Flying Adventure

Operation Stirling

Your mission, Chris Bullock and Lee Wilson, should you choose to accept it: Overfly UK motor racing circuits in honour of Sir Stirling Moss. You have from Dawn to Dusk. Chris takes up the story…

We are Team Sibson, Chris Bullock and Lee Wilson, both private pilots who learned to fly at, and fly from, Peterborough Sibson Airfield. We’re relatively low hours pilots (me 156 and Lee 305 at competition entry, both with night ratings and Lee with an IR(R)), but we are always looking for a new challenge. So we got our heads together mid-April (well, over a Skype chat due to Covid lockdown) and decided to plan an entry to the annual Dawn to Dusk competition, after seeing an advert for it in a recent marketing email from Pooleys.

We thought that doing something in honour of the late, great Sir Stirling Moss would be fitting, given the sporting challenge aspect of the Dawn to Dusk event. 

A serious challenge seemed a great way to honour him – and at the same time raise money for NHS Charities Together. We decided we would overfly famous racetracks in England and Wales, taking aerial shots of the racetracks as we go!

The original planned route took in 844nm and 8.5hr of airborne time (not taking into account possible holding time, diversions etc), over 15 famous racetracks with three stops in between. I say ‘original planned route’ as there were changes as time passed and planning developed, but more about that later…

Our chosen steed was the faithful Peterborough Flying School aircraft G-BAXY. A Cessna Skyhawk F172M with excellent performance, and superb onboard equipment, including Garmin GNS 430 GPS with slaved HSI, Bendix King KX165A comm/nav radios, Bendix King KN64 DME, Bendix King KR87 ADF, and Garmin GTX 328 Transponder Mode S.

Between us we had amassed 61 hours of experience with G-BAXY since it arrived with Peterborough Flying School in October 2019 and it was the preferred self-hire aircraft for us both, which made it an obvious choice.

Snetterton in Norfolk, with the A47 running past

The planning stage

So, the game was afoot, the next step was starting the detailed planning. This was a welcome distraction, what with lockdown being in full swing and taking a toll worldwide.

Planning was going to be different with the inability to get together, but made much easier with the use of tech, including Skype and SkyDemon. The route was one aspect to consider, but not the only one. For a start neither of us had a northern half-million chart, just one of the many things we needed to prepare.

A check of actual dawn and dusk timings showed sunrise at 0503, sunset 2110, giving us 16 hours and seven minutes in the air.

We also had some pre-challenge flights to practise Crew Resource Management (CRM) and right seat flying to ensure we were comfortable with taking control should it be required in an urgent or distress situation, or due to PIC fatigue. That included a plan for Lee to take control should flight in IMC become unexpectedly necessary due his IR(R) qualification.

Finally, we were ready to depart! We met up on Sunday 19 July to have a last brief, check and fuel the aircraft, agreed a planned departure time of 0700L and we also filed the Leg 1 flight plan later that evening to leave the morning as clear as possible.

Brooklands, Surrey in the London CTR, gulp!

Leg 1: Peterborough Sibson to Thruxton

251nm, 2hr 50min: 0742L-1032L

Finally, the day of the challenge had arrived. We were up nice and early, everything packed and a light breakfast to start the day. The F215 was checked and couldn’t look any better! I arrived at the airfield at 0615L, and Lee was a bit delayed at about 0700L. Lee had the hangar keys so as soon as he got there we opened up, wheeled BAXY out, completed checks, and made sure we had everything we needed (first challenge of the day: find the aircraft’s fuel tank dipstick!). We were airborne at about 0742L!

On the climb out from Sibson the high voltage light came on in the cockpit and the voltmeter was showing excessive charge on the battery – not a good start! After reaching a safe altitude and levelling off we decided to reset the alternator as an initial step (as per the POH) and this did resolve the issue, so we decided to continue and monitor, again, as per the POH, which indicates that if it resolves the issue the flight can continue.

We changed frequency to London Information and Lee contacted them to activate our flight plan. We climbed to 4,000ft to stay clear of the Lakenheath/Mildenhall MATZ (we did call Lakenheath, but with no reply we stayed with London Info), and danger area D208 before descending to 3,000ft as we approached Snetterton for the first racetrack, on what was a really beautiful morning.

