Flying Adventure

A winter’s tale

Never one to refuse a clear blue sky, Paul Kiddell kicks off his personal #FLY2022 challenge with a feast of flying in the coldest winter month, January…

The UK winter offers truly exceptional flying opportunities. Huge skies full of drama, cold crisp mornings with fantastic visibility and incredible landscapes highlighted by the low winter sun. As a bonus, your trusty steed will enjoy great performance in the cold dense air. Of course there are weather and grass strip water-logging challenges so, inevitably, you’ll need lots of patience. 

While I’m lucky to fly out of Eshott with its two hard runways, we had to endure a very windy festive period in the North East. For three weeks solid, I was sitting in my Christmas jumper nursing a large glass of red, staring out of the window at the clouds zooming by.

But weather always changes and suddenly boom, high pressure arrived and I enjoyed the best January flying since I got my licence 10 years ago. Here’s just four days from my busy January flying diary, which hopefully encapsulates great flying days with great mates. 

Mon 17 Jan: Eshott / Sturgate / Leicester / Breighton / Eshott (5hr airborne)

On 17 January, and with high pressure dominating, fellow syndicate member Alex Smith and I set off early from a frosty Eshott in our faithful Evektor Eurostar G-CEVS. Accompanying us south in wonderful CAVOK conditions was my old friend, John Knowles, in his group Eurostar SL. During Storm Arwen, John’s group sadly lost their Eurostar classic when it was destroyed in a hangar collapse (gusts of 98mph were recorded at the nearby RAF Brizlee Wood Radar Station). Fortunately, the insurer was quick to settle (bravo Visicover!), and in just a few weeks the group merged with our pals in the SL syndicate. 

My flying buddies and I have a dedicated trip chat group, and we’d arranged to meet at Sturgate for breakfast before moving on. As Alex flew, I did formation radio calls and we were immediately cleared through Newcastle and then the Teesside CTA (in case you missed it, the ‘Durham Tees Valley Airport’ reverted to ‘Teesside’ in 2019).

Angel of the North, with winter shadows

Low-level over the Yorkshire Moors, we orbited two temporary masts which provide TV to the North East and North Yorkshire. The original 300m Bilsdale mast was a prominent VFR navigation landmark and provided TV to some 670,000 households but had to be demolished after a serious fire in August 2021.

Flying down Yorkshire we took advantage of wonderful light to enjoy some air-to-air photography with John in the bright green SL – to them ‘British Jaguar Racing Green’, but to me it’s a bit ‘lawnmower green’, so I call it the ‘Qualcast Queen’.

In no time we crossed the Humber and briefly followed the Trent before arriving on Sturgate’s R27. Centrally located, Sturgate has become a real favourite in recent years with ongoing free landings, competitively priced avgas and a friendly café. Nigel Hitchman had already arrived from Hinton in his Vans RV-6 and we were further joined by great pals Ben Davies and Jon Crook in Ben’s smart Pioneer 300. Eurostar owner Jon had flown up to Finmere from Brown Shutters to join Ben for a trip out in the Pioneer and was clearly enjoying having a go at flying the Pioneer with its VP prop and retractable gear. It was so good to catch up over breakfast with flying friends from all over England in the depths of winter.

Leicester was next and Alex felt the need for speed so jumped in with Nigel for some RV fun. As the RV and Pioneer sped off, John and I followed in the Eurostars at a more civilised 85kt for the 30-minute flight south. Re-joining the Trent in glorious conditions, I introduced John to the excellent Newark Air Museum, which is impressive from the air with a great range of iconic aircraft, including a Vulcan and Shackleton on external display. Sadly, the runway at Winthorpe has been closed for some years but it’s well worth a drive to see the 70 aircraft on display.

