… to Aerobility

This well-supported charity – known as the home of disabled flying – aims to get people living with a range of handicaps airborne. It has a fine record of fulfilling the ambitions of youngsters and veterans alike; indeed, it prides itself on finding an aviation solution for everybody.

Alex Krol and Tecnam2Aerobility is based at Blackbushe Airport in Hampshire with outposts in the Midlands and Scotland. Its fleet of four aircraft has recently been augmented by an Italian-built Tecnam two-seater (left), the first production aircraft to be designed with a hand-control option for paraplegics. That’s quite a breakthrough, considering I’m not aware of any cars that fit the bill. Prove me wrong.

Aerobility offers taster flights and Private Pilot’s License courses, comprising full air and ground-school programmes. The fleet is  available for hire by suitably-qualified pilots. Students can also practice their procedures on  a bang up-to-date cockpit simulator.

Current plans include the establishment of a formation team, “The Bader Bus Company”, to be crewed by disabled pilots and set to fly next summer (and scheduled for TV coverage). A Build-A-Kitplane project, with every single component funded by charitable giving, is nearly ready for lift-off.

And right now, teenagers are being sought to participate in Aerobility’s second Aviation Education Programme. Aimed at young people aged between 14 and 18 years old with mild to moderate learning and/or physical disabilities, the AEP strives to provide them with transferable skills and strengths that they can take into further education and employment. It covers introductions to Airfield Operation, Air Traffic Control, Fire and Rescue, Aircraft Engineering, Meteorology and Principles of Flight.

… to British Summer Time, Hyde Park

This series of open-air concerts is becoming a familar part of the London season. I bought a ticket this year out of love for Tom Petty’s back catalogue and respect for his longevity — this event was part of the band’s 40th anniversary tour and their only European date. My daughter took the free companion slot with me to see the running order in reverse; she had barely heard of Tom.

As a disabled punter I could have brought the car to a Blue Badge area within the venue and if we do it again I just might. The tube run to Green Park may look straightforward but it ain’t:

  1. From the newer Jubilee Line platforms such as Waterloo, to avoid a big step at the older GP station, use the raised rear of the platform. Follow the wall-markings
  2. While otherwise step-free at GP, you must negotiate several lifts and sloped connecting tunnels in order to regain, panting, the fresh air
  3. From GP it’s a 20 minute trek to the venue and even further to the accessible entrance. Do your research. We asked a copper and followed C’s phone but detail was lacking.
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That canopy’s not for you, boys, it’s for the Vips

The accessible section consisted of a ramped platform and a ground-level area. I assumed we would be on the former but our wristbands (and our tickets, we discovered) were for the latter. However indignation born of ignorance got us onto the platform, where we snuck into line and I resolved not to leave for the duration. With a companion’s swing-tag C could come and go at will, so it was clear who would be getting the beer in.

The show was great although, for an area billed as close to the VIP enclosure, we depended on the video screens to see what was going on, just as much as the rest of the audience. Leaving the venue was straightforward but why-BBC-why would I, a seasoned live music veteran, stop by the merch and spend 35 quid on quite the crappiest tour T-shirt I have ever seen.

… the Wasp

Andy Wasp

Me before …

We had better refer to this as work-in-progress; I haven’t yet managed to get into the cockpit of a Wasp, let alone ride it. But here I am, in my gilded youth, mounted and ready to spring into action in defence of — damn, forgot my aircrew knife..

I flew the Wasp for two deployments aboard HMS Endurance, the British Navy’s Antarctic Patrol Ship. We were away from October to May, 1979-80 and 80-81, mostly supporting the British Antarctic Survey’s work in the Peninsula. We also flew David Attenborough and his team as they filmed Life in the Ice sequences for the BBC ‘s well-loved Living Planet series. Penguins, so many penguins.

I loved flying the Wasp although it was a pretty impractical beast; single engine, limited payload, fly doors-off daylight hours only and always within sight of mother. It was soon replaced by the twin-engine Lynx.

A decade or so ago I found “my” Wasp in a corner of the excellent Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. I took about 10 minutes to haul my sorry ass into the comfy right-hand seat but I got there. While surveying the strictly analogue cockpit my son Adam, then about 10 so we’re talking around 2000, clambered into the left seat, had a quick look round and promptly jettisoned his door. Maintaining my compusure, I explained how I had managed to fly the thing in a most challenging environment for two years without putting a scratch on it, and then he …

But you know what’s coming. “But Dad, it says ‘PULL HERE’!”. He’s a doctor of engineering now.

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… and after

So anyhow, now I see another airframe has been restored to flying condition and is doing the summer round of air displays. I met pilot Terry Martin and he showed me around — its markings are Endurance flight! It even has the penguin device painted on the rear doors.

It’s in beautiful nick. Our helicopters also sported red noses and tails to improve our visibility against the ice glare. The year after I left, the lads had to camouflage them, like this, for the Falklands conflict. They continued to fly doors off but now at night, in winter conditions, under radio and radar silence and fitted with anti-ship missiles instead of survey equipment. I’m glad I wasn’t tested in that arena.

