FARM STRIPS FLY OUT – 1st September 2018

Ah… What could be more enjoyable than flying in and out of grass airstrips on a perfect summer’s day?

Fortunately for a fair number of NWFG pilots, the answer to this question is ‘Not a lot’, and so at the start of September 2018, a reasonable number of us gathered for the annual Farm Strips Fly Out.

This year we were of course aided by a splendidly long, hot, dry summer, but I’d also like to think that some of the success of this year’s event came down to the choice of strips. Now it may come as a surprise to many but we don’t just ‘wing it’ on the day (despite how it may appear), but each year earlier in the summer myself and Malcolm take to the skies armed with a long list of potential farm strips and pay each one a visit. In doing this we are looking to strike a balance between strips that are new and interesting and present a challenge whilst at the same time being not over-taxing for a group of pilots of varying levels of experience & confidence, flying a mixed bag of aircraft types.

Although we make the recce trip in one of the two-seaters, we assess each strip on the basis of its suitability for faster, heavier types like the Archers. This tends to work quite well because whilst we can get in almost anywhere in the C150, C172s & Archers have much more ‘grunt’ when it comes to getting out, and therefore despite their greater weight tend to get airborne quicker and climb faster. The basic rule is that if, having arrived, the ‘two-up’ C150 can get out safely, the strip should be good for everyone – although as an acid test this sometimes leaves a bit to be desired on the recce as Malcolm and I bounce and skip our way along the runway towards the upwind hedge wondering if we’ve done our sums right…

This year we found six strips that all looked promising, although the last on the list had presented us with an ‘interesting’ challenge. Despite this, we decided to leave it on all the same. Was this a wise decision? Read on…

Fowlmere (704m)

Ok, I’d be lying if I said that Fowlmere represented the supreme test of man and machine. With a long wide immaculately kept runway, an equally long wide immaculately kept taxiway, and nice easy approaches, it perhaps rather more resembles a grass Heathrow than a typical farm strip; perhaps the greatest hazard is the need to avoid bumping into something historic and expensive operating in and out of Duxford just a couple of miles to the east. Nevertheless it was deliberately selected as our first stopping point as (a) it shows just how good a well-prepared grass strip can be, and (b) when added to a take-off on the grass runway at North Weald, it would give everyone a chance to assess their plane’s performance on grass on the day (it was hot!) before going into anywhere shorter and more challenging.

As it was, and as expected, everyone handled Fowlmere with aplomb and in no time at all the crews – that was Pauls Bazire & Cook in VB, Pete and Vrai in NUKA, Malcolm and JR in FC, and myself and Keith in FG – were gathered together by the limply fluttering windsock pointing at the large bright sunny thing in the sky that none of could recall ever having seen on a fly out before….

Regarding our own visit there’s not too much more to say, although I would recommend Fowlmere as a nice easy strip to visit in the summer months – and I would especially recommend strolling across the fields into the village (20 minutes’ walk or so) where The Chequers serves up excellent food whilst surrounded by 8th Air Force memorabilia.

The 172s bask in the Fowlmere sunshine

Mitchells Farm (800m)

With Fowlmere having served as a warm-up, it was on to start the serious business of the day.

Although Mitchells Farm has a long 800m runway, it is quite narrow and, bereft of the usual airfield clutter, quite hard to spot (there is a small hangar of sorts, but they’ve cunningly hidden it in a little clump of trees). For this reason, Malcolm and I had assessed that the best plan of attack was to track due north from the Cambridge overhead which puts you on a very long final until a point around Oakington when the runway appears straight on the nose. We also determined that Malcolm and JR would be first in to put something visual (i.e. FC) on the ground, and also be on hand to help push back planes as they arrived into the very limited parking space available. For the same reason, I would fly in last with Keith when everyone was down and parked, on the basis that as co-organiser it was my own silly fault if there wasn’t enough space to land!

All worked well up to a point, with me and Keith giving everyone an ample head start so that they would have time to get themselves sorted on the ground, but as we positioned to come straight in on 36, the silvered tones of Paul B on the radio, allied to the presence of only two planes on the ground, told us that not all was as it should be. And indeed it came to pass, in a way that should give everyone some comfort in their own abilities, that even the vastly experienced Red One – having elected to fly direct rather than via the Cambridge overhead – had, errr, got lost (I’m sure he would argue that he wasn’t lost, just simply couldn’t locate the airfield, but equally I’d argue that that’s much the same thing…)

Fortunately, as we crept closer in Paul spotted the airfield and being now north of the field positioned to come in on 18 (which was actually the correct direction to land: we were only planning on using 36 because the strip is long and the landed aircraft would be gathered at the north end). No problem – with VB establishing itself on final we repositioned to the north to orbit ready to land once given the signal, which duly arrived in the form of a quick ‘all clear’ call from JR on the radio.

