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Review: Redhill Airfield

PUBLISHED: 11:04 08 June 2018 | UPDATED: 13:09 08 June 2018

Redhill Airfield

Redhill Airfield

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Nick Bloom visits Redhill near Gatwick to meet the staff and visitors at this up and coming airfield that is not as daunting as it might appear, given its location.

Some of the wooden buildings at the airfield pre-date WWIISome of the wooden buildings at the airfield pre-date WWII

Redhill aerodrome is tucked inside Gatwick zone, which, I’m told, tends to put off visitors by air. That’s a shame, because flying in is easy; I used to visit all the time in a Jodel which didn’t even have radio. You can still fly in non-radio (in exceptional circumstances), and without using a transponder, but only if you phone ahead. A transponder is only required when the north-south runway is in use. Another complication is that there is no licensed hard runway and the three grass ones are easily waterlogged.

Today, visitors are being directed to land on the taxiway, which doubles as an unlicensed runway. It is undulating, narrow and a touch short... but little problem for most. A local pilot lands his Cirrus on it. And the fact that he does, and that he keeps Cirrus at Redhill, and also his 1932 Spartan Arrow, tells you a lot about the airfield. It’s still got something of the old Tiger Club spirit.

The Tiger Club came to Redhill in 1959 and remained there for the next thirty years. I was a member in the 1980s and have fond memories of flying club Turbulents, Tiger Moths and Stampes around the local area, and of afternoons chatting in the club room. Then, as now (at Headcorn, its new base) the club offered open cockpit flying and aerobatic training in classic types to pilots on a limited budget (visit www.tigerclub.co.uk). The airfield was founded in 1933 by the Redhill Flying Club. The RAF Volunteer Flying Reserve began training here in 1937 and built the first hangar − it survives today. In WWII the aerodrome was a fighter base, then, in the late 1940s, it was used for aircraft maintenance in support of civil flying at Croydon and Kenley.

The RAFVR left in the 1950s. Bristow arrived in 1960 and set up a helicopter pilot training operation. The company left in 1999, but helicopter training still continues on the airfield. When I first joined the Tiger Club there was a rather ramshackle wooden control tower equipped with Aldis lamps for directing aircraft. Radios were fitted to the club fleet and then the modern tower and terminal building were constructed in 1986. In 1991 ownership was transferred from British and Commonwealth Ltd to the present incumbent, Redhill Aerodrome Ventures Ltd. The airfield is well signposted, always encouraging for visitors.

The Pilot's Hub viewing platform has proved tremendously popular with visitorsThe Pilot's Hub viewing platform has proved tremendously popular with visitors

As I drive in, I can see two pilots about to fly a Chipmunk, so park rather cheekily on the apron next to a Land Rover and dash over. No one makes trouble about this, or raises any Health & Safety issues, nor am I once asked to wear a hi-vis jacket during my visit. Ian Mills and Alex Livingston tell me they’ve flown the Chippie all over the place, including to Africa, though today they are heading to North Weald. “We’ve been here thirty years,” they say. “It’s a nice airfield, though it could do with a proper hard runway. The locals are distrustful of any development and there are two councils to deal with.

The new Pilot’s Hub restaurant is a great improvement, and a good reason to fly in, but Redhill frightens people. I can’t think why.” I can see The Hub, which has a viewing platform overlooking the apron and runways. It has been opened since my last visit and looks promising... but I can’t investigate now; it’s ten a.m. and the airfield is rapidly stirring to life. I grab another pair about to depart.

Martin and Lorraine Cundey are prepping their Tobago for a flight to Enstone. “I think we may be the longest private owner residents,” they tell me. “We came here in 1976. We also have a Duchess here, in the same colour scheme. The management are friendly. There was a period when GA was seen as a bit of a nuisance, but the present regime couldn’t be more helpful. They kept the airfield open until eleven p.m. to allow night flying for four days over the summer and there’s talk of further improvements.”