… to Pisa and Florence

Lovely compact old cities, easy to navigate but bumpy roads and high kerbs make a companion and a Freewheel something of a must. Johnny and Juanita flew BA to Pisa airport and took the new Pisa Mover shuttle to the Centrale railway station, from where they set off on foot to the famous tower. Most of the route is pedestrianised so it is easy to find after a 30-45 minute stroll.

You can imagine how popular this place is with tourists and, indeed, it’s a thrill to finally see an edifice so familiar from Year 3 Geog. Everyone strikes the pose in some form. We stopped en route for ice-creams at La Bottega del Gelato, north of the Ponte de Mezzo in Piazza Garibaldi.

For the rail journey from Pisa to Florence (trip times range from 40 to 80 mins), it’s a good idea to contact SalaBlu (SalaBlu.firenze@rfi.it) who will help you with timetables and the luggage, and get you onto the right bit of the train. The transfer to the train itself is level so they are not essential but for a first-timer, why not?

We stayed in the ground-floor accessible room at the Kraft Hotel (krafthotel.it) on the Via Solferino. Three steps in Reception are negotiated via the slowest platform lift ever, but it arises from flush with the floor which will impress a small child. Meals are taken on the roof terrace with romantic views over the city.

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See Davis last or, so the legend goes, everything else will disappoint.

If you’re there for the art, the good news is that wheelchair users skip the queues (over two hours at the Uffizi when we visited) and get in free everywhere. Access to the attractions is good but the Ponte Vecchio is usually crowded and always steep; get someone to take a pic of it for you. We recommend the food at Mercato Centrale; browse the products on the ground floor and eat them on the first. They know their meat in Florence; Johnny had a great steak at Trattoria 4 Leoni (not far from the Pritti Palace) and Juanita’s spag bol contained five per cent boar and scored a palpable hit.

We also did opera (a new venue at Viale Fratelli Rosselli looks a bit like the Basingstoke Anvil, which is not meant as a criticism). It turned out to be a school performance of the Magic Flute; the principals were adult but, at the drop of a hat, 50-odd blooming kids were wheeled on to wave their arms about like Mr Gumby. Still worth seeking out a ticket if you can decipher the poster.

… to Lords

The Home of Cricket that is, not the House of. Johnny and his trusty sidekick seem to be establishing a trend, attending the first day of the first summer test match for three years in a row now. They have used the Grandstand’s disabled facilities but their favoured position now is in front of the Warner Stand, on the grass, behind the boundary rope and the advertising hoardings.

20170706_151236There’s room to stretch out; one nearby group enjoyed their picnic sat around a table. Just behind the stand are food and drink concessions and a couple of Radar loos. Overseeing the facility is Steve, a most excellent steward who gets to know the fans and, somehow, remembers their names from year to year. Top man.

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Johnny also watches international cricket at the Aegis Bowl with his trusty, rock ‘ard sidekick Granite McBoulder.

Oh, and new for 2017 are 25 new accessible slots in the Warner itself which, if nothing else, increase your chances of getting one in the annual ballot. To be in with a chance you need to register and state your preferences; the draw usually takes place the February before.

There’s not much more to say without talking about the cricket and that, of course, varies from tour to tour. But you feel part of something special at Lords; we arrived this year just as the five-minute bell was ringing, outside the Long Room, mounted metres above our heads. (We hope for invitations for 2018 from former naval colleagues who point out they were in said Room at the time)

And in 2017, we witnessed Yorkshire’s Joe Root score 184 not out, the highest-ever innings by a debutant England skipper (Johnny fielded one of his boundaries with his leg). It’s not called the Home of Cricket for nowt, lad.

… The FreeWheel

This thing will change your life. If you’re an independent wheelchair user the Freewheel makes travel over rough ground a (relative) breeze. It clamps to your footrest and, when swivelled into position, lifts the front casters a few centimetres off the ground. Now taking the weight, the front wheel removes the need to back-wheel balance over surfaces like cobbles, sand and muddy tracks. There’s an old roadway near us that slopes gently downwards; with the Freewheel it feels like you are getting up quite a lick. When you’re finished, swivel the wheel forward and detach it from the footrest.

freewheel1It is a pain to fit after delivery. The US manufacturer makes the product suitable for the three most popular footrest designs but, to adapt it, you must saw a particularly solid bar of resin to the correct length. It took Johnny two hacksaw blades to get through it. Having said that, once it’s set you should have no complaints about reliability or security. And although your chair’s centre-of-gravity is altered slightly rearwards, I always feel in control.

It comes with a stowage clamp that doesn’t fit the rail behind my Quickie Helium. The wheel will stow in a plane’s overhead locker but be careful; it will hurt if some idiot ignores the standard plea to ‘take care when opening overhead lockers’, etc.

Believe me, Johnny knows.

