Geoff Hall, from Kent microlight club, made sure he had his ticket to Ryde… and he joined hundreds of microlight enthusiasts on their annual pilgrimage to Spamfield Fly-in on the picturesque Isle of Wight…
Words & Photography Geoff Hall
15 June 2022
Ask any microlight pilot what the biggest event of the year in the flying calendar is and they will undoubtedly answer Spamfield. It’s the one fly-in of the year that no self-respecting microlight flyer wants to miss.
This year’s event was held at the end of May, which was a change from the traditional July date, but with a promising forecast the skies over the Solent were expected to blacken with swarms of arriving microlights!
So where does the name ‘Spamfield’ originate? It all came about because the PFA Rally at Cranfield was cancelled in 2001 due to foot and mouth disease, so some wag came up with the name, and thought it might be a good idea to hold a similar event on the Isle of Wight, but for microlights.
Big John Moore organised the event for many years before handing over the reins to the Hampshire Microlight Flying Club and then finally, the man himself, Danial Subhani, for the last five years or so.
It’s a simple enough formula. You advertise a venue, erect a marquee, organise catering and beer, allow overnight camping and hope that flyers will arrive in their droves. But this doesn’t explain the phenomenal success that the annual pilgrimage to the IoW has become.
I remember flying to the first event in June 2001 – a modest affair which was held at Bembridge.
“The IoW is a very special place – it’s the nearest you can get to flying abroad without actually leaving the country”
The onsite Propeller Inn did a curry, and afterwards there was a talk by Brian Milton in one of the hangars. Maybe 50-100 camped overnight – it’s so long ago that the memories are rather hazy!
The following year it was held at Sandown and the ‘modern Spamfield’ (to use Olympic terminology) was born, and I haven’t missed many over the years.
So what is it about Spamfield that regularly attracts up to 300 aircraft?
In real estate terms it’s definitely location, location, location. The Isle of Wight is a very special place – it’s the nearest you can get to flying abroad without actually leaving the country. You get a sea crossing – the first time I did it was with a two-stroke engine and I swear I heard every beat of the mighty Rotax 447!
Then you’ve got a very picturesque island that has a bit of everything. Firstly the Needles, surely one of the most spectacular and instantly recognisable aerial views in the country – thread them if you dare.
Then there is the bustling harbour at Cowes with its massive ex-Saunders Roe seaplane hangar, Queen Victoria’s Osborne House, numerous sandy beaches, towering cliffs around Ventnor and the gently rolling downs inland – it is still Hampshire after all.
In fact, something for everyone, and all wound up in a charming, but slightly disarming, 1960s time-warp!
OK, you get the picture – the Island is definitely a place worth visiting, so if you can wrap that up with flying into one of the best airfields in the country along with a flotilla of other aircraft and then have a party, what’s not to like?
So to Spamfield 2022. Paul and I set off from Kent Microlight Club’s strip near Folkestone at 0900 on Friday in fine weather – we like to get there early in order to get a parking / camping spot that isn’t a half-mile walk to the clubhouse.
It’s around 100 miles for us if we fly direct – alternatively we can follow the coast and take in the majestic splendour of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters gleaming white chalk cliffs stretching away towards Brighton.
You need to contact Shoreham, but they are usually very helpful, especially if you have a transponder. It’s worth listening-in to Goodwood as they can get busy plus there is now a recently reopened gliding strip at Bognor to watch out for.
On the dual frequency, we dial up Sandown and copy their arrival details to save time on the RT later – there are already a few aircraft in the circuit.
“That’s the essence of Spamfield really. Camaraderie forged from a shared passion – there really is no other fly-in event that comes close”
We head up towards the Spinnaker Tower at Portsmouth, where you usually can see one of the British Navy’s new monster carriers – plus HMS Victory, which looks tiny in comparison!
At some stage, after gradually climbing to 3,000ft-plus, we gradually head out to sea and aim for Ryde pier, then overhead Bembridge airfield from where you can see the airfield at Sandown, just in from the coast.
They had been landing on Runway 05, which would have been perfect for a downwind join, but when we called up they gave us 23, which meant some re-positioning.
