Idris Elba

Idris Elba

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Idris Elba: No Limits

Award-winning actor Idris Elba takes on some of the world’s toughest challenges, including aerobatics, for a new show on Discovery Channel. P1 spoke to pilot Ed Cyster to find out how he taught the actor to overcome his fears and tackle some aerial moves.

The Golden Globe-winning actor performs all his own stunts in the new TV show Idris Elba: No Limits. The British actor is coached by some of the world’s leading pilots and drivers in order to take on rally driving, drag racing, aerobatics and an attempt to break the British land speed record, record set by Malcolm Campbell in 1927.

International NetworksOf all these skills, which would normally take years to master, it was aerobatics that Elba said pushed his fear factor to the limit due to his claustrophobia and fear of heights.

“The biggest struggle for me is dealing with my fear of heights,” he said. “Driving is what I like to do – it’s on the ground!”

To find out how the star handled the daunting task of learning to fly, P1 spoke to Elba’s instructor and one of the UK’s top aerobatic pilots, Ed Cyster, about how he taught an international star how to fly and face the dangers, difficulties and his fear of aerobatics.

Q. How did you get into aviation?

I was brought up with aviation from a young age, my dad was a jet pilot – he flew Lightnings and Phantoms so I was immersed in flying from a very early age. I learnt to fly pretty much straight away. Obviously I didn’t get my licence until my late teens, but I was flying my old man’s Tiger Moth. He was the first man in the world to fly a Tiger Moth to Australia, and I learnt to fly on that same Tiger Moth, it taught me everything I know about flying.

I went into business and worked my way up the business ladder and flew as a hobby, weekends, whenever I could. It wasn’t until I was earning a bit more money and was able to focus a bit more on my flying when I continued the aerobatics. I worked my way up the competition scene and I spend a lot of my time, in fact most of my time, either teaching aerobatics or training for myself. Teaching aerobatics which is where I met Idris and the concept was pitched to me by the production team.

Q. What was the process of you getting involved in the show?

There was an interview with myself and another couple of aerobatic people, one of them was actually a good friend of mine who I worked for, Alan Cassidy, who is very well known in the aerobatic world. I actually said in my interview they should use Alan, he’s got an extra two decades’ worth of experience than me, but they felt that I would get on well with Idris better because it was a unique format. I have never and probably will never do anything like it again.

Q. What was the process of training him to fly?

To summarise it, I had a complete training plan that I wanted to deliver, spent an evening preparing and day one, ripped it up, literally ripped it up. We just didn’t have the time, he didn’t have the skill base and it just wouldn’t have worked. You’ve got to remember all the people that we see have already got a PPL, there is probably 0.1% of people that come to us for PPL level. In my short time as a flying instructor, I’ve known two.

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So you don’t have to talk to them about critical levels of attack, you don’t have to explain what a stall is, or what a tail plane is, or what an aileron, or what a rudder is, all of those things are taken for granted when you’re teaching. So when I started talking to him about aileron, pitch, bank, roll, he just looked at me with a vacant expression – and it’s not his fault, if I spoke to any one of my friends, they would have the same blank look.

I was quite stressed at that point to be honest because I thought, what have I committed myself to? I’m going to look like a donut with a guy who can’t fly a plane at the end of this. So I kind of treated it like a video game and got him in the aircraft and said, ‘right, this is what I want you to do,’ I demonstrated it, gave him control, he did it, and then just consolidated. So he didn’t know when he was pulling, what part of the plane he was moving, he didn’t know when he rolled that the ailerons were moving, he didn’t understand any of that all – he understood was that if he moves his hand here it does this.

Q. Did you need to give him some persuasion to do any of
the manoeuvres?

He was actually pretty good, he was apprehensive about the whole thing and that kind of put him off a lot of the things we were doing, but when he got into it he was actually pretty good.

Q. What aircraft were your flying?

An XA41, which is an XtremeAir, two-seater, fully carbon with 315
horse-power.

Q. Is that the typical training aircraft you use for training?

No, we had to use that one, I would normally teach in the Pitts because it’s more efficient to run commercially and a little bit slower and a little bit easier in many respects to fly. But he was too big so we couldn’t do it. We had to put him in a higher performance machine because he was so heavy – he’s a big guy so that was demanding.

Idris Elba at white waltham airfield, training for the Aerobatics competition.
Idris Elba at White Waltham airfield, training for the Aerobatics competition.

Q. What was the biggest challenge that you as an instructor faced?

I guess it would be the fact we just didn’t have enough time to complete everything we needed to complete. We had a big hill to climb and we could have done with another two to three weeks of intensive flying to really consolidate a lot of the work. That was the problem. But he did well.

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Q. It was a dangerous challenge for Idris to be involved in, were you surprised he was willing to take part?

Willing is an interesting word because he was very reluctant at times, not in a negative way just in a fear way – it really was genuine, he was very nervous about the flying, he was nervous about everything. So I actually think he did really well considering the stress he was under.

Q. How did you introduce him to flying and aerobatics?

It was an introduction flight essentially, so if you can imagine it’s a Saturday afternoon, someone wants to do a trial lesson, likes the idea of aerobatics, we take them up, we might not do too many aerobatics at all as it’s an orientation lesson, and actually I decided on that flight not to do any aerobatics. He’d never been in a light aircraft before, so I didn’t want to push him. So we just went for a flight, I think we did one loop, we did a bank, steep turns, nothing crazy – he enjoyed it.

Q. Was he comfortable with flying?

It didn’t come naturally to him, he was not a natural pilot, it was an alien environment for him and he was very open about it being so. He was out of his comfort zone – way, way out of his comfort zone.

Q. Did he bring any of the celebrity status baggage?

To be honest one of the reasons why I think I got on with him so well was he left all of that at the door, there was no ego, there was no attitude. Interestingly, last summer I spent two or three days flying with Harrison Ford in a Cessna 180, a tail dragger, and I was a little bit apprehensive about that flight because I was checking this celebrity out wondering what will he be like, but he was exactly the same if not better. Aviation is a great leveller for people because they come into something out of their comfort zone and they respond really well to it.

Idris Elba takes part in the aerobatics final competition in Coventry.
Idris Elba takes part in the aerobatics final competition in Coventry.

Q. Overall how would you as an instructor say he performed as a pilot?

Overall, I think he performed really well, I was happy with the result, I think he did a really good job and I hope he did too.

You can see how Idris Elba and Ed Cyster handled the challenges in Idris Elba: No Limits, now showing on Discovery Channel