Solstice simplicity dawns…

Six hours flying, 10 landings, many friends – and the obligatory bacon rolls – all packed into one fantastic day of flying for Paul Kiddell

Summer Solstice, which falls on 21 June in the Northern Hemisphere, certainly sees some strange goings on. Pagans and druids gather at Stonehenge, European Slavic nations celebrate Kupala Night with young people leaping over bonfires to prove their fertility, while even the normally reserved Swedes go absolutely crazy, gorging themselves on pickled herring in front of large bonfires… 

Up in Northumberland, I somehow resist the pickled herring option and my thoughts turn to how best to maximise Solstice flying fun in our faithful 2008 Evektor EuroStar, G-CEVS… 

The first challenge is that our home airfield of Eshott is currently limited by planning restrictions to operations between 0900-1900 local. However, Northumberland and the Scottish Borders have a wonderful selection of grass strips operated by generous friends, and a call to my good pal Ewan Brewis, just across the border, tells me that we can operate at remote Lempitlaw without restriction and without bothering anyone.

Lempitlaw is 55.60N, and on 21 June enjoys some 17 hours and 31 minutes of daylight between 0426 sunrise and 2157 sunset. Of course, we can legally get airborne VFR 30 minutes before sunrise and land up to 30 minutes after sunset, giving a whopping 18.5 hours for potential flying – about 52 minutes longer than London. 

We always try to do something different on Solstice. Last year I organised a 10-ship sunrise fly-out to seven airfields, taking-off at 0356 and landing at the first, wonderful Eddsfield, at 0500. 

Low in the Cheviot foothills

This year I fancied something a little bit closer to home and settled on a 250-mile circumnavigation of Northumberland passing over many familiar landmarks and hopefully witnessing a sunrise over the North Sea.

So, with a good forecast, I invite my pal and flexwing pilot extraordinaire, Michael Stalker, from his Strathaven base south of Glasgow. Michael learned to fly in 2012 and bought his Quantum 912 flexwing G-BZIM later that year. In 2018 he shipped G-BZIM to Florida and spent more than a month touring the States at a leisurely 60mph, flying from Miami to the West Coast, before returning East to complete his remarkable journey in New York. During this incredible adventure, Michael landed at 59 airfields, logging 124 hours, and rounded off his trip with a flight down the Hudson River complete with a few orbits of the Statue of Liberty. Michael’s excellent blog is still available to read online.

I agree to meet Michael at Lempitlaw at 2000, but just as I’m departing Eshott at 1830, flying partner Alex Smith calls to say he’s re-arranged his day off so he can come along after all. He can’t get to Eshott in time for the 1900 deadline so I suggest coming back to collect him from nearby Athey’s Moor after dropping off sleeping bag, food and spare fuel at Lempitlaw… leave no man behind and all that!

Heading for Lempitlaw in light winds, I spot Michael on PilotAware and finally gain visual contact with his green machine, low among the Cheviot foothills. He’s clearly having low-level fun well away from persons, vessels, vehicles and structures. I update him with my cunning plan on a chat frequency and we cross the border, unchallenged by Scottish Air Defences, to land on the super smooth 600m east-west strip at Lempitlaw. It’s always a pleasure to catch up with friends following the lockdown restrictions, but as I need to pick Alex up, we don’t hang around and after unloading our gear into the strip static caravan, we return south to Athey’s Moor.

Picture flashback…Michael Stalker flying over the Hudson River during his USA adventure (Credit: Michael Stalker)

It’s a glorious evening and while I slow down to 80mph, I’m still bombing ahead of Michael so I zoom around him pointing out local points of interest. Heading south down the valley past Wooler, we orbit the wonderful Hurlestone Tower which looks ancient but, in fact, was constructed in 2000. More importantly, its isolation and impregnable nature make it my destination of choice during a zombie apocalypse – as a bonus, the surrounding fields would also accommodate a nice strip…

Legendary adventurer

We soon arrive at Athey’s Moor and land on R03. Alex is waiting, as is strip owner, legendary microlight adventurer Eddie McCallum. Twenty years ago, Ed bought a disused chicken farm and created a strip for his flexwing. Now the airfield has planning permission, three 500m+ grass runways, and Ed has just opened a microlight flying school operating a Eurostar with a new Nynja on order.

