With lockdown restrictions eased, Paul Kiddell joins his friends, for a summer day of flying – not forgetting the bacon, banter and plenty of airfields…
4 August 2020
Well, it would certainly seem that 2020 hasn’t quite panned out as expected. But there’s always hope, and on 15 May the announcement by Department for Transport breathed life back into recreational flying in England, followed soon after by Northern Ireland and Scotland. As a result, our four-man syndicate Evektor EuroStar G-CEVS took the opportunity to embark on some exciting new flying adventures.
On 25 June, with high pressure firmly in charge, Alex Smith and I departed our Eshott base at 0900 to meet up with good flying friends, Roger Iveson and Nigel Hitchman, for a day of stripping. While our group had initially flown solo, I took advantage of updated guidance to bring single flying buddy Alex into the Kiddell family bubble so we could fly together. Mrs K did, however, make it crystal clear that this wouldn’t extend to feeding Alex and giving him pocket money!
“Strips can get pretty wet in the winter, so PPR and a good brief are essential”
Newcastle Airport was showing signs of resuming ops and granted us a zone transit via the overhead and bridges in the city centre. Prior to this, Newcastle used very limited operating hours, and outside these it had been quite surreal to fly where we wanted around the city, just monitoring the tower frequency for the police and air ambulance helicopters.
Continuing south, Durham Cathedral looked magnificent in the morning light. After repeated Viking raids on their Holy Island retreat, the resident Monks fled in 875 taking the body and relics of the revered St Cuthbert with them. They ended up in Durham, where the Normans later replaced the original timber church with the magnificent World Heritage building we know today. From the air, it’s easy to see how well-defended the site was in the loop of the River Wear, and St Cuthbert, the patron saint of Northumbria, is still buried there.
Passing over the Yorkshire Dales, we noted on our SkyDemon, which is fed by our Pilot Aware Rosetta, that our buddy Roger Iveson was readying himself in his Eurostar from Felixkirk (some 30 miles away). Like Roger, we have our PAW system permanently installed and ADS-B out via our Trig transponder, which gives excellent range and is invaluable, not only for conspicuity but also for situational awareness when touring in loose formations.
The Yorkshire Dales are very scenic with impressive hills covered by endless dry stone walls, with pretty villages and hamlets nestled in valleys.
We flew low for sightseeing, which included many of the 11 reservoirs built to serve Bradford in the 19th century, including the largest, Grimwith, completed in 1864.
Our first stop was Oxenhope, 4nm south-west of Keighley under the 3,000ft base of the Leeds western CTA. This hilltop strip is reputedly the highest airfield in England at 1,150 ft AMSL, and Roger just beat us down, landing on the 460m Runway 11. Alex made a good landing on the undulating strip and we were soon parked up.
It was great to see Roger and we also met locals John Bowes and Matthew Heaton who were preparing for a trip out in their Jodel D117 and Sport Cruiser. John told us the strip can get pretty wet in the winter so like all strips, PPR and a good brief are essential.
After a good chat, Alex and I swapped seats so I could fly us the short 30-minute leg to our next stop, Ince, just south of RAF Woodvale. Our formation flight with Roger took us over many of the Lancashire mill towns such as Burnley, Blackburn and Chorley, which were the ‘boom’ towns of the Industrial Revolution.
We spied several large former mills, including India Mill in Darwen, with its magnificent 303ft chimney, the largest in the country when it was built in 1867, and whilst Fred Dibnah climbed it, it was with some foresight that it was preserved rather than blown-up.
Ince has three good grass runways and we landed on the 396m Runway 11. My old friend Nigel had beaten us there in his 1940 Piper J3C-85 Cub, which he’d flown up from his Hinton-in-the-Hedges base, and was parked in the bright sunshine. One reason for meeting was to celebrate both the Cub’s 80th birthday that very day and mark Nigel’s 25-year anniversary of owning it. It was wonderful to see him, although it still felt odd not to shake hands in line with the ‘new normal’.
Ince is home to the West Lancashire Microlight School operated by fixed-wing and flexwing instructor Carl Bayliss. It was really great to see Carl and irrepressible dad, Paul, who was busy with the never-ending grass cutting. Both were in great form, despite the ongoing uncertainties about future instructing.
