Braille Monitor                                                                                                           December 2004

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The Blind Pilot Flying the Channel

by Miles Hilton-Barber

Miles Hilton-Barber
Miles Hilton-Barber

From the Editor: Sunday, July 4, convention delegates were delighted by a presentation from a blind adventurer who lives in Devonshire, England. His brother Geoff Hilton-Barber had described to the 1998 convention his own solo voyage as a blind sailor from South Africa to Australia. This year it was Miles Hilton-Barber's turn to push back the limits of our expectations about what a blind person can do when equipped with skill and determination. This is what Miles Hilton-Barber said:

Life is too short to drink bad wine. Isn't that right? Yeah! I flew in Friday afternoon to the Atlanta Airport, and the air hostess said, "Hey Mr. Blind Man, what are you doing here?"

I said, "I have come to teach two and a half thousand blind Americans how to fly airplanes." This air hostess was a bit alarmed, and she said, "If you are using speech output, what happens if your speech fails with all these blind Americans flying around?"

I said, "Don't worry, they've all got long, telescopic white sticks, and they'll use those if it doesn't work."

She said, "Oh Lordy, love, I thought the danger in the air was from these terrorists."

I said, "The National Federation of the Blind are far more dangerous for good than anything else. They are an amazing organization. Look out! They're coming."

Let me explain a little bit about microlites. They are small, open-cockpit aircrafts like a hang glider, if you know what that is like. The wings are anything from twenty-five to thirty-five feet in wingspan. Got no tail to it. Two people fly it, and I sit in the back seat. I've got my copilot literally sitting between my legs. There is very little space; his shoulders are where my knees are. We are both strapped into little plastic seats.

We have three tricycle wheels, heavy-duty wheels, and I steer on the ground by foot pedals, which tell me which way I am going. The idea is—I'll demonstrate the technology in a moment—when I am going to take off down a particular runway, I know the bearing, I've got that on my computer. So if it's 290 degrees south, I get on that bearing. I've got Storm [his copilot] waving his arms around, getting people out of the way. We simply go down the runway, and my computer speech is saying every few seconds, "290 south, 290 south." If it goes 293 or 294, I know to go to the left or vice versa. And, of course, I've got something else giving me my air speed. (I will go through all of that in a moment.) It's great fun.

Once I am in the air, I have this computer giving me my track, which is simply the bearing, a line on a map going from A to B, and it will show me if I am drifting left or right. You will hear the speech just now. It's just great fun.

Coming in to land, you of course know the bearing. I also have an altimeter, which uses microwave technology, which I am still negotiating with the Ministry of Defense for permission to use because it's the same instrument that is used to guide guided missiles to their destinations. It's still a little dodgy. They are worried about its getting into the hands of a terrorist, but other people say I am the terrorist, and I shouldn't have my hands on it.

This altimeter is accurate to within four inches. So as I am coming in to land, it gives me my exact height. I don't need a normal one that an aircraft uses. I also have an airspeed indicator.

Going to what I have done recently--last August I flew the English Channel. We were celebrating the first hundred years of powered flight in the world. Great! Who would have thought a hundred years ago that anyone could fly? And who would have thought a hundred years on that a blind man would fly as well? Technology is amazing, isn't it? The important thing I want to say to you is that I am a very ordinary person; I'm just like one beggar telling another beggar where to find a square meal. Do you understand what I am saying? I am just telling you guys where it's at. It's for you to go and grab it.

When we flew the English Channel, there were a hundred sixty other microlites flying, celebrating this hundred years of powered flight. The funny thing is that we had Skye Television and Reuters all recording this crazy blind man. I went to them with my white stick, couldn't find where the aircraft was, so someone had to point me. After I checked it with my stick, I folded the stick and put it in the aircraft and started putting on my flying suit and my helmet. All these people were filming this, and Storm, my copilot, said that once we were all strapped in and I started the engine, they all scattered. They picked up their cameras and ran. They didn't want to be too close.[laughter] That was great fun.

