Flying a 72-year-old Miles Mercury – the only one surviving – from Denmark home to the UK while managing an assortment of issues may not have been Mark Hales’ best decision… but it was a challenge
Words by Mark Hales. First published July 2019
5 July 2023
Ihad been trying to buy the world’s sole surviving Miles Mercury for at least 20 years. I hadn’t realised it was that long but its new custodian has since found a letter from me among all his paperwork, making numerous sorts of complicated offers, clearly none of which found favour with its owner of more than four decades.
I remember trying again a couple of times in the intervening years, but a long time later, as in May last year, Stu – a newly qualified, serial Miles owner – did what I hadn’t managed by simply paying the asking price. Ah well, at least I’d get to fly it.
We’d been to see the Miles at its home in Denmark and flown it briefly at Stauning – and then Stu had done the deal the day after. Refreshing indeed, and it seems to be the way he operates.
There were a few things that needed rectification – or at least inspection – before we attempted an 800-mile flight back to England. Stauning resident Povl Toft and the guys at Benair’s engineering department set about checking over the Miles in readiness.
It turned out that Povl’s father Jens had been involved with various Miles aircraft, many of them Geminis bought for next to nothing, flown back to Stauning and robbed of their Cirrus Minors, to be bolted on to KZ111s – the most numerous in Denmark’s best-known range of aircraft. Povl also had some time on the Mercury – he owns a late model Gipsy-powered Stampe – and he also knew the intricacies of stuff like the Mercury’s pneumatic flaps, gear and airbrakes, which he pronounced serviceable. That was a considerable reassurance.
Our first visit to see the aircraft had been courtesy of KLM to Schiphol, then to Billund and then a hire car. However, this time, to collect and fly it home, I thought it better to get someone to fly us direct to Stauning.
We reckoned about three hours flying plus a stop at Texel in Holland to clear immigration and have lunch, rather than a whole day mired in the misery of commercial air travel.
Professional pilot and flying friend Neil found a Cessna 182 made in the 1960s – although you wouldn’t know by looking – with a new radio fit that probably cost half as much as the aeroplane.
He arrived bright and early at North Coates, complete with travelling companion, overnight bags and dinghy, to which we added all our stuff, including flight bags, tools and oil.
The baggage compartment was rammed to the ceiling, the back seat was piled between the occupants, and then we brimmed the tanks, all of which at an 800 metre strip on a hot, windless day, might well be a recipe for a smoking hole at the 05 threshold. I remembered the time a Cherokee 180 tried to claw its way into the sky four-up, before stalling and cartwheeling into the ditch. Amazingly without injury to the occupants.
The Cessna cleared the grass a little over half distance and gently cruised up to 4,000ft at 23 squared, the always smooth Continental six booming away up front. Clearly, if you can make it fit, it will likely still fly, so whoever said the C182 is probably the best general purpose aeroplane could well be right.
There wasn’t a cloud in the ether, an azure sea was barely rippled and we couldn’t raise anybody on any of the various 8.33-spaced frequencies until halfway across when Amsterdam came on, clearing us direct to Texel, which turned out to be buzzing with activity.
The turbine parachute aircraft were up and down in a constant loop, visiting aircraft of all registers arrived in between and the restaurant was doing great business. The man in the tower then pronounced everything official was done, without even having to be asked. I may have said it before, but I can recommend Texel as a port of entry. A pleasant hour or so filled and we were rolling down 04’s brown grass and heading straight out to sea again.
We’d be over water for 200 miles with a good view of the Dutch coast, then the German holiday islands of Halligen, Amrum, Fohr and Sylt, which to the Germans are apparently like our Isle of Wight, and then into Danish airspace. Then we straightened the track a bit and lost sight of the coastline before picking up Esbjerg followed by Billund. An hour and 40 later, the huge Ringkoping Fjord, which separates Stauning from the ocean, loomed into view.