Next I buttonhole Patrick Vice, who’s 31, installs kitchens and bathrooms and is five hours into his microlight NPPL with Cloudbase. “I’ve flown at a few clubs at different airfields and I think Phil [his instructor] is the best,” he says. “Also, I like Redhill; it feels like a real airfield rather than a farm patch and you can speak to the Tower.” He’s flying for recreation for now, but he says he may consider a career change later.

SATCO and Deputy SATCO in Redhill's modern, well-equipped towerSATCO and Deputy SATCO in Redhill's modern, well-equipped tower

I say goodbye to Patrick and meet Neville Howard and his seventeen-year-old son William, about to take another Tobago flying, this one group-owned by ten pilots. “We’ll go to Nottingham if the mist there now clears.” Neville has been based at Redhill for twelve years. William comes with him on flights four or five times a year. “His sisters are at university in Norwich and Liverpool, so we fly to visit them,” says Neville. “Redhill has a nice atmosphere. People know each other and help each other out. It’s got an old school feel to it and now there are two cafés, which is fantastic. The taxiway is a bit narrow but useable in the winter months when all the runways are waterlogged.”

Next I meet James. He’s a 51-year-old Financial Research Analyst, who has come for a trial lesson with the second of Redhill’s microlight clubs, Redhill Sport Fliers, in its C42. While I’m talking to these private pilots, things are happening around us. I see a helicopter with ‘BBC News’ on the side being readied for flight, another operated by the Police and a further one operated by the Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance. A row of hangar with ‘Arena Filming and VIP Charters’ above their doors seems to be the only tenancy where nothing is currently stirring.

At the far end of the apron, more helicopters are being started up by EBG Helicopters. The company offers PPL (H) training, charter, sightseeing and a range of other services. The training fleet has several types to choose from: Robinson R22 and R44, Guimbal Cabri G2 and Gazelle SA341G. I find a trio chatting inside what used to be the Tiger Club hangar and introduce myself. The first of the three is youngster Simon Petitt, who works at Cubair−one of three Group A flying schools on the airfield −and is shortly to start training with CTC for his Commercial licence.

The older of the three is Ian Sharman, who has just sold his RV8 and is here to meet and brief the ferry pilot. Ian, retired now, was a Captain with BA. The third is Chris Mann, who has recently gained his Commercial and is lined up −“If all goes well” − to start flying with Easyjet. Chris owns a share in the Jodel Mousquetaire they’re standing next to. Ian used to own a share, and that, plus chatting in the hangar, is how the three became friends.

A number of companies offer helicopter flight training; a throwback to when Bristow was based hereA number of companies offer helicopter flight training; a throwback to when Bristow was based here

“The new café has brought the airfield to life,” Ian tells me.

“But isn’t there a café here already?” I ask.

“There is,” he explains, “But the new place does lattes where the other one is more ‘Coffee-mate’. It’s okay, but a bit ‘greasy spoon’. The new one is more up-market, and it’s in the right place. It’s given the airfield a focal point, which it badly needed.”

Ian points to a stencilled sign on the wall; ‘MUSTANG’. “That’s been here since WWII when the Poles and Americans flew from here,” he says. “This is Hangar 8. The new Pilot’s Hub café’s in Hangar 9, next door, which was built in 1934.”

Just coming out of Cubair I meet the charming Charlotte Dadswell, who has been instructing for four years, the last eighteen months at Cubair. Now 34, she started flying “for fun” in 2005 after working in a variety of office jobs. “What I like best about this place,” she tells me, “is the variety in our fleet: Katana, Warrior, Slingsby, DA40 and, best of all, because I love tailwheel flying, Super Cub.” I take her photograph in front of the Cub, which is painted to look like an L-4, and leave her to her next student.

