‘So how long have you been flying microlights?’
‘I guess about twenty years,’ Mad Dog stroked his beard thoughtfully with one hand whilst maintaining a loose grip on the Hummer’s steering wheel with the other, ‘but I started flying beat-up old crop sprayers when I was still in school. Didn’t have a licence, but it was my cousin’s plane and in the wide open spaces of Texas there ain’t nobody to check up on you most of the time.’
They drove on in silence for a few minutes. When Seger first brought up the subject of microlights, Conrad had thought he was joking; no one flies microlights in Saudi Arabia. It took several minutes for Mad Dog to convince him that it was a genuine offer. Conrad’s scepticism turned to excited anticipation, and he explained he was in the early stages of learning to fly a microlight himself.
‘For real?’ it had been Mad Dog’s turn to be surprised. ‘How many hours you got?’
‘Only seven so far,’ Conrad replied ruefully, ‘it’s a question of finding the time and money.’
‘So you didn’t fly solo yet?’
‘No! Nowhere near.’
To obtain the private pilot’s licence required for flying microlights, Conrad would need to complete a minimum of twenty-five hours flying at the controls of the aircraft, at least eight of them solo. Compared to Mad Dog Seger, he was very much a novice.
They picked up flying suits and helmets from Seger’s condo before heading out into the desert to the secret location where the microlight was hidden. The Hummer turned off the main highway and headed out into what appeared to Conrad to be uncharted territory.
‘Where do you keep it?’ Conrad asked as they bumped over the rocky desert terrain.
‘Hidden someplace nobody’s gonna find it.’
‘Isn’t that a bit risky out here?’
‘Nothing in life is any fun if there ain’t no risk involved.’
‘Philosophy according to Mad Dog?’
‘There you go!’
The Hummer turned left on to a decaying, derelict road.
‘This is the old Dammam Riyadh road,’ Mad Dog explained, ‘few miles down here there’s an old gas station which I’ve kinda taken over; service bay’s the hangar and the road makes a passable runway.’
‘Most ingenious,’ Conrad agreed, ‘so what’s it like flying in this heat? Must get a bit bumpy with all the thermals.’
‘Damn right, you gotta work hard to control the thing, especially as I gotta a flexwing. Sure builds the muscles.’
Seger flexed the bicep in his right arm to prove the point.
Conrad nodded. His own experience of microlight flying had been in flexwing machines controlled by weightshift similar to operating a hang-glider and recognisable by their comparable looks. They comprise a trike unit where the pilot and passenger sit hanging under a large delta-shaped wing. The engine is attached to the back of the trike. To the uninitiated, these aircraft resemble a bucket dangling from a large wing with a lawnmower engine on the back. In truth, the two or four stroke engines range in size between 500 and 1200cc, equivalent to those used in performance motorcycles. Conrad always thought of a Microlight as the motorcycle of the air.
They arrived at the disused garage a few minutes later, Seger parking next to a large workshop at the back.
‘It’s in there,’ Mad Dog indicated the building.
The two men got out of the vehicle and Mad Dog produced a vast set of keys from an inside pocket and unlocked the heavy duty padlock which, with an equally heavy duty looking chain, was holding the main doors of the workshop shut. Inside, Conrad helped Mad Dog remove a large tarpaulin underneath which the small aircraft sat. The delta wing was detached from the trike to make storage more space-efficient.
‘Good that you’re here,’ Mad Dog remarked, ‘it’ll be a whole lot easier reattaching the wing with another pair of hands.’
Conrad noticed a motorbike leaning against the far wall.
‘That yours?’ he asked.
‘Sure is.’ Mad Dog paused in his folding of the tarpaulin, ‘that’s my Harley. Use it to ride out in the desert sometimes; nearly as much fun as flying!’
Conrad nodded, although he couldn’t imagine anything being as much fun as flying. He helped fold the tarpaulin and then the two of them manhandled the microlight’s trike out of the shed and into open space next to the main building of the gas station, before returning to collect the wing. Conrad held one end while Mad Dog attached it to the trike using a number of aluminium tubes and various cables. He worked quickly and confidently, a man who knew what to do and had clearly done it many times before.
