“Pushing Tin & Crossing Plastic” (with ref to large tin planes and small composite microlights)
Cheryl had booked her One Day Flying Course 3 months earlier when she planned to see Her Maj. at a garden party in Buck house in London. On the day she had booked to fly, the forecast was heavy showers running south to north from the Isle of Wight up to Edinburg, keeping the east of England clear, sunny and gusty.
We planned our flight to the south coast, following the principle of flying into the wind towards poor conditions so we could turn tail and return to base before the weather worsened. Cheryl did not want to use the radio and be distracted from her flying experience over our pleasant and green England. I pointed out to her Knole House (Henry viii used this as his weekend hunting lodge and there did things, a King could not in London) and then flew over Hever Castle (in which Henry viii installed his lover Anne Boleyn) just below the Gatwick CTA. Then on to the south coast towards SFD vor with the ancient chalk figure of the Long Man of Wilmington (a fertility symbol, still popular with local folk and druids at certain times of the year).
There is a smaller chalk horse cut into the opposite hill slope on the Cuckmere river valley leading to the vor antenna. We flew out over the English Channel to view the sheer cliffs at Beachy Head and the undulating Seven Sisters, all glistening brilliant white in the sunshine just after a cleansing heavy shower.
Meanwhile, modern technology allowed my friend on the Isle of Wight to inform me by text that the weather was thundery with heavy rain. We decided to turn back north and headed out over Herstmonceaux Castle where they hold jousting competitions to this day, right next to the astronomical observatory and its telescopes ensconced inside giant golf balls.
“There aren’t any other aircraft that I can see” said Cheryl, expecting to see hundreds of them in the sky. I had explained to her in the preflight briefing that our local flying area is one of the busiest airspaces in the world. “I don’t think anyone wants to fly with this forecast of heavy showers” I said, while she continued to keep height heading and speed very well despite the gusty conditions. The composite and rigid construction of the CT airframe and the strong sharp but short gusts made an uncomfortable ride. I asked her to reduce speed and allow the aircraft to ride the turbulence rather than hold rigidly onto the joystick.
Leeds Castle in Kent, just east of Maidstone was our target. This picturesque and magnificent castle was also used by Henry viii and his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and remains well maintained and looked after as a national monument and a touristic destination thanks to the legacy of an American Heiress! We marveled over this stone structure with its moat and maze, getting ready for the bank holiday week end parties.
Flying further north, towards the small banana shaped runway at Stoke, we flew over low and spotted the rusting hulk of a WW II German U-Boat (Unterseeboot) in the marshes of the Medway delta. “Do you fancy flying over the Vulcan Bomber at Southend?” I asked Cheryl. “Oooh yesss” she said.
She changed the radio frequency to Southend Radar and I called up for an overhead transit. “not a problem, if you don’t mind holding a few minutes, we have two departures shortly” said the controller at Southend. That gave us a few minutes of orbiting over the longest tourist pier in the world. Bet you, dear Reader, you didn’t know Essex was famous for the Pier at Southend!
While in the orbit over the Thames estuary, we were in a smooth sea breeze at 1700 feet, we were kept company by a C-172 orbiting at 1000 feet on the downwind leg also waiting for the backtrack and departure of the two commercial flights.
Watching the twin turbo prop ATR and then an Airbus 320 depart, we descended to 1000 feet and reduced speed to 55 knots to take pictures of the impressive delta wing Vulcan Bomber parked next to the modern tower and railway station at Southend.
Our destination was now Duxford, which lay north northwest from Southend, in a direct line over Stansted Airport. We passed Stow Maries, the WW I airfield now being operated as a ‘live museum’ by volunteers and enthusiasts. Changing frequency to Essex Radar, demonstrated to Cheryl how busy a patch of airspace we were flying through, even though we could not see any other aircraft. Amidst the continuous stream of inbound instructions and read-backs, I managed to get in my request for over head transit. The Mode S transponder reduced the number of words and amount of PTT time since the radar display showed our altitude, position and identity immediately to the controller, despite the crackly VHF radio. “Cleared to enter and transit over the 24 threshold, keep the landing traffic in sight, cross above and behind the landing traffic. Look out for aircraft on 6 mile final and cross in front of him” was our instruction. Not a problem at all, we had reduced our speed to 65 knots to pass behind and above the landing traffic and then increased it to 120 knots to pass safely in front of the approaching Airbus 320.
‘Duxford we are inbound from the south.’
‘Have you booked to fly in today?’
‘No, we are diverting to you. ‘
‘If you haven’t booked you can’t land, because we have airshow practice.’
‘But there’s no one flying just now, is there? Can you accommodate us please?’
‘Okay I will ask the manager’ ; ‘Manager says yes, all right.’
‘Thanks, we will join downwind and land on the 24 hard.’
The wind was 90 degrees across and gusting to 20 knots, but with my special wing low approach, the touchdown was as smooth as normal.
We spent the next few hours wandering amiably and marveling at the various airplanes in this Imperial War Museum with its historical roots. Cheryl is from New Zealand and it was a very special day for her to see all the flying history and technology.
On the way back to Damyns Hall our track from Duxford took us straight over Stansted and the ATC lady must have taken her “happy pills and caffeine” shots before coming on duty. Her voice was the happiest and most efficiently clear I have ever heard on the airwaves in the last 3 decades!
The sky had cleared after the several CB cells had expended their rain and hail while we were wandering in the indoor museum at Duxford (no practice flying took place that day… and not one else flew in to Duxford except us). We came back to Damyns to see various stages and tents erected, fences laid out around the runway, parking lots marked, roads closed and prepared to accept more than 20,000 music lovers over the week end.