Leicester was busy as ever with both fixed-wing and rotary training, but a standard overhead join integrated us with the circuit bashers and a Pitts S-2A, and we landed on the 935m R28, one of three tarmac and two grass runways available. Naturally, the RV and Pioneer had beat us, and Alex had really enjoyed a blast around at 150kt. Up in the bustling restaurant, we met top pal, Simon Wilson, who flies some really interesting types courtesy of generous friends. I hadn’t seen him since he flew the very French Nord NC-856 Norvegie to the LAA rally so it was great to hear his latest news.

Teesside Airport

Short winter days require time-keeping discipline when flying some distance away

More tea, top banter and suddenly we ran out of time. The short winter days require good time-keeping discipline when you’re flying some distance away, and those who know me will acknowledge that it’s a skill which is largely absent from my toolbox!

Departing as a four-ship, I’d promised to do some air-to-airs of Ben’s new Pioneer, so while Alex kept the Eurostar at 90kt, Ben slowed for pictures. No sooner had Ben positioned in starboard echelon than Nigel joined too – what a testament it is the versatility of the RV-6 that he didn’t even need flap. While it’s challenging taking pictures through the Eurostar bubble, I was really pleased with the results, although the timing wasn’t quite right to use magnificent Belvoir Castle as a backdrop.

With time marching on, Ben and Nigel peeled off home while our two Eurostars made for Breighton for a fuel stop. Wonderful Breighton is ideal for a quick splash and dash with 24/7 credit card avgas and Jet A1 pumps close to the expansive grass runway which was in very good order for January. While we fuelled, two resident Stearman taxied by at the end of what was undoubtedly a great winter’s day of open cockpit flying.

One of the temporary TV masts on Yorkshire Moors following the destruction of the Bilsdale Transmitter

After the briefest of stops we got airborne for the hour-ish long trip back to Eshott. A climb to 2,500ft revealed a stiff headwind that wouldn’t see us home until 45min after sunset, but a descent back to 1,000ft AGL was much more encouraging. As ever Sky Demon’s ETA feature and GPS ground speed was a godsend.

One unexpected consequence of running so late was that 17 Jan happened to be the full Wolf Moon and we enjoyed an incredible view in clear twilight skies. Interestingly, the name comes from native North Americans who associated January with an increase in the frequency of wolves howling.

With both Teesside and Newcastle granting us a direct track to Eshott through its zones, we finally landed at 1638, exactly at sunset + 30, after a brilliant day with five hours airborne – certainly no one could accuse us of not getting our money’s worth.

Thur 20 Jan: Eshott / Sleap / Halfpenny Green / Eshott (5.6hr)

With high pressure continuing, a further call to arms saw Alex and I depart Eshott at 0900 to meet friends at Sleap. The first part of our journey took us west, low-level at 500ft AGL along Hadrian’s Wall where the low winter light highlighted every detail in this famous world heritage site. Turning south to fly down the eastern edge of the Lake District, we were cautious, as while surface winds were calm, the northerly winds aloft were still strong enough to present a rotor hazard over the mountain peaks.

Sleap a real go-to destination and its success is measured in the airfield’s ongoing popularity

For those unfamiliar with mountain flying, I can highly recommend the excellent New Zealand CAA mountain flying guide as a great start point here.

Amazingly for January, there was hardly any snow visible even on the highest peaks, which rise to 3,209ft at Scafell Pike. Windermere, England’s largest natural lake at 10.5 miles long, is always worth a diversion en route and looked magnificent with a large number of yachts remaining in the water throughout the winter. Surprisingly, Windermere has some 18 islands and on the largest, Belle Isle, we spied the 18th century round house that Wordsworth once described as a ‘pepper-pot’… Perhaps he was still building up to ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’?

Any early morning fog was long gone as we descended into the Manchester Low Level Route (LLR). As most know, the LLR is a 4nm wide corridor running north-south between the Manchester and Liverpool CTRs. While it remains part of the Manchester CTR (Class D), it enables pilots to transit without a clearance not above 1,300ft on the Manchester QNH, while monitoring Manchester on a listening squawk. It also allows you to fly below 1,000ft above built-up areas, although you have to retain the ability to land clear and must remain 500ft from person, vessel, vehicle or structure.

