I planned a long Bank Holiday weekend in Northern Scotland, visiting two different sets of friends near Inverness and Wick. Both were separately happy with the idea of a local flight in return for board and lodging. My wife was interested in coming along too, so I booked our TB20 at Gloucester and kept a close eye on the weather forecast.
Both Inverness and Wick require PPR. A call to Wick uncovered that major runway extension work prevents all out-of-hours flights for some months. That really constrained our timetable, since it’s only open for two hours at the weekend on a Sunday afternoon. Scotland doesn’t share the same bank holidays as England and my friend had to work on Monday. This determined our routing would be to Inverness on Saturday morning/overnight and Wick on Sunday afternoon/overnight, returning home Monday pm.
I filed IFR direct to Inverness at FL100 using the marvellous Autorouter which came up with:
STAFA P18 POL N601 INPIP DCT FINDO
The magenta line shows that planned route versus the black triangles logging actual route reported by NATS ATC radar. You can see the deviation over the peak district taken for weather avoidance. Flight time logged was 3 hours due to headwind.
Inverness require PPR (you need to be issued with a PPR number). I also called Highland Aviation, the local flight school, who seemed quite welcoming and happy to be the meeting place for our friends. Fuel is available and priced at a small discount if bought via the school, although is considerably more expensive than at our home base.
Gloucester to Inverness IFR airways at FL100
Gloucester departure clearance was to climb FL100 on track TELBA (near Telford), remaining outside controlled airspace and expect Western Radar next frequency. The weather forecast indicated there might be one or two clouds to avoid but nothing too serious. At FL50, Western provided a basic service and a squawk code (not the one previously advised by Autorouter), with a Traffic Service above FL70.
Joining clearance on-track STAFA level FL100, but when entered was immediately directed to POL. At exactly this time, I could see some nasty stuff dead ahead so asked for and was granted 30 degrees to the right for weather avoidance. I thought five minutes would be enough (it’s difficult to tell how far the cloud goes on for). Thereafter, ATC was quite keen for me to return back on course but accepted a total of about 10-15 minutes of deviation. Some of the clouds looked quite dark and threatening, with outside temperature of -15C. After transfer to another control sector, I thought I could return direct on track and wasn’t too concerned about a minor incursion into non-threatening cloud. However, ice quickly built up and within 60 seconds obscured the windscreen. Fortunately it was a short burst – we were back outside in 5 minutes and the icing disappeared. It did reinforce my decision to request avoidance earlier.
I used the low cost Pilotaware ADS-B receiver throughout and it picked up many commercial airliners, up to 20,000 feet above and over 200 miles away. It showed up quite a lot of traffic around Manchester (which could be filtered out if I configured it to do so).
Just north of the Manchester at ERGAB, I was transferred to London Info with a Basic Service outside controlled airspace still maintaining FL100. In due course, there was another fairly seamless handover back to Scottish Control, with a clearance to enter ontrack SHAPP, then direct FOYLE. I had to ask the controller to spell both, since neither were in my route plan. It did catch me out – I hadn’t expected to leave controlled airspace, and SkyDemon still thought I was inside the airway. Further research in the AIP section ENR 3.1 revealed that the N601 airway has variable lower limits of FL100 or FL140 depending on the time of day. This isn’t coded into the Eurocontrol database, so neither Autorouter nor SkyDemon are aware of it. These variable lower limits on airways seem to be a strange quirk found only in a few Scottish airways, probably to allow military training in those areas.
Popping out of controlled airspace at FOYLE, just north of Glasgow, Scottish Control gave me a traffic service all the way to Inverness. I requested vectors for the ILS and descended through the layer, setup for a wide downwind leg. With the airfield in sight I was offered a visual base leg join, but instead elected to continue vectoring onto about a 5 mile final. After landing, I was directed to the GA apron where a marshaller guided me to a parking spot, then disappeared.
