Monday, 15 November 2010

The best flying weather for ages!

Sometimes, but not often, a day comes around which might have been tailor-made for flying. Today was such a day.

I hadn’t flown for several weeks and was getting withdrawal symptoms, so a few days ago I went on line to our flying group’s internet diary and booked the aeroplane for today. The weather forecast was favourable, but that could easily change. And it did. Early fog, becoming mist was the Sunday evening Met Office forecast for North West England for today and I resigned myself to probably having to cancel my booking. But when I woke this morning the room was bright with sunlight. “Probably shining though the low level fog” I thought as I reached into my bedside table draw for my airband radio. This little marvel is smaller than a mobile phone and I keep it tuned to the Manchester ATIS, or Automatic Terminal Information Service, a continuous broadcast from Manchester Airport Air Traffic Control giving information for inbound or outbound aircraft updated twice an hour. I switched it on:

“Manchester information Bravo at time zero seven five zero; departure runway 23 right, CAVOK, surface wind 070 at 4 knots, temperature +1 dew point +0 QNH 1015, runway wet wet wet.”

Wow CAVOK! That means ceiling and visibility OK with no significant cloud and at least ten kilometres visibility. Our aeroplane is at Liverpool John Lennon, too far away for me to receive their ATIS broadcast, but the chances were it would be much the same as Manchester’s. The ATIS is available by phone as well as radio, and a call confirmed that Liverpool was CAVOK as well. But would it last the day? After breakfast I went on line to the Met Office Aviation web site and checked the Liverpool TAF, or Terminal Area Forecast. The TAF’s arcane codes which date from the days when this information was transmitted around the globe on slow teleprinter lines told me this fantastic weather would be with us at least until dark. By 10:30 I was at Liverpool checking the aeroplane for flight and half an hour after that I was airborne, climbing out over the Mersey estuary towards Chester. Often, once in the air, the weather turns out not to be as good as it looked from the ground; but not today. It was the best flying weather I can remember in years.

The blinding sun lanced sideways through the blue, with just occasional high cirrus streaks above. The air was cold, and absolutely dead smooth. Not a burble, not a ripple. It was almost uncanny. The aeroplane sat in it as solidly as if it were standing on the concrete apron back at John Lennon, not suspended by thin air a couple of thousand feet over Cheshire. The cold made the handling particularly crisp as well as making the wings and engine perform at their best. It was one of those rare days where, with a nice handling aeroplane like the dH Chipmunk, you can position it to a fraction of a degree in pitch or roll almost as if it was mechanically detented into the air. So no excuse for sloppy aerobatics today!

And that visibility! From overhead Chester looking east the widely spaced distant white plumes of the power stations along the Trent curved up to the heavens, the cooling towers generating them being out of view below the horizon. To the south the Wrekin looked near enough to touch but was almost lost among the background of further-away hills not usually visible. To the west were the hills and mountains of Wales in unusual clarity, while on the Peckforton hills a couple of miles away beneath the left wing a few trees still wore the russet browns and yellows of this particularly colourful autumn.

The Peckfortons were behind us now. Dipping the nose at our cruise speed of 90 knots I watched the fields expand in front of me as the slipstream became a rising insistent roar until we had 120 knots and I eased the stick back and sank down in the seat under the G force, as the sleek black Chipmunk pointed up at that cirrus-streaked blue. I pushed the stick gently but firmly to the left as far as it would go and the whole world steadily rotated to the right, sky becoming land and land sky. I went light in the seat as Shropshire passed over the top of the canopy, and the engine momentarily coughed and ran rough until we rolled level again, a simple aileron roll executed in exuberant celebration of this fabulous day.

I dropped into Sleap airfield, near Wem, for lunch, curving round at exactly 60 knots to the threshold of runway 23. The big white-painted numbers on the end of the runway centred in the windscreen tilted towards me and slowly grew bigger, rolling level as we passed through 50 feet onto a short final, all so super precise as if on rails in this wonderful cold still air. The speed bled back to 55 knots and the runway reached up and kissed all three wheels simultaneously, a perfect 3-pointer.

Lunch at Sleap is always a pleasure, in one of the finest airfield cafes in the UK on the first floor of the control tower so overlooking this ex-RAF wartime airfield to the distant Welsh hills.

We didn’t return directly to Liverpool but flew south to have a look at the recently closed Sherlowe airstrip near Telford which closed at the end of September when the lease on part of the land expired and it returned to agriculture. I dropped down to treetop height for a low pass along the now ploughed up runway before climbing away to the north reflecting on the past 11 years of fly-ins and fun and hospitality at Sherlowe. It might return, as Bob the owner is constructing a new runway on the remaining land which he owns, but at 300m that’ll be a bit short for our Chipmunk.

It is a sin to fly an aeroplane like the Chipmunk straight and level on a day like today, so we indulged in some more aerial ballet while enjoying the freedom to do so that the uncontrolled airspace over Shropshire and south Cheshire allows. As we approached the invisible but very real boundary of the strictly controlled environment of the Liverpool control zone at Oulton Park racing circuit I called Liverpool Radar on the radio for clearance to enter. In the zone all frivolity ceased and we became a ‘serious aeroplane’ under strict air traffic control as we followed height and heading instructions just like the airliners to slot us in between the Easy Jets and the Ryanairs, to take our turn to touch down on John Lennon’s runway 27.

Taxying in I slid the canopy open, and the roaring propeller flickered in the sun and ruffled my hair. Even taxying the Chipmunk is fun – it’s like driving a magnificent open vintage car with the unsilenced blatter of the engine occasionally popping and banging at such a low power setting, and the smell of hot oil and exhaust. I swung round onto the flight line, braked to a halt in line with a gaggle of rather dull training aeroplanes, switched off the magnetos, and silence reigned as the prop bounced to a stop between compressions. I felt warmth in the sun on my face, and for a while I sat back in the reclined seat of the tail-down Chipmunk enjoying that, and listening to the slowly declining whine of the instrument gyros running down and the tinks and clinks of cooling metal.

How privileged we are to do this. What a fantastic day out!

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