Off we went and flew across the channel. When we came in to land into France, we had quite a strong crosswind. They're kind of dodgy if you know anything about flying. You've got to correct so you're pointing down the runway and you don't drift too much. When we landed, it was a bit dodgy, a bit of a bumpy landing. Afterwards one of the French pilots noticed that I had a white stick. He said, "Monsieur, are you blind?"

I said, "Yes."

He said, "How do you do it?"

I said "with speech output."

He said, "But Monsieur, when you are about to land and there is a strong crosswind, you know, it is very dangerous, and you have to make the big correction very quickly. How do you do it?" I said, "Well, if it looks as though we are going to crash, I just hit control, alt, delete, and we do it all over again." [laughter]

This man, being a very polite pilot, said, "But monsieur, pardon?"

I said, "Don't you have this on your computer?"

He said, "Oui."

I said, "Don't you like playing games?"

He said, "Oui."

I said, "Well, this is all the game of life. You better get this fitted on your aircraft, otherwise you might crash sometime." We just walked away. I never explained that in an emergency, Storm is there as a backup, but it was great fun.

Last month we also set a new British high altitude record when we climbed to 20,300 feet in this microlite. As Dr. Maurer was saying, it was a little bit nippy. It was about four times as cold as your deep freeze with howling winds. We had a sealed little black flight box with us to prove what altitude we went to. Civil Aviation can then plug it into a computer, unseal it, and see the line graph on the computer screen showing how high we got and prove that we set a record. We had a transponder that sent out signals to other aircraft in the area. The funny thing is that once you are about 20,000 feet, you're starting to bump into strange neighbors like jumbo jets flying in from Europe and America, and we had this funny time talking with a pilot of a jumbo jet. You know, "Zero X-ray, this is Tango Yankee Bravo," whatever.

We found ourselves saying to him, "Look, you might think you've got a little bit of an insect stuck on your windscreen, but, no, we are people out here. Give us some space. Move away!" The pilot would say, "Who are you. Identify yourself."

We said, "We are a microlite."

He said, "No way, buddy. Microlites flying at 20,000 feet?" I said, "We're here. Give us space." If they fly within six miles of you, they'll tear the wings off you, those big things. So we had a great time chatting with this pilot.

When we finally got up to 20,300 feet, we couldn't go any higher. The air was so thin that we were breathing oxygen, and the aircraft was almost stalling. I had it on full power, and we were down to about sixty miles per hour instead of about eighty or ninety, and we were just wallowing around. I said to Storm, "That's it; we won't go any higher. Let's get down." I said, "By the way, Storm, I am desperate for the toilet, so, if you don't mind, we are going to go down rather quickly." I mean it was really cold. Do you know what it's like when you are cold, and you are desperate? I had on all my Antarctic gear and balaclava. It was so cold that my eyelashes were sticking together, icing together. So it was a little bit nippy. I forgot that I had this flight indicator on board recording everything I was doing.

I put it into a dive, almost vertically, an eighty-degree dive, and we went from 20,000 feet down to 3,000 at the same speed as a person free-falling as they skydive, which was fantastic. It was very exciting. But because we were going from so high and so cold down so fast, all of the flight instruments froze over so that Storm, my copilot, couldn't read anything. He said, "There is ice everywhere." Everything was covered in ice because of the warm air hitting the cold instruments. I pulled out at 3,000. It was very exciting.

When the air traffic control people and the Civil Aviation looked at the graph, they said, "Is this a record of a mid-air collision?"

Someone said, "No, what do you mean?"

They said, "Because the curve goes up nice and gradual. All of a sudden it drops just like a shock. It's almost vertical."

Someone said, "Oh no, that was a blind pilot."

"What? A blind pilot!" He said, "But why is he coming down so vertical?"

They said, "Well, to be honest sir, he needed the toilet." [laughter] I got in a bit of trouble over that. I was told not to do that again. There is no inside entertainment; there are no toilets up there, so that's a bit dodgy.

I am very excited about the products that VisuAide are bringing out, and I am looking at maybe linking up with them. At the moment I'm using software called Software Express, and if you want to pick up a pamphlet that will give you my Web address and a card, whatever, you can go to the VisuAide table and they will give you information so that you can look up my Web site. There are links there to this software and technology. The lovely thing is that, if I am using VisuAide stuff, I can in time listen to my Talking Books when I am flying to Australia or wherever.[applause] It's fantastic, aye! Whoever thought that digital books were only for grannies sitting on their sofas in the lounge.

