John and Paul lead a trio of autogyro fanatics as they abandon a weather-hit jaunt to Oban and head for England’s sunny South West instead
Words by Julian Hilton-Johnson
22 August 2023
What do you call a flight of three gyros? A gyro-trope, the (auto)bro-mates or just an eggwhisk combine? In the end, with John and Paul out in front, the names seemed to say it all – and Beatle Squadron came into being.
The gyro thing started for me more than 10 years ago after 30 years of fixed-wing, mainly in gliders. A discussion over lunch with an old friend, who has an R44, turned to his father learning to fly gyros aged 80 after reval problems with his PPL(H). It turned out that much of what I thought I knew about gyros wasn’t correct… and I decided on a trial lesson.
What a revelation! The sheer joy of open cockpit flying, the incredible manoeuvrability, the low-level capability, the steep approach and short-ground run on landing, not to mention flying in low cloud and turbulent wind conditions, all had me instantly hooked, and within a few months I was the proud holder of a PPL(G).
Years later, and after much enjoyment, there’s just one thing that hasn’t worked out – a long trip away. Whenever I’ve booked time off work the weather simply hasn’t co-operated, so surely this year the sun would shine for the three of us who are based at Enstone?
Oban and Glenforsa emerged as the most favoured destination via the Manchester Low Level Route and Kirkbride, nestled by the shore of the Solway Firth.
Oban, in particular, with its horseshoe bay, its world-famous distillery and its rock formation of Fingal’s Dogstone seemed the perfect place for our flying adventure. However, true to form, as the departure day drew closer the weather forecast going north deteriorated. Yet another thwarted trip…
But, then again, the forecast for the South West was improving, notwithstanding the small matter of a few thunderstorms on Thursday morning, which was when we planned to depart.
So the South West was the chosen destination. The WhatsApp group name was duly changed from the ‘Oban Optimists’ to the ‘Perranporth Pessimists’. After carefully packing a change of clothes and toothbrush in the little cubbyholes of each gyro and securing overnight covers and a jerrycan on the rear seats, our two Magni M-16s and Rotorsport MT-03 finally took off.
First stop, Dunkeswell. After a minor problem with Delta Alpha’s radio as we approached Brize, the journey down was smooth with no sign of thunderstorms, although passing by Wells we identified what appeared to be a large town not marked on SkyDemon.
Then it dawned on us, the ‘large town’ was in fact the Glastonbury festival, with tents, vehicles and trailers sprawling across many acres. In fact, it was considerably bigger than we had imagined it would look from the air.
After a couple of hours flying we landed at Dunkeswell, a large airfield with hard runways, good facilities and a superb café. After a quick refuel for both people and aircraft, we were on our way again heading down to Perranporth via the vast and desolate expanse of Dartmoor, then along the coast from Plymouth to Looe and St Austell Bay. We spoke to Newquay Approach on the way, which turned out to be a good move since they were busy with multiple inbound traffic and an easyJet A320 practising circuits.
Perranporth was really quite something, perched on the edge of the cliff with circuits out over the sea. The parachute DZ has been voted the most beautiful in the UK and it’s easy to see why.
It also had some good investment in a decent clubhouse with a bar and everyone is very friendly, even if one of the spectators did refer to Delta Kilo’s hover-taxi to the runway intersection as a ‘long bounce when landing’!
Leaving the aircraft on the cliff top nicely wrapped in their covers, we got a taxi to our hotel in Newquay, where we stayed overlooking the stunning Tolcarne beach. We found a wonderful restaurant serving excellent seafood, which we washed down with a delightfully crisp Cornish white and a totally appropriate amount of Tempranillo.
Things admittedly got underway a little slowly the following morning. After breakfast on the beach, we returned to the airfield to find all three gyros still fully intact. Our plan was to fly around Land’s End, and John rang Land’s End Tower before we departed to give them notice of our intentions, which they appreciated.
Once in the air, we got to see some of the remarkable beauty of Cornwall, with its many secluded sandy coves and aquamarine water, as well as famous landmarks such as St Michael’s Mount. My friend in Carbis Bay was expecting us and duly laid out a large Union flag in his garden as a reference point so he could film the fly-past.
Land’s End couldn’t have been more helpful, allowing us to make good use of the low level capability of the gyros, with some breathtaking views, vindicating John’s decision to call them before we set off.
As we routed around Penzance, low cloud was starting to gather and we decided to change our plan and return to Perranporth, rather than head up to Bodmin. As we rejoined the circuit, somehow the airfield seemed even more spectacular – perhaps we were getting more relaxed with a circuit over the sea and cliffs and could take it all in better than we had done the day before.
Dinner at the beach restaurant in Newquay that evening really felt like we were on holiday and even the 100+ steps back up to the clifftop and the hotel seemed a small price to pay for the experience.
