Ab Initio 31: “Students and Spitfires”

In which I try my hand at navigation to join very many other students and pilots to eat lots and look at pretty aeroplanes. And in which I discover what the scenery looks like upside down.

Flyer Forum Student Fly-in to Duxford
(Courtesy of Richard and CharlieZulu)

The way these are supposed to work, is qualified PPLs are matched up with a student and we all fly off and meet up somewhere. The student gets a taste of ‘real’ flying and a reminder what all those lessons are heading towards and hopefully learns a bit too.

Richard, had volunteered the services of himself and the lovely CharlieZulu, the little blue and white Beagle Pup I am becoming so fond of. I was a very happy Leia.

With an early start in mind, we’d fuelled up the Pup and done most of the planning the day before, over coffee, hot chocolate, and platefuls of ham and chips. We’d also signed out a copy of the airport keys so we could make a quick getaway before they officially opened, and lock up behind us if (when!) we arrived back after they closed.

It was interesting to take in some of the practicalities of actually going places, picking the best route to take from A to B, deciding who to talk to, and so forth.

All that remained when we arrived the following morning was to add in the wind and work out the expected timings. I’d had a bit of a fiddle with the whizzwheel before and knew vaguely how this bit was supposed to work but it made a lot more sense with someone demonstrating. I filled in the gaps in the plog then it was out to the aeroplane and off to go.

We climbed out and turned into the circuit still climbing so as to depart overhead from about halfway downwind. We duly set the stopwatch going and took up our first heading.

We’d planned towards Caerphilly at 3500′ but it soon became clear that the cloudbase wasn’t going to be cooperative, and it was a case of choosing between getting bounced about below, or of exercising Richard’s IMC rating, going up on top, and striking out for the Brecon VOR.

We opted for the smoother ride on top and I did a bit of inflight replanning from Brecon to Gloucester and revised the timings accordingly. This required a certain amount of chart wrangling and refolding, followed by several minutes of searching for a lost chart marker which had decided to go walkies somewhere in the aeroplane. I can see it all being a bit of an armful if you didn’t have someone else handy to fly while you sorted it out! Solo navigation is going to be a lot to get used to!

In any case by the time we reached Gloucester the lower cloud had dispersed and we were in sight of the surface again. The rest of the trip proceeded very nicely, all the turning points and landmarks duly turning up where they were supposed to.

We called Duxford and were asked to report over Royston. A hasty search of the chart to find Royston ensued, followed by trying to find same on the ground. A handy dual carriageway and railway line eventually led us there, from where we headed to join downwind. We received a very firm reminder over the r/t not to overfly Duxford village and the person behind us was even asked to confirm they weren’t doing so. The neighbours must really not like aeroplanes!

We landed at just past 11:00, parked next to G-BTCH, and were shortly joined by David Williams’ G-BSEP. By lunchtime the line of Flyer Forum aeroplanes rivalled the number of museum aeroplanes opposite!

It was a slightly odd feeling being the “other” side of the railings. Nipping back to the aeroplane at one point, to retrieve my phone, I half expected a heavy hand to descend with a “Just where do you think you’re going?”

First task was to find somewhere to pay landing fees. This proved a greater navigational feat than getting there in the first place and we’d gone via the tower, the maintenance hangar, the coffee shop and the parking attendant before we realised we, in fact, had to queue with the tourists coming into the museum. This did not especially impress either us or the tourists, it being a long queue anyway, and there being almost a dozen aeroplanes by this point.

It did however confuse the living daylights out of the lady with the clipboard who was gathering survey information on why people were there. Funnily enough there wasn’t a tick-box for: “we’re trying to pay our pigging landing fees!”

The staff were friendly enough but completely in thrall to a computerised charging system with the apparent attitude of a hefty bouncer–“Yer name aint’ on the list yer ain’t comin in.” So it was rather disappointing we weren’t made to feel a little more welcome and less like we were putting everyone out by our presence there. Especially as between the large crowd of us we must have spent hundreds of pounds on landings, entrance, food and fuel.

I can’t help feeling that the money they’ve invested in making sure no rogue pilots get away with looking at aeroplanes without paying, could have been better spent actually taking care of those aeroplanes.

Once we’d got the logistical irritations out of the way, (that’s the one rant finished with now!) we grabbed a coffee before heading off to explore.

