Saturday, 28 January 2012

Could this be the next flying challenge?

2-seat weight-shift microlight at Arclid

This afternoon I visited the microlight field at Arclid, near Sandbach, Cheshire to gather information on the sport of flying these airborne motorcycles. I recently sold my share in my beloved dH Chipmunk mainly because of the lack of freedom and increasing hassles of operating a conventional aeroplane out of of a major international airport.

These weight-shift controlled microlight aircraft, operating out of an uncontrolled field in rural Cheshire, might be a way back into the sort of grass-roots flying we used to enjoy at Barton in the Chipmunk in the 1970s through to the 1990s.

The clubhouse and hangar at Arclid

There are many things to consider before deciding whether to pursue this activity. Although my pilot's licence makes it entirely legal for me to climb into one of these machines and fly it, in practice they are sufficiently different to fly to require extensive conversion training. The 'bar' on the microlight which is the equivalent to the 'stick' in an aeroplane works in the opposite sense to a stick, the 'rudder pedals' don't work a rudder but merely steer the nosewheel (in the opposite sense a rudder on a conventional aeroplane steers it on the ground), and the throttle is worked with the foot rather than by hand as it is in an aeroplane.

The duty instructor at Arclid reckons it takes around ten hours of training to convert a conventionally-trained and experienced pilot like me to fly the weight-shift machines. Then there's ownership - light aircraft tend to be owned by several people who share the costs; it's conventional with microlights to own one outright. And, of course, one needs somewhere to hangar it!

Having stated all the above, perhaps my ideal next aviation move is a backwards one, a Piper Cub on a local farm strip. I had a great deal of fun a couple of decades ago flying a 1944 L4 Cub out of Barton; it would be great to recapture those times... But finding such an opportunity will not be easy.

Me and the L4 in the late '80s at Barton

 A microlight approaches the runway to land at Arclid

Food for thought!


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Bus-pass walk

One advantage of being an old git is the free bus pass. I decided to use this today to do a linear walk using our local 'Connect 88' bus which runs from Altrincham to Knutsford via Wilmslow, and stops at the end of our road at Davenport Green. This morning I caught the bus from there to Oversley Ford, where the Altrincham road crosses the river Bollin.

From opposite the former Valley Lodge Hotel (now a Holiday Inn) I followed the path that crosses the fields and parallels the river. The pictures in this post were taken with my 'phone, so I apologise for their low quality. However, as usual they can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Some minor side valleys, or 'cloughs' in the Cheshire idiom run into the Bollin and the path crosses these on wooden bridges

Looking back towards my start point, in the valley beyond the trees

 River Bollin, and the path running southwards

 My route climbed up out of the Bollin Valley as the river swung west towards the tunnel constructed under the new runway at Manchester Airport. This is Bollin House Farm.

Just past Bollin House Farm the path emerges on a bank overlooking the Airport at the Mobberley end of runway 23L / 05R. If you click on this picture to enlarge it you can see the terminal buildings on the horizon, and to the left of those, the Emirates A380 Super Jumbo which has just landed.

Now south of the Airport, looking north in Mobberley
 Looking north from Valewood Farm

A temporary stile over an electric fence, near Wee Bridge Farm. I paused for lunch near here.
 The path crosses the Mid Cheshire railway line south of Mobberley station. It will be re-crossed later between Mobberley and Shaw Heath.

The path here forms part of the North Cheshire Way. Broad Oak Farm in the background.
 Witchcote Wood, in Tatton Park beyond the boundary fence. Unfortunately there is no path into the park from this Mobberley side.
 Near the finish at Shaw Heath; looking back to Witchcote Wood
From here I continued to the B5085 just north of Knutsford and enjoyed some coffee from my flask in occasional weak January sunshine as I awaited the 'Connect 88' bus to run me back to Davenport Green. It had only been about five and a half miles, and very muddy in parts (as ever with Mobberley in winter!), but it had been a most enjoyable day out.

Update 1st February

I repeated the walk today in lovely winter sunshine and extended it into Knutsford. Far less mud as it was frozen! I caught the 'Connect 88' back to home from Knutsford bus station.

A brighter day than last week. The Emirates A380 super jumbo about to touch down on runway 05L.

Among the approach lights for runway 05R in Mobberley I found this ex-heron. It can't have been there long as the scavengers had yet to discover it and in this remote location they'd had plenty of undisturbed opportunity. Manchester Airport was using this runway this morning until about 09:30 for landings, and the adjacent 05L was in use at the time of my walk for landings and take offs. I wonder if the heron was the victim of vortex wake? It appears to have impacted the ground violently and in one piece (if it had been in collision with an aeroplane, I'd have expected severe injuries).

