If 2021 leaves you wondering how you can have a good flying adventure without leaving the UK, Paul Kiddell reminds us that Scotland has plenty to offer…
14 April 2021
There is no doubt that 2020 really was a challenging year, but the summer provided an oasis of exciting flying adventures between lockdowns. For me, a highlight of any UK flying year is a trip to the stunning west coast of Scotland, and at Eshott in Northumberland, we are lucky that the west coast is within easy day trip striking distance.
As west coast weather is notoriously difficult to forecast, our usual tactic is not to plan more than a few days in advance, but instead to react quickly when good weather arrives. On a Sunday early in September 2020, a ridge of high pressure saw us drop everything and head over to the west coast via a slightly circular route, taking in the Solway Firth and the wonderfully named strip of Lennox Plunton, west of Kirkcudbright.
At 0900, flying partner Alex Smith and I set off in G-CEVS, our faithful EuroStar, having agreed to meet our good EuroStar pal Roger Iveson en route. It was a glorious CAVOK day as we flew low-level down Hadrian’s Wall overlooking the Tyne Valley. We took time to orbit the impressive Roman Housesteads Fort, which is half way along the 73-mile wall that runs from Wallsend in Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway. From its construction in AD122, until the Romans’ departure in the fourth century, the fort was garrisoned by an infantry regiment of around 800 men (a double cohort), part of the wider garrison of 10,000. Romans eh? What did they ever do for us?!
Passing Haltwhistle, we saw Roger’s G-CCEJ appear on PilotAware (we both have permanent fits with external aerials with the PAW GPS feeding the Trig transponder to enable ADS-B out which gives excellent range), above the Pennines some 30 miles to the south. Radio comms established, we rendezvoused just north-west of Carlisle Airport (which sadly remains closed to visitors) and headed west. Both Carlisle and nearby Kirkbride are good options for those needing avgas or Jet A1 before heading to the west coast where fuel planning is always an important consideration.
Just north-west of Carlisle is the remarkable sight of the defence munitions facility at Longtown, which houses some 252 hardened explosive storehouses on a huge 1,300-acre site. The site opened in 1938 and is one of the largest ammunition facilities in Western Europe, complete with its own railway facility. It was also here that the remains of the Pan Am 103 Boeing 747 were gathered following its downing by a Libyan bomb from FL310 over nearby Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, which tragically resulted in the deaths of all 259 passengers and crew, and 11 Lockerbie residents.
Crossing the M6 in loose formation, we enter Scotland at Gretna Green, famous for its runaway marriages. Indeed, we fly over the blacksmith’s shop where the tradition started in the 18th century when the ‘Anvil Priest’ would marry young couples keen to escape the new 1754 Marriage Act in England and Wales which required couples under 21 to have parental consent. In those days, Scottish law permitted ‘irregular marriages’ which allowed any two people to witness a marriage on the spot – now you have to give 29 days notice just like everyone else!
The northern coastline of the Solway Firth is a fantastic place to fly with large sandbanks and mud flats and scenic islands and villages. The only real hazard for the low-level pilot are large flocks of birds, particularly in the Caerlaverock mudflat nature reserve at the River Nith estuary south of Dumfries, which is the destination for some 38,000 Svalbard barnacle geese that migrate the 2,000 miles down from Spitsbergen every winter.
We pass the impressive, square Southerness lighthouse, which dates to 1749, and is the second oldest surviving lighthouse in Scotland. Here, the inland peaks north of the Solway rise to over 2,000ft and would pose a risk of severe turbulence at our low-level in a stiff northerly wind but today winds aloft are light, and it’s wonderfully smooth.
A little further on is pretty Kippford in the estuary of the River Urr, and is popular with yachters. Nearby Hestan Island is one of 43 tidal islands that can be walked to in the UK and for me, has the further distinction of hosting the only ugly lighthouse I’ve ever seen – the skeletal structure looks like a giant abandoned packing case on its side. It is truly awful so I’ll give it just one star on my ‘aerial tour trip advisor’!
As we approached Lennox Plunton, we spied Robert Sproat airborne in his Piper L-4H Cub, G-COPS, which has been in the family since 1983.
After a brief (and slow!) chase around the patch, we followed him to land in turn on the 460m north-south strip. We received an exceptionally warm welcome from Robert who instantly produced socially distanced brews and biscuits from the obligatory strip caravan. We enjoyed a really good chat with Robert who revealed his late dad, William, created the strip in 1961.
