Getting the hang of light flight

By Tom Otley, Evening Standard

Last updated at 14:56 17 December 2003


Do look down: A microlight flight offers fantastic views

I became nervous when they found a loose screw as we stood at the Henri Giraud Altiport, 6,000 feet up in the French Alps at Alpe d'Huez. I was minutes away from my first flight on a microlight: an ungainly mix of hang-glider and aeroplane, it was parked on a shelving "runway" of snow and ice - mountain at one end, sudden valley drop-off at the other.

The booking clerk emerged from her cabin to chat to the pilot and found a screw beside the microlight. The pilot tried to find where on the machine it might have come from. Eventually they shrugged and he motioned for me to take my place on the higher of two seats, seating himself snugly between my legs.

This pilot was of the school of international discourse which holds that, if you speak loud enough in your own language, foreigners will understand. He introduced himself as Pierre - or Alain - through distorted headphones. Had my French been good enough, my first question would have concerned the flickering red light on the instrument panel.

Microlights are hang-gliders with whining engines at the back (which rendered Pierre/Alain's French no easier). They don't travel quickly but, with skis fitted, are wonderfully effective at getting you off the ground and hundreds of feet into the air. We headed up the runway, turned, and whisked down the slope at full speed (about 25mph) into the void. The exact moment was lost since I had my eyes shut.

The advantage of setting off from an altitude of 6,000 feet is that you don't have to climb much to be a long way up. We flew over our hotel, Le Pic Blanc, banked and headed for the slopes, a few hundred feet above the ground yet able to see skiers looking up, wondering who the two idiots were on board a hairdryer.

We waved at these dots of colour below and Pierre/Alain pointed out various sights. I think he was describing the geography and geology of the surrounding mountains, famous in France for their obvious volcanic origins. Whatever, the sight of the rocks, molten in origin and melted together like giant toffee cake, was astonishing.

What was more striking was how cold it was up there. Even in ski gloves my hands were frozen, and whenever Pierre/Alain pointed to the end of the wing to show he was about to take a photograph, it was all I could do to turn my head. They won't make the album. My smile was fixed, my lips frozen to my teeth.

Way to go

Best airport for Alpe d'Huez is Lyon; returns on British Airways ( from £79. Resort transfers from E47 (about £33) return with Satobus ( Directski (0800 587 0945, has a week's half-board in January at the three-star Le Pic Blanc from £393 (two sharing). Extreme Ski Package E100 (about £73) for three activities (microlight, hang-glide and parascend), bookable with Directski.

More snow madness

Parascending: attached to an instructor on skis, you head down the mountain until the parachute fills and you glide into the sky for about five minutes.

Hang-gliding: same as parascending except the tandem element is with an instructor who is attached to a hang glider instead of a parachute.

Via ferrata: climbing with ladders and wires, developed by mountain soldiers to access high, easily defendable ground. Visit

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