Farm Strips Fly Out – 1st September 2019

The 2019 NWFG farm strips fly out was, remarkably, the Group’s eighth such event. I say ‘remarkably’, because that entails that (a) we’ve managed to have enough flyable weather to make things happen eight times (although 2015’s event was, to put it politely, ‘somewhat last-minute improvised’ after the weather tried its best to thwart our plans); and (b) that we’ve managed to locate sufficient numbers of suitable strips over the years – strips that present a challenge whilst still providing adequate margins of safety for pilots of varying degrees of experience operating a mixed fleet covering everything from C150s to Archers.

As mentioned in previous farm strip write-ups, each year Malcolm and I set off earlier in the summer on a recce flight to visit a short-list of strips and assess their suitability (and their owners’ willingness to accept a small armada if we return). Each year at least one strip gets crossed off for being ‘a bit white-knuckle’ – maybe one year we’ll arrange a fly out just visiting these ones!

And so to 2019. This year we would base the fly out around Kent and Sussex, and six airfields – only one of which (Headcorn, which would serve as our lunch stop) had we included before. Five aircraft would make the trip, with a mix of old hands and new sharing piloting duties.

Old Hay (676m)

Situated literally a stone’s throw from Laddingford, which had featured on the 2016 fly out, Old Hay is in some ways easier to spot from the air locate than its better-known neighbour, being situated immediately south of, and parallel to, the main Reigate-to-Ashford railway line. It also has the town of Paddock Wood just to the west to aid identification – although for reasons of good airmanship you are requested not to approach or depart over the town itself.

Old Hay is owned by the very friendly and accommodating Roger Ludgate, who during a conversation on the ground offered up his field should any of us ever find ourselves going to or fro’ France and needing a weather divert.

At 676m long, and dead flat, it is plenty long enough for the typical GA machine – although Roger is in the process of ‘commissioning’ the paddock that effectively forms the undershoot at the eastern end, which would lengthen then strip to 1,000m+ and make it ‘warbird friendly’.

Old Hay also has the attraction if landing on 28 of offering the choice of landing over or through a wide break in a line of trees marking the threshold. Personally I went for the ‘through’ option, as did many others, as it’s just something you don’t get to experience very often elsewhere.

VB Shooting the Gap Through the Trees at Old Hay

Old Hay is definitely well worth a visit for anyone looking to try their hand at a genuine rural farm strip, and it will be interesting to see how the field evolves as it expands.

Swanborough Farm (650m)

At Old Hay it was time to hand the controls to Lee Goodwin, joining us for his first taste of farm strips, and head south-west down to Swanborough Farm, nestled at the foot of the South Downs just south of Lewes.

Because of a pronounced up-slope, the preferred procedure is to land on 24 and take off on 06 – which suited us, as that put the runway pretty much on the nose. A bit of caution has to be exercised when approaching from the northeast due to the proximity of the glider site at Ringmer and the strip at Deanland – plus not showing particularly well on the charts is a ridge about 2 miles short of the ridge you’re actually interested in: very easy to stare at the first ridge wondering where the hell the airfield is!

A fine straight-in approach and landing from Lee had us gently rolling up to the designated parking area by the hangars to the side of the runway. There is a further parking area (and a further hangar) on the north side of the strip, but getting to it involves taxying up a fearsomely steep grass taxiway, and so for that reason tends mainly to be used by home-based pilots only.

The strip is in an absolutely glorious location, with fine views of the escarpment behind and out across the Ouse valley in front. Over the years we’ve been to some very attractively located strips, but on a sunny summer’s day, I think this one takes some beating!

Parked Up at Swanborough Farm, the South Downs in the Background

Having revelled in our surroundings, it was time to swap pilots again, backtrack up to the 06 threshold, and then blast off eastwards for the quick 5nm hop to our next stop – the splendidly named Kittyhawk Farm.

Kittyhawk Farm (800m)

On our recce trip, Malcolm and I had had quite an interesting time trying to locate Kittyhawk Farm, but actually it turns out to be pretty straightforward. There’s a large solar farm on the north side, and a choice of two runways.

For the flight from Swanborough it turned out to be simplicity itself: track eastwards along the South Downs ridge, and then, when you’ve positively identified the field and Runway 34, drop in onto final and plop her down on the ground. 34 has a displaced threshold marked by cones, which it’s advisable to respect, but even so, if you bring it in slow and steady you should happily make the turn-off for the taxiway halfway along (and if not you can simply run on a bit further and turn round on the cross runway).

A lovely guy named Jack was our host at Kittyhawk and skilfully guided everyone in on his hand-held and marshalled us to park.

Teas and coffees were provided, along with a good chat about Jack and the owner’s plans for the field. They are in a beautifully isolated location, and would genuinely welcome visits from all NWFG pilots at any time (details in Pooleys).

