A daytrip to Doncaster in the TB20 from Gloucester, landing at Doncaster Sheffield airport in Yorkshire, voted the UK’s best passenger airport by Which? magazine in 2019.
I’m always looking for opportunities to fly to new airports, and there are still a few regional UK airports that I haven’t been to. Adam, a good friend and also an IR pilot, offered to join me and support me as a pilot’s assistant – helping out with the radios, listening ahead for ATIS, keeping a lookout and ensuring I didn’t overlook anything important.
Doncaster requires mandatory handling from one of three companies of which Consort Aviation is more geared up to the smaller GA aircraft like mine. After decoding a warning NOTAM that indicated the airport requires 48 hours notice PPR (but then lists GA as one of many permitted exclusions), I emailed the handler that morning for PPR and a price and got a prompt response. I was required to separately book in with ATC and for belt-and-braces I filed a VFR flight plan. When I called ATC by phone, I asked for a vectored ILS on arrival and was told I could expect that.
The weather forecast was unsettled with isolated cumulonimbus and warnings of localised thunderstorms later in the afternoon, but otherwise comfortably warm outside. I opted to fly on the basis that I could see and avoid any serious build-ups, and we had no time pressures to avoid diverting elsewhere if required.
The route would involve a mix of VFR and IFR with mostly uncoordinated transits through Birmingham and East Midlands airspace. It is possible to route around controlled airspace, but that requires a significantly more track miles and higher risk of conflict with other VFR aircraft. As you can see below, there was a lot of controlled airspace on the direct route – I simply drew a straight line and amended it to fly directly overhead Birmingham and East Midlands.
I planned for 5,000 feet which is an IFR altitude when heading East and squawked 2000 unless otherwise instructed. Despite filing a VFR flight plan – it’s not normal in the UK to file IFR unless intending to join the airways system – the approach controllers enroute would have no knowledge of my flight until I contacted them in the air.
I made a fairly early switch from Gloucester to Birmingham to ensure there was time for the controller to plan (and grant me) a transit. He issued a squawk code (each airport have their own allocation, so other nearby controllers can tell who is talking to other aircraft on their screen) and approved a transit at 5,000 feet. An early left turn by 25 degrees was issued to co-ordinate with an incoming airliner. You’ll notice on the SkyDemon vertical profile above that my route took me into the purple Class A airspace and this might have required some co-ordination with London Control, but if so then it was done seamlessly in the background.
The Birmingham controller had enough time to co-ordinate a handover to East Midlands. Initially you are given a different squawk “For East Mids, squawk 1234” , then after that’s been seen, “Contact East Midlands on xxx.xx”. You then simply announce yourself on frequency with the new controller – “East Midlands, G-CORB, maintaining 5,000 feet”. I was still in controlled airspace throughout, but given “Own Navigation” so could choose to weave around any visible cloud build-ups as required (within reason) although always remaining at my cleared altitude.
The weather and cloudbase continued to improve as we progressed further north, easily VFR conditions, but I remained in IFR mindset and inside controlled airspace throughout. Adam had been able to listen into the ATIS well in advance, using the split com feature of the audio panel – he could listen to Box 2 while I remained on Box 1 – so we learned that Doncaster was operating on runway 20 but with relatively little wind.
The approach controller at Doncaster could not have been more efficient. With almost no other traffic, he asked if we’d like a straight in for runway 02 and gave us the wind. I quickly accepted that and was vectored onto the ILS with progressive descents. We intercepted at 2,500 feet having seen the airport from at least 15 miles away, and were given an early landing clearance.
After vacting at Charlie, the tower rattled off a taxiway routing (Charlie, Alpha, Echo, Foxtrot) that makes perfect sense for regular visitors but can take newcomers by surprise. The key thing is never to move unless you are very clear about where you are going – ATC would much rather you asked for clarification or “progressive taxi” than infringe, and I’ve always found them helpful to guide me. Adam already had the airfield plate out and decoded the route which was actually quite straightforward.
We parked up on an almost empty Foxtrot apron guided into our parking spot by the handling marshaller.
The apron was deserted apart from a few flying club aircraft along the side. The marshallers waited while we decamped, and drove us in their spotless minibus all of 20 metres to the gate and their office. It has comfortable seating, coffee machine, Wi-Fi and toilets – adequate for passengers to wait and pilots to self-brief. It seems unfortunate that pilots could not be trusted to walk to/from their aircraft unescorted, paying their fees at the airport information desk without incurring handling overheads as is the case at many other commercial airports. I appreciate it’s tough for handling agents themselves to raise enough income to cover their costs, but I question whether there is a need for them in all cases. It seems to me that the balance between security threat and access for general aviation has become skewed more towards commercial profit than public utility.
