19 April 2024

‘It’s all about complete control of the aircraft’

As part of the air show at Withernsea’s inaugural Blue Light Weekend this summer, British Aerobatics Champion Tom Cassells will be performing his breathtaking stunts above the town. By Sam Hawcroft

‘Can you ring me back in 15 minutes? I’m just taxiing…”

Tom Cassells spends a fair bit of time in the air, much of it being what many would call the wrong way up.

When he takes time out to talk to the Gazette about his starring role at Withernsea’s Blue Light Weekend this August, it’s after a routine flight, landing in Norwich on business – he works as a self-employed logistics consultant. But he’s most at home performing daredevil stunts in competitions and displays around the country.

Tom, a multi-award-winning aerobatics pilot, will be bringing his Extra NG plane – a German- made carbon-fibre aircraft built for speed and precise handling – as part of the air show element of the weekend on Sunday, August 13, performing a series of breathtaking manoeuvres above the crowds on Withernsea’s promenade.

Ripon-born Tom first learned to fly in 1983 and worked as a private pilot before becoming a parachute pilot, which is where he first caught the aerobatics bug. “I watched somebody do a display at an air show where I was dropping parachutists,” he says. “I asked him if anybody could do it, and he said yes – so he taught me! That was back in the early 1990s.”

Tom won his first competition in 1992, which gave him the impetus to do more contest flying. He went from a beginner to advanced flyer in just two years, and became the British Advanced Champion in 1994, and then British Unlimited Champion in 2002.

Since then, he’s been Unlimited Champion four times, and later this month he’s defending his trophy at the 2023 British National Championships – so, depending on what happens there, he will visit Withernsea as either the current or former champion. Tom has led the Global Stars display teams all over the world, including in India, China and Australia, and currently leads the Starlings aerobatic team.

Being an aerobatic pilot is all about ultimate control of the aircraft, Tom says. He acknowledges that it may appear somewhat dangerous – but it’s really just the science of aerodynamics and demonstrating the limits of what can be done in flight. Visitors to Withernsea will see him doing a series of tumbles, loops and frisbees – the latter being when the aircraft spins while flying in a straight direction.

“The facts are that if you’re flying a single-engine plane, there’s a risk, yes,” he says. “But those who are not into aerobatics are probably at a greater risk than those who are – it’s about the control of the aeroplane at all speeds and in all directions. It’s seen as an extreme sport, but it’s not a gung-ho thing. We’ve got to be able to fly it backwards, forwards, in any of the speed ranges – and, in competition, you’ve got to do it a kilometre cube of air with the judges marking each move that you make.”

These days he also teaches others aerobatics, something he’s passionate about. “It’s great to see people come in who are generally nervous of flying and often feel sick, but then they come through the training to be quite at home in the aeroplane and are happy to do aerobatics. I get a great deal of pleasure from that.”

The air show at the Blue Light Weekend – which will also feature a flypast by a Spitfire and a Hurricane, as well as Nick Lee in his Tiger Moth and the Royal Navy Raiders parachute display team – promises to be the biggest Withernsea has ever seen. It’ll be a first for Tom, too, as he has never been to the resort before. Not that he’ll be stopping off, of course – starting and finishing his flight at Wombleton airfield, near Helmsley, he’ll see the town from an array of bewildering angles during his half-hour display.

The motivation for being a stunt pilot has to be the sheer exhilaration, doesn’t it? “It’s quite fun,” says Tom, with just a hint of understatement. “But it’s also satisfying when you do it, when you make no mistakes – and I’m not talking about mistakes that involve crashing, but just making sure that you do the perfect display.”

Tom is also keen to highlight his sponsorship by the Nuii ice cream brand, which is owned by the global firm Froneri, whose UK headquarters are in Tom’s native North Yorkshire and which he has advised during his long career as a temperature-controlled logistics expert.

Tom is 68 now, but there’s no chance of him quitting the cockpit any time soon. He points out that racing legend Stirling Moss was still driving in his 80s, adding that, “You’re as old as you feel you are!”

There’s really no other word to describe what Tom does, though. It’s bonkers, isn’t it?

“Bonkers, yes,” laughs Tom, but he stresses that even the most apprehensive can conquer their fears. “Everybody who flies for the first time is a little nervous. But they just get more confident the more they do. And that’s the top and bottom of it.”