After a successful tour of Scotland, David Alvarado, Matt Lyons and Martin Lee decided to take a trip to the Emerald Isle – and were impressed with the scenery and the extra friendly welcome wherever they roamed…
15 February 2023
It all started after Martin spotted a free landing voucher for Donegal Airport in June’s edition of FLYER.
Three weeks, 1,132 miles and 13.2 Hobbs hours later, the three of us touched down back at City Airport and Heliport (Manchester Barton) in our trusty C172 G-BPVA.
Martin, Matthew and I have been all members of the G-BPVA syndicate for a few years now and all absolutely love GA flying. Luckily, despite us having busy day jobs, we had managed to coordinate some time off together to take advantage of the touring opportunities that shared ownership offers.
We had wanted to tour Ireland (as it turned out, anti-clockwise) ever since we completed a similar trip around Scotland the year before.
Martin had business commitments, which meant some logistical re-arrangements and him joining us a day or two later, but our time arrived and we were ready to start the adventure.
As always when planning VFR trips, the weather has a habit of scuppering well-laid plans, so although we had a loose plan in our minds, Matthew and I arrived at Barton mid-afternoon with only one thing that was certain… we knew we wanted to get to the island of Ireland that evening.
After examining the weather charts and SkyDemon over several cups of tea in the café at Barton, we decided that the best plan was to route to the north, cross the water via Stranraer in Scotland and nightstop in Londonderry in Northern Ireland. The forecast for the next day across both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was ropey (at best!), but the northerly route looked clear the day we set off, which would be enough to get us across to Ireland. Due to Martin’s meeting, we had to think where would be best for him to meet us.
After speaking to Londonderry for PPR, filing a flight plan and GAR (General Aviation Report), we loaded ’VA, donned our life jackets, and with Matt at the controls taxied out to Runway 26L. Our route was initially planned to take us up along the north-west coast to Stranraer, before crossing the water and routing north of Belfast and then on to Londonderry.
Once airborne and past Preston, it was much clearer above than we’d anticipated and so we climbed to FL70 before advising Scottish Info of our plan to re-route direct from Barrow to overhead Andreas airfield on the Isle of Man. We would then (hopefully) fly direct to Londonderry if we could negotiate a zone transit with Belfast. Once over Andreas we decided to pour ourselves a coffee from our flask and use the 4G signal to book our hotel in Londonderry.
Once clear of Isle of Man airspace, Ronaldsway Radar passed us to Belfast for onward service. As commercial pilots and ex-Flybe we’d both flown into Belfast numerous times so we knew how friendly and helpful the controllers were. They did not disappoint and immediately cleared us direct to Londonderry through the Belfast TMA at FL70.
Sadly, we were thwarted by some convective weather that we had to route south to circumnavigate. Once past Portadown, clear of the CBs and back in more agreeable skies we had a straight run to Londonderry.
On arrival we were met by some friendly security guards before packing up our stuff and being escorted to the terminal. We were advised to pay for our landing fee, fuel and parking on departure. It wasn’t long before we were in a taxi and heading out of the airport.
Later, after a few beers, some live Irish band music and pizza, we hit the sack albeit with a niggle that wouldn’t go away – that tomorrow’s weather was cause for concern…
We were right. Opening the curtains revealed a grey and soggy morning in Londonderry, although this didn’t spoil our rather delicious breakfast in a local eatery. We checked out of the hotel and arrived at the airport bright and breezy – which is where we spent the next eight hours checking weather charts before giving up and booking the hotel for another night!
The most notable feature of day two was being refuelled via bucket and funnel after the avgas bowser broke down just as we started refuelling. This was most definitely a first for us both. Just imagine the Benny Hill Show theme music playing in the background.
The notam advising of no avgas at Londonderry was hugely efficient in its publishing immediately afterwards. We were adamant that we needed fuel because Donegal didn’t have any and it would be difficult to fly elsewhere to refuel and maintain acceptable reserves.
