A Proper Expedition
Enough of short bimbles and day trip landaways – this was to be my first longer multi-day outing, grandly titled the Club Expedition to Scotland. Enticed by the long list of free landing vouchers in Flyer Magazine, one of the club instructors advertised a long weekend flyout which attracted strong interest. We ended up with 12 pilots sharing 4 aircraft (3 Warriors and 1 Arrow), departing from Kemble late Friday afternoon and returning Sunday lunchtime.
The Arrow Crew
I teamed up with Graeme (a PPL with more experience than me) and Bruce (who has slightly less and only completed differences training for the Arrow earlier in the week), and we turned up at Kemble in good time. For various reasons, we didn’t depart until mid afternoon and I flew the first leg up to Blackpool. We discussed routing through the Manchester Low Level Corridor, which I’d done recently on my flight to Barton, but I preferred to try going west and transiting Liverpool. This is what we did, and found that by giving Liverpool an early call on the radio, our transit was quickly granted and really not an issue. The only significant glitch was that my cheap Chinese satnav running SkyDemon decided to pack up in the middle of controlled airspace. A similar thing happened on my last trip this way, when in the middle of the Manchester Low Level route. Not an issue at all at the time because I had the chart on my lap, the VFR reporting points were clearly visible, and I had two crew each with their own GPS to fall back on. But it might have been a tad inconvenient if I was flying on my own and hadn’t clearly identified the waypoints.
There’s a great view of Blackpool beach, with the tower and roller coaster, as you join and descend in for landing. Sorry – no pictures because I was flying.
Blackpool is well setup for GA traffic, being reasonably priced, good facilities and long opening hours. It’s very close to the city too. We taxied to the fuel pumps, topped back up to tabs, then taxied across to park in the GA Apron. Walking out the locked gate and around three sides of a large blue building, you find the entrance door on the far side with access to a modern lounge, briefing room, tea/coffee facilities etc.
We walked across to the “Air Balloon“, a leisure/shopping building which had a lounge bar that served coffee as well as drinks and meals, while we waited for the other aircraft to catch up and planned the next leg.
Departing Blackpool, we routed carefully to avoid the Danger Areas which were active with a large military exercise in progress that weekend. The Solway Firth saw some nasty looking dark clouds which we were just able to dodge to the west without infringing, and then were able to route up towards Ayr. There was some nasty low cloud and rain overhead Prestwick airport when we approached, so we orbitted for a few minutes offshore while the weather passed through. We had to swap back to the Approach controller who provided a traffic service for a short while, then advised us that he could see the weather was clearing from his viewpoint in the tower.
There are two commercial airports serving Glasgow – one nearer to the city (called Glasgow) and one about 20 miles to the southwest (called Prestwick). Glasgow is pretty much out of the question for GA due to very high landing fees. I’ve used it for low cost EasyJet flights when on business, which are considerably cheaper.
Prestwick has a fast train service from right outside the terminal into the city centre, making it just as accessible. It’s also a friendly GA airport, despite frequent RyanAir commercial flights. We had phoned earlier to arrange late handling from Prestwick Flight Centre, and were shown through to the flying club lounge. After a few phone calls, we arranged to stay at nearby Premier Inns, although there weren’t enough rooms for everybody in the same one. After arriving around 9pm, there was just enough time for dinner and a quick drink before retiring.
Prestwick to Wick via the Great Glen
We arranged refuelling in the morning, and it was after 10 before we departed, with Graeme taking his turn to fly this leg. Routing first to the north west, we got as far as Iona before turning north east and flying up one of the lochs (with the Warrior’s in loose formation), then across to Glenforsa in Mull (what an attractive airfield – must go there sometime), and along to the Great Glen, through which a chain of lochs run north east towards Inverness, then up to Wick.
We had great visibility all the way up the Glen, with Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, clearly visible on our right. Turning north up the coast at Inverness, we confirmed that a Danger Area was inactive before routing direct overhead Dornoch and then further up the coast towards Wick. About 30 miles before our destination we came across some nasty low cloud but were able to avoid the worst of it and came through to find clear visibility before landing. I had phoned Far North aviation, the local handlers, before departure, and they confirmed that the tower closed at weekends with blind radio calls used. We called them on their own frequency from about 10 miles out for a weather update, before switching to the tower frequency.
As soon as we parked up on the apron, the bowser was already on its way to us, quickly refuelling. There aren’t a whole lot of facilities onsite (it might be different during the week when commecial flights are active), but we were welcome to have a cuppa and chocolate bar while we sorted out the paperwork. Our free Flyer landing vouchers worked here. We were the last to depart because after checking the oil, we realised we needed to refill and didn’t think to grab some from another aircraft first.
