Johnny Sombrero Rides!

cowboy graphic

Johnny writes about his travels from the low-slung comfort of a lightweight manual wheelchair. He is often accompanied by his woman, Juanita Fajita. E&OE. He doesn’t do toilets – go before you go out!

Johnny also tries other mobility stuff; horses, wheelchairs, helicopters, that sort of thing.

… The Tiga FX wheelchair

I have used a rigid-frame wheelchair ever since I left my almer mater, Stoke Mandeville, in 1986. They are lighter, less ‘wobbly’ to steer over rough ground, cheaper (usually), and  they fulfill my prejudice that the less equipment you need, the less disabled you feel. I know,  who cares? I do.

The only problem is, they take up a lot of space in the car and they usually need to go in an airliner’s hold. I went through more than 20 years of uncertainty, every time I flew, as to whether my chair would turn up where I had left it, outside the main door. Quite often, my £2,500-worth of titanium would head off to the carousel like the rest of the baggage, leaving me to feel like shit as I faced being pushed to Arrivals like a cripple. I always flatly refused to experience that ride and once waited 90 minutes after ‘doors open’ for my chair to be retrieved. It really pisses off the oncoming crews trying to make a pushback slot.

Nowadays airlines, dispatchers and flight crews seem to have their act together and appear to know what we expect. Recent trips have been trouble-free. But if it can happen to Frank Gardner in 2018, then it can still happpen to any of us. So it’s still true to say, there’s no substitute for having it in the cabin with you.

RGK Tiga fx2.jpgIf you fly Business Class in a Boeing 747-400, a rigid frame will fit in the cabin wardrobe. Otherwise, you might consider the RGK Tiga FX chair, which fits in a standard overhead locker. Like most chairs this clever device has a folding back, but it also has a folding front frame that reduces it to — in the manufacturer’s words — the size of a briefcase. Well it would have to be a pretty damn full briefcase, to be sure, but I get their point.

There’s a dreadful demo video here.

I asked for a quote. Fellow raspberries will not be surprised to learn that a basic TIga FX – minus cushion, minus scissor brakes and so on, costs over £3,000 of your English pounds. I shouldn’t be surprised. I can’t afford that right now (I’m a pensioner since Saturday!) so am investigating funding options.

RGK Tiga fx1

… to Churt village fete

My village. Well, the nearest village; we live in the middle of nowhere. But the infants’ school is important; all three of our kids went there and Linda teaches the Reception Class. The village hall is important; God knows how many plays, pantos and PTA quiz-nights I have attended over the past 25 years. The Crossways is important; a proper beer-drinker’s pub that I would frequent more often if only, Teresa, I could open the bloody door and get up that bloody ramp without yelling for help. And then there’s the ‘Rec’.

Behind the village hall, the Spar, the Pipasha Tandoori restaurant and the lawn-mower shop is the vast green Recreation Ground, lined by trees, tennis courts, the pavilion and a playground. For most of the summer it’s given over to cricket (I wish I could have convinced my boys to play cricket) and on the second Saturday each June, it’s the venue for the village fete. We held it last Saturday and it went pretty well, I thought.

Games1There was a brass band, a BBQ, a dance display by the St John’s School-kids, a Pimms stall, a free surfing simulator, a dog-show, food and drink stands, the local Honda dealer, Cub Scouts and the WI — dozens of stalls encircled the cricket square. We ran a set of family games. You know the sort of thing; three-legged race, scarecrow relay and so on. Anarchy ruled for a full 40 minutes. And if you hung around until the final medal had been handed out, Tom Viveash (chair of t’fete commitee) drew the winners of the various raffles.

Not bad prizes either. The one I cPimms1.jpegrossed my fingers for was the wheelbarrow-full of booze, offered by Ros who manned a fundraising stall for local students planning a trip to Ghana. You got the wheelbarrow too and watching the two delighted winners manoeuvring the loaded barrow through the exit was, for me, the high-point of the afternoon.

