Operating safely at unlicenced airfields, which can often be quiet, is a subject close to Safety Editor Nick Heard’s heart
30 January 2023
The aircraft flew an approach to Runway 28 at Finmere Aerodrome at a height lower than required to keep a safe distance above road traffic passing the runway threshold. The right main landing gear contacted the top of an articulated vehicle passing underneath , and the pilot elected to go-around.
The aircraft made an emergency call on 121.5 MHz and continued to Elstree Aerodrome without further incident. Although there are no regulatory requirements for unlicenced aerodromes, the owner of Finmere Aerodrome has stated her intention to increase awareness of the large volume of vehicles on the road for pilots unfamiliar with the aerodrome.
History of the flight
The aircraft departed Elstree aerodrome with the intention of flying to Finmere with one passenger on board. The departure, and en route segments of the flight, were uneventful and the aircraft joined a left-hand circuit for Runway 28 at Finmere as planned.
The pilot stated he was familiar with Finmere, previously having flown there several times, and he was aware of a road which passes perpendicular and close to the end of Runway 28.
As the aircraft turned on to final at approximately 1.5 miles from the threshold, the pilot recalled visually confirming there was no traffic on the road. As the aircraft approached, he noticed, in his peripheral vision, a vehicle turning onto the road from the right. He stated that at this time he was focused on his landing point on the runway.
He described hearing a ‘bang’ as the aircraft passed over the road and the passenger saw an articulated vehicle pass underneath them. The pilot and passenger both suspected the right main landing gear had contacted the vehicle, although the flying characteristics of the aircraft did not change.
The pilot opted to go-around to assess if the aircraft had sustained any damage. He and the passenger were not able to visually identify any structural damage to the landing gear.
As Finmere does not have an ATC service, the pilot called the Distress and Diversion (D&D) on the emergency frequency 121.5 MHz. He declared an emergency and requested assistance from D&D to obtain a visual assessment of the right landing gear prior to landing.
The pilot was informed by the D&D controller that the aircraft could be inspected by ground personnel at Oxford Airport or Elstree Aerodrome.
He opted to return to Elstree Aerodrome where he flew a low pass before ATC and a ground operations vehicle confirmed they could not see any damage to the aircraft’s landing gear.
The aircraft landed without further incident.
Finmere Aerodrome is an unlicenced aerodrome located 11 nm west of Milton Keynes. It has one asphalt runway, 10/28, which is 701m long. The end of Runway 28 is 35m from the road (Figure 1). Finmere requires pilots to request permission before visiting.
This was a really close shave for both the aircraft occupants and the vehicle driver. A few inches lower and the collision would have been much more severe. However, the pilot looks to have done a good job in handling the incident.
A go-around was a prudent decision after hearing the loud bang. He sought assistance from the D&D, and obtained a visual inspection before landing.
He flew the aircraft throughout and landed safely back at Elstree.
The incident raises the issues involved in operating at quiet, unlicenced airfields with very little supervision or monitoring of vehicle traffic both on or off the airfield.
Some years ago, a much worse incident occurred at an airfield in Norfolk in which a Christen Eagle collided with an agricultural vehicle which was crossing the runway threshold.
One pilot was killed instantly. The second survived for a month or so without regaining consciousness before succumbing to his injuries. The latter pilot was a very good friend of mine from RAF and airline days, and I was a part-owner of the aircraft.
The subject of operating safely at unlicenced airfields is, therefore, very close to my heart.
Pilots who learn to fly at larger licenced airfields enjoy a certain amount of protection from threats such as vehicles both on or near their airfield.
Vehicle traffic on the airfield will be under some sort of control, either directly or procedurally.
Runway thresholds close to public roads may have inset touchdown points to guide pilots to landing further into the runway.
Licenced airfields, therefore, offer better protection for pilots against vehicles, though it is obviously still vital that pilots keep a good lookout for any rogue vehicles whose drivers may have missed or ignored the rules.
You might have the right of way over a vehicle while in an aircraft, but I would not rely on the law to help you out of a potential collision!
Flying into – and out of – quiet unlicenced strips is far more hazardous in terms of vehicular traffic and, indeed, other potential obstructions to your flying. If you learn to fly on such airfields – and there are many such airfields offering training quite happily – you will learn of the potential dangers as you progress through your flying.
During a recent approach to my airfield in Suffolk, for example, we noticed that a significant flock of deer had assembled on the runway threshold. Needless to say we went around, at which point the deer trotted off towards some nearby woods.
We still kept a beady eye out on the next approach in case of any rapid return of the deer to the runway.
So the most difficulty may be felt by the new pilot who has learned to fly at a licenced airfield and who is now venturing to an unlicenced airfield for the first time. Some research into the airfield will be vital to the pilot.
They should consult any airfield information from proper sources. An online satellite view of the airfield will offer very good guidance as to proximity of public roads.
Probably of most use will be a telephone call to the airfield operator. That will give the most up-to-date guidance on the airfield on what to expect, including watching for vehicular traffic. There might even be dog walkers of whom you need to be aware.
Many airfields have agricultural activity on them throughout the year – it is really important that you maintain a constant watch for such traffic when operating at these airfields, as it’s very likely that the drivers of such vehicles may not see you, and they will almost certainly not hear you inside a noisy tractor cab.
And, as I mentioned above, watch out for animals. They might be at their most active around dawn or dusk but they can pop out at any quiet moments. A first approach to go-around might be a good idea at a new rural strip both to gain confidence in the approach and to encourage animals to move away.
Some points to take away: