Plymouth Ho!

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No IMC training today

Although I had hoped to continue with my IMC training, the Oxford flying school had a club flyout and weren’t instructing today. They organise a club trip every month, alternating between Saturday and Sunday, to a variety of destinations. Of the clubs I’ve been to, no other does this and I believe it keeps up the interest of both PPLs as well as showing students what they can aspire to.

Instead, a landaway to a new airport

However, arrangements came together quite quickly during the week. I’d been in touch with an old sailing friend, John, who I had offered a flight to in the past. The weather looked good for the weekend, and I had the whole day free from other commitments. On Tuesday, we heard from the committee that all Lyneham club aircraft had been relocated to Kemble which would be our temporary operating base until a more permanent arrangement could be found. They had quickly sorted out an agreement with my old flying school at Kemble so that we could use one of their office rooms, making the administration a lot easier.

Plymouth seemed like a good destination for several reasons:

  • the wind was forecast to come from the North West, which is relatively unusual. The only runway at Plymouth is also aligned this way – 320 degrees – so ideal.
  • Plymouth airport is due to close at the end of the year. If I don’t make it there in the next few months, the choice might not be available again
  • Both John and I had shared several boating trips from Plymouth, and would be able to overfly the area including Salcombe, Newton Ferres and Dartmouth – all harbours we had visited together.

The weather forecast indicated that the best conditions would be in the South West, with clouds and rain showers forecast for Kemble late afternoon. So with that in mind, I opted for an early start and booked the aircraft from 9am.

Fuelled up, paperwork complete, ready to go

With the office arrangements in place, it was easy to collect the keys and sign out. I updated my indemnity form in the Kemble office to include all the club aircraft, meaning that I can return after 5pm when the airfield closes without issues. This is a one-off form. John appeared earlier than planned, having allowed more than enough time to get there, so we were ready to go shortly after 9. My biggest problem was finding an instructor to authorise the flight. I’d arrange to call one at 9, but he wasn’t answering the phone. After 6 phone calls to different instructors, my first call had returned a voicemail with the authorisation, so we were all set.

John commented on how small and light the aircraft was, but happily hopped in after the usual A check, and we first taxied off to fill up with fuel. As we trundled down to the west end of the airfield for power checks, other activity around us included a student arriving from White Waltham and a helicopter departure.

Straightforward passage

After takeoff, we departed to the South West and had a great view of the area. John was very familiar with the region, having had his first job at Renishaw just outside Wooton-Under-Edge. He recognised many landmarks and was pleased to see the area in a new light. We routed out over the Severn Bridges, down past Avonmouth and Clevedon, Weston-super-mare (and its new pier), Burnham Beaches and on to Taunton. Bristol Radar gave us a good service and clear transit instructions, handing us over to Exeter once we reached Taunton. In both cases, we were given a unique squawk code to identify us.

John quickly got the hang of entering the new squawk codes as they were issued, but I think he may have pressed the IDENT button without realising its purpose and once he almost entered the new regional pressure setting when given to us. Note to self – keep a careful eye on helpful passengers.

With a lot of activity at Dunkeswell and many gliders in the area, we kept a good lookout. John had expected to see many more aircraft flying around and was really quite surprised how empty the skies were – certainly not nearly as busy as the Solent with boats at the weekend. As we got closer to Plymouth, Exeter asked us to freecall Plymouth Approach which we did. They also assigned us a unique squawk, despite not having a radar service themselves. I later found out this is co-ordinated with Plymouth Military who do, so they can identify and contact anyone where necessary.

This meant that Plymouth didn’t know exactly where all the aircraft in their area are. I heard a commercial flight call inbound to be told about a Cessna south of the field and then about us. I reported that we were overhead the Clay Pits, a landmark difficult to miss on the North West of the city, and we were cleared to join right base for the approach. The commercial flight would be number 2.

Without the need for a full overhead join and circuit pattern, the approach went pretty quickly. The tower spotted us visually just before we turned final and we were cleared to land. With the wind directly on the nose, it was pretty straightforward. I’d read earlier to expect a lot of sink on short final over some warehouses, but didn’t experience that myself. After landing, we quickly vacated to the left allowing the commercial flight to land shortly after.

G-VICC Instrument Panel

In retrospect, I wish I had remembered to setup the ILS so I could practice tracking that during the final approach. Plymouth has a variety of instrument aids including NDB and ILS to cater for commercial traffic in all weather conditions.

With no crosswind and a well setup approach, I thought the landing went well. This was John’s first landing in a light aircraft and he was also quite happy about it. We taxied following instructions and parked on the hardstanding near the fuel bowser.

