Airfield Profile: Headcorn
PUBLISHED: 10:54 24 May 2017 | UPDATED: 10:54 24 May 2017
All-grass Lashenden has been in the same family for ninety years and now features everything from microlight training to parachute jumping to Spitfire rides
If you like grass runways, classic aircraft and a good restaurant, look no further; Headcorn (listed in the flight guides as Lashenden) is one of the best. The airfield is in open countryside between Maidstone and Ashford, an area of Kent dotted with hop gardens and orchards, and is handily adjacent to a straight railway line, making it easy to find by air. Its position halfway between London and the short Channel crossing makes it a popular stopping-off point en route to the Continent.
It also has a remarkable history, being owned by the same family since 1927 and seeing service in the Great War (WWI) and WWII. I’ve been a regular visitor long enough to remember when the airfield was run by Chris Freeman; now his son Jamie manages it.
I arrive at Headcorn just as the airfield opens at nine. My radio call is met with QFE and a direction to join downwind for Runway 28 (always a left-hand circuit at Headcorn). It is PPR and I telephoned yesterday, so I’m in the book. I clear the runway and park in line with the other aircraft. Visiting aircraft are common, especially in the summer months. People fly here for the atmosphere and the restaurant, plus there is the usual student cross-country traffic. Later, Jamie tells me it’s not uncommon in good weather to get a dozen aircraft a day land here to clear Customs on their way to the Continent.
Pilots do have to be careful because of the parachute club and visitors must obtain prior permission by telephone.
The Air/Ground radio service here is one where I don’t have to throttle back before transmitting in order to be heard; they’re clearly used to open cockpits and high background noise. The website has noise abatement procedures and other information and is worth a look before phoning for prior permission.
Jamie Freeman is pulling out a club C172 with a tractor and gives me a wave of welcome. We go into the restaurant and I ask Jamie what changes there have been in the five years since I last profiled the airfield. The Tiger Club has gone, but other tenants have taken its place, so things are as busy as ever, he says. Currently there are 30,000 movements a year. Some 65 aircraft are based on the airfield.
Jamie is 58 and owns half of Headcorn; his cousins and uncle owning the other half. He got his pilot’s licence in 1987 and has logged 650 hours. I ask if he owns an aircraft and he says, “Yes, thirteen!” but it turns out he is referring to what are effectively club training machines−his company owns them and leases them to a number of instructors, each of whom is self-employed. There are Cessnas, Robins, PA-28s and−recently acquired−a Cub, “and I fly all of them”. His favourites are the Cub and Robin.
In the years before the war, Jamie’s grandmother Betty was a friend of Geoffrey de Havilland jr, who subsequently became a test pilot and was killed test-flying a DH108 in 1946. Jamie’s grandfather, Denby Naismith, was a keen pilot, and in later years he also became a test pilot, test-flying among other aircraft types, the Cessna 150, which first flew in 1957.
I’m curious to know what it must have been like, growing up on a family-owned airfield. I ask when he started flying. “About the age of seven,” he says. “It would have been with my mother as pilot, to France in the family Auster. We had relatives living in Berck sur Mer, and she flew there a lot, sometimes just to buy some baguettes.
My sister Elizabeth and I travelled by air so often as children that taking a train instead was a novelty and a treat.” Today Jamie’s sister lives in America. Jamie has two daughters: Alice, who’s eighteen and aims to get her pilot’s licence this year and Emily, who is sixteen. “Alice takes after my father Chris,” he says, “She’s cool under pressure. Emily takes after her mother: she’s dexterous and wants to be a vet like her mum, whose practice is based here on the farm.”
Jamie’s mother, Diana got her pilot’s licence in Canada and met his father, Chris, through motor racing; they were both keen amateur racing drivers. “It was she who was mainly responsible for getting this airfield going again post-war. After pre-war civilian flying, and following the RAF’s departure, it had fallen into disuse; she got it running again.”
He continues: “My mother bought Auster G-AJEI, for my father and she flew the other family Auster, G-AJGJ. We had a lot of flying friends, some famous. Neville Browning used to fly his Zlin here and stayed with us regularly. He was a great family friend.” I ask if his father Chris was also a pilot. “Not a qualified pilot, no. He went solo, but was too busy to get his pilot’s licence.” Jamie, too, finds running an airfield (plus farm) means that he can spare little time for flying. The 250-acre farm used to be mixed, with sheep, pigs, dairy and arable farming, but these days is just grazing for sheep and cattle.
The first flying school at Headcorn opened in 1970, when Jamie was eleven. He has always been interested in engineering, particularly British engineering. “I own half a dozen old tractors and a 1943 grader,” he says, “all British-made. And I started working on aeroplanes early. I did a two-year apprenticeship with Martin Sargeant, who had a workshop restoring vintage Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars. He had a single-seat Spitfire and was killed when it crashed at an air show at Rouen in 2001.
I also used to rebuild V-8 Rovers for my father.”
Jamie is now the licensee for the aerodrome and the licensee (in a different sense) for the Wings Bar, which is on the airfield but in a separate building, adjacent to the car park. He is also the accountable manager for the engineering EASA Part-145 compliance, and chairman of the airfield consultation committee. He was primarily occupied in farming until the mid-1980s. “Dad could be rather peppery,” he says, “And he eventually fell out with the CAA. They threatened to revoke his licence, so I took over that part.”