And then, on cue, it started spitting with rain. Looks like we had a great turnout though, if the activity in the carpark was anything to go by. Many of the local villages hold fetes, on specific weekend days to avoid clashes. So Churt is always on the second Saturday in June — mark your diaries for 2019!

Many more terrific photos like these right here. Thanks Rob. And the suddenly redundant fete site is here.


… to Dallas & Fort Worth

I needed to interview a bunch of old Bell Helicopter hands for a book. Many of these gentlemen still live in the DFW area and there’s a cluster near Arlington between the two cities.

20180313_184538I blew the budget on Business Class tickets (BA’s 747-400 interior is showing its age) and suceeded in getting the chair stowed in the wardrobe  — thus avoiding a Frank Gardner moment at the other end. But immediately wracked with guilt, I booked a lowly Howard Johnson Express hotel, centrally placed for my task but squeezed between the I30 Eastbound and the Six Flags Over Texas theme park.

I had booked a car through Expedia but couldn’t specify one with hand-controls online. I had thought the big outfits would have a couple hanging around in case a vet turned up and demanded his ADA rights; however they require 48hrs notice. So I ordered the first of many, many Uber cabs (latest Visa bill says 25) and it worked out pretty well. Being Texas, many of the vehicles were trucks — and so involved a certain amount of heaving — but the drivers were invariably helpful and only one was unafraid to die.

The hotel was basic, and filled with families on Spring Break, but the bed was comfortable and the bathroom OK, with a roll-in shower. They found a shower chair and when I pointed out that the towel rack was way too high for me, they unscrewed it,  moved it down three feet and filled the old holes. I bet you wouldn’t get that in the Four Seasons. On the other hand the toiletries were rubbish and why, I ask you, should you need glasses to read the labels in the shower? This parsimony is not confined to hotels; who cares what essential oils or exotic bee-shit extracts are in your stuff IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S FOR?

But I digress. The comp breakfast was iced buns and Fruit Loops, essentially.

20180317_152510Mid-way through my interview schedule, I took a day off to visit the Fort Worth Stockyards. A bit of a tourist trap and not hugely accessible, but I enjoyed a great New York Strip in the Cattlemen’s restaurant. Unfortunately I ordered dessert and missed the twice-daily cattle drive.

But there was a rodeo! Very excited about this. The wheelchair space was right next to the pens so we could see the cowboys taking a grip on their rope-thingies. Bull-riding, steer-roping, bronco-riding. Brilliant and vaguely erotic entertainment; Brokeback Mountain has a lot to answer for. I took some great video and promptly deleted most of it; this rather lame clip is all that remains.




I was intending to fly to Philadelphia after a week but a snow-storm led to my flight being cancelled. I managed to squeeze in another interview and otherwise went heads-down on the laptop. Apart from steak I ate Tex-Mex, Japanese and Mongolian — and one burger, a messy chilli-burger, here at Tom’s!




… To face the final curtain

Act the third

It’s OK, nobody died. In fact, as we approach that Difficult Second Weekend phase, I think we can be satisfied with our performances to date. But will we remember every one of Cerys’ last-minute instructions? Can we attain that elusive “extra notch”? Will we all remember our lines (you know who you are)? I have the luxury of being able to read from a script but will that dog-eared document survive another weekend on the sound-desk/in the bag next to my coffee cup? Will I finally snap and hurl said coffee over bloody cloud-children in their fluffy white costumes? The tension, so quickly released last Sunday, starts to re-build. Remorsesly.

Meanwhile, some good audience reviews, none of which I can remember but then, neither can you. “We really enjoyed it” (Dot Summers); “The Giant was particularly good” (Linda Healey); “How did you make your voice sound so scary?” (small boy); “I don’t like it mummy please take me away” (toddler on opening night — reSULT!).


With Jack & Jill. Linda says, harshly I feel, that I look like Stephen Hawking.



