A PARAPLEGIC pilot set off yesterday on an epic solo flight from Yorkshire to Australia in a microlight in an attempt to set a new record.
Dave Sykes, 43, suffered severe injuries in a motorbike accident in 1993 and doctors gave him a less than a one-in-three chance of surviving.
But Mr Sykes has battled against the odds to recover from the accident before he decided to embark on daredevil pursuits despite his disabilities.
He took up parachuting before a broken leg meant his girlfriend, Lesley Lord, 42, banned him from the adventure sport – so he started taking flying lessons.
He is now braving scorching temperatures and inhospitable terrain to fly 11,600 nautical miles from York to Sydney in his £20,000 “flying motorbike” which has been specially adapted for his disability.
Instead of the steering and throttle being controlled by the driver’s feet, Mr Sykes uses his hands to achieve speeds of up to 90mph.
And he is seeking inspiration from another record-breaking feat from 80 years ago when Hull’s Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly solo to Australia in 1930.
If he succeeds, he will be the first person, disabled or otherwise, to fly the distance in a microlight – and is hoping to raise cash for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance in the process.
Mr Sykes, from Dewsbury, said: “The main problems are long periods in a cockpit for seven to eight hours and the heat.
“The high temperatures will have a big effect on both myself and the microlight, and we will both be needing lots of water to cool down.
“The engine overheating is the biggest thing I need to avoid.”
The P&M Aviation Quik machine will be flying above 18 countries on Mr Sykes’s epic journey, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
He will have stop-offs at major international airports as well as small airfields, and will then either rest in hotels or simply camp – an incredible challenge without a carer on hand.
Mr Sykes is setting off this month to avoid the monsoon season in Asia, although he admitted that a six-hour non-stop flight through the Saudi deserts will be one of his biggest challenges.
He is also faced with a long sea crossing from Rhodes to Cyprus before heading on to Egypt and then across the Timor Sea to Australia, which is about 300 miles.
He said: “It has not been attempted by anyone wheelchair-bound before. I am aiming to set a record for the furthest and longest flight by a disabled pilot.
“I wanted to celebrate the 80th anniversary of Amy Johnson’s achievement of being the first woman to fly solo to Australia in 1930 which was an amazing achievement, and this has always been an inspiration to me.
“I’ll be making 55 stops, landing at a mix of small airfields and large international airports. I’ll camp some nights and stay in hotels at other times.
“It’s all been meticulously planned. I have already emailed all the countries I am visiting to let them know what time I will be in their airspace. “Then if anything goes wrong or anything changes, I can email them again.
“There are certain things you can’t control of course, such as the weather, but I’m confident I can handle whatever is thrown at me. I will take everything as it comes.”
Mr Sykes now has more than 650 hours of flying experience, including one flight over the Alps at 12,500ft when he had to contend with a 70mph tail wind, severe turbulence and high winds.
When he returns to the United Kingdom, he is hoping to start a business buying and selling microlights.
Mr Sykes added: “When I broke my leg parachuting, Lesley put her foot down and said ‘don’t do that again or we’re finished’.
“I thought microlighting seemed the next best thing so I took that up instead and got my licence in April 2001.
“She’s very supportive of this and knows I am very experienced so I don’t think she’s worried, and I will be in regular email and phone contact.”
Mr Sykes took off from Rufforth airfield near York at 11am yesterday and the initial stages of his journey will see him pass over France, Italy and Greece.
He will then head on to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Oman before continuing over Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Burma.
The final stages of his record-breaking flight attempt will take him across Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, before he lands in Sydney within the next six to eight weeks.