The LLR operational detail changed significantly in 2021 and, if you aren’t a regular, then it’s important to refresh yourself – the full requirements are in the Manchester Airport AIP entry (usefully, the complete AIP textual entry is available on SkyDemon under information for Manchester Airport). While opinions vary on the LLR, I really enjoy the opportunity to fly low-level over the fringes of built-up areas, although there are plenty of green spaces should you need them. I’m comfortable at very low-level and generally transit the LLR at 500ft AGL, which is around 600-800ft on the Manchester Airport QNH, and that keeps us below most other LLR traffic.

Exiting the LLR, we avoided Ashcroft which remains an active field with multiple runways. On SkyDemon (fed by Pilot Aware), we could see our good pal Roger Iveson from Yorkshire rapidly catching us up in his Dynamic microlight so, having raised him on the microlight air-to-air frequency (129.835), we orbited Beeston VRP to wait. The VRP is actually the impressive Beeston Castle, built in 1220 atop a rocky crag some 350ft above the Cheshire plain. It endured a bloody history, including a year-long Civil War Parliamentarian siege between 1644 and 1645 with Royalists only surrendering when they finally ran out of food. Just south of Beeston is the more recent Peckforton Castle, now a luxury hotel, and the two combine to make an impressive view.

With Roger now in tow, we called Shawbury Zone. RAF Shawbury is the centre of UK military rotary training and is very busy during the week with the black and yellow-topped H135 Juno and H145 Jupiter helicopters operating down to ground level both within the MATZ and outside in the wider countryside. As well as speaking to the MATZ controller, we could see multiple RAF helicopters on our SkyDemon/PAW which really helped our situational awareness. Sleap is within the Shawbury MATZ and has an excellent relationship with its military neighbours which sees the helis operating on the Sleap deadside during the week.

After a little more than two hours, we arrived at Sleap to the welcoming tones of airfield manager Bruce Buglass who was manning the radio. Bruce and his enthusiastic team have worked exceptionally hard to make Sleap a real go-to destination in recent times and its success is measured in the airfield’s ongoing popularity. Parking at the pumps for UL-91, we met Ben Gilmore, the airfield deputy manager, who was fuelling his group 150hp Super Cub, fitted with 31-inch tundra tyres, vortex generators and a 117L belly tank – quite the STOL machine! Those at the 2021 LAA Rally will remember Ben, Bruce and their pal Tom Beever arriving en masse in their Taylor Monoplanes and bringing some very welcome youthful energy to the weekend.

Alex, Roger and I were soon joined by Nigel in the RV-6, John Stubbs in his Dynamic, Chris Theakstone in his Eurofox and Steve Ivell in his very smart, recently completed 100hp Rotax 912ULS powered Europa (which he and pal Steve Ridge purchased as an unfinished kit) and we all enjoyed an excellent breakfast in the Pegasus Café.

I caught up briefly with Bruce who was buoyant about the airfield’s future with an impressive 160 resident aircraft, which, combined with record visitors, are supporting large fuel sales, a popular café and an extensive events programme – it really is great to see wonderful Sleap thriving under the leadership of a dynamic management team.

Housesteads Fort on Hadrians wall

Chris and Steve had to return home but the rest of us departed as a four-ship for the short flight to Halfpenny Green. The sunshine had brought out plenty of aviators but aided by the cheery FISO, we soon landed on another expansive former wartime runway, the 1182m R34. RAF Halfpenny Green was originally named RAF Bobbington when it opened in 1941 but the name was changed in 1943 to avoid confusion with RAF Bovingdon, somewhat ironic as it was home to a navigator’s school. I hadn’t been to ‘½p Green’ for a couple of years and we received another warm welcome. The airfield was certainly very busy with fixed-wing, helicopter, microlight and gyros all training in the circuit. A wander around the hangars revealed some interesting aeroplanes including the rare Christophe Robin (son of the late, legendary Pierre Robin) designed 1995 Dyn Aero CR100 aerobatic aircraft G-BZGY, which once served with the French Air Force. Christophe had designed it as part of his university studies!