The next thing I am planning to do is to fly my microlite from London all the way to Sydney, Australia. That is about 12,500 miles. It's more than halfway around the world. It is going to take me thirty-five days at least. We'll be going from Britain across the English Channel down to the Mediterranean, jump across the islands in the Mediterranean, Egypt, across to the Middle East, the Far East, and then across Pakistan, then across India, down to Singapore, Singapore to East Timor, East Timor to Darwin, and then all the way down the east coast to Sydney. The difficulty is that the microlite has a range of only 300 miles. But from East Timor to Darwin is 460 miles, which is a bit of a problem. So we'll be taking extra fuel, and we are even sending our toothbrushes on ahead so we won't have any extra weight.

If we land in the water, there are sharks. What are we going to do about the sharks? Well, the best advice we've had so far is to carry water-resistant briefcases, brand new technology. If a shark sees the briefcase you are holding in the water, he won't attack you out of professional courtesy to other lawyers and solicitors.[laughter] That's going to be great fun, and I am looking forward to doing that very much. My call sign when I fly to Australia is going to be "Batman," because I am blind as a bat. It should be great fun, so we are looking forward to that. [Mr. Hilton-Barber then demonstrated what his software sounded like.]

The most important thing I want to say in conclusion is this. I was eighteen, growing up in Rhodesia, what is now called Zimbabwe. I joined the Air Force. I could still see then. I didn't know I was going to go blind, and neither did they. But they said, "Sir, you will never become a pilot because your eyesight isn't good enough." Just the other day I was sitting in my bath back in England, and I suddenly remembered that occasion. I said, "Blow me down. Thirty-five years later, even though I can't see a thing, I now have the privilege of flying more than halfway around the world." Don't tell me you can't live your dreams! [applause and cheers]

Let me tell you this: you can live your dreams. Dream big dreams, whatever you want to do. The only limits in your life are those that you accept yourself. Get rid of them. We blind people can set our sights as high as we want. We can go to the moon. If we can go under water, we can fly aeroplanes. The only limits are those you accept yourself. I want to say that on this card I have a little thing written, and there is a picture of me at the bottom of the Red Sea actually using my white stick to push my paralyzed friend in a wheelchair along the bottom of the sea. That was just one form of our transport. Great fun. But be creative. You know, life is too short to drink bad wine, as I said. Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. Isn't that right?

Friends, I am hugely, hugely honored to be here today. I didn't say at the beginning, but I worked for a number of years for the Royal National Institute of the Blind in Britain, and I bring you greetings from all of their management and staff. There are about two million blind people in Britain, and I wish they could come here because you guys have razzmatazz.

It is the Fourth of July! You are going to drink wine tonight, not now. I will close with two quotes that have meant a lot in my life. One is a Danish proverb that says that "Life does not consist in holding a good hand of cards, but in playing a poor hand well." I wasted years of my life when I heard that I was going to become blind; I thought I couldn't live my dreams, I couldn't have any big goals in life. Now I realize that, if we just play the hand of cards we have been given, it is enough for us to do anything we want with our lives. Play your hand of cards as well as you can!

Just before I close, I will say a huge thank-you to Dr. Marc and all the fantastic management and staff. I am thrilled to be here with you guys, and I hope to keep in touch, and, who knows, I might even be able to come back and let you know if those briefcases worked in the shark water.

I want to close now with a quote from Lawrence of Arabia, one of my great heroes. In his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom he says this: "All men dream dreams, but not all men dream equally, for there are those who dream at night in the empty recesses of their minds, and they awake in the morning to find that, behold, it was just a dream. But there are other men and women who are dangerous dreamers." (I love that—dangerous dreamers) "For these are men and women who dream in the daytime with their eyes open, that they might fulfill their dreams." So, good ladies and gentlemen, don't be a daydreamer, be a dangerous dreamer.[Applause]

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