Time for a short Bristol Aero Club expedition with two other members, John and Russ. We’ve flown on day trips before, typically practicing our IMC skills, but all of us were keen to journey a bit further and we agreed on a three day jaunt to Scotland. We’d booked the PA28 aircraft and time off on the understanding that if the weather wasn’t suitable then we might head off in a different direction.
We had an ambitious route planned, including Campbeltown, Islay, Plockton, Benbecula, Barra beach and Tiree.
John did a lot of the advance planning, including obtaining out of hours landing permits for Oban and Perth airports. I pre-booked a couple of budget hotels.
Day 1: Gloucester-Blackpool-Carlisle-Islay-Oban
We arrived early on Monday hoping to depart and beat the weather, but ended up delaying departure until 11 after a discussion with our CFI who had dropped in. The cloud base was low but it was a warm front so no icing at our levels. Embedded CB’s were forecast further north but we thought we would be behind the worst of it. Our expectation was that we’d make reasonable progress but didn’t think we’d make it to Oban for the night.
John flew most of first flight in the soup – not turbulent but not much sight seeing. His request for an IFR transit through Liverpool zone at 4000 feet was granted, with active vectoring to sequence us behind an arriving jetliner into Runway 09. Rather than instructing us to hold at a specific point, the controller simply give instructions to turn right heading 090 and later again turn right heading 270 before resuming our course to the north “resume own navigation direct Blackpool”. John then flew the full NDB/DME approach procedure into Blackpool Runway 09 popping out at about 1500-1800 feet cloudbase. The PA28 has a “Wing Leveller” rather than a full autopilot, which just tracks the heading bug and assumes you are in trim to maintain altitude. It reduces the workload but does need a close eye kept on the height. Blackpool airport has changed quite a lot since my last visit, very much more setup for GA (the passenger terminal has been demolished). We lunched, refuelled and departed after an hour.
Russ flew us up to Carlisle next, another flight largely inside cloud with again the full NDB/DME procedural approach outside controlled airspace. We reviewed the weather and got some very good advice from local staff, who encouraged us to route south of the Galloway hills and speak to Scottish Information regarding conditions further ahead. We also spoke to a private helicopter pilot who had just arrived in from Glenforsa.
My turn in the left hand seat, which was VMC along the Solway Firth then climbing to FL60 as we headed west over Campbeltown towards Islay. I had phoned Campbeltown to check if they would accept us as an alternate (the PPR requirements on their official listing are quite demanding), and confirmed this wouldn’t be a problem. Weather ahead looked more promising and we did get some more glimpses of the landscape than on previous legs. Scottish Information relayed the Islay weather which had broken clouds at 2000 feet. They expected the front to clear through during the late afternoon/early evening and thus completing our route up to Oban was quite feasible.
After climbing up to FL60 and wanting to retain some altitude for the sea crossing, I requested and was granted a clearance to cross P600 airways by Scottish Information. This is Class D, rather than Class A, and so available to any IR(R) rated pilot. Once cleared, they just asked me to report when exiting controlled airspace – there was no need to talk directly to Scottish Control.
FlightRadar24 tracking worked at FL60 but not lower presumably because there aren’t enough receivers in the area rather than the squawk code I used.
I was still in IMC as we approached Islay, which like many of the islands is manned by FISO and surrounding airspace is all Class G uncontrolled. Weather and airfield information was passed with Basic Service, there was “no known traffic” and it was clearly up to me how I chose to make the approach. I thought the safest method would be to load the RNAV into the GPS and fly that track, supplemented by NDB/DME ground aids. I didn’t formally request to fly an instrument approach but explained I would be routing to the north west and agreed with the FISO to report when on final.
We broke cloud at about 1800 feet or so over the water on final for 13. The FISO confirmed I could “land at my discretion”. This is when you may remember that Islay was where Prince Charles’ flying career came to an end in 1995 (he went sideways off the runway in much stronger crosswinds and in a much larger aircraft), so no pressure.
Apologies for the poor audio quality on the video below, due to some technical issues with the latest version of Garmin VIRB editor.
As with all the HIAL airports we visited, we found the staff helpful and friendly, but following clear operational procedures at all times. They’ve had it drummed into them not to let us GA pilots anywhere near the commercial passengers, use the full phraseology such as when requesting permission to drive across runways and yes, wear those high vis jackets (which I can understand do help identify us vs stray passengers).
Islay is very famous for its whisky distilleries, all with a strong peaty flavour and of which I believe there are eight (Lagavullin, Laphraoig, Caol Ila, Ardbeg, Port Ellen, Bruichladdich, Bunnahabhain and Bowmore). Sadly, no time to visit any of them.
After a quick chat to the FISO in the tower, landing fee paid and a welcome cup of tea, John flew our last leg up to Oban. Cloudbase was low but made it possible to fly VMC along the coast of Islay and Jura, improving all the time. We flew directly past Oban town before self-announcing and landing at a deserted Oban Airport.
A taxi took us into town (about 15 mins drive) where we enjoyed an extensive debrief in the pub.