And there was definitely plenty to explore! First stop was Concorde (first of two Concordes that day–we overflew Filton on the way home!) followed by the Vulcan, the B-17 “Sally B”, then the American Air Museum to boggle at the sheer size of the B-52, and coo over the SR-21 Blackbird.

The walk up to the entrance of the American Air Museum is flanked by a long curve of glass panels covered in aircraft silhouettes. I thought it looked very scenic, very mod-art. I found out afterwards that every single little picture on them represents an aircraft which was lost in action during World War Two. There were fifty odd of them, six foot high. And that was only the American forces.

We reconvened for lunch at 2:30 which entailed another long queue (though to be fair a lot of it was us!) and much rearranging of the picnic tables into one long line for us all. Sausage and chips and chattering about aeroplanes. Very pleasant indeed.

We departed at this point, intending to stop off on the way home to visit Paul Sengupta and his Bulldog at Bourne Park for a round of aeroplane-swapsies. We got a radial and distance from Compton to where Bourne could be found, as a bit of an aid to eyeballs. Little grass strips aren’t always entirely easy to spot!

This was undoubtedly the busiest part of the route, shuttling from VOR to VOR in the ‘MiG-alley’ between Heathrow, Luton and Stansted. There’s an awful lot of GA flying crammed into that little space and keeping one’s eyes peeled was definitely essential. Wycombe in particular was phenomenally busy, the ATCO on duty doing a hell of a job!

As we approached the right sort of area we started looking for Bourne Park. Runway, black-and-yellow Bulldog on the grass, and a L shaped stand of trees. How could we miss it? Well we didn’t actually, but it did take some searching out, before being spotted by Richard.

Uncertain of the grass, we made a precautionary low approach over the top for a look-see before landing, but it proved fine. Lovely little strip with a very nice atmosphere. People ambling about in the sunshine, seeing to their aeroplanes and taking pals for a quick bimble. One family had brought a tent along and were camped out next to the wings.

Paul met us on the ground and guided us to somewhere to park before leading us over to his very snazzily painted aeroplane to compare notes. We’d arrived in a Beagle Pup–sort of a slightly less beefy civilian relative of the Bulldog and both Richard and Paul had been wondering for some while how similar they were to fly.

Aeroplane swapsies!

Before we arrived, another of Paul’s friends had been all strapped in ready to go, so we felt slightly abashed at cutting in but this was soon dispelled by her friendly agreement that we go first, and by the prospect of going upside down… (First time either Richard or I had done so!)

The going upside down bit required first shifting everything not strapped down out of the aeroplane, so we piled stuff in a heap behind the hangar before climbing in. Bit of a tall step from ground to wing for a shorty like me–no little sticky out step like the Pup for a start–but I was soon settled and fiddling with the five point harness which had definitely been designed with blokes, and not scrawny girlies, in mind!

Well strapped in and ready to go, we waited for the family of campers and their Little Darlings to get clear, then headed off up to the top of the hill to take off on the down-sloping runway.

The extra acceleration, not to mention noise, marked out those extra fifty horses up the front and we were soon climbing around a thousand foot a minute.

“It doesn’t hang about,” Paul said, correctly interpreting my grin.

Somewhere up around 3000′ in the local area Paul gave control over to me, to have bit of a play and a feel of it. It is rather similar to the Pup–beautifully responsive without being twitchy. You perhaps have to be a tad more definite with your control inputs than in the Pup, but even a clutz of a student like me found it pretty easy to fly and very enjoyable.

It also seemed to induce a desire to turn it a bit steeper, a bit faster, the longer you flew it… So Paul took control back to do just that.

We got a bit more height and started with some steep turns. The first few seconds of the first turn, on the few occasions I’ve flown steep stuff, makes me pull a daft face as I get used to that odd flattened feeling as the loading increases. After those seconds it sort of segues into an even dafter grin and the desire to shout, “Whhhheeeee! Faster!” like a kid on a roundabout.

We went on to do some wingovers–beautiful, looking straight down to the ground along those striking black and yellow wings.

Paul checked I was still happy and not about to lose my sausage and chips all over his aeroplane before broaching the subject of an aileron roll.

I grinned–I hope not too manically–and nodded enthusiastically. Mind you, almost as enthusiastic was my checking of straps with the buckles already almost at the seams, thus distracting myself from any last minute reservations about this upside down business.

We picked up a bit of speed to reach 120 knots, pitched up, and rolled left. The ground and the sky calmly rotated to swap places, then continued back to their normal positions, leaving me with a face-splitting grin.

