Mark Jefferies' Interview
The writer Joshua Cooper Ramo once said: “The best pilots in the world, perhaps sixty men and a dozen women, compete in what is called Unlimited Aerobatics. They put in hundreds of hours a year and stagger through blistering pain. There are few financial rewards. Unlimited pilots fly for joy and victory. Which makes it hard to say if it’s noble or stupid that so many of them die”. (‘No Visible Horizon’, Virgin Books 2004).
Mark Jefferies is one of Great Britain’s finest ever unlimited pilots. He was British Unlimited Champion (1994, 2005, 2006 and 2007) and World Ranked No 8 (2007). Although retired from competition flying, his aerobatics team ‘The Global Stars’ is one of the best known in the world and runs displays throughout the UK, Europe, Bahrain, India and China. Here is his story.
How Did You Get Into Flying Aerobatics?
Mark: My father had an old crop spraying plane, which I learnt to fly in. But it was too expensive to fly any great distance, so I ended up fooling around immediately over the family farm. They were short flights but bit by bit I learnt the basics of flying aerobatics.
How Did You Progress Into Competition Flying?
Mark: I’ve always been competitive. And I’d seen other pilots fly in competitions and was confident I could beat them, but my first competition was more of an accident. In 1984 three pilots at the venerable ‘Moth Club’ threw down a fiver in an impromptu bet. I joined in. I came second, annoyingly, but it gave me taste for competition and set me on the road to ‘Unlimited’.
What is ‘Unlimited’ Aerobatics?
Mark: It is literally flight without limit. In the lower competition stages the judges protect the pilots from their planes. They disallow the manouvers which are simply too disorientating, too violent, or require too high a G-force. But at Unlimited there are no such considerations. If the plane can fly it (and a modern carbon fibre winged aerobatics plane can fly just about anything) then the pilot is just expected to get on with it. You’re close to the ground, it’s very physical, and it’s very fast.
What Is Life Like in Modern Aerobatics Plane?
Mark: I fly an Extra 330SC. It rolls at 420 degrees a second and can withstand forces of up to +/- 15G. That means the plane will take fifteen times the normal force of gravity before the wings come off. The cockpit is about the size of a shopping market trolley and you’re locked in with a seven-point harness with ratchets on it. During competition flying I pull plus 8.5G and minus 5G. At plus 8.5G the blood rushes out of your head and you stay conscious by clenching your throat, chest, stomach and thighs to trap blood in your head. It’s bearable. At minus 5G blood slams into your head, your eyes bulge, your vision distorts, and the pain is awful. All you can do is bear it. And things happen very, very quickly. Another famous aerobatics pilot, Alan Cassidy, once described aerobatics as: “like trying to fight Mike Tyson in a tumble dryer”.
Who Are The Hardest Pilots to Compete Against?
Mark: The Russian pilots are always extremely competitive. They get a lot of state support. There’s a joke amongst the rest of us that the Russians fly as if they don’t own the plane……probably because they don’t own the plane.
What Is the Worst Thing That Has Happened To You in the Air?
Mark: I once had a propeller come off. I was transiting an elderly Stampe (a 1930’s bi-plane) over Italy when there was a loud bang and the propeller disappeared over the horizon. My first thought was; damn I needed that. My second was: I’m not going far without it. The Mediterranean was beneath me so I made a forced landing as close to the shore as possible. The entire incident was caught on video.
I also had a nasty moment in a L29 (a Russian military jet trainer) when I realised the headwind was much stronger than expected and I was lower on fuel that I should have been. My options were to risk running out of fuel or to breach Russian airspace. I chose the breach and was intercepted by Russian fighter planes rather quickly. They escorted me to the ground, then locked me up in a hotel for four days.
What Are the Best Moments?
Mark: Aerobatics pilots tend to be extremely competitive and I’m no exception. Winning is always good. And when you’re flying displays it’s always very heartening to see a happy crowd. But one of my greatest joys is the Annual Little Gransden Airshow we hold at my home airstrip. It started relatively small but has grown hugely over the years. We donate all of the profits to Save the Children and have raised as much as £63,000 in one show.
Talking to Mark was a curious experience. On the surface of it he's an immensely likable and seemingly sane man. However his life suggests he views risk in a seriously different way to the rest of us. When we spoke he had just flown a single engine plane across the Atlantic via Greenland and Iceland, the sort of trip most would take in a 747! If you get a chance, do check out one of his displays, or make your way to the Little Gransden Airshow. When it comes to flying, the man is little short of a Picasso.
MARK JEFFERIES WEARS