Valley fog in Southern Uplands
Flying Adventure

Tales of winter flying…

There’s no such thing as ‘flying season’ in Paul Kiddell’s aviation world, and as he suggests, if you embrace the good weather among the wet stuff, adventure is never too far away…

The ‘flying season’ is a term that implies some sort of calendar restriction on flying fun and is one that I’ve never recognised. Which is just as well, as being based at Eshott, England’s most northerly GA airfield, we are almost in Scotland. And as Billy Connolly once famously said, “There are two seasons in Scotland, June and winter.”

For most of us, the thrill of flying never fades. Every flight is different with endlessly variable weather, changing landscapes and fresh flying challenges. For me, autumn and winter flying offers exceptional opportunities to see Britain at its most dramatic – beneath huge, sometimes menacing skies, which often stretch your planning and flying skills to the fullest. Another bonus is that the cold, crisp air improves aircraft performance, while the stable atmosphere offers days with unlimited visibility. 

Of course, some grass strips can be adversely affected by weather and you have to be realistic about your personal limits. But while weather windows may be fewer and the days shorter, even the winter solstice on 21/22 December offers seven hours of daylight. So with lunch and a bit of faffing, a winter’s day trip to a destination around two hours away is still achievable.

During autumn and winter our aviation group tends not to plan ahead, but chases good weather when it arrives, taking full advantage of Eshott’s two hard runways. As a result, we’ve enjoyed many memorable autumn/winter day trips in our Evektor EuroStar cruising at 95mph in day/VFR conditions. Here are just a few from recent times…

Flying skills in Scotland…

One late November, and with high pressure firmly in charge, group partner Alex Smith and I decided to make our first visit to Islay, the southernmost island of the Inner Hebrides. It’s a challenging winter’s day trip involving a lot of hilly terrain, with numerous water crossings once you reach the West Coast. Our planned route of more than 200 miles would take us just more than two hours each way. We are of course, VFR only, and tend to operate below 2,000ft except where altitude will keep us safe. 

Predictably the F215 showed isolated areas of fog lifting in to low stratus, but the Islay and Prestwick TAFs were great. Importantly, the temperature was forecast to rise above dew point, while light winds aloft would allow us to safely fly close to the many peaks en route. 

We set off on a well-trodden path to the Scottish West Coast, passing low over the Cheviot Hills, which were topped with snow. Transiting the beautiful Scottish borders, we arrived at the snow-covered Scottish Upland Hills. We orbited St Mary’s Loch, the largest loch in the Scottish borders, and the adjacent Megget Reservoir with its impressive earth dam. Topping the highest peak of Broad Law at some 2,760ft is the Talla VOR, the highest VOR in Britain and, looking out of the window, certainly the only time we ever use a VOR to fix our position! As we exited the hills, we were greeted with quite a spectacle, as valley fog ran like a river of cotton wool in the shade of the peaks.

Scottish Information provided an excellent service as usual and reported that Islay was CAVOK. We passed through the Glasgow-Prestwick CTR gap before coasting out to the Isle of Bute.

We were on a schedule, so passed the wonderful Bute 480m airstrip and our regular haunt, the Kingarth pub. To minimise our time over the freezing water, we decided not to fly directly to Islay but instead hop between the many beautiful peninsulas and islands. As a result, our longest time over water was the short five-mile leg from the Knapdale Peninsula to Jura. In fact, the Knapdale Peninsula proved a little bit problematic with low, broken stratus so we climbed on top for a short period before letting down for Jura which was in the clear. 

Although Jura is beautiful from the air, it is barren and infertile. The 2011 census recorded only 196 inhabitants in its 142 square miles. Maybe it was Jura’s barren nature or perhaps the local whisky distillery that inspired George Orwell to write 1984, after he stayed on Jura as a retreat in the late 1940s.