After much deliberation and discussion with the refueller, we made the decision that we were happy that the procedures and controls were in place to ensure the fuel was transferred to the aircraft free from any potential contamination and in a safe way. While it sounds comedic, sometimes you just have to be practical – as long as it’s safe.
So, with ’VA finally topped off for the next morning, we headed back into Londonderry for a curry and beer, while discussing options with Martin regarding his arrival plans. The forecast looked as if it was due to improve, so it was decided that he’d buy an airline ticket from Manchester to Kerry via Dublin.
We were confident that we could do Londonderry/Donegal/Sligo/Kerry and arrive in time to pick him up and night stop in Killarney.
The next morning, we enjoyed breakfast at the same place as day two before heading to the airport. We’d got to know the airport staff well during our eight-hour stint the day before, and after lots of handshakes we finally bid farewell to the friendly team and prepped ’VA for departure.
We finally left Londonderry, with me flying, straight into Irish airspace to the north-west, towards Letterkenny before turning north to Horn Head and routing west along the north coast to Donegal.
During our trip around Scotland last year, the three of us had been lucky enough to fly ’VA to Barra beach, voted the world’s second most scenic airport. Donegal is the world’s number one scenic airport – this was an exciting moment. The scenery is stunning and the weather was finally playing ball with blue skies, unlimited visibility and white fluffy clouds adding to the dramatic green rolling hills and crystal turquoise waters.
The tide being out just added to the dramatic effect with the sandy estuaries. It really is easy to see why Donegal has won this award two years running and it was a privilege to be flying ’VA to this beautiful location.
After wrestling heroically with the Atlantic crosswind, I plonked us unceremoniously on the runway and taxied to the tiny apron. Donegal was added to my personal list of ‘world’s most scenic airports’ along with Barra, Nice Côte d’Azur, Melbourne (Florida) and London City.
We were met by yet more incredibly friendly locals and grabbed light refreshments before sitting down to plan the next leg.
In Ireland, all flights between controlled airfields must have flight plans filed. Matt did the honours on this occasion as it was his sector to Sligo. He’d spent a lot of time on the phone to Sligo the day before checking up on their weather in case routing there direct from Londonderry and skipping Donegal ever became an option. We were absolutely delighted it never came to fruition.
Due to the lack of fuel at Donegal, we were limited as to how far we could get direct and Sligo still seemed the best option for a lunch stop. Matt decided he wanted to do a quick circuit so that he officially had a landing at Donegal in his logbook. Once complete, we headed south with yet more lush scenery and waters below us.
There was never any point on the whole trip where there wasn’t anything to admire, but this had to be the highlight.
We landed at Sligo and were given a lift into town by a friendly local instructor – plus a useful piece of advice. While we’d been ultra-conscientious with every aspect of the trip we could think of, the local instructor advised us that wearing life jackets when operating in or out of Sligo was good practice due to the large expanses of water at either end.
We hadn’t quite appreciated from the charts how much water we’d potentially fly over on arrival as we’d planned to hug the coast but were unable to due to weather. It was a reminder that it’s always a good idea not to just call up in advance for PPR but to see if any of the local clubs have any wise words or local knowledge that you don’t always get from diligently pouring over charts or guides.
After a quick refuel and the donning of our life jackets again, I was back in control, so applied full power and ’VA was off, heading west for our final leg of the day – to Kerry. We’d booked a hire car for our arrival at Kerry and had called to let the lovely woman on the Avis desk know that we were running a bit tight for time due to weather delays. Thankfully, she said she’d wait for us, but as we didn’t want to inconvenience her we cut off a bit of the planned route which was originally to the extreme west coast and then south across Blacksod Bay.
We re-routed from Killala Bay south towards Galway and then overhead the Aran Islands/Inisheer area as we’d heard a lot about the beauty of these islands. It was all true – they were stunning!
