Planning open cockpit flying around the Sound of Mull is ambitious – especially when getting there is the obstacle, as Bruce Buglass, Airfield Manager at Sleap, and his pals discovered. But, six aircraft, 14 hours flying, 10 airfields – and a few ‘nervous’ encounters later, they succeeded…
Words by Bruce Buglass
12 July 2022
The plan almost went perfectly… right up until the weather decided to get involved. The Sleap group – George Bayliss (age 26), Andy Bancroft (26), Ben Gilmore (20), Max Metcalfe (20) and myself (21) – met early at Sleap International on Thursday 26 May ready to launch off to Eshott, the first overnight stop-off.
The weather was already dreadful (but ‘set to improve’ said local weather expert Ben Gilmore), so we busied ourselves packing all our gear and beer into the four aircraft. An efficient team set to work.
George started loading up all the gear into Max’s ever-faithful Cessna 150, Andy installed go-pros on the SuperCub G-CLYI, Ben impressively stored his tent and clothes in the back of his Taylor Monoplane G-BMAO, I packed up my Mono G-BDAG with impressively little, and Max nervously started doing the weight and balance for his Cessna… sweating slightly.
We taxied up to Sleap’s tower that afternoon for some of the UK’s cheapest fuel and had a group huddle around the weather receiver showing a solid 32kt north westerly. As much as we marvelled at the idea of the fastest ground speed ever recorded in a 55hp single-seat Taylor Mono, the idea of landing at the other end didn’t seem so marvellous.
So instead, we elected to go watch the new Top Gun film and visit the pub.
Friday morning saw the formation of four lift off precisely at 0837 inbound to Sherburn-in-Elmet. The two Taylor Monos cruise happily at 70kt at 2,950rpm on the trusty 1,600cc beetle engine. They are quite slippery aircraft for their weight, and fly very precisely, if a little light.
The Cub, with its 31in tyres and big wingspan, is a fantastic stable leader (even with George flying) and the supersonic 150 was keeping the rear safe.
Formation was tidy, groundspeed was good, the sun was shining and our rear ends had yet to become sore.
After a lovely landing at Sherburn on the smooth grass runway and a somewhat concerning PPR phone call for Fishburn (“…are you sure? it’s very windy…”), we launched off and got a zone transit in formation over Teesside.
Once 1, 2, 3 and 4 all landed in a crosswind on Fishburn’s rather epic hill we piled into the fantastic Aviator Café there and promptly ate enough to take the Monos out of W&B.
All fuelled up, the last and bumpy leg from Fishburn to Eshott took us nicely through Newcastle’s overhead, and George (sitting in the back of the Cub) had never sounded so slick on the radio before.
Our good friends (and former owners of G-BDAG), Richard Pike and Sam Woodgate, were waiting, concerned, to watch our landings at Eshott.
The landing was somewhat eventful in the 20kt wind on the tarmac Runway 26, but when we were presented with beer upon touch down, it felt like a worthwhile landing.
A shiny Cessna 182, flown by Lewys Phillips, was next to arrive, along with Joe Watson. The first example of some excellent banter was Lewys donned in a full flight suit and a fast jet helmet in the left seat of the Cessna, coming all the way from Welshpool like that. Needless to say, he had also seen Top Gun the previous evening…
Ben Sluman was next to arrive in his very brown Piper Turbo Arrow. All the lads had arrived, ready to launch to Scotland in the morning.
Richard and Sam run Eshott Airfield and the fabulous heritage and smart brand-new café is a must visit.
With the tents constructed and a suitable amount of beer consumed, the 192 nautical miles open cockpit aviating soon caught up and we went to bed, trying our best to block out the foghorn of Max’s snoring.
Conveniently we had parked and camped behind the avgas bowser to keep out the blowy wind, so refuelling next morning took a matter of minutes.
A pre-flight brief, bacon rolls in the café, and a good old fashioned hand swing (or 10) later we all taxied out to Runway 01 grass.
The weather today was perfect for it; calm winds, blue skies and an outside air temp high enough that Ben and I wouldn’t freeze to death.
The first stop was Lempitlaw, 15nm SW of Berwick-Upon-Tweed. The fleet of six aircraft was joined by the two Eshott Chipmunks piloted by Sam and Richard and formed an eight-strong ‘big wing’ all the way up the Northumberland countryside.
With types ranging from the tiny Monos (pootering along as fast as they could), to the Piper Arrow (flaps down and dirty for 70kt) it must have made an interesting sight from below.