Outside two people are doing something to Cubair’s bright yellow Slingsby T67. Class Rating Instructor Mike Ellis tells me he’s fixing a camera to the top of the fin to film a taxiway check out. “We’re going to make a film to assist with briefings,” he says, “And then we might film some aeros”. I am due to meet the Airfield Manager,

British International Helicopter's huge maintenance and storage hangarBritish International Helicopter's huge maintenance and storage hangar

Phil Wright. I make enquiries and discover that he’s probably in the Tower and it’s okay to drive there in my car if I keep my flashers on and obey the signs at intersections.

I find him controlling traffic in the Tower (he’s a SATCO) alongside Deputy SATCO Fraser. They’re both busy with movements, so I agree to meet Phil in the café later, take some photos and leave. Next I meet Management Consultant Steve Scott with Tom, his 26-year-old son. They are heading out to their Cessna 172J, one of a half-dozen aircraft staked out on the grass at the foot of the Tower. They’re on their way to Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. Steve has been flying from Redhill since 1990, and he’s had the Cessna for three years. “This is just a brilliant place,” he says. “The only drawback is the waterlogged runways. The ATC service is excellent, though and it’s always vibrant here. There’s a buzz. Tom’s learning to fly here and this is where I learned too.”

I drive back to my parking spot on the apron and set off on foot south-west up an incline. This, I know from my last visit, is where I’ll find some more flying schools and the airfield’s original café. First I pass British International Helicopters’ huge maintenance and storage hangar. BIH is the largest British-owned helicopter operator and the only British-owned company in the offshore helicopter sector. Then The London Helicopter, which operates a fleet of AS350 Single Squirrel helicopters here and at The London Heliport (Battersea). One of its helicopters appears to be giving someone a sightseeing ride as I walk past.

Finally I arrive at some wooden buildings with a few aircraft staked out in front.

Service comes with a smile at the Pilot's HubService comes with a smile at the Pilot's Hub

There are two businesses on the airfield that I won’t get to visit because both are closed today. The first is pmFlight, which has an A320 and a 737 simulator with trainers for hire here (visit www.pmflight. co.uk for more details). The second is the

Redhill Air Services’ maintenance hangar way off in the far corner, which I’m told has half a dozen engineers. Its chief is Al Gomes, who owns the company and has a large fleet of aircraft which he leases to flying schools. He recently bought Redhill Aviation, one of the three Group A flying schools at Redhill.

On the grass in front of the wooden buildings just disembarking from a Cessna 152, I meet Harvard Aviation instructor Jeff Parks with student Andy Baldwin. Andy, 44, is a Construction Project Manager and he has just landed from his first flying lesson. Harvard has five instructors, three Cessna 152s, a PA-28 and another branch with two more aircraft at Shoreham. I go inside and meet Harvard’s owner, 65-year-old Norman Mcgowan. He shows me the company’s flight simulator.

I should visit Redhill Aviation next, but somehow miss its entrance. However, I do phone later and speak to Lawrence Harley, one of the instructors. The club has a fleet of Cessna 152s, including an Aerobat and also a PA-28. Islam, the school’s Head of

Operations and its owner before Al Gomes bought it, has recently begun the process that will enable the club to teach Commercial. At present Redhill Aviation instructs PPL up to IMC, plus other ratings, including aerobatics. Also up here is Redhill Sport Fliers, which instructs on its C42 microlight. The other, somewhat bigger microlight club at Redhill, Cloudbase Aviation, has two CTs and is down the hill at Hangar 9.

Richard Blain at the controls of his company's CessnaRichard Blain at the controls of his company's Cessna

Dominating this slightly rabbit-warren like cluster of wooden buildings − Lawrence says some are RAFVR and actually predate WWII−is the airfield’s ‘other’ restaurant, the Redhill Aerodrome Café. Here a mug of coffee is £1.30 and the Early Riser Breakfast is £4.80. The café has the two generously-sized rooms −one more dining, the other more club lounge − and both are busy.