Day 2: Oban-Barra-Tiree-Perth
The weather wasn’t that great with a front passing through mid morning so we delayed our return to the airport until about 11am and abandoned plans to visit Plockton. Refuelled by the renowned Paul Keegan (who supplies teas and coffees with plenty of Jammie Dodgers while you wait), it was my turn to fly and we took off while it was still raining into the tail end of the front.
I had wanted to fly down the Sound of Mull and we were able to maintain VMC throughout, getting good views of Glenforsa and Tobermory. A taste of the stronger winds was apparent as we coasted out west of Mull towards Benbecula. There was a fairly strong headwind which slowed us down but visibility was much better.
First contact with Benbecula confirmed the strong wind which would be 22 knots across the runway so out of limits. I diverted to Barra which had an into wind runway – they have three – notable because they are all on the beach.
Barra claims to be the only airport in the world with commercial scheduled flights that land on a beach. The airfield opened in 1936, same year as Gatwick, and now sports the latest RNAV LPV approaches. It’s manned by a local operations team including a FISO and firecrew. There are daily commercial flights from Glasgow and otherwise only about 60 GA flights a year. Flight times are determined by the tides and differ ever day.
My first call to Barra Information returned the weather and runway in use, and that “the water was outside the markers” (i.e. the tide was out far enough to land). A commercial flight (from Glasgow) came on frequency to ask our expected arrival time, which would be at least 10 minutes ahead of them.
We reported again at 5 miles and I was asked if we’d like to make an initial approach and go-around before landing. This seemed like a great idea so we did. The surface wind was initially reported at 15 knots – but would still be a bit higher at altitude – and so the downwind leg was fairly quick.
It helped having three pairs of eyes looking out for the runway markers, and I also checked I was on the correct approach track using the instruments. The scenery was glorious with azure blue water. The headwind made it pretty straightforward to land and park up on beach.
Video from our cockpit of the landing (with radio calls). Skip to 1:30 for finals.
The airport cafe was quite busy, with two commercial flights coming in while we were there (which I believe is the sum total of daily traffic). Flight times are dependent on the tides and there is no overnight parking. Both aircraft were Twin Otter 15 seaters and full, flown from Glasgow and needed the assistance of an external battery pack to get the first engine started up.
The sunshine and beach landing were quite surreal.
John flew the short leg across to Tiree with a strong tailwind where we were able to wash the worst of the sand off the wheels and wings using a hosepipe. We saw no other activity there while they awaited their commercial flight later in the afternoon. The crew explained that for medical emergencies, the doctor on the island was supported by an ambulance with three drivers on a rota who could ferry a patient to the airport for immediate evacuation by air ambulance (helicopter or fixed wing).
Russ took us to Perth, flying almost directly east above the clouds at FL70 with a strong tailwind that had our groundspeed up to 140 knots at times. As we approached our destination, the cloud layer thinned and we got great views of the Tay estuary. He made a self-announced landing out of hours after first checking the windsock for the best runway to use. It was quite windy so we didn’t need much runway at all.
Although there is a SkyLodge on the airport itself, we took a taxi into the city and stayed in a central hotel. It’s quite a pleasant city to walk around, and again we enjoyed some extensive debriefing in the pub.
Day 3: Perth-Durham Tees Valley-Beverley-Skegness-Gloucester
Russ took us down to Durham Tees Valley. We had not been able to contact them for PPR (strongly worded requirement in their AIP) so ensured we didn’t need to refuel there. In practice, this wasn’t a problem with Russ requesting a vectored ILS for practice (in glorious VFR conditions) which he flew very competently.
Durham Airport has itself taken over the handling operation formerly managed by Weston. The executive lounge was undergoing extensive refurbishment while we were there, but there was plenty of free tea and coffee, drinks, and Wi-Fi. Prices weren’t unreasonable given that handling is mandatory
I flew the next leg down to Beverley, home of the Hull Aero Club. We didn’t get an answer on the radio (as we were warned when phoning for PPR), but did hear another aircraft departing from runway 30, so positioned for that. It’s a very picturesque setting with a modern and well-equipped clubhouse. We enjoyed lunch outside in the picnic tables.
John flew us down to Skegness, an unmanned grass strip owned by the holiday camp. There are four runways, so he carefully looked at the windsock before deciding which to use and made a good approach and landing. We walked to the beach for an ice-cream.
Russ took us back to Gloucester uneventfully, where we spent some time washing, cleaning and brushing out the sand from the aircraft and completing the paperwork after a very successful and enjoyable expedition.
PIC this trip: 4:10
Total PIC: 478:45
Total Time: 617:10
Beach landing looks fascinating. Wetter looking sand than I expected – was it more distinct than it looked in the video?
Surprisingly, it “felt” and operated just like a slightly wet hard runway rather than grass. I suspect there was a bit more drag and we did notice a fair bit of gunk under the wings when we washed the aircraft down at the next airport. But nothing like taking off in a seaplane. It may differ when the tide hasn’t gone out so far.