Johnny Carr: This 75-year-old hang glider is living the high life

Clinging onto an oversized kite for dear life thousands of feet above the English countryside isn't most septuagenarians' idea of a relaxing day out. But then, Johnny Carr is not most septuagenarians.

Johnny Carr hand glider

Johnny after he broke the British out and return record in 2012

West Sussex-based adventurer Johnny Carr took delivery of his first hang-glider – a curved boom Wasp GB with a 240 square foot sail – in July 1974 and entered his first competition a month later. Five decades and countless national and international trophies later, Johnny is still as passionate as ever about taking to the skies. But, as he approaches his 75th birthday, he has a new obsession brewing…

I grew up in the late fifties and early sixties, and I used to go for cycle rides around the local countryside and think, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could open up the arms of my jacket, face into the wind and just glide down from the top of that hill to the bottom.’

I used to dream of that all the time as a kid, but then I’d think, ‘No, that’s never going to happen.’

Then, in the early seventies, I was watching one of those ‘And finally…’ stories on the News at Ten, and it was this crazy bloke in this new thing called a hang-glider, and he was about to jump off Mount Snowdon.

I said to my wife at the time, ‘If he lives, I’m going to do that,’ as it was exactly how I’d imagined it in my dreams, and from that moment on, my fantasy became a reality.

 

Johnny Carr hand glider

Johnny in action. Photo credit: Katy Cole

I bought a hang glider soon afterwards, and I’ve never looked back.

I’ve been hang-gliding competitively for 50 years, and it’s been the enduring passion of my life.

When I first started, it was like a drug. I just had to get my feet off the ground.

I went to the hill every weekend, and I’d be daydreaming at work, thinking, ‘Tomorrow I can go and fly.’

I was totally obsessed.

I became the British Champion in 1981, the British Open Champion in 1982 and I was runner-up in the world championships in 1979.

I loved the competitive element of it, the fantastic views of the countryside and flying through the clouds.

But the most exciting part is when you pit yourself against the elements because gravity dictates that sooner or later, you will land.

 

Johnny Carr hand glider

Johnny with top British pilots Gordon Rigg and Dave Matthews. Photo credit: Katy Cole

Generally, I fly at about 25 miles per hour, but if I pull the bar in, I can reach 60 miles per hour, and you come across some amazing wildlife thousands of feet in the air.

I love birdwatching, too, so I can identify most species. I’ve come up close and personal with an osprey before, and I met two storks about 3000 feet above Eastbourne once.

I’ll be 75 on my next birthday, but I don’t feel any older than 60, and I’m sure I would have aged quicker without the hang-gliding.

I’ve got one of the conditions the King’s had, an enlarged prostate, but it’s been checked out, and that doesn’t seem to stop me.

For now, I’m carrying on, and my remaining ambition is to finish in the top ten of the nationals within this decade, then I’ll be the first person to have done that in five consecutive decades.

 

The most exciting part is when you pit yourself against the elements, because gravity dictates that sooner or later, you will land.
Johnny Carr

Most of the people I compete against are in their 40s or 50s anyway, and I’m easily the oldest one competing. It’s just been part of my life for so long that I don’t want to give it up.

I don’t want to be old. I can’t bear the thought of it, and I do lots of walking and exercise and eat well, and even though I’ve had a few accidents – I broke my shoulder last August taking off from Devil’s Dyke in Sussex – I can still fly better than most people and land as well as anyone else. Last year I did a 90km flight purely powered by wind and thermals, which is an almost unheard of distance.

My son said to me last year after the accident, ‘Isn’t it about time you knocked it on the head now, Dad?’ Obviously, I’ve thought about it, but I just need to get that top ten goal out of the way, and then maybe I can focus on my other obsession, which is bird watching and wildlife photography and filming.

But that hasn’t happened yet, so for now, I’m just going to keep on flying.