Inverness, Colonsay, Coll and Tiree

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A weekend trip to Scotland in our shared TB20 from Gloucester, meeting up at Inverness for a PPL/IR group fly-out.

The intention was to fly up to Inverness on Friday afternoon, fly down the Great Glen to Tiree for lunch on Saturday, and visit the Orkneys on Sunday before returning home. I shared the flying with my co-owner John, who frequently flies to and from Alderney but has done fewer other trips recently. It was enjoyable to “stretch our legs” on a longer flight in the TB20 and make the most of its capabilities.

The original plan was quite ambitious and involved both Colonsay and the Orkneys

Part of my pre-trip planning was to investigate landing at Coll and/or Colonsay in the Inner Hebrides. These are unmanned airfields outside the few scheduled flights, owned and managed by Argyll and Bute Council. Permission to land there can be arranged at Oban airport, involving first an annual indemnity approval (which needs proof of adequate insurance) and subsequently individual PPR for each visit. The website suggests this can only be done by post during the working week, but I found the staff helpful and able to process this by email.

I also checked the price and availability of AVGAS north of the border. Prices ranged from 2.39 at Cumbernauld to 3.14 at Inverness, Kirkwall and Stornoway. I arranged to land and fill up at Kirkbride which was cheaper, and planned a further top-up at Oban which is reasonably priced.

Airways to Kirkbride

John flew the first leg having filed IFR airways. For some reason, we weren’t allocated a squawk code prior departure. Western Radar issued one when we were airborne, then handed us over to Scottish Control who changed it. We transited the Class A above Manchester at FL100, with the only surprise being when handed over between controllers. Not once but twice on handover, we were asked to “pass your message” rather than the usual “Roger”. It seems our flight plan or tracking on the ATC systems must have gone awry at some point. We were issued a couple of different squawks during our airways sectors, rather than remaining on the same one throughout. We were switched to headings while overhead Manchester to fit in with other traffic. Once north of Manchester, the Scottish controller seemed very aware of where Kirkbride was, and vectored us with a pretty decent heading directly towards it.

We heard and could monitor on SkyDemon/SkyEcho one of the other fly-out participants, climbing through our level to FL130 in his Cirrus a few miles east but did not see him.

Late downwind for Kirkbride runway 10

Kirkbride was unmanned on arrival, but another pilot clarified the runway in use and we made a visual downwind join to land. The refueller had had a difficult time that week, suffering various technical problems with pumps, but we did manage to fill up full before departing around 4pm.

This was my leg, and I had filed IFR to Inverness using the marvellous AutoRouter service. It’s very easy to delay or amend flight plans on your mobile phone through the Telegram messaging app, which also delivers updated routing and weather information. Once airborne, I called Scottish Information to activate my flight plan and was quickly transferred to Scottish Control who cleared us through their airspace with just a couple of directs. We had a couple of minor heading changes to keep us separated from airliners landing at Edinburgh.

With some low cloud about, I opted for a radar vectored ILS to land at Inverness which worked out quite well. There was some adjustment for spacing with other traffic, but this made for an easy straight in approach to runway 05. John prompted me to load the stored ILS approach, which I typically don’t do because I wasn’t taught that way during training. I think this is a more safe and sensible feature to use, similar to loading a RNP approach, and intend to make this my SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for the future.

(One of the) Forth Road Bridges just north of Edinburgh. Glorious sunshine with great views all round.

A marshaller squashed all the arriving smaller aircraft into a corner of the apron, leaving lots of space for the larger executive jets expected to arrive over the weekend. This was August 12th – the Glorious Twelfth – which marks the start of the shooting season for red grouse bred specifically for it and this attracts a wide range of visitors, so the airport was keen to ensure there was more than enough space for them. Highland Aviation, the local flying school, provided all the handling and were very welcoming, organised and adaptable to our changing requirements.

The Marriot hotel at the airport is just a few minutes walk down the road. Graham, the organiser, kindly drove us there with our luggage. I’d stayed there in 2020 when visiting to do some instruction, and it felt both familiar but a lot more lively than in the depths of the Coronavirus recovery period. There were 18 pilots and passengers in our group, and we chatted enthusiastically throughout the evening. There was a short formal briefing from those very familiar with the area and a plan made for the next day. We intended to leave earlier than the others and visit Colonsay while everyone else planned to land at Oban and then proceed to Tiree, where we would all meet up for lunch.

Colonsay

We were the first of the group to depart from Inverness into a thin cloudbase at around 500 feet that cleared above 1,000 feet. The carpet of cottonwool faded as we proceeded down the Great Glen and had disappeared entirely before reaching Fort William. The scenery is dramatic here, with Ben Nevis off to the left and some fairly high mountains and valleys off to the right.

Emerging from the thin layer of cloud with the Great Glen ahead.
Approaching Fort William ahead, the cloud thinned out. Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK, is off to the left.
Ben Nevis is in there somewhere

We flew past Oban and approached Colonsay, circling overhead before confirming which runway to use. I’d been given some good advice that the approach from the east passed over higher sloping ground, so you needed to feel you were fairly close to the ground throughout the approach – a bit like at Wellesbourne runway 36. The western approach from the coast was very flat and benefitted from a slight upslope. The recommendation was to ensure you had touched down promptly at the right speed.

