A BUSINESSMAN who took to the skies after a riding accident left him without the use of his legs has become one of the UK’s top aerobatics competition pilots.
Huddersfield-born John Askew, 63, has overcome his disability to hurtle through the skies at flying competitions across Europe.
John, who lived in Oakes until he was 20 and ran successful business EG Glass in the town, flies a high-performance CAP 232 plane which can climb at nearly 3,300ft a minute and can roll 420 degrees a second.
John used his own engineering skills to adapt the plane so that he can operate all the controls using his hands.
His left hand operates the rudder and throttle while his right hand operates the stick. Fast transitions into flick rolls or the application of full power to recover from spins mean the throttle has to be activated quickly.
To achieve this, John has installed a pneumatically-operated system, which he also designed, using components supplied and assembled by air compressor equipment specialist Thorite, which has a depot in Huddersfield.
John said: “Aerobatic manoeuvres have to be carried out very quickly and put a huge strain on both the airframe and the pilot, with pushing and pulling nine-Gs being quite normal.
“I needed the ability for the throttle to be really whacked open or closed ultra-quickly.”
The system is powered from an on-board carbon dioxide tank and regulator, using a rocker switch on top of the rudder lever.
Thorite employee Max Crosland helped John perfect the system.
This year, John has been training in France with internationally-acclaimed Red Bull Air Race pilot Nicolas Ivanoff.
His successes include third place in an advanced aerobatics competition at Elvington, near York, leading to his selection for the British team with which he gained fourth place in the nationals.
John is now one of only a handful of UK pilots with the ability to train for the ultimate aerobatics discipline – the Unlimited Level – and he has high hopes of success in this rarified company in 2012.
Growing up in Huddersfield, John attended Oakes Junior and Infants School and Salendine Nook Secondary Modern before joining David Brown Gears as an apprentice and becoming apprentice of the year in engineering at Huddersfield Technical College.
For seven years from the age of 19 he won several titles in motorcycle road racing and went on to start his own business, Brighouse Cycles, in 1975.
He set up emergency glazing business EG Glass in 1985 at Crosland Hill, employing almost 200 people and operating throughout the UK.
The business was sold in 2001 to Greenberg Glass, but after that firm went into administration, John bought some of the assets and set up Greenberg Ltd in Rotherham. The company is now run by John’s son, Ben.
John, who now lives in Lincolnshire, was already a flier when he broke his back in a riding accident in 1994.
He said: “I re-learned to fly using hand controls and bought a Russian Yak-52, which I had modified to enable the rudder and brakes to be hand-controlled.
“I learned to fly this with a Spitfire display pilot and we did fairly extreme things in it. The aircraft was capable of advanced aerobatics, including tumbles, and I was hooked by the sensations.”
John said that after his success in the UK nationals and the experience of competing in Slovakia in the European Advanced Aerobatics Championship, he is now hoping for a place on the British team to take part in next year’s World Advanced Championships.
Speaking about his French-built Cap 232 plane, he said: “The aircraft is rather new to me, but I will have mastered it fully by next year so it is realistic to expect the chance of a medal.”
He added: “It was a big job to convert the aircraft for hand control and to gain Civil Aviation Authority approvals, but I have gained much from my time as an engineer in an excellent apprenticeship at Browns.
Echoing the determination of famous flier Douglas Bader, who became an RAF fighter ace despite the loss of his legs, John said: “I have always enjoyed flying, especially aerobatics and I love competing against the best able-bodied pilots in Europe. I am keen to encourage other disabled people to achieve their dreams by my own example.
“I help others with aircraft conversions and when I was once asked ‘why aerobatics’ I said that when you’re in a wheelchair you have to find something to do sitting down!”