… to Claude Monet’s house and garden, Giverny, Normandy

Johnny rode in on the eve of Good Friday and, to start with, the conflict between the anticipated tranquillity of the gardens and the reality of hordes of other varmints jostling to take photographs was hard to take. Yet before long he relaxed and, somehow, managed to shoot the wonderful spring flowers and foliage without Chinese elbows or German sunhats intruding into frame. And the perfume, seriously, is heady and all-pervading.

To avoid the queues, it’s as well to book tickets in advance here (fondation-monet.com) and print them off. The house lies at the top of the garden and atop flights of blue-painted wooden stairs, so is inaccessible to wheelchairs – hence there’s a hefty discount on the admission price. However, there is a virtual tour on the website and anyway, he seen a house once. The gardens are in terraces but the slopes are quite manageable.

20170413_160003 (1)We took the D5 trail from Vernon and, as we approached the Claude Monet Foundation, came across a roundabout offering parking to both left and right. Johnny steered ol’Blackie right but the better option is left, as that’s closest to the garden. There is a pedestrian underpass though, so it’s just a bit further to push.

Follow the signs from the proper car-park to the Group Entry desk and have your printouts scanned. Then the glorious serried ranks of flowers will assault your senses. For the setting of the Water Lilies you need to re-cross the road but, with a wheelchair, you can bypass the underpass through a pair of manned gates; just catch their eye and they will shepherd you across the busy road and save you a few metres. Doing both sides is a must.

It’s well worth a visit if you’re en route south from Caen or Le Havre. Again, on any given day (the garden is closed during the winter) there it is very busy but in the half-dozen landscapes I took, spookily, you can’t see anyone. The lilies themselves were just starting to grow again but, from the path surrounding the ponds, there are several points from which to view the famous bridge.

There’s a café, water-colour artist-in-residence and a souvenir shop. Johnny bought some seeds from the latter. There was nothing to say they were taken from the actual garden but, are you callin’ him a liar?

… to the Moat Barn National Nature Reserve

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Along what locals call the ‘Elstead straight’ towards Thursley in southwest Surrey lies the carpark to this network of ponds and natural wetlands, a former army training ground traversed by more than a kilometre of easy boardwalk. It’s a haven for bird and insect life; our visit on a warm May day caught the dragonfly breeding season and, to the delight of local twitchers, a quartet of rare raptors – hobbys – had taken up residence. We saw lizards and marsh orchids, and our dog made a small boy drop a frog (not a euphemism).

20170528_130525Part of the trail is dedicated to the 20 species of dragonfly that frequent the wetland and one viewing platform features an etched panel describing their life-cycle.

The walk is plenty wide enough for a wheelchair and there are passing places along the way, as it rather elegantly wraps around individual trees and winds through minor thickets. We have yet to venture out on a spur that takes you to a mysteriously-wooded area. On a couple of platforms the ecology of the area is described on touch-panels for the visually impaired.

It makes for a fascinating visit. If you take the Thursley turn-off the A3, before the tunnel, you will pass the Three Horseshoes, a village-owned pub with good beer and  stockbroker belt food.

… to Marsa Alam, Egypt

I learned to scuba dive in northern Egypt in the mid-90s. Back then, the dusty Hurghada strip had little to offer but, beyond the coastline, pristine reefs and coral outcrops made it a magnet for divers. Now it has become one of the most popular centres in the world; there are a lot more hotels and many, many more dive boats.

And so, ever the socialite, we headed south to Marsa Alam, where a resort and airport have been built out of nothing and divers think the extra hour’s flight time (direct from LGW) and longer boat transits worthwhile. The diving is different to that on offer at Hurghada, a little wilder maybe but just as beautiful.

I find boat dives the most convenient way of getting around. To protect my spindly legs I wear a made-to-measure long-john and sometimes a rash top; if it’s too cold for that then I don’t go in! For mostly cosmetic purposes I also wear fins.

My son had a PADI course booked and we shared a room at Marina Lodge. It was huge, next to the dive-shop and we made it work for us. Onshore was fine but the boats (I mostly fell off MV Rachel) required a degree of effort. It was easy to board but, once the dive equipment was laid out on the platform, I was hemmed in the corner for the duration. For a change of scenery I would bum-shuffle into the lounge for meals and, as we dropped anchor, aft towards the edge of the dive platform.

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Ryan (left, obviously)

I was accompanied each time by a most excellent divemaster, Amr Bazeed, another ex-Navy man and a commercial diver to boot. He set up my equipment and helped me every step of the way. Although I flatter myself I can get around I got used to Amr taking my arm between points of interest. One day I will find a dive centre that can rent me a scooter.

MV Rachel wasn’t the only boat heading out from Port Ghalib but we had plenty of space at each site. We spotted wonderful marine life ranging from barracuda to octopus, white-tipped shark, puffer fish and, as we flopped over the side for our very last dive, a huge greenback turtle.

But my outstanding memory is our swim through the vast hard-coral pinnacles of Torfa Aly. The three of us (Ryan was now certified) swooped and banked between the outcrops like low-time Avatars.

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Our last dive …

Johnny Sombrero Rides!

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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.