Northern Ireland: A favourite place to fly, so it is…

With historic ruins, beautiful places, or the Game of Thrones trail… The stunning Province of Northern Ireland has it all

Beautiful Northern Ireland, full of warm and very funny people full of endless craic, is undoubtedly my favourite place to fly. Down at Kilkeel on the east coast, just north of the Irish border, our friends Gary and Gregory Nicholson host a legendary annual charity fly-in BBQ at their scenic 790m grass strip at Derryogue. Sadly for me, the late-July event usually clashes with my annual pilgrimage to Oshkosh. But with the USA still closed to overseas visitors, 2021 would offer a rare opportunity to make the fly-in with Eurostar flying buddies.

As ever with eagerly anticipated fun flying trips, the week prior to the Saturday 24 July event saw lots of weather checking (with the usual search for the forecast model with the best outcome!). However, while the models showed settled high pressure over Northern Ireland, they also all agreed that a frontal system in the south of England would block my southern-based route home for my pals. As a result, we agreed to bring the trip forward, with a Wednesday evening departure to Kilkeel followed by a full day of touring Northern Ireland’s scenic airfields and strips. 

Cloughey Bay

As ‘trip planner’, Tuesday evening was spent calling friends across Northern Ireland. As usual, I was met with endless generous offers of accommodation and feeding / fuel support, which ensured we could all travel as light as possible – always a key consideration on microlight trips. We also filed our General Aviation Reports (GAR). Under the Terrorism Act 2000, flights to and from Northern Ireland still require a GAR to be submitted with 12 hours’ notice but SkyDemon makes this painless and emails back a copy of the UK Border Force Collaborative Business Portal (CBP) system receipt. You can also send a GAR via the free Government online portal.

With my Eurostar syndicate partners unavailable, Nick Stone from Leicester flew to my Eshott base in his bright red group Eurostar SL and jumped in with me. I must admit that I really don’t enjoy water crossings so I welcomed Nick’s company, while Nick was happy to be reunited with our Eurostar G-CEVS which we bought off him and his syndicate when they purchased their red SL in 2015. First love never dies!

Nick and I set off from Eshott at 1500 down the Tyne Valley to rendezvous with our friends at Kirkbride. On England’s northern border, coast-to-coast from Newcastle to the Solway Firth is less than 80 miles, so in no time we arrived on Kirkbride’s expansive former WWII 1,280m runway. Our good friend Ben Davis from Finmere was already refuelling his Pioneer 300 G-OWBA which he’s had for two years since selling his Eurostar.

Post-pandemic, Carlisle sadly remains closed to visitors, so Kirkbride, which also has Jet A-1, is a great refuelling option in this part of the world, but always check with airfield operator John Plaskett for the latest.

No sooner had we met Ben, then Jon Crook from Brown Shutters near Bath, phoned to say he’d had early drama in his Eurostar, losing all oil pressure and had diverted into Barton. Fortunately, the awfully nice folk at the Mainair microlight flying school came to his aid and a faulty sender was quickly diagnosed, replaced and Jon resumed his journey north.

The sun shone as we lay on the grass waiting for Jon, amusing ourselves watching resident gyrocopter instructor Chris Jones doing circuits with a student in his 100hp Rotax-powered MT-03 gyrocopter. Jon finally arrived at 1800 and as John Plaskett had departed for the day, Chris Jones kindly offered mogas to ensure Jon had a healthy reserve for the sea crossing. Suitably refreshed, our 3-ship finally got airborne at 1830 for the 150-mile trip to Kilkeel. The Solway Firth is a great place to fly low-level with a wonderfully scenic coastline, but we were on a mission and climbed to 4,500ft for our water crossings, not only of the Irish Sea but also of sizeable Wigtown Bay (eight miles) and Luce Bay (14 miles).

St John's lighthouse in Dundrum Bay

Speaking to the endlessly helpful Scottish Information, we coasted out at the Mull of Galloway for the 24-mile crossing of the Irish Sea. Despite the high pressure haze, we could immediately make out the Northern Irish coastline which, to cowardly me at least, was a real comfort.

