George Lee

George Lee Article

George Lee MBE on Gliding

Three times World Gliding Champion and ex GSA member George Lee MBE talks to about his exploits in gliding, competition flying and his love for silent flight.

I was born in Ireland, just south of Dublin, and I had no connection to aviation with either family or friends. I did a lot of sea fishing in my younger years and I remember being fascinated by the sea birds soaring the local pier wall. I frequently dreamt that I was skimming along the waves in the manner of the albatross. A friend of mine told me one day that he was joining the RAF as an Aircraft Apprentice. I read the material that he had and saw that it was possible to be commissioned at the end of the three year training, so I decided to join up the same way. I discovered when I got to Halton that only two or three apprentices would be selected for commissioning out of an entry of some 160. As I was not gifted technically, I was not going to be one of that small group!

Just over a year into the training, I heard about the RAFGSA Centre at Bicester and I decided to try gliding to show motivation towards becoming a pilot. My first flight in a glider was in March 1963; a three minute circuit in light rain off a winch launch in a T21. I was enthralled by the experience, completely hooked; whatever happened in my professional life, I would continue gliding! I did continue gliding for the remainder of my apprenticeship and during my years working as an electrical fitter on the Hastings aircraft at RAF Colerne, during the course of which I became an instructor.

Against the odds, I was selected for pilot and officer training in 1967 and I did very little gliding over the next two years. When I completed my basic flying training there was a backlog in the system and I was faced with the prospect of spending a year away from flying training before commencing advanced training. I contacted Andy Gough, CFI of the RAFGSA Centre, and he arranged for me to spend that year on the staff at Bicester. Apart from running courses and building a lot of tugging hours, I flew a KA6CR in my first competition in 1970, the Inter-Services. I won the competition and, as with my first flight in a glider, I was hooked. Competition gliding is exciting!

Gliding again took a back seat from when I commenced advanced flying training until I was established on a Phantom squadron at RAF Coningsby. I flew a KA6E in my first Nationals at Dunstable in 1972, coming second. I then flew in various competitions over the next three years, winning the Open Class Nationals in 1974. I was selected to the British Team for the World Championships in Finland in 1976, winning in an ASW17. I was successful in retaining my title during the following two World Championships, becoming the first pilot to ever win three consecutive world titles.

I left the RAF in 1983 and joined Cathay Pacific Airways to fly 747s out of Hong Kong for the next fifteen years. They were rewarding years professionally but my gliding really suffered and I just managed to stay in touch with the sport that I loved. I retired in 1999 to Australia with the first glider that I had ever owned, a Nimbus 4DM. The pipedream was to conduct advanced coaching courses for junior pilots of different nationalities who had shown talent and motivation. The vision was fully realised and I have now coached more than fifty pilots from the UK, Australia, USA, Austria and South Africa. The coaching courses will finish this year (2010) and I hope to do more of my own flying.

Gliding, particularly competition flying, has meant a great deal to me over the last forty seven years. Gliding was my first flying love and it is now my last flying love. I have always had a competitive nature and, for me, World Championships flying was the ultimate challenge. To fly for Great Britain against the top pilots who I had read so much about was a great privilege. It also gave rise to a very high level of stress and the management of that stress was an extremely important part of my success. I was pretty well stressed out during the practice period before my first World Championships in Finland, but a private chat with the Team Manager got that sorted out. I was then able to relax and it was such a thrill to go from a high level of self-imposed stress to the sheer joy of victory. As far as the next World Championships were concerned, I reasoned that nobody expected a newcomer to the scene to win a consecutive title. For the third championships I reasoned that nobody, but nobody, expected me to pull off the hat trick as it had never been done before! When I was flying in World Championships pairs flying was not a part of the scene and I am thankful for that as I enjoyed flying as an individual!

Apart from World Championships flying, the most exciting event that I have flown in was the Smirnoff Derby in 1977. This was an invitation only, sponsored event and five of us flew from Los Angeles across to the North-East corner of the U.S. It was a privilege to fly against pilots like Ingo Renner and George Moffat, although we usually never saw each other again all day after the “racehorse” start. Every day was a fresh navigational challenge as we flew over new, changing terrain, remembering that this was before GPS came on the scene.

Gliders and instrumentation have changed significantly over the years. The best glide angle of the ASW17 that I flew in the seventies with its wingspan of 20.5metres is now being matched by gliders with 15metres wingspan. The use of GPS has made an enormous impact on the sport and en-route navigation and final glides can be flown today with a degree of accuracy that could not have been envisaged in the seventies. Handling has also been transformed, an important factor that reduces pilot fatigue and therefore contributes towards improved performance. Although glider performance has improved markedly over the decades, the improvements have been incremental rather than dramatic. The next major step forward in performance may be associated with boundary layer control. Whatever the changes, we must remember that gliding is not all about technical advances. The late Philip Wills wrote beautifully about gliding, capturing the sheer romance and enjoyment of the sport as few have done. I hope that we glider pilots will never lose sight of the beauty and unpredictability of our wonderful sport.

I have been honoured to receive many awards over the years, the most prestigious gliding award being the Lilienthal Medal which was awarded following my third WGC victory in 1981. It was also a very great honour to take Prince Charles up for his first flights in a glider in 1978.

I have had a blessed and privileged life and I have much to thank the RAFGSA for. GSA clubs have always been associated with a high standard of flying and quality of equipment. With good club geographical representation, the opportunities are there for the taking. With talent and motivation being the key elements, the sky is the limit. Rank and size of bank balance are not determining factors, so dare to dream and set about its realisation!

George Lee MBE

Many thanks to George for agreeing to write this article for the GSA.
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