One of the things I’d decided to do once I got my PPL was take my sister and two-year-old nephew camping. We settled on Dunkeswell as the destination, partly because Kari wanted to take Troy to the dinosaur museum in Dorset, and partly because it was a relatively easy flight for a first longer excursion.
From my point, still singing the praises of flying, it also had the advantage of being a nice demonstration of the superiority of little aeroplanes — a 4 hour or more drive replaced by an hours flight.
The flying school at Pembrey doesn’t operate during the week so availability for taking aircraft away is excellent and we planned a Monday to Thursday trip.
I swotted up on the procedure for getting a slot to crossing the bombing range (D118), drew my lines on my chart, examined the weather, then saw the amount my sister was planning on bringing and got out the weight and balance sheets too!
The pushchair and folding campchair were sacrificed in the interests of kneeroom and not having to poke windows out, but we got everything else in.
The inventory included a 4 man tent, rollmats and sleeping bags for two, an all in one camp bed for the little one, an enormous bag of toys (which went untouched until the last day when we were trying to keep him off the tent while we folded it), my smaller campchair, the top of my camp stove (we bought gas there), set of nested camp cooking pans, clothes (twice as many for Troy as for us put together), and one plastic potty (though he’d far rather have peed in the woods – resulting in the main tantrum of the week)
Monday arrived and as it was a bank holiday D118 was closed, and we could amble up to the airport in our own time and start loading the aircraft. This was a rather involved process, as Kari wanted to be in the back with Troy so one of the rucksacks got displaced to the front passenger seat with much strapping and bungee cords.
All aboard and the first problem presented itself. My careful planning of luggage placement had not accounted for the fact that the sockets for the rear seat headsets were on the floor between the seats – an area I’d already stuffed full of my camping kit. I squirmed in and delved beneath the second rucksack as Kari fed me the cables. Next time we plug headsets in first!
I went through my startup checks out loud, still not out of the habit of talking to myself as I do them. Troy gave a loud “Ello!” when I checked that everyone could hear me on the intercom, and I grinned. His excitement was infectious.
No one on the radio today, but the several of the flying club planes had not long left so I made blind calls to any listening traffic as I taxyed out to have a squint at the windsock. Straight across. Again. I watched it for a while and, by the time I finished my power checks, decided it was marginally favouring 22.
The takeoff was uneventful, though the rate of climb, loaded to whatever aeroplanes have instead of gunwales, was decidedly leisurely.
I’d drawn the first leg direct to Nash Point, but I only wanted it for rough timing purposes. In practice I planned to skirt the coast, and call Cardiff to see if I could get a zone transit across their nice narrow bit of the Bristol Channel. If not I planned to cross at Porthcawl, and skirt the coast again the other side until I reached Minehead and resume my planned track from there.
The weather was pleasantly clear in spite of the wind, and I settled into a cruise at around 2500. I talked to Swansea as we passed, as much to reassure myself that the radio was alright as we’d had no one to check with at Pembrey today.
Cardiff however, couldn’t make us out at all. I waggled things and cycled the power to the radio and scratched my head because Swansea had had no problems hearing us. After a few minutes though the most Cardiff could decipher was that we were an “aircraft with ‘whiskey lima’ somewhere in the callsign.”
Bother. That of course meant a zone transit was out of the question. The cloudbase was good and high though so I climbed another 500′ or so and struck out South from Porthcawl.
With the wind at our tail the crossing was fast in spite of being slightly longer, and we could see the Devon coast even before we reached the water.
We hit the Devon coast (not literally) a few bays along from Minehead which was pretty much unmissable and unmistakable. I noted down the time and resumed my planned course.
When we passed a couple of reservoirs off to the left that should have been below us I realised we were rather right of track. I turned to correct it but either the wind was not as forecast or I had been slack in following my heading as at my next checkpoint we were out again. I orbited a small town just to check, as it seemed odd to be so far out, but by now we were practically in sight of the airfield so I abandoned the old heading and flew straight towards it from my current position instead.
