Ab Initio 09 “Backseat to Dunkeswell”

In which I get to ride as passenger on someone else’s navigation practice and enjoy some ‘real’ flying.

Following my first circuit lesson on Saturday I was due for a spot of dog-sitting for my mum and her partner, over Easter. On arriving at the family residence a fair amount of time was spent enthusing at assorted relatives who didn’t seem quite certain whether to be pleased that I had discovered a pastime I clearly adored so much or alarmed by the glee with which I talked of my upcoming lesson on stalling. Considering my renowned clumsiness on the ground the general response was one of mild bemusement that I should have ever decided to start flying, though one particularly bold cousin did volunteer herself as my first passenger when I finally got my license.

Travelling light I’d left the laptop at home but unable to be parted from my email I jumped on my mum’s broadband connection to check my messages. Amidst the adverts for various ‘herbal’ solutions to enlarging assorted bits of anatomy, and improbably spelled messages offering me millions in CA$H for a small initial outlay, sat a message asking “Fancy a Freebie to Dunkeswell?” Narrowly, so narrowly it missed the automatic twitch of the delete key that any header with the word ‘free’ in it usually prompts.

When opened it proved to be worth the hesitation as it was from one Benet, student pilot from the Flyer forums. My only recollection of the name was as ‘that bloke whose mother-in-law lives in a white farmhouse underneath Llansaint’ but nevertheless he was flying on a navigation exercise down to Dunkeswell in Devon, taking the four-seater from Pembrey on Easter Monday and did I want to come?

Well now you don’t turn down free flying do you? The dogs would survive without me for a day and the only question was whether I could get there in time from this corner of the country. A quick hop onto the rail timetables websites revealed that yes it was possible if I got a train at 07.10 Monday morning.

An answering machine and a phonecall later and it was arranged. Benet would pick me up at the railway station at 08.40 and we’d have breakfast, head over to the airport, meet Laurie for 9.30 for them to do the planning and ground briefing then off to Devon.

Full of bounce, I hung up and promptly started back on my pre-flying obsessing about the weather. It was predicted glorious clear and still. (Of course nothing is ever that simple with Weather, but we’ll come to that.)

Sunday evening I spent looking for an alarm clock and then fretting over how quiet to was and trying to work out the odds of me sleeping straight through it. The upshot was I perched it on the very very edge of the bedside table with the speaker pointed firmly at my ear and set for a good half hour earlier than I guessed I’d need to get up and to the train station.

6am it went off, sounding not so quiet after all, and I about hit the ceiling from a horizontal start. Flopping back into bed I waited for the adrenalin to ebb away so I could remember just why I’d inflicted such a rude awakening upon myself at such an unearthly hour.

I clambered out of bed and staggered to the window disappointed that my mum’s guestroom bed isn’t as conveniently close to the window as mine, so the blurry-eyed peering at the weather required rising first.

A fine mist covered the fields in the hazy morning light but not a leaf was stirring and it was very mild. It was easy to convince myself that it’d “burn off soon enough” so I grabbed a ham sandwich and a drink and ventured out into the silent town to walk to the railway station. I might have been the only person alive. The trawlers in the harbour were motionless and I didn’t see a moving car or single soul.

I was the only person on the train and lolled against the window and watched the mist as we pulled out. By Haverfordwest it was a solid blanket–you couldn’t see the trees at the side of the track. It was starting to thin by the time we approached Kidwelly though, and I reminded the guard I wanted to get off.

I hopped off at Kidwelly, amazed to actually find people getting on to the train there, and waited for Benet and Clare to arrive (the hang-glider on the roof rack was a clue).

The only identified cafe didn’t open until 9.30 so it was hit the Spar for a pasty then over to the airport to lodge ourselves at a picnic table and wait for Laurie.

A couple of visitors had stayed overnight and there were already two aeroplanes sat on the apron awaiting their return.