Wick to Prestwick via Stornoway
It was my turn to fly again, and this was to prove a fairly mammoth leg of almost 3 hours. We routed along the north coast of Scotland, carefully keeping clear of Dounreay nuclear power station. Scottish Info proactively advised us that the Danger Areas around Cape Wrath were inactive, and we could see the large chunks in the ground providing evidence of bombing practice there. Turning south, the scenery was breathtaking. Our planned route was then directly west to Stornoway, and as we came up to the turning point we discussed whether the low cloud to our west meant this was still a good idea. But with the Island in sight, we took the short hop across and overflew Stornoway airfield – some of the other club aircraft had landed there. We were cautious about our Weight and Balance if we had refuelled with enough to safely reach Blackpool from there, so decided to press on.
With a lot of cloud over the Western Isles, we routed just out to sea and then directly south to Skye, down past the Skye Bridge and on to Oban. Scottish Information gave us a great service, and we were properly handed over directly to Prestwick tower. Joining downwind, I was told to expedite my base leg and after landing to backtrack and vacate immediately.
As I turned final, a Ryanair flight on (long) final was told they were Number 2 to land, so I got the message about needing not to dawdle. After a good landing and some firm braking, we turned back to see the lights of an Airbus coming straight at us but still some way out. There was more than enough time for us to vacate the runway safely – it was a good call from ATC who made efficient use of the time to fit everyone in. Otherwise, we would have had to wait a full 3 minutes for wake turbulance to dissipate before landing. We could see that the airfield continued to be busy that evening with a range of GA traffic including helicopters, light fixed wing and even some aerobatics, alongside the commercial stuff.
Prestwick (a second time) and then back to Blackpool
Having not fully pre-planned this stop, we hadn’t pre-arranged handling. A quick call to the out of hours number and someone turned up about 20-30 minutes later (although I wouldn’t always rely on that being possible), filled us up and let us use the crew room for tea/coffe etc. After a quick call to book out with ATC, we were again off down to Blackpool for the last leg of the day. Bruce flew this time and we enjoyed some great views, lovely calm weather over the Lake District, and were able to refuel in Blackpool despite landing around 8pm.
We were surprised that all the crews managed to make it back to Blackpool, having dispersed earlier in the day and taken different routes. The weather looked terrible for the following day (in Scotland) and so everyone was keen to be further south overnight, leaving a short leg (in good weather) rather than be stuck weatherbound for a day or two. We all assembled and were able to find a restaurant that would take all 12 of us for dinner at 10pm – and wasn’t too pricey either. We stayed overnight in a B&B with very reasonable rates and included free Wi-Fi, en-suite showers and cooked breakfast.
Blackpool to Kemble
Departing the airport around 10am the next day, we left in showers and strong gusting winds, but within a mile after takeoff were in clear visibility out to sea. Another easy transit of Liverpool allowed us an almost direct routing home, landing before noon.
All in all, a very enjoyable trip with quite a few hours flying involved. Sharing this with two other pilots allowed us to make a much further trek, and reinforced best practice. I would have liked to have landed at a few more airports, but weather and PPR constraints prevented that. It’s given me a taste to do this kind of thing more – perhaps France or Germany next time.
I’m pleased to say that during the trip at least three pilots have been convinced of the value of SkyDemon GPS, having not really seen it in action before. I’m also much happier about running it on my old iPad, having resolved a memory problem which caused it to crash frequently before, it now seems stable and worked flawlessly throughout the trip. I think the Nexus 7 appears to be the current most popular device to buy for it, unless you already have an iPad or other compatible tablet.
For future trips, I picked up a few tips from other crews and personal experience:
– Take along plenty of snacks because you never know where your next meal is coming from. Although we didn’t need much for lunch after a hearty breakfast in the hotel, we landed at more remote airfields or clubs without onsite catering on tap as found in many of the popular English airfields.
– PPR constraints apply to many of the Scottish airfields. Officially, you must call a number during office hours (Mon-Fri) and obtain this in advance. Fairly to do so can result in a fine of £500 or more, according to one local pilot I spoke to. You may also need to obtain an our of hours indemnity before landing at Oban (which costs over £40 for an annual pass). This prevented us landing at Oban 20 minutes before ATC closed (at 17:15) because we couldn’t be sure to have refuelled, paid and taken off in that time.
– Ask for transits wherever reasonable. Many PPLs always plan their routes to avoid any controlled airspace, but we found that with prior notice, sensible transits were easily obtained. We did this with Liverpool (where the low level Manchester route would have been very dodgy due to bad weather) and another crew were given one through Glasgow. Scottish Information (and ATC generally) was very helpful throughout.
– Be a bit more flexible and expect things to work out in the end. I like to have prepared and planned as much ahead as possible, but inevitably the weather and other factors take over. Landing late in the evening in Blackpool, we were still able to find accomodation and a restaurant where we could all eat together without too much bother.
– Flying multi-crew on the longer trips reduces the pressure a lot. Most aircraft shared the jobs, one flying, one doing the radio/transponder and one navigating from the back. It was helpful to ask someone to lookup a frequency or monitor our track, otherwise it could take a while to figure out which frequency to use for Scottish Info or when switching between approach and tower.
All in all, a great weekend trip and very enjoyable to be able to do this with other club members as a group outing.
Total time this trip: 4:25
Total PIC: 155:10
Total time: 252:25