There was nobody in the tower and nothing seemed to be going on so we had Stauning’s huge 1,450 x 30 metre runway to ourselves, rolling straight round to the large smart hangar which contained Hans’ Beech Premier, a couple of dead Cessnas, the remains of a Grumman, several giant lathes and the only example of a Miles Mercury.
It had been a simply perfect trip which the weather and the Cessna’s capabilities had made so easy to enjoy. It’s very rare indeed to cross several countries and experience similar cloudless skies and when it works like that, there’s nothing quite like flying in a light aircraft. The return might well hold a few more challenges…
Neil was keen to head back, so we found Anton who lives in a palatial apartment on the forest end of the hangar and does most of the hands-on jobs at Stauning. He attended to the fuel while we set about checking over the Mercury before the Cessna left… There still wasn’t a great deal of compression on a couple of cylinders but everything else seemed nice and tidy, and we had the pictures to prove that the gear went up and down.
The Becker radio in the panel was now allegedly serviceable but I had a shiny new Yaesu handheld and a portable intercom, plus a load of coax cable and plugs to attempt regulatory compliance. We resolved to fuel up, make a quick circuit and see what we were about to take on. This, we needed to remind ourselves, was a 72-year-old aeroplane which was essentially a prototype and, we now knew, had flown only 53 hours in the last 43 years.
The bigger Cirrus started as easily as ever and I taxied between the hangars, straining to see over the cowling despite a makeshift cushion constructed from foam and gaffer tape, hauling on the brake lever and prodding pedals in search of any available steering.
The brakes are from an Auster and they may well work in that location, but once the cables have passed through a complicated mixer intended to direct braking effort towards one wheel or the other, here they don’t.
The brakes are the only means of steering on a Mercury – the tailwheel is free castoring (it has a kind of weight-activated check which is supposed to hold the wheel straight on take-off, but it’s hard to know if it does), while meanwhile the propwash passes straight between the twin fins.
Maybe it was all that grass at Woodley Aerodrome but it still seems extraordinary that FG Miles created so many wonderful things but made little attempt to give a Mercury pilot directional control on the ground. Just as well there was hardly any wind at Stauning.
The inline Cirrus sends more of a thrum through the airframe than I was expecting but acceleration is surprisingly brisk. Push the vintage airliner’s column forward to lift the tail as soon as possible in search of slipstream.
Feel the rudders come alive… then suddenly, it all feels normal, fluid and responsive even. Pneumatic gear whisks away in a couple of seconds, trim forward in search of a view over the nose and – breathe out. Hans had said that there was an interval ‘when you are not in control of anything…’. I suppose that’s one way to put it, but once you’re up there you can begin to savour the Mercury’s good points. In this case, as it turned out, only for a short time.
Without any warning, there was a large bang and a roaring rush of air swirled in a maelstrom round the cabin. Paperwork flew in a twisty spiral and spat out into the slipstream. “F***! The door’s come open…”
It was kind of obvious, but Stu sounded surprisingly calm. I have had this happen more than once so I was pretty confident that other than disturbed air rattling the controls a bit, it wouldn’t much affect the flying qualities. The more likely scenario is a stall and spin while attempting to close it.
This time though, there was a bit more concern about a door which was almost the length of the cabin and was large and heavy. If it came off and hit the tail, well, then, we might have a very big problem.
I pulled the power back and the nose up and got the flaps down. Remember to watch the airspeed… Always watch the airspeed…. “Can you reach it…” Stu is definitely not tall. “Undo the belts and stand up, I’ll forward slip.” “F*** off. I don’t want to die…” I could see his fingers stretching, stretching, sleeves fluttering in the thrashing air until at last, he caught the handle. He swung there for a moment but the door still refused to come down.