Yet again time was against us and we said our goodbyes to Nigel and Stubbsy. As we got airborne, it was clear the headwind was strong enough to force us into a long, three hour-ish direct flight back to Eshott. While Roger’s 100hp sleek Dynamic normally cruises at 100kt he was happy to fly at 85kt to stay with us and we enjoyed some excellent views as we flew across the scenic Peak District.

My dad spent his working life driving JCBs and I enjoyed flying over their factories at Uttoxeter spotting huge numbers of the iconic yellow machines before we had a good look at Alton Towers, which was nestled in the trees. Further on, Chatsworth House, owned by the Cavendish family since 1549, looked truly magnificent. Next to the River Derwent, Chatsworth has been voted Britain’s favourite country house on many occasions and from above you can certainly see why – a top aerial view that should be on every pilot’s list.

We finally arrived home with time to spare at Sunset +20 after a bum-numbing 3.2hr transit. It had been yet another memorable January day with almost six hours airborne (burning around 11L/hr of super unleaded/UL91) and not for the first time Alex and I resolved to get some extra foam for the seats.

Fri 21 Jan: Eshott / Elvington / Eshott (2.7hr)

The day after the Sleap trip, Alex and I visited the excellent museum at Elvington, again with Nigel and Stubbsy. PPR is straightforward and the £25 landing fee includes museum entry for the pilots.

As well as the large aircraft collection spanning the history of aviation (including the huge Halifax bomber), it has a very good café, which can be
highly recommended!

Sun 30 Jan: Eshott / Sherburn / Rufforth East / Full Sutton / Eddsfield / Eshott (4.8hr)

On 29 January the North East again endured gusts of over 90mph during Storm Malik but fortunately damage at Eshott was confined to some bent hangar doors. While Storm Corrie was following close behind, the following day (January 30) offered a brief flyable weather window in the east and we arranged to meet the gang at Sherburn. Alex was working, so my microlight pilot pal Duncan McDougall accompanied me south. As probably their best January customers, the Newcastle controllers treated us like old friends and cleared us on our well-trodden path over the airport and city centre – the view of the Tyne and its seven bridges certainly never gets old.

Rufforth East doesn’t require PPR, but do acquaint yourself with its detailed procedures

We’d planned to meet Roger overhead his Felixkirk base, and facilitated by our mutual ADS-B out and PilotAware, Roger got airborne in the Dynamic just as we arrived overhead. Continuing south we took advantage of great light to do some air-to-airs before Roger accelerated ahead to order us all breakfast.

Sherburn is another busy training field and some care is required during an overhead join not to infringe the Leeds East (formerly RAF Church Fenton) ATZ to the north. Stubbsy was already in the circuit along with an RV-7, a T-67 and two circuit-bashing PA-28s, but as ever it all worked out and we arrived to find Nigel and Dave Haines in Nigel’s RV, Stubbsy and Roger in their Dynamics, and the Leicester gang of Nick Stone and Balbir Singh Dhindsa in their Eurostar SL and Alec Brisley in his Eurostar – a great short-notice turnout!

Digby’s café at Sherburn is a great, roomy venue and we were soon tucking into yet another full English. Out on the grass our friend Nick Lee was taxying out in the resident Tiger Moth for a sunny, if chilly, sortie. Nick owns the well-known Miles Messenger G-AKBO, and with him was Stu Blanchard who owns a Miles Messenger, Mercury and a Gemini!