Colonsay, approaching from the North – what a fantastic beach
Parked up at Colonsay apron, with a very limp windsock in the background
The terminal building is adequately suited for the number of commercial passengers

What a lovely island! John said it was like Alderney but without the people. I would have said it was a little more hilly. The locals (and tourists) we met were all very friendly. My research showed that the airfield was quite remote, so I had arranged to hire a couple of bikes. These were left at the airport gate for us to use (including with helmets), and this was very convenient. Alternatively you can call the local hotel and they’ll drive over and pick you up (for lunch, not just overnight stays). We cycled around the island for an hour or two, although didn’t quite make it to the beaches on the north west and north east side that looked beautiful from the air. Definitely an island to return to for a longer stay sometime.

Rural, sparsely populated, but we met numerous friendly tourists and locals
Plenty of unpolluted beaches

Our departure planning put us in a slight quandry. The wind was slightly favouring an easterly departure, although this involved a slight upslope and rising terrain. I don’t think it would have made much difference, but as we taxied out, we could see the windsock indicating a slightly stronger wind than before and this made the decision for 09 much easier.

In practice we were airborne in good time and our climb rate far exceeded that required.

For more details about the island, the Colonsay Tourism Marketing Group have put together a really great website.

Coll

I had also arranged PPR to land at Coll, but did not intend to shutdown or leave the aircraft. It’s only about 4 or 5 minutes flying time north of Tiree, so I spoke to them and obtain local weather. My mistake was to rely on this rather more than the windsock. The gentle crosswind possibly slightly favoured the opposite runway and meant that I used more of the tarmac than at Colonsay, but we got down and stopped safely.

Coll Airfield is just off to the right of the middle of the picture above. Not many trees around here.

There’s even less at this airfield than at Colonsay. You can walk down towards what looked like a glorious beach, with a nearby castle.

With our lunch appointment rapidly approaching, we flew the few minutes down to Tiree where the airport crew could not have been more welcoming. Aircraft continued to arrived and were parked up on the disused runway, with pilots ferried across to the terminal by car. The terminal building is compact but has toilets and a cafe with soft drinks and sweets paid for through an honesty box.

All up for auction. Some have been ferried in from the mainland for sale.

Graham had done his research well and we walked about five minutes towards the main sheep auction market, held in the Rural Centre. Inside, Aisling’s Kitchen/the Cobbled Cow restaurant had a dedicated room reserved for us. It was a busy market day and we found out that lamb/sheep sell for around £80-100 which seems quite low to me. Apparently wool is not valued as much as it was in the distant past. We enjoyed an excellent sit down lunch and caught up with the varied experiences of quite a disparate group of enthusiastic pilots.

John flew us back to Inverness, stopping in at Oban for fuel as planned. We were running a little late, and it was helpful that they close at 5:15 rather than 5pm. I was able to settle up the landing fees for Coll and Colonsay at the same time. Their recently installed fuel tanks, which I’d seen during my last trip to Oban, were easy to use with a self-service credit card machine.

Oban Town ahead, the airport is slightly off the picture on the left, approaching from the south west.

Just before we departed, the staff alerted us to recent weather conditions in Inverness which were deteriorating. Low cloudbase down to 200 feet was forecast in the next couple of hours. We had checked the weather before departing Tiree, so were aware. Flying back up the Great Glen, it was only about 10 miles or so before reaching Inverness that we saw a layer of low stratus cloud enveloping the airport and neighbourhood.

Glendoe Airfield – very convenient for Fort William but a bit short for our TB20

John had already elected to fly the ILS, and it was strange decending into the cloud at only about 1200 or 1000 feet then breaking out at perhaps 250 feet. He commented that it had been some time since he had flown an approach to minima – quite a contrast from the sunshine we had had for most of the day.

All of the group made it back in and we recounted tales of our travels in the bar.

Early Return

The weather forecast for Sunday was very poor, both north of Inverness and with a risk of thunderstorms between Glasgow and Edinburgh from about lunchtime. So we decided to return back south early and departed mid morning.

Kirkbride had run out of fuel (actually there was 2000 litres but the pump had broken down so they couldn’t dispense it), so we changed crew there and flew to Blackpool for fuel, then back to Gloucester. We didn’t bother filing IFR flight plans for either leg, and arranged a VFR transit through Liverpool’s zone without any difficulty. As a bonus, we saw the Memorial Flight Lancaster parked up on the apron – somewhat larger than our little aircraft. We heard that it uplifted 7,500 litres – about 20x our maximum tank capacity.

All in all, a very enjoyable weekend, exploring a couple of new airfields, meeting up with new and old pilot friends, coping with glorious VFR, short unmanned runways, and low IFR instrument approaches. Quite a contrast from my more regular local instructing flights and important to maintain some currency and experience of trips further afield.

Huge thanks to Graham for organising the weekend, supported by others and particularly Craig on the PPL/IR committee. Thanks also to John for sharing the experience.

PIC Time on this trip: 4:35
PIC Total Time:1809:10
Total Time: 2020:20

One comment

  1. Great write up thanks for sharing. We have visited Tiree i’m the past im GROLY and would like to return someday, the cost of renting now though is extremely high.

    Liam Sandie

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