But the greatest draw for any pilot is flying around the magnificent Paps of Jura. The Paps are three steep-sided, quartzite hills with distinctive conical shapes that dominate the Island.

Beinn a’ Chaolais, lowest of the Paps
Beinn a’ Chaolais, lowest of the Paps

Leaving Jura, we spoke to Islay Information and soon arrived on the expansive 1,545m Runway 31, infamous for the 1994 incident when Prince Charles was at the controls of a Queen’s Flight BAe 146, which overran the runway. But today it’s quiet and we were greeted by the very friendly staff. Islay, a former WWII Coastal Command airfield, is one of 11 Scottish airports operated by Highlands and Islands Airport Limited (HIAL).

As a result of maintaining these remote airfields, the landing fees are a bit steep and for aircraft up to three tonnes are currently £21.50 for all airfields within the group, except for Dundee (£15.57). As a winter treat though, split between both of us, it’s bearable. However, I do suspect Islay has the UK’s most expensive avgas at £2.73+VAT! (price as of 24 November 2019). But needs must, and we took 20L to ensure we had a healthy reserve should fog become a factor going home.

Islay has nine working distilleries and you can hire a car from the terminal (served by Loganair SAAB SF.340 and Hebridean Air Service Islanders), but time is tight on the short winter days, so after an all-day breakfast we headed for home. Our reverse trip followed the same route, though the stratus over the Knapdale Peninsula, whilst more solid, had lifted to allow us to letterbox over the peaks in excellent visibility before we broke out into CAVOK again. Yet again we enjoyed magnificent views before finally arriving back at Eshott after 4.5 hours of glorious flying. 

Winter wonderland

The Lake District National Park, with its breathtaking beauty, is always an incredible place to fly and a snowfall transforms it into a real winter wonderland. The Lake District is pretty compact at around 32 miles east-west and 40 miles north-south and contains all the land over 3,000ft in England as well as 21 large bodies of water such as the famous Derwentwater, Windermere, Thirlmere and Bassenthwaite.

On weekdays, the area can be busy with low-flying military jets, but the weekends and Christmas holiday period are ideal for exploring at low-level when the winds aloft are kind. For this particular trip out, it was the day after New Year’s Day that Alex and I left Eshott in glorious conditions, alongside our good friend Kev Waugh in his Eurostar SL. We flew low along Hadrian’s Wall, passing over the impressive Housesteads Fort, once home to a Roman military unit of 800 men. At its peak in the second century, Hadrian’s Wall was defended by around 10,000 Roman legionnaires garrisoned in 15 forts.

Nigel Hitchman in his RV-6
Nigel Hitchman in his RV-6 (built with FLYER's Ed Hicks and his father)
Classic Colibri G-BPBP
Classic Colibri G-BPBP

After 40 minutes we landed at Carlisle to meet my old pal Nigel Hitchman who had flown from Hinton-in-the-Hedges in his RV-6. Despite now having Loganair scheduled services with an impressive new terminal and a wonderfully refurbished 1,799m runway, Carlisle remains very GA-friendly and great value with a landing fee of less than £10 for the Eurostar. After a filling breakfast in Café Stobart, we headed off for the grand tour of snowy peaks and stunning lakes. 

For the next hour we flew low along impressive valleys and lakes and zoomed over the snow-capped peaks of Skiddaw, Helvellyn, as well as England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike at 3,209ft (maybe the RV ‘zooms’, the Eurostars bimble…). We spotted several serious climbing groups and gave them a sympathetic wing-waggle from the warmth of our cockpits. 

After a truly exhilarating hour, we did some air-to-air photography before landing in turn at Cark on its recently resurfaced 500m Runway 24. Home of Skydive Northwest, the adrenaline junkies have a winter break in December and January, so we arranged to meet resident flyer Derek Preston. Derek flies a classic early 1980s PFA homebuilt, a VW-powered Brugger Colibri originally built by Brian Perkins. In these days of endless RVs (apologies to editor, Ed!), it’s great to see a much-loved classic. We enjoyed tea and exchanged flying stories with Derek and his pals before heading home to Eshott, as Nigel flew south. 