Using 18 does have the advantage of bringing you in over a splendid cornfield as the banner picture at the top of this article attests, but with three aircraft already parked immediately adjacent to what is already quite a narrow strip it is mighty tight though – as exciting for those on the ground as in the air I imagine!

Once safely down and parked we regrouped with the other pilots. There is nothing to do at Mitchells Farm, but it is the most splendid example of a proper farm strip – stuck out in the middle of the countryside with nothing around but fields.

Pete and Vrai in NUKA depart Mitchells Farm

Tower Farm (640m)

Our next stop first necessitated a cross country transit westwards towards Wellingborough. Farm strips are often quite hard to spot, but this one benefits from having a thumping great distinctive concrete water tower that can be seen from miles off. However, what Tower Farm lacks in navigational challenge it more than makes up for in handling challenges as the first third of the runway, assuming you’re approaching from the east, features a marked upslope gradient – akin to one of those altiports that we’ve all seen and read about (well, at least in my mind anyway).

Having the runway rear up in front of you presents two challenges: firstly not being tricked into thinking you’re currently coming in steeper than you are and overcompensating; and then once down remembering to keep sufficient power and momentum going to drag the plane up the hill.

In FG Keith flew us in, and the landing was, shall we say, ‘interesting’. Nevertheless, we pulled it off and duly taxied to the top of the hill, Keith apologising all the way (unnecessarily – fields like these do present a considerable challenge).

With everyone gathered under the water tower, we then briefed for the next challenge: getting out of there! Because of the gradient, on relatively light wind days the preference is to take off to the east – downhill. However, Tower Farm’s runway also features a fairly significant hump just after halfway when you take off in that direction, which as Malcolm and I discovered on the recce flight launches you in the air when you’re still about five knots below take-off speed. Any attempt to convert this launch into a take-off will provide a reasonably in-depth test of your piloting skill: the trick is to disregard the initial launch, attempt to reunite wheels and runway, and then tell the plane when you’re ready to take to the air – not the other way round.

Fortunately, everyone demonstrated good technique, and therefore we were all on our way for the short hop to our next stop.

The group in front of Tower Farm’s handy visual locator

Winwick (640m)

Winwick is a delightful little strip that Malcolm and I were thoroughly smitten with when we visited on the recce. It’s immaculately presented, and the only notable challenges are that it can be a little difficult to spot (not helped by the fact that the CAA have marked its position incorrectly on the charts), and assuming you’re coming in from the east, you drop in over some fairly tall trees – which tend to concentrate the mind somewhat.

From the air and on the ground Winwick is a delightful little strip and the owner, Chris, was on hand to marshal us to park. Chris had also laid on picnic tables and benches, as well as teas and coffees, and as we had all picked up packed lunches from The Squadron before we left, we were able to sit and enjoy lunch out in the sunshine and fresh air surrounded by aeroplanes. Marvellous!

Parking up at Winwick

Chris made us all feel incredibly welcome and refused any suggestion of a landing fee. However, we felt that something ought to be given in return, so together we made a group donation for Chris to give to a charity of his choice. As it was, Chris chose Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, and a short while later we received a very nice Thank You note from the hospital. It’s nice to turn our hobby to some good sometimes!

All too soon it was time to jump back in the planes and head off to our next destination, but I think everyone enjoyed Winwick and we would all happily return again.

Happy aviators enjoying a picnic lunch at Winwick

Wallis International (850m)

Our next stop was the splendidly named ‘Wallis International’. Located on the north bank of the River Nene, right by where the Whittlesey to Thorney road crosses the river, this is again an easy enough strip to locate, but one which brings its own particular piloting challenge: as the River Nene is a raised navigation section at that point, the strip is actually some 10-15 feet below the level of the water, creating a very strange impression as you seemingly sink below surface level before you start to round out. Most odd, and slightly disorienting.

