> A Flying Visit
by Tom Brearley
There are more interesting ways to travel from Devon to London than stuck behind a caravan on the A303... . With the late May bank holiday forecast to be a scorcher, Friday lunchtime was spent busily making some non-work related phone calls.
Rob Grimwood, the CFI* at Plaistows Farm seemed a good deal friendlier than the guy at Denham who ran the old "No microlights" line. So with a destination sorted I spent the evening slightly manicly marking up maps, buying petrol and checking NOTAMS.*
The planning showed it would be 138 nautical miles each way. With G-MTNU (a 1987 Thruster TST) cruising at 50 knots that meant about 3½ hours flying, allowing for the usual taxiing, taking off, landing and generally messing about in the circuit. A 40 litre tank and a thirsty 503, which gets through 13 litres an hour, not to mention a much smaller capacity P1* bladder, meant a stop somewhere in the middle was called for. Popham was my preferred choice, for its handy garage and excellent cafe.
Going on even a local flight in the TST feels like a bit of an adventure, so this looked like a good couple of days' aviating!
After quite a lot of procrastinating over the (totally unforecast) low cloud and fresh southerly wind on Saturday morning, my overnight kit was eventually stashed in plastic bags located in strategic nooks and crannies around the Thruster's minimalist pod, the tank was topped brim full and we proceeded to get airborne off Dunkeswell's runway 17 at midday.*
As usual for my cross-country trips, the initial 5 minutes were all about seeing how wrong last night's wind drift planning was and working out the correction to actually apply to the compass course. About 10° to south seemed called for today. I don't use GPS, on the basis that I actually quite enjoy the whole slide-rule-and-string approach to navigation. It helps that the Thruster is so slow that any wandering off course is easily spotted.
By the time I'd passed Yeovil, the overcast was starting to break up and there was blue sky to be seen in the distance. As if to confirm that summer weather was round the corner, some lively thermals began tickling 'NU's wings. A quick check of the sight tube confirmed that fuel was not leaking out of any particularly large hole and there was no need to land at Compton Abbas. I climbed to 2,800ft, gave Compton a call to say I was crossing the top of their zone and pressed on east (pic right)
With Alderbury a couple of miles behind me, a precautionary call to Boscombe Zone confirmed that the RAF weren't working on the weekend and so I carried on through their MATZ*. The Chilbolton radio telescope, gazing blindly up into space near Middle Wallop, told me I was on track and a few minutes later 'NU and I reached the A303 a few miles west of Popham, my planned refuelling stop. Plenty of slow moving caravans in evidence!
Popham was almost as busy as for the trade fair, with 4 in the circuit, including an impatient Yak driver who seemed not to understand that microlights travel slowly. By now I was regretting the morning's coffee so landing on 21 was, shall we say, a considerable relief. Total 'engine-on' to 'engine-off' time had been 2 hours, with 76 miles covered.
The all day breakfast was gratefully grabbed in the clubhouse just before it became swamped by a hoard of bikers out for their weekend run. I was about to walk over the the petrol station with my jerry can when another Thruster pilot came over and introduced himself. He was also a Tom and learning to fly at Popham on a T600N. I gladly accepted his lift to the garage and bought some 2-stroke oil off him, as I'd stupidly forgetten to bring any myself. (There's always something...)
Tom couldn't have been friendlier, and suggested we take off together and meet up in the air with his dad, who flew a T300 from a nearby strip. (For the uninitiated, the T300 is an upgraded TST which the Thruster factory started producing in the late 1980s. The T600 succeeded both in the 1990s.) The idea of a Thruster sortie was appealing and since the strip was only a few minutes away I was happy to follow Tom2 into the air and north towards the Hannington Transmitter on the edge of the downs.
We soon found the red and white T300 waiting for us on the ground and circled round the field like a couple of demented midges while it climbed up to meet us. Tom snr. then proceeded to put the T300 through its paces with an impromptue display of microlight aerobatics. A little bit like this www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgC3-7SsyklNot strictly legal, but highly dramatic! (Don't try this at home. Usual disclaimers apply... )
Watching the demonstration from the air was an extraordinary experience - a bit like watching a football match from the centre spot, if that makes any sense. It was one of those unexpected moments which make microlighting so much fun and make you think what a great bunch of people it attracts. Cheers Tom.
Conscious that I was already running late, I waggled of my wings and turned the TST back on course. The next waypoint was the abandoned US air base at Greenham Common - where they weirdly seem to have dug up the huge B52-length runway and grassed it. There I called up 'Farnborough West' for a Basic Service (I was keen to get the London QNH* with the Heathrow Control Area looming ever lower). With communication established I set course at 2,000ft. north-east across the Thames into the Chiltern Hills which lay basking beneath me now in some really glorious afternoon sunshine. My final turn point, the Stokenchurch Transmitter, was visible 15 miles away, so with the navigation taking care of itself I was able to relax and take in the gently rolling wooded countryside below.