Suitably refreshed, we were soon airborne in a six-ship loose gaggle to fly the short distance to Rufforth East just west of York. Rufforth East is a busy sports aviation field with many based fixed-wing and flexwing microlights, gyrocopters and LAA types. It requires real care as the western half of the former RAF airfield is home to the York Gliding Centre and there is, in effect, a ‘hard-wall’ between the two that operate on different frequencies. As a result, landing on 05 at Rufforth East is pretty challenging – even in a fixed-wing microlight you have very little time to sort yourself out as you turn final in the very tight area available. Conversely, our landing on the 500m R23 was straightforward, although again you must make sure you don’t infringe the gliding side during your overhead join.

Rufforth East doesn’t require PPR if you first acquaint yourself with its detailed procedures here.

As we approached, a C42 and a gyro were recovering, so we flew over York to take some pictures while things calmed down. I couldn’t help but steal Alex’s favourite line when flying over York and pronounced ‘It’s a shambles down there’… still makes me laugh!

Arriving at Rufforth we were warmly welcomed by the legendary Dave Sykes, a flexwing pilot and BMAA inspector who, in 2011, flew solo from Rufforth to Sydney in his P&M Aviation Quik. Over four months, Dave flew for 257hr, covering some 12,500 miles as he passed through 19 different countries. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Dave is a paraplegic wheelchair user and did the entire journey totally unsupported. For me, one of the greatest British flying achievements EVER which was detailed in Dave’s book, A Wing and a Chair.

For the past few years, the irrepressible Dave has been preparing to fly to the North Pole, but with Covid and now a deteriorating international situation, it is likely to be delayed for at least another year.

Chatting with the friendly residents, airfield owner Steve Beckett reported the café should reopen in the spring which will be a great addition. Too soon we said our goodbyes and departed to Full Sutton, just the other side of York.

Immediately west of the airfield is HMP Full Sutton and like other Category A high-security prisons, it is covered by a Restricted Area (in this case EGR315) SFC-2000ft. While it only applies to helicopters, Full Sutton arrival procedures make it clear that direct prison overflights must be avoided.

Giving the prison a wide berth right downwind for R22, we fly over the site of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, where Harold’s army decisively defeated the Vikings on 25 September 1066. Of course, his exhausted troops then had to quickly return south to face the invading Normans at Hastings… Its subsequent defeat on 14 October 1066 changed English history forever.

Like Rufforth, Elvington and Breighton, Full Sutton is another former WWII Yorkshire Halifax bomber base but it now uses a grass runway and we arrive in turn on the 772m R22.

York Minster

Even with Storm Corrie rapidly approaching, it was a smooth flight home

Again the Yorkshire folk were very friendly, and before taking up their invite for a large brew, we admired Tim Nettleton’s classic Andreasson BA-4B aerobatic biplane powered by an O-200-A. I’d kept a close eye on Storm Corrie approaching from the NW and judged we just had time for a last brief stop at Eddsfield, just 10 minutes flying time away. Very scenic Eddsfield, in the rolling hills of the Yorkshire Wolds, is a real favourite of mine. Created by Edd Peacock in the early 1990s, there are tall trees short of the 27 threshold which do focus the mind, but even after the displaced threshold, you still have 700m of grass available.

Our six-ship included first time visitors, Nick, Balbir and Alec and as we assembled in the clubhouse (always open with self-serve brews) to pay the bargain £5 landing fee, it was clear that everyone really enjoyed the interesting approach which also had a double figure crosswind coming over the hill.

But no time to waste and soon we said our goodbyes and all departed this gem of an airfield in the stiff breeze. Despite storm Corrie rapidly approaching, Duncan and I enjoyed a surprisingly smooth flight home and tucked up G-CEVS in her hangar a good hour before yet more strong winds and rain arrived. And so ended a fantastic month of January flying during which I was very fortunate to spend some 25 fun hours aloft in G-CEVS.

I visited 13 different and interesting airfields and saw some of the amazing sights the UK has to offer. But most of all, it was a total pleasure to meet, and fly alongside, super friends from all over the country – a truly epic start to 2022. Have fun completing your own personal #FLY2022 challenge and I hope to see you around!

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