Athey’s has two dozen residents plus a new mezzanine level clubhouse with a shower for campers. Taking pride of place on the clubhouse wall is Ed’s map of his incredible microlighting adventures. After learning to fly in 1993, Ed travelled the length and breadth of Europe in his two-stroke Pegasus XL-Q powered by a 51hp Rotax 462, making it as far as Eastern Poland and the Costa Brava at a steady 60mph.

In 1998 he transitioned to a four-stroke Rotax 912 powered Quantum flexwing and continued his European adventures, even flying across the North Sea to Norway.

But Ed’s most remarkable journey was his 2014 VFR trip to Oshkosh and back in his Flight Design CTSW microlight G-CEEO powered by a 100hp Rotax 912ULS. The exceptionally challenging trip, via multiple stops in Iceland, Greenland and Canada, covered 11,000 nautical miles in 110 hours of flying. An ‘understated Geordie’, Ed, still gives occasional talks at flying clubs around the country on this herculean feat of aviation (he takes donations to UNICEF), which earned him the Royal Aero Club Norton Griffiths trophy in 2014.

It was the first time Ed and Michael had met and Alex and I had a wonderful time listening to two great adventurers comparing notes. It was already 2100 and after grabbing a snap of the only two pilots who have flown British registered microlights into Oshkosh, it was time to head off for sunset coastal flying.

Alex flew, which gave me maximum flexibility for photos with my ageing but trusty Nikon D300 SLR. We also carried Alex’s Insta360 camera, while Michael was carrying a Nikon P900, an equally old Canon 6D SLR and a GoPro to catch the action. Athey’s is just seven miles from the coast and, with the sun already low on the horizon, we soon arrived over the magnificent ruins of 12th century Warkworth Castle. The castle was long-time home of the Percy family, including battling knight Henry Percy, known as ‘Harry Hotspur’, who is one of Shakespeare’s best known characters in Henry IV. These days, the current Duke of Northumberland, Ralph Percy, resides in nearby Alnwick Castle. Incidentally, Tottenham Hotspur is so named as the club was established on land that belonged to the Percy family in Northumberland Park, London.

We closed for some close formation and photos. The Eurostar stalls at 44mph clean (max weight at idle) so Alex pops out, increasing the amount of flap until we have the full barn door of 50° to fly comfortably alongside Michael who is flying at his preferred hands-off bar / endurance speed of 60mph. The soft ‘Golden Hour’ light reflected off of the Quantum’s many stickers accrued during Michael’s adventures and we mutually snap away before Alex progressively retracts the flaps allowing us to accelerate to a more relaxed 90mph.

As we head low-level up the scenic Northumberland coastline with its numerous historic castles and sandy beaches, patchy cloud on the horizon threatened to spoil the sunset party. But we needn’t have worried, if anything, the cloud enhanced the colours as the sun darted in and out.

For me you can’t beat viewing a sunset / sunrise over the sea with the water acting as a huge reflector, and as we approached Holy Island Bay, the strong summer sun emerged for a hugely dramatic finale. Every flight is wonderfully unique but in my 1,300 hours I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed such intense sunset beauty as the backlit cloud and sun reflected off the Bay silhouetting the moored boats, Lindisfarne Castle and the ruined Abbey… absolutely fantastic! We spent 10 minutes orbiting the bay above Michael, who was having serious fun. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and lose track of time and with the clock passing 2145, Michael made for Lempitlaw some 20 miles inland / 20 minutes in the still evening air. We still had time to make Berwick and we enjoyed the sunlit reflections of the three historic bridges in the Tweed below. As we followed the Tweed to Lempitlaw, the sun finally disappeared below the horizon and we landed at 2212. But it was still light enough to fly and with 15 ‘legal’ minutes left to sunset + 30, Alex took Michael for a quick local to experience the mighty EuroStar. However, when Alex landed with five minutes precious legal minutes left, I still wasn’t satisfied that we’d taken full advantage. So leaving Michael strapped in, I managed a quick last circuit with wheels down on the dot at 2227 – perfect!