“Lempitlaw has probably the nicest grass runway in the UK. It’s long, wide and just butter smooth”
The two Chippies spectacularly broke off back to Eshott (they had a full day of pleasure flights to fulfill) and the hilariously nicknamed ‘Pigeon’ formation carried ever northward.
Eventually the 182 and Arrow got bored of the 67kt cruise and felt 130kt was more suitable. Can’t blame them.
Lempitlaw has probably the nicest grass runway in the UK. It’s long, wide and just butter smooth. The owner is super friendly and there are tea/coffee facilities. With a jerry can from the Tardis that is the Cessna 150, we refilled both Monos.
Ben’s uses about 10/litres an hour, mine around 13 litres/hour, presumably because I’m somewhat heavier. We took off, and got on our merry way with Glenforsa looming ever closer.
The backside was now becoming sore (2.5 hours in) as we called up Edinburgh for a transit in formation. ATC was great and cleared us via Edinburgh centre, down the Royal Mile and then overhead the busy international airport at 1,000ft.
The Norwegian Air 737 was somewhat amused by the description of the ‘light aircraft’ passing right to left.
An expensive and underwhelming Cumbernauld stop-off saw George and I swap places (George co-owns G-BDAG with me) and the ‘pigeon’ formation set off once again for Glenforsa.
Climbing over Lake Lomond and the Trossach mountains, up to 4,000ft in the two tiny Monos, was somewhat nerve-wracking, the experience later described by Ben and George on the ground.
(Unfortunately, the exact phraseology cannot be published, but it went something on the lines as ‘rather scary’). Once over Oban we descended to a much more appropriate 500ft over bright blue waters.
We rounded the corner of the Sound of Mull and the busy Glenforsa radio (120.805) sparked into life with the flurry of activity at the 50th Glenforsa Fly-In.
After a run-and-break and a neat landing sequence we taxied in to look for a space in the 50+ aircraft present.
Thankfully, the ever-thoughtful hotel owner Brendan had kept us a small space clear for the Monos.
Glenforsa Airfield and hotel has been written about numerous times in a whole host of reviews, flying magazines and publications, but these simply do not bring it justice.
Everything about it summarises the very best bits of GA flying in the UK, it is indeed iconic. If you haven’t yet been, you must.
The time had come for the whole point of the four-day adventure – the local flight around Glenforsa. As we swung the props and the happy VW bubbled into life, myself and Ben couldn’t keep the smiles off our faces. We gently slid into the calm air and away from the airfield over the peaceful water of the Sound.
The sun was glowing a gorgeous orange, the formation was tight and smooth. We played around low level, enjoying the stunning scenery, and the joy that is open cockpit flying. It is certainly one of the best flights in my logbook.
Once on the ground, our thoughts quickly moved to beer. We spent the rest of the evening enjoying good beer, good views, and some top-notch banter.
As the sun rose and Max’s snoring came to a stop, the scene when unzipping the tent was one to behold. The two little Monos looked expectantly at the sky. Little did they know they were about to fly almost seven hours home to Sleap, and push the aircraft and their pilots to the max.
I’m yet to fly another aeroplane with such a distinct personality like G-BDAG, it’s like a badly behaved Jack Russell… loveable nonetheless.
After a quick run up to the petrol station (thanks Brendan), I was back in the Mono wearing as many layers as I could fit. It is not a big aeroplane, and a jumper, flying suit and gloves is all I can wear to allow my shoulders to fit.
In left echelon to Ben, we took off in formation from Glenforsa and made after the Cub, climbing away in front. Looking back to Glenforsa, the rest of the squadron was about to, or already, taking off. It was an impressive sight.
The Cessna 182 and Arrow unheroically decided to fly straight back to Sleap (wimps), which left the Cub and the two Monos inbound to Castle Kennedy.
The 150 had to go via Oban for fuel for itself and to yet again refill the Jerry can.
The flight there was spectacular. Sitting comfortably at 500ft, we dashed out of the Sound of Mull and over and about the scenery of the Inner Hebrides.
Beautiful bright blue sea and stunning beaches, tiny islands, rocks and pretty little villages past underneath and radio chatter was at an all-time low as we took it all in.
The flight took a slightly different turn in the second half as we passed out over the Sound of Bute for a 39nm sea crossing.
Hugging the coast would have taken us outside of a reserve fuel and there are very few airfields to go to.
