It can be difficult to tear your eyes away from some of the massive aircraft that you can see when you’re walking around our Air and Space Hall.
It’s possible you’ve wandered past a small hang-glider while heading to see inside the Bristol Belvedere Helicopter, or going to try out the flight simulators. But if you’ve not had the chance to check out this hang-glider you’ve been missing out, because it’s by no means any less important than the giant jets that take your breath away.
This is the Volmer VJ 23E powered hang-glider, and today marks the 40th anniversary since aviator David Cook used this glider, powered by a go-kart engine, to cross the English Channel in 1978.
This was a record-setting trip not only because this was the first time someone had crossed the Channel in a hang-glider, but it was powered by the smallest engine that had been used on any aircraft crossing the Channel.
The glider itself was not manufactured with an engine, but was modified by David Cook to include an engine taken from a 125cc go-kart, giving an output of just 9 horsepower (for reference, that’s relying on an engine with less output than a standard ride-on lawn mower).
He also made his own speedometer, as he would need to carefully keep track of his speed to ensure he didn’t run out of fuel. He travelled with about 10 litres of fuel in order to keep the glider as light as possible, and used all of it in the 25 mile journey. It took David just over an hour to fly from Walmer Castle, Kent, to a spot just south-west of Calais.
For this accomplishment, Cook was awarded the ‘Medal of Aviation Achievement’ by Prince Charles at the Royal Aero Club, and the hang-glider was acquired by the Manchester Air and Space Museum, which joined with the Museum of Science and Industry in 1985.
The trip was sponsored largely by Duckhams Oil. They were interested in Cook’s attempt because they were involved in sponsoring Louis Blériot (the first person to fly across the English Channel) and wanted to be involved with the first powered hang-glider crossing. By strange coincidence, both Louis Blériot and David Cook were 37 when they attempted their respective crossings of the Channel, and in fact David shares his birthday with the anniversary of Bleriot’s landmark flight!
I spoke to David to ask him about his experience on the flight. Incredibly, he told me that before the 25 mile journey the longest test flight he had taken had only been 8 miles (over land). Even more astounding, he revealed that he couldn’t even swim! He was accompanied by a rescue boat in case of any problems, but the windy and rough weather meant that the boat broke down twice!
It seems the safest place to be on that journey was the pilot’s seat. I asked David about how his body was supported, as the image below makes it look like he’s holding himself up by his elbows. He told me though that there’s a lightweight seat below him made of plywood; however, there’s no seatbelt. Honestly, by this point in his incredible account I was perfectly willing to believe that he just held himself up by his arms for an hour while also steering the glider!
The landing was no easy feat either. As David himself pointed out, his landing gear was his own legs. He had to wear leather ankle boots to support his feet on the hard landing. Once he landed a man asked him where he’d come from, and when he told him England the man looked at his glider and remarked ‘All English people are crazy!’
After the flight David went on to design his own microlight, known as The Shadow. These are still flown today, and David tells me that in the 30-plus years of these flying there have been no reported accidents or injuries caused by these aircraft. It looks like his confidence in his designs to carry him across the Channel was well founded.
So, hats off to you today David for your amazing and record breaking achievement, and your do-it-yourself attitude. Here at the museum, we celebrate ideas that change the world, and it’s the inspiring stories of people like David, who set themselves a challenge and have the determination to make it happen, that spur on the great leaps that drive us to new heights.
Indeed, today people are still looking at ways to redefine aviation. Back in 2015 two fully electric planes made history by crossing the Channel without using a single drop of fuel. With this feat the pilots of these planes joined the likes of Louis Blériot and David Cook in a legacy of experimental air travel between England and France. Only David had to land on his own feet, though!
The glider that David Cook used to cross the Channel is on display now in our Air and Space Hall alongside other aircraft, large and small, that have shaped aviation history. And it’s thanks to aid from Duckhams and the PRISM award fund back in the 1990s that we were able to do some much-needed restoration and conservation work that means we can still show this aircraft and tell David’s story today.