Surely there couldn’t be that much air pressure. “Don’t pull too hard… Don’t break it…” I was still mindful of what could happen but then it dawned. The catch that holds the door open had simply locked. Of course it had. “Push the door up, push it up…” I managed to reach behind and flick the stay upwards, Stu pulled at the door’s edge and clunk, the rush of air thrashing round the cabin subsided as quickly as it began. Everything seemed suddenly quiet. “Think we’d better get this thing down…”
A few moments investigation showed it was obvious that the door handle, which lays horizontally pointing backwards, needs only gentle downward pressure to unlatch a household tongue and slot.
The Messengers which were built later have a much more positive over-centre action, and the lever lies vertically against the door frame. There didn’t seem to be any damage though and the insurance for the trip home was a small block of wood gaffer-taped under each handle.
The weather looked to remain perfect for the next couple of days, the engine was running sweetly, the needles were in the right place and the lashed-up handheld had picked up Neil’s departure despite 8.33 channel spacing.
The rest we would have to manage as we went. By then, the blazing sun was dipping in the sky and it felt like quite enough aviation activity for a day. Anton was kind enough to drive us to the very pleasant Hotel Smedegaarden in the nearby town of Lem where we enjoyed a good meal and a few calming Tuborgs.
Denmark is fantastically neat and tidy, and the urban roads surfaced with a million red bricks seemed permanently empty, but the people that we did meet were
all friendly and helpful. I can recommend Denmark as a destination, too.
The small tablet and SkyDemon is electronic technology that definitely does work – wherever you are – so flight planning is no longer the random chore it once was, especially if you get someone else to do it…
We planned to keep the legs short until we knew how much oil and fuel the Miles was likely to use, noting that at 65 litres a side, the tanks were pretty small for a touring aeroplane and even if we took the risk, there was no question of reversing the Cessna’s route. That meant a trip of about 800 miles instead of 300 or so.
We would head south into Germany, settling on Husum-Schwesing, just inside the border near Schleswig-Holstein, which turned out still to be used by the German Air Force although it had a General Aviation side. There was nothing but static and the occasional half message on the radio en route but hopefully that would be better when we got closer to the circuit.
Our track meant there was no real need to talk to anyone and once up at a comfortable 2,000ft or so, and after a tense 30 minutes, I stopped fixating on the gauges and stopped straining to hear any variation in the engine’s gruff 2,000rpm rumble.
I then noticed that the Mercury’s ailerons seemed a bit stiff and it was difficult to trim without either sliding back into nose up drag or losing height but other than that, the aeroplane was nicely coordinated when it came to manoeuvre.
We tried 2,100rpm in the cruise and that brought the nose down a bit and got it better on the step, but the max continuous 2,200rpm sent the oil temperature a bit too close to the red. Even so, it didn’t seem to be doing the speed we’d expected.
The book says 120mph-plus in the cruise but the gauge said closer to 100. No idea how the shiny new Hoffman propeller compared with the original’s metal Fairey-Reed, but it was a baking hot day and we were quite heavy, and it would have to do. We both started to relax and take in the wonderful watery vista stretching below us.
We routed round Esbjerg and Billund then along the picturesque coast which was strewn with islands and inlets, across the border into Germany until we saw Husum’s vast concrete runway. For a moment, I wondered if we’d got the wrong airport. We still couldn’t raise anyone on the radio but we had called ahead, so – incorrectly as it turned out – we assumed there was nobody in the tower.
Thus far, my total number of Mercury landings numbered just two, so I was still on a steep learning curve. Wheelers are definitely the way to go in the Gemini, but I was mindful that this was a hard runway and the brakes which were the only means of steering were next to useless so I decided slower was probably safer and that meant a three-point.
Flaps and airbrakes seemed pretty good at pulling the nose down, then peg the speed, feel for the ground and wait. There were a couple of minor bounces but the elevator is better than the rudders at this speed and it pins the tail down, then it’s a frantic haul on the brake lever, realise nothing’s happening, quickly centralise the rudder bar, haul again and tread the direction you want to steer.
