Hertz Leasing's managing director, Len Clayton, (right) spends every spare moment he has at the controls of vintage aircraft. Raymond Baxter, writer and broadcaster, gets a share of the action in the cockpit of the oldest Tiger Moth still flying.
'Just maintain the climb at 55 miles an hour, turn 30o right out of the circuit and level off at 2,000 feet. OK Raymond? You have control.' The voice in the headphones of my flying cap was that of Len Clayton, managing director of company car specialists Hertz Leasing. His brilliant career suggests that he knows as much about the meaning of the word 'control' as anyone in management today. The fact that after a mere 25 minutes acquaintanceship he had relinquished it to me may suggest that the circumstances were exceptional.
Indeed they were.
We were about 70 feet above the grass runway of the historic Headcorn airfield in Kent. Our aircraft was equally historic - the oldest Tiger Moth in the world still flying, built in 1933 and number three off the production line, or what passed for a production line in the days of hand-built craftsmanship at de Havilland.
Clayton had gone through the meticulous and time-honoured procedure of the 'hand-swung-prop-start', then the pre-flight checks and the cautious taxiing, swinging the nose from side to side in order to overcome the Tiger's total lack of forward visibility on the ground. Lined up into wind, he had opened the throttle, eased the tail off the ground and bounced us into the air with the alert confidence of 200 hours flying Tiger Moths.
That may sound easy. Believe me, it is not. It had been many years since I last flew a Tiger, and I had forgotten what a challenge it is. I was quickly reminded. After a few minutes with the uneasy feeling that I might be flying with the controls 'crossed up' - an easy mistake in an unfamiliar light aircraft - I followed the normal procedure and took my feet off the rudder bar. The Tiger immediately leapt into a pronounced, nose-up right turn.
'I think, Raymond,' chuckled the voice in my ears, 'that you will need rather more rudder than on that Hawk you were flying last month.' Around 15 to 20 minutes later, after a few gentle manoeuvres, changes of course and so on, came another chuckle, 'Fine. I reckon you've got the hang of it again, haven't you? Isn't it marvellous?' Of course it was, but also I was reminded that it is extremely hard work. Flying a Tiger, like skiing, requires 60 seconds of concentration in every minute.
Open tandem cockpits are not conducive to in-depth conversation - but the environment certainly focuses the mind on the essentials of communication.
In that I have no doubt, Clayton is a master. His 'patter' in the air could have been spoken by a QFI (qualified flying instructor) but it went further than that. Here was a man who very much wanted me, a stranger, to share an experience, dear to himself. Why does he do this? Why should he snatch every available moment away from his family and his job to indulge his love of flying - not only flying but flying the hard way in ancient aircraft and in his own modern, state-of-the-art high-performance glider?
In a word, it's the 'challenge'.
Clayton will not deny that flying was his first love. He gained his private pilot's licence at 18 but the RAF persuaded him to become a navigator against his better judgment. Based in Aden, he met and married his wife, the daughter of a service family. After 10 years' service, with some reluctance, he left the RAF. 'We were getting a lot of engine failures at that time; my wife was not altogether happy with that and the service was changing rapidly. I could not clearly see a career prospect ahead of me as a navigator.'
He joined IBM as a trainee. 'A marvellous organisation in those days.
They liked service people and they taught me how to sell and that's quite something.' Why did he go into the car business?
'Pure chance. I was offered a job with Budget and they sent me, with wife and two small children, to set up their operation in South Africa - a wonderful country; but we found the apartheid very difficult.'
Seven years later he was head-hunted to join Swan National Leasing as commercial director, later MD. 'I had the job for 19 years and loved every minute of it. But the company was bought out and I needed another challenge.'
He was head-hunted again, in March 1996, for Hertz Leasing as managing director. 'We have to reshape to face 2000. We have the right staff, which I have inherited, but going into the next century will be quite a challenge.
Meantime, I'll stick to old biplanes for as long as they are still flying.
That is a real challenge every time.'.