The Ince clubhouse was closed, but I deployed my secret weapon – a Coleman stove powered by unleaded petrol from the Eurostar fuel-drain. Alex supplied the rolls and bacon, so we all got to enjoy bacon rolls in the warm sunshine. It was marvellous!
Taking on plenty of water we all taxied out together, with the outside air temperature on our Kanardia Horis already showing an impressive 29°C. Nigel was showing off by flying with the Cub split door open, while we were glad for the Eurostar mecaplex sliding windows and our Fly-Tex canopy blind which provided some very welcome relief.
Airborne for Barton in a three-ship, we carefully navigated the local airspace which, as most will know, is full of traps for the unwary. As a result, we decided to remain at 1,800ft, north of the Manchester Low Level Route (LLR) and under the 2,500ft/2,000ft Manchester CTA to enable a straight forward 1,800ft overhead join at Barton via the Hulton Industrial Estate VRP.
Before we got to Wigan, Alex closed on Nigel to enable me to get some formation air-to-air snaps to record the Cub’s 80th birthday. Nigel was at 75mph and Alex deployed some flap to make it easier, which made a real change as Nigel usually flies with us in his Vans RV-6 and is the one who struggles to slow down. Photos in the bag, I had time to reflect on how Nigel and I had first met as teenagers outside the fence at Farnborough watching the display practice at the 1978 airshow. Nigel ended up as a British Airways pilot, while I had a long career in the RAF, but we’ve always remained best of friends and shared many great adventures around the world. I wonder what the 14-year-old me would make of us flying alongside together some 42 years later?
Barton was busy having just reopened at 1220 after a 20-minute controller break. It has featured heavily in FLYER forums recently with the CAA supporting Barton’s interpretation of Rule 11. It has caused much controversy with some pilots being MOR’d after failing to gain positive two-way contact prior to entering the ATZ.
However, we had nothing to worry about, having established two-way comms in good time and were efficiently handled by FISO Nick, who is also the airfield manager. I must say I always enjoy flying into historic Barton. It’s fantastic that an airfield with four grass runways still operates so close to the city centre.
Built in 1930, Barton was the UK’s first purpose-built municipal airport and pre-war, hosted scheduled services by the likes of Imperial Airways and Railway Air Services until they moved to the new Ringway Airport in 1938. WWII saw the airfield used for military aircraft repair and overhaul while 812 RAF Percival Proctors were assembled and test-flown at Barton after being built at nearby Trafford Park by F Hills and Sons.
We parked next to the iconic tower which, I believe, is the oldest operational tower in the world having been built in 1933. We were aware that Barton’s café and toilets remained closed but Nigel wanted to recreate his first landing in the Cub 25 years prior and also needed fuel. It was good to see resident Eurostar buddy Steve Middleton who took us on a guided tour of the hangars.
The giant 1930 Pemberton Hangar is a Grade II listed building and was originally built to house the Imperial Airways giants such as the Armstrong-Whitworth Argosy Tri-Motor. It remains in use and holds a beautifully restored CASA-built Jungmann, among others. Further up, the very smart, large new hangar is now in use, and held another vintage classic, Tony Whitehead’s fabulous 1941 Fairchild 24W (Argus to us Brits) with a 245hp Jacobs radial.
It was clear that Barton, like many larger fields, was slowly coming back to life in a phased return with reduced hours and limited staff and services. Although, as I write, flying training was expected to resume on 4 July which is a very positive step.
Our merry band had a quick brief on our next destination of Hawksview, a private strip in the Manchester Low Level Route (LLR). We agreed to transit into the corridor at 800ft on the Manchester QNH (around 550-650ft agl) to remain well below the LLR upper limit of 1,300ft AMSL on the Manchester QNH.
The UK’s exemption from SERA Class D VFR minima expired on 25 March 2020, giving airspace planners a headache regarding the busy 4nm-wide LLR. While the corridor has always formally been Class D airspace, it has provided a pragmatic way to enable GA to pass through the Manchester and Liverpool zones without having to seek ATC clearance. One post-exemption stumbling block was adherence to the SERA Class D minima of remaining 1,000ft vertically and 1,500m horizontally from cloud. The solution doesn’t see huge change, and should there be a low cloud base, the AIP entry enables pilots to fly Special VFR down the LLR without individual ATC clearance as long as they have 5km visibility and remain in sight of the surface. Note: there are different Frequency Monitoring Codes (FMC) (‘listening squawks’) for VFR and SVFR, though non-transponder equipped aircraft like Nigel’s Cub only have to monitor the Manchester Radar frequency.
