The COVID situation currently allows me to fly my aircraft in England solo or with members of my household. Many clubs have reopened to permit such flights for their more experienced members but there is no airborne flight instruction. The government advise against non-essential travel abroad. Recreational flights (except for engine health, maintenance etc.) are not yet permitted in Scotland or Wales.
So as much as I’d love to fly to some of the country’s most attractive islands, it wouldn’t be sensible or appropriate to do so at the moment. However, I can see more airfields are opening up to accept visitors although many restrict visiting crew to the airfield boundary. For example, Sandown on the Isle of Wight is quite popular and has a take-away cafe in operation with pre-ordering via their website but you can’t walk to the beach.
Today’s trip was more about flying to a few of these open airports and would be flown solo. Since I was fairly current, I thought I’d try to land at some airfields new to me and fly inside controlled airspace that’s normally difficult to access. My route would take me clockwise around London, landing at Duxford (near Cambridge), North Weald (just south of Stansted), route overhead London City to Redhill (just north of Gatwick) and home.
Pre-planning flights normally involves checking out the destination, restrictions/constraints on the route and weather. More time that usual was required to figure out which airfields were open and at what times. Airfield websites aren’t all up to date and NOTAMs unreliable even for licensed airfields. Pilot forums gave a few clues and suggestions about what might be open.
A phone call to each of Duxford, North Weald and Redhill was helpful to clarify the situation, log my aircraft for PPR and be briefed on the local arrangements for the last two which were completely new to me. I also booked out (and in) at Gloucester, which is currently open and provides ATC for three specific slot times each day – you can’t depart or arrive back between these times, so I aimed to leave around 10 a.m. but must return before 4 p.m.
Private pilots have long complained about the inadequacy of the NOTAM system, which is cluttered up with large numbers of frankly irrelevant trivia that someone somewhere thought should be highlighted. Perhaps pilots should be aware that not all tall buildings/masts will be lit at night anymore because workers haven’t been sent to change the light bulbs. But this, along with 10 other “nanny state” warnings about various aspects of COVID-19 would be better posted on a website somewhere that one NOTAM directs pilots to. There certainly is a detailed 10 page document published that covers all these points and more. Equally, why I need to have been told not to overfly Syria for the last five years seems to me to be equally inane. The consequence is that the more important NOTAMS get overlooked – I had to scan the list twice to figure out that LARS services from Farnborough North and East were not going to be available to me at all. We could do with someone in the CAA sitting down with today’s list and actively questioning whether each NOTAM is actually needed, and then advising those issuing them to withdraw or publish via a different mechanism. Various initiatives towards that goal have so far proved fruitless.
From a COVID perspective, my aircraft hadn’t been flown for a week so shouldn’t need disinfecting. I was almost alone in the hangar when I moved the aircraft out to the apron and pre-flighted. A Cirrus and a C42 microlight were also being pre-flighted for day trips each with couples on board, and there were a few helicopter and other movements at the airport as it slowly returns back to life.
Gloucester to Duxford
I’ve flown this route a number of times now but today I flew further south, overhead Oxford airport and routed towards RAF Halton currently closed). My plan was to fly over Luton airport, asking for a low approach and go-around down the runway then onwards towards Stevenage. I knew that traffic levels were very quiet and requests for this at Gatwick had been approved recently, so thought it reasonable to ask and perhaps negotiate something. NATS had launched a scheme in 2017 to expedite VFR transits through controlled airspace, effectively providing all your details for the flight strip in order to reduce time required on the radio and to help their planning purposes. That was suspended from end April with the instruction to make requests when airborne.
The initial response from Luton Approach was that an airliner was inbound and about 30 miles out, to which I said I’d remain outside controlled airspace and could route in from the north instead (i.e. making a base leg join) if that would help. A few minutes later, I was visual alongside the landing aircraft – the only commercial traffic on frequency – and said so. The controller was about to usher me in when he advised I’d need to make a phone call for permission first. I’ve rarely if ever done that from the cockpit, but after noting down the number, connecting to my phone via bluetooth and dialling, was able to make my request. It seemed the chap on the other end of the phone was simply after my credit card details needed to cover the cost of ATC staff etc. for training approaches. Given that the cost of landing fees at Luton are said to be around £1000, I thought I’d skip that, said so, and continued on to my destination. Just as well – I looked it up on my return and found the minimum approach fee is £203+VAT with a track deviation penalty of £1000+VAT if you stray more than 250 metres off track. I should point out that airspace transits which don’t go so close to the runway would normally be granted free of charge, subject to other traffic, and I have flown one before.
In 2019, Luton Airport reported a profit of £47 million on a turnover of £249 million.
When I compare the health services and air traffic services between the UK and USA, I find that while there are high professional standards throughout, the USA has a strong preference for not charging at the point of delivery for ATC and covering the costs from tax revenues from all airspace users while charging healthcare at high prices only to those who use it. Here in the UK we seem to have the opposite set of priorities, with excellent free healthcare for all but hefty fees for those working around commercial activities that profit from apparently low cost mass market air fares.
Duxford Radio was open for my arrival. I routed overhead Royston to the south west, and when I called up there was another aircraft also inbound just a few of miles ahead. I didn’t slow down quickly enough and caught up with him – it might have been possible for me to land on the grass runway instead but by that time I was fixated on the hard, and so decided to go-around. The tower suggested I might make an early turn downwind, reducing the extra distance to fly, which I did to make a successful touchdown.
I realise that having flown less VFR in the TB20, and rarely making straight in VFR approaches, I’m sometimes late in completing the downwind checks and need to consider more carefully when to do those. While I do always get the gear and flaps down, it’s the supplementary checks for fuel pump and landing light that can be overlooked.
