Two members of a EuroStar syndicate prove that you can have a lot of fun visiting some Scottish strips on a sunny day
Words by Paul Kiddell
15 February 2023
Sometimes the UK’s weather surprises you, with a forecast that isn’t only flyable but is also positively outstanding. After a very wet winter, a period of settled high pressure resulted in much chin-rubbing among pilots – where to go and what to do? Faced by a forecast of light winds and horizon-to-horizon sunshine, it’s easy to fly the well-trodden path to your favourite lunch destination, but for me, it’s an opportunity to be adventurous and explore pastures new.
The second week of May has been wonderful, and after discussing options with my flying partner, Steve Biglands, we settle on a day of stripping in northeast Scotland. Steve and I are part of a four-man syndicate with a 2007 EV-97 EuroStar, G-CEVS, based at Eshott in Northumberland. He’s a former RAF QFI who’s well-known for his role as a Victor Captain in Operation Black Buck, the bombing of Port Stanley on Falkland Islands, by Vulcan XM607 on 1 May 1982. The 6,800nm mission was then the longest bombing raid in history and required 11 Victor air-to-air refuelling tankers. Steve was programmed as the long-slot tanker but while refuelling amid a powerful electrical storm over the South Atlantic, the tip of his refuelling probe snapped off in extreme turbulence. Steve and his crew had to give their fuel away to another Victor and returned to Ascension Island with very little reserve.
After eight years on Victors, Steve instructed on Jet Provosts, and then Strikemasters and PC-9s in Saudi Arabia, before finishing his career on Grob Tutors at Leuchars. And that would have probably been that for Steve’s flying, until he discovered the highly affordable and somewhat wacky world of microlighting, which has seen him add such new experiences as beach and small-strip landings to his extensive aviation repertoire.
At Eshott, G-CEVS is soon pre-flighted and fuelled from jerry cans with standard garage forecourt unleaded, our 80hp Rotax 912 preferring UL-91 or mogas. It’ll take 100LL but prolonged use does cause issues with lead fouling and, as result, reduced service intervals.
Strip-flying requires careful planning and prior contact with owners is absolutely essential. We’re briefed on slope, the latest ground conditions, grass length, livestock and noise-sensitive properties. Some of our targets are in the VFR flight guides but others aren’t – happily, northern and Scottish flyers are a pretty tight-knit community and contacts are easily made.
Steve flies the first leg as we set off for Hatton, a farm strip south of Peterhead on the Scotland’s northeast coast. It’s a gin-clear day and we climb to 2,000ft as we head up the glorious Northumberland coast at 95mph, burning a measly 10 litres per hour. We fly over 1,000 or so Atlantic grey seals basking on the sandbars in Holy Island Bay, which is a good indicator that northeast fish stocks are healthy as each one consumes about 25lb per day.
England’s most northerly town, Berwick-upon-Tweed, is looking good as we pursue an East Coast Main Line train that’s going over the magnificent Royal Border Bridge of 1850, with its 28 arches, each of which spans some 60ft.
The flying is very smooth as we talk to our friendly controller, Paul Aspin at Scottish Information. The procedure at Scottish Info is a very relaxed affair and certainly a far cry from the exceptionally busy London Information which, to be honest, I’ve only ever used to open a flight-plan. Paul knows many of his regular customers well and we exchange pleasantries as he updates us on danger area activity, weather and known traffic on frequency.
At North Berwick we climb to 3,500ft to cross the nine miles of the Firth of Forth and switch to Leuchars, which can offer a LARS. We pass Bass Rock, a small volcanic island which extends to some 351ft above the water. Now uninhabited, it was once a 6th century hermitage, then a medieval castle which was used as a gaol for King James I’s many political enemies and, more recently, a lighthouse. Bass Rock is now home to the world’s biggest colony of gannets and a large proportion of its 150,000 resident birds seem to be doing circuits today. I wouldn’t recommend a low pass!
Leuchars has a flight calibrator DA-42 in the circuit so we’re asked to pass over the MATZ at 3,000 ft. Despite Leuchars being handed over to the Army in March 2015, it remains an active military airfield and we spy several Tucanos on the pan as we pass over this historic former fighter base.
After passing over the Royal Marines’ D604 firing range on the north side of the Tay, we descend to 1,000ft for coastal sight-seeing. The coast from Arbroath to Aberdeen is very scenic, with rugged cliffs punctuated by small fishing villages, all framed by the Grampians to the west. The land is very fertile with many horticultural polytunnels growing berries and other soft fruits which end up on the shelves of your local supermarket.
Just south of Stonehaven, we come across the impressive ruins of the 13th century Dunnottar Castle. Perched on an isolated headland, Dunnottar is another Scottish fortification with a bloody history. William Wallace captured the castle from the English in 1297 and reputedly set fire to the church where the entire Sassenach garrison of 4,000 had taken refuge, burning them all alive. We’re certainly hoping for a somewhat better reception as we continue north…