Grass Strip Practice

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I’d wanted to gain some experience of grass strips, and had been proposing a club flyout event where some of the club instructors could help explain the different factors around these with some practice and guidance. The outcome was that Dave (who I’d previously shared flights with to Cherbourg and Coventry) advertised a day’s training to club members. In the end, it was only the two of us and one instructor who participated. With excellent sunny weather, it made for a great day which we both very much enjoyed.

Oaksey Park

I turned up at Oaksey Park, a small grass airfield near to Kemble, where two club aircraft had been left for us to use for the day. I’d got up early to be there for 9:30, and the journey took less time than I expected, so I arrived around 9:10. I chatted to the airfield manager, Dick, who clearly loves his job and keeps the place spick and span. Dave turned up around 9:30 and advised me that he had delayed the briefing until 10, because it had been foggy the previous morning and he thought the same conditions might apply.

So it wasn’t until 10 when John, our instructor turned up. We had expected two instructors to join us, but Tony hadn’t been in contact and didn’t appear. We decided to all fly in the same aircraft, taking turns for each leg. John gave us a good briefing about the pitfalls of flying into grass strips, particularly in a nosewheel aircraft like the PA28, and worked through the performance charts. This showed we’d need about 850 metres to ensure a takeoff when including the 1.33 safety factor mandated for commercial flights. As you grow experience, you may choose to forego that on private flights, but he recommended we didn’t push things to the limit from the outset.

We reviewed which airfields might be suitable for us to visit during the day, and settled on first doing a couple of circuits from South Cerney, a military parachuting centre just a few miles north, then on to Popham, Garston Farm, Charlton Park and back to Oaksey. We’d then have to ferry fly both aircraft back to Kemble at the end of the day.

South Cerney

I flew the first leg because Dave had already flown in there during a previous training session. We called up the parachute aircraft pilot and found that their aircraft – a Cessna Caravan – was unserviceable, broken down at the runway threshold, so there would be no problem with conflicting activity during our visit. We only had to lookout for the engineer, who was flying in to look at the problem. After takeoff, it was easy to spot the airfield and I positioned for a base join.

My first approach was at the right speed, but a little low and meant I lost sight of the Cessna caravan aircraft parked up at the edge of the field. Second time around, I made more of a glide approach which kept good visibility throughout, and I was surprised at how much quicker we seemed to flare and land. In both cases, I stopped and backtracked to ensure we had full runway length available. After the second landing, I shutdown and we swapped pilots.

South Cerney airfield
South Cerney after departure. Parachute dropping military airfield, so it’s unusual to be able to land here.

Popham

Dave flew us down to Popham, and it was good to try out my new GPS bluetooth receiver with the iPad running SkyDemon. This is too large a display for use when piloting, but ideal when navigating or observing from the back seat.

Unusually, runway 21 was in use at Popham which made the approach much simpler. Dave did a full overhead join followed by a smooth landing and we were marshalled into a parking area. There was an Auster rally in progress and we admired some of these aircraft as we munched through a burger for lunch. The weather was nice and sunny, and the whole airfield had a busy but relaxed feel to it.

Popham
Auster flyin at Popham airfield – a busy place on a sunny day. Runway 21 in use

We watched several aircraft movements including one remarkably steep turn immediately after takeoff. Perhaps the pilot didn’t think he’d clear the trees ahead, instead turning down runway 25 and departing to the west.

Garston Farm

Enroute
Flying between Popham and Garston Farm, with John checking the GPS
Grass Airstrip
Typical grass airfield of the type we were landing on

It was my turn for the next leg, which was visually navigated by following the roads. We picked up the A420 at Chippenham and flew west towards Colerne, identifying Garston as we closed in. The airfield is just to the east of Marshfield, and encroaches into the Colerne ATZ, so it shares their frequency. Making blind calls to Colerne who were not active, we flew a wide circuit to the north away from the village and joined right base for 27. It’s quite a long runway, at least 800 meters, and in good condition, so I was able to land gently and taxi off at the midpoint where one of the locals guided us towards the visitors parking area.

Garston Farm
Garston Farm from the visitors parking area

We were shown around the hangars and made very welcome. About half a dozen locals were sitting outside and enjoying the sunshine.

Charlton Park

Swapping pilots once again, Dave took off and flew the short leg to Charlton Park, just a mile to the north east of Malmesbury. The airfield plate doesn’t mention a circuit direction, but there are 4 runways to pick from. The main house is very imposing, and visible from some distance. Landing on 25, we taxied around to the hangar to sign in and leave our landing fee.

Charleston Park
Charlton Park – the manor house in full view when on finals for 25

We then quickly departed on 21, noticing a few divets in the otherwise well maintained runway and taxiways. The short hop back to Oaksey Park navigated using a course of 060 from the Dyson factory on the edge of Malmesbury, taking us directly onto a downwind leg for runway 22 at Oaksey. We touched down just after the white barrels and parked up.

Inbound to Oaksey Park
Heading back to Oaksey Park

Ferry flight back to Kemble.

While Dave and John refuelled SNUZ, I did a transit check on the other aircraft and sat inside ELUE for a few minutes while the engine warmed up. We were both ready to depart at the same time, and I let Dave take off before me. I was slightly disoriented after departure, expecting to be able to make out Kemble easily – it’s only about 3 miles away. The haze had worsened, so I had to fly north before it came back into view.

I joined downwind, and apart from incorrectly announcing my radio replies as UZ rather than UE (familiarity with the wrong aircraft) which the FISO quickly picked up and corrected, it was a straightforward approach and landing.

After all the grass strips we’d used that day, I foolishly didn’t think to ask to land on the grass runway at Kemble – something I still have never done. Once the paperwork was done, John drove us back to Kemble where we had left our cars and we were done for the day.

Another very enjoyable day where the sharing of the piloting duties (and costs) made for a better learning experience and more time in the air. The high quality of instruction made it a good learning experience, with the practical flying directly reinforcing the theory.

PIC time today: 1:35
Total PIC: 123:10
Total Time 217:15

2 comments

  1. A fascinating blog. Am a new NPPL pilot myself and am doing grass strip training in a fortnight. Can’t wait. Look forward to reading more of your blogs. Cheers.

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