Winter sunshine near Shaw Heath, Tatton Park on the other side of the hedge

The end of today's walk; St John's parish church, Knutsford


Friday, 13 January 2012

Last ever flight in command of dH Chipmunk G-BCSL?

It's always been a tad inconvenient to have to drive to Liverpool to fly our group-owned dH Chipmunk, and with the latest security measures in place at the airport since last year the 'hassle factor' has gone up considerably. It's the usual 'big airport' stuff - security fences with camera-controlled electronic gates making ingress and egress hard work and time consuming (don't even think of forgetting something and having to go back to your car for it). Ensuring the aeroplane gets fuelled despite phone calls the previous day... And for me there is the added problem of the distance to Liverpool and trying to judge if the weather is going to make the journey worthwhile. There have been many pointless journeys. And of course when you get there you can't just 'go up and have a look' at the conditions, landing back if not OK or flying off on a jolly if it looks good.

I feel the need to operate out of a more easygoing location, preferably a bit closer to home.And of course the dramatic rise in the price of Avgas aviation fuel (up to £2 a litre and set only to rise), the upward trend all other flying costs, and the ever more expensive car fuel to Liverpool and back are increasing the cost of flying. Put the two together - increased hassle and increased cost - and there comes a time when the game ain't worth the candle.

I've been contemplating selling my share for a while now, but it's not a good time to do so. Those factors that are putting me off are also putting off a lot of potential share purchasers, and of course there is less money around at the moment for people to spend on expensive leisure pursuits. Several shares in the aeroplane have been on the market for some time now with no takers.

Last month, out of the blue, I received an e-mail asking if my share was for sale (I must have mentioned on an Internet message board that I was thinking of selling). So I thought "well if I am going to sell, here's an ideal opportunity". And I decided to go ahead. The share transfer was handled by our group secretary, Debbie, so I filled in the forms and sent them to her, and just after Christmas I received a cheque from her for the full value of the share. Unfortunately, the weather in December at the times I could fly was awful, but Debbie said "don't worry. I'll keep you on the insurance until you've had your last flight in her". Today was that last flight... saying goodbye to an aeroplane I've been flying since I got my licence in 1978.

Click on any picture to enlarge it.

Sierra Lima being readied for flight at Liverpool John Lennon airport this morning

I departed off runway 27 with no delay intending to visit Sleap. The local weather was quite excellent, but south of the Peckforton hills, and to the east of the Manchester Low Level Route, the ground was hidden by a dazzling white layer; fog! So Sleap was not a viable destination; even if it was clear there, it would be foolish to fly there above the fog layer as a successful forced landing in the event of engine failure would not be possible.

Overhead Chester, outbound from Liverpool John Lennon. The Peckforton hills are off the wing tip, while the Mersey and the steam plume from Fiddler's Ferry power station are visible,

I flew over to the edge of the fog layer and watched a narrow boat on the Shropshire Union Canal glide from sunshine into murk as it entered the fog. I turned north up the Low Level Route enjoying the views of mid Cheshire, including the swing bridge over the River Weaver at Acton Bridge, where we attended a traction engine rally on 2nd October last (see this blog for a description).

Acton Bridge on the River Weaver

Just north of the M56 motorway I located Fox Covert cemetery where we buried my sister a week ago. I slid the canopy back to get a perspex-free series of photographs as I circled overhead.

Fox Covert Cemetery, Stockton Heath, in front of the wing. One week ago we buried my sister Elaine here. Her grave is in the newly-dug area of sandy soil furthest from the camera near the cemetery boundary hedge.

Looking south from Stockton Heath, low fog over Cheshire visible in the distance

The Sierra Lima Chipmunk Group started at Barton airfield in 1979, and I was a founder member. I learnt to fly at Barton in 1978 / 79 and until a few years ago, when it ceased to be run by Lancashire Aero Club but was sold by Manchester City Council to property developers Peel Holdings, it was our playground. A fabulous place to fly from - free of petty restrictions and with a lively social side. As Joni Mitchell sang "you don't know what you got 'till it's gone". But Peel notwithstanding, a visit to Barton just had to be included in this last flight.

I called them up on the radio requesting 'a low approach and go-around not below five hundred feet'. Barton Information (the radio call sign of Manchester City Airport, Barton) readily agreed, so I joined overhead to perform my hallmark 'wings vertical without pulling back' rapid descent to circuit height on the dead side, tracked across the airfield to the downwind leg, and, checking I had plenty of speed, rolled into a steep turn (bank and yank - a Chippy forte!) onto the downwind leg. I kept it fairly tight, no flap, and quite fast for the run along runway 27 Left and climbed away on track for Liverpool.