On departing Snetterton we informed London Info of our position, new heading and next reporting point, heading south for Brands Hatch and climbing to approx. 3,700ft to remain above the Wattisham MATZ, as well as the Rattlesden and Wormingford glider launching sites. After passing Wormingford we descended to 2,000ft to be below the 2,500ft London TMA Class A airspace ahead of time.

Brands Hatch, Kent

Not long after this we requested a frequency change to Southend Radar to obtain our first LARS of the day and mark the start of what was an extremely busy 50 minutes flying and radio work as we prepared to approach our second and third racetracks at Brands Hatch and Brooklands. In that period we spoke to Southend, Farnborough East, Heathrow, back to Farnborough East then on to Farnborough West, all very nicely handled by Lee on the radios and a great service from all the ATC involved.

We passed Brands Hatch and got some great pictures before heading north-west to avoid the Biggin Hill ATZ, and then track towards Epsom and the Ockham VOR/DME where we planned to hold in case of a delay in obtaining clearance to enter the London CTR.

Brooklands was the racetrack we were most concerned about being in the London CTR, but our prep, pre-calls with Heathrow and Swanwick, and filing the flight plan all paid off as we heard the magical words ‘cleared to enter airspace to Brooklands not above 1,500ft, advise when routing south to exit the zone’.

Approaching Goodwood we descended to 2,500ft to grab a good picture of the track

After departing Brooklands we headed south out of the CTR, advising Heathrow Radar as we did and requested a frequency change back to Farnborough before climbing back to 2,000ft and then 3,000ft en route to Goodwood. The airspace was starting to get busy at this point and as we headed towards the South Downs we gave ourselves a small congratulations and at the same time breathed a sigh of relief having successfully completed the first serious challenge of the day – and being able to snap Brooklands.

Goodwood, Sussex

Approaching Goodwood we descended to 2,500ft to allow us to grab a good picture of the track, while remaining clear of the ATZ, and then headed north-west, climbing back up to 3,000ft and skirting around the edge of the Solent CTA before speaking to Boscombe Zone as we made our way towards Thruxton for the first stop.

After being cleared across the MATZ and danger area D126 we changed frequency to Thruxton and made our approach not above 1,200ft to join downwind at the 800ft circuit height. On speaking to the air ground station at Thruxton we opted to take our racetrack photo on the departure, so we landed and headed to check in and organise a refuel (we filled to full tanks at each stop), Leg 1 complete!

Leg 2: Thruxton to Caernarfon, 238nm

2hr 45min: 1128L-1413L

After leaving the Boscombe MATZ we climbed out to 4,000ft and with the thermals building up it was quite bumpy at lower altitude. At 4,000ft we were back into nice smooth air, talking to Boscombe Zone and Brize for a LARS on the way as we headed towards our next circuit at Castle Combe.

Approaching Castle Combe we descended to 2,500ft to get a good picture of the circuit and changed frequency to Bristol Radar to obtain CTA transit clearance as we’d decided to make the most of the location and good weather to fly over the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

Bristol, as all ATC along the route, provided us with a great service, allowing us into the CTA ‘as required’ to overfly the bridge before we headed north-west towards Brecon and on our way to Pembrey circuit. We changed frequency to Cardiff en route to obtain a LARS for this next part of the journey.

We decided to take the opportunity to take in more scenery and tracked towards Brecon VOR/DME at 4,000ft. We encountered some light turbulence as we headed to Brecon, but nothing out of limits, and we enjoyed some cracking views before turning overhead the beacon and tracking outbound towards Pembrey, keeping ATC informed of our intentions.

Thruxton, Wilts

Pembrey was our next track of concern along the route, in terms of being able to photograph it. Not only is it part of an active airfield but also in the active Danger Area D118 that extends from the surface to 12,000ft. After requesting a frequency change, we contacted Pembrey Range which answered after our second call and cleared us to cross D118 for the photo opportunity – we were set for our second major (planned) challenge of the day!

After clearing Pembrey we changed frequency back to Cardiff for a LARS and then continued with London Information as we headed up the west Wales coast towards Aberystwyth. For this part of the leg we decided to make the most of the Class G, weather and views, and climbed up to 7,000ft, above the cloud base, but maintaining VFR. We took in some amazing sights, too many to mention, but including the entry / exit for the ‘Mach Loop’!

The views and scenery on this leg were amazing, the weather we had en route accentuated the colours even more, making the Welsh coast look like a Caribbean postcard, which was breathtaking. From here we crossed Barmouth and Tremadog bays, and the Lleyn Peninsula towards Anglesey circuit which lies inside the Valley/Mona MATZ and close to the Valley ATZ.

