James May

Flying cars

Social climber

For some time now, I’ve found myself wondering if cars would be more engaging if they were a lot harder to drive. Of course, some people like to pretend that driving is a very specialised skill. The Institute of Advanced Motorists, for example, who sometimes seem to imagine that the rest of us have not grasped the enormity of the undertaking.

Then there are track-day driving instructors, who often sound like human resources executives, talking about ‘personal development’ and ‘building progressively on a skills base’. I worry that even our own Stig would sound like this if he could talk, but since he’s the result of an early experiment in bionics – his urine is just a stream of transistors – he can’t, fortunately.

It would be nice to drive a car knowing that few other people were qualified to do so, but, as I have observed before, it’s not like being an Apollo astronaut or a member of Pink Floyd. Everyone I know can do it and I must therefore conclude that it’s easy. By way of illustration, it’s interesting to compare a journey in the car with a trip in the little tin ’n’ rivets aeroplane I fly.

When I walk out of the door to take a spin in the Fiat Panda, I don’t even bother to check if the tyres are all inflated. But on the aeroplane, the tyre condition is just one of hundreds of things I’m supposed to consider before I even get in the thing. Brake lines as well. It’s so complicated that I have to carry a little book reminding me of all the things I’m supposed to look at before I can consider going anywhere.

They include the hinges on all the control surfaces and the rods and wires linking them all together. I have to check all the lights, the fuel tanks, the fuel for moisture or contamination, the condition of the metal skin, the oil level, the brake fluid level, the prop for nicks and chips, the engine cowlings for security, the stall warning buzzer and the heater for the pitot tube. I have to check that the alternator belt is in place, since it’s difficult to repair with a pair of tights in flight.

By now it’s time to climb aboard, alone, because Richard Hammond will have gone home in a fuming rage of impatience. But don’t imagine I can just fire up the engine. I have to check for free movement of the throttle, mixture and carburettor heat levers, for full movement of the controls, that the heating and ventilation works, that the circuit breakers are in place, that the instruments work and that the clock is correct. Now, perhaps, I can put the key in.

But I still can’t start the engine. First, it’s necessary to turn the electrics on, including the fuel pump, and make sure that the warning lamps designed to indicate failure of some of the above will light up when needed. The engine may have to be primed. Then it’s necessary to make sure that no one is standing next to the propeller. Then the starter can be cranked, assuming it’s not already dark, in which case it’s time to pack up again.

“The Stig is the result of an early experiment in bionics – his urine is just a stream of transistors”

With the engine running, a quick check must be made of oil and fuel pressures, of the vacuum for the instruments, of the alternator output, that the twin magnetos are working properly, and that the radio is on and correctly tuned. And now, finally, what seems like half a day after I collected the key from the ops room, the aeroplane moves forward.

There are lots of things to check during the taxi to the runway. The brakes, more instruments, the altimeter, the nosewheel steering, the radio reception. Near the runway, it’s necessary to make sure that the engine will run at full power, at idle, on each set of magnetos, without a drop in oil pressure, and without overcoming the brakes. The flaps have to be sorted out, the locks on the door must be checked, and if Hammond were still there I’d have to tell him how to get out in an emergency.

And now the kite rolls forward and at around 55 knots the rush of air over the wings, in direct accordance with the findings of Daniel Bernoulli, rewards us with the gift of flight. But it doesn’t get any easier up there. One instrument indicates the airspeed. But since the air varies, this will be different from the true airspeed. What’s more, the plane flies through the air as though the air were still, but the air might actually be moving across the land.

So to go somewhere, I have to know the true airspeed and the wind speed and how this will effect deviation from a true heading calculated from a map but which has to be converted to a magnetic heading in order to use the compass, into which magnetic variation must be factored in order to arrive at a track and real speed across the ground itself. It’s said that a good landing is one you walk away from, and a very good landing is one you walk away from leaving a serviceable aeroplane behind. In my view any landing made at the airfield I took off from is a bloody miracle.

And yet… I like all this stuff. I admit it makes me feel a bit clever, in the way that stockbrokers get a kick out of needing to know the time in New York and Tokyo. Wouldn’t mundane car journeys be  more involving if there was a lot more to worry about? To find out, I borrowed a 1922 Buick, to see what driving was like in an era when the motorist was still a minister to a rare and baffling machine, rather than the mere operator of an everyday device. The pedals were the wrong way around, and so were the gears, There was no synchromesh – no roof either, come to think of it – and there were levers on the wooden steering wheel to alter the fuel mixture and the ignition advance for hill climbing and ‘fast’ cruising. There was some sort of manual fuel pump, no indicators and a cranking handle for starting, which made stalling at the lights annoying for everyone.

And I hated it. It was far too difficult. After half an hour of driving around at 25mph I was exhausted. This is why old people take driving so seriously. They remember when it was a lifetime’s work.

So, to return to my original question: would driving be more interesting if it was a bit more difficult? No. Sorry, I’ve wasted your time.



James May, Column

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