Still nothing and then the Mercury starts a gentle curve to the right. More flapping of feet and another haul on the brake lever, and just when I’m thinking we need to hit the gas and get some speed to wake up the rudders… the left brake nibbles at the drum and we straighten up.
Fortunately the runway was wide and there still wasn’t much wind, but I’m not quite sure what I was going to do if either of those changed. I could see why Hans didn’t fly it much.
Turned out there was someone in the tower, a sprightly 80-year-old who could have passed for a man in his fifties, who said he didn’t hear anything at all from us but since there was nothing around it didn’t matter that we’d landed in the wrong direction… Hmmm, so we knew for sure that the handheld set-up that worked at Stauning definitely wasn’t the answer.
We checked the oil to find the Cirrus had lubricated the Miles’ underbelly but burnt very little, which was a pleasant surprise, but fuelling up revealed that we were guzzling nearly 11 gallons, or nearly 50 litres per hour. That’s a lot for the cruise per cent of 155hp.
I resolved to lean it off a bit and keep an eye on the oil temperature. We also resolved to reconnect the Becker and have a look at the route to see which stations still had frequencies which might work. Yes, I know, but we weren’t going to turn back now.
Husum had proved convenient and accommodating with basic facilities, and an immediate and appreciative crowd keen to know more about the Mercury. That was something that we would certainly grow used to throughout the trip.
Next up was Hoogeveen in Holland, a leg of 164nm with a bit of a tailwind thanks to a change of track more towards the south-west. Amazingly, the fuel gauges seemed to reflect reality so we felt more confident, and I was able to lean the engine a bit with no apparent effect on the oil temperature. It was still pretty close to the red mind, but no nearer than it had been.
Hoogeveen appeared on schedule, and another scrabble with brake lever and rudder bar, but I carried the power a bit further down the slope, trusting that the stall we tried back at Stauning really did happen at less than 40mph, and if the touchdown was a little firmer, the roll was slower and fortunately, the breeze was still pretty much down the runway.
Fuelling was easy as ever in these parts of the world – all you need is a credit card – and that done, the restaurant turned out to be busier than the airfield, a detail which seemed consistent throughout the trip.
Our table-mate recommended the ham and egg toast which is a Dutch speciality and somehow I just knew that a man with a lantern jaw and upmarket shades was linked with ‘Dutch Rush’, the Sukhoi perched outside on its spindly legs, gleaming in the sun. “400hp?” I asked. “No, I got a bit more den dat…”
Turns out he was doing the aeros at the MotoGP race which was on just up the road at Assen. “Don’t envy you having to put on the overalls under all that Perspex.” I said. “Nah.. iss a bit hot, so don’t think I’ll bother…” Minutes later, he was inverted over the runway at zero feet before trailing smoke to the vertical. To depart in any other fashion would have spoiled the stereotype.
Everything filled, we set course for Hoeven-Seppe, which is out of the same mould as Hoogeveen, but busier and featuring an even bigger restaurant, and then it was a shorter final hop of the day into Belgium for Kortrijk-Wevelgem, which has long been my favoured port of entry into Europe. Stu knows it well too, having spent a few weeks there building the UK’s only Lambert Mission 108.
There’s a policeman on permanent duty during opening hours so there’s no need to book customs, the Cafe Passe and its new Tapas bar next door – complete with multi-lingual ipad pictorial menus on every table – are both set in a quiet leafy corner of the airfield, or there’s the Biggles Restaurant which is more upmarket and even boasts a copy of Biggles, Piloot das Jahre.
Apparently the many languages into which the adventures of Cpt WE Johns’ hero were translated includes Flemish. The airfield also offers the Bell-X hotel which is basic but clean and reasonable, not to say handy, and of course the KFC (Kortrijk Flying Club) bar which stays open as long as people keep buying the foaming amber Europop. If none of that suits, Kortrijk itself is a beautiful medieval city within half-an-hour’s walk, and there’s also the canal cities of Roeselare and Ghent within a 30 mile radius.