Our two-ship finally landed back at Eshott after 3.5 hours of amazing flying over outrageous scenery. 

Snow-capped Grampians

Scotland’s East Coast is perhaps less-well known than the spectacular West Coast, but it also offers some great scenic flying. A rare ridge of high pressure in a very damp November once again saw Alex and I rope Kev Waugh in for a two-ship coastal adventure to Peterhead / Longside, the most north-easterly airfield in Scotland. 

Days are short so we set off pretty sharpish at 0900. There had been a lot of rain and some low stratus hung over the Milfield floodplain east of the Cheviots. But otherwise it was a spectacular day and south of the Firth of Forth we could already see the snow-capped Grampians some 50 miles away.

We climbed to 3,500ft to cross the nine miles of the Firth of Forth between North Berwick and Ellie Ness. Leuchars, home to RAF Grobs and still an RAF diversion airfield, is quiet and readily grants us a MATZ transit. Running alongside wonderful St Andrews with its legendary golf courses, is West Sands Beach where the famous Chariots of Fire running scene was filmed. Dundee stood out in the light as we passed the Tay, and after clearing the EGD604 firing range, we descended to 500ft for some low-level sight-seeing along the impressive cliffs and former fishing villages.

At the Montrose tidal basin, we climbed to gain comms with Aberdeen Radar and our formation was soon cleared to transit their CTA/CTR Class D not above 2,000ft. Aberdeen uses coastal VFR transit corridors, off-shore for northbound traffic and onshore for southbound, and we see a PA-28R headed opposite direction on our Pilot Aware before Aberdeen alerts us. 

Aberdeen, known as the ‘Granite City’, is impressive in the sunshine, while a flotilla of brightly coloured oil rig supply vessels sits out in the bay. Aberdeen was using the westerly runway and Pilot Aware/SkyDemon was alive with returning North Sea helicopters. Aberdeen Radar was very efficient, providing us with traffic information and also warned us of a recommended four-mile minimum rotor wake separation from the big Sikorsky S-92s. As winds were calm, we climbed to pass above the S-92s crossing our path to keep us safe from the dangerous, invisible wake turbulence.

North of the Aberdeen CTR, we orbited beautiful Cruden Bay and Mrs K’s home village of Boddam with its magnificent 1827 lighthouse. Flying over the busy fishing port of Peterhead, we joined overhead Longside before landing on the 500m re-surfaced portion of the original Runway 28. 

A former RAF WWII fighter base, Longside fell into disrepair at the end of the war before the North Sea oil industry exploded in the 1970s. While Aberdeen was always the primary base, early helicopters lacked range, meaning Longside became an important staging post. 

Today the airfield is still owned by CHC Helicopters but is leased to the highly enthusiastic members of the Buchan Aero Club. We received an exceptionally warm welcome accompanied by warming brews – and the inexpensive landing fee (£5 for one-two seats and £10 for up to four seats). Longside is home to some interesting LAA and microlight aeroplanes. We met Club Chairman, Don Jack, who owns one of only two Sportstar Max (a 600kg development of the Eurostar) in the UK. We had a good chat and listened to the challenges of operating an aircraft on an EASA permit.


Short winter days require disciplined time keeping, so we departed and headed south. Winds were calm so we routed low over the eastern edge of the snow-covered Grampians, west of the Aberdeen zone. It really was fantastic fun flying together in this most alien of environments. However, with time marching on and the possibility of fog, we abandoned plans to visit Perth, but decided to return via the Edinburgh zone and the Forth bridges.

En route, we took advantage of the Portmoak gliding site being inactive and flew over Loch Leven. The mirror-like water of the Loch produced some amazing reflections but we were careful not to get too low as it can feel very disorientating. 