… To panto opening night!

Act the second

We open this evening. I think audiences will enjoy it; it’s funnier, better acted and directed (and mercifully shorter) than any pantomine I’ve been involved in to date. But I am becoming quite the divo; home after yesterday’s dress rehearsal I realised my too-loud ‘giant’ voice would never last for the four performances expected of us this weekend. So it was honey and hot lemon, dahling, and a vow of silence for today.

20180114_171012As director, Cerys has done a grand job. Creative and decisive, we all know where we stand and what is expected of us. God listen to me, I’m writing as if this is important. The kids are great too and I remember how, 20 years ago, the boys enjoyed taking part (Adam still acts from time to time). On the other hand, Caitlin was scarred for life.

So we have songs, slapstick and some cutting-edge satire. What more could you ask for?

Big up to the sound guys, Mark, Andy & Joe. Oh and (spoiler alert) I predict that by the end of the run, playgrounds around the country will ring to the strains of, ‘”and what sort of beans are those?” “Why they’re MAGIC beans!”‘ You’ll see what I mean if you buy a ticket from the usual sources. Oh yes you will!


… To the Churt Village Panto!

Act the First

Johnny has been seduced out of retirement to appear as the Giant in the CADS production of Jack & the Beanstalk, by Jack Northcott. Performances planned for the last weekend of January and the first weekend of February, 2018.

Johnny says, “I am delighted to once again take on this pitiful pivotal role. I recall with pride and some affection my previous appearance as the Giant, back in 1978. I was part of a groundbreaking new interpretation of the traditional fairy tale, re-imagined by Peter Christopherson, and my character (Empreror Pong the Pestilent) was required during Act 1 to strike terror into the hearts of small children in the audience. Later, magically reduced to a more manageable stature, he was able to balance inhumanity with pathos and finally win their hearts.”

This historic clip will give you a flavour of Johnny’s ability to bring such a complex character to life:

“This time, as the Giant Butternut Trump, I will be projecting my character from off-stage. However I eagerly anticipate reducing junior audience members to tears through the power of my voice.”

Incidentally, Johnny would like to point out, especially to his legions of American fans, that the name of his character was scripted long ago and is not intended to portray anyone, especially not any US President, living or dead. It just means he farts a lot. Indeed, such is his capacity for coughing his rompers during each performance, that Johnny has found it necessary to employ his own Body Gas Stuntman:

… To Hong Kong

This time for real, for the first time in over 30 years. It’s, er, not the same.


The only building Johnny recognised was the Connaught Centre, now re-christened Jardine House. Opened not long before he landed in the city, it was notable for its round windows and, in the left-hand image above, was an obvious landmark. Today, it is barely visible (centre-right in the RH pic) among the much taller buildings.

The area around the former HMS Tamar is all reclaimed but, roughly where we would have tied up, now lies a marina. There’s still the Star Ferry, and the Peak Tram and the Peninsula Hotel (of Cleopatra Jones and the Dragon Lady fame — and my glittering wide-screen debut). Otherwise it’s high-rise enterprise all the way, from Chai Wan to Lantau, and beyond.


L-R: ET, David, Ryan & Cheryl on the ferry

We walked peacefully round the summit of the Peak and then crammed ourselves into the descending tram with hordes of tourists — who knows from whence they came? We took the Star Ferry; about the only bit of the entire visit that was familiar to me (the wooden seat-backs, that the first passenger aboard flips to face the front, made me smile). Over in an equally frenetic Kowloon, we saw no Rollers at the Peninsula but an MD902 took off from the roof so standards there are being maintained.

The MTR is impressive and largely accessible, although step-free routes at some stations require a degree of creativity. The taxis are familiar, but presumably new models, and the drivers helpful.

