Manchester City (Barton) Airport
Approaching Manchester City (Barton) airport requires GA pilots to fly between Manchester International and Liverpool commercial airports via the low-level corridor. This is a tunnel of airspace just 1300 feet high and 4 nautical miles wide, funnelling traffic to keep it out of the way of the large passenger jets landing and taking off. It’s an obvious route for me to take if heading further north from Kemble, unless I took a longer route and water crossing to the west of Liverpool or a major diversion to the east.
So it was on my “list of things to do”, and when combined with a free landing voucher in Flyer magazine plus a combination of better weather in that area, it sealed the choice of today’s destination. With a grass runway shorter than 600 m, I preferred to take the Warrior rather than the club Arrow. I prefer the Warrior’s fixed landing gear and shorter takeoff roll for a grass field like this, although the Arrow would have been quite capable of it too. So even when faced with a last minute unexpected choice of aircraft, I decided to stick with the Warrior.
A low cloud day, but still VFR
Roger had just finished a lesson when I walked in to pre-flight, and explained that visibility was poor above about 2000 feet. It’s not a thick cloud layer with a well defined base; more of a gradual degradation in visibility as you climbed into it. The forecast was for it to improve during the day, especially north – between Kemble and Manchester.
After phoning for PPR, reading again through the CAA’s detailed pilot notes for the low level route (slightly outdated from 2008 it hasn’t been updated with the raised 1300 foot ceiling or the listening squawk code) and printing out the pretty colour pictures of the VFR reporting points, it was 11:30 before I started up. Unusually, we were on 08 today, and power checks were in the North Apron.
Departing to the north, I could see what Roger meant, keeping down around 2000 feet to avoid losing visibility. Gloucester gave me a Basic Service and allowed my transit through their overhead at around 2000 feet – I was keeping an eye out for another inbound aircraft heading for the same overhead.
I did wonder if this was going to be a re-run of my first aborted attempt to fly to Sleap, which resulted in a diversion back to Gloucester due to a lowering cloudbase. But instead, things improved as I progressed north.
My route was pretty straightforward after then, clearly identifying Worcester, Kidderminster and HalfPenny Green (who gave me a Basic Service). By that point, the viz had improved and I climbed to about 3000 feet, heading slightly to the side of RAF Cosford where I could see a glider parked out on the grass.
Flying low, with eyes out on stalks
I picked up the QNH (pressure) from the Manchester ATIS, but realised I hadn’t set the special “listening squawk” code on my kneepad cheat sheet. The 9 page guide I’d printed out was dated 2008 and didn’t mention it either. Descending down to 1200 feet (to keep below the 1300 ceiling – recently raised from 1250), I spotted Ashcroft airfield which seemed devoid of activity. It seemed a inconvenient location to have an airfield, with so many low level GA aircraft transiting the area.
The transit itself only took about 10 minutes, and the VRPs were quite easy to make out. Having the GPS on provided a lot of reassurance too of course. I was using both my SkyDemon portable and the aircraft’s built in Foresight (which crashed half way through the zone). The first aircraft I saw was a thumping great big passenger jet (B767?) descending above me – I can see why they want GA traffic much lower down.
After identifying the last turning point, I switched across to Barton Information and reported inbound. To be honest, it was a bit of a circus, with 5 aircraft in the circuit ahead of me, a mix of microlights and SEPs of various sizes. The overhead join procedure and clear communication from the AFIS kept everyone apart and flowing in the right direction. I believe I made too tight a circuit (perhaps thinking I was a microlight myself) and left too short a gap from the microlight landing in front of me. With the runway occupied, I went around and the second circuit was much more relaxed/less busy with a good approach and short roll. It has to be said that the grass runway is a bit bumpy and has more than one or two muddy patches, but I’ve seen worse.
A thriving airfield
Thereafter followed clear taxi instructions and even a marshaller to guide me into my parking spot. As if the Flyer magazine free landing voucher wasn’t enough, I also got a free voucher for tea/coffee in the cafe. There was certainly a buzz about the place, which was a hive of activity. Not just the hordes of visiting pilots, but a couple of aircraft being ground tested, loads of families/kids playing outside the cafe and plenty of aircraft coming and going. The helicopter school seemed to be busy with lessons too. It’s nice to see a popular and thriving airfield.
Delayed at the hold on departure
I checked if I needed to “book out”, whereupon the office phoned the tower to let them know I was about to walk out to the aircraft, but otherwise it was a straightforward process. After completing power checks near the hold, another horde of aviators appeared inbound and I had to wait while four landed before lining up. Was the phone call to the tower simply to alert them to make life busy before I departed?
Short field takeoff technique (i.e flaps) as taught to me at Compton Abbas was used, and the aircraft easily lifted off and cleared the power pylons directly ahead. Turning towards the low level route, I climbed to 1000 feet and tuned into the ATIS again to confirm the pressure setting. I saw a couple of other aircraft as I entered the low level route, but those were the only I saw during either transit.
Another straightforward transit of the Low Level Route
Manchester Approach did speak to one other aircraft, presumably able to identify its callsign using its Mode S transponder (which my Warrior was also fiited with) with the squawk code indicating that it was on frequency. The controller asked them to use a different squawk for some reason, and this was quickly and easily applied.
Jodrell Bank radio telescope looked more like the moon setting to the East. It’s huge (about 350 feet high) and shone in the sunlight. In a few short minutes, we were again in clear sight of Ashcroft and could climb. Visibility really was hazy through a thick layer, so I elected to climb right up to 5500 feet (there being no airspace restrictions here). I chose not to speak to Halfpenny Green or Gloucester as I had done on the way out, because I thought I was well out of their way. I listened in to traffic on those channels for situational awareness.
Because I was at that height, I practiced a couple of power-off stalls for a bit of long overdue practice, but other than that it was an uneventful flight.
Another busy circuit pattern
Approaching Kemble, they were busy with traffic, so I was closer before I could “pass my message”. I saw the club Bulldog heading out as I approached the ATZ, and descended for a crosswind join. Kemble were busy on the radio, reflecting several aircraft in the circuit and others approaching. I made a fairly tight turn onto downwind, and realised that I’d probably pushed in and was turning final ahead of another aircraft already established in the circuit. I got my just desserts when the microlight ahead wasn’t going to clear the runway in time, and it was obvious I would have to go around for the second time in the day. The second circuit was more relaxed (is this becoming a habit?) and I landed on 08 slowly enough that I could comfortably turn off to get to the pumps.
After a bit of hassle there – the fuel pump wouldn’t turn on for me and I had to call out a fireman for some help – it was a straightforward taxi back to parking. I had tentatively arranged to meet Andy at the AV8 cafe after returning, but it was closed at 4pm with a sign saying “No Hot Food”, so perhaps just as well this hadn’t been confirmed.
All in all, a positive days flying in what were slightly challenging conditions. I know more of what to expect from the Low Level route (although I would never say it’s trivial), I’ve been impressed by the friendly and lively welcome at Barton but I could do with reviewing my circuit patterns and procedures when approaching extremely busy times at airfields. I’ll take a closer look at the GPS log of the flight and match that to the circuit pattern on Google Earth for sure.
Time today: 3:00
Total PIC: 145:55
Total Time: 243:10