Champion Birdman Ron Freeman has smashed two world records

Ron Freeman, the Birdman of Newbiggin by the Sea, has just smashed two world records


You would expect to find a double world record holder and two-time world champion in luxurious surroundings.

But Ron Freeman is not one out of the bottle, as a certain football manager once said.

The undisputed king of the “birdman” world - the art of jumping off a pier attached to a glider - is instead to be found in a cul-de-sac in the Northumberland town of Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, with the gear which has taken him to the top stuffed into his garage.

But don’t be fooled. There’s nothing amateur or half-hearted about him.

Ron is a perfectionist. He trains at Newbiggin, further up the coast at Druridge Bay and even in the Ingram Valley four or five times a week, then almost every day in the run-up to competition.

Wife Jacquie accompanies him armed with a video camera, so that Ron can study each jump and hone his already world beating technique.

It is an approach which has its roots in advice given to him by his dad: “He taught me practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfection.”

Indeed, Ron has a lot to thank his dad for. As a high wire walker at Billy Smart’s Circus, Ron credits his old man with teaching him the balance which has been so key to his birdman, paragliding and hang gliding success - with his two world titles in the latter sport.

Another family member, his sister, was instrumental in instilling in him his passion for flight.

When Ron was seven, she took him to see a production of Peter Pan. Watching Peter in flight, triggered something in him.

“That just absolutely threw me. I think it was then I thought flying, everything has been flying.”

It was a passion that got him into trouble at a young age.

“I was often sent to the headmaster for throwing paper aeroplanes off the roof. I used to get six of the best!”

On one occasion the police visited Ron’s home after a kite he was flying was interfering with air traffic control. Ron got the kite up to 2,000 feet, higher than the 200 permitted.

“I wanted to see how high I can get the kite. There was aircraft grounded at Newcastle Airport!”

He too was grounded - for a week.

Trouble was not something Ron was a stranger to as a teenager who grew up in Ashington, having been born in Scotland, after falling in with some bad lads.

But in addition to his dad, he credits a rather more high profile figure, Ashington-born Jack Charlton, with helping set him on the right course.

Ron’s grandmother was a friend of Jack’s and she arranged for the two to meet amid concern at the trouble he was getting into it. It was 1970, just after Jack had returned from the World Cup in Mexico.

Ron told the famous footballer how he wanted to make something of his life but how was he was merely a miner’s son who suffered dyslexia. Jack replied that he and brother Bobby were also the sons of a miner and yet they had won the world cup.

The straighttalking footballer told Ron he could see a twinkle in his eye and gave him some advice he has lived his life by.

“There is doers and there is don’ters. Make a choice. Simple as that.” Jack told Ron he believed he too was a doer and he has never looked back. He got into the county team at both squash and badminton and after finishing school at 14, Ron did a two-year apprenticeship in radio and TV electronics. All the time he was working on aerials, however, he would look out over the surrounding landscape and dream of flying above it.

“They used to get me on the roof and they could not get me down.”

Ron then worked on a building site for a year before taking a job making badminton racquets. He later found employment at the leisure centre in Ashington.

It was there that Ron, who was into flying model aircraft, first had a go at hang gliding, at the age of 18.

Within three weeks he had bought his own hang glider. He took part in his first competition, the Scottish international, in 1979, when his mum would drive him to events.

Ron met the captain of the British team who invited him to Yorkshire to “learn how to fly properly.”

It paid off. Within two years, Ron was part of the British team, holding down a place for six years. In 1981, he helped Britain to the world team championships in Japan, repeating the feat four years later in Austria.

Such was their dominance that Ron confidently states: “If hang gliding had been at the Olympics, I would have two gold medals. We have tried to get it in, we are going to keep on trying. I think it should be a spectator sport.”

He discovered the Birdman world in 1997. He suggested to a friend they have a go and in his first event, Ron came second.

“I do not know what took me so long, I saw it on telly, I thought bloody hell, that is quite good.”

The description above is a bit simple. In fact participants are strapped to gliders they make themselves, run along a platform on the pier - which Ron treats “like a Lindford Christie 100m,” and jump. They then seek to glide as far as they can, at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour, before landing in the sea.

“The first time I took part I was bricking it,” Ron admits now.

Over the last 17 years, Ron has jumped 42 times in converted hang gliders he makes at his home.

Seventeen of those were at the Bognor Regis international Birdman, winning on 15 occasions and finishing runner up the other two. He holds the event record with a jump of 89 metres.

Ron took part in the International Eastbourne Birdman from 2000 to 2004, triumphing in all. Again, he took the tournament record with a jump of 76 metres. He has also competed in the Worthing International Birdman since 2008, clocking up six wins and a second place.

On his most recent appearance a week past Saturday, he broke two world records. The first was for longest jump, with a staggering 159-metre effort which earned him a £10,000 jackpot prize.

It marked the fourth time he had smashed the record at the event with the jump beating his previous best from last year of 106.3-metres, which had similarly topped his earlier best of 99.8-metres - figures he regularly eclipses in training.

Ron also broke the record for longest time off the ground, being airborne for 20.2 seconds - smashing the previous best of 17 seconds. Unfortunately, the records were broken in the absence of 18-year-old son Connor, who has travelled to watch him since he was one. “He is gutted,” smiled Ron.

Footage from his record breaking flight was shown at the premiere of Meet the Birdman, a documentary in which Ron features, after the Worthing event.

His achievements have seen him appear on TV show Record Breakers back in 2004, as well as Blue Peter and the Dick and Dom show. Ron also met the late Sir Patrick Moore, a big figure in the birdman world, and Sir Richard Branson.

He believes his background as a trained hang glider pilot and his 4,700 flying hours are what put him at the top of the game.

“What makes me such a success at the event is I am a very keen radio controlled model builder. I understand physics, theory of flight. I build really good flying machines. Also practice.

“When I fly a hang glider, the wing tips feel like my finger tips. The flying machine feels part of me. When I climb in to a hang glider, it feels like I am putting my coat on.

“Everytime you go, it is different, that is the reason I enjoy it. I love a challenge. If someone says something can not be done I step forward.”

Perhaps he has Big Jack to thank for that attitude. Ron has not met the man whose words have stayed with him since, but is hoping to express his gratitude for the advice in person.

Looking ahead, Ron is to continue running Northumbria Airsports, the business he set up in 2001, two years after leaving the leisure centre, teaching hang gliding and paragliding across the region and in Yorkshire.

The 58-year-old has no plans to retire from the birdman events, and is hoping to crack the 200-metre mark.

“If I can get some wheels on a zimmer frame, I will probably be taking part when I am 70! It keeps me alive!”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
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Mark Douglas
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