A TEENAGER has flown a helicopter solo for the first time, even though he is not old enough to drive.
Hugh Barklem, 16, says it felt “surreal” to fly a four-seater Robinson R44 before even getting behind the steering wheel of a car.
He has been fascinated with helicopters since he was about three when a millionaire businessman friend of his father Nigel landed his helicopter in the garden of their house in Lambridge Lane, Henley.
Hugh said: “Apparently I just spent the whole day looking at it.”
Mr Barklem, who is chairman of Henley Media Group, bought his first helicopter, a Long Ranger, shortly after this but only took a few lessons before giving up and allowing Hugh to develop his passion.
Hugh sat in the front of a helicopter when he was still only four or five and began flying lessons when he was a few years older.
“I just loved it,” he said. “I couldn’t really fly when I was really young but I always sat next to the person who was flying the helicopter.
“When I had my first proper lesson I remember it was a different type of helicopter to my dad’s so I didn’t know how it worked.
“The type I started learning in was eventually the kind I went solo in. I was quite good at it from quite a young age — that was what all the instructors said.
“I had good hand-eye co-ordination so I found it quite easy to control it.
“I love being able to fly anywhere and the freedom you get.”
Hugh, who recently completed his GCSEs at Gillotts School in Henley, is still buzzing after he took control of his first solo flight at Denham Aerodrome last month.
He passed his air law exam the same morning. The exam is one of seven that he will need to pass to gain his private pilot’s licence which will enable him to fly anywhere.
Before taking to the sky, he also had to undergo a medical check which included a blood pressure test. Hugh said his first solo flight was nerve-wracking.
He said: “I went flying with my instructor and, after about half an hour, he got out and that was it. It was pretty scary actually. It sort of sunk in halfway through when I looked over to the passenger seat and no one was there.
“It has been one of my goals since I found you can fly solo when you turn 16.
“It’s good to know I can just turn up at the airfield and fly, although I can only land at airfields until I turn 17.”
His father now has a R44, the type which Hugh went solo in, and he is looking forward to taking his exams and being able to fly it without restrictions.
He hopes to gain his private pilot’s licence in time for his 17th birthday in October.
Next year, he hopes to achieve some world firsts, including flying around the coast of Britain and flying across the centre of America.
Both trips have never been attempted in a helicopter and Hugh estimates each flight would take about a week.
He was inspired to try a challenge after watching a television programme about Jennifer Murray, the first woman to pilot a helicopter around the world.
Hugh said: “I finished watching the programme and then I called my dad up at about one in the morning and told him that I wanted to do something like that. He said, ‘that’s a great idea — I think you should go for it’.”
However, the teenager is realistic about the challenge of passing his pilot exams while also attending The Henley College, where he will study for a sport science diploma or A Levels.
He is particularly anxious about sitting the meteorology exam, which is said to be the hardest. Despite Hugh’s passion for helicopters, his three brothers Max, 12, Dom, 21, and Charlie, 23, have little interest and his mother Emma is too afraid to fly with him yet.
She said: “I am very proud of Hugh. It’s quite something he has achieved and it’s kind of unbelievable when I remember him as a baby.
“We were trying to find out how many 16-year-olds have flown solo but no one could give us any numbers.
“I would never stop him doing what he wants because he just loves helicopters so much. It is what he’s loved ever since he was small. His first words were to do with helicopters and he could identify them by their sound and their shape from a young age. We had more helicopters than any other toys. It’s something he’s passionate about and I think it’s great that he’s got this ambition.”
Mrs Barklem said she was too nervous to fly with her son at the moment but she might be persuaded once he has gained more experience.
Hugh says his friends are impressed with his new skill.
He said: “They think it’s quite a cool thing to be able to do. I have taken a few of them up and they thought that it was really great.”