Last Wednesday dawned cold & clear. I had calls to make to photograph cars in places as disparate as Falmouth in Cornwall & Stranraer in Scotland. Nothing for it but to fire up the trusty Piper Cherokee & triangulate round the country. The distances involved meant an early start. As close to 7 hours flight time was involved I recruited my Brother as a co pilot, whom whilst not actually a possessor of a flying license does a pretty good imitation of one & is able to navigate, keep situational awareness & pass the requisite airport plates as we approach to land. He is also reasonably adept at holding the yolk & keeping on course when I need a rest.
Accordingly we set off early down to Elstree airfield at 6:30am. Upon arrival we determined that the airframe was covered in a thin layer of ice. Trying to take off in such a condition usually results in an unscheduled trip through the boundary fence as a result of the parasite drag created by the frost robbing the aircraft of lift. Thus we set about de-icing the aircraft just as the sun rose to give us a helping hand. The beauty of such an early start is that you have the field to yourself to depart at your leisure without having to endure the biting sarcasm of controllers berating you over the radio for real or more usually imaginary infractions.
A quick run through the check list, “prop Clear”, warm the engine, check magnetos & an assortment of other things & we are ready to roll. We line up for a runway 26 departure westbound with a limp windsock indicating zero ground winds. The Cherokee with only 15 gallons out of a possible 84 on board leaps off the runway with alacrity. The cold morning gives the engine far more power then usual as the air is denser due to the cold & consequently more of it is sucked into the engine resulting in more to burn & ultimately more power. A quick loop around the top of Heathrows class “A” airspace where GA pilots fear to tread & into White Waltham to top up the tanks. The WW folk are models of politeness & helpfulness, quickly brimming all four tanks & with the swipe of a debit card we are off. Something one needs often if one is embark upon a flying career. White Waltham has the decency not to charge one a landing fee if you are also taking on fuel. It is a wonderful field with three grass runways & an old ’30′s style club house. My father got in great trouble for breaking the club house window in the ’60s in order to get inside and retrieve his car keys after an unscheduled night time arrival, wife & kids in tow. The drill back then was to fly along the London to Reading railway line & wait for a train. When the train disappeared into a tunnel, the black expanse to the south was where one had to put down. They said my father was ok to fly with “if you did not scare easily!!!!”
We route south over Reading & make a close inspection of a sight seeing hot air balloon taking advantage of the still early morning air. The sat nav indicates an hour & a half flight time to Truro, our chosen place of landing. We fly south & intercept the coast at Lyme Regis. Bored of flying high we get down to 500 feet of so over the sea & fly the Jurassic coast looking up at holiday cottages above us on the cliffs. In no time at all Exmouth appears on the nose & we then climb up over the mass ahead which is Dartmoor. A 20 knot tail wind has sprung up & is blowing directly up our chuff so we cover the ground at about 170MPH. We effortlessly eat up the miles towards Truro pitying the pour souls in the 9 mile tail back on the old A30.
Time to concentrate now as landing approaches. Brother helpfully provides the Pooleys flight guide page for Truro, a grass strip of some 530 metres. We elect for runway 14 down the hill but into wind. Approach is made with some trepidation as we have been sternly warned about the terrrible state of the strip due to a colony of industrious Moles being in residence. The strips owner seems to have made a mountain out of the mole hills however as the few that there are are inconsequential. Upon landing we fork out a £10 parking fee & are told by our host Peter that it is cheaper to park the aircraft then it is to park a car. He whisks us into Falmouth where we take time to photograph the delightful Alvis 12/40 we have just taken in part exchange from him. He himself has just bought a Rolls Royce 20hp tourer from us, the lucky fellow. I find that as my customers get older, so too their cars become slower. A 20hp is a delightful way to travel, albeit at not over 50, but who drives their classic much over 50 anyway? A Rolls 20hp on a summers evening on a B road as the sun sets is my idea of nirvana. Peters wife kindly stuffs toast & marmalade into us & a coffee to fortify us for the next leg. We inform her that if Peter ever tires of her, not to worry as we will happily take her on!!! South Cornwall is positively balmy & feels like a summers day with rhodedendrons in full bloom. It is with regret that we hustle back to the ‘field.
