A family expedition
As a family, we usually try to visit relatives in Scotland every couple of years and have journeyed by various means – such as driving 12 hours each way (typically requiring an overnight stop each way) or flying to Edinburgh or Aberdeen (requiring a hire car). This year I hoped to fly during the Easter weekend, with a backup plan to drive if the weather was poor. I booked the TB20 share-o-plane at Gloucester allowing one day each side for weather contingency to take the pressure off.
The large commercial airports are expensive in this neck of the woods. Aberdeen quoted me £285 including handling. RAF Leuchars or Edinburgh would be similar. Fortunately Dundee is a more sensible £29, with the resident flight training school taking the landing fees. Although there are no onsite car hire agencies, Hertz were happy to drop off and collect a hire car, leaving the keys at the flight school.
After asking around for local knowledge and discussing my route at the flying club, I planned to transit west of the Liverpool zone then pretty head much directly north via VORs at DCS and TAL to Edinburgh and on to Dundee. The planned route was 288 miles and should take around 2 hours airborne time in the TB20.
The aircraft was just finishing its annual check and I helped return it to Gloucester the day before by chauffering the pilot who reported everything working as it should.
Northbound: Gloucester to Dundee
Excellent weather on Friday made for a pleasant journey up. Initially we climbed above the cloud layer to around 4000 feet VFR on top. Being Easter weekend, the LARS services were closed at Shawbury and Warton. I freecalled Liverpool far too early who helpfully directed me back to Hawarden Radar (I didn’t realise they would be open). Hawarden (pronounced Harden) advised me on the best routing and level to gain a zone transit, watching me closely when I left the descent late in order to remain clear of cloud.
The seamless handover back to Liverpool Approach was straightforward with a quick clearance through the zone via WAL not above 2000 feet. Radar controlled service was notified as it started and stopped while I was inside controlled airspace. I then freecalled Blackpool who simply gave me a squawk code and asked me to report leaving the frequency.
We cruised on over Barrow-in-Furness and into the Lake District with some really stunning views. I left Blackpool frequency but waited until Dean Cross before signing on with Scottish Info. I discovered an unknown feature of SkyDemon which not only shows the next frequencies you might expect to use, but also real-time estimated time and distance for when they become active. I tried to match this up with the Northern chart but gave up – it’s really not obvious at all where the radio coverage boundaries are at that border. Scottish Information definitely covers some of the London FIR – that’s clearly shown over the sea – but the land boundary is less obvious to me.
From Dean Cross VOR (DCS) it was a straightforward Basic service from Scottish Info who confirmed my routing via the VOR at TAL and asked me to report at TAL, when they would co-ordinate my transit through Edinburgh. We flew overhead Lockerbie – the sheer scale of open land in this part of the Lowlands could be easily overlooked. How unfortunate/unlucky those living below had been to suffer from an exploding airliner when there is such a large area of unpopulated land that it could have hit instead. We could also pick out Gretna Green in the distance, which is said to still conduct one in every six of all Scottish weddings.
With the GTN driving the autopilot in NAV mode, I manually tuned the NAV2 box to track each VOR on our route, cross checking the DME distance with that of the GPS. For extra measure, I had SkyDemon on my iPad plotting my track too with a paper PLOG recording passing each waypoint.
At this point my headset batteries gave up. The “spare ones” were an old set I’d discarded last time they’d run out. The headset continued to work in passive mode,so a lot more noisy, perhaps contributing so some of the slightly more awkward communications later.
The sound of silence
Scottish asked my ETA at TAL and I responded immediately with one. The GPS devices (both SkyDemon and the built in Garmin) make estimating the next waypoint really easy. We were about 4 or 5 minutes away. They passed my details to Edinburgh Approach and handed me over. A somewhat resigned sounding controller then told me he had my details and asked me what I wanted. This is where I probably made my big SNAFU, simply regurgitating the usual patter of origin/destination/position and looking for a transit. I was told to standby, so waited hopefully for some clearance. After a couple of minutes of radio silence and with about 3 miles to go to controlled airspace, I asked for a radio check and got an immediate response of “Readability 5”. At 1 mile to go to controlled airspace I gave up hoping for clearance and sharply turned 90 right with a 1000 fpm descent. I have no idea how busy ATC were or what routing options might be possible, but clearly this wasn’t one of them. Once down at 3400 feet (CAS starts at 3500), I turned north again and crept under controlled airspace. It was slightly turbulent over the hills below and we seemed to be much closer to the ground than the 1000 foot or so that the instruments indicated.
As I approached Musselborough on the south coast of the Forth, the controller took pity on me. After confirming my height and that I planned to maintain track, he granted me a transit not above 4000 feet, so I could climb rather than descend further below the 2500 feet airspace block that spans the estuary. Even at that height, we were out of glide range of the coast for a few minutes.
Unusual join at Dundee
Once in Fife, I freecalled Leuchars who gave me a squawk (which I omitted to set). When I spotted my error and apologised, the controller was pretty relaxed about it. I expect that since I was the only one on frequency and had Mode S, he didn’t have too much difficulty tracking me. While still in the Leuchars MATZ, with only about 7 miles to go, I requested change to Dundee tower. They have full ATC but no radar. Despite having listened to the ATIS I forgot to mention the code letter, so got a helpful runway in use and QNH. I could clearly see the airfield ahead and had been descending nicely for a left base join (for R27). Passing below 1600 feet, I was advised not to descend below 2000 feet while still south of the Tay and position for a descending downwind join (a new one on me). There were two other aircraft in the circuit, one just about to land and one turning crosswind. Visibility was excellent and the tower had clearly spotted me already.