A huge “C” sign indicates the self-briefing and landing fee room. Instructions were far from clear and a call to the local staff suggested payment should be made to the Signature handlers next door. In fact, you are supposed to fill in the landing fee form and either stuff an envelope with cash or write in your full credit card details. A sealed letter box is provided on the locked inside door on the left. Despite lots of signs, posters and information, there is nothing that actually tells you any of the above. We then struggled to find out way out and back airside again – only after speaking to an instructor did we discover that the one-way turnstile could be used to exit or if you have luggage you can walk to the main vehicle gate. You then walk about 1/2 mile along an indistinct road towards the terminal and flight school. Return back airside is via the main traffic gate, where some staff seem surprised that visiting pilots might want access. I guess they don’t get many visitors here. My pilot’s license and ID did the trick. The most awkward arrangement is that fuel loaded must be ordered (landside), signed for (airside), and paid for (landside), before departing (airside).
Inverness local VFR flight
After a nice snack lunch in the main terminal cafe (good facilities), we met our friends and headed off to the aircraft. A phone call to book out (from the plane), then immediately radio call to start, and shortly thereafter for taxi. While the airport does handle passenger jets, it’s really not that busy overall. We departed from the midpoint intersection (1800m long main runway), straight ahead towards the Great Glen at just over 1000 feet. What a fantastic view! Inverness Approach advised us we would be out of radio contact shortly with a happy “cheerio”, and we were on our own. We saw Glendore airstrip on the south of Loch Ness – looks like a nice grass strip but is apparently prone to gusty winds. Snow covered the Cairngorm mountains on our left. There was a little turbulence but nothing to worry the passengers.
We carried on down the Glen to Fort William, turning right towards Mallaig, viewing the remote single track West Highland railway line below. Some of the hilltops on each side were covered in cloud, but we could see a way out ahead with plenty of room to turn back if necessary. We routed past Mallaig and up the Sleat of Skye to the Skye bridge and Plockton before climbing above the cloud for the return leg at 180 knots groundspeed.
About two thirds of the way back, I spotted a large hole and descended quickly (possibly a bit too enthusiastically for some of my passengers), to skirt up towards Evanton before returning to land. I gave my guest a brief spell at the controls, which he quite enjoyed and handled well. We orbited two or three times over Fortrose while an Airbus backtracked and departed, then joined direct right base VFR for a good landing.
Inverness to Wick
Departing next day, we took only 25 minutes to reach Wick (compared to the normal 3 hour car journey), flying directly through the (closed) firing range at Tain.
We were passed to Scottish Information on departure and seamlessly handed to Wick on arrival, given a downwind join for 13. Normally, Wick do permit out-of-hours landings (with the right paperwork and permission) and it’s a very popular stopping point for Atlantic ferry flights. Far North Aviation are the handlers and refuellers, and are very proactive with good customer service. The runway works have been quite disruptive and are scheduled to last for another month or two. A plush passenger terminal combined with a very new concrete apron welcomes you – there was no other aircraft around so we could pick our parking spot.
Our friends were awaiting us from the main terminal, and it took a little while to figure out how to exit landside and return. Despite being a very small regional airport, there is in place a complex and unusual scheme of airside passes. Staff do their best to comply with the rules, but compared to so many other similarly sized airports they do seem wildly impractical and bureaucratic. At least ATC only required a call after start, when we advised a 1 hour VFR local.
Local flight over the Orkneys
We flew along the north coast over our friends house, then north towards Hoy. Almost all the Orkneys seem pretty flat and fairly featureless, but Hoy has a sizeable hill and features a tall rocky outcrop called the Old Man of Hoy. We were passed across to Kirkwall Approach for a basic service as we crossed the Pentland Firth. While my transponder indicated that we were being “pinged” by some external radar, neither Wick nor Kirkwall ATC appear to have access to radar screens and relied entirely on procedural services. (Of course my transponder might be responding to other aircraft with active TCAS systems instead, but I expect it’s a commercial cost issue).
We flew over Twatt, which has no less than 8 grass runways, then east and south over Kirkwall, with a couple of commercial aircraft inbound and pointed out to us and easily seen. Lamb Holm is a very pretty grass airfield to the south of Kirkwall taking up all of an (almost) island, connected by causeways. Our return was slightly delayed by a Phenom Jet which took a while to slowly backtrack, line up and depart. We orbited at the end of base leg for sequencing, with no other traffic heard on frequency.