Inevitably it was the KFC bar where we watched the sun set below the horizon to draw the curtain on another perfect day. Four landings we’d got away with, 459 miles travelled in four-and-a-quarter hours flying, 164 litres uplifted and only a couple of litres of oil redistributed. The Cirrus hadn’t missed a beat.
Social media had been ahead of us so we’d got used to the photographers and enthusiasts who were waiting to take pictures, and Stu had his new pride’s potted history pretty well honed by the end of the day.
Tomorrow was the penultimate leg to Shoreham, from where the Mercury had departed in 1956, headed for its new owners in Germany. FG Miles, the aircraft’s creator, was then still in business at the airfield, servicing the extant Miles fleet as well as providing general aviation service, and he had certified and readied the aircraft for sale.
The arrival at Shoreham provided some excitement. The wind had picked up and was blowing exactly between 06 and 02. I chose 02 because there’s a grass option, but just as I had the Mercury in a stable descent, crossing the ailerons against the rudders and a trickle of power, a tractor surged on to the strip. Given what I already knew about the aircraft’s ground handling I should probably have gone round, but the hard is quite long so a fistful of gas and a dog leg seemed like an option. And as it proved, the landing was passable, the taxi to the apron rather less happy in the wind, involving a couple of gentle rotations to try and realign with the next turn. Just as I thought we would have to shut down and manhandle, I found a bit of brake and managed to make it steer. If you’ve ever been in an aircraft with no steering, you’ll know it’s not a pleasant experience but fortunately everywhere we’d visited offered loads of space for an excursion if it became inevitable.
Waiting for us at Shoreham was not only the Shoreham management – newly appointed and keen to re-establish the airport as small aircraft-friendly – but also Miles Aircraft guru Peter Amos, and none other than Jeremy Miles, son of FG. He’d made the trip from his home in Surrey specially to see the Mercury. Jeremy is now in his mid-80s, and only this year has decided to sell his Yak 52. He says he always kept himself sharp by taking it up to 13,000ft and performing flat spins – ‘at least four revolutions’. I’ll be very happy if I survive to his age, let alone still possess a licence, but clearly Jeremy has his father’s aviating genes, and his determination.
Pictures done, stories retold, tea and cake consumed, there was a 30-mile leg to Goodwood where I was working on track the following day and where Rob, the airfield operations manager, immediately asserted that the Mercury must go in the hangar for its overnight stay.
Goodwood’s facilities and catering are on a par with those of the Dutch and Belgians, and while I toiled on a baking track, Stu spent a day as proud new owner, drinking tea, entertaining enthusiasts who came to investigate and take pictures, wiping oil from the Mercury’s undercowl and belly and generally cleaning and investigating.
By 1730 it was still baking hot but we’d filled the tanks the night before. Stu had the Miles ready to be rolled from the cool of the hangar and straight to the hold for 06 which felt a touch short in the heat, the Miles then reluctant to grab height to clear the Downs.
All was well though and a little under two hours and 175nm later, we wheeled on to North Coates’ grass to bring the Mercury home to England after six decades away.
My sense of achievement was soured slightly when I discovered I’d left my case, house keys and wallet at Goodwood, but a call to the flying club said they were safe, so we could at least celebrate the good part, which was 812nm flown in seven hours 38 minutes with an eventual average fuel burn of 8.5 gallons/38 litres per hour. Oil worked out at about a pint per hour, or better than expected.
If I did it again, I’d pay someone to sort the radio properly before we left – communication problems in unfamiliar airspace can spoil your whole day – and maybe try and sort the brakes. It would have been very difficult indeed had the wind been any stronger. And I’d get some proper cushions for the seat, and adjust the pedals at the beginning, rather than the end…
Other than that, the Mercury is nice to handle and pleasant to ride in, and offers a wonderful view of the world below. A stylish way to travel, just as it was in 1946.