Gloucester to Blackpool daytrip in the TB20, returning after dusk
The chance for a last flight of the year arose when a combination of weather window, aircraft/my availability and passengers all lined up. After a few days of cogitating about where, when and who with, it was decided on a day trip to Blackpool with my daughter and a couple of her friends. We’d fly the TB20 from Gloucester which was open until 6pm, giving us more time to spend there. One passenger had come along on our Bournemouth diversion, the other had only ever flown once (commercially) before. It was a 9am Sunday morning start from home following a late night party, but all passengers were there on time (if not entirely awake).
After departing from Gloucester we quickly saw the expanse of flooding across the countryside to the north. Routing up past the Malverns at 4500 feet, I put in a couple of steep turns to amuse the passengers, and continued on autopilot. With LARS radar unavailable at weekends, we got a Basic Service from London (which was very quiet) then switched to Liverpool Radar (which I incorrectly addressed as Approach) about 10 miles south of Wrexham. Descending to ensure I was clear of the airways, I requested and was given a VFR transit to the west of Liverpool Airport at 3000 feet. Hawarden is closed at weekends, but I kept to the west of that too.
Liverpool Radar confirmed I was under a Radar Controlled Service as I entered their airspace. Other than that I simply had to make position reports (and fly the cleared route and altitude). It was easy to spot the Manchester Ship canal that terminates in the River Dee and the Seaforth container port on the Mersey estuary.
Vectored ILS into Blackpool
We freecalled Blackpool Approach (who I think also corrected me with their callsign Blackpool Radar – is there a pattern here?). I asked for a Basic Service and requested vectors for their ILS (but remaining VFR). Again this was granted but with a Traffic Service and I was given headings to fly.
Like most GPS navigators, our GTN650 can operate in either GPS or VLOC Modes – tracking an approach either entirely by satellite derived position information or from ground based signals (ILS and VOR). After selecting and loading the ILS approach, it reminded me to switch the CDI to VLOC mode and tune in the ILS frequency (which it had conveniently loaded into the standby NAV). A few button presses and we were all setup and activated. I also had the ADF locked on to the Blackpool NDB and the course pointer selected to the final approach course/runway heading.
There were one or two other movements which kept the controller busy, so he left it slightly too late to instruct me to intercept the localiser from the south and instead told me to intercept from the north (right hand side of glidepath). This had happened on a previous flight with Rich piloting and he was clear that you must not intercept until instructed. I remembered to press APP (approach) on the autopilot and it automatically acquired the track nicely, with the glideslope indicator flashing and ready to capture. I had deliberately flown a couple of hundred feet lower than the platform height to stay clear of cloud while maintaining VFR. This meant we captured the glide slope slightly closer in to the runway but otherwise was of little consequence. We were passed to the tower and cleared to land for what was quite an uneventful arrival. My daughter must have thought so because she slept through most of it.
The office has moved
Taxied to the pumps for fuel, where you have to visit the fueller’s office to ask staff for assistance. After filling up, they give you a receipt and chitty, which is then used to pay at the office later. We taxied around to the GA parking area and exited through the passenger gate (being sure to wear the mandatory yellow jacket). I made the mistake of going to the same office desk inside the large blue GA building to pay as we did earlier in the year – they’ve moved! The GA office is now incorporated into the main terminal building. My Flyer Magazine free landing voucher was honoured (because I’d bought some fuel) and there was a small charge for parking beyond 2 hours.
We ate at the (national chain) Fayre and Square pub just along the street (next to Premier Inn), which offered good value. (I’d recommend not sitting round the back with the noisy kids though). The building is also called the Air Balloon. With the weather looking nice, we walked all the way along the beachfront up to the Central Pier and Blackpool Tower – about 80 minutes in all. The beach and shorefront is clean and well maintained, but many of the buildings and hotels on the other side of the road have seen better days. There’s an indoor shopping centre behind the Tower, but by then we’d seen enough and needed to make our way back. The tram runs efficiently and comfortably, taking us to Starr Gate from which it was a short walk back to the terminal. You can buy a ticket on the tram.
Another view of the beach
I’d aimed to be back at the airport by 4pm at the latest which allowed 1 hour 30 minutes for the flight (of which 1 hour was flight time), and so returning to Gloucester around 5:30 (it closes at 6pm). I booked out by calling the tower on a direct phone in the GA office, asking for a right hand turnout on departure so we could fly along the beach just offshore. Sunset was 4:04pm and I’d hoped we could see some of the illuminations lit up. There was a short delay getting airside when there was no answer from the call button next the security gate. After a few minutes, a fireman popped his head around the corner and opened it for us – apparently there had been some technical difficulty.
Night flight home
After a quick preflight which included getting my headtorch out, we hopped in and requested taxi. Despite having the airfield plate in front of me, I set off in the wrong direction and stopped to ask for progressive taxi instructions. With no other traffic around, I was recleared to retrace my arrival route and backtrack on the main runway. After takeoff we flew offshore at about 1000 feet just offshore of the beach – plenty of town lights but not the full illuminations. We kept in touch with the Tower and reported turning back to the field which we crossed overhead at 2000 feet, then switched to Liverpool Radar.
They were fairly busy but fitted us in and granted the same VFR transit as before routing over Neston. We heard the controller rattle out vectoring instructions to several aircraft, which were easy to spot in the clear night sky. My passengers were quite excited to be able to see and hear these as we retraced our southbound path. Once clear of Hawarden I climbed up to 3000 feet to maintain safety altitude – we must have gone through a little bit of cloud because the strobes lit them up from inside, and it also got slightly bumpy but everybody was still happy. I spoke again with London Information who advised there was no traffic in our area (not a surprise) and tried to listen to the Gloucester ATIS recording as soon as reception permitted.
The wind had shifted to the south and strengthened which reduced our groundspeed to between 110 and 120 knots, delaying our estimated arrival time to about 17:40 – still enough time but little further contingency for delay. There were plenty of street lights visible to our left, especially Birmingham and other towns, which contrasted with the dark unpopulated areas of North Wales on our right. With about 10 minutes left to run, I contacted Gloucester Approach (now on combined Tower/Approach frequency at this quiet time of day). They offered me a right hand base leg join which I declined – I knew I was not yet familiar enough with night time VFR arrivals and instead opted for a standard overhead join. The controller advised that 50% of the lights were switched off.
Difficulty making out the airfield
I had some difficulty visually identifying exactly where the airport was – you really can’t see much of the (highly directional) runway lights from other directions unless you know exactly where to look. The lights of both Gloucester and Cheltenham were clearly visible and I knew the airport was somewhere in the dark gap between them. I used both the onboard Garmin and SkyDemon (and even the NDB) to confirm I was overhead. The moonlight allowed a good view of the GCHQ doughtnut building and I used that to position for base leg and final, but could not see the runway lights expected ahead of me. I did not descend further and explained that to the controller, who verbalised what I was already doing – making this a go-around. He turned up the lights to 10% which were quickly identified on our left. I had mistaken the airport buildings on the north side to be those on the south side and lined up for final parallel to the runway but about 600 yards too far north.
Second time around was much better and the full force of the runway lights was clear to see, with them being dimmed again once confirmed on final. There was a 12 knot crosswind which made it a little more exciting, but we were down and parked up before the airport closed.
…for those who might be interested
Time Today: 3:00
Total PIC: 212:15
Total Time: 314:40