, allowing it to slowly catch up before repeating the process. The other method was simply to 'tack' left and right behind the boat and therefore lose net forward momentum.

At one point we had to cross the wake of a ferry, and the RIB really started to bounce about; it felt like it was leaping 10' or so out of the water, and every time it landed it was like hitting a brick wall! Brian, who has titanium rods holding three of his vertebrae together, took one or two really hard knocks and yelled with the pain; I really felt for him. It was arduous enough for me, and I had my legs and abdomen muscles to help balance whereas Brian had only his hands to grip with. I've never seen a more gritty and determined performance in my life.


Just a spirited under-arm lob….

Another aspect you don't consider when flying for long periods of time is that, depending how firmly you grip the Tx (and in this case believe me it had to be firm!) you can easily start to get cramp in your hands. It got so bad at one point that I had to set the model up in a constant climbing cruise, holding the Tx with one hand whilst performing cramp-relieving exercises with the other.

Facing backwards and concentrating 100% on keeping the model airborne with the minimum possible power setting I had no concept of the distance we were covering. From my peripheral vision I could see the English coast getting further and further away, but there was no way I was going to take my eye off the model for a moment to look the other way for the comforting sight of the approaching French coast!
Then someone shouted that there were only 500 yards to go, and the boat began to slow down… I realised that I'd been gripping the bench seat so firmly with my knees that my legs were like jelly, and I had such bad cramp in one thigh that I could hardly stand up. Not only that, the wind had picked up and the RIB could only get to within 50 yards of the beach, which comprised of a narrow strip of sand rising into sand dunes with houses behind.

The otherwise uneventful and unspectacular flight suddenly reached a critical point; not good timing considering I was now completely exhausted and at the ragged end of my concentration span! With so much water between ourselves and the sand, attempting to land on the sand strip could have resulted in landing in the water 10' from terra firma, which would have made the whole attempt meaningless. After everything we'd been through there was no way I was going to let everyone down by allowing that to happen! Although the model easily had 20 minutes of duration still in hand, the boat was now stationary and bobbing up and down in the tide swell. We simply had to put the model down on French soil and get the job done.

In order to make sure she didn't land in the water I lined it up further inland, in the hope that it would land on top of the sand dunes. As it happened I was actually beyond the dunes and as the Tucano descended it disappeared behind them. Lance quickly leapt out of the boat and went to find it, but initially we directed him to completely the wrong place. Amidst the confusion someone was touched by genius; replay the recording from the accompanying TV crew's camera to see the landing approach and where the model went. After one or two playbacks we established the model's point of disappearance behind the sand dunes and Nelson directed Lance via a walkie-talkie radio to the exact spot. It turned out the Tucano had landed wings level, but quite heavily, in someone's garden! The owner of the house came out to see what had happened and went to get his two children who were very excited to learn that this model aircraft had flown all the way from Dover… what a tale they had to tell in the schoolyard on the Monday morning!

Two crazy pilots hand on as the RIB heads for open sea.

The Tucano's detachable wing had come adrift, and the momentum of the battery pack shooting forward had broken the nose off, but it could have been a lot worse. Lance gathered up the model and set off for the shore to wade back to the boat with the record-setting model, joined by the family whose garden it had adopted as its landing strip. To see the children jumping up and down on the beach and waving to us was a poignant moment, and brought home the fact that we had just made history by flying the first electric-powered model aircraft across the English Channel.

With the weather looking set to become pretty nasty very soon, we quickly downed some on-board refreshments and headed home. Aching bones and tired eyes maybe, but with an indescribable buzz of achievement inside. Brian had endured more than any of us and had proved the most: how many able-bodied modellers would have gone through what he did? Evidence if you ever needed it that whatever your affliction or disability, it only takes dogged determination (and in Brian's case a little craziness!) to do something outstanding with your life.

As conditions worsened we had to slow down considerably; by the time we reached Dover it was positively cold and Brian was beginning to lose body temperature. When finally in the harbour a very kind boat owner arrived with a winch stand and winched Brian out of the RIB and into his wheelchair, making the transition with the minimum amount of trauma possible. But however cold, wet and tired we were, it didn't stop us enjoying the moment with the popping of a bottle of Moet and Chandon to celebrate the event. Everyone present shared the champagne and it was simply fantastic to bring this achievement to the UK.

Back in the hotel room, an hour, two wing bolts and some cyano' later, the Tucano was flyable again and Brian and I had a well-needed lie down. The sheer physical demands coupled with the sea air had completely exhausted us both! The film crew did some final interviews to conclude the documentary and we then celebrated in the hotel with a slap-up steak, vowing to return to Sangatte one day with a nice bottle of wine for the kind gentleman whose garden the Tucano landed in.

19.8 nautical miles in 1 hour, 3 mins and 42 seconds…..

Looking back, I really don't know how we did it. Even in perfect conditions it wouldn't have been easy, but then some things are meant to be. The design of the model was perfect, and its preparation clinical; the set-up Brian had chosen couldn't have been better and, in fact, after re-charging the 14,800mAh Hyperion 3s4p Li-Po pack we found that only 9,000mAh had been consumed… so this 5 lb model had been cruising with an average power consumption of only 100W – incredible!

The ESC that Mike Merrick at M.troniks had designed for constant cruise setting never missed a beat, and the 41MHz GWS radio set that J. Perkins sourced had been a revelation with not a single glitch over the whole flight, and the durability to withstand the bashing it received on the journey over.

This venture was very much a team effort, and without the support from those concerned Brian and I would never have set foot on that RIB! Our thanks go to RCM&E for their support and sponsorship, Alfie for helping us with the testing, Steve at Vortex for the excellent canopies, Steve and Jon Sales for their tireless encouragement and help and Mike Lance and Nelson of the Dover Sea School for their professionalism and experience.

But the final word of thanks must go to all those who told us it was a crazy idea and that we didn't stand a chance. Thanks guys, you inspired us, and without you we would never have been as determined.


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