Comfortable with our cunning plan, we enjoyed a short low-level flight down the LLR before landing on the well-kept Hawksview grass runway. We were met by enthusiastic flying friends Gordon Verity, Karen Hardman, David Creedy and Steve Dancaster who are part of both Hawksview’s thriving microlight community and the wider – and very active – Cheshire Flyers group who organise many exciting flying outings to exotic destinations.
Gordon has built a EuroStar classic, a Sport Cruiser and his current steed, an immaculate EuroStar SL. We enjoyed outstanding hospitality at this wonderful little strip and I was chuffed to get a nice cup of tea, which is much underrated on a hot summer’s day.
After a really good aviation chat and look around the resident aircraft, our generous hosts provided us with cold bottles of water as we returned to the Eurostar greenhouse for another short flight down the LLR to Dairy House Farm just north-west of Crewe. Again we transited in loose formation at 500ft agl, enjoying some lovely views, including some of the five locks on the River Weaver that remain navigable.
The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank shone in the distance. The telescope, some 250ft in diameter, was the largest steerable telescope in the world when it was commissioned in 1957, just in time to track Sputnik’s launch. Today it is the third largest in the world behind Green Bank in West Virginia and Effelsberg in Germany.
Dairy House Farm is another great strip, and on very short final for the 530m easterly runway Alex executed a timely go-around as a large flock of crows got airborne further down the strip. Our bird-scaring duties for Nigel and Roger complete, we followed them in over the farm buildings and landed on the downhill slope. Despite it only being a short flight, it was a relief to pop the canopy and enjoy the breeze. After parking, we again opened the oil inspection hatch to let the heat dissipate from the tight EuroStar cowl to discourage any vapour lock on a hot-start.
We received a very warm welcome from legendary microlight instructor and examiner John Bradbury who has amassed over 17,500 hours in the past 31 years, including 12,000 hours instructing. John had recently relocated his Cheshire Microlight Centre to Dairy House Farm after 28 years of successful operations at Arclid Airfield, which recently closed for quarrying. John teaches on both flex and fixed-wing and, as we spoke, he received a tremendous boost as word came through of the resumption of flying training. We also met Dave Colton, one of John’s students who had made the most of the lockdown by doing ground school with John on Zoom and passing several of his exams.
After another good catch-up, Alex and I again swapped seats and we all departed for the 20-minute flight to Sleap. Speaking to RAF Shawbury, our PAW was alive with low-level Shawbury helicopters training tri-service pilots of the future and we stayed at 2,000ft to remain above. Sleap is a classic former RAF WWII airfield and we joined in turn overhead for Runway 05.
Care should be taken as Shawbury helicopters often operate low-level on the deadside, but no sign today, and we were soon down and parked at the pumps where we took on 40L of UL91. Nigel was very happy with the competitive £1.27 avgas price which was even cheaper than our £1.36 UL91.
We met operations coordinator, Bruce Buglass, who took time out of the office for a chat. Sleap has been exceptionally proactive in attracting visitors since recreational flying resumed with cheap fuel, a COVID-19 secure café, an evening BBQ event (with free beer!) and an excellent social media campaign. It is clear that Bruce’s infectious enthusiasm has played a major part in this, so it was great to see him and his team’s efforts bearing fruit.
Bruce flies a Skybolt paired formation routine alongside dad, Jason, just two of the many interesting aircraft among the 160 residents, which include a Yak-11 and an Avro Anson, in which you can book a flight. Before we left, Bruce reminded us that the new 500m grass 05/23 Runway is now available and will be formally added to the AIP entry shortly.
It was great to see a GA field buzzing again and it’s clear that fields like Sleap and Dan Subhani’s Sandown can thrive in these challenging times with some drive and imagination. A glance at the watch showed it was already 1645, so time to say our goodbyes to Nigel. It had been wonderful flying alongside him in the Cub and doing some stripping.