Just over halfway across and in order to maintain 4,500ft, we needed a clearance to enter the Class D airspace of the Strangford CTA-2 (base 3,500ft). True to form with UK airspace, this can be a bit confusing as the AIP (and hence SkyDemon) detail the controlling agency as Scottish, while the paper chart has it as Belfast/Aldergrove. But Scottish Info has the latest gen of course and passed us to a third option, Belfast City, which cheerfully cleared us through.

Approaching the coast, we descended to our more normal level of 500ft agl for sight-seeing, well below the base of the CTA. It really was a cracking evening in Northern Ireland as we followed the beautiful coast down the Ards Peninsula which largely separates Strangford Lough from the Irish Sea. Strangford Lough at 58 square miles, is the largest tidal inlet in the British Isles, the name deriving from the Norse Strangr Fjörðr, meaning ‘strong sea-inlet’ and a reminder that the pesky Vikings were busy in Ireland during the Middle Ages.

Millin Bay

Ben was clearly getting bored of flying the Pioneer alongside us at 86kt/100mph (Ben quotes 4,300rpm, 21inch MAP giving 9L/hr fuel burn) and accelerated away at 130kt/150mph (4,800rpm, 25inch MAP, 16L/hr). Impressive, but we were happy flying alongside Jon at sensible Eurostar speeds, enjoying the wonderful scenery and, besides, no one likes a show-off!

We passed over the Strangford Narrows, a small channel that connects Strangford Lough to the Irish Sea and orbited the little Angus Rock Lighthouse which marks rocks in the middle of this notoriously tricky sailing passage with its strong tidal flow. Just south of the Narrows is the former RAF Bishops Court, a WWII flying training airfield that became a radar station as part of the Cold War UK Air Defence system. The RAF departed in 1991 and today the airfield is home to the impressive two-mile Bishops Court racing circuit which hosts many superbike race meetings.

Passing numerous small, picturesque fishing ports, we observed Ben out to sea giving a spirited fly-by for a flotilla of prawn fishing boats which were heading out for the night. At the top of Dundrum Bay is St John’s Lighthouse which, at 130ft, is the highest onshore lighthouse in all of the island of Ireland. To aid navigators of old, it is painted in yellow and black bands and looks like a tribute to the humble bumble bee. Over at Breighton, Kate Howe’s Tipsy Nipper G-AWJE is painted in the same colours and it occurred to me that the lighthouse would be a wonderful backdrop for an air-to-air picture for the Nipper – I must remember to call Kate!

The former RAF Bishops Court, now a superbike racing circuit

Fantastic welcome

As we approached Newcastle, Co. Down, we were intercepted by our great friend Shane Kearney from Kilkeel in his immaculate Eurostar SL. Nick and I grabbed some air-to-airs in the golden hour light as Ben rejoined us adjacent to the magical Mourne Mountains, which include Northern Ireland’s highest mountain, Slieve Donard at 2,790ft. One and half hours after leaving Kirkbride, we flew low around Haulbowline Lighthouse in Carlingford Lough before landing in turn on the 790m lush grass of the Derryogue strip.

And what a fantastic welcome we received from Gary and Gregory and all of our Kilkeel pals who had turned out en masse, even lining up the seven resident Eurostar’s in a guard of honour. Eurostar owner Alan Doake arrived with a huge pile of fish and chips to feed the assembled crowd whose relentless banter was a joy after so many months of social isolation. As we tucked in, our good Eurostar pal John Parker arrived overhead having routed directly from his Lincolnshire strip, including a 100-mile crossing of the Irish Sea. The team was now complete and having been fed and watered, Gary, Shane, Alan and Bobby Morris invited us for a sunset local fly-about with Nick jumping in with Ben to experience ‘supersonic’ flight in the Pioneer. It was quite the sight as our 8-ship (Seven Eurostars and the Pioneer) departed at 2130, five minutes before sunset giving us 35 minutes of legal VFR.

Ardglass fishing village in County Down

Spectacular twilight

Carlingford Lough was breathtaking as the sun dipped below the mountains. The Lough marks the border with the Republic but we flew back and forth between Northern Ireland’s Co.Down shore and the Republic’s County Louth shore without any intervention from the Irish Air Force. Having avoided an international incident, our merry band followed formation-lead Gary in line-astern deep into the Mournes.