With one eye on the time, we didn’t hang around Inisheer for too long and with the help of Shannon, flew along the western edge of their airspace past more jaw-dropping coastline direct to Kerry. We had to briefly hold while some commercial traffic arrived before positioning ’VA downwind and landing long to roll out to the end so as to allow a Ryanair 737 to enter and backtrack before we vacated.
We taxied to the parking area close to the terminal allowing me to jump out and leg it to the hire car office, which we thought might have closed. They were expecting us and kept it open. Yet again, another example of the incredibly friendly locals. While that was being sorted Matthew taxied ’VA over to the GA parking area for the night. It turns out she had some friends with which to spend the night – in the form of a fleet of private jets.
Martin advised that his flight from Dublin to Kerry had been delayed, so Matt and I drove to Killarney and checked in to the hotel that we’d booked while we were having lunch in Sligo. Killarney is only 20 minutes by road from Kerry and so it was easy for Martin to get a taxi when he arrived – or so we thought. It turned out that there were only three taxis available for the arriving passengers, and he ended up sharing one into town. Martin finally met us in the pub and was delighted that we had his Guinness waiting for him.
The remainder of the night was spent enjoying a few beers and a delicious steak before taking a stroll around Killarney, then eventually back to the hotel for the night.
We’d had a gut feeling that getting out of Kerry Airport might be a challenge but were pleasantly surprised. After dropping off the hire car, we were fairly efficiently through the terminal and given a lift out to ’VA in the fire truck. As we approached ’VA (looking resplendent and shiny on the biz jet flightline), we could see a group of schoolchildren being given a tour around the apron by the airport management team.
Much to our surprise, they had less interest in the jets and were totally in awe of our little Cessna. We were happy to oblige, and it was a pleasure to see how excited they were having their photos taken at the controls of ’VA, doing their best ‘pilot flying’ poses, as well as being shown around the airframe and asking questions about the various flying surfaces and instruments.
It is, of course, a common regret for many commercial pilots that we can no longer have enthusiastic visitors up in the flight deck for take-off and landing. For many of us it’s how we fell in love with aviation. It was, therefore, brilliant to be able to give these children the opportunity to get their hands on a real aircraft that was about to go flying.
Once our community service was complete, we taxied to refuel ’VA and filed a flight plan to Cork, but via the scenic ‘Ring of Kerry’ along the coast. Kerry direct to Cork is about 30 minutes in a straight line. Again, it was worth it as we hugged the rugged south west coast of Ireland, racing fishing boats and simply enjoying the amazing views that only flying light aircraft allows.
As there were now three of us, I had the pleasure of stretching out in the back and being designated photographer, while Martin did the flying and caught up on flying hours – bearing in mind he was behind due to losing two days!
Having had two holidays in the area, Martin gave us a commentary around the Dingle Peninsula, the stunning Skellig Islands and Bantry Bay. We landed at Cork via an approach from the north, despite a challenging crosswind. ’VA was parked up at the aeroclub where we were warmly greeted.
Cork has a small but busy commercial training school and it was a pleasant environment to have a chat and toilet stop while we waited for our taxi into town for lunch. I’d actually been to Cork recently on St Patrick’s Day, and knew where the local hostelries were. After a sandwich and a cup of tea, we had a brief walk around before heading back to the airport. Due to the aeroclub having quite a few visitors that day, they couldn’t handle us outbound until 1700 but that worked out pretty perfectly.
We quickly refuelled then got airborne with Matthew in command for our final leg of the day to Kilkenny.
While looking for places to stay on the final night, we’d originally considered Dublin but then changed our minds as we’d all already been there before. Waterford was another option but then we received a recommendation for Kilkenny, which is between Dublin and Waterford. Kilkenny has a private grass airfield which has lots of parachuting activity, which means PPR is essential. We’d emailed the website contact over lunch and received our PPR and local advice en route to Cork airport.
