Dare to Dream: Flying Solo with Diabetes by Douglas Cairns
Flying in Thailand
Flying may not be all plain sailing, but the fun of it is worth the price.
In my first year in Asia, I only flew once in Thailand and once in New Zealand. However, from 1997 onward I flew often. Indeed, flying in Thailand proved to be a Scotsman's delight, being less than half the cost of London flying clubs. I befriended a highly spirited Yorkshireman, Gillem, who had a U.K. flying license and 80 hours total-time to his name. We were soon flying at Ratchaburi, a tiny flying club 100 miles from Bangkok.
Ratchaburi province has stunning mountains to the West on Burmese border, with lowland rice paddies studded with limestone karsts rising hundreds of feet sheer out of the ground. I flew with Group Captain Jira, a retired Thai Air Force instructor, and sometimes with Gillem. Jira was an extremely cheerful guy and had flown tiny bombers at treetop height in Laos during the Vietnam War. He was fun to fly with. (Certainly one simulated force-landing onto a tiny dirt track was quite interesting!)
As ever, I would test my blood sugar before flying to ensure I wasn't low. I took plenty of carbs with me in the plane, munching away after 30 minutes to avoid going low. Whenever Gillem and I flew together, there was a healthy competitive spirit. Each landing resulted in considerable banter, even after a silky-smooth touchdown. It was great motivation to fly accurately, and Gillem soon flew as if he had several hundred hours under his belt.
Sadly, Ratchaburi Airfield was closed in 1998, one of many casualties of the Thai economic crisis. We switched to the Thai Flying Club (TFC) at Bangphra, a 60-mile drive to the east of Bangkok. TFC nestles between jungle-covered hills, and "base leg" to runway 23 literally brushes by one of these hills before making a sharp left turn onto a short and narrow down-slopping runway. It's a picturesque and exhilarating flying environment.
I flew here regularly with the instructors and Gillem. I often took groups of friends there to fly, but sadly the service was appalling. The flying program was pretty much ignored. People would arrive according to their allotted time and find their plane still out for another hour. It became so frustrating that Gillem stopped flying. I persevered, however, and gradually things improved.
A few months later, I suggested to Gillem that we take two separate aircraft up with instructors and carry out some formation flying. Gillem was curious and agreed. It was great to get him back flying. He only took three flights to "crack" military style formation flying (very close), and we had some immense fun over the following months. We did high-speed (well, high speed for a Cessna) low passes over Chon Buri Flying Club, a tiny grass strip used for microlights. At Bangphra we would dive down the hill behind runway 23 and speed along 30 feet above the runway in formation. Great fun!
In some countries it was possible to fly gliders and microlights when you have diabetes because of more relaxed medical system. While Thailand did not have any gliding clubs, there were some active microlight clubs, and in 1999, I joined the Chon Buri Flying Club just a few miles from Bangphra.
Initially I was cynical about microlight flying. The tiny aluminum frames and sail-cloth wings looked fragile. The engine sat directly behind the pilot screaming away at high revs, while a plastic fuel tank sitting right above your head looked like it could spill its flammable load all too easily. Often microlights have airframe parachutes to use in an emergency. However, most of the flying here was between 100-500 feet above ground level, and according to the club, this was insufficient height to open a canopy safely. Hence no parachutes.
Despite the perceived safety issues, I was hooked from the first flight. A good friend Philip and I went up in two separate machines with instructors. When the throttle was opened, the engine behind us screamed, accelerating the machine quickly to lift-off. Two minute later we were skimming the waters of Lake Bangphra, wind buffeting the body, passengers' legs dangling over the side. It was intoxicating! I had been given the controls from the start, but the instructors hadn't pointed out the air speed indicator perched to one side. I flew in blissful ignorance of our airspeed, even during the approach and landing. When I later discovered my error, I mused that perhaps these machines were safer to fly than I first thought.
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