It was a spectacular twilight flight as we flew very low-level at 100mph among the highest six peaks, which are all over 2,300ft. Light winds aloft are essential for safe mountainous flight and conditions were perfect, though at number four, I occasionally experienced wake turbulence from the leaders. After an exhilarating 20 minutes of high-octane flying (and incomprehensible excited radio calls – to us English at least), we descended back through the mountains over the Silent Valley Reservoir which supplies the majority of Co. Down.

As the formation dispersed for landing, Jon Crook and I broke off to sea to enjoy the last few precious minutes of legal VFR. With the light fading, the moonlight reflected off the water in spectacular style and for the first time in my 1,300 hours, it gave me a real sensation of flying by moonlight. We finally landed bang-on at 2210, sunset + 30 after a truly exhilarating flight.

Carlingford Lough at sunset

It was at this point that a very strange thing happened. As darkness fell, Gary made a call to resident Stephen Cunningham saying we’d finally finished flying. In no time, a tractor towing a bowser appeared and started driving up and down the strip with full headlights. Very mysterious, and when we quizzed Gary he revealed that they were watering the strip to have it in pristine condition for the fly-in – amazing scenes in Northern Ireland, which is never too short of rain!

The team were in very high spirits as Gary and Gregory very kindly took us into their wonderful homes to put the five of us up for the night. We finally nodded off at around midnight as hugely dedicated tractor driver Michael McEvoy continued to water the strip. Don’t ever say the Kilkeel fellas don’t take their fly-in seriously!

After a great night’s sleep, the outrageous level of hospitality continued with a balcony breakfast in the sunshine – it certainly felt very Mediterranean, a feeling reinforced by Northern Ireland having just experienced a record temperature of 31.3°C
the day before. But as ever, we were on a mission and soon had the aircraft prepped for the busy day ahead. A huge thank you to Gregory’s wife, Grace and Gary’s wife, Whybree, for putting up with us all.

Once again, Gary, Shane and Bobby would join us for the day’s touring to make a 7-ship. We were very conscious that the heat was going to be a factor in the Eurostar and Pioneer ‘greenhouses’ but while we had an ambitious itinerary, Northern Ireland is a relatively small country, at around 100 miles across and 80 miles top to bottom so nowhere is very far away and short-legs would mitigate the risks.

As the only aircraft two-up, I was also very conscious of aircraft performance in the 30°C+ and deliberately chose strips that offered 400m+. With everyone fuelled with super-unleaded from the classically innovative airfield ‘fuel bowser’, mounted in a shopping trolley (I kid you not!), we set off for the short five-minute flight to Aughrim.

One of my favourite UK strips, Aughrim is a scenic 475m hillside grass strip nestled in the saddle of two hills and long-term home of local flying legend Archie Alderdice and his wife Jean.

This year Archie celebrates 50 years of flying from Aughrim, while he has flown for some 58 years. Also there to greet us was Mark Chambers, an Easyjet pilot who owns a Luscombe with his dad Colin, which is hangared alongside Archie’s Jodel DR1050 and Alan Richardson’s Cub. It was good to hear that Mark’s commercial flying is at last picking up.

At wonderful Aughrim with Archie and Jean Alderdice

Famously narrow runway

After an all too brief catch-up, our seven-ship launched downhill to pick up the Newry River at the port town of Warrenpoint for our 30-minute flight to Tandragee, just south of Portadown. This really is a beautiful part of the world with the quintessential patchwork of small lush green fields framed by the distant Mournes.

Our great pals at Tandragee’s Kernan Aviation microlight school were expecting us and the circuit-bashing C42 kindly cleared to allow us all to land on the upslope of the 500m R35. But that’s not really the complete picture, as Tandragee’s tarmac runway is famously narrow, at around 3-4m (ish!) wide, and certainly concentrates the mind.

Our experienced group all made good landings with Ben in the Pioneer being last down and making it look easy. You have to admire students learning to fly here on the school’s four C42 Ikarus – it requires precision and focus, more so if landing downhill over the trees. So kudos to Kernan’s experienced instructors, including CFI Raphael O’Carroll, Paul Thompson (who has just purchased the school from Raphael) and Mark Harper who were there to greet us.