The mist stayed though and was beginning to look like it was in for the duration. And once Laurie arrived we discovered that Ron and his Cherokee which we were borrowing for the trip were still sat in Haverfordwest and nothing was flying out because the fog was even thicker there.

Nevertheless Benet and Laurie settled in to do the flight planning and everyone else settled in to drink coffee and chat. Benet’s partner Clare had sensibly brought a book while the rest of us read and reread the met reports.

A round of phonecalls back and forth to Haverfordwest and the resident weather guru eventually came up with a plan. Laurie would fly down in the aeroplane with the overnight visitors who were going back to Haverfordwest. He could then be extra hands, eyes and moral support to bring the Cherokee back to Pembrey where the weather was better.

Fallback options were discussed at length–what if they got to Haverfordwest and it was too bad to land? They’d come back here. What if it got worse here and they got back and couldn’t land here either? They’d go on to Swansea or failing that, Cardiff which was better equipped. Did they have enough fuel in case they needed to do that?

“Probably?” came an incredulous yelp from Laurie.

The plan was revised to, “Refuel the aeroplane then go to Haverfordwest.” Laurie and Benet climbed aboard and headed off with the obliging visitors.

Those of us remaining settled in with more coffee and biscuits. An air of relaxed resignation prevailed. “Better to be down here wishing you were up there than vice versa” “Time to spare–go by air” and so forth. Flying stories were related, and the met reports were peered at some more. Someone knocked the airband scanner out of whack and we spent a confused few minutes listening to Toronto Approach and someone doing point 8 mach. Someone else tuned another scanner to Haverfordwest so we could listen for Ron and Laurie coming back. Somebody joked that November Juliett ought to be able to find her own way back here by now.

Suddenly they called four mile final and appeared out of the mist a lot quicker than any of us had expected. We trooped outside and watched the landing, trying to guess whether it was Ron or Laurie on the controls.

Aeroplane repositioning successful, planning done and we were ready to go. Being the smallest I scrambled through the single door into the far back seat, rummaged for headset and seatbelt and settled myself comfy to listen to Benet and Laurie go through the checklist while Clare fired up the video camera.

It was still looking pretty mucky visibility-wise as we climbed away and headed towards Cardiff but a pre-takeoff telephone call to Dunkeswell had promised huge improvements by the time we got to their end so we were feeling reasonably optimistic.

I listened in on the radio calls as we negotiated the Cardiff control zone. Both navigation and radio work are still more or less a total a mystery to me and the visibility didn’t exactly make the landmarks they wanted us to route via very easy to spot.

We turned over Cardiff docks and headed out over the Bristol Channel where the visibility improved hugely. It was quite a short hop over the water with the islands of Flatholm and Steepholm looking very scenic. We reached the coast again at Weston-Super-Mare and immediately turned through almost ninety degrees to follow it along before heading inland for Dunkeswell.

A large service station on the motorway was our next landmark and was nowhere to be seen until a waggle of the wings revealed it directly beneath us.

As we got closer to Dunkeswell itself we passed at least two disused airfields and a gliding site so Benet and Laurie were at some pains to make sure we did indeed have the correct airfield! I imagine it’d be more than a little embarrassing to land at the wrong one…

The circuit was reasonably busy and there didn’t appear to be any response from the ground on the radio but everyone was making blind calls anyway giving their positions and it was all very orderly. The radio operator did suddenly pop back into existence in time to ask us if we wanted fuel after we landed and give us directions to park.

I jumped out of the aeroplane still not quite able to grasp that we were actually all the way in Devon. Furthest I’d even been from the circuit before was Swansea on my first introductory flight, to peer at my house!

While Benet headed to operations to do the paperwork the rest of us trooped into the very nice cafe (Complete with brilliant murals on the walls and ceiling) and examined the menu where I opted for a bacon butty.