Hasty good byes said, a quick pee by both pilots as the Cherokees endurance is greater then ours, & off we go. Straight up the Cornish north coast, over Tintagel & up to Hartland point. We then leave land and route out over the isle of Lundy climbing to 5500 ft heading for landfall on the Gower peninsula the far side of the Bristol channel. The visibility becomes hazy, down to about 4 miles leaving us to stare glumly at the brown turgid waters below, bereft of a horizon to steer by & we cross our fingers that the mill keeps tuning. We have prudently donned life jackets prior to leaving, but it is still a relief when the Gower looms on the nose. Having no visual reference can lead to spatial disorientation with fatal consequences as befell JFK junior. Accordingly during the crossing we both pay good attention to our instruments checking for level flight & ensuring all is as it should be. After the Gower we loop round Pembury where a hapless Focke Wulf pilot landed inadvertently during the war, having made the common mistake of flying the reciprocal course of what he thought he was flying & mistaking the Bristol channel for the English channel. We fly the entire length of Wales over Snowdonia & elect to put in to Caernarvon to take on sufficient fuel for the rest of the day.
We get a fine view of Caernavon & its formidable castle as we fly up the Menai straight before turning due north for more water crossing.
Leaving Anglesea the haze again returns, but this time far worse making for difficult conditions over the water. A couple of ships far below give us a point of reference to look at & maintain our equilibrium.
After about 40 miles we all of a sudden break out into the clear & see the isle of man looming ahead. Not wanting to bother with a clearance to pass through their air-space we instead elect to nip round the edge of it prior to inserting our destination, Castle Kennedy into the ever useful sat nav. A sea fog Shrouds the coast for the last 20 or so miles before we make landfall and race the last few miles into the Castle Kennedy strip; a wide expanse of Tarmac considerably shorter then it was in its heyday. The Derby Bentley we have come to photograph approaches the runway as we taxi in followed close behind by the local Earl whom, title not withstanding, still wants his landing fee, albeit genially taken.
David, the current owner of the Bentley produces a splendid picnic from a wicker hamper which we spread out on the wing of the ‘plane. The setting has a feel of being 50 years earlier & we feel we are living richly & well. Davids’ absent wife has done a magnificent job of preparing the picnic, & we send word to her via David that if he ever tires of her……..well you know the rest. Pilots it seems perambulate around the country led by their stomachs. We complete the Bentley pictures on the hard standing by the Cherokee, and ready ourselves for a 3pm departure. Derby Bentleys are truly delightful cars well suited to touring and also ownership by the dwindling breed of owners who are proper gentleman. This particular car has rakish coachwork by Freestone & Webb; a refreshing change to the more common Park Ward examples.
Pees taken & wheels up again the ever present sat nav tells us that Stranraer to London is two hours 10 minutes. Try doing that in a car! We cross the Solway Firth & aim for the mountains of the lake district, delighting in skimming over the higher peaks & inspecting the snow remaining from the winter. As we rocket down Windemere passing a house I visited last year I mutter a stifled curse towards the now dead man who summoned me up there to view his Phantom VI. I was assured it was a fine car with but 30,000 miles on it; Upon arrival I was greeted by a mouldering wreck with the only indication of mileage being the previous owners statement. 230,000 miles was more like it I reckon. The bankers draft stayed in my pocket that day.
We skirt to the east of Manchester, over the Derby Dales & then have a fast and uneventful run back to Elstree putting down a few minutes before the blood red sun also departs.
Alas it was to be the last flight of GBZEH as the following day it was collected by the new owners agent to be ferried to its new home in Ethiopia of all places. Not the last of my flying career however. I shall instead buy into a syndicate where I can simply pay to fly by the hour without all the attendant headaches & expenses of keeping up an aircraft myself which was beginning to feel like a full time job. Halcyon days…