Overhead Sierra Lima's spiritual home, Barton Airfield. I had to bring her back here on our last flight, our one time playground for twenty five years, even if it is no longer Barton as we knew it.

Fiddler's Ferry plume again - from the other side this time as we return to Liverpool for our last landing

I thanked Barton and switched to Liverpool Approach to request a Zone Join at Burtonwood, which was granted "not above 1,500 feet QNH". On reaching Burtonwood I was cleared to continue along the M62 and report approaching Tarbuck Interchange. From there, and having confirmed to the controller that I had the field in sight, he asked me to call Liverpool Tower. On the way into the zone I'd heard a couple of Easy Jets and a Ryanair call and request visual approaches, so was expecting to be held for them to land.

"Liverpool Tower, Golf Bravo Charlie Sierra Lima, Tarbuck, Field in sight"

"Sierra Lima Liverpool Tower, position to right base, number three at present so expect to hold"

"Wilco, Sierra Lima"

"Sierra Lima I'm going to try to get you in before an Easy Jet on a visual left base. If it doesn't work out I'll have to send you around"

"Roger, I'll keep it tight, Sierra Lima". By now the first Easy Jet was also on the Tower frequency, positioning left base.

I flew in a high speed descent almost down the eastern boundary of the airfield with the power back to idle, levelled off at about 100 feet and let the speed bleed back. Flaps 'one' selected as it passed 90 knot, flaps 'two' as the needle fell through 75 and I started the descending turn onto a very short final.

"Turning final, Sierra Lima". The 'numbers' at the end of 27 flashed beneath.

"Sierra Lima cleared to land runway 27, surface wind 010 degrees 4 knots"

"Clear land, Sierra Lima"

"Liverpool Tower Easy 308 final, 27"

"Easy 308 continue"

"Continue, 308"

I touched down 3-point (the last landing HAS to be greaser!) and braked gently to a halt abeam taxyway Foxtrot.

"Sierra Lima vacate at Foxtrot, continue to Kilo" (the GA apron).

"Right at Fox, then to Kilo, Sierra Lima"

As I turned off the runway I slid the canopy back. The prop blast ruffled my hair and glancing right the A320 was roaring down short final.

"Easy 308 expect late landing clearance, Chipmunk to clear"


"Easy 308 cleared to land runway 27, surface wind 015, 3 knots"

"Clear land, Easy 308"

Air traffic at Liverpool can be good. Today, on this last landing of this last flight, they have been very good.

"Sierra Lima; Kilo. Thanks for getting me in quickly there"

"Sierra Lima, thanks for your help!"

Nice note to go out on with Liverpool ATC.

Easy 308 which was number two to us about to touch down on runway 27 at Liverpool as we taxi to the GA apron having just vacated that runway at Foxtrot

After the flight; me in Sierra Lima's cockpit.... for the last time?

This I won't miss; cleaning the oil from on, in, under, and around the front end of the aeroplane after flight

Whither now? I'd love to keep flying and will one way or another. I have a standing invitation to come back to the lovely Sierra Lima any time, but of course no longer being a group member I'll have to fly her with Keith, the chairman and always up for a flight, in the back seat.

My ideal would be a Piper L4 Cub on a farm strip in Cheshire. Maximum fun minimum hassle flying!


Here's a comment I appreciate, from a retired Liverpool controller, that sort of completes the circle:

Vince, sorry to hear you no longer fly Sierra Lima. I retired from Liverpool ATC nearly two years ago and it was always a pleasure to work with you. Juggling GA and A319s / 737s was a bit of a nightmare at times but I always knew that if I asked you to keep it tight ahead of a big one you would, and more!

Best wishes and happy flying.

Dave Smith

(Long ago Cessna 150 driver, so I had some idea of what it was all about!)

Friday, 6 January 2012

Not the best way to end the old year..... or start the new.

My lovely sister, Elaine, three years younger than me, has been unwell for a long time. She died about mid day on Christmas day, and today... we buried her. Requiem mass at St Monica's Catholic Church in Stockton Heath, interment at Fox Covert cemetery, and a wake at the nearby Park Royal hotel.

One week later, Fox Covert Cemetery in front of the wing of our Chipmunk as I fly over. Elaine's grave is in the newly-dug area of sandy soil near the boundary hedge furthest from the camera.

After landing I drove to the cemetery to see the grave. It looks bleak now, but when the gravestone and landscaping are complete it will be a place worthy of Elaine's memory.