From Dawn to Dusk…

Fiona Macaskill and her husband Angus challenged themselves to set a Guinness World Record to land at as many airfields as they could in a 12-hour day, on a Pooleys Dawn to Dusk challenge…

As a child, my favourite Christmas present was always a copy of the latest Guinness World Records annual. I spent hours poring over endless pages, reading about people who had done extraordinary things and who had got themselves into the record books. I dreamed that one day I would be in that magical book. So, who would have ever thought that a tea towel would inspire our Guinness World Record attempt? 

While taking our grandchildren out for a morning snack at a WWII-themed café called Poppylands on the east coast of Norfolk a couple of years ago, Angus, my husband, and I spotted a tea towel showing all the airfields that British and American air forces had built during the 1940s. 

As we both enjoy flying light aircraft we started to investigate how many of these airfields are still operational. As it turned out, many of them are still being used and still more had been established by local aviators. 

We thought that attempting a Guinness World Record, landing at as many airfields as possible in 12 hours, would be a fun thing to do. 

It also provided the perfect opportunity to enter the Pooleys Dawn to Dusk competition.

We also felt that the challenge was interesting enough to turn it into a fundraiser for the Air Ambulance, so we set up a JustGiving page. Now, we had a triple focus … and our work was about
to begin.

Adding PilotAware audio to the headsets

The route

I started by looking at air maps to find where there was a high density of airfields. (Guinness only allows airfields longer than 300m and ones that were marked on an air map). Our Bolkow Monsun can’t land on an airfield shorter than 400m so the length constraint was not a limitation to us.

East Anglia was used by the RAF and the American airforce in WWII and many of its bases are now shortened but are still being used for aviation. In addition, a large number of farm strips have now been established. The terrain was mostly flat and sometimes airfields were only two or three nautical miles apart. SkyDemon became my key tool to work out the most efficient route around a mass of airfields, many of which I never knew existed.

I then started to phone around to ask them if I could include ‘their’ airfield in my world record attempt. The pill was sweetened by saying that the attempt was also raising money for the Air Ambulance Service. I telephoned more than 100 airfields, emphasising the fund raising aspect of the attempt. When contacting the airfields to explain what we were trying to do and request permission to land, every single one that was open for use agreed to waive the landing fees to support the fund raiser. The normal landing fees would have come to around £500 so we set our fundraising target to that amount. Any more than that, and it would be a bonus. As it turned out people gave very generously, and we eventually quadrupled our original target and raised more than £2,000 plus gift aid for the Air Ambulance.

Start witness David Conolly ready with the horn

I re-adjusted and re-drew the route more than 18 times and wrote several thousand emails to airfields, media outlets, LAA clubs and a growing band of volunteers.

Planning the timing and landings

In June 2020, as the Covid-19 lockdown eased, we decided to fly a three-hour trial run. We started at Oaksey Park, which was just west of the planned route and covered 17 airfields. We were not sure of the actual time needed per airfield or what our speed between airfields would be.

We had estimated that 4½ minutes per airfield would be sufficient time, but after the trial we changed this to five minutes per airfield where this included a backtrack after a full-stop landing, and this wherever the runway length was less than 900m. On analysing the track log, we confirmed we could fly at around 100kt between airfields but we also found a two second full-stop did not always show up on SkyDemon, and that the two flights were treated as one. From this we decided that a five second stop was necessary.

Accordingly, we adjusted all our timings and re-worked all the figures again, reducing our re-fuelling time down to 12 minutes in the hope of an absolute maximum of 87 airfields in 12 hours with 50 airfields as the minimum to gain the world record.

One of many satellite prep views. Runway HD
Fiona tightening the spats the day before

Planning the recording equipment

Angus spent many hours testing cameras and tracking systems.

We recruited 28 people to ‘witness’ our flight from the comfort of their own homes by watching our live flight path using Livetrack24 on their PCs. We needed at least two people watching throughout the day as well as a couple of witnesses at the start and finish.

We had asked our initial ground witnesses to watch our practice on LiveTrack 24 and by doing so many of the things that could have gone wrong for the witnesses did. We set up a WhatsApp group and this was used during the record day to coordinate changeovers as seamlessly as possible and help those who had any issues. As a result, our witnesses were well prepared on the day of the attempt itself.

