Lagos ‘International’ hosts the 2021 Iberian microlight tour

By Chris Freer

José António de Almeida Costa Franco, better known as Brigadeiro Costa Franco, must have looked down on Lagos from ‘above’ with especial pleasure on 7 September as 19 ultralight aircraft landed at ‘his’ airport during their tour of Portugal and Spain. 

Fifty-six years earlier, in 1965, Brigadeiro Franco was instrumental in creating the facility during his term as President of Lagos. His own piloting history was quite remarkable because, due to the odd ‘neutral’ politics and affiliations during WW2, he flew both with the Luftwaffe in Junker Ju 52s and with the Americans in B25 Mitchells. 

The founder and his airport in early days

Earlier in the year, the Aeroclube De Lagos directorship, under the leadership of President Luis Duarte, welcomed a request from the Aero Clube de Braganza and the Fundación Cielos de León. They were asked to provide overnight facilities for up to thirty private aircraft as they braved potential wind and weather hazards on a six-day, 2,000 km tour taking them from León to Malaga via Bragança, Leiria, Lagos and Granada. Quite a journey in lightweight machines limited to a maximum weight of 450 kg. 

These aircraft carry pilot and passenger and are classed as ultralights, or the more familiar term microlights, having evolved from the early hair-raising experiments with powered hang gliders in the late 70s.

The 19 ultralights landing in Lagos encapsulated the history of this class of flying machines from a ‘stick and string’ 1985 model to sleek looking 2015 machines made from carbon fibre: proper, highly desirable little aeroplanes. Although most flew in at an average of 170 kph (100 mph), the more modern designs cruise much faster, i.e. 240 kph (150 mph) on the same 100 hp, reflecting the advances in technology. They achieve about 30 miles to the gallon in ‘old money’. Although a range of over 600 km (400 miles) is possible the main limit is the capacity of the pilot’s bladder and the need to stretch one’s legs after confinement in the tight cockpits. 

One of the most famous early pioneers of hang-gliding and powered microlights was Englishman Gerry Breen who accidentally discovered the little-used Lagos Aeroporto in 1985 when it was no more than an empty control tower with a small hangar and no paved runway. The câmara gladly rented Gerry the facility for the princely sum of 5,000 escudos a month – about £25. The weather and the relative ease of access, together with Breen’s international reputation for skilful pioneering flights, gave focus to the local flyers to create the gem we have today which attracts pilots from all over Europe for experience and training in a professional but relaxed atmosphere. Gerry retired with 20,000 hours under his wings and the current chief pilot Malcolm Howland is a respected professional of 8,000 hours in both microlights and the sophisticated powered ‘hang-gliders’ of today called flexwings.

This September, the Aeroclube worked miracles finding and organising accommodation for the expected 50 visitors, working with hoteliers in the knowledge that weather could interfere or even cancel the event. In fact, the thick autumnal blanket of fog on the morning of the 7th did cause a hiccup and when aircraft started arriving in the afternoon, they found that a hangar had been converted into a seated area with a welcome meal provided for all. The ceiling hung with local planes provided the correct backdrop and atmosphere. José do Carmo, Carlos Pina and the Sá family deserve special thanks.

Male and female pilots ranged in age from 25 to 82 with five Portuguese and fourteen Spaniards and, although most were private ‘fun’ fliers, a couple were professional airline pilots enjoying Bradshaw navigation and stick and rudder flying as a break away from their automated glass cockpits. They all agreed with the Aeroclube that such a welcome demanded a return and plans are in place for an event next year.

We were also reminded of the dangers of flying when a female pilot tripped over an earthbound guy rope and dislocated her shoulder – the only casualty (quickly fixed) in an otherwise flawless event.

For aeroplane enthusiasts, a very good read is Gerry Breen’s book Plastic Wings ISBN9781096647225. How he survived his early clifftop leaps in home-built ‘tent pole and polythene’ experiments is a miracle.