‘So long as the wing is secure then there ain’t nothing can go wrong. It don’t look much,’ Mad Dog gripped one of the aluminium struts and gave the whole structure a good shake, ‘but this little baby can support six times its fully-loaded weight, that’s six times the force of gravity or 6g, and that, my man, is three times as much as a jumbo jet.’
‘Yeah, I heard that,’ Conrad had already begun learning some of the theory behind microlight flight.
‘And if the engine cuts out for any reason we could glide to earth without any trouble,’ Mad Dog continued, ‘but I prefer power so we better gas up.’
Mad Dog carefully let the aircraft tilt over until the left wing tip met the ground and the structure was braced in a leaning position. He walked over to the Hummer and opened the tailgate to reveal a row of jerry cans.
‘Plain ole unleaded gas,’ Mad Dog exclaimed, ‘I always carry a supply.’
As he hauled a couple of cans over to the aircraft he asked Conrad if he had noticed his paint scheme.
‘Not really,’ Conrad replied, looking at the microlight afresh.
‘Check it out. Kinda sandy looking on the top and sky blue underneath, perfect camouflage. Once I’m up there I’m damn near invisible. Don’t need nobody seeing me and reporting it to the military or something.’
‘What about radar? Surely the Saudis monitor the airspace.’
‘Not so much at the altitude I fly this thing, but anyway all their radar is pointing the other way either east out to sea, or north. That’s where their threats come from, Iran or Iraq. Ain’t nothing gonna come out of the desert and bite them in the ass ‘cept maybe a camel or two!’
Mad Dog leaned over into the trike and, from under the pilot’s seat, retrieved a battered-looking book.
‘How much do you weigh?’ he asked.
‘Ninety kilograms last time I checked.’
‘That’s good, I’m nearer a hundred myself but we got plenty of leeway, the maximum authorised weight is 450 kilograms so, even allowing for the weight of the aircraft, we’re good to go. I just need to recalculate the take-off speed and distance.’
He thumbed through well-worn pages until he found what he was looking for then screwed up his face in concentration as he made some mental calculations.
‘Right my man, I’m all set, time to get on board.’
Conrad pulled on the flying suit Seger had lent him, put his helmet on and climbed into the small space behind the pilot’s seat. The passenger sat slightly higher than the pilot, much like riding pillion on a powerful motorbike. Conrad slipped his arms through the two shoulder straps and pulled a third strap with a large circular buckle at the end up between his legs. He plugged the two shoulder straps into the buckle before Mad Dog leaned in and found a small cable by Conrad’s left leg with a jack plug at one end. He plugged it into a socket in Conrad’s helmet
‘Means we can talk to each other once we’re airborne,’ Mad Dog explained, although Conrad was already familiar with the helmet intercom system with its inbuilt headphones and microphone.
Mad Dog slipped into the pilot’s seat with an agility that belied his size and plugged in his own helmet.
‘Can you hear me?’ his voice crackled in Conrad’s headphones.
‘Loud and clear.’
‘Good! Let’s go and see us some desert!’
He pressed the starter button and, behind them, the engine coughed into life. With one hand Mad Dog grabbed the flexwing so that it was roughly parallel to the ground and, with the other, opened the hand throttle by the side of his seat. As the engine noise increased, the microlight slowly creaked forward as though reluctant to move at first before picking up speed. It trundled toward the deserted road where Mad Dog turned right to face the way they had approached in the Hummer earlier. He steered the craft with a bar at his feet. Once he had lined it up in the middle of the road he slowed to a halt and grabbed the flexwing with both hands. From now on he would control the throttle with a foot pedal.
‘You ready?’ he asked Conrad.
‘Here we go!’
The engine noise increased behind them and the aircraft lurched forward down the road. Conrad held on to metal tubes just behind his seat and braced himself. The microlight bumped along on the uneven surface gaining speed until, suddenly, it parted company with the ground as though it had become suddenly weightless which, in an aeronautical sense it more or less had. Conrad looked over the side as the earth fell away. Over his right shoulder he could see the deserted gas station receding into the distance.
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