Terrible old saw of a cliché I know–“The ground rotated” instead of saying the aeroplane went upside down. It was so smooth though, you could feel as if that’s the way it happened.

“Another one?”


This time as we went over Paul pushed a little to maintain height and I floated in my seat as I admired the view. Magic.

I was surprised really just how much I enjoyed it. Except for a sort of immunity I developed while working at Oakwood Park, I’ve always avoided rollercoasters and fairground rides and other ground-based ways of going upside down.

Much better in the air–no rattling and shaking and clattering and people squealing. Just wings and engine and sky and hazy sunshine between you and the grass. Beautiful. Fantastic stuff. I was still grinning when we landed. In fact I’m grinning as I type, just remembering it.

I had a wander around while Richard went up, chatted to a chap putting an Auster to bed and to the girls whose rides we’d displaced with our arrival. I suspect I babbled a fair bit, bubbling over with the various delights of the day.

By they time Paul and Richard landed, time was getting on, so Paul’s ‘exchange visit’ with the Pup was put off for another day and we got ready to head back to Swansea.

At this point the Pup decided to have a bit of a petulant moment, perhaps envious of the attention lavished on another aeroplane during our visit, and refused to start. Third attempt produced the desired result and back up the hill we went.

To spare the gear on the grass Richard decided on a soft field take off and we lifted off quickly to accelerate still in ground effect. As we reached the end of the strip we zoomed into a climb with all that built up speed and the Pup demonstrated what a very capable aeroplane it was itself thank you very much, climbing away at a rate not dissimilar from its larger-engined cousin.

Laughing and waggling the wings in a goodbye, we settled down for the last leg, heading north to pick up the M4 for a nice easy run home.

Lyneham gave us a transit through their MATZ and flight information, though the words “You’re a what? From where ?” seemed to hang in puzzled silence for a few moments after we passed our details.

The warm evening meant we far from the only ones up and about and we seemed to come under a sustained attack by an entire flock of hot air balloons somewhere over Bristol. Climbing seemed the better part of valour, and very peaceful they looked going by way down below the wings.

Contently gazing out in the sunshine I was caught on the hop by a sudden question from Richard, “So if you have an engine failure here, where would you go?”

Ermm umm ahh. I cast about for a likely looking field before Richard suggested that the rather large airport straight in front of us might be worth considering.

Filton. Ah.

Somewhat embarrassingly I’d fallen for exactly the same thing on the way out. Now I ask you–just how much of a muppet would feel if you plonked it down in a field with an honest-to-goodness runway right out there in front of you?

Interestingly how the mental rush to pick somewhere can short-circuit the mind into missing the blindingly obvious! I will be bearing it in mind in the future.

The sun was lower as we continued west over the Severn and Richard gave me control. Odd angles of the sunlight meant reflections from ground features sometimes looked unnervingly like the lights of an oncoming aircraft.

I squinted at the shiny reflections that comprised Newport and the reference I was currently using for my heading. Back in Wales! Almost home, we got a transit from Cardiff via Wenvoe mast–conspicuous even in the haze up-sun. Over Kilvey Hill, and my house, to Swansea marina, then a fast descent to the airfield. Closed for hours and no traffic or any real wind to speak of, so we picked a runway we liked the look of and announced ourselves to thin air.

Richard took control back as we turned final and demonstrated the ‘land long and get the heck out of the way’ arrival, for occasions when you might have something fast behind you and be asked to expedite landing and vacating the runway.

We gathered our bits and pieces from the back, chocked and tied down the aircraft and locked up behind us as we left. Twelve hours, almost to the minute since we started for the airfield that morning.

What better way can there possibly be to spend a day?

Endnote: We dropped the keys back the following morning–I think it’s indicative of the amount of time spent there lately that when we went in for a bacon butty, the lady in the café knew how I had my coffee without my asking…

Further endnote: I think it’s only fair to mention that one of the FISOs at Duxford was sufficiently disturbed by the gripes about the logistical hurdles we met, that he’s put in a considerable amount of time since the event talking with people about what the problems were and how they might be solved. So thanks due and fingers crossed as it’s certainly somewhere I intend to return!


http://homepage.ntlworld.com/g.talkes/Duxford/index.htm (Strangely Brown)

http://www.flickr.com/photos/pete/sets/403352 (PeteW)


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