Berwick Bridge reflections

Michael enjoyed his rare flights without suit and helmet and we rustled up bacon rolls to round off a brilliant evening. Looking down the strip, we agreed that we could probably fly through the night. But rules are rules and after a quick bit of Notam and weather planning for the early start, we hit the sack.

Bananas and coffee…

As is often the case when there’s an exciting day ahead, I didn’t need my 0320 alarm and awoke at 0310. Bananas and a quick coffee fortified us for the morning ahead – and we were warming our Rotax engines at 0345. While they are ‘whisper quiet’, it was comforting to know that at the remote strip we weren’t bothering anyone and we got airborne at 0356 in the twilight, 30 minutes before sunrise.

Some years when there is cloud cover at this early hour, you can doubt your sanity and have to have faith that it will be lighter above ground level, but this year the skies are reasonably clear and plenty bright enough for a comfortable departure.

As we head east, patchy cloud looks like it may again interfere with our grandstand sunrise view. However, as we take up a patrol line between Holy Island and the Farne Islands, a clear ‘letterbox’ on the horizon between the cloud layers starts to glow orange as the sun begins to rise. At 0442, the sun finally clears the cloud and bathes us in warm sunlight and we again formate to record the moment for posterity.

We pass by my house in Longhoughton where Mrs K will be sound asleep for a couple of hours yet, unlike the local traditional crab and lobster fishermen who are already sailing out to check
their pots.

Off Amble, the diminutive square sandstone lighthouse on Coquet Island throws an enormous shadow over the water more, which is more akin to that of the Empire State Building. Coquet Island is a notable RSPB bird reserve where every spring, around 18,000 pairs of puffins return from the harsh Atlantic winter to nest.

Offshore art

At Newbiggin-by-the-Sea we fly over a middle-age couple in teeshirts who stand on permanent guard some 300m out to sea on the village’s breakwater. In reality, the couple are very lifelike 5m statues cast in bronze and, when installed in 2007, were the UK’s first permanent offshore art installation.

The impressive 46m high St Mary’s lighthouse, seen by many airline passengers on approach to Newcastle’s Runway 25, marks a transition to solid overcast cloud with a resulting twilight feel as we continue south. We are approaching the Newcastle CTA but the downturn in the airline industry has seen the airport reduce its hours and this morning the CTA/CTR/ATZ are Notamed to become active at 0600 local (0500Z). With the airspace reverting to Class G overnight, we can fill our boots, although we make blind calls and monitor both the Tower and Radar frequencies should the resident police helicopter get airborne.

Approaching the Farnes with Michael

We enjoy an orbit of the recently renovated Spanish City domed leisure complex at Whitley Bay, immortalised by Dire Straits in Tunnel of Love, and I treat Alex to an impromptu rendition:

And girl it looks so pretty to me, like it always did

Oh, like the Spanish city to me, when we were kids

Fortunately, Alex isn’t too traumatised by my crooning, and at Tynemouth we turn west to fly down the mighty River Tyne, scene of so much history since Roman times. The huge P&O cruise ship, MS Azur has been berthed, during the Covid lull, at the Port of Tyne since January 2021. The 290m, 115,055-ton vessel has some impressive stats and accommodates 3,100 guests in 1,557 cabins supported by a crew of 1,250.

Ships have always featured heavily in the Tyne and Newcastle’s history. The famous Swan Hunter yards at Wallsend and Walker built 1,600 ships including the then world’s largest ship, Cunard’s RMS Mauretania (launched in 1906) and the 1980s Sea Harrier carriers HMS Ark Royal and HMS Illustrious. Ship building on the Tyne finally came to an end in 2006 with the completion of the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Largs Bay. While the famous shipyard cranes that lined the Tyne are now long gone, many yards now support the growing offshore wind industry and we observe rows of huge yellow 70m wind-farm jackets (legs).

Arriving over the iconic Tyne Bridges, we orbit the city centre, largely deserted aside from a few early risers. Backlit advertising boards show up well in the half-light as does the impressive 469ft AGL crane busy building the new 14-storey Bank House Development.

