Meet the man who left a motor racing career behind in order to become a stunt pilot and wing-walk revivalist. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Howard Simmons.
When we tell one another stories about lifealtering decisions, we tend to gloss over those days when we wanted to quit, and skip straight to the breakthroughs. Vic Norman, however, is the exception. The legendary stunt pilot is deliciously candid, freely admitting that he and his stomach weren’t exactly simpatico when he started out. ‘When I decided to do this back in 1982, I practised constantly and was sick every time,’ he laughs. ‘I was like that for six months. Then, one day I wasn’t. Since then, I’ve done more than 1500 air shows and have never been so busy.’
Chatting in the Engine Shed at RFC Rendcomb Aerodrome in Gloucestershire, the likable sometime racer is clearly in his element, but then he is surrounded by memorabilia that stretches from pre-war aviation posters to motorcycles of similar vintage. And what a life it has been, even though the affable 67-year-old tends to dismiss it as being one long lucky streak. He comes across as a man who takes things seriously without being serious. As such, he is great company.
‘My passion for cars and aeroplanes began with my dad,’ he says. ‘He was a playboy, an East End boy made good. At one point he employed 220 people in his main business, Balfour Marine Engineering, but then he acquired the manufacturing rights to the American AMI jukebox and things just skyrocketed. He couldn’t make them quickly enough. This was the time of the 45rpm record and jukeboxes were everywhere. Dad wasn’t afraid of spending his money, either. He would order a new Ferrari each year, while mum always had a new powder-blue Roller.
‘As a boy, I took it all for granted. I was completely spoiled but then dad died when I was 13. That changed everything. He had owned ’planes and had known a lot of the guys at the Stapleford Flying Club, so they took me under their wing, so to speak. I started flying – or rather started flying formally – when I was 17. I had a licence but no use for it. I couldn’t afford to do anything with it so I packed it in.’
There was always motor racing. ‘In the ’60s, I raced karts competitively. I was up against the likes of (future BTCC driver) Derek Brunt, who was very good. “Shunter” still calls me “Young Vic”, but he is in his eighties. Then there was Roy James, better known as one of the gang behind The Great Train Robbery. I was good enough to be selected for the British team one year, the problem being that I had a forged licence. At that time, you needed to be 16 in order to race. I was 14 so… That said, I used to drive the van to all the meetings with the kart in the back. I had nobody controlling me at that time so pretty much did what I wanted.’
He did, however, discover a distraction in the teenage model Anne Margaret, who later became his wife. ‘We met at a Rolling Stones concert at Leyton Baths in East London in 1964. She was 16 and lived on the King’s Road, which seemed like the place to be. I was 17 at the time. I left Millfield School and enrolled at the Chelsea College of Aeronautical Engineering, which was nearby on Sydney Street. Then I met Alain de Cadanet and he had a massive impact on my life. In 1971, I went with him to Le Mans, just to help out, and went back every year for the rest of the decade in one capacity or other. Alain told me that I should follow my heart and do something that interested me rather than tying myself down to a regular job. He suggested I buy some old racing cars. I would have fun racing them and they would probably go up in value. I took his advice.
‘Back in the early ’70s, it was possible to buy a car and go racing without it costing the earth. Cars that nowadays go for millions were within reach of guys like me. At various points I had a Ferrari 250GT SWB Berlinetta, an Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-type, a Maserati 300S and an ex-Fangio 250F. I also had a Ferrari 250GTO, which Nick Mason now owns. I got £16,000 for it, which was a record price in 1978. I was delighted!’
He wasn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty, either. ‘I helped in the preparation myself. Apart from anything else, I was interested in the engineering side of things. What was really great in those days was that Emmanuel de Graffenried would phone and say that he was arranging a support race to the Monaco Grand Prix, or suchlike. He would ask me if I would mind bringing along the 250F; that the organisers would pay me a bit of money and give me a couple of tickets to watch the F1 boys if I did. When I was competing, it was possible to run these cars and maybe even earn something just from racing them.’
Preparing historic racing cars subsequently became a business, Rosso Racing fielding a Ferrari 512BB/LM in the World Championship of Makes. ‘I did all the testing with that car, and also drove it in the 1980 Silverstone 6 Hours in the run up to Le Mans.’ Norman finished seventh alongside Chris Craft and the car’s owner, Steve O’Rourke. He also became a Ferrari dealer, albeit more by happenstance than planning. ‘I think Ferrari’s reasoning was that because we were racing Ferraris, we should also sell road cars. I think we sold three. It was pretty hopeless, but by then I was keen to get back into flying.