Final approach to Aughrim

As ever in Northern Ireland, the hospitality is overwhelming and our generous hosts had prepared a BBQ brunch, accompanied by endless jokes and banter in the bright sunshine. Resident pilot Brendan Digney was busy with his drone and took some great footage, including an overhead shot of me (at 5ft 2 and ¾ inches) and John Parker (6ft 4 inches) lying across the runway to give it some scale. What an absolutely joyous place to visit and with our sides aching from endless laughter we took off downhill in light winds to head to Movenis.

Heading north, we remained under the 2,000ft base of the Aldergrove TMA to follow the western shore of Lough Neagh. At 151 square miles, Lough Neagh is the largest lake in the British Isles and it supplies 40% of Northern Ireland’s water. Legend has it that Lough Neagh was created by Irish giant, Finn McCool, who scooped out the Lough basin to toss it at a Scottish rival who was fleeing Ulster by way of the Giant’s Causeway. The piece of land fell into the Irish Sea and formed the Isle of Man.

On the western Lough shoreline is Cluntoe VRP, the former RAF Cluntoe or USAAF Station 238, which in WWII served as a ‘Combat Crew Replacement Centre’ training aircrew on B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator bombers before they were sent to operational squadrons in Norfolk and Suffolk. Over 4,000 American personnel were based here and the huge impact they had on the small local eel fishing community became the subject of the BBC drama series My Mother and Other Strangers.

After another short 30-minute flight, we arrived at Movenis, home to the Wild Geese Skydiving Centre. The narrow 460m tarmac R25/07 is slightly undulating but clearly presents no problem for the two resident Cessna U-206G Stationair parachute planes. Chief parachute instructor Andy Clark welcomed us in the shade of the hangar and invited the Northern Irish lads to return on a weekend when the café will be open for those intent on flinging themselves out of the Cessnas. The parachutists certainly get good views from up high with the World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway, less than 20 miles to the north.

By 1330, it really was starting to warm up so we were glad of a very short 10-minute flight to our next destination of Causeway Airfield, south-east of Coleraine. We all have canopy shades and DV windows which are a big help, but the heat was relentless and, while we didn’t know it, Northern Ireland was about to set another record temperature of 31.4°C. Causeway is a very scenic airfield on the bank of the River Bann, with two excellent wide grass runways, the 650m R16/34 and the 380m R11/29.

Parked at Tandragee

Airfield operator Mark Holmes warmly welcomed us and in no time provided us with wonderfully cold water and soft drinks from an ice box. Causeway opened in 2007 and Mark reports that the airfield was entirely built by enthusiastic members – a fantastic achievement. Mark is a real seaplane enthusiast and is busy restoring a classic Lake Buccaneer amphibian, one of two in the hangar. He also has several Aventura UL amphibians powered by Rotax 503 DCDI or 582 operated as Single Seat Deregulated (SSDR) aircraft which permits an empty weight for amphibians of some 330kg.

Indeed, Mark has two Aventuras for sale at around £20k including differences training (for microlights, a floatplane/amphibian doesn’t require a separate rating, just differences training). That’s a lot of water fun for little money!

As we chat, resident Jodel owner Sam Barr and his family somehow magic-up a good old-fashioned block of ice cream, which they proceeded to slice and divvy out between wafers – proper old school and a real morale booster.

It was approaching 1500 so we thanked the friendly locals and returned to the ‘greenhouses’ to get airborne towards the coast.

Movenis Wild Geese parachute centre

While the nearby hexagonal stones of the Giant’s Causeway are probably best appreciated from ground level, the Co. Antrim coastline is truly spectacular with its tall cliffs, sea stacks, sandy beaches and caves.

We normally fly this coast offshore at very low level but with plenty of localised sea mist lurking around the many headlands, our formation remained a prudent 500ft above the cliff tops.

Despite isolated sea mist, we had a clear view of Rathlin Island which is Northern Ireland’s only populated offshore island with around 150 residents. It was here in 1306 that Robert the Bruce saw the spider which, legend has it, inspired him to fight for Scottish independence, famously saying, “If this small creature has the tenacity to keep trying till it succeeds, then so can I.”