As we approached our next stop, Caernarfon, from the south (we were going to overfly Anglesey circuit before returning to land) we descended to 3,000ft and changed frequency to RAF Valley. We had spoken to Valley in the run up to the trip so it wasn’t surprised to hear us. However, we knew that there was potentially another photo challenge here with Anglesey circuit being so close to its ATZ and given the nature of the operations the RAF runs from there. We didn’t want to be mixing it with the Hawks, despite secretly wishing we could recreate the inverted dive scene from Top Gun – well maybe not in a C172…

The Hawks were active, but Valley was very good and managed our MATZ penetration with the departing Hawk traffic very smoothly (we certainly heard the roar of their jet engines despite not being visual) allowing us to capture the picture we needed before heading back to Caernarfon for a well-deserved rest and refuel – human and aircraft.

Spectacular Castle Combe, near Chippenham, Wilts

After thanking Valley for its invaluable help we changed frequency to Caernarfon, obtained airfield info and carried out a standard overhead join to R25. The wind had picked up and there was a strong crosswind from the right on 25 which was a challenge for me, but I got the aircraft down safely and after speaking with air ground headed straight for refuelling.

After refuelling we encountered another technical issue however, as BAXY didn’t start straight away! We both recognised the noise as a failure of the Bendix starter to engage properly and after a third attempt, she started successfully, phew…

After parking came the next issue – no refreshment nor toilet facilities open at Caernarfon. We had been speaking with Caernarfon in the run up to the trip and at no point had understood that this was going to be the case. Thankfully we had packed sandwiches and were able to grab a bite to eat and a brief rest – in the company of RAF Puma pilots we might add…

Leg 3: Caernarfon to Teesside International, 183nm

1hr 55min: 1500L-1655L

Given that time was now getting on (approaching 1500), and as we had two significant legs and some en route challenges left, we decided to contact Teesside International before we left Caernarfon. Teesside was our next scheduled stop so we updated it of our progress and expected ETA, as well as to confirm that there would be no known issues with our arrival. It confirmed everything was OK, so we set off.

Time for a change of roles! I took over the role of pilot navigating, monitoring and radios and Lee took the Captain’s helm. After a check of the aircraft, updating the tech logs and a successful first-time engine start, we were off on the third leg of our adventure.

Pembrey in south Wales

We’d planned two possible routes for the first part of this leg from Caernarfon to Oulton Park – overflying Snowdon or routing around the north Wales coast. Given the weather that had descended and the risk of CFIT, we opted to take the north Wales coast, routing towards Colwyn Bay and across towards Borras Quarry VRP, near Wrexham. The scenery didn’t disappoint and the choice to not overfly Snowdon was confirmed as a good one as we watched the mountain flit in and out of cloud.

We tried to contact Shawbury for a LARS after leaving Valley’s service but were unable to contact Shawbury or Warton, so talked to Hawarden where we managed to receive a service. Approaching Borras Quarry VRP we descended to 2,000ft to remain below the Class A Niton CTA and the soon to be encountered Manchester CTA at 2,500ft. We also prepared for the next possible issue – crossing the Liverpool CTR to fly over Aintree, before turning to cross the Pennines towards Croft and Teesside International.

We requested a frequency change to Liverpool Approach from Hawarden, but we were initially denied due to traffic management being carried out by Hawarden. Eventually they handed us over to Liverpool as we transited overhead Oulton Park – and only three to four minutes before we were due to enter controlled airspace. We requested clearance and were asked to standby while ATC dealt with other traffic. Lee slowed the aircraft down to give us more time and we prepared to divert to the south if clearance wasn’t provided in time. ATC came back to us and cleared us to transit just in time from the Tarvin Roundabout VRP, direct to Aintree and directly overhead Liverpool Airport!

After passing overhead Aintree and leaving controlled airspace we thanked Liverpool for its service and we were handed over to Manchester Radar, before we commenced a climb to 3,000ft staying clear of the Manchester CTR and Class A TMA.

We were unable to obtain a traffic service from Manchester. However, it provided a basic service which we stayed with before changing to London Information and eventually to Teesside Radar for a basic, followed by traffic service when in range.

Then north for Anglesey

We stayed at 3,500ft for this part of the leg passing some fantastic scenery across the Pennines before descending to 3,150ft as we crossed the north-westerly stub of the Leeming Matz overhead Catterick and prepared for a descent into Teesside International.