It’s time for me to go back down the hill and meet Phil Wright and finally get to sample the new Pilot’s Hub Brasserie and Coffee House. What can I say? It’s wonderful. A bacon butty is four quid, so it isn’t much dearer than its opposite number up the hill. Here the bacon is from a local farmer and the bread is, I quote, ‘Artisan brown or white supplied by Chalk Hills Bakery’. The bacon sarnie, my made-on-the-premises slice of Victoria sponge cake, plus my ‘proper’ brewed Americano and later the tea, served properly in a pot, are all highly recommended and sufficient reason alone for you to fly here.

The food is great, but even better is the setting; right next to the taxiway and overlooking the airfield, which is, as it’s always been, beautiful. I gather that landing pilots, who used to report in and pay landing fees at an office next to the Tower are now directed here – thus ‘Pilot’s Hub’ (www.pilotshub.co.uk).

I photograph Deputy Manager Max Williment with two of the three waitresses. Should you choose to lunch rather more cheaply up the hill, I bet it’s good too. Phil arrives. First I ask him about flying in. “You need a transponder when we’re using Runway 18/36,” he says, “because it points at Gatwick. That’s about a quarter of the time, but if you don’t have a transponder and phone ahead, it should be okay. You also should be familiar with our VRPs. Charts are downloadable off our website www.redhillaerodrome.com.

Aircraft with tailskids can taxi across the grass and we’ll give them, or anything else interesting, a discount on the landing fee, which is £18.33 plus VAT for a MTOW under tonne. Hangarage is around £350 a month plus VAT and there are about eighty aeroplanes based here.” Phil tells me there are plans to repair and upgrade the taxiway, “we may even straighten it where it kinks,” and to upgrade the landing lights on Runway 26 and eventually make them pilot-operable. “And we are developing GNSS approaches.”

At this point he introduces me to Jessica Blain, wife of the man responsible for the new restaurant. He also leases two hangars on the airfield. She and I go out to look at the Spartan Arrow, which she says is her favourite out of his aeroplanes. She doesn’t fly herself, but enjoys being a passenger. I ask what it’s like being taken up in this elegant 1930s tourer. She says, “It makes the world look so beautiful. It takes a long time to get anywhere and it’s a bit noisy, but it’s such a graceful aeroplane that it doesn’t matter.”

Her husband Richard has heard that I’m here and is coming to meet me. While he’s on his way, I drop in on Cubair, the Group A flying school occupying what was once the Tiger Club’s premises. In the school’s Reception − an area where the Tiger Club pilots’ fleecelined leather flying jackets, helmets and goggles once hung − I meet Nikki Taplin who, with her husband Daryl, owns the club. With her are sixteen-year-old Nat Hiscocks (“I do the Ops on Saturdays”) and instructor Mark Briggs. Nikki tells me the club currently has fifty active members, and the Katana’s training rate is £178.50. She and her husband took over the club in 1997. “It started with Cubs − thus the name− and when we added Katanas, it brought in a lot of business. They were different and modern, which people liked,” she says. “Business dipped in the recession, then was steady for a while and now it’s improving. This is a nice airfield to fly from, especially in summer when the grass dries.” I ask about the taxiway. “It’s 550 metres long, ten metres wide and not quite straight, which makes it okay for navigation exercises, but not circuit training,” she says.

Back in The Pilot’s Hub Richard has arrived, but he’s busy in the kitchen and with the serving staff, obviously a ‘hands-on’ manager in a way I rather admire. I noticed his wife Jessica was the same, taking food orders, serving people and clearing tables. While I’m waiting I get into conversation with Hann Redwin whose Pipistrel motorised glider I spotted in a small hangar near the Tower. He’s here with his companion Patsy Frankham to conduct some tests on the Pipistrel. Hann used to fly for the airlines and is a serial homebuilder with what sounds like a superbly-equipped workshop (a lathe is mentioned) in Newgate. After completing two homebuilds and almost finishing a third, a Zenair, if I understood him correctly, he’s abandoning aircraft building to concentrate on sailing, which I gather is more Patsy’s thing.