We ate lunch to the accompaniment of a Pitts Special doing aerobatics outside, a gorgeous big old bomber doing circuits and low passes over the runway, what seemed like hundreds of microlights bimbling about, and the occasional glider sweeping past in the distance.

Benet and Laurie did a debrief on the first half of the trip and went over the second half. We were taking a different route back, up towards Lynton on a little outcrop of coast, then across the channel towards Porthcawl.

Lunch over with we headed back to the aeroplane. The bomber was back on the ground but taxying for another takeoff right ahead of us so it seemed prudent to keep a good distance between us and those two extremely big props.

This time around Clare had the working headset (only one listening socket in the back of the Cherokee and I’d had it on the way down) so I was happily staring out of the window in a world of my own. It was highly enjoyable to sit back and enjoy the view with nothing to do for once.

We took off and were soon flying over Exmoor. We had the pleasure of looking down over an enormous tailback of traffic that we were high high above and I for one felt decidedly smug. We banked over Lynton to turn out to sea and the pretty little coastal town slid away beneath the wings. Sun on the sea and sun on the wings and oh yes this is flying!

Back in Wales the weather had improved somewhat since our departure but there was still a very clear dividing line over the Channel and flying into it was ever so slightly daunting. It seemed like months before land reappeared.

I’d found another chart in the seatback pocket so engaged myself quite happily on the trip back by trying to follow our route. “Odd shaped lake”, check. “Sticky outy bit by Port Talbot”, check.

I looked happily down over Oystermouth Castle and remembered lying on the grass in the bailey there watching little aeroplanes just like this one go by. We flew on and the Loughor Bridge came into view, the first aerial landmark I learned. We were nearly home.

Nearly but not quite. Sat in the back with a silent headset, I didn’t hear the planned extra excursion but suddenly that big empty beach up ahead was looking rather close. I assumed that someone would have warned me were we really about to get wet feet so sat back and enjoyed the scenery, laughing like a kid with the fun of it. I wondered if the fastjets who used the bit of beach next door had this much entertainment from it.

Eventually we climbed back up to rejoin the circuit at Pembrey, around and down to land and we were back.

I bounced out of the aeroplane still full of enthusiasm and grins, having had a fantastic time.

A quick coffee, thankyous and goodbyes to Benet and Clare and Laurie then it was back in the aeroplane with Ron and Ben for a lift back to now-fog-free Haverfordwest.

Ron has an infectious enthusiasm for the sheer fun of flying and grinned his way through the checklist, a mock airliner style passenger briefing and a bellow out the cockpit window of “ROCK AND ROLL!” in lieu of “Clear prop”.

Once we were well away over the wilds of Carmathernshire he turned in his seat to look back at me.

“Have you done any,” He made a gesture with his free hand, vaguely indicative of a World War I dogfight “kind of flying?”

A silly grin started to spread across my face as I shook my head, “No not a lot.”

“Do you mind,” His hand swerved and banked steeply across the cockpit again, “kind of flying?”

The grin got broader. “Nope.”

“Do you want to do some,” The imaginary aeroplane dived past the throttle lever and pulled up hard, “kind of flying?”

I was laughing out loud again by now and nodded yes absolutely.

We climbed up to get some more space for ‘that kind of flying’. Then the nose went down and the ground came up and my stomach was left several hundred feet above us and we banked and pulled up and there was the sky again and just how did it get at that odd angle anyway and we rolled back to straight and level and if my grin got any wider the top of my head was going to fall off.

“I love aeroplanes,” declared Ben from the righthand seat in tones of complete contentment.

I agreed.

Apparently in no particular hurry to get back on the ground, Ron then handed the navigation over to Ben and demonstrated just how easy it is to get lost in an aeroplane.

We did reach Haverfordwest eventually, and a beautifully executed flapless landing brought us back onto the ground.

What a way to spend an Easter Monday. I’m still grinning as I type this up. Funfun.

Photos (Well screen grabs from the video actually)

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