Channel 4 blessed us with two new series, back to back, offering to show the viewer a hidden side to Britain: the top. The first, Flying Across Britain with Arthur Williams, promised a unique perspective by taking to the air. The second, Hidden Britain By Drone(★★★☆☆), promised more or less the same thing.
Arthur Williams is a former Royal Marine. Ten years ago, he was badly injured in a car accident and now uses a wheelchair. Eight years ago, he acquired a pilot’s licence and now he flies his 1943 Piper Cub from airfield to airfield, for fun. I don’t know if you have been taken up in a tiny plane by an enthusiast, but I have – and I could expend many words describing the extent to which it is not my cup of tea. I suppose that is what TV is for: to allow you to experience an activity that in real life would make you feel like a sick hostage.Advertisement
Williams’ journey began in his home territory – the south-west – and it soon became clear that the secret parts of Britain known only to the single-engine pilot are not landscapes viewed from overhead, but the airfields themselves. They are often beautiful – Compton Abbas, on the chalk plateau of Cranbourne Chase, is reckoned to be the most picturesque in the UK – and they are home to odd artefacts and even odder people.
Henstridge airfield in Somerset still boasts an old “dummy deck” – a runway built to allow pilots to practise landing on aircraft carriers. Williams landed short and went long, but his plane requires 275 metres (900ft) of stopping room, more than twice the length of a carrier deck. At Henstridge, he met Richard Browning, who was busy building his own jetpack arms to allow him to fly like a superhero. The testing phase had hit an obstacle Browning calls the death zone: at any altitude below 150 metres, a parachute would be of no help in an emergency. For now, he skims along the runway, toes just off the ground.
Elsewhere, Williams discovered a man turning out wooden propellers for antique planes and visited Cotswold airport – formerly RAF Kemble – where they now strip down old commercial aircraft for profit. A salvaged Boeing 747 engine can fetch more than £1.5m, although they once found a pack of cocaine in an old toilet that was worth double that.
Williams makes for an engaging and enthusiastic guide to this strange little world. As long as I don’t have to ride in the back seat, I am very happy in his company.
(05/08/2018) Tim Dowling @IAmTimDowling