James May

a light aircraft in a bell jar

You're doing my head din

As some of you may know, I’ve spent the last year learning to fly a light aircraft. Very satisfying it is too. It’s something I dreamed about as a boy, ever since I picked up my first Air Ace Picture Library comic book and learned to draw something approximating to a Spitfire on the back of my maths exercise book.

But small aeroplanes aren’t to everyone’s liking. Richard Hammond, for example, whose crashing impatience renders him unable to appreciate the value of pre-flight safety checks, and who is not man enough to thank me when the wings haven’t fallen off at the end of a journey.

And then there are the residents of the villages around my flying club’s airfield, White Waltham in Berkshire. Some of them hate small aeroplanes because, apparently, they’re noisy.

A bit of explanation is required here. A typical small airfield will have several runways – White Waltham has three – pointing in different directions to allow for changes in the wind. Each runway forms one leg of its own aerial rectangle, around which the planes fly while preparing to land. These are called ‘circuits’, and those of us new to aviation spend a lot of time flying around them practising landings and take-offs. Given that each runway can be used in two directions, there are six possible circuits in operation at the airfield.

And the circuits are carefully designed to avoid overflying of the local villages, so that the residents won’t be annoyed. However, there are a lot of villages and you don’t have to stray very far outside the circuit before some old trout rings up the ops room with a complaint. This has happened to me. People have rung up and, in effect, said: “James May is flying his noisy little aeroplane over my garden, when he should be to the west a bit.” What did they expect with my sense of direction? They should be grateful I haven’t flown through the sitting-room window or into the local orphanage.

But here’s what really gets my goat. The airfield has been there since the 1930s, when it was part of the vital Air Transport Auxiliary unit – the organisation that ferried newly built and repaired military aircraft to their operational bases. A lot of the ferry pilots were women, and you may have seen the famous picture, taken at the airfield, of a ripping gal in flying kit standing under the nose of a gigantic Short Stirling. It’s almost pornography.

So anyone who can remember when it was trees would be over 90 and deaf anyway. I doubt there are many people in the surrounding villages who bought their houses before the airfield was built.

“If people had complained about the Flying Scotsman making an irritating whistling noise, nothing would ever have been achieved” 

In which case, people must have moved in knowing that there would be small aeroplanes flying around. But still they complain about it. This is like buying a house on a Barratt estate and complaining that there are people living next door. It’s like me complaining about the sound of bells from the church at the end of my road. The church has been there for hundreds of years, and it’s not as if I wouldn’t have noticed it when I viewed the house. There’s a bloody great bell tower sticking out of it.

But no matter – I could probably complain to the authorities and someone would be obliged to look into it, when really Britain would be better served by someone coming around to tell me to stop whining and be grateful that the bells are there ready to be rung when the EU invades.

Road noise? Well, everyone I know lives on a road of some sort, and they all either own a car or use taxis. A certain amount of it is, therefore, to be expected. I would agree wholeheartedly that cars and bikes with wantonly loud exhaust pipes are an unnecessary evil, but that general thrum of traffic is just part of the sonic backdrop of modern life.

And so, finally, to the Top Gear studio, which is based – da daah! – on an old airfield. It’s the one where they used to build and test the Hawker Harrier, which you may know as a particularly noisy aeroplane. Those days are gone, and you’d think the locals would be glad, but you’d be wrong. Some of them are now complaining that Top Gear is making too much noise.

Really? We’re there, on average, about once a week. The airfield is very large, and we occupy the bit right in the middle with our test track. The nearest house is a long way away. I can accept that the steady drone of Clarkson shouting ‘poweeeer!’ would be irksome if you were relaxing in the garden of an afternoon, but the occasional, distant squeal of tyres around the Hammerhead is surely no more intrusive than the chirp of a randy blackbird.

But we live in an era when a single complaint has the weight of a 20,000,000-signature petition delivered to Downing Street. Consider the show itself. If one person rings or writes to complain that Jeremy has been rude about the Liberal Democrats or that I’ve said ‘cock’, the producer is obliged to investigate it and do something about it. Why? Important work is being done at Top Gear. It’s thanks to Top Gear that the new Koenigsegg has a rear wing, and that the motor industry knows not to waste its time and money trying to develop a convertible people carrier. If people had complained about Barnes Wallis’s bomb bouncing through their back yards, or the Flying Scotsman making an irritating whistling noise, nothing would ever have been achieved and Britain would be renowned the world over only for being very quiet.

It’s the same story with the flying club. Those who complain about the plane noise forget that the person flying the airliner that takes them on holiday to Spain will most likely have started flying at a local airfield, often at great personal expense. If people like me weren’t there supporting it by flying a wonky circuit over the village, everyone would have to go to Whitby on the train instead.

What else do these people complain about? Talking in restaurants? Babies crying at feeding time? Grass rustling in the wind? They could make a bigger contribution to the fight against noise pollution if they all simultaneously piped down.

Everybody shut up. You’re getting on my nerves.


James May, Column

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