Another aircraft calls that he is overhead Ryde and making a straight-in approach! Paul puts his foot down (it’s a trike – we have a foot throttle) and we briefly hit 100mph downwind to ensure we are established on final first.
Sandown isn’t the smoothest of runways so a greaser is just not going to happen and the tower is asking us to expedite quickly as Mr ‘straight-in-from-Ryde’ is now on final.
After expert marshalling by the many volunteers who give their time to help out free of charge (including Henry, who is no spring chicken but who has become a real fixture at Sandown) we taxied directly to the fuel pump, which is card operated so fuel is always available.
I don’t think we were actually putting liquid gold into the tank but the current price of avgas certainly made our eyes water!
Dan met us with his customary cash bucket to relieve us of £25, which includes unlimited landings, overnight parking, camping and a free sticker! It was £15 for day-trippers.
Dan likes to include free abuse with every landing so after some sporting banter we parked up in the adjacent flexwing corral, pitched our tents and headed off to catch a train to the coast for a day out on the island.
Shanklin station is absolutely perfect and still painted in SR green. The newly refurbished ex-London Underground stock (replacing trains built in 1938!) even has a USB socket at every seat. The single line is absolutely charming and thoroughly recommended.
Having bought our ticket to Ryde I told Paul we were going to indulge in a little low flying. It was 2ft above the Solent in fact, aboard the last year-round scheduled hovercraft service in the world. Southsea is just 10mins away and £20 return for coffin dodgers – what a blast!
We returned on the train to Shanklin and retired to the idyllic Hideaway, a 1930s wooden restaurant / bar on top of the cliffs with a real beach-shack vibe and sensational sea views. But you’ll have to find it yourself – I’ve said too much already.
So back to the airfield, where things were warming up nicely with pizzas and beer flowing freely in the Island Bistro.
We lingered here for a while as we felt it would have been rude not to partake in a couple of cocktails before returning to our tents for what was promising to be a chilly night under canvas.
“Dan’s ethos is simple – airfields are for flying and flying should be fun, he has no time for pomposity or red-tape”
OK, it’s time to say something about Dan, the owner of Dandown, as the airfield has affectionately become known. He reckons before he took over there were just 3,000 movements per annum. A year after he took ownership that number had increased to 12,000 – an amazing success story.
Dan’s ethos is simple – airfields are for flying and flying should be fun, he has no time for pomposity or red-tape.
Sandown always was a destination – the previous owners had built a superb restaurant with a terrace overlooking the airfield, which sadly burned down.
But Dan has made it so much more. If you remember Kevin Costner’s film Field of Dreams where the farmer has a voice in his head which keeps whispering: ‘If you build it, they will come’. Well, that’s exactly what Dan has done.
All through lockdown he was busy building a partly covered outdoor seating area, bar and a pizza oven. He was incredibly proactive throughout, constantly posting on social media and letting us all know that we were going to be well catered for when flying eventually resumed. No other airfield owners were doing that and it has paid dividends for Dan.
You can’t mention Dan without mentioning Sid the skeleton. Sid has become synonymous with Sandown and kept our spirits up throughout those dark days of lockdown. This year he was wearing a wig, dressed up in blue and yellow and sporting a bucket collecting donations for Ukraine.
Sid has become quite a hit with the women, who all seem to want to take ‘selfies’ with him – he never gets a minute to himself now he has achieved celebrity status!
Saturday at Spamfield is always the biggest arrival day and sitting with a coffee and an enormous breakfast bap in the cafe area you can enjoy all the landings – good and bad.
As ever, the organisation is first rate and arriving aviators are shown exactly where to park. The central grass area by the hangars is mostly kept for trike flyers – quite right too as they have worked the hardest getting here, but then I am rather biased.
The fixed-wing aircraft stretch all the way down to the very end of the runway. Dan reckons they had around 280 aircraft, mainly microlights, visiting over the weekend.
There’s a real variety of types from single seat flexwings to sleek hot-ships, gyroplanes and everything else in between.
There didn’t seem to be as many flexwings this year, I never counted more than around 25 at any one time. Exodus Aircraft brought its new DeltaJet 500 Stingray, which was fitted with the BMW engine rather than the normal Rotax 912 and there was plenty of interest being shown.
