Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper
Photo reproduced with permission Jon Kemm

Photo reproduced with permission Jon Kemm

Flying at Fairlight Firehills

Hot’s Sean O’Shea talks with radio controlled flying enthusiast Jon Kemm about his passion for flying, the best local spots for flying gliders and Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

I recently took a walk at Fairlight Firehills and was struck by the sight of some multi-coloured gliders soaring high over the coastline. Having been accustomed only to the occasional noisy flying machine disturbing the peace on East Hill I was captivated by these elegant, silent sailplanes. So I went to investigate…


“Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight—how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly…. This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make oneself popular with other birds.”

Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Richard Back


Could you say a bit about your background and what brought you to Hastings?

We moved around a bit when I was young; my father was a doctor and got a job in a group of islands in the Pacific called Vanuatu. Much to my amusement later in life, we lived on the main island called Efate. My memories mainly involved building tree houses – our ‘flame tree’, seemingly as tall as our house – the beach nearby, going to the local sugar cane fields with the local boy over the fence who had a bush knife (think of the knife featured in Crocodile Dundee) and eating raw sugar cane. Having survived the shock of northern weather and wearing shoes all day we moved down to Bexhill in time for secondary school where my obsession with aeroplanes began.

How long have you been involved in radio controlled gliding and what stimulated your interest in this hobby?

One time (when I was about 12 years old) whilst out on a family walk on the Long Man of Wilmington I saw a group of blokes flying model gliders. This ignited my interest from ‘I love aeroplanes’ to ‘nothing else exists now’ and dad bought a Middle Phase 2 (very popular trainer glider at the time) and some radio gear for us to share. I joined the local Air Training Corps and learned what it might be like to be in the air force. I really wanted to be a pilot but by the age of sixteen I had reached six foot four inches so I realised I would be too tall to be a fighter pilot. I didn’t enjoy all the boot polishing & square bashing anyway.

What are some of the things you enjoy most about slope soaring?

I love the views, the company of similar minds, repairing / revamping my models, the peace and quiet of the hills, and the excitement of flying through / around / under things like fences / trees / and gates. Some days, when the wind is howling and we’re leaning into it to stay upright, the lift is very strong and you can do one aerobatic manoeuvre after another, hover, even fly backwards!

On calm days you have to work hard by flying as smoothly as possible and hold onto any lift you can find. On these days we work together by telling each other where the ever changing lift areas are. It’s on days like this that we don’t really use slope lift but rely on thermal lift, columns of rising air passing by us. Sometimes you can feel the thermal approaching as it sucks the air up into it from behind you, then the wind dies off & it feels warmer – that’s when the thermal is above you and we try to locate it to gain some more height. We use seagulls as thermal indicators, watching to see if they are rising as they circle nearby. There’s a southerly slope at Butts Lane (I think it’s called the Memorial Site) that looks over a golf course that I have fond thermal ling memories with my friend Barry ‘Big Dog’ and my dog Berry who was sort of a big dog. Lot’s of nervous “is he going to get it back from there?” moments to exhilarating “look how high it is” moments.

Does flying gliders appeal to women as well or is it largely a male interest?

Sadly I’ve only met blokes in this sport, a bit of gender balance would be great but I understand why standing around in the cold whist staring at the sky doesn’t appeal to all.

Your friend Martin and son Amos seem to share your passion and you act as a team. What are the different roles you take on your gliding excursions?

Amos is an extraordinary fetcher of gliders. Within seconds of landing / crashing you’ll hear “I’ll get it!” followed by a streak of small child sprinting across the hill and lobbing it back out into the sky – service with a smile! He got the knack of flying annoyingly quickly, it took me months of careful instruction from a chap in a club called East Sussex Soaring Association (ESSA) – a club of sensible people flying sensible gliders in a sensible fashion. When I learnt, if you crashed that was generally game over for the day but with these modern ‘foamy’ gliders made of bouncy expanded polypropylene (more rubbery than regular polystyrene) you can crash & bash them quite brutally and be able to throw them off for another go. It’s this advance in materials / construction of the gliders and the fact that kids are brought up twiddling their thumbs on games consoles that meant my son went solo after only a few sessions of flying. I’d love to say I taught him well but he’s not one for listening – yeah yeah, I know, let me try… Martin is my good friend from the old days, whilst getting back into the hobby we rediscovered each other via Facebook and realised we were both into gliders, web development and other things – it’s nice when that happens!

What are optimum weather conditions for this activity and where are some of the best places for flying locally?

The best place to fly radio controlled gliders is the Long Man of Wilmington. It has a lovely slope facing South West (the prevailing wind direction around these parts) on top of a huge hill. A wind speed of between ten and thirty mph would do for our needs; the wind tends to blow faster on the top of hills that at ground level, usually increasing the wind speed by five to fifteen mph. The Long Man also caters for South and North Westerly winds. We go to places like Fairlight and Winchelsea when its South / Westerly because they have better accessibility. When the wind has East in it we go to Butts Lane next to Eastbourne and join the other club in fooling around in the sky.

On your website you have a section, Disabled Flying. Would you like to say a bit about the challenges for disabled people taking up this hobby and what useful aids are available?

I have Multiple Sclerosis and use a mobility scooter to get to the slopes, this is often quite exciting as some of the paths are very lumpy and are often at quite steep angles. I have a great scooter called a Luggie which I can fold up (as opposed to dismantle) and lift in the back of my small car. I would struggle (but just about manage) to go flying by myself, I need someone (my son) to carry my glider so I can use both hands with my scooter and of course need someone to fetch my glider when it lands a distance from me. I have great support from fellow pilots (Martin pushed me to the slope in a modified wheelbarrow once when my Luggie broke down) and often members of public – I find if you wait by a stile for long enough someone will offer to lift my scooter over for me. Some sites (including Fairlight) are controlled by the council and have great access, others are on bridleways on private land and these aren’t as good.

When I met you on Firehills we briefly mentioned Richard Back’s famous bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull (JLS). In this book the author seems to be saying that we all have the potential to be free. However those who pursue freedom may risk being outcasts. What has been your impression of this famous novella?

I remember first reading JLS it at my grandparent’s house. My grandpa trained pilots in Chipmunk aircraft during World War II and loved flying ever since then – he said he wanted to be a seagull in the next life – I wonder if he is. I loved the way Jonathan preferred fooling around to regular flying. I’d like to think that’s where I get it from. No, we are not popular types, but then we haven’t got the time or the mind for popularity, not when we could be flying.

A final message for potential flyers?

Come and give it a go! Ask questions, show interest – why not ask if you can have a go! If we’re flying our bounceable gliders we’re usually happy to give people a quick go, although it usually takes a few sessions (age dependant) before you begin to get the hang of it.

The glider kits we use are from a local bloke in Camber (Soar Ahead Sailplanes) who sells kits for about £70. You can usually pick up OK second hand radio gear from eBay for the same again and the rest of your money should be invested in wind proof clothing. Above all get insurance, our official body is the BMFA, website:


For more information about radio controlled slope soaring around Hastings & Eastbourne visit:

  • Photo reproduced with permission Jon Kemm
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Posted 19:24 Monday, Feb 1, 2016 In: SOS

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