Richard Blain arrives. Aged 44, he has a company, Aerospace Resources, with around twenty employees. Activities include operating an Islander in Scotland and supplying parts for military aircraft. That’s by no means all − another business is a healthcare company which uses a Cirrus. As well as flying the Cirrus (based here), the Spartan Arrow, a light twin and other types, he has had a share in a Stampe since 1996. Richard’s father was the Shuttleworth’s photographer and is a keen pilot; he bought the Spartan Arrow. Richard learned to fly aged seventeen, has around 1,200 hours and a CPL/IR. At one time he worked for Farnborough Aircraft. He has been flying from Redhill for eighteen years.

“It struck me,” he says, “that the airfield needed a centre of gravity when we took over Hangar 9, which was in a sorry state, and we decided to develop it. It’s now home to sixteen aeroplanes and, of course The Pilot’s Hub. And we’re in the process of adding another room for functions, which will have a liquor licence. We’ve been actively trying to get more of the public to come here, using Twitter and various websites to get them in.”

He tells me about a half-hour feature on the airfield which can be seen on www.livingsurrey.co.uk Richard says, “Once they’re here, I want to draw the public, especially potential pilots and children, in to the flying.” He shows me a series of laminated cards headed, ‘Things to look out for during your visit’, including, for instance, a picture of someone swinging the propeller on a Tiger Moth to start the engine and diagrams showing the effect of wind on aeroplanes. Richard is also keen to get more pilots to fly in. “People think it will be complicated because of Gatwick, but it isn’t,” he says.

He is called away to deal with something and I nip to the loo; only not nip exactly, because you have to walk round the inside perimeter of Hangar 9 to get there. The walk is roped off and insidethe ropes there are chairs and tables if you choose to sit and look at the aeroplanes inside rather than outside. I mention the walk to Richard. “We thought it would be a disadvantage at first,” says Richard, “but then we decided to make a feature of it. Visitors love being able to walk past the aeroplanes.”

We soon get some evidence of this when I see two little girls watching a Chipmunk taxying past, obviously fascinated. I ask their mum if I might photograph them. Their names are Daisy (three) and Abigail (four) Gunner. Their mother Melanie says, “I read about this place on Mum’s Facebook for Redhill and Reigate which has, would you believe, 3,000 members. It came recommended, especially for children.”

“There’s one more thing I need to do before I leave,” I say to Richard and tell him how we usually have an overhead photograph of the runway layout. “No problem,” he says. “I’ll take you in our Cessna 150.” After starting up, we listen to the ATIS − which is warning incoming pilots that landings are currently on the taxiway − and then Richard talks to the Tower. He runs through the usual pre-take off checks and, I notice, did a thorough pre-flight check. Although I am aware that the light is going, I rather like this; it’s reassuring.

We taxi past Runway 18, past the Tower and the parallel runways 26R and 26L then stop to wait for other circuit traffic. Next we enter the long taxiway on the southern edge that’s roughly parallel to the Runway 26s, but only to backtrack, finally lining up on a heading of 07. Once in the circuit, the sun’s in the wrong position and the light’s turning milky. On the other hand, the Cessna 150’s window has a removable latch, so I can keep it fully open. Also Richard sums up the situation and does a great job positioning the aeroplane in a rather unconventional circuit. The Tower is flexible too.

In a few minutes, I have my photos and we are able to drop down to land. The taxiway looks a little daunting during the approach − too thin and not straight − but when we get below fifty feet it doesn’t seem so narrow and I can see that it’s actually quite easy to land on; at least in a two-seat Cessna. Redhill has something for everyone; bargain basement flying in a C42 microlight, or something more up-market in a Katana or Guimbal Cabri G2, and now the same range of choice in food and beverages. Richard Blain is one of a small group of movers and shakers who − thankfully for the rest of us − bravely take up the cause of a struggling airfield and transform it. Pilot readers I urge you to brave Gatwick Zone and give The Pilot’s Hub a try.

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