Wick Sightseeing on the ground
The weather for our return leg on Monday looked much better in the afternoon, and that fitted well with plans for some sightseeing. We visited the beach and ventured around the local Castletown heritage museum, which features a Merlin engine preserved for years in a peat bog after a mid-air crash during the war. We also saw a turnip slicer – a popular gadget used daily for cattle feed in the not so distant past. Dunnet Head, the most northern part of British Mainland gave spectacular views of the Pentland Firth, with its extremely strong tides. The Castle of Mey, a favourite of the Queen Mother, wasn’t yet open for the season but worth a look from outside. John O’Groats (which is the furthest point of mainland from Land’s End) boasts a fine coffee shop and some fairly recent holiday cabins for rent. The unusual Subsea 7 pipeline fabrication facility (5 km long, with two train tracks) allows large sections to be welded together on long and floated out then sunk in position. We had taken some photos of the installation during our flight the previous day.
Wick to Carlisle
I flew VFR back to Gloucester with a short stop in Carlisle. A straight line from Wick to Carlisle takes you east of Edinburgh, avoiding controlled airspace, passing overhead Leuchars RAF base, St Andrew’s Golf Course/University, North Berwick, Galashiels and Hawick. The Spadeadam Danger Areas north of Carlisle were NOTAMed closed for the weekend, so it was a fairly straightforward 90 minute flight down. We wore lifejackets for the first 20 minute crossing to Buckie (just east of Lossiemouth), and I took mine off early without anticipating we’d have about 10 minutes or so over the Forth Estuary.
My biggest issue throughout was deciding whether to fly above or below the cloud layer. Scotland has two separate ATC en-route services outside controlled airspace, with Scottish Information up to FL55 and Scottish Control above that (from which you can get a traffic service). The cloud tops were just a bit too high to be comfortable about not penetrating into airways and remain VMC, and I didn’t really want to stay in them for any length of time due low temperatures. Strong westerly winds meant it was a little turbulent lower down at times but nothing serious (just very occasionally it meant my wife couldn’t read her book). It also meant we saw some stunning views, passing west of Aboyne (which is east of Balmoral Castle, another Royal holiday home), and later overhead St Andrews and North Berwick.
We landed at Carlisle in a 22 knot headwind, almost being cleared to land from 20 miles out (“you are number 1 on approach”). The PPR call had been helpful to find out they were on a reduced service, closing early at 5pm and also between 3 and 3:30pm due ATC staff training. The staff were very friendly and helpful – a real contrast to the complex procedures up north – with free cups of tea or coffee available because the (highly rated) cafe had just closed a few minutes earlier. The good news is that local opposition to the airport redevelopment seems to have dropped away. Permission was recently granted to resurface the main runway. The airport is owned by the Stobart group that also own fleets of lorries, freight aircraft, Southend Airport among other assets and hope to develop it further. The photo below was hanging on the wall in reception and show the potential (although unlikely to be fully realised as shown).
Carlisle to Gloucester
Call for start did seem a bit excessive given the lack of traffic around, but it was a straightforward departure and VFR return south. Blackpool asked us to route slightly east for deconfliction with IFR traffic, thereafter I arranged a VFR low level transit to the west of Liverpool before climbing as quickly as controlled airspace allows to the south (it does seem overly constricted there). Gloucester wasn’t busy at 6pm on a Monday and gave us a direct right base join. It took just 3 hours flight time back from Wick to Gloucester – which compares well to 3 hours of car driving time from Wick to Inverness alone. Sometimes GA really does provide great utility not easily achieved otherwise.
What a great weekend! 8 hours airborne flight time logged (3 going north, 3 going south and 2 separate 1 hour locals). Great to see friends I hadn’t been able to meet up with for years, and to share a very enjoyable trip with my wife. It’s been my northernmost trip to date and I hope to return again at some point.
It also marked the passing of over 500 hours total time, another big milestone in my aviation journey.
PIC Time this weekend: 9:45
Total PIC: 365:00
Total Time: 503:25