Bathed in Sunshine at Kittyhawk Farm

With the clock ticking round towards 1 pm, and with stomachs beginning to rumble, it was soon time to head northeast for our lunch stop – Headcorn.

Headcorn (1250m)

I’m going to assume that Headcorn is very familiar to most pilots and therefore there’s no need to describe the strip itself. However, despite perhaps being ‘nothing new’, it does have a certain ramshackle charm of its own, and perhaps most importantly by this stage of proceedings, something that none of the other strips could offer – toilets and a café!

Typically Relaxed Summer Lunchtime Scene at Headcorn

Headcorn is also always a busy little strip with lots of interest going on, and today was no exception with the two-seat Spitfire being readied to take passengers aloft. The food on offer is always pretty straightforward ‘grub’, but no less welcome for it, and all Group pilots were soon suitably revitalised, ready to climb back in and head 10nm further east for our next destination: Hamilton Farm.

Hamilton Farm (630m)

On the recce flight, Hamilton Farm had proved a doddle. Situated just south of Ashford, you simply fly to the eastern end of the town, turn south-west, and there she is – straight ahead on the nose about two miles distant. You’re already on a slightly long final for 22, so drop her in over the woods – taking care to do a slight waggle around some noise-sensitive neighbours – and then let the pronounced upslope that marks the last third of the strip bleed away your speed until you roll to a halt at the top, and pull left and park. Simples.

So why then for reasons best known to myself did I elect to sail past Pete and Vrai, standing about a third of the way into the field to watch the arrivals, and stick her on the ground about halfway in?
I have always been of the view that using the brakes to finish off a landing is poor form; standing on them in the desperate hope that combined with the slope they might just stop you in time is therefore very poor form; and needing to taxy around a bit to allow your spatted brakes sufficient time to cool before sitting stationary on dry grass is a definite sign of supreme cack-handedness! As the supposed ‘old hand’ I suppose I should have turned to Lee and knowingly announced something like ‘And that, dear boy, demonstrates why going around should always be your first choice’, but I think my mouth was rather too dry. And to add insult to injury, we clambered out just in time to see Paul in ‘VB make a textbook approach and drop his bigger and heavier Archer gently on the numbers, no drama.

Despite my self-created problems, Hamilton Farm is a very nice little strip, and the owner, Richard, made us all very welcome and brewed up teas and coffees in the little ‘clubhouse’. Rather like Napps Field, which was visited on a previous farm strip fly-out, Hamilton Farm combines flying activities with a fishing lake, and the anglers seemed decidedly unfazed by our comings and goings.

With what looked like a Cb building, and with the wind swinging round as a result, we all decided to hit the skies again. The wind appeared now to favour an unconventional uphill take-off (at least the first half or so of the run would be flat) so, duly backed up as much as possible at the threshold of 22, we one-by-one put our best short-field technique to effect. For a new’ish pilot, Lee managed this exceptionally well, maintaining his composure as Fox-Charlie somewhat reluctantly lifted into the air and slowly clawed her way into the air to clear the trees beyond the boundary fence.

NUKA Demonstrates its Admirable Short-Field Take-Off Ability at Hamilton Farm

Woodchurch (750m)

Lee also did exceptionally well to manage the juggling of having the next destination so close by that a right-hand circuit out of Hamilton Farm effectively positions you immediately onto left hand downwind for 21 at Woodchurch. Nevertheless, a tight and professional circuit (pair of circuits?) was flown, and in no time at all we were alighting on the smooth, wide, flat grass of Woodchurch – bizarrely now in bright sunshine, the Cb seemingly having melted away as soon as it had started to build.

Woodchurch is absolutely delightful and is effectively the private grass strip attaching to a farmhouse owned by one Rob Davies, who has in the past operated his own private Mustang from there. Some years back Rob staged an annual airshow at Woodchurch, which by all accounts was a very fine airshow indeed, but what started as a relaxed ‘garden party’ quickly grew in popularity, with attendant increases in the need for bureaucracy etc., and so the airshow is now sadly a thing of the past.

All of us though wandered about, admiring the house, the hangar, and the immaculate and beautifully located airstrip, and felt a deep sense of ‘airstrip envy’: Rob is a fortunate man indeed! And having said that the airshow is a thing of the past, as we got ready to head back to the planes, over the field flew our own private air display, in the form of the two-seat Spitfire from Headcorn with a Harvard flying alongside to act as a camera-ship. A fantastic sight (and sound!) and a fitting way to sign off our visit and our day.

Glorious Setting at Woodchurch

The Spitfire and Harvard Bid us Farewell

And so it was time for all five crews to remount, fire up, and turn north-west for the straightforward flight in the late summer sunshine back up to North Weald, landing back around 5 pm after another long, but very enjoyable day sampling the delights of some out-of-the-way airstrips in some beautiful locations.

My thanks as ever to all the crews for conducting themselves in a professional and exemplary fashion, and to the strip owners and operators for allowing us to visit.