Ab Initio 13 “Dawn ’til Dusk (and then some)”

In which I go I go 170odd miles by train in order to go about the same by plane, meet lots of people with strange names and encounter the Biggest Burger Known to Aviation.

Flyer Forum Student Fly-in to Old Buckenham.

Summer 2004.
Somewhere in South Wales
3.00 am.

A fire-engine screeches down a small residential street in a less salubrious part of town, sirens wailing. Someone has set someone else’s car alight.

“Noooooo!” comes a wail from one of the houses. The owner of the car? Nope–a distraught would-be pilot disturbed from her sleep with a cry of, “I’ve got to be up in two hours!”…

…A variety of not very polite ways to ask said fire-engine to depart crossed my mind. Most of them beginning with F.

However, I stuck my head back under the pillow and I did get some more sleep, even waking several minutes before the extra-loud alarm clock I’d carefully set up.

It was day (technically anyway) and I was going flying. The reason this involved a pre-dawn start is, I feel, a magnificent triumph of enthusiasm over common sense. Or possibly I’m just barking mad. At any rate, the aeroplane was in Bournemouth, I was in Swansea, and the Flyer forum student fly-in was in Norfolk. A 3 hour train ride to Bournemouth and back seemed a not-unreasonable trade off for a day of flying and face-to-name matching and the legendary Mustang Burger of Old Buck. Not to mention the fact that between weather and sick aeroplanes it had been almost a month since I got off the ground, I was about ready to walk there if it meant getting to go flying, and I had three lessons worth of unspent cash burning a hole in my pocket which made the train fare seem entirely insignificant.

I staggered out of bed, and blinked dozily at the red felt tip note I’d blu-tacked to the door the night before, anticipating a lack in the brain department at my planned unearthly hour of rising. It read. –Sarnies. Phone. Money. Tickets. Camera–

I grabbed these essentials and headed to the train station almost without opening my eyes. I got my tickets checked, ate a first round of sandwiches (cheese and pickle) and went straight back to sleep.

I woke up shortly before Reading in time to see a hot air balloon, floating past. It was a pretty morning and nice to see I wasn’t the only one mad enough to get up at such and hour just to fly (though I prefer something with a bit more in the way of steering).

I changed trains after an involved and fruitless debate with a dizzy bint at the station about whether “Southampton Airport Parkway” was in fact the same station as “Southampton International” and whether my ticket to “Southampton Central”, which another dizzy bint at another railway station had sold me, was in fact the right route.

Eventually I got on the right train (Virgin, very comfy), ate a second breakfast of ham sandwiches, an apple and a rather flattened chocolate bar (it had been in the pocket of my coat which I’d been using for a pillow) and went back to sleep again. I woke several times to find the train flitting in and out of fog and stared in bemusement at this sudden dose of weather.

The mysterious Southampton International did not materialise, but Southampton Airport Parkway did, about an hour later and I got off and started looking around for likely candidates to be RobS and GarethP. Seeing two blokes hopefully call the only other female on the platform by my name gave me a clue and I shouted out and waved.

Part one of this epic completed successfully we headed for the car and Bournemouth to meet the fourth member of our excursion–the indomitable (in spite of apparently suffering just about every breakdown known to aviation) Bravo Charlie, a P28-don’t-forget-the-R.

As a newbie student from a tiny, middle of nowhere airfield, which is ‘busy’ if there are more than two aeroplanes parked outside the flying club, Bournemouth was a real eye-opener. I was country-kid gawping at the big city as we taxyed past jet airliners and plush executive twins and weird and wonderful types I’d never clapped eyes on before.

“After the landing 737 line up and wait…” I think my eyes were out on stalks. I was certainly grinning as though I’d never even seen an aeroplane before.

There seemed to be plenty of GA types coming and going as well, and though Rob reckoned it was a quiet day, it was plenty busy enough for me. I wondered what the various tourists and businessmen waiting for their flights made of the all the little aeroplanes mingling with the passenger jets.

Anyway, 737 out of the way, and we were ready to roll.

A straw poll of opinion had seen us decide to take the scenic and relatively simple route of following the coast for most of the way before cutting across Kent and then on up to Norfolk. GarethP got the right had seat for the first leg, as a local, likely to be doing his navigation exercises along that route.

So off towards the sea we flew with Bournemouth sliding away below.