‘There have been so many people who have influenced me over the years, and Patrick Lindsay was chief among them. Aside from being a very good driver, he used to fly to VSCC meetings in his Spitfire or a biplane of some kind. We became good friends and Patrick fired me up about flying again so I bought a Stampe biplane. I then met Richard Goode, captain of the British aerobatic team and another major influence. I used to fly to air shows and let him put on a display using my ’plane because I wasn’t good enough. It seems hard to believe but I got paid; I would get money for letting someone fly my aeroplane.
It was like start money in motor racing.’ Competing in Historics gradually took a back seat, the decision to quit for good occurring at the 1985 European Grand Prix meeting at Brands Hatch. ‘By that time I had the ex-Joachim Bonnier BRM P25 and I qualified it on the third row for the support race,’ he recalls. ‘Just after the start, Stephen Langton’s Connaught hit the barriers with real force. Stephen was thrown out of the car and landed on the track in front of me. I missed him by about an inch. He died from his injuries and that scared me. I knew the risks but I had a family. Of course, I was into stunt flying by then. It probably sounds like I swapped one dangerous pursuit for another, but I didn’t see it like that. When I was in the air, I was in charge of my own destiny. I still feel that way.’
The purchase of a Czech-made Zlin 50 monoplane in 1982 saw our hero make the leap from rookie to full-time stunt pilot. ‘It was the ultimate aerobatic aircraft of its day and I had massive, if unofficial, support from the factory. They would send me stuff free of charge. What really made it happen for me, though, was getting sponsorship. Without it, I would have been dead in the water. I seem to have a knack for attracting backers.’
Things moved on apace with the formation of AeroSuperBatics in 1989, the team becoming celebrated across the globe, not least for its wing-walking routines involving plucky young ladies. The current Breitling-liveried fleet stretches to five Stearmans, with all work bar engine rebuilds being done on-site. ‘To begin with, it was a huge risk financially but fortunately we have been very successful. 2014 was our busiest-ever year and I reckon 2015 will probably beat it, which is great.’
So is he not tempted to venture trackside again? ‘No. I did it and had a great time, but historic racing has changed a lot in the meantime. The problem for me is that there are too many poseurs out there. There are guys who cannot be bothered working their way up the ranks and honing their racecraft. They just buy the quickest car out there. Don’t get me wrong, there are many good drivers but, from what I’ve seen, there are just as many who are out of their depth. You don’t get that with flying. You need skill and discipline. If you don’t have both, you will kill yourself. It’s that simple. There are no shortcuts.’
Warming to the theme, he continues: ‘Think about it. Why is there such disparity in values between historic aircraft and old racing cars? Compare something like a Spitfire with, say, a 250GTO. Both are legendary in their own way, but one is worth a fraction of the other. I hate mentioning values, but it is relevant. If anyone could fly a vintage aircraft, they would be worth considerably more than they are. But they’re tricky so you need to persevere.
Motorcycles are the same. I love doing events such as the Pioneer Run because you’re riding alongside like-minded souls who know what they’re doing.’
Norman’s collection of motorcycles is impressive and typically eclectic, the undoubted highlight being a 1913 Flying Merkel. ‘It was just about the fastest thing on two wheels in period. I bought it from my good friend Bud Ekins who was, of course, well-known for his stunt work on The Great Escape. I have a couple of his old ’bikes.’
So, given a lifetime of adrenaline-fuelled fun, what does he enjoy doing most now? ‘Oh, that’s easy. On the rare occasion I have free time, the thing I enjoy doing most is nothing at all. I suppose it’s an age thing. I have been immensely fortunate in that I have never had a real job. I’ve never had a boss telling me what to do, but I enjoy being a team player. I love what we do here, even though I have throttled back on doing all the air shows. These days, I tend to pick and choose.’
And with that, duty calls, but not before an anecdote involving Peter Sellers, Radford Minis and ‘The Grand Prix of Regent’s Park’. That, and one concerning an epic motorcycle ride across the length of the Med back in 2009, which spanned places such as Syria and Libya. ‘You couldn’t do it now…’ he adds by way of a parting shot. Few people would have done it then, but it seems that life for Vic Norman has rarely been dull.
Left and below. Norman alongside his 1913 Flying Merkel ‘bike, in the once-derelict engine shed at RFC Rendcomb Aerodrome, from where wingwalking team AeroSuperBatics is run. Above and left. Norman’s Rosso Racing outfit fielded this Ferrari 512BB/ LM in the World Championship of Makes; he once owned the ex-Fangio works Maserati 250F, pictured here with Norman driving at Silverstone in 1979.