With the London CTA* stepping down from 4,500 ft. to 3,500, and then finally 2,500, I made sure I didn't let the thermals take me too much above 2,000'. Asked to change to 'Farnborough North' when I got to Stokenchurch, I was disconcerted to hear a Scottish accent giving instructions! For a moment I thought I'd made a complete cock up and got Glasgow or somewhere on the radio. However, it seemed just to be a Caledonian working in Surrey.
The TV mast at Stockenchurch by the M40 was my last turn point, and the remaining 21 miles to Plaistows went quickly. Being bounded on three sides by motorways, the strip is dead easy to find, but the circuit is a bit interesting as you pass downwind over the M1/M25 interchange and then approach to land beside electricity pylons.
My initial landing on runway 15 revealed it had a significant down slope and without any brakes I was unlikely to stop in the 320 m. available. A quick change of plan was called for and after a go around, and some precautionary blind calls on 129.825, an uneventful landing was made uphill on the reciprocal 33. The engine spluttered to a stop and as I climbed stiffly from the plane I was met by the smell of freshly cut grass and the sounds of rural Hertfordshire on a gorgeous calm summer's evening. Birds warbled, sheep bleeted, cows cowed. The place seemed deserted. Only the distant murmour of motorway traffic hinted that I migh be anywhere near London.
By chance the owner, Derek Brunt, flew in in his Dynaero Bambi a few minutes later. A wonderfully open, friendly chap, he was soon regaling me with his trip that afternoon to the RAF museum at Duxford. Mr Brunt clearly loves flying for its own sake, because he wouldn't hear of me paying a landing fee. A donation to chartity was at my discretion.
I thoroughly recommend Plaistows for any club member needing a base near the capital. This is what microlight farm strip flying is all about.
It was great to see the family. Dad had an early birthday and Will, my brother, made me a smashing cup of coffee at his smart new flat.
Unfortunately having checked the forecast for Monday on Sunday morning, it looked like there was a real risk getting caught up in the thundery showers that were supposed to arrive in the south-east on the bank holiday. By contrast Sunday was turning into a glorious summer's day with light winds and not a cloud in the sky.
A flying visit indeed! Sunday afternoon saw me back at Plaistows for the return trip. The route would simply be a repeat of the outbound one so planning was easy - 180° added to the compass headings with minimal wind correction needed.
In fact the flight back was superb. As I set course from Plaistows, Rob the CFI called me on the radio to ask whether I minded him coming alongside in his Eurostar so his student could see a Thruster. The shiny aluminium creation pulled alongside and cocked it's nose in the air to fly at my speed. I couldn't help thinking that open cockpit flying was a lot more fun on a day like this than sitting under the Eurostar's perspex bubble.
Flying back along the edge of the Chilterns I lost some height near Watlington to have a closer look at one of the spurs of chalk downland which jut out into the plain below like headlands in a sea. A large bird of prey joined me for a few moments, and it may even have been one of the majestic red kites which were re-introduced into the area a few years ago. At least it looked browny-red to me. Fantastic!
There was a fair amount of traffic in the sky taking advantage of the conditions. Coming south from Newbury to Popham, Farnborough Radar were clearly having a busy day of it. A fast jet coming up to Kent from Newquay repeatedly asked for a Traffic Service, but was declined. Eventually the controller took a deep breath and reported:
Who says ATC don't have a sense of humour?
Once I'd refuelled again at Popham, the afternoon was slipping into a beautiful Sunday evening. As I passed over at 1,000 ft. the countryside seemed wonderfully peaceful. Village cricket matches and country houses were bathed in soft golden sunlight as the shadows slowly lengthened, and the sky overhead turned a rich shade of blue.
An aviator always has worries though no matter how lovely the view. My concern was that I hadn't started from Popham with a full tank, so some mental arithmetic was called for to check that my consumption was as expected. Twenty litres was the endurance I decided I must still have on board by the time I reached Compton Abbas. That would give me an hour's flying to get back to Dunkeswell plus a 30 minute reserve in case of a headwind or ground mist. Fortunately the cork float in the sight tube was bobbing at exactly "20" as I passed overhead Compton and so I was able to relax and enjoy the final leg across Dorset.
Reaching Dunkeswell at about 8pm, the circuit was deserted apart from the parachute plane. Although it had been a full couple of days' flying, I didn't feel mentally tired and celebrated my arrival with an attempt at a spot landing on the numbers of 23. (I may still need to work on my spot landings.)
The return flight took 3½ hours in the air, but more like 6 hours door-to-door including travel to the airfield, pre-flight checks and refuelling. Driving would maybe have taken 4 hours. The old adage, "Time to spare? Go by air" had been proved true again. But I can't think of a better way to travel from Devon to London and back - especially if you want to avoid caravans!
* Flying jargon for the uninitiated --
Devon & Somerset