Robert’s 1944 Cub is a typical US war surplus L-4, which ended up being registered in France in 1950 and was resident at Albertville for many years. In the late 1970s it became one of the many French vintage aircraft imported into the UK, where they went on to provide cheap, fun flying on a PFA (now LAA) Permit.
With a full day ahead, we couldn’t hang around and reluctantly rose from the comfort of our deckchairs, thanked our generous host and departed for Castle Kennedy 20 minutes to the west. Crossing the top of Wigtown Bay, we passed the former Wigtown Airfield which, though still marked on Sky Demon, hasn’t been active for many years now. Castle Kennedy, just east of Stranraer, is a former RAF airfield operated by Stair Estates with about 600m x 20m of really good re-surfaced tarmac available within the original R26/08.
I’d PPR’d on the airfield website with the ever-hospitable Lord Stair (Jamie), but the need for a good look-out at unmanned airfield was highlighted when a magnificent stag with huge antlers wandered across the runway as I was on short finals. I was just about to go-around when he ran off into an adjacent field at speed leaving me clear – you’ve got to love flying in Scotland!
Interestingly, Jamie’s uncle, Andrew Dalrymple, was co-founder of the famous Chilton aircraft company which produced four magnificent DW.1 very fast (112mph on 32hp / 126mph on 44hp!) sporting monoplanes just before the outbreak of WWII. Tragically, Andrew was killed in December 1945 at Chilton’s base at Hungerford along with the company test pilot in the crash of a Fieseler Storch, which the test pilot had ‘acquired’ in the American sector during a trip to investigate German aviation technology. Fortunately, all four original Chiltons survive, while in the UK we also have a number of beautiful modern reproductions, including three Mikron-powered examples.
After another quick stop with the £10 landing fee deposited in the letterbox, we departed north, which afforded great views of the magnificent Lochinch Castle and gardens, home to the Stair family for many generations. Post-lockdown, the gardens and associated tearooms and plant centre will again be open to the public and are about a 20-minute walk from the airfield, for those looking for a day out.
Immediately after, we passed abeam Stranraer and head up Loch Ryan, above the Stena and P&O ferries arriving from Northern Ireland, before following the coast north along the Firth of Clyde.
Turnberry is owned by the former US President, Donald Trump and … is Scotland’s most expensive round of golf at £350.
From our lofty perch we have an excellent view of Ailsa Craig, a 220-acre island 10 miles offshore, which has long been quarried for the special micro-granite that is used for curling stones. Notably, all the Olympic curling stones originate here.
Passing over the famous Turnberry golf course complex, we can still make out the three former hard runways contained within, a reminder of when the historic courses became RAF Turnberry in WWII operating a mix of Coastal Command and Bomber Command types. These days, Turnberry is owned by the former US President, Donald Trump, and the Ailsa Course, which has hosted four Open Championships, is Scotland’s most expensive round of golf at £350. Who said flying was expensive…?!
We gave the ever-helpful Prestwick an early call to negotiate a low-level transit through its CTR/ATZ south to north and, as they were using R30, we were cleared to pass just east of the R30 threshold. In a sign of the global airline downturn, we spied the sad sight of five Norwegian 787 Dreamliners in storage on a remote apron. We exit the Prestwick CTR at Irvine Harbour and once clear of EGR515 (Hunterston Nuclear Power station), we descend into fabulous Bute airstrip and land on the 480m R27.
Bute is one of many Scottish Island airstrips built in the 1960s to enable air ambulance flights which were operated for many years by Loganair Islanders. That service is now provided by helicopters but the Bute strip remains in the ownership of the Mount Stuart Estate and the upkeep is coordinated by enthusiastic local Eurostar pilots Sandy Cameron and Willie Long.
One huge improvement has been the removal of trees on short-final to R27 and this has really opened the strip up to more types. The strip’s maintenance relies on pilot donations and details are in the Control box (a wooden box mounted on a stake!), but Sandy and Willie have generously announced that as the fund is healthy, all 2021 all landings will be free!
As luck would have it, Willie arrived in his EuroStar and we were able to catch up and thank him in person for all his herculean efforts.
Bute is a very popular strip, largely due to the nearby, and quite superb, Kingarth Pub which also offers B&B. Tragically, landlord Steve died suddenly in September 2020. Steve was a wonderful host and a great friend to visiting pilots and our heartfelt sympathies go to wife, Alayne, and his wider family.