With hindsight I probably should have thought more about why I was off track in the first place and maybe altered my heading if I decided the wind had changed.
In any case we arrived overhead Dunkeswell to find they were using the shorter of the two runways, 35. Shorter is a relative term — it’s a healthy 644m but still shorter than I’d used before and I was heavily loaded. I approached with thoughts of a go around more forward than usual in my mind. The wind was more or less straight down the runway here though the landing as uneventful as the takeoff, though my sister did admit she was keeping an eye on what she described, eloquently, as “that pile of crap” at the far end.
I taxyed onto the grass and picked a spot to park. Troy had fallen asleep somewhere over Devon and was most put out to find we’d already landed.
“No me down!” came a dismayed little voice, “Me up! Leia neeowm up!”
Eventually we convinced that we’d go “Up!” again at the end of the week, and persuaded him out of the aeroplane with promises of tents and cooking dinner outside and sleeping in bags.
We sorted out landing fees and parking which for the three nights came to £21. (£9 landing and £4/night). We decided to have lunch at the airfield café first (I an excellent ham, eggs and chips), then worry about unloading and tying down the aeroplane afterwards.
As we’d taken some stuff out of the rucksack to fit in elsewhere, the unpacking seemed to result in a far larger pile of stuff than had gone in in the first place. We reloaded the rucksacks, tethered the aeroplane to twist pins in the grass then hiked back to the café area looking like Sherpa rejects.
We tried the taxi numbers Kari had carefully written down before we left, but to no avail. The flying club soon sorted us out with alternatives though and eventually we were bundling our stuff into a large taxi for the run to the campsite.
The owner had been pre-warned that we were coming without the benefit of a car and brought a handy little mini tractor-trailer around to carry our stuff to our pitch.
Putting up the tent was simple enough, in spite of the fact we’d ignored the instruction to try it at home first. The process was slowed somewhat by me and Troy being regularly distracted by the fact we were right next door to the glider field and their were frequently four or more gliders circling slowly above us.
Dinner was burgers on a disposable barbeque. Logs to rest it on had been handily provided by the site. This was a great adventure for Troy who has been telling everyone ever since that we cooked “dinner on a log”.
The week passed quickly, and it was striking how all the things that were an inconvenience to us adults — like travelling on public transport and rain on the last day were exciting adventures for Troy, who got to ride on a “choo choos” and a “big pink bus” and jump in puddles.
We made it in to Dorchester on our second attempt – first one foiled by railway strikes, and saw the “dinos”, as well as the teddy bear museum, the Terracotta Warriors display and the Tutanhkamun exhibition there.
The owners at the Forest Glade campsite were brill, not batting an eyelid when Troy was dashing through the little shop there, and even opening up late for us one night when we’d forgotten to get any food in advance for our late return from Dorchester.
The end of the week rolled on surprisingly quickly. It had rained in the night (leading to the mentioned jumping in puddles), and dawned misty and dull.
I had never been confronted with getting weather and NOTAM briefings away from home before and after a few abortive attempts with the public phone box (premium rate numbers barred) and two mobile phones (no signal) decided I’d have to try at the airfield. Happily Dunkeswell had a nicely fitted out briefing room and I was soon equipped for the day.
The weather was looking none too special but manageable, so I was surprised when I phoned the flying club at Pembrey to be told it was downright grotty. I phoned Swansea next and got the same. 1000′ cloudbase all round.
I peered again at my weather which described nothing of the sort and decided to wait around to see if it improved the other end.
We had lunch and I borrowed a stepladder from the refuellers to dip the C172’s tanks, still 2/3rds full. Enough to get there and back again if the weather did defeat us.
We had another good lunch (chicken this time), though I was too preoccupied with the weather to eat much more than necessary to get a bit of lining to my stomach.
By the time we’d eaten and peered at the weather it was so late in the day that we decided we may as well hang on a little longer and wait for the range to shut rather than rushing trying to hit a slot time.