In no particular order we also enjoyed racing at Happy Valley, champagne at a rooftop cocktail bar, dim sum and jellyfish (surprisingly tasty). We pottered around Chai Wan, to the east of the island, where life was equally industrious but somewhat lighter on limousines. And we took a cab over the hill to Stanley Market, where I bought the first set of chopsticks that caught my eye and a small water colour of Central District that may just have featured Victoria Basin, back in the day. You have to learn to let go, Andrew.

Then, before we knew it, we were saying goodbye at the airport. Vaya con Dios, muchachos!

HK airport farwell


… with Thresher Sharks

They can be seen most mornings — early mornings — at the Monad Shoals, off Malapascua Island in the northern Philippines. The vertical wall, with a convenient viewing point 30 metres down, provides a convenient cleaning station for the graceful beasts with the elongated tail flukes. Johnny and the Varmints hitched themselves to the guide-rope.

IMG-20171021-WA0001The small island of Malapascua lies a 40 minute boat ride from the northern tip of Cebu, which itself is 200km from the international airport on the southern tip. The journey between these two points can be covered by a rental vehicle, either a car, van or in our case, a float plane. Never assume that the fastest vehicle will be the most convenient; we had arrived at the fag-end of a typhoon so adjustments were necessary. As it turned out, including the plane, the poor weather meant we utilised nine separate modes of transport to reach our destination.

Some transfer or another

One of several boats and chairs. This one was in brown rattan

For the final leg the dive centre sent its boat (there is a public service but it was now way too late for that). We made a night assault on the beach and I and the kit was dragged round to the shop. Johnny’s hotel was next to the Fun&Sun PADI centre, one of several dotted along the fine sandy beach on the southern island coast. An idyllic setting for grown-ups but never less than challenging for wheelchair users. Luckily, son Ryan would be at my side throughout the adventure.

To visit Malapascua from the UK and return after only four nights may seem an odd use of one’s time and money. But Ryan was joining Cheryl, his girlfriend, for a family reunion and a subequent invitation to me seemed too good to turn down. I love my diving; I knew this would be difficult but was also confident there would be plenty of willing hands.

Our programme began the next morning, bright and early. The boat’s ever-resourceful crew would experiment with ways of getting me on board from beach, boat or ocean, before settling on a plastic chair lashed to a pole and hoisted by them onto the fore-deck.

We made several dives during the build-up to the thresher descent; one to the small marine reserve of Gato, where we swam through a tunnel that was long enough for us not to be able to see the other side. It took a small leap of faith to make the dive into the abyss but it was probably only half a minute before the pale blue exit hove into sight.

And thrillingly, there were white-tipped reef sharks! Several of them, more of a conventional shark shape than a thresher and more menacing for that. By the time we saw them I was clear of the swim-through but others behind me inadvertently hemmed one in, and it darted towards them before finding a way out.

But the threshers were the highlight and they didn’t disappoint (video by Warwick Ngan Kee. The shadow at the end is of the diveboat, 100 feet up). As we were deeper, our sightings were limited to appearances through the gloom. Later there were arguments about just how many we had seen — several in succession or just one swimming in circles? Their mouths, while the familiar sickle shape, are far too small to pose a threat. But sharks of any kind have this mystique and thresher tails, which they use to stun their prey, are especially impressive.

Again due to the depth, our bottom time was limited and we needed to make a decompression stop while surfacing. On our way back to breakfast we were an excited group.

I always enjoy night dives, from the tip backwards into the blackness to giving the thumbs-up signal and piercing the silver surface above. And you always see good stuff; to improve my chances I tied a torch to my mask strap. This evening’s highlight was a writhing mass of green and black sealife, presumably feeding on some corpse, looking for all the world like the fabled snakes on Medusa’s head. They looked like eels but I later learned they are a type of catfish.

