Gary Numan: A Magnificent Man And His Flying Machines

The synth pioneer had a secondary career as a leading stunt pilot. Here he tells Luke Turner why he gave up, the exhilaration of nearly dying, and why he wants to take to the skies again

Music got in the way of me being a professional pilot

I wanted to be a pop star, a pilot, or a racing car driver. All very similar schoolboy ideas! I decided to go for the pop star and managed to do it fairly quickly, but by the time I wanted to be a pilot I was too old, and racing cars are a similar thing, you have to start really young. I did karting, and I was in the air cadets, so I was covering all the bases to a certain point. And then I reached puberty, and it was all about getting the girls. What’s going to be best for that? A pop star really isn’t it? I’ll go that way. When I talk about it, it is all very childish, I like being a racing driver, I think I’ll be a pop star. I guess with most people end up doing what they do rather than choosing it, even if they’re happy doing what they do.

I gave up flying because I’d lost so many close friends

I haven’t done flying for a few years now. The big thing was that I was an air display pilot, and I used to teach aerobatics and formation flying in World War Two aeroplanes. And then, one by one all my friends were killed in crashes. In a very quick period I was fine fine fine fine, then all of a sudden it just went. One particular person died, and my brother had a big crash and was lucky to get away with it. Where before my wife didn’t mind me doing it, but when this one particular person died, the first person she’d known who’d been killed in a crash, then all of a sudden she was done with it. She didn’t want me to fly at all. There was a different atmosphere at home. That coincided with my own feelings that I felt like I’d pushed my luck. Everyone I knew apart from two or three people who I was distantly connected to had died. I don’t have a photograph in my house of my flying friends where everyone is still alive. I’m the only one still alive out of six or seven people. I started to wonder if it was down to luck.

You have to have an arrogance and confidence to do it at all

You’ve got to think you know what you’re doing. You have to. Because if you don’t think that you hesitate, and it’s all split second stuff.

Flying made me feel alive more than being Gary Numan the pop star

I had a lot of hairy moments. Yeah, close calls. But it’s exciting you know. Jesus Christ, your heart’s going and I loved it. It was that that made me feel like I was living, more than I’d ever done from anything else, including being on stage. If you make a mistake now, then you are going to die. You’re not going to be embarrassed, you’re probably going to die in a great big fiery ball on the ground.

You make mistakes when you no longer want to do it

I remember the a long time a time ago, there was a man called Brian Lecomber, he writes books and he’s also a brilliant aerobatic pilot, and he said the day you start to hope you get around a manoeuvre, rather than know, get out. I remembered that, and I think it was brilliant advice. I remember diving in for a manoeuvre, the ground was coming up, and looking at all the dials and thinking, have I got that right? So I needed to take a break. I still miss it. The sound of it, the smell, the people

Air shows went from something I was proud to be in, to depressing

I loved going to air shows, you’d bond really tightly with your team mates – it’s an extreme thing to be doing, and you trust our life to them. And then it ended. I’d turn up and not know anyone. It got depressing. I’d sit down in the pilot’s tent and there’d be all these people I’d not recognise. You’d look forward to someone turning up to have a chat with them, and they’d be dead.

Once you’ve been a stunt pilot, normal flying seems really tame

The safety aspect comes from being an air display pilot. You’re flying at low level, and the margins for error are so small, that you only need to have one tiny problem with the aeroplane then that’s it. So there was a luck element. The thing about flying around in a Cessna is you have to be really unlucky to have a bad accident. Even if the engine stops you come down so slowly… To an aerobatics pilot, who’s used to fast, furious upside-down stuff, if you’re in a Cessna and have a problem you just stick it in a field somewhere.

So many planes were wasted at the end of the war

They were pushing them cliffs or off the side of ships because it was cheaper to do that than scrap them. I’ve got a friend who makes Spitfires. I don’t think the two-seater Spitfires work with the double bubble cockpit, but a Mustang does. I had a go on a Mustang once. Absolutely brilliant.