It’s always interesting to contrast a 1930s design like the Cub with a modern microlight like the EuroStar, both which were aimed at providing affordable flying to the masses with low fuel consumption and easy maintenance. We all agreed that it was a shame that the BMAA and LAA merger talks collapsed prematurely as we all share the same fun flying outlook. Maybe one day…
With a wing-waggle, Nigel headed east as we climbed alongside Roger to the north. Shawbury asked Nigel to climb above 2,500ft to de-conflict with their one last helicopter of the day and we had a giggle as he said it could take some time! Fortunately, the Shawbury controller took pity on the octogenarian Cub and routed Nigel behind before they finally closed down the frequency for the day.
Despite being pressed for time to make the firm Eshott closure of 1900, we decided we could make a brief stop at Coal Aston, 4nm south of Sheffield.
The air was cooling, though very surprisingly, thermals had never really been that bad even during the hottest part of the day. As we flew low-level over the Potteries and the Peak District National Park, a real treat awaited us as we came across the magnificent 16th century Chatsworth House, residence of the Duke of Devonshire, and now a hugely popular tourist destination, it really was quite the spectacle in the evening light. We did some orbits over the house and the superb gardens, designed by Capability Brown, before positioning for Coal Aston Runway 11. Resident Zenair 601 flyer Adrian Kentzer was expecting us and a call on Safetycom saw the local aero modellers land and give way for the mighty Eurostars, which didn’t look much bigger to be fair…
We are so fortunate in Britain having so many excellent grass strips, and Coal Aston is another well-kept strip of some 600m – slightly undulating but fun. Roger followed us in and we enjoyed a quick chat with Adrian, and with Bob Hitchcock, who is secretary of the Europa Club. But time was at a premium and we soon mounted up to fly the one hour 15 minutes home. We escorted Roger back to his Felixkirk base before breaking-off back to Eshott, landing at 1859 precisely and shutting down at 1900 in an act of timing that would have done the Red Arrows proud.
So ended another brilliant day, six hours of varied flying visiting seven airfields and strips in glorious weather. It’s so good to be flying again. But most of all it feels fantastic to once again enjoy the company of great pals and dropping in on like-minded flying friends old and new. Exciting flying, bacon, banter and a good laugh – what more could a pilot want? Happy days are coming back…
Eighty years ago, on 25 June 1940, Piper J3L-65 Cub s/n 4645 NC28199 rolled off the production line at Lock Haven, Pennsylvania for its first flight. Then on 27 June 1940 it was sold to its first owner John Drescher of Genesee Airport, Buffalo, NY. He paid $1,358, and a few days later he sold it to Beacon Flying services, which he also owned, for $1,371 – a $13 profit! I guess not bad for a day’s work in 1940.
Between 1940 and 1986 the Cub was owned and operated by various people in the US North East, including the Defence Plant Corp from 1943-1945, and was used in the Civilian Pilot training scheme. It features on the cover and in the book Mr Piper and his Cubs by Devon Francis, although he was never a registered owner. In 1986 it was exported to Belgium, as OO-UBU, but although assembled it never flew as such, due to problems with the Belgian CAA. It was bought by Ron Souch and crucially registered as a PFA project in 1992, before the CAA changed its mind about imported vintage aircraft going on a PFA permit. Sold to Roger Breckell, he had it restored by Clive Repik in Devon and it was flying again in June 1994.
Then, 25 years ago on 26 June 1995, I bought the Cub from Roger Breckell at Woodvale and flew it to Barton and then on to Cranfield where the PFA Rally was just setting up. I’d flown up from Toulouse in Emeraude F-BJVD with Doug Carlile and we flew back together in the Emeraude. I left the Cub at Thruxton for a month before flying it down to Toulouse on an epic trip with Paul Kiddell via the Schaffen-Diest Fly-in in Belgium.
I’ve flown the Cub for around 750 hours in the past 25 years, coming back from Toulouse to live in the UK shortly after buying it. I took it on another trip to Schaffen-Diest and also an epic trip to the Mull Fly-in, but generally it’s been fun flights to fly-ins, giving rides and local flying.
Soon it will be time to recover and paint the Cub and hopefully that will set me up nicely for another 25 years of fun!