Due to the Croft Circuit being active, we’d already opted to photograph Croft on the departure from Teesside, so we asked for a radar vectored ILS approach into Teesside, allowing Lee to utilise his IR(R) qualification and skills.

We were guided in for a downwind join to R23, and while on the downwind leg flew through a shower / cloud, entering into IMC for the first time on the trip so far. This only lasted seconds and we were soon completing downwind checks and turning base, then final to intercept the LLZ, and configuring for landing before intercepting the GP and flying a (very nice ILS if we do say so ourselves!) parallel approach with a HEMS on the way in too!

We’d made it into Teesside in time. We were three legs and 10 circuits down, with one leg and five circuits to go!

Leg 4: Teesside International to Peterborough Sibson 248nm

2hr 30min: 1756L-2026L

After treating ourselves to a slightly longer break at Teesside, as well as refuelling, we were escorted via crew bus to the terminal building where we were able to relax in the very comfortable crew lounge with complimentary drinks and snacks. After this welcome break we were escorted back to the aircraft where we completed checks ahead of the final leg and prepared to depart.

We needed to photograph Croft on the climbout, which was the first challenge for this leg, as we weren’t allowed to fly overhead. Challenge number two was going to be photographing Donington Park which lies at the end of East Midlands R27. So we called ahead to East Midlands tower (whom we’d spoken to in the run up to the flight) to confirm our intentions, ETA and to check if a transit overhead at the end of R27 would be possible. EMA said there would be active traffic but that it should be able to accommodate us not above 3,000ft – result!

Caernarfon, north Wales

On climbing out from Teesside we got a snap of Croft and then turned south, tracking to the Ottringham VOR, initially with Teesside and then changing frequency to Humberside Radar for a LARS service for all of 15 minutes before closing, after which we reverted to London Information. We climbed to 7,000ft for the en route part of this leg in what was a lovely clear sky.

Approaching Ottringham we commenced a descent to 3,000ft where we remained until passing Cadwell Park where we turned south-west towards VRP Trowell in East Midlands CTA 1 which was the transit point we’d agreed with East Midlands.

After passing Cadwell we remained with London Information and climbed to 4,000ft to remain clear of the Waddington MATZ. After overflying Waddington we requested a frequency change to East Midlands and we also advised our revised ETA, which was later than previously advised at Trowell VRP. No problem, EMA could still accommodate us, thankfully…

From here we proceeded to Trowell, descended to 2,800ft and were cleared into controlled airspace. After passing Trowell we headed south-west, directly towards East Midlands Airport, which we overflew, and were able to overfly Donington race circuit and capture our last ‘challenging photo’.

We were almost there! It was now 1930 and while there was 1h 40min to go until dusk at 2110, we were conscious of approximately 50 minutes flight time left and not much room for error from a timing perspective.

Oulton Park, Cheshire

After passing Donington we remained in controlled airspace at the same altitude until clear of East Midlands CTA4, and remained with East Midlands on a basic service. We overflew Mallory Park in Leicestershire and remained on track south-east for Silverstone, our final circuit, climbing up to 3,500ft en route.

We’d made it! It was almost 2000 local and we were at Silverstone. We descended to 3,000ft to get a better picture with the light fading and completed a lap of honour before heading north-east towards Sibson in time to land at shutdown before the dusk deadline.

Then Lee had an idea. “Why don’t we go for one more race circuit and overfly Santa Pod?” This made perfect sense. After all, Santa Pod was a world famous drag strip and was on our route back to Sibson…

After overflying Santa Pod and approaching Thrapston we requested a frequency change to Sibson Radio and said goodbye and thanks to our last ATC of the day. The sun was setting fast as we made our approach to Sibson, broadcasting on frequency for any traffic in the area to be aware, and in the hope that there might be someone on frequency to greet us back at base! Alas not, but that didn’t matter as we’d made it and before long Lee was performing checks and setting BAXY up for a straight in approach to R33.

A lovely greaser landing onto R33 by Lee brought our flying for the day to an end. We landed at approximately 2026L, taxied to the hard behind the hangar at Sibson and shut the aircraft down. It felt strange and almost sad to not be flying on for another leg after the day’s adventures, but we were both shattered and looking forward to a beer and a good sleep…

We added a last motorsport venue on the spur of the moment at the end, Santa Pod drag raceway, Beds
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