Thoroughly briefed on the local noise abatement, Matthew flew a nice, steep and quiet approach for landing on the westerly runway.
We were greeted by Eoin, one of the local pilots who looks after the flying operations at the airfield and we settled our bill and ordered a taxi. While we were waiting, he showed us around the facility and briefed us on what to expect when we arrived in the morning, which was a busy parachuting day as it was a Saturday.
He also advised us on getting the most expeditious departure. We left ’VA back on grass where she’s happiest and we had a very civilised night in Kilkenny, with a wander around town including the imposing and beautifully lit castle, yet more delicious food and of course well-earned beers.
Breakfast the next morning was arguably the best so far. We then returned to the airfield and started prepping ’VA for the trip home to Manchester. There is no fuel available at Kilkenny and so we were just short of enough to fly directly back to Manchester. This meant a splash and dash would be needed so we chose Weston, just to the south-west of Dublin Airport and surrounded by their airspace.
We followed Eoin’s advice. Martin called for engine start as the last of the string of parachutists landed on the ground and we quickly taxied out for an easterly departure off Kilkenny’s lovely 900m long grass runway.
For anyone considering flying to Ireland for the first time, I suspect many would most likely take one look at the airspace around Dublin and have heart palpitations, particularly anyone who isn’t massively experienced with controlled airspace and busy TMAs. However, don’t be put off. The controllers were fantastic and are used to it so know how to make it work.
I won’t pretend it’s not busy on the radio because it is, but as long as your RT is of a decent standard and you brief yourself thoroughly on the VRPs and procedures, it’s easily do-able. Our two-crew operation came into its own for this trip with Martin flying and me handling radio and nav. Weston is busy and easily confused with the nearby military base (which can be active at weekends) but has a lovely art deco terminal and a busy apron.
I was flying the over-water sector from Weston to Manchester and so planned a route that reflected the local procedures and filed the flight plan (we’d filed the GAR the previous night).
A prime example of the busy RT followed on departure, with rapidly changing route clearances. From Weston we were handed over to ‘military’ (Casement Airfield), whose airspace is just south of Dublin.
They cleared us in a straight line from Celbridge VRP to Killiney Hill VRP, not above 2,500ft QNH. Once clear, we switched to Dublin who gave us step climbs to FL70 for our sea crossing. I applied the power and despite being three-up plus bags, our 1965 built C172F climbed nicely to our final level where she sat and cruised effortlessly. As always, her lovely engine never missed a beat and kept us safe high above the Irish Sea.
Whenever you’re this far away from home and across an expanse of water, there is always a worry in the back of the mind as to whether there will be suitable weather to allow you to cross the water as high as you would like. Flying single engine over water always provokes discussion, but we are of the ‘it doesn’t know it’s over water’ school of thought.
Our tactic is to get as high as possible, wear life jackets, thoroughly brief for ditching and continually look for small boats to fly toward if the engine decides to stop. The route between Dublin to Anglesey was our preferred route as it’s a busy shipping lane with plenty of boats to aim to glide to.
Thankfully, the skies were crystal clear with not a single cloud and we got to FL70 which meant we were ‘only’ out of gliding distance of an airfield for 25 minutes or so.
It wasn’t long before we were coasting in at Anglesey and due to our altitude, simply flew over Valley and Mona’s MATZs without having to worry about speaking to them (although they’d be closed anyway as it was a Saturday, of course).
We were in touch with London Information until around Colwyn Bay where we began descending to 1,500ft for our transit through Liverpool Zone.
A final touch was to route directly over the Liverpool Pier Head getting great views of the Three Graces, the cathedrals and the two football grounds.
From there, it was back in familiar territory and
we were soon touching down at Barton and packing ’VA away in the hangar for a well-earned rest.
As for us, we headed home, but not before grabbing another curry and having a few more beers to debrief and regale our brilliant trip… and start planning the next one!