The bulk of the charges related to airport landing and parking fees, the latter applying a full day for stays longer than 2 hours.
But at least it is still possible to use the airport and we should be thankful for that.
It was a two minute walk across to the main terminal where a bus service connects to/from town every 30 minutes for £2 each way.
The main terminal building looks like many other modern airports, spacious and light, and had a few passengers for the ten or so flights that day. While we were waiting, we saw a large drone being flown from the car park over the airport terminal building presumably for some marketing shoot.
The bus trip took about 20 minutes and included a tour of the local sights. Amazon fulfilment depot is enormous, with the location close to motorway, airport and rail links ideal to serve the region.
The city itself is perhaps not one of the country’s wealthier ones, originally being centred around coal mining. Nonetheless, the tourist centre publish an upbeat booklet listing several nearby properties, events and attractions. These include the historic Brodworth Hall, Cusworth House (about 2 miles out of town) and the Danum Library, Gallery and Museum – all are probably worth a visit but we didn’t fit that in.
The city centre has a modern shopping centre with plenty of shops outside. There were quite a few lower cost options, giving national brands such as Greggs some competition like the one below. A few city centre hotels were serving drinks and food to tables outside on the pavement. Apart from mask wearing, it felt and looked like a typical UK market town in normal operation.
Doncaster is classified as a “Minster Town” rather than a city mainly because it doesn’t have its own cathedral. [Ed note, there are a dozen UK cities which don’t have cathedrals as well as several cathedral towns. A detailed explanation can be found here]
Doncaster to Gloucester
Our handling agents drove us back to the aircraft, this time having to present photo ID for us all at the security gate. The driver had to wait not only until we’d closed the doors, but had started up and were ready to go.
I hadn’t filed a flight plan this time, just booked in/out by phone with ATC at both airports. We were issued a squawk code. Power checks were done at Echo, then a left turn along Alpha to A7 for take-off on runway 20.
While taxying, we got a quick view of the Vulcan XH558, now permanently grounded and a museum exhibit here. It’s closed for visitors at the moment, but I read that the same charity had also acquired a Canberra which they intend to restore and take flight.
The higher cloudbase and good visibility on departure deteriorated as we headed south. A freecall to East Midlands for transit resulted in them asking if I could accept VFR at 4,000 feet. Given that the ATIS said few clouds at 3,500 , I couldn’t be sure that I wouldn’t be in the clouds. I explained I could accept an IFR transit, and that was granted immediately. It meant we were in and out of cloud at times, but made it easier for the controller to co-ordinate and thus easier for us to get what we wanted.
East Midlands was unable to co-ordinate a seamless transit for us with Birmingham. Although it didn’t sound too busy on Birmingham’s frequency, I expect there was a lot going on in the background (controllers have to man phone lines as well as the radio). We were told to remain outside at least twice, but could expect a VFR transit not above 2,000 feet after a delay. I made gentle descending orbits down from 4,000 feet and by the time I was down, a transit was approved with a clearance limit of the Eastern airport boundary. I understood that to mean the edge of the ATZ and not the runway or airport buildings. As I continued towards the airport, traffic was called out – a police helicopter heading north, about 500 feet below and behind us. Without a clearance to cross the ATZ, I turned south while we searched the sky for the helicopter. Matching police uniforms and unmarked cars, it was almost entirely black and showed up only when they crossed some green fields. With that in sight, the tower cleared us directly west across the runway and after returning to approach resumed own navigation to Gloucester. The approach controller did also offer me a higher altitude which I declined – we had already passed the built up areas with fewer options for a forced landing, and I didn’t need the extra altitude given the short time left to our destination.
Gloucester was not too busy on arrival so we got a direct downwind join for runway 09. Parking the aircraft back in the hangar was by far the most tricky task of the day, and Adam’s watchful eye was helpful to avoid any “hangar rash” (also known as dents when moving inside the hangar). I still didn’t get it quite right and I heard that others had to move it later to squeeze everyone in.
Comparing airport traffic levels
COVID has devastated traffic levels at larger UK airports. The following table published by the CAA shows movements (take off and landings) for June 2021.
Gloucester certainly has been busy this year, and is currently the second busiest airport in the country. The contrast is stark between airports that support training and aeroclub activity versus those focussing entirely on commercial passengers.
If my understanding of the categories is correct, Gloucester recorded 1,588 “private aviation” movements in June 2021 vs Doncaster with 2. A short visit is recorded as 2 (landing and take-off), so this is just one visitor. It may well be that my trip to Doncaster is one of very few recorded private visits to the airport this month.
In pre-COVID times, these commercial airports were much busier. Here’s the top 20 from July 2018. Doncaster doesn’t appear on the list, with 1,893 total movements it was ranked 40th.
PIC time today: 2:05
Total PIC: 1359:25
Total Time: 1567:10