Plymouth Airport

G-VICC on Plymouth Apron
Plymouth Airport Apron (Airside)

Having shut down, collected our things and wearing our High-Viz jackets, we walked around to see how to get out of the place. There is a single portacabin with a security guard on the apron – he opened a padlocked gate to let us out directly onto the carpark, but explained we’d need to go through the main terminal to get back onto the apron. I took my pilot’s licence just in case there was any issue. He also explained that the airport is pretty much closed down after the morning flight, until the late afternoon departure.

We walked through the carpark to the control tower, where we climbed up and saw the great view (and paid our fees). They were quite a friendly bunch, and when we explained we might just pop along to the local pub for lunch, one of them offered us a lift since he was passing that way anyway. Paid the landing fee (£24) and agreed that we could park all day without extra charge.

Pub Lunch, but no beer

We had lunch at Jack Rabbit, a standard brand pub, but the service and fayre was good although I wasn’t able to sample the beer. We could have taken a taxi (£7.50) or bus directly into town and see the sights, but were happy with the simpler option.

On our return, we went to a door marked “security office” and asked to get back out to our aircraft. The lady in the office said she’d arrange for someone to help us, at which point another member of staff turned up and let us through.

Quick Getaway

After the usual checks, we were ready to go. I tried to call the tower on the same Approach frequency that I’d been using inbound, but didn’t get a reply. I could hear they were dealing with other traffic. Thinking I’d got this wrong, I called them on the Tower frequency to be told to call back on Approach. After all that, I was given permission to start the engine.

On requesting taxi, I was cleared to holding point Charlie. I hadn’t quite figured out where to do the power checks, thinking there might be a holding point for this at the far end of the runway. I’d realised that everyone has to backtrack down the main runway before taking off – there are no separate taxiways at the airport – but not that there was no place else for power checks. After asking about this, I saw another aircraft behind me was doing them there and so elected to do the same.

He called ready for departure while I was still finishing off my checks, so had to wait a few seconds for me to do likewise. His reward was to be given priority – I was told to backtrack right down to the very end of the runway, while he taxied behind me and lined up in front. There was little delay for either of us, being cleared to takeoff as soon as he was airborne.

Once airborne, we were again issued with a discrete squawk code and given a Basic Service.

Scenic Route

Well clear and having gained height, we turned left and overflew Plymouth keeping to the north of the military danger areas. This gave us a great view of the bay, marinas, town and marine traffic. As we headed South East, we saw Netwon Ferres and tracked towards Salcombe where we identified Bolt Head airstrip – definitely one on my to-do list.

Time to get the camera out.

Salcombe from above

Turning North East, we tracked the coast overhead Dartmouth, Torquay and Exmouth. Having switched to Exeter Radio, they asked us to keep south while a commercial flight arrived, so we kept to the coast along to Sidmouth before turning north. They then handed us off to freecall London Information as we approached Yeovil.

Perhaps foolishly, I took up this suggestion and called London Information asking for a Basic Service. The radio quality was atrocious – I’m pretty sure they could hear me OK, but I was struggling to make much out at all. I reported readability one/two. Some kind passer-by relayed our messages, and I was told to squawk 1177 and given a Basic Service. They asked if I wanted to transit Bristol Airspace, which I didn’t, planning to track south over Wells, Radstock and then up over Bath and back to Kemble.

Once clear of Yeovil area, I asked for and switched to Bristol Radar who provided a Basic Service until we were almost home. In retrospect, I wished I had just called Bristol after leaving Exeter – perhaps with a short break until I got closer to their range.

Overhead Bath

We had a great view of Bath and John even managed to take a picture of my house.

Returning home to Kemble

We had been advised it was pretty busy as we switched to Kemble. We heard there was a gliding competition, and one glider was asking to transit overhead at 1700 feet – this at a time with a couple of aircraft in the circuit and two or three inbound. In the end, this wasn’t nearly as busy as it sounded. We called overhead, did a standard overhead join and descended deadside. I saw one glider visually and kept a good lookout for other traffic. The radio was busy as I quickly called downwind, with a good approach and landing. We kept the taxi speed up as requested to clear the runway quickly, returning for fuel before parking up and closing down.

Turning final approach into Kemble

After chocking the wheels, putting the cover back on and completing the paperwork, it was time to call it a day after a really enjoyable trip. Departing the airfield around 5pm, we’d had over 3 hours airtime, visited a new airport, overflown some territory well known from my sailing days and introduced another friend to flying. John said he’d come again, and perhaps next time I’ll visit him at Popham near where he lives and fly down to the coast or the Isle of Wight.

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