Rob Whittall: A tribute to friendship

Monday 3 April, 2000

Robbie boy… getting high, getting spiritual, with a world champion pilot

Rob Whittall, world champion in both hang gliding and paragliding, wrote this tribute to friendship for Cross Country issue 67 in 2000.

What a sport we have, cruising through the atmosphere fulfilling our sensory requirements. Normally we fly alone unless funds allow us to own a tandem, but that’s the type of people we are. Individuals. Not so interested in team sports or watching, we are the type of people who like to do, and this is what we all have in common.

Proof of the fact that we are special is represented in the number of paraglider and hang glider pilots in the world. We’re not even a million, perhaps only a hundred thousand or so in the world. A perfect example of a minority sport.

During my career, I’’ve met royalty, film stars and the famous, and none of them have lit the friendship-fire within me. More often than not I have been disappointed with their lack of earthly qualities. Sure there are good folk across the world, but our sport seems to gather a good share of them together.

I started flying fifteen years ago, and during this period I have met the best people in the world. Although pilots are from different cultures, nationalities and backgrounds, our shared passion for flight has always made friendships easy.

It was during my last trip to Nepal that I truly became aware of the intensity that friendship can bring. After three weeks of patiently working with the BBC, tinkering with our filming equipment, we finally reached our launch point in west Nepal. Both Bob and myself were almost drunk with excitement. The take-off faced south and the ridge we were to follow stretched into the distance.

The film crew readied themselves for our imminent departure, and although my face was stony, my heart rate told a different story. Adrenaline and apprehension were firing through my veins.

Bob fluffed his launch, probably due to over-eagerness, so I stepped into the air first. We’d chosen a launch site 200 m below the summit with cameraman Leo Dickenson positioned right on it so he could film our launch from above. There was lift and lots of it, and Himalayan Griffin Vultures came to join us. A smile cracked across my face from ear to ear as I circled up past Leo’s camera. I was in my own nirvana.

Bob soon caught up, and soon we were locked wingtip to wingtip, electricity between us, eyes locked on each other and smiles ablaze, just us and the vultures. The moment was so intense I felt like I’d burst out of my skin.

There I was, in the middle of the Himalayas climbing out in a fantastic thermal with my good friend mirroring the scene right there with me. Every metre gained the views got better and better and the all-consuming feeling grew ever stronger. My onboard camera pointed at my face, the lens whurring and twitching as it focussed, but as we continued to climb my emotions became overwhelming.

A strained radio message from Bob came through, and I tried to reply, but my voice had gone and instead of words coming out of my mouth tears came out of my eyes. It was a moment far too personal for the world to see. This was between me and Bob. I flicked the camera off, hollowed ecstatically out to Bob and had a quick blub before switching it back on.

Only recently have I come to truly appreciate the value of our friendships. Relationships that have been forged over time and often great distances. Bob is a friend that I have come to rely upon so much so that I trust him with my life.

During weeks in the Himalayas with only each other as company, we developed a friendship that required no effort or even conversation to keep it together. If it had not been for flying, I would not have met Bob, and I almost certainly would not have ventured to India and Nepal for adventures.

The funny part of the whole deal is that whilst I really enjoy the individuality of flying my wing, there is nothing better than having one of my good friends flying along side. It’s a removed companionship that makes me happy and comfortable, but does not encroach on my own pleasure and serenity.

Free flying has given me so much but from time to time it has taken from me too. Some very special people have passed on while in pursuit of their passion. I remember them vividly, beaming back at me as we glide on together.

Whether in competition and free flying, I’ve noticed it’s impossible to control that smile, laughter and the ‘yahoo’ cry that inevitably follows.

A tribute to friendship.

Rob Whittall

• Got news? Send it to us at news@xccontent.local. Fair use applies to this article: if you reproduce it online, please credit correctly and link to xcmag.com or the original article. No reproduction in print. Copyright remains with Cross Country magazine. Thanks

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