From Torr Head, we could clearly see the
Mull of Kintyre which is a mere 11nm away and the shortest route between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

The team arriving at Causeway on the River Bann

Six miles of water

At the busy port of Larne, the P&O ferry was preparing to depart for the two-hour crossing to Cairnryan just north of Stranraer. Opposite is the Ballylumford power station, with its three impressive 415ft chimneys, which supplies power for half the Province. At the entrance to Belfast Lough, we cross the six miles of water under the 1,500ft base of the Belfast CTA before saying goodbye to our wonderful Kilkeel companions, Gary, Shane and Bobby who fly alongside before peeling off for home.

Newtownards is a real favourite of mine with its relaxed ways, three runways and picturesque location at the top of Strangford Lough. After landing on the 790m R21, we all took on avgas (so didn’t feel bad about using our FLYER Club free landing vouchers) and while the excellent café had just closed (open 0900-1600), we were able to secure much needed cold drinks before making what should have been the final leg home. Having noted good visibility across the Irish Sea, Ben, JP and Jon decided to take the most direct way home some 100 miles across the Irish Sea to coast in at Colwyn Bay.

Ballycastle beach with Mull of Kintyre clearly visible beyond Fair Head

Before Nick and I departed for the much more palatable 23-mile sea-crossing to the Mull of Galloway, I phoned Luce Bay Danger Area range control as the D402/403 complex was Notamed active SFC-35,000ft until 1700Z. Whilst they have a Danger Area Crossing Service (Luce Bay Information 130.050), forewarned is forearmed and the helpful Range Control Officer, confirmed they had just shut for the day.

Nick and I said our goodbyes to our great friends, donned our life jackets and headed off in good visibility across the Irish Sea. With the sun at our back, it was a relaxed crossing and we maintained 3,500ft across the Luce and Wigtown Bays. One unwelcome feature of West Coast high pressure is that the clockwise wind often brings low scud off the North Sea into the east coast.

Newcastle (the English one!) was reporting broken at 900ft with reasonable visibility but as we reached the Tyne Valley it looked very murky underneath the broken layer of cloud. A period on top followed and as we neared Hexham we dipped down through a gap to see if we could make the nearby Hexham strip. But it was awful underneath and we climbed straight back up to safety in the sunshine on top and reversed our course down the Tyne Valley to divert to Troutbeck in the Lake District near Keswick.

Spectacular cliffs at Fair Head

Troutbeck diversion

Scenic Troutbeck is a fun STOL/microlight farm strip owned by well-known gyrocopter instructor Roger Savage of Lake District Gyroplanes. I texted Roger to say we’d be diverting in and got a quick response to watch for sheep on the strip. Like many moorland strips, Troutbeck has unique challenges and PPR is absolutely essential. It was over two hours since we left ‘Ards and after two low passes to clear the strip of stubborn sheep, we landed on the 430m R36.

Roger arrived to warmly greet us alongside Norfolk-based flexwing pilots Matt Howe, George Bennett and Skyranger Nynja pilot John Mundy who were overnighting on the annual week-long, Fly UK around Britain microlight adventure. It was great to be on the ground after a full-on 24 hours and we took full advantage of Roger’s beer fridge before wandering down the local Troutbeck Inn with our microlight pals.

After a decent night’s sleep camping in the hangar, Nick and I again joined the Fly UK crew to walk to the nearby garden centre for an exceptional full English. By the time we returned, the early morning mist had cleared and with Newcastle reporting CAVOK, we wished the Fly UK team the best of luck and enjoyed a relaxed flight back to Eshott.

The coastal A2 road with the ‘hidden village’ of Galboly which doubled as Runestone in Game of Thrones

While my trip was finally at an end, tired Nick had yet another two-hour flight home so it was a relief to hear it went smoothly.

It had been a remarkable trip full of exciting flying which we were privileged to share with the best of flying pals – and of course enjoying incredible hospitality at every turn.

Make no mistake, flying in beautiful Northern Ireland is some craic… so it is.

NB: The Kilkeel fly-in was a huge success with a record 112 visiting aircraft and £5,000 raised for Newry Hospice and the Newry and Mourne Public Initiative for Prevention of Suicide – bravo!

The bustling port of Larne with the P&O ferry preparing to sail to Cairnryan in Scotland, and the Ballylumford power station

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