I checked out the aeroplane then phoned Swansea again before we left and decided to head out and have a look. If we reached the coast and couldn’t see Wales we’d come back.
I went through my startup checks, this time aided by input from Troy who loudly put in “Check!” with a thumbs up after each item I read.
I’d planned to head first to Lynton to cross at Porthcawl without bothering with Cardiff this time, in case the radio was still acting up for them. In actuality, skirting around showers meant I ended up flying almost the same route to Minehead and along the coast instead.
Outside of the showers the visibility was excellent and as we reached Lynton I could see Porthcawl and the dim outlines of the chimneys at Baglan.
There was plenty of cloud over there too, but it looked as though the coastline was clear.
As I tracked along the coast towards Lynton I heard Cardiff telling someone else about some unknown traffic “about eight miles east of Lynton tracking along the coast”.
“That’s us,” I said.
I’d been listening to Cardiff a while but given the radio problems last time and the fact they sounded busy I hadn’t bothered to call earlier. Since my ears were burning though, I thought I’d give it a shot. Maybe the other aircraft would be able to hear us at least.
“Cardiff Radar, G-ASWL, how do you read?”
Not well, was the short version. “Very broken, readability 2” the r/t version.
Drat. I gave our position anyway and added that I thought I was the traffic heading for Lyton. That came through to them unreadable but someone else did pick it up and relay it.
Since it was apparently only Cardiff that couldn’t hear us I passed another position report as we headed out over the water, for the benefit of the traffic coming the other way who we’d also heard calling at a similar level to us.
We saw him as he passed us and I pointed him out. Unfortunately Troy was asleep again, missing all the action!
We crossed the coast again just west of Porthcawl and I gazed at the weather again. A sharp dividing line was apparent. Over the water the cloudbase must have been at least 3000′ and the visibility good. From a few miles inshore it dropped sharply and turned into a frothy white mess.
I followed along the coast, peering down at the water and across at the cloud. The weather is often like this at the coast and I love it. How often do you get to see the top of clouds while still technically VFR? No question about being clear of them or being ‘in sight of the surface’, the cloud stopped short as it reached the coast as though meeting an invisible wall. We tracked along looking down at the funfair at Porthcawl, the chimneys of Port Talbot and then eventually, beaches of Gower.
My sister was a sudden convert to flying, swayed by the view, as we looked back over the channel to see a single isolated ‘strip’ of cloud running dead north-south across the water, as though someone had drawn it there.
“What causes that?” she asks. “It looks so weird.”
I had to admit I had not a clue. It was clear and distinct and apparently utterly unrelated to any ground feature.
The cloud forming just inland I was more certain about and waffled on with a quick dose of meteorology which explained the mechanics but nothing of the aesthetics.
I called Swansea as we meandered along the Gower coastline to stay the right side of that invisible wall. To judge from the frequent weather updates from a/g it looked a lot worse inland.
Before long we passed Whitford Point and I could see the distinctive cut in the forest that marked Pembrey, snug between two estuaries. I signed off from Swansea and as the radio was unmanned again, made blind calls as I approached Pembrey.
I landed with a small bounce, either a last minute gust or maybe just me being slightly tired and sloppy. I glanced at the windsock, flapping in the wind, and up at the sky, which looked thoroughly gloomy now we were back under the cloud, though glancing out to sea it was still bright.
We carted the gear back to Kari’s car and tried to persuade Troy out of the aeroplane. This proved far more difficult without the bribe of a holiday to go to and in the end I had to resort to telling him I needed his help to push the aeroplane back into its parking slot.
“Me big” he announced. “Me push.”
Derek from the flying club arrived as we were unloading and helped us get everything secured and did us a bill.
I climbed into my sister’s car and tired and happy and with a sleepy feeling of achievement handed over the responsibility for getting us the rest of the way home.
Next year the Lake District we decided during the drive!