There haven’t been any new flexwing types, apart from the nano-trikes, on the market for some time so this can only be good. The new Indian-produced P&M Quik-R was supposed to be coming as well – I didn’t see it arrive, but it is vitally important that production of the Quik family of flexwings is continued – you only had to look around to see the massive popularity of this type.
We were outnumbered a good 10-1 by the fixed-wing types – how times have changed. But this seems to be the way microlighting is going – some of the newer hot-ships are £100,000 once fully kitted out with the latest flat glass displays and two or three GPS!
There are plenty of older two-stroke, perfectly serviceable flexwings available for around £5k but nobody seems to want them. The nano-trikes and paramotors sales have been increasing though, which is encouraging – perhaps that’s where all the young people are going now.
Many pilots are moving across from costly GA aircraft to microlights and that doesn’t help with our ageing pilot demographic. But it was at least good news for the duo playing in the evening as they had obviously worked out that they wouldn’t need to stray very far from the 1970s!
In the past, aircraft from the same club would all park together and the car-borne members would bring the BBQ and gazebo – the ‘Zoy Boys’ (Westonzoyland Micro club) spring to mind.
We at KMAC used to hire a few caravans over at the adjacent Cheverton Copse Holiday Park where pilots and club members would then do a big shop at Morrisons and congregate for a Saturday night bash.
That doesn’t seem to happen now quite as much, probably due to the greatly improved catering and drinking facilities plus the overall bonhomie around the clubhouse area.
I should mention one prominent landmark that has been erected over the last couple of years: the Black Arrow rocket.
This is a full-size replica of the UK’s sole entry into the ‘space race’ of the late 1960s. Quite large components were built at Cowes and the engines subsequently tested near the Needles.
The Aviation Museum at Sandown is well worth a visit as building and flying aircraft on the Island has played a larger part in the UK’s aviation industry than you might imagine.
During the day many pilots take advantage of the free landings and explore the island – in the past I’ve flown near the massive Bestival site near Newport and followed the Round the Island Yacht Race, which really is an amazing spectacle.
In 2005 the Royal Navy was being reviewed at Spithead for Trafalgar 200, although we couldn’t get too close! In 2009 the Red Arrows did a low pass, so we all had to be on the ground for that.
A circumnavigation of the island is usually the favourite though – it’s around 70 miles, or a one hour flight.
Shanklin seafront is a popular lunchtime / afternoon destination, rather than Sandown – there are some decent seafront restaurants such as the Steamer and a little pub called The Fishermans Cottage tucked away out of sight on the beach.
Most pilots camp ‘under the wing’ although some of the less hardy take to B&Bs in Sandown.
But there’s only one place to be on Saturday evening – the Island Bistro. It was all kicking off when we got back from the beach, throngs of jolly revellers had congregated and were enjoying the live music while washing down wedges of pizza with pints of the local brew.
As the sun slipped down behind the rocket and it started getting chilly Dan got a serious fire going in his monster fire-pit.
“That’s the essence of Spamfield really. Camaraderie forged from a shared passion – there really is no other fly-in event that comes close”
What a great atmosphere and a perfect opportunity to catch up with your old flying mates over a beer or two. That’s the essence of Spamfield really. Camaraderie forged from a shared passion – there really is no other fly-in event that comes close.
We left at 0740 on Sunday morning as there was a front moving in and we needed to get back, but we were rewarded with glorious views across the gleaming Solent as we said goodbye to the Island for another year.
OK, SkyDemon refused to play ball, stubbornly repeating that our ‘subscription had expired’… OH NO IT HADN’T!
But sometimes there’s just no arguing with modern technology so it was back to old-school navigation, which, if you remember, involves much consultation with that big papery thing on your lap-board.
But it didn’t really matter as the trike, rather like a homing pigeon, is now perfectly capable of finding its own way back from the IoW!
We like to route inland on the return to Kent, following along the edge of the towering South Downs, while occasionally swooping a little lower over the steep-sided valleys. We are home in 1hr 25min, before most people are having their breakfast.
We hope to make it back to Dan’s ‘Field of Dreams’ for next year’s Spamfield.
There were only two rules this year: 1. No high vis. jackets and 2. No miserable people.
Well I certainly didn’t see either of those, and if you’ve never been before you don’t know what you are missing!