That slight spatial oddity apart, Wallis is nice and long and, as you would expect in that part of the word, flat. Rolling to the end of 26 sees you end up in a nice secluded parking area shielded by some tall trees – in fact, you are pretty much in the owner’s front garden, and 30yds the other side of an iron gate are the farm buildings wherein you find the pot for depositing your £5 landing fee which goes to the local air ambulance. It’s also worth mentioning that just across the road is a very well reviewed gastropub, The Dog in a Doublet – although when Malcolm and I dropped in on the recce, for some reason they’d decided that week to experiment with not serving food before 2 pm. Odd. If visiting it would obviously pay to check their website for the latest.

Parked up at Wallis International

The main hazard at Wallis is the sheep that graze the land. PPR is particularly essential at this strip because it allows the owner to move the sheep off the strip and behind electric fences. It also gives him a chance to even the ground a little as sheep do tend to pepper the surface with footprints (hoof prints?). However, for our visit at the end of a famously long, hot, dry summer, the concrete-like soil had obviously proved difficult to repair, and it has to be said that the surface wasn’t the smoothest…

The sheep also provided a welcome distraction for the pilots, whose attempts to get even just one of their number to join us for the obligatory group photo came to nought as time and again we were completely outwitted by our ovine friends, as the photo shows…

Umpteen licences and ratings between them, but still outwitted by sheep…

For the Archer crews, Wallis was to be their last stop of the day as the real world performance being experienced in the high ambient temperatures, suggested that they might find the next strip, at just 500m, a little tight.

Lark Engine Farmhouse (500m)

Having bid farewell to the Archer crews, Malcolm and JR in FC set off for Lark Engine Farmhouse, with myself and Keith in FG following a short while later to ensure good separation.

Now I will be the first to admit that Lark is not easy to find. Perched right on the NW edge of the Lakenheath CMATZ there’s not an awful lot of room for error (although this is obviously less of a problem at weekends), and on the recce flight Malcolm and I had made a right pig’s ear of finding it, going back and forth over the fields of Cambridgeshire until, by some miracle, it finally popped into sight.

Of course, once you’ve discovered a strip once, made copious mental notes about the local surroundings, and stuck a pinpoint marker on your GPS, it’s impossible to lose it again, right? Well, you’d have thought so…

The first indication that not all was going according to plan was as Keith and I approached and having given Malcolm and JR a good 5-10 minute head start found them still on Safetycom and still very evidently ploughing back and forth in the sky.

Trusting that my own carefully worked out approach would get me in ahead and provide them with a bit of a pathfinder, I duly lined up for a beautiful first time approach into Lark… only to realise on short final that the threshold I thought I was aiming at was, in fact, the upwind end of the runway leading into an unprepared strip of farmland beyond, and that the real threshold was now sliding past underneath me.

At this point, the smart thing to have done of course would have been to have gone around. However, many hours behind the wheel of a C150 made me think I could still just about squeak it in. What followed was one of my worst ever attempts at a landing, and I would advise anyone reading this that if presented with a 500m strip, delaying putting your wheels down until you’re at least 200m into it is not the best place to start. Fortunately, after a very late call sanity clicked back in and I whacked on full power for a go around. Sorry Keith!

The second landing, I’m glad to report, was much more like I’d intended the first to be, and saw us safely down in plenty of time.

As we parked up on the narrow taxiway (so narrow that you have to get out and turn the plane round by hand) we began to ponder the whereabouts of FC. Up above, JR and Malcolm continued to cross back and forth, unfortunately conspiring to place the strip directly under their nose each time so that no amount of waving, yelling, or helpful instruction via FG’s radio made any difference. They have graciously allowed their GPS trace to be replayed here for everyone’s entertainment/education. One wonders at what point the Lakenheath controller considered firing up a couple of F-15s, just to be on the safe side…

The GPS trace. ‘Nuff said…

However, in the end (Lord be praised!) they spotted us and, despite what must have been an incredibly hot and stressful 15-20 mins in the cockpit, JR put it all behind him and pulled off a textbook landing.

A good chance for a catch-up on the ground followed, including vivid descriptions of the “fun” we’d encountered, and gave an opportunity to pace out the strip for reassurance and to place a marker at the 2/3 point to give us an indication of whether the take-off was ‘on’ during the take-off run. As it was, take-off for both 172s was a doddle, comfortably airborne by the marker, and climbing away into a clear blue sky and the end of another memorable day of flying.

The 172s in something of a Mexican standoff at Lark Engine Farmhouse

My thanks as ever to the crews for taking part, and to the strip owners for giving us permission to visit, and particularly in the case of Winwick being so welcoming and accommodating on arrival.