The last time I’d been in Bournemouth it had been early spring a few years ago and in spite of the freezing wind, I’d rather fancied a trip in the tethered hot balloon in the park. To my disappointment it had been put away for the winter but looking down at it now, I didn’t think I’d missed so very much. This was a far better way to sightsee. I gazed happily out of the window at a cloud going by, then glanced down at its motionless shadow on the ground below, and realised that in fact the cloud was stationary and we were just flying past it. I was still new enough to this game to find that amazing and delightful.

Three minutes in and I was already perfectly convinced the train trip had been worth it. The bizarre fog from the train trip had apparently not made it this far, the sun was shining and the innate malice of the weather towards my flying restricted itself to bouncing the aeroplane about every time I tried to take a photograph.

It was a beautiful day to be up in the air, and I sat back and enjoyed the ride and the view as we headed along the Solent, passing the Isle of Wight on one side, then Southampton and Portsmouth on the other. I was watching shadows again–this time the silhouette of the aeroplane sliding along the water.

We were offered a radar information service for this part of the route, which I actually found more hair-raising then helpful as I don’t think I actually spotted a single one of the aeroplanes they told us about. One in particular at ‘unknown level’, was 12 o’clock at four miles, then 1 o’clock at three miles then 3 o’clock and disappearing from radar. We never saw him.

We talked to Shoreham then ‘cut the corner’ of Kent and turned north towards the Detling VOR, heading for Southend-on-Sea where we looked down on the pier and considered, “that’s what a mile looks like.”

For myself, I was thinking more along the lines of “this is what flat looks like.” I knew of course that the south east of England was somewhat flat. I’d been there at ground level and gone, “Oh yes, this is flat”. But I hadn’t truly appreciated just how flat until seeing it all stretching out below and nothing but fields as far as I could see. Not a hill, not a bump.

I don’t envy anyone learning to navigate around that corner of the world. One thing to be said for Pembrey–it’s surrounded by coast and forest and hills and estuary and is very easy to find.

Actually I think we did see one bit of terrain. It had paragliders hurling themselves off it. Presumably as the only launch spot not involving a large winch for miles around.

On we went past Clacton and Lakenheath (another novelty–an American voice on the radio) thence to figure out the approach to Old Buckenham itself. A bit of all around the houses because of noise abatement rules about which direction you could approach from. (remember about those–they become relevant later)

We found the place without any major dramas and the exceptionally large haystacks in front of the runway threshold, while adding a bit of ‘interest’ to the approach, didn’t seem inclined to jump up and drag anyone out of the air as I’d half-feared from some of the pre-trip forum discussions.

We touched down at around 11:30, after about an hour and a half’s flying. Plenty of forumites had beaten us there and the queue for burgers and tea was developing into something of a saga in itself. Apparently the café manager had been somewhat sceptical of the numbers he’d been told were turning up and the Mustang burgers ran out before the feeding frenzy did. Double Stearmans appeared to prove a successful alternative.

Fly-bys from the beautiful resident Stearman (of the airborne kind not the edible kind) and an enthusiastic imitation of same by a rather nice Rockwell Commander provided plenty of entertainment for the assembled flyers.

Other activities including speculating about the sanity of parachutists and critiquing everyone else’s approaches in between scoffing burgers and chocolate cake (for someone’s birthday I think but I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember whose) and wandering around trying to figure out who was who.

I hesitate to try and list the ones I met because I’m almost certain to forget someone but nevertheless, as I remember it I chatted to or at least was introduced to:

Keef and Steve Morley (whose reputations preceded them)
l2KPhil (lamenting the need to put DIY before flying, and taking lots of photos)
Pianorak (who’d cunningly worn a badge saying so)
WobblyProp (whose second landing after a go-around was better than some people’s first tries)
Red Nose (making a gallant attempt to speak to absolutely everyone)
Montster (who due to the wonders of the Internet I didn’t know was female)
David Williams (who didn’t have a silly name)

There were loads of others I’m sure but it all started to become a bit of a blur.

Full of Mustang burger and coffee, the pleasures of lolling in the sunshine and enjoying the company were irresistible. Just for starters, it was incredibly nice simply to not be the only one in a crowd who looked up when they heard a prop overhead. Good natured banter and mucking about was interspersed with chat about things airborne, and the usual shared woes of weather, money, and annuals that seem like they’re going to take all year.

A little kit build number taxied past causing some comment of a not too kindly stripe. Now I must be fair, because that aeroplane is probably somebody’s pride and joy, but it truly did look as though the principal tools of its construction had been tin snips and a mallet. Jokes I hadn’t heard since school broke out with “That’s your bestest ever aeroplane that is,” and similar. Growing up is highly overrated!