Modern planes, you can’t get in unless you’re in the air force

That rules them out straight away, though I have been lucky enough to fly in three, a Tornado, a Hawk and a Phantom, before they retired. That was through air show connections, a pilot asked me if I wanted a go. In the Hawk we went up to a firing range and I was firing the gun, I’ve got it filmed on camcorder.

Losing a plane is like losing a lady

Some people at Chichester own my old Harvard. They use it all the time and it’s still in the same colours that I painted it. I’ve got a boat now, and I’ve been out in it a few times and my old aeroplane has come over. It’s like seeing your ex with another man. I might buy it back one day, though I’d need to sell a few more albums.

Even the most scary moments were what made flying special

I remember once at an air show I’d just come out of a loop on a really rally windy day. I’d come up, and was on my way back down. I’d been a little too lazy on the top and I was a little bit closer to the ground than I wanted to be. I’d still got enough in hand, but this is where you’ve got to get it right. But on the way back down there was a gust, and it was if a giant hand had got the wing. If you hang onto the stick, the amount of pressure you put on, means you’re going to die. You’ve got that fraction of that second to unload the wing, and get back on again, so you don’t hit the ground. But it’s moments like that where you’re absolutely on the edge of living and not living… can you imagine the excitement? I love it. Loved it, loved it. To be able to think in that situation, that quickly, all of it goes through your head, what’s going on, what do to about it, what the implications are. You get it right and you’re away with a grin on your face, you get it wrong and you’re dead. That decision-making in those kind of situations is as much the appeal of it as simply being in an aeroplane and flying around.

Long distance flying was terrifying, but in a less exciting way

We had an engine coming apart over the Arctic and had to divert into a place called Frobisher Bay. There’s an 80-odd per-cent VD rate because nobody can get out, and there’s all these Eskimos wandering around pissed and violent all the time. A bizarre place. Then we went from San Francisco to Hawaii, which is a long stretch over water. 2,500 miles in an aircraft designed to do 1,000. Both the engines quit about halfway over and it turned out to be water vapour that had clogged up a little inlet which is supplying ram air into one of the extra fuel tanks we’d put in. It wasn’t heated, and because we were above the cloud level the water particles had frozen in the intake tubes. We didn’t know that, we just knew they’d stopped. So we’re coming down, it was terrifying, but what can you do? You just think about surviving the crash, which is unlikely because you’re going to hit the water. You can’t put the lights on because then you’d have to lower the undercarriage, and if you have the wheels out when you hit the water it’ll rip you apart. It’s different from being at the bottom of the loop because you’ve got a long time to think about it. It’s much harder. It made me think I should have been a fighter pilot rather than a bomber pilot.

My pilot hero is Stanford Tuck

He was a World War Two fighter pilot. Also Chuck Yeager and Adolf Galland. I used to read endless biographies of pilots. I had some friends in the RAF and they brought me some amazing books about the art of dogfighting. I had a friend who was a test pilot at Boscombe Down, and we’d have these conversations where you learn so much that a normal civilian pilot would never have the chance to hear, all these brilliant tips.

These things are hard to do when kids come along

When the weekend comes along you want to see your children. You can’t drag them off to airfields, living out dad’s dream. Maybe when they’re older, but then I’m 60-plus – I’ve got my last few years of doing all this young man’s stuff. My life before was full of macho, exciting things, one thing after another. Then children come along and you have to cut back, your life has to be about what they need and they want. I try really hard to find ways of dovetailing all of it together; children, career, hobbies, plus having a time as a couple. It’s a weird thing; it’s no less challenging, but it is different rewards. I’d like to somehow tap into what I had before and satisfy that part of me which is still there, and wanting to get out. I really want to do paramotoring.

And I do want to get back into flying

But I’ve been away for it now for about three years. And I’m talking about getting back into it now. Not display flying necessarily. I’m going do go down to my local field, and go up with an instructor, and see how I feel.

Gary Numan’s Pleasure Principle tour starts tonight in Brighton, and continues around the country through November and December. For full dates visit Gary Numan’s website

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