Following early contact with the ever-cheerful and flexible Edinburgh controllers, we were cleared to enter its CTR at Kelty and route over the bridges and the airport overhead. Our timing was perfect, and we were granted an orbit of the bridges as a Flybe Dash 8 departed for some exotic destination. 

The three bridges, representing marvels of 19th, 20th and 21st century engineering, were shrouded in fog and looked spectacular – the three towers of the newest Queensferry Crossing are the highest points at some 679ft. We soon exited the CTR and continued south, enjoying great views of Northumberland. After a 2.5-hour leg, we landed at Eshott for a much-needed comfort break at the end of another busy and fun day.

Flying buddy Charlie Munro
Flying buddy Charlie Munro arriving at Crosland Moor (also known as Huddersfield International Airport)
Storm Smith at Sherburn
Storm Smith at Sherburn

Airborne over the Pennines

A recent December tradition that has evolved among my flying friends is ‘Op Avoid Christmas Shopping’, which basically involves meeting at Sherburn the weekend before Christmas for lunch. In 2018, group partner Charlie Munro and I, sporting the appropriate Christmas jumpers, set off from Eshott in formation with Storm Smith in his green Eurostar SL. 

We headed for Crosland Moor near Huddersfield to meet up with friends. Newcastle ATC were very helpful as usual, and we transited their CTR passing over Newcastle city centre with great views of the rejuvenated Quayside and the iconic 1928 Tyne Bridge.

There was some isolated low stratus but mostly it was relaxed flying as we flew over the Pennines and on to the west of – and under – the Leeds CTA. After 1.5 hours we arrived at Crosland Moor landing uphill on Runway 25, and stopping on the 450m of hard without any need for the 250m grass extension. Care should be taken in strong westerly winds as a deep quarry immediately before the 25 threshold can produce significant downdraughts, but we enjoyed light winds.

We were greeted by resident comedians Steve Ivell and Steve Ridge who were busy preparing their Eurostar SL Turbo and Skyranger to join us. As we enjoyed a hot cup of tea in freezing conditions, our friends Paul Bass and Chris Hall arrived in Paul’s Eurostar and we all set off for the short 15-minute flight to Sherburn. 

Seven miles to the east of Crosland Moor, we flew alongside the impressive Emley Moor TV transmitter tower, Britain’s highest free-standing structure at 1,083ft (the Skelton Mast in Cumbria is taller at 1,198ft, but has guy ropes). 

Arriving as a five-ship at Sherburn, we found friends in six other aircraft had beaten us to it. It was great catching up with everyone and I enjoyed a particularly good steak and chips courtesy of the airfield’s consistently excellent restaurant. With one eye on the clock, Storm departed for home but, probably against our better judgement, Charlie and I decided to pop into Beverley Airfield with a Rufforth-based pal. Despite the briefest of stops, we were cutting it fine to make sunset. To add to our woes, once airborne, we discovered that the headwind was stronger than was forecast and there ensued a mad 1.5-hour dash for home. Luckily the air was smooth and having plenty of fuel, we were able to fly at max continuous rpm. 

We had the option of a number of friendly strips spread along our route should daylight run out but fortunately both Durham and Newcastle cleared us through its zones for the most direct route and we arrived just before sunset. Phew! Important lessons relearned and we avoided an inconvenient overnight at a Durham strip by the slenderest of margins. 

I’ve really come to love autumn/winter flying and all it has to offer. With a bit of imagination, you can really take advantage of winter opportunities, such as watching a New Year’s Day sunrise over the North Sea, which is truly spectacular. It’s also worth considering flying to one of the outstanding Duxford, Shuttleworth or Elvington Aviation Museums, which remain open all year round. Keep an eye out for some excellent fly-ins too. Wickenby, Popham, North Coates, Fenland and Compton Abbas all have well-established winter events. However you do it, have fun and enjoy winter flying!

Read more great content from Paul Kiddell…


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