Time to go came too soon and after Rob did the walkaround checks there was just time for a last cuppa and lots of goodbyes and see-you-agains before the off. A quick bit of posing on the wings for a photo before we all climbed back aboard.

It was my turn in the right hand seat for the trip home and I settled myself in comfortably only to find (or rather not find) my seatbelt trapped in the door and still hanging outside. Muppet. Finally sorted out ready to go and with no madmen about to fling themselves out of aeroplanes from above us, we taxyed up to the hold. First stage of flap to get us off the ground with those three Mustangs on board and away we went.

That fly-by was clearly still on Rob’s mind and he politely requested of the radio a “low level go-around” with all three of us wearing grins like kids about a mount a raid on the biscuit tin.

There was a pause, presumably as they tried to figure out whether in fact they had a wandering lunatic on their hands, then the answer came back in the affirmative, as long as we kept a tight circuit inside the railway line.

I seem to remember the actual wording as something like, “No traffic to affect,” which seemed to roughly translate to, “Nothing to do with us, mate, it’s your funeral.”

So around we went, and down we went. I was too busy looking out of the window trying to resist the urge to break out in imitation machine gun fire to look at the ASI, but I gather we were doing a fair clip. We pulled up, all grins and adrenalin, and turned for home.

I suppose technically it was on the naughty side, but it was fantastically good fun! (actually it was naughtier than we realised at the time but we didn’t find that out until we landed back at Bournemouth, of which more in a moment) I note that in my scribbled “Things to mention in the write-up,” I have this down as Top Gun a la ‘BC. Oh dear.

Up in the air and still blissfully ignorant of our faux pas, the weather was still gloriously sunny. Bit bouncy though–one bump nearly left a GarethP-shaped dent in the roof.

We took the same route home as we had up, deciding that dealing with the London VOR-hopping route at the end of such a good day was too much like hard work.

Fortunately for me, Rob remembered most of it from the way up, as I ummed and aahed over the chart and occasionally got the right frequency for our next destination. Mind you I did have to hand back the chart to GarethP as a more experienced folder when we went over the page… Is chart wrangling something you actually get taught I wonder, maybe I’m not that far along in the training yet?

Anyway, in spite of my inability to handle the chart, Rob did let me handle the aeroplane and I flew most happily along the Solent, albeit with a very wary eye on the altimeter for the controlled airspace above us. We had a RIS again and did actually see some of the other traffic this time.

Approaching Bournemouth Rob took the controls again as they asked us to orbit, then changed their minds and wanted us to come straight in, with the upshot that we were well high on the approach and sideslipped down most of the way.

This was more like home–could have been one of my approaches (Sorry Rob) except that I probably wouldn’t have managed the sideslip and would have been going around for another go.

Anyway we got back on the ground without incident and were happily taxying back to Bravo Charlie’s parking spot when came the rather ominous, “Bravo Charlie, could you contact the tower when you’ve shut down we have a message for you.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” said Rob and a worried silence descended. Was that fly-by going to come back to haunt?

The message was indeed from Old Buckenham. Could Rob telephone the CFI there please.

The first phone called produced no answer and the tension only got worse as we tied down and covered Bravo Charlie and started towards the car. I think I actually jumped when the mobile went off and, hearing only one side of the conversation, it was nerve-wracking trying to guess what was going on from the “What”s and “Oh Christ”s and “Sorry”s, though God knows Rob must have felt worse.

Anyway it emerged that while the CFI was decidedly unhappy with our “non-standard departure” he wasn’t an unreasonable bloke and was more concerned, not with the fly-by, but the fact that on the way out we’d managed to turn left instead of right. Remember those noise abatement rules I went on about earlier? Well none of us did!

Doubtless the poor sod was dreading having to deal with irate letters from someone’s gran complaining about madmen pilots and their deafening aeroplanes hurtling over her dahlias and upsetting the poodles.

Anyway, there were many apologies and a “don’t do it again” and it was left at that.

Relief cheered everyone up immediately and conversation turned back to what a brilliant day out it had been. Nothing would be able to dent my good humour for the next week.

Including the train trip home.

Lots of thanks to RobS for the ride, GarethP for the navigating and taking pity on my lack-of chart folding skills and everyone else for the company.

Can’t wait for the next.

My photos of the day

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More photos from others are below. (Archive links)



One thought on “Ab Initio 13 “Dawn ’til Dusk (and then some)”

  1. Pingback: Ab Initio 14: “Circuit Basher” | Leia Airborne

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