Climbing now back up to 2000 feet, I initially turned left (west) to position myself to turn right when joining downwind at 45 degrees roughly abeam the runway. The tower reminded me that R27 was in use (perhaps thinking I was turning the wrong way), and told me I was now cleared to descend. Still doing 140 knots in the descent, I couldn’t deploy the gear until I’d levelled out. The bridges made for a good landmark to navigate the circuit by, although I’m not sure exactly which side you are supposed to fly base leg on. I was a little high turning final but that was easily dealt with and made a reasonable landing. My planning had omitted to realise that Dundee doesn’t have a taxiway along its full length, so my extended rollout meant a longer backtrack but I don’t think I inconvenienced anyone. Tayside Aviation has grass parking on the north west side of the field, with visitor spaces clearly marked along the back fence.
A friendly local pilot helped us push back. After putting the cover on, we walked around to the office where our hire car was awaiting collection. You quickly notice the fresher, cleaner air in Scotland (although it’s also a bit colder). Looking for lunch, the terminal building was deserted, the chain pub at the far end of the runway looked promising (lots of tables outside with good view) but was extremely busy. We ended up at Asda’s Cafe a couple of miles up the road which was also handy for weekend supplies. There’s a Tesco and Morrison’s too – all within a few minutes drive. Thereafter, the main road up north was a lot less congested that what I’m used to in England.
Preparing for departure back south again
After a very enjoyable weekend with outstanding weather, we returned at 4pm aiming to depart well before 5pm. Gloucester close at 7:30 and it would be a 2 hour flight. I’d been watching the forecast closely and could see the edge of a Low would encroach on Gloucester with rain at around the time of our planned arrival. I’d discussed this at length at the flight club earlier in the week, with advice being not to be too concerned about rain (even heavy rain) of itself. You can still be technically VFR when flying through rain. What would be much more significant is the cloudbase and wind, and especially any storm cells.
The chap behind the desk at Tayside was very helpful and suggested I telephone Edinburgh ATC to discuss a possible transit before departure. It was quite lively (i.e. noisy) in the clubroom and I couldn’t quite have a full conversation, but was told that flying to the Kelty waypoint and south over the bridges, then overhead EDI not above 2000 feet, was quite a feasible option.
The Forth Bridges and transit overhead Edinburgh
After departure, Leuchars guided us west of Glenrothes where paradropping was in progress. We might well have been more expeditious to route the way we had come, but I continued as planned. Edinburgh Approach were expecting me and cleared me “northside” along the coast to the bridges where we orbitted for a while, talking to the Tower. A stream of commercial traffic was landing from the East, and after perhaps 4 or 5 orbits, we were cleared to transit with the landing Saab 340 in sight, above and behind it. We continued on to the south and were given progressive climb clearance after being handed back to Approach.
Scottish Info then picked up the baton. They knew our destination was Gloucester and had proactively looked at the rain radar to determine that the storm clouds showing weren’t looking very enticing. They relayed the latest METAR and TAF. The METAR was wind 040 at 16 knots with 8K visibility, broken cloud at 1400. The TAF had the wind veering slightly to 030 at 12 and cloud down to 1200, but with a PROB40 TEMPO of 040 at 15 gusting 25 and cloud down to 800 feet.
I requested a further weather update from London Info once south of the border and decided to make a weather diversion into Blackpool. I had warned the passengers that this might be the case, although one was quite keen for me to continue on. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any other feasible airport to use south of Blackpool that’s open after 6pm and has accomodation nearby. I did have more than enough fuel to get back to Blackpool from Gloucester (probably enough to get back to Dundee) if we had made an attempted approach and late diversion. Disconcertingly, one of the fuel guages decided to go to sleep and dropped from almost half tank to empty within about 10 seconds. I visually checked the wings to ensure the fuel cap was still on.
Blackpool was very quiet and seemed pretty relaxed about my arrival. I probably should have agreed the type of join in advance, but positioned for a left base join to 10 (i.e. approaching from the seaward side) which was accepted. There was a surprising amount of turbulence offshore as we turned final, with something like a 10 knot crosswind.
Finding suitable accomodation took us a little while, with so much on offer via hotel booking websites but difficult to filter out which ones were sensibly priced, clean and within walking distance. We found one close by that was clean and did a nice breakfast, but the karaoke singing in the bar late evening did take some getting used to.
Under the Strasser Scheme, which encourages weather diversions rather than pressing on regardless, the landing fee was waived and I only had to pay for overnight parking. Thanks Blackpool!
Hazy start to the final leg
It was hazy next morning, but still very much VFR conditions. Gloucester weather was CAVOK as expected. The fuel guage had recovered and showed as expected, matching the visible fuel in the tank. We took off out to the East, turning south west until slightly offshore. The initial haze cleared as we transitted again through Liverpool and we retraced our path of the outbound journey. Once clear of the airways, we climbed up to 4500 feet and cruised back towards the clear weather. Hawarden Radar was again open, then London Information and back to the friendly voices of Gloucester Approach.
Reporting in at about 10 miles, I was cleared for a direct right base join for R27, ahead of an Aztec about to begin the RNAV procedure. Sadly, I fluffed what should have been a very straightforward arrival and flew past the right place and height to turn final. ATC were remarkably non-plussed and suggested I made this a deadside join back into the circuit, ensuring that I was well clear of the inbound Aztec. Second time round was better, and after a distinctly average landing we were happy to be back home.
It sure beats driving all that way, and we had some really great views.
Total PIC time: 5:10