After several more test flights, which involved re-positioning and testing all the equipment, our recording equipment included:

1 SkyDemon on an iPad (Fiona’s preferred software)
2 Runway HD on an iPhone 7+ (Angus’ preferred software)
3 Go Pro camera
4 Dragon 4K video camera in the cockpit
5 iPhone 7 used for video of the ‘fullstop’ at each airfield
6 Livetrack24 which was ‘fed’ by the FlySkyHigh App on an iPhone 6
7 A backup LiveTrack 24 ‘fed’ from an Huawei Android tablet
8 PilotAware internal tracking log
9 PilotAware ground station logging, fed from a 2nd PilotAware
10 Fiona’s iPhone 6 (taking photos at every airfield).

Preparing the five flight information packs
Departing Sywell

Planning the date

We decided to make the attempt as close to the longest day as possible. The route was to start and finish at Sywell, and The Aviator hotel was taking guests from Saturday, 4 July. So, having decided that a mid-week attempt would be best (gliders and airfields would be busy at weekends but often shut on a Mondays), we provisionally booked to stay on the 6-8 July with the 13-16 set as a back-up date.

Most of June had a high pressure system over the UK resulting in great flying weather so we may have been lulled into a slight sense of feeling that most days would be very flyable. At the start of July the pressure dropped, but it soon started to rise again and the forecast looked good, so we confirmed our booking at Sywell and gave all 87 airfields an ETA, requesting them, if they were able, to photograph our landing and return the witness statement I had sent them as future evidence for Guinness.

We checked the forecast before flying to Sywell on 6 July, the day before the attempt, and although a trough was developing over Scotland, things were looking good.

The decision was to ‘go for it’, let the airfields and our 28 ground witnesses know and set ourselves up at Sywell with David Conolly, our ‘on the ground’ official observer, for our attempt the next day.

Approach to New Farm, proving that it’s worth confirming which bit of green is the airstrip. We made a second attempt, shown on the other camera
Location of New Farm strip

The flight – all 71 of them…

We woke at 0530 on 7 July and checked the weather forecast one more time. It showed that an occluded front had developed overnight and was moving towards the north-east later in the evening but, on balance, we decided we were ‘good to go’.

David joined us on the airfield at 0645 to sound a loud horn to announce the start (a rather bizarre requirement by Guinness), as well as to time and to photograph our start. We also asked the security guard, Alexandra Bobosco, to join us as Guinness required two people to witness the start (and finish) of the attempt.

I had prepared coffee in flasks, sandwiches, water, and snacks to keep us going all day. A video camera was fixed on the wing and another inside the aircraft. All the GPS systems were set on ‘go’. The sky was blue, there was a light south-westerly – and we were ready.

“Sywell Traffic, lining up 23”, and we were off at 0715 precisely.

Angus navigated and radioed each airfield as we approached, while I flew the aircraft.

Late-to-the-start bowser
It was a bit wet in Fenland

The first couple of hours were spent landing at the airfields we had visited in June. On that day it was an easterly so the ‘view’ was totally different to the one on 7 July – more confusing than we had imagined. We didn’t find New Farm on the first approach. The strip is tucked behind tall trees and difficult to see when approaching from the east. It required a go-around to check we were landing in the correct place, so this added a few precious minutes to our route.

Quite a number of the airfields were nicely into wind and we succeeded in several full-stop landings and immediate take-offs without having to backtrack on most of the airfields longer than 800m, rather than just ones over 900m as planned. (We had confirmed that we could stop in under 300m on level runways.)

Duxford was airfield number 22 and we landed for fuel at 0947, 15 minutes ahead of our scheduled time, which made us very happy as we wanted to keep ahead of our planned timing so as to allow for some unforeseen hiccups – this airfield turned out to be the first of several delays around the route.

We had allowed for a 12-minute stop for each re-fuelling, but Duxford took 28 minutes… We had requested, in advance, that the fuel bowser would be on stand-by at the parking area so we could re-fuel and get away quickly. As it turned out, the bowser’s engine would not start so we ‘lost’ 16 minutes of precious time. Added to that, the toilet that I was in need of, was a six minute walk away from the parking area!

Sticking to the plan meant plenty of concentration…
An approach in rain

Angus now took the role of P1 as we had decided to alternate this after every fuel stop. As we continued on our route, we tried to have a sandwich, and coffee from a flask, but the time between taking off and final approach to the next airfield was usually so short, sometimes just two minutes, that a drink and bite to eat proved almost impossible.