At Duxford, the landing fee was taken by the fuel truck operator using a contactless card. There were a few locally based aircraft active but little else. It seemed very strange walking around what is normally a bustling and busy museum, having all the outdoor exhibits to myself. I did exit through the staff entrance to the fuel station across the road for a coffee, seeing only a gardener, a security guard and the fire crew on duty.
Duxford to North Weald
My call to the tower for PPR had advised me to route west of Stansted Zone via Ware, joining downwind for the active runway 02 or 20 with all circuits to the west. It did seem strange reporting my position as being at “Ware” – it must give cause for quite a bit of confusion on the radio. Where are you? Ware. Where? etc.
I also “flew” this leg on my simulator beforehand – the graphics on X-Plane and other simulators are now so good you get a really good impression of the landmarks and visual approach so know what to expect.
North Weald Radio responded professionally to my first call. There was little other traffic and I could clearly make out the airport dead ahead and fly the circuit to land. The airspace is normally quite constrained, with Stansted Zone to the north and above hence no overhead joins. Stapleford Airfield is to the south and the two have almost overlapping circuit patterns. Stapleford was believed to be closed but I kept a good lookout anyway.
On landing I asked for directions to parking and where to pay my landing fee. It comes as quite a shock to be told there isn’t one (I had been told this on the phone the previous day). The Squadron Cafe was closed but the Wings Cafe on the south side was open with plenty of hard parking space.
There was quite a lot of activity on the ground at North Weald. Construction of what seems to be quite a large hangar was ongoing, several sightseers were camping out with binoculars and long range lens cameras. The flight school was busy washing down an aircraft; other visitors were coming and going.
The cafe has been open for a week for take-aways only. The menu included everything from a Full English Breakfast to ice creams, with just one staff member cooking and serving. The council had inspected and insisted that all picnic tables were stacked away, so customers have to take their food back to their vehicles or sit on the grass.
I briefly spoke to the fuel operator. The prices hadn’t dropped as has been the case elsewhere due to lower oil prices. Like many airfields, they had stock from before which understandably they need to sell first. Aviation fuel is of very high quality and has quite a long “shelf life”.
North Weald to Redhill
Another short 20 minute flight, but this time very scenic with a planned transit overhead London City Airport which is currently closed.
My call to Thames Radar was quickly answered by a controller who said he was covering both that station and Heathrow. This is extremely unusual and indicated very low traffic levels. My transit request was immediately approved, VFR not above 2000 feet overhead London City Airport. Quite a contrast to Luton.
It’s a built up area, so I needed to maintain a reasonable height in case of engine failure. Potential landing sites included the airport itself, the river and quite a bit of green open space on the south bank. On reviewing some of the photos I took later, you can see the area to the south and south west of the airport for which numerous more skyscrapers are planned to be built. This will make it into something of an alleyway for landing and departing commercial aircraft, although nothing like Kai Tak in Hong Kong last century.
A then transited overhead Biggin Hill, and changed to Redhill after listening to their ATIS.
Redhill has an unusual combination of grass runway and full Air Traffic Control who even appear to have a working radar screen for situational awareness. Although conveniently positioned, the airport just can’t seem to get planning approval for a hard runway from the local authority. The recent weeks of very dry weather meant the surface would be no problem. Unlike Gloucester they advertised being open all day, but would take their controller breaks during periods of quieter traffic. This adds a lot of flexibility, but there was the possibility they might be closed for 30 minutes just when you are arriving.
My first hiccup was not having remembered the names of the VFR reporting points. SkyDemon was continuing to display the overlay for London City control zone and it took a few taps to turn that off so I could see them. With runway 09 in use, I was instructed to position for a left base but overshot slightly while still heading west. I had to descend below 1500 feet before I could turn south in towards Redhill and that took time. I was also looking at the printed arrival/departure plates downloaded from their website which suggested more of a 45 degree join rather than a 90 degree turn.
In any event, it wasn’t a problem and gave me a little more time to prepare, do those “downwind” checks and configure the aircraft for a stable approach onto the grass. Progressive taxi instructions were given across the grass to the cafe area for parking.
Once again, the cafe here was open for take-away food, with a full range of cuisine from the cooked breakfast to healthy pasta and salad dishes. Toilets were open, the sun was shining and I was able to see the BBC News helicopter startup and depart – probably to take video of the crowds at the beaches. The Cafe owner also took my landing fee.
Heading Home – Redhill to Gloucester
My plan was to fly a transit across Gatwick and route back to Gloucester. I had called to update them of my ETA of 3:30pm and was aware I needed to have landed by 4, so couldn’t delay too much. Taxying across the grass to the hold, I was helpfully advised not to use the hard taxiway that routes around it. After departure and signing off with Redhill, I had a strange problem with the radio and couldn’t raise Gatwick approach.
It seems I had tweaked the squelch knob which suppresses background noise until you speak. While it worked fine on the intercom, the level must differ very slightly when transmitting. It meant that nothing was heard when I pressed to transmit. In ten years of flying, I haven’t come across that specific issue before and had thought the level was the same regardless of transmitting or not. I remained outside controlled airspace and routed south west. By the time I’d figured that out, I was already almost at Farnborough, so I just kept going, talked to Brize to confirm everything was working and returned to Gloucester.
As fate would have it, three other aircraft arrived about the same time, so I held briefly in the overhead before making a standard VFR join, remembering all my checks at the correct times. Refuelled, wiped down and put away the aircraft, completed the paperwork and returned home after a very enjoyable day out in the sunshine.
PIC Today: 3:15
Total PIC: 1054:30
Total Time: 1281:00