Chasing Ghosts: An Attempt at the Atlantic by Microlight

Chasing GhostsBy Brian Milton
Published in hardback by New European Publications

The ghosts are the British pilots, Alcock and Brown, who in 1919 flew non-stop from Newfoundland to Ireland in 16h 30m, and the American, Charles Lindbergh, who flew non-stop from New York to Paris in 1927 in 33h 30m.

In the year 2001, leaving New York harbour about fourteen weeks before 9/11, Brian Milton attempted to repeat Lindbergh’s flight in stages in a microlight aircraft, like a large kite with a motor-bike slung underneath. He also wanted to repeat Alcock and Brown’s flight in its entirety. To succeed, Milton needed to find the money to make the flight work, and the courage to go ahead with it; much of the book follows his search for values in other people’s adventures, as he prepares to leave New York, and languishes in various Canadian provinces while the authorities battle to stop his flight.

They are concerned that the 438 litres of fuel tanks Milton has installed have not been adequately tested, but Milton insisted he needed that much fuel – 35 hours flying – to complete the 1,950 mile crossing. The book follows the fight in a small town in Newfoundland, after Milton’s thousand-mile flight to get there, in which the authorities eventually win, forcing Milton to convert his aircraft back to carrying just 40 litres, quite incapable of the Atlantic flight.

But when Milton then hears that hundreds of aircraft leave Newfoundland every year, bound for Europe, each carrying similar illegal tanks, he converts his microlight back into Atlantic mode in a secret hangar. With the help of everyone he asks, he then sets out on one last flight to get closer to Ireland than 2,100 miles, to give himself a fighting chance of making the crossing.

The account of the last 16 hours, caught by fog, then darkness, and then a bizarre sequence of events involving all-night re-fuelling and a determined attempt – despite rough weather, though winds in the right direction – at the last take-off before Ireland, is as exciting as any of the original pioneering flights.

Want to find out more?  Read Chapter 2.

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When Brian gave me the proof copy to read, I viewed the prospect with some misgivings. How do you write an adventure story about not crossing the Atlantic non-stop? I took the book to bed, and finished it (in loose leaf form) at 3:30am. The impulse to finish it had started as an editorial duty and was replaced by the draw of a thumping good read. Brian’s capacity to engage the reader is undimmed, even when the nub of the tale is about sitting about waiting for the weather or bureaucratic permissions. He does this (in this as in his other books) by baring his soul so that his ups and downs become yours, and you see the world with his eyes at least until you close the book.
Early chapters focus on the early heavier-than-air trans-Atlantic attempts, on the origins of microlighting and on Brian’s upbringing which, though they may disappoint those who merely wish to cut to the chase, make compelling reading for those with a wider interest, and explore Brian’s powerful and deeply unfashionable sense of history. I was particularly taken by his lucid unravelling of the origins of what he calls New Aviation – the attempt to reinvent aviation free of the cloying shackles of bureaucracy. Most of his subsequent struggles were with what he calls Mainstream Aviation – the sort that believes it’s only possible to get airborne by means of checklists and permissions.
The story moves into higher gear with the preparation for the ‘wheeze’, as Brian gets sponsorship, and finds a particularly sympathetic manufacturer in Mainair, and particularly Jim Cunliffe.
The flying itself was not as memorable as on earlier ‘wheezes’, being dogged by the foggy weather prevalent there, but Brian’s relief at getting under way is palpable, until he hits the brick wall of Canadian bureaucracy. It’s still not clear what caused the problem – after all, four previous trans-Atlantic microlight flights had been through without comment, and light aircraft are routinely flown across the Atlantic with enormous, unapproved ferry tanks in the cabin, but it may have been the lack of preparatory work by one of Brian’s consultants or the glare of publicity which caused them not to turn a blind eye. Brian’s decision to make the attempt anyway are discussed clearly, and the tension builds rapidly to the anti-climax of the final takeoff at 600kg all-up weight, when he was caught by rotor and crashed.
Brian’s an adventurer first and pilot second. There was a persistent problem with the Flydat engine instrumentation fuse blowing which hadn’t been satisfactorily sorted and his misunderstanding of the Canadian requirement for a secondary static source as an electrical matter, rather than airspeed indication leave one concerned for his safety. But the biggest unknown – the weather and the need for a tailwind – did appear to have been right on that day. An aftercast indicated he could have got across in under 29 hours – with about 33 hours of fuel on board, making this a tantalising what-if.
Brian’s place in aviation history is assured, and even if the adventure went wrong, the book’s a thumping good read.
David Bremner, Editor, Microlight Flying

How does a record of a sad failure, even if a rather heroic one, turn into a great read which kept me turning the pages long after I should have put the light out for a good night’s sleep? Simply because this is a story about a man and the people around him. I won’t say that the flying is incidental, but Brian’s generous revelations of his own fears, struggles and heroes fill this book with delight after delight for anyone who loves the air. Even his relentless wrangling with bureaucracy turns out to be absorbing entertainment. Overall it is a great revelation of what makes this strange and special adventurer tick, and I recommend Chasing Ghosts wholeheartedly.
Noel Whittall, (father of Robbie Whittall, former world champion in hang gliding and paragliding). Editor, XC Magazine