As it was lunchtime, I broke out the Coleman 533 stove which runs on unleaded petrol from our fuel drain, and cooked oversize bacon sarnies on the picnic benches. Fully refreshed, we said our goodbyes to other visiting flyers in a variety of microlight and LAA types before heading off for Glenforsa. Soon after departure, we flew low over Bute’s Ettrick Bay where Andrew Baird, a Rothesay blacksmith, made the first Scottish heavier-than-air powered flight in a monoplane of his own design on 17 September 1910. Having enjoyed a 2020 family August staycation on Bute (as a direct result of enjoying my flying visits), I was delighted to see that Ettrick Bay has a stone memorial to this momentous event.
Soon our little formation passed Lochgilphead to fly along the Crinan Canal, the traditional low-level route to access the west coast. As I write in April 2021, it’s currently covered by a Temporary Danger Area (D698C SFC-550ft) for drone BVLOS proof-of-concept operations. One of a veritable tsunami of drone TDAs that are springing up all over the country and certainly, we need to be very aware. Fortunately, both the LAA and BMAA have established airspace working groups to better coordinate formal responses and challenge where required, and they are already having some success in ensuring the TDAs are both proportional and justified.
Flying low-level between the west coast’s stunning islands and peninsulas over beautiful lochs and open water really is one of life’s great pleasures. Operating at low-level, we are out of radio line-of-sight with our friends at Scottish Information so it’s comforting to have a faithful wingman, although we also carry a GPS-enabled PLB should we have to put down in a remote area.
Being low down, you certainly see much more detail of the landscape and the many spectacular houses, castles and incredibly scenic marinas such as Ardfern and Craobh. In fact, there are lots of yachts out and we orbit a few and waggle our wings to the enthusiastic crews.
We pass over the 260-acre Eilean Righ (Gaelic for ‘Kings Island) in Loch Craignish which has a helipad and hangar and even a slipway where island owner, former city trader, Christian Siva-Jothy, used to beach his Lake LA-250 Renegade amphibian G-SIVW back before he sold it. Loch Craignish also stood in for Turkey in the speedboat chase scene in the 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love where Sean Connery and Daniela Bianchi (‘Tatiana Romanova’) are pursued by hapless Spectre speedboats directed by an inevitably doomed commander with a megaphone.
Hopping over to Luing and Seil, we enjoy excellent views of the 1793 Clachan Bridge, known as the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’ as it connects Seil with the mainland. Its hump-back design means that tourists visiting the island by coach are often asked to disembark to prevent the coach from grounding! We have great fun orbiting nearby Easdale Island with its flooded 19th century slate mines, one of my favourite west coast sights.
At Kerrera (where the population has bucked the Hebrides general downward trend and doubled to 68 in the last 10 years), we climb to 2,000ft and coast out the short 3.5 miles over the Firth of Lorn to Mull. We coast in at the 13th century Duart Castle, seat of the Maclean Clan and the scene of many bloody battles with the rival Campbells over the years.
Mull is the second largest of the Inner Hebrides after Skye and boasts a 300-mile coastline. It is dominated by several mountains, the largest of which is Ben More, a proper munro at 3,169ft. As a result, Glenforsa on the northern coastline can be subject to turbulence in a brisk southerly so a good brief when you PPR is essential. As an aside, Mull has the largest concentration of nesting golden eagles in Europe, so watch out for these as well as the larger and less common resident sea eagles, which have an impressive eight-foot wingspan.
After an exhilarating 45-minute flight, we join downwind over the Sound of Mull for Glenforsa’s R25 and soon arrive on the famous 780m strip which is level but has a slight downslope across its width towards the sea. Hotel owners and pilots, Brendan and Allison Walsh, took the difficult decision to keep the hotel closed during the chaotic on/off 2020 season and take advantage to do some upgrades and maintenance work. However, they kindly opened the strip to visitors for them to fly in and enjoy a walk or a picnic. While we didn’t see them, the refurbishment of the wonderful Norwegian log building’s roof was well underway.
The hotel has a variety of rooms, family cabins and a two-bedroom lodge along with its restaurant and is often fully booked in the summer but, as ever, speak to them directly for the latest. Camping with the aeroplane is a fantastic option but come prepared for the west coast of Scotland midges, although to be fair, I’ve somehow always managed to avoid them during my overnight stays.
After parking, we enjoyed a walk along the adjacent beach as a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry steamed past returning to Oban from the Outer Hebrides. But the clock was ticking and after leaving our £10 landing fee in the temporary Covid box we got airborne for Oban just 20 miles to the east.