Approaching the Farnes with Michael

Looking down on the quayside opposite the wonderful Sage concert venue, I couldn’t help but reflect on the incredible transformation of this amazing city. I first became acquainted with Newcastle when I served at RAF Boulmer in the 1980s. Back then it was quite a sad place as the traditional heavy industries such as coal mining and shipbuilding collapsed and unemployment soared. However, its regeneration over the past 25 years has been quite remarkable and today it’s an amazingly vibrant and justifiably popular destination. One constant through the years has been the Geordies’ love of football, and I spy our season ticket seats at St James’ Park and dream of our return next season – it seems a very long time since we last sat there to watch the Toon play Burnley on 29 February 2020.

With Michael in a half-mile trail, we head five miles north-west of the city centre to take advantage of Newcastle Airport’s overnight closure and both enjoy an approach and low pass on the 2,392m R25 passing the parked up TUI, BA and Jet2 airliners.

Re-joining the Tyne at Hexham, we break back out into bright sunshine. In an early example of recycling, nearby Hadrian’s Wall donated stone to Hexham’s seventh century abbey. It’s a beautiful low-level run down the Tyne with picturesque market towns and villages amidst rolling hills, punctuated by grand estates with accompanying mansions and historic castles. We orbit the 14th century Langley Castle, considered to be the finest tower house in Northumberland and now a luxury holiday retreat. But in common with all Northumberland Castles, this was no decorative pile. It was attacked and severely damaged in 1405 by the forces of Henry IV in the campaign against the rebellious Percys and Archbishop Scrope. It didn’t end well for the Archbishop who was found guilty of high treason and beheaded in front of a large, and apparently jovial, crowd in York.

Enormous shadow cast by Coquet Island lighthouse

After two hours airborne, we leave the Tyne and head a few miles north to pick up Hadrian’s Wall at Housesteads Fort, one of the best preserved forts on the Wall with the foundations of the barracks, hospital and flushable toilets all still visible. The low, early morning light really shows every crease in the landscape and what a treat it is to fly low along this remarkable second century feat of Roman engineering. We see foundations of several of the 80 small milecastle forts that, funnily enough, were placed every mile along the Wall (numbered east to west) along with some of the 17 full-blown garrison forts.

The early hour also means that the RAF Spadeadam D510 Electronic Warfare Tactics Range (EWTR) is also inactive so passing Sycamore Gap, we leave the wall and turn north to enter the adjacent range complex. RAF Spadeadam is the largest RAF station by land area covering 9,600 acres and we fly low picking out targets, including the well-known dummy airfield with Cold War jets as well as an isolated Mil Mi-24 Hind gunship.

Clearing the range to the north in bright sunshine, we arrive at Kielder Water, the largest man-made reservoir (by volume) in the UK, holding 200 billion litres of water. We low fly over moored yachts and enjoy one last 60mph formation before our good flying buddy, ‘Captain Slow’, waggles his wings and sets off the 70 miles home north to his Strathaven base.

After a superbly unique 2 hours 40 minutes we land back at Lempitlaw at 0636. As we enjoy coffee and pack away our sleeping bags, farmer Ewan arrives and Alex takes him for an impromptu local before Ewan returns to the serious business of farming. Ewan also flies a flexwing (a QuikR), but I think is sorely tempted to abandon the multi-layered suit and helmet for the relaxed comfort of the fixed-wing microlight – it’s much more civilised when a gentleman of a certain age can fly in a light cardigan while enjoying a latte, in my humble opinion…

MS Azura seen in the sunshine

With the EuroStar refuelled and our gear stowed, we say our goodbyes and pop into yet another nearby border strip to enjoy coffee with our G-CEVS partner, and former RAF Victor pilot, Steve Biglands. After a good chat with Steve, I drop Alex back at Athey’s to reunite him with his car and finally land back at Eshott at 1030.

Overnight, we’d enjoyed six hours of fantastic flying with some 10 landings at a diverse range of strips hosted by generous microlighting friends. Our sunset and sunrise flights with Michael were utterly spectacular and will live long in the memory. With a bit of thought, you really can enjoy a remarkable Solstice adventure on your doorstep – see you bright and early next year…

Alex taking Lempitlaw strip owner Ewan Brewis for a local
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