Special feature

Welcome to the strip club…

What’s all the fuss about farm strip flying? Dave Calderwood finds out on crammer course with strip instructor Matt Coles

Sometimes, strip flying is the only thing the other guys on FLYER talk about. “There’s a new strip at…” “Easier when the wind’s from the west” and, of course, “Strip’s too wet and boggy to get out of.” Blimey, what’s up with these guys? What’s wrong with a nice hard runway at a proper airfield?

Clearly, I needed to go strip flying but with someone safe, someone who could point out the essentials, and with access to a good strip aircraft. Matt Coles, that’s who. When he’s not flying as a commercial pilot, Matt runs Farm Strip Flying, instructing other pilots into the world of strip flying.

And as an added push, the CAA has just issued an updated and revised Safety Sense leaflet, SS12, on Strip Flying. The leaflet’s intro says, “The use of airstrips can bring new destinations and challenges to your flying. However, many require special planning and consideration for their use.

“Most strips will have ‘threats’, such as obstacles or poor surfaces, and are less tolerant of ‘errors’ such as inaccurate flying speeds. Each one needs identifying, considering and mitigating as appropriate.”

So, when I met Matt at his base strip, Berrow, close to the Malvern Hills, the plan was to work through the chapters in the Safety Sense leaflet, taking in a couple of other strips to illustrate various points.

“I want to encourage people to go and fly into strips,” said Matt. “I think it’s absolutely brilliant, you’ll become a much better pilot, because you have to operate to a higher standard, you’ll be exposed to lots of different challenges. That will increase your flying ability, but it’s not without risk.”

First, we walked the Berrow strip which, at first glance, looked like a nice, straightforward grass runway. However, potential hazards weren’t far away.

Matt asked, “So what can you see here that you wouldn’t see at a regular airport?”

Me: “Well, the wires.” Yes, a row of electricity pylons marched across the field to one side of the runway.

Matt: “Yes, we’ve got wires. The geography of the ground as well – it’s not flat. I would say, on the excitement scale, it’s maybe a six out of 10. So it’s not completely crazy, we’re not landing on the side of a mountain. But equally, it’s not totally benign, we’ve got an undulating strip. There’s a dip in the middle, as you can see, we’ve got trees around us as well.

“Now, it’s not just the fact that there is an obstacle but how is that going to affect the operation? If we have a southerly wind today, how is that wall of trees going to change the effect of wind on the approach?

“For example, we could be on an approach, which is nice and clear, up until about 200ft with 30° of crab, then all of a sudden those trees mask the effect of the wind. It’s things like that that can catch people out.

“Next is the surface of the runway. This is actually quite nice as it gets mown every week. It’s fairly smooth. But it’s not just the smoothness of it. It’s the softness of it. When people come to do sort of farm strip flying with me, we look at different techniques according to what surface you’re operating off.

“An obvious question is, how are you going to know what the runway surface is like if you’ve never been there before?”

“If you’re flying a nosewheel aeroplane, like a PA28 or Cessna, the engine thrust line is angled down slightly and that has the effect of compressing the nose, and can dig in a soft surface and increase your take-off distance.”

An obvious question is, how are you going to know what the runway surface is like if you’ve never been there before?

“One of my biggest tips for farm strip flying is to get on the phone before you go anywhere. Number one, it’s a courtesy to lots of these privately owned strips. Quite often people live next to them as well. So it’s really important to get PPR.

“Also, the landowner or strip operator will have a far better idea about what their strips are like. The owner will be able to say ‘watch out for that village on three-mile final because there’s a really grumpy person who lives in that house so make sure you fly an offset approach’. Or, ‘be careful because it’s slightly soft at the moment because we’ve had a lot of rain’… or ‘the pylons are to the right of the runway’.

“Be honest with them about your experience. Because if you say, ‘I’d like to fly in with my Cessna 182 with four people and full tanks’, the chap might say, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea. You might get in, but you might not get out’.

“From the air, this strip just looks like a lovely straight 600 metre strip. You can’t tell, for example, that slope there, you get a really good idea of what’s around by coming to visit it first. The Safety Sense leaflet says go to visit on foot first and it’s a really good piece of advice.

Strip farm flying
Landing at Berrow where there's a wall of trees at the end of the runway... and a hidden road crossing left to right
Strip farm flying
Dave, in the back, looking happy and a bit apprehensive all at once…

“It’s so tempting on a lovely summer’s day, to say ‘let’s go and visit that farm strip’. And, to be fair, some of them, you might be able to do that and be perfectly fine. But your local flying club will have an instructor who’s landed on grass before and they can just take you to go and do a couple of circuits on a grass runway.”

This seemed a good moment to admit that I learned to fly at RAF Henlow which is all grass and the surfaces were good but, “It was finding the airfield that was hard.”

Matt: “That’s a really good point. Because, particularly in the summer, when everything’s green, they do merge into one and you can find yourself lining up with the wrong field.”

There were two more hazards which I hadn’t spotted up to this point. First was the wall of trees at the end of the strip.

Matt: “If you’re used to flying out of a nice long runway with clear departure and no obstacles, all of a sudden you’re flying towards a wall of trees that might lead you to a premature rotation. One of the fun things is getting people to fly towards that with reference to their airspeed, not fixating on the obstacles.

“Farm strip flying is brilliant because it forces you to operate to a higher standard to learn a new set of skills and use techniques that actually expand your capacity.”

Just then, a completely unexpected hazard appeared. A van just drove across the runway, from one side to the other. I spluttered to Matt, “Did you see that van?”