Glenforsa richly deserves its reputation as one of most scenic airfields in Britain and is a fantastic central base for exploring the wider west coast over several days. We all agreed that we can’t wait to return and overnight with a nice meal and a few beers, once restrictions finally ease.
Speaking to Oban Information, we informed them of a rather special diversion en route and headed up Loch Linnhe over Lismore Island to Loch Laich, just seven miles north of Oban Airport. Located in the loch is the 14th century Castle Stalker. While it has a fascinating history that mirrors the turbulent history of Scotland itself, its place in popular culture was guaranteed with its appearance in the iconic 1975 film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Elvis’ favourite film by the way).
What a wonderful spot and as we orbited, I wondered if the chap we could see on the battlements was actually John Cleese taunting us…?
Oban was on R01 and we joined downwind over the bay. On left base, an unusual hazard was posed by the superyacht Ngoni, one of the largest sailing yachts in the world with an impressive 233ft mast.
Oban R01 has a wonderfully scenic final approach over the entrance to Loch Etive which is spanned by the magnificent 1903 Connel cantilever bridge. When opened in 1903, its 500ft span was second in Europe only to the Forth Rail Bridge, which was constructed by the same company, Arrols. Originally a railway bridge, today it carries the A828. All this is framed by the impressive Scottish mountain peaks to the east.
Oban Airport was constructed in 1942 as RAF Connel with two tarmac runways, but only the 1,264m 01/19 remains operational. We park on the ramp next to the bright yellow Hebridean Air Services BN-2B Islander that operates scheduled services to the Inner Hebridean Islands of Coll, Colonsay, Tiree and Islay. Incidentally, Argyll and Bute Council operate the fantastic island tarmac strips at Coll and Colonsay and you’ll need an annual out-of-hours permit to visit (due to limited space, you can only PPR outside of the Islander scheduled service times) – it’s free and you can apply on the Oban Airport website. Landing fees on Coll and Colonsay are a mere £8.20, and I can’t recommend these wonderful islands enough.
Since the well-known Paul Keegan retired in October 2019, Oban has been without fuel, leaving a huge gap in the region. The good news is that during our visit, the new tank had arrived and as I write at the beginning of April, the latest is that Oban should once again have fuel from the end of April, just as Scotland opens up to recreational flyers from across the UK.
In ‘normal times’ we’d walk 10 minutes to the nearby Lochnell Arms Hotel, adjacent to the bridge, for fish and chips. But these are far from ‘normal times’ and we pay our reasonable £11 landing fee (up to 500kg, £16 for 500kg-1,000kg) which includes 24-hour parking and get our loyalty card stamped (after four visits your fifth landing is free). Should you wish to take advantage of the parking offer, Oban is about six miles to the south and accessible by bus or taxi and has plentiful accommodation options. Bear in mind that the airport doesn’t open until 1000 on Fri-Sun in the summer.
Oban has a thriving community of LAA and microlight flyers and we speak to a few of the friendly locals including Helen and David Whitelaw, who also own a Eurostar, although today Helen had just been flying her 1992 Streak Shadow.
David Cook designed the Shadow in 1982 and it then represented a quantum leap in microlight design, taking the class FIA world speed, distance and height records.
More than 400 Shadows were built and the classic type has seen a revival in recent years, largely due the advent of the single-seat deregulated class which has seen many old airframes restored and operated without a permit (though the aircraft must be registered, pilots must still be licenced and have third party liability insurance).
As usual on an ambitious day trip, time soon runs out and we finally mount-up and depart for home. Climbing out over Oban in loose formation, we spied what appeared to be a Roman colosseum. It turns out to be McCaig’s Tower, otherwise known as McCaig’s Folly, financed by philanthropic local banker John McCaig between 1897-1902. The impressive arched, circular, granite structure was meant to house a museum but only the outer walls were completed when McCaig died in 1902 and the scheme was abandoned.
We climb to a positively stratospheric 2,000ft and reverse our route down the coast to the Prestwick-Glasgow gap and then fly direct to Eshott whilst Roger breaks off for Yorkshire near the mountain-top Talla VOR.
Alex and I finally arrive home after a truly exhilarating day, having enjoyed over six hours of flying to five wonderful airfields and strips over endless breathtaking scenery.
I’m excited and optimistic for a fantastic summer of flying, and flying the west coast will be a big part of our plans – it certainly never, ever fails to deliver. Maybe see you there…