We were totally focused on the task, every landing and take-off had to be spot on of course, so we had very little time to eat or drink, but we did manage occasional sips of water and a few biscuits which kept us hydrated and alert.

Our second fuel stop was at Old Buckenham in Norfolk. We were eight minutes behind our planned arrival, landing at 1333, it had started to drizzle and we had problems with the payment card reader due to the rain. The stop eventually lasted 19 minutes so we were now 15 minutes late. Cloud base was dropping, and although horizontal visibility remained good, there were occasional showers.

I took over from Angus as P1 and we flew west. After landing at Cambridge, we received a call from Norwich saying that the visibility was deteriorating, cloudbase had dropped to 800ft and they did not advise us to land there. We therefore decided, in the air, to cut out seven of the east coast airfields where the weather was worse and fly directly north from Shipdham to Great Massingham.

Fenland was our third and final fuel stop. We arrived in the pouring rain at 1649. Outside in the wet, two wonderful volunteers were waiting for us, and we quickly refuelled.

Reading the Guiness World Record End Declaration to the video camera…

We took a couple of minutes to reconsider our route. Angus then took on the role of P1. We had already landed at 64 airfields which, being more than 50, meant that our world record was ‘in the bag’(!) We decided to miss out the last 10 airfields and head back to Northampton, landing at a few airfields on the way but not attempting to fly north into more rain.

The weather did improve slightly as we headed west again but we could see more poor weather coming from the north. On the way back we landed at our penultimate airfield before Sywell. That would have made 72 in total… but touched down rather late, so we did a go-around and in view of the cloudbase being pretty low decided not to re-try and proceeded directly to Sywell.

We arrived at Sywell to improved visibility, stopping at 1815, airfield number 71. We had beaten our target of 50 airfields and had decided, by then, to call it a day as VFR flight to the north would have been very difficult and not within our safety boundaries.

Submitting the evidence to Guinness

On returning home, Angus and I spent the next week collecting witness statements and photos, thanking more than 100 ground and airfield witnesses for their support and help. We assembled all the photos, video footage, GPS track logs and witness statements. We uploaded more than 500 files onto the Guinness record attempt application pages and sent it off. Two months after the attempt the record was ratified and we became World Record holders!

Adventure complete, back at our own hangar
Angus and Fiona with previous World Records proudly framed on the wall

On reflection

This was a very well worthwhile project:

→ The Air Ambulance has benefitted from people’s generosity and gained more than £2,400.

It has been great fun getting a World Record. We are as Guinness stress: OFFICIALLY AMAZING.

We have thoroughly enjoyed planning the route, talking to so many airfield owners and visiting so many wonderful airfields.

Preparing to land and take-off from each airfield required a great deal of preparation. We printed and studied the Pooleys plate and approach using Google Earth for each airfield. We noted airfield height, runway direction and length, frequency and ‘special notes’ for each of these.

Finding some of the airfields proved far more challenging than we have anticipated. Many of the strips in the Fens ran in the same direction as the very narrow fields and we had to abort one approach 50ft above the surface when we lined up on a very narrow crop field parallel to the runway! Quite a few of the airfields did not have a hangar or even a windsock.

As we flew low level most of the time, finding some strips which were tucked behind trees proved challenging and we had to orbit several airfields before we could find them.

Using SkyDemon to line up for each runway one to two miles out proved to be the most effective way of making the correct approach. I adjusted the route after every take-off to create a clear line down which to fly. As the day progressed I got more adept at this.

Arranging all the airfield witnesses was very challenging: Guinness wanted two witnesses to take a photo of us doing a full stop landing at every airfield (quite an ask when we could not give them a precise ETA and some were before 0800 and some after 1700!). During the preparation and after some emails with Guinness, they did relax on this requirement, but we tried to meet their expectations as much as we could. Around 80% of the airfields took a photo of our landing and filled in the witness statement for which we were very grateful.

Recruiting and co-ordinating ‘on the ground’ witnesses to monitor our flights throughout the day was fun but very time consuming. We set this up a couple of weeks before the challenge and organising it was a big task to undertake just before the actual attempt. Setting up a WhatsApp group proved really useful as people communicated to each other throughout the day – more than 500 messages were sent.

Although landing at airfields only three miles apart was most efficient, we appreciated the occasional 10 miles gap when we were able to have a sip of fluid and a biscuit.

Planning the most time-efficient route, remaining in Class G airspace (except for a few airfields with Class D where we planned to land) was incredibly complicated.

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