It had all been going so well, and then came Saturday…
We departed Perranporth, speaking to Newquay along the way, and John’s local knowledge proved useful as they routed us east of the A30 to deconflict with a CAB GY-20. After just a few minutes we landed at Bodmin, a small but delightful airfield, where we filled up with UL91 cranked from a barrel and sampled the delicious flapjacks in the café.
We promised to return soon – which is exactly what we did since it became apparent that Whiskey Romeo’s fuel cap had not been replaced after refuelling and we landed back again after only 10 minutes, departing once more as soon as it had been found and secured in place! Bodmin even kindly waived the second set of landing fees, so the quick stop felt like more of a bonus than a chore.
Our next stop was Bolt Head, just by Salcombe, an immaculate grass strip also on a clifftop, with the circuit out over the sea, which had been highly recommended to us by Andy Jones, the gyro instructor at Enstone.
We had assumed that Runway 29 would be in use but an aircraft landing just ahead of us said that the wind favoured 11, so we made a straight in approach over Bigbury Bay. What a stunning place!
There were few facilities at the airfield, but we walked about 10 minutes to a barn at a yoga retreat where you could help yourself to teas, coffees and a selection of homemade scones and cakes, with an honesty box. A couple in a Luscombe were walking down to the beach for a swim, our friend in the GY-20 was the next to land and we even met the owner of a TB20, which had previously been based at Enstone.
However, another of the landing pilots informed us that there was a long bank of low cloud all the way along the coast from Exeter to Bournemouth and so it seemed unlikely that we would make it to Henstridge, our next destination.
Coasting east after departure it became apparent that the advice had been correct and we made the decision to divert to Dunkeswell, routing to the west of Exeter. All good, at least until a warning light appeared on DK’s panel and John made the decision to declare a Pan and divert to the nearest airfield, which turned out to be Halwell.
Paul and I remembered the maxim ‘never leave a man behind’ – and then promptly ignored it, continuing on to Dunkeswell since their fuel would be closing shortly and we’d be stuck for the evening. And, anyway, we wanted to see the Red Arrows that were due to pass by the airfield!
Exeter Approach later informed Dunkeswell that DK had landed safely, which they related to Paul and me as we called inbound, which was a welcome relief. John had even unwittingly become a bit of a celebrity with 12,500 people on Flightradar following his 7700 squawk!
On the ground, John determined that the warning light was just an exhaust gas temperature sensor issue and after some fantastic help from the people at Halwell, which doesn’t normally accept rotary traffic, including a ride to the nearest petrol station to refill his jerrycan, DK was on its way again to Dunkeswell.
With the aircraft refuelled once again, Delta Kilo and Whiskey Romeo took off from Dunkeswell at about 1900, but DA’s prerotator mechanism decided that ‘enough was enough’ and duly popped out of its bearing, which sheared off in the process. DK and WR landed again and, after some investigation and with the prospect of failing light en route, we called it a day and got a taxi to a hotel in Exeter.
Next morning, after moving some of Paul’s stuff into DA, there was enough space for me to fit into WR’s rear seat. DA was escorted over the airfield by a ‘Follow Me’ vehicle to one of its large, modern hangars and the surviving two gyros took off for the final leg.
As we approached the Glastonbury area we kept a careful lookout for heli traffic. We felt sure that Debbie Harry would stop her set to gaze up in wonder at the passing small rotorcraft… Although watching it later, somehow the BBC coverage managed to miss that bit…
Landing back at Enstone was sporty on the hottest day of the year and with 15kt of crosswind – we were home.
The following Wednesday, I returned to Dunkeswell with Kai, our engineer. The work was completed quickly and DA flew back to Enstone the same day, with a helpful tailwind, an A400 for company doing circuits at Brize, and the wind at Enstone blowing straight down Runway 26.
We later pooled our thoughts and learnings from the short trip, and there were many. At one point, John was below radio coverage and lost contact with Culdrose so I stepped in, but I should have checked the local VRPs more thoroughly before departure, rather than relying on his local knowledge.
We could have been sharper on the time that the fuel availability ended at Dunkeswell – we made it with less than 10 minutes to spare. A phone call in advance to ATC, so they know to expect you, can make all the difference.
Having a local base to return to, rather than moving on every day, means you get to know an airfield and a local area a little bit better.
The 129.835 microlight frequency was very useful, particularly when contemplating a change of intentions. Very reassuringly, when John declared a Pan the whole system worked perfectly and, as with the rest of the trip, people were helpful and friendly in equal measure.
But what really stood out was just how different and stunning the flying can be just a few hours away from our home base, that touring by gyro in an open cockpit and at low level somehow helps you feel a greater connection with the places that you see around you and, above all, that flying together adds so much to the overall experience and enjoyment.
We had finally made a trip away, not a long one, but a trip away nonetheless. Unlike its famous namesake, there was no acrimonious breakup of Beatle Squadron and the big reunion is already in the planning. Oban next year, anyone?