We climbed to 1,000ft for vanity – glide clear was never going to be an option. At a very slow 67kt this leg seemed to last for hours and hours. The engine never seems to sound the same over water, does it?
Being quite familiar with the inner workings of the engine, my mind decided to pass the time analysing all the parts of the engine that could break… such as the chain powering the two magnetos, or the tiny little carb, or any number of spark plugs to foul up.
This wasn’t a very helpful thought process, so my solution was just to turn on my A20s… and play Kenny Loggins nice and loud. This helped tremendously, thanks Bose.
Passing the Ailsa Craig, we coasted in for what felt like four years, but was nearer 1hr 30min. Castle Kennedy has a smooth tarmac runway, but very little else. There is a small hut where landing fees are paid, and a friendly call for PPR.
Apparently, the gardens of the Castle itself are within walking distance and worth a visit, unfortunately we had the rest of the UK to navigate that day… We lay on the warm and very dry tarmac waiting for the 150 to catch us up with the fuel.
The plan went awry when calling Kirkbride, and we discovered that there was almost no fuel, and we wouldn’t be able to take more than 30 litres.
The Cub and 150 didn’t have enough to get to Kirkbride and then Blackpool, but the two Monos couldn’t realistically go straight to Blackpool.
“After leaning in to adjust my radio, I pulled my arm back up and the throttle quadrant snagged on my jacket, reducing it from 3,000rpm to just 800rpm”
We split up – the 150 and Cub off in a straight line to Blackpool, and the two Monos to Kirkbride.
Another sea crossing, another scary moment. While passing over the Solway Firth, with Ben in the lead and me tucked away in line astern, I leaned in to adjust my radio, which is a fiddly affair.
Once finished, I pulled my arm back up and the throttle quadrant snagged on my jacket, reducing it from 3,000rpm to just 800rpm.
Thinking my engine had stopped 10nm out from shore was one of those heart dropping moments that forms a nasty feeling in your stomach.
In my haste, I moved my arm fully forward again which quickly then applied full power. For those of you who fly with VW engines, you’ll know full power quickly added usually results in rich cut, so there was a spluttery sounding engine for a few seconds…
An hour later we landed at Kirkbride, and we sat on the grass outside the little tower at the lovely GA airfield and ate as much sugar as possible from the vending machine on site.
Flying so slowly in open cockpit in formation for such long periods of time does take it out of you, especially when you think you’re about to get wet.
The leg to Blackpool was flown in good spirits (amazing what numerous chocolate bars can do for you) and as we passed between Scafell Pike and Sellafield restricted area we found a sidecar motocross race just about to start.
We spent five minutes racing the bikes around the track from the air – obviously winning in our heads. Past Barrow Aerodrome (what a waste) and once again over the sea over Morecambe Bay.
Then it was on the radio to the helpful ATC in Blackpool and the nice woman in the tower who asked me to orbit twice, it must have been just because of the sheer speed of the Taylor Mono.
Tarmac landings are always a little tricky, even more so at a full ATC controlled airport with a huge runway. We sure felt a little out of place, but once we’d taxied in next to the cub and 150, at our good friends over in High-G Flight Training, we celebrated almost being home.
After finally getting a slot to leave we sat patiently at Echo 2, looking at the large black cloud forming overhead.
“Being back on our local stomping ground felt brilliant. We had made it. It was such an epic way in our tiny aeroplanes, and at times left very little room for error”
Once airborne, and a few drops of rain slapping my forehead, we turned south as a group, ready for our last zone transit in formation.
We were planning to transit via the city centre but due to a boisterous football win, there was a police helicopter overhead, so we went via the extended centreline of Liverpool, 4nm behind a Ryanair 737. It looked awfully big when sitting in a Mono…
Once clear, we all coasted back into Sleap. Being back on our local stomping ground felt brilliant, and there was no need for SkyDemon to get us back.
We had made it. It was such an epic way in our tiny aeroplanes, and at times left very little room for error. A huge sense of achievement washed over all of us and there was some excellent banter while pushing the aeroplanes away.
Ben and I were bright red from wind burn, and thoroughly glad to be home. Needless to say, the Monos – and us – had a week or two off!
What an adventure with a great set of mates. As much as bashing up to Scotland in a shiny new RV in under two hours is appealing, the cheapskate, slow and slightly sketchier version gave us a huge amount of satisfaction.
We fly all three Monos from Sleap almost daily in summer, so please do visit us if you do get a chance.
The plan next year is the South of France. Wish us luck!