IMG-20171028-WA0000Now, back in England, having spent most of the past week either in the air or under the water, I feel a sense of accomplishment. I also feel shattered, which is odd considering others were doing most of the hard work. Would I go back? I initially thought never again. But on the other hand the hotel quickly put up several ramps, one permanent (Ryan christened it before the concrete set). I eventually found an almost sand-free route between the hotel and the dive school (the FreeWheel was again invaluable). The chair device works, although we must have stressed this particular one to its limits. And I finally made it into the shower without Ryan’s help (the exiting manoeuvre requires more thought).

So, with all that infrastructure now in place — madness not to, really.


Johnny gets a pressy. Thank you all!

… to Helitech

So farewell, biennial helicopter trade show

Has it really been 30 years? It sounds about right. And I’ve been to every one of these shindigs. I was there in London yesterday but have decided it’s time to call it a day.

I recall Helitech’s early days at Redhill, close to London Gatwick, where we camped out in some remote area of the grass airfield, and where more than once it rained so hard that water seeped through the underfoot coir matting. I once spent an idle hour classifying the mud-types I had encountered, from carpark clag to walkway ooze, and even though said field was easy to fly into and around, and perfect for demonstrating skidded machines (wheeled ones invariably sank to their oleos), it was obvious that hugely expensive aircraft and trench warfare conditions did not chime well.

So Spearhead Exhibitions, run by the redoubtable Sue Bradshaw, upped-sticks and moved to another famous Battle of Britain airfield — Duxford near Cambridge. It was here I believe that the show found its spiritual home and, over two full decades, became quite the magnet for operators and, in turn, dragged in exhibitors and visitors. Accommodation and logistics proved problematic — as part of an editorial team I was once put up in a Travelodge on a roundabout next to a Shell station — but since you can’t argue with footfall, most folk found a way around this.

Helitech 2007 (640x427)

Helitech static line 2007

As the show settled into this new venue, it evolved into something of a must-see for the European arm of the ‘industry’. More intimate than the annual US Heli-Expo behemoth, over the years it also developed some unique selling points. Like the Day One reception in the splendid American Air Museum, a hangar so stuffed with US hardware that it took me most of my first visit to notice a giant B52 bomber suspended, amongst so many other planes, from the ceiling. Like the Glenn Miller tribute band, resplendent in USAAF ‘pinks’, that would belt out swing classics to an audience that lingered to chat long after chucking-out time. Like the dinners for many of us held at historic Magdalen College, generously and repeatedly laid on by Jeremy Awenat. And like the decent chance of seeing, over the three days of any show, an RAF Spitfire locking display practice horns with a Luftwaffe Me-109. Bugger all to do with helicopters, any of it, but you can’t buy atmosphere like that.

Helitech 2009a

Static line 2009

As a freelance I found my own B&B accommodation in an old manor house to the south of the airfield, where squadron aircrew would surely have been billeted during the Battle of Britain. I would drive in early, along the A505 past the pet cemetery (smoking today?), and talk my way into parking next to the entrance and press-room. Although still a temporary structure, this one looked more like an exhibition and less like an army canteen, and the portaloos were set up on hardstanding rather than slip-slidin’ slop. A static line of new helicopters would stretch the whole length of the exhibition hall and, opposite the chalets, scatter into an unruly mass of interlocking rotor blades.

I knew so many people. Press contacts, visiting pilots and engineers, and the odd CEO. It would take me over an hour to wheel the 120 metres from one end of the hall to the other. I loved news-gathering, interviewing, catching up; the attention dammit.

But to be honest the chalets were a bit tat and, as companies were acquired and million-dollar partnerships forged, clients began to object as the odd rain-generated power cut disrupted their Powerpoints and the barely adequate air-con. Spearhead was also swallowed up by the vast Reed organisation that soon decided, with merciless logic, that million-dollar products deserved million-dollar accommodation. Sue’s services were unceremoniously dispensed with. The writing was on the wall.


