An appreciation by Denis Oglesby (Fellow)
Jan Whitaker has sent me the sad news that early BARCS “activist” John Whitaker died peacefully on the morning of New Year’s Eve after a period of terminal deterioration following several years in a Yorkshire care home suffering from Parkinson’s.
BARCS as we now know it, was, in the early years, actually a sub section of a slope orientated organisation of the same name founded by our first president Dave Hughes (No 2). Thermal soaring was then being promoted by Geoff Dallimer (No 1) and the late Dave Dyer (No 12) in Herts and Bedford respectively, R/C thermal soaring had started to become a practical proposition thanks to the recent commercial availability of two proportional channels. This relatively southern “outbreak” was soon racing northwards (neck and neck with Dutch Elm disease).
Initially located in Lincolnshire, John was soon infected (not Dutch Elm) as was Terry Beedham and others of the same county. John (then in the Nat West Bank) served as BARCS Membership Secretary then Treasurer while Terry became the first Northern Area Rep and an early top flier.
In the seventies, John was moved north to manage a bank on North Humberside and lived not far from where I worked. I was an early R/C thermal “attempter” from the very start of the seventies but had not recognised BARCS as relevant to the north. John rapidly changed all that, I often visited his house. Compared to my circumstances as a junior engineer, he seemed to live in a semi-detached mountain with a somewhat chaotic family plus a mad dog that did not like visitors! There, we would escape up two flights of stairs to his modelling refuge to discuss his latest project. He also enrolled me as member 193 (aerodynamically fortuitous!) and even tempted me onto the BARCS committee as the next NA Rep.
From my first attendance at a BARCS AGM I was tremendously impressed at how directly democratic it was with any member who attended able to contribute to discussions, propose amendments and counter amendments to proposals, all under the wonderfully calm and correct chairmanship of Chris Tomkins (No 55). Later chairmen were sometimes less accommodating!
By then BARCS was expanding so fast the task of greatly expanding the NA league calendar was a bit of a doddle, especially with frequent and always wise guidance from John.
As a young enthusiast it was quite exciting to attend those early BARCS committee meetings. We were rapidly covering most of England, developing our own rules, awards, achievements etc. I was often impressed by John’s wise and moderate contributions to the few awkward problems that came along. Perhaps not many members realised that we actually had ZERO AUTHORITY in the many years before BARCS eventually affiliated to BMFA. Nevertheless, BARCS rules and activities were very well accepted and dominated nearly all thermal activities in England and soon a lot of Scotland then later to form the basis of the now international F3J thermal soaring rules.
After just one year as NA Rep, BARCS secretary Bill Longley decided to stand down. Geoff Dallimer volunteered and was almost certain to be accepted except that, despite his considerable influence on thermal soaring, (and later helping to secure our 35MHz band) he had made other committee members a tad nervous as to how he might interpret his duties. It was then that John urged me to stand against him with the seconding of several committee members and thus I suddenly found myself a rather shocked young secretary of a national aeromodelling organisation!
BARCS membership was booming with at least 5 thousand competition flights taking place every year when John called a special meeting of some of the principal northern area members, the meeting was accessibly located just off the A63 in my house near Howden. He felt there was a need for a nationally centralised 2 or 3 day thermal soaring event that could be hosted by each BARCS area in turn with the first to be held at Pontefract racecourse on a spring bank holiday weekend. The details were prepared and organisational aspects delegated. I suggested we call it “RadioGlide”. I sketched an event transfer and later the BARCS transfer specialist, Dave Dyer, helped me finish the design that stayed much the same for years.
Onwards and upwards was the continuing theme, again I think it was the influence of Geoff Dallimer that led to a fully independent pre-affiliated BARCS being awarded the FAI Diplome D’ Honneur. Eventually BARCS membership hit its peak of just under one thousand members.
All the above had been helped by John’s continuing influence in those years but it would be amiss to not also remember the joy and humour we shared in those formative years. We towed each other a lot. Main spars were home built from spruce with wire joiners and long distance gentle tows were required to coax models to full height without folding the wings. I towed John to (and in) many a flyoff. His towing was certainly never the reason for my lack of trophies - he was usually getting difficult to see by the time I unhooked!
John was an early deserter of the usual Graupner 12% aerofoil glider of the time (it often failed to regain the flying field). He used one of the early large fibreglass fuselages available at that time and mated it with his own 12 foot span wing using the then state of the art 9% thick Eppler 387 aerofoil and became one of the first fliers I ever saw circling downwind in a thermal then successfully returning up wind! He campaigned much the same model for many years collecting plenty of trophies but often in a style that drew much humour from his fellow competitors. Some friendly rivals asked if John could teach them how he caught all his thermals they would teach John how to land! The early requirement to achieve a landing circle while flying towards the pilot often created orientation problems for pilots so he adopted the technique of facing away from the approaching model while watching it over his shoulder. Returning from downwind was often a problem in those early days and the urge to influence a model to the limits of its capability often caused pilots to use lots of “body language” to try and squeeze more performance on the approach. This would manifest itself in the style of an angler heaving his rod (aerial) over his shoulder to try and speed a model up. In extremis the tip of John’s long aerial was occasionally seen to be touching the ground behind him!
The rule in those days was that timing stopped at first contact with the ground and landing points were based on where the glider came to rest. On at least one occasion I saw John’s model cruising back towards the landing circle but running out of slot time. He would bang the model into the grass at speed just before the end of the slot then bounce back into the air to make a more leisurely entry into the circle.
Several of us particularly remember one of his far downwind thermalling excursions, we could see his model in line of sight between two levels of some high tension electricity grid lines in the middle distance. He eventually nursed it back to the circle and we asked him if he deliberately flew between the lines. He said he did not know, he had just controlled his elevator to maintain line of site clearance in between the lines until he was sure the model was his side of them!
Jan said it for many of us when she wrote “John was a lovely, lovely man and I loved him to bits”.