Extra threats

Matt: “Oh, yes, there’s a road crossing about a quarter of the way from the end. It’s a good example of what you would never see at a licenced airfield. You need to have an awareness of all these extra factors, all these extra threats, if you like. The CAA loves ‘threat and error management’ – what extra things are going to affect our operation. And that’s kind of what the farm strip course is all about.

“Supposedly, you’re on your take-off roll and you’ve reached this point. It’s probably about the earliest you could see that van. What would you do? One of the things I find people lack is a standard brief at the start of the day. ‘This is what I’m going to do at this point, if I’m not airborne’. ‘This is what I’m going to do if the engine quits at this point on departure’. That’s not really farm strip specific, although it becomes a lot more relevant.

“I flew out of here yesterday and there were pheasants all over the runway. What am I going to do if all those pheasants suddenly fly up at me, and it causes me to have an engine failure?

“It’s about setting bottom lines: this is the last point at which I’m going to make this decision. For example, on a grass runway like this, you want to make sure that you’ve got the right airspeed by a certain point, or you reject the take-off.

“Going back to the road, I’m at this point. I’m doing maybe 40kt. I would probably, at this point, abort the take-off.

“These are not dedicated airfields designed with pilot safety in mind, they are a runway and somewhere for us to land. They might have lots of different factors, obstacles, different runway surface conditions, funny little characteristics, like roads going across it. They are riskier environments. And that’s why people should seek training.”

 

Part of the training is checking take-off and landing performance, again with the help of the CAA’s Safety Sense leaflet. This has a matrix of factors influencing take-off and landing performance, such as weight, aerodrome elevation, temperature, dry and wet grass, slope, and soft ground or snow. You multiply the factor(s) by the book figure in the Pilot’s Operating Handbook to get the distance you’re likely to need.

For example, wet grass is a whopping 35% increase in landing distance. In the dry, the book figure might be 400 metres so that’s 400 x 1.35 = 540 metres. That’s getting close to the overall length of the Berrow strip and you only need a little bit of float, through being, say, 5kt too fast on approach, and there’s your safety margin gone.

“I recommend doing an overhead join and, subject to noise requirements, to fly an approach to landing, particularly if you’ve not been in there before, expecting to do a go-around.”

Getting to grips with strips…

Our walk down the strip over, we headed back to Matt’s aircraft, a 1943 Piper L4 Grasshopper – basically a military version of the J-3 Cub. The plan: go fly some strips.

However, there is an immediate issue. As if getting my 6ft 2in into the back seat of the L4 wasn’t hard enough, my size 12 trainers were struggling to operate the rudder pedals either side of the front seat. They were just too big and wide for the available space. So Matt would have to steer and balance the aircraft since he insisted I make the take-off and fly the aircraft as much as possible.

Anyway, take-off went OK and the wall of trees at the end of the grass strip wasn’t an issue – dry grass, firm soil, middling headwind – and we were off over the lush countryside and stunningly gorgeous Malvern Hills. If you’ve never flown over this part of England, I urge you to do so.

The first strip Matt had in mind was probably a seven on the scale. Reasonably flat, but with trees on the approach not far from the threshold. And I admit to being fixated by one tree in particular.

It was right in line with the strip, and I found that was all I could concentrate on, almost to the point of ignoring the rest of the strip. As it turned out, although close, there was ample runway length to roll out without needing the brakes.

Take-off was back the same way, aiming for the trees until airborne, then a gentle turn to the left to avoid them.

During the short flight to the next strip, which Matt casually admitted was one of the more challenging ones, we talked about always having a plan. What to do if the engine failed when making a turn to final at low level, for instance. Or, if the picture out of the screen didn’t look great.

Strip farm flying
Sometimes, you've just got to know where the strip is...
Strip farm flying
Be aware of what hazards there could be. In this case, rocks marking the runway, and a wall and small hill on approach

Turned out there was a good reason for this discussion because strip three was on an upwards slope out of a valley. The approach had to be at 90° to the strip, with the turn to short final made at about 20ft around a dead tree.

Straighten up after the turn and the strip, which is a euphemism for ‘back lawn’, was right there, with just time to start the flare.

Of course, Matt was handling the aircraft at this point, and we didn’t land, just treated it as a go-around. I was quite thankful for that, because if we had landed that would have meant taking off downhill towards the dead tree and rising ground.

What was the plan should something go wrong on an approach or take-off from a strip like this? Well, in my head, it would have been to look for the least worst place to put the aircraft down… and brace.

 

Strip farm flying
Recently mown grass helps for a smooth take-off

Terrifying strip over, we headed back to Berrow which looked lovely, inviting and not at all difficult. However, we had to crab about 30° on approach because of a crosswind, and, as Matt had suggested earlier during our walk up the strip, as we dipped below the treeline, the crosswind fell away needing adjustment.

The undulating surface was also apparent on roll-out so what had looked flat as a cricket pitch from the air, suddenly felt very different.

So what did I learn in this concentrated session? Ring ahead for permission and a briefing. Don’t fixate on one thing, i.e. the tree on approach. Be conscious of air speed at all times. Be ready for undulating surfaces.

Have an exit plan for all circumstances, even if it’s ‘least worst crash’. Fly with an instructor who has strip experience. And stick to strips within your comfort and experience zone. That third strip? Nope, that’s not for me.

If you fancy flying with Matt, Farm Strip Flying has a website here.

Matt offers Tailwheel Conversions and SEP Revalidation as well as a Farm Strip Flying course.

Strip farm flying

Want to learn more about strips?

CAA Safety Sense leaflet Strip Sense (SS12) can be downloaded free here
Strip Flying is an active thread on the FLYER Forum. Find the discussion here.

Strip farm flying
Does flying get much better than this?
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