EC135, yesterday

So it shifted once more. Today, after three or four outings to its latest home, the cavernous and soulless Excel centre in London’s dockland, the industry pays top-dollar for everything. The result is certainly slick (and the toilets are lovely) but it has shrunk considerably from its Duxford glory days and, to my mind, has lost much of its attraction. Helitech now seems to me like a teeny-weeny cousin of Heli-Expo, with no distinguishing feature whatsoever.


H160, yesterday

Does that matter? The sector has expanded enormously since the mid-eighties and the helicopter is now involved in any number of new activities worldwide. Exciting new rotorcraft are in development and risks continue to be taken. Business is more corporate and less personal but it is also more profitable. Hundreds of new flying jobs have been created. When back in the day I worked for the then-BHAB, I would counsel wanabee pilots that the only way to  employment lay through the military pipeline and that no one else would pay you to fly. That soon changed and several fully-employed aviators I later met at Helitech would gleefully point out just how wrong I had been.

That new generation is now in charge and, as my trade-press writing has tailed off,  I have lost touch with most of my colleagues. Yesterday it took me less than two minutes to cross the hall without being accosted. The only friend who I did see, and who I am confident would have been at the very first Helitech, was insurance stalwart Ian Rubie. We have grown old together Ian.

So in 2019, unless there is something to look forward to beyond the press releases and media receptions, I think I’ll take a rain-check. Which is sort-of where we came in.



… to Malapascua, Philippines

The 7P principle

Odd, you might think, to write a travel blog about a place that you haven’t yet visited. But scuba-diving this remote Philippine island, lying off the northern tip of Cebu, will present something of a challenge for Johnny Sombrero and his trusty steed. And as the departure date approaches, as is Johnny’s wont before any trip (ask Juanita), he starts to worry.

It’s not that he’s alone. Ryan and members of Cheryl’s family will be there to provide all the support he needs. His concerns have nothing to do with the distance, or the flights, or the Hong Kong stopover, or climbing into the minibus for the four-hour drive north — or even the scuba diving itself.


The paraw dive boat

It’s getting on the damn boat. Ordinarily, this is my favoured method of starting a dive. You get driven to the site, you kit-up, you sit on the side like a frogman and, boom, there you are surrounded by bubbles, above what you came to see. Getting on a modern dive boat is also a cinch; you wheel along the side of the marina and balance onto the stern dive platform. Still in the chair, job done. Well, more or less.

In this case, the stem of the local vessel, a paraw outrigger, faces the beach and access is via a plank. For an able-bodied person, negotiating this requires no more than a few steps up (maybe with arms outstretched for balance/effect). For me, well, I’m still not sure.

Plan A

If the plank is wide enough for my arse-cheeks, and if I can get purchase on it with my hands underneath them, I propose to sit on it and bum-shuffle my way backwards, up to the stem. If someone is standing either side of me in case I overbalance and if a third helps me reposition my feet in front of me as I mount. I can see that working.

My concern is that, from a manoeuvering point-of-view, my arms and shoulders are all I have. And after decades using them to pull myself up from the ground into my chair, my shoulder joints aren’t as secure as they once were. They have no effect on my day-to-day mobility and, for weeks now, I have been exercising to re-stabilise these joints. I have made progress, but I don’t want to undo this good work by being manhandled.

And while I’m at it, helping me out of the water after each dive needs some thought too. After passing my kit up, I do not want to be dragged up by my wrists until my belly folds over the side of the boat. That will hurt. We should find a point from where I can be pulled up using a twist-lift.

IMG-20171002-WA0006Most sailors will be familiar with this method. The deal is,  from in the water I face the side of the boat with my upstretched arms crossed above my head. A crewman takes each hand. We start a plunging motion into the water and, on my count, we all lift on the upstroke, untwist the arms and (in theory at least), I end up sitting on the edge. Minimal strain on the shoulders that way.

If this option isn’t available, again, we will find an answer. I may end up being towed. As long as we talk it through first. Because, as we used to say in the Navy, Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Johnny feels better now. Andale andale muchachos!


Photos courtesy Cheryl Kng