One of the most exciting developments at the airfield is the arrival of Aero Legends, which specialises in flight experiences in Spitfires and also the Tiger Moth, Harvard and de Havilland Dove. The company’s headquarters are here at Headcorn and it also operates out of Sywell. Passenger rides in a two-seat Spitfire began at Headcorn two years ago and Aero Legends has just unveiled an additional two-seat Spitfire to be based at Headcorn alongside the single-seater already there.
The de Havilland Dove, which used to belong to Air Atlantique and is now owned by Aero Legends, will also be based at Headcorn. Customers will be able to fly as passengers in the Dove for trips over London. It is a beautiful, historic aircraft that first flew in 1945. Originally it had a crew of two and carried eight passengers and was designed for short-haul airline work. As regards its new duties, Jamie explains, “The most exciting thing about the Dove is its speed. It has a 170kt cruise, which means it can comfortably be flown in formation alongside the Spitfire, allowing passengers to see the iconic fighter in flight and take their own photographs of it.”
The Group A flying school at Headcorn is Weald Air Services Limited, which hires aircraft to the seven instructors based here. Julie Kelley is the operations manager. In addition to PPL, multi- and IMC training are on offer. Tailwheel instruction will be added soon. A handful of students are learning aerobatics in a CAP 10 based here and Jamie says, “Just yesterday I had a meeting with Diana Britten about how we can encourage low-hour PPLs to get on the aerobatic ladder.”
There is an aircraft maintenance and refurbishment facility on the airfield, Shenley Farms (Engineering) Limited, which has six engineers. The hangar that houses it is fully dedicated to aircraft work and is exceptionally clean and spacious. Most of the privately owned aircraft based on the airfield are housed in the huge−and also spotless−hangar which Jamie installed some eight years ago. Two aerial photography companies are on the airfield: FotoFlite has two Senecas and specialises in marine photography (it has the world’s largest library of aerial photographs of ships) and Bill Giles’s Giles Aviation has two Aztecs. “Bill photographs seals and whales and also works with the BBMF and Google,” says Jamie. The parachute club has a Cessna 208 Caravan and an Islander.
Skybus Ballooning has its headquarters in a hut on the airfield and offers hot air balloon rides from here−although Headcorn is just one of seven possible launch sites in the area, depending on weather conditions.
Then there is Thurston Helicopters, which teaches PPL(H) on an R22 and R44. It has three instructors and has been based at the airfield since 1989, whereas Flight Sport Aviation, which offers NPPL training in microlights, started here just last year. It has two C42s and is based here and in Spain. Air Training Corps 500 Squadron is located here, as is Maidstone Model Club which flies radio controlled models up to and including quarter-scale.
The hangars are full and there is a waiting list. The cost of inside parking is £260 a month plus VAT. The landing fee for a PA-28 is £13. Inside the hangars there is a wonderful array of classic and aerobatic aircraft. When Jamie shows me round, I see a Proctor, several Stampes, a Tiger Moth, a CAP 10, Richard Pickin’s CAP 232 and Bücker Jungmann, a Stearman, some Slingsbys, a few unusual ‘ragwing’ Pipers, and a new-looking weightshift microlight, plus some Cessnas and Pipers.
Jamie offers to take me round the airfield so that I can see for myself what’s where. We start with Keith Butler, who is the engineering office manager. He’s in one of a row of offices lining the corridor behind the pilot check-in room. Next, Jamie introduces me to Julie Kelley, the flying school operations manager and Max Couch, one of the instructors.
Max takes us into an adjacent room where he has a flight simulator equipped for IMC training. Further up the corridor, Jamie shows me the doctor’s room, complete with couch, for pilots undergoing their medical with Dr Peter Player, who comes here by appointment. Outside we encounter two chaps in BT Openreach uniforms. It seems they’re not here to fix anything; they’re on a break and have come to get a coffee and look at the aeroplanes.
When we return to the student reception area, a little group has gathered. Torben Theisen is an instructor aged 25, who previously worked as a builder and then in flight operations. He lives in the village and says, “I teach in everything, including twins. Today I’m flying the parachute club Caravan.
Headcorn is a great airfield to teach flying from, with lots of free airspace and plenty of ground references to help students find it. And everyone’s friendly. And there’s maintenance and also a good spread of aircraft to keep things interesting. Students come from London. One chap who’s doing his IMC comes here from Brighton.” Also in the group is Andrew Boxall, who is the ground manager. Andrew is learning to fly. Thirdly, I meet Andrew Viall, 54, who is an instructor, CAA examiner and parachute drop pilot.
He switched from being an office manager at Barclays Bank to a career as a flying instructor when he was 33. He says, “All my flying has been at Headcorn. The set-up here suits me; it has a sort of frozen-in-time feeling. I love all the different types of flying you see here and that it’s an all-grass aerodrome.”
Jamie’s cousin and airfield co-owner Lynn Hesketh arrives with her father John. Lynn lives in Singapore (she’s MD of a company serving expats) and is on a visit. She is a 160-hour pilot and has come to have a flight in a club Robin, weather allowing. It has finally started to pick up, although there’s still too much cloud for any parachute dropping. John Freeman, who is 87, tells me that there were seventy Mustangs based on the airfield when he was a boy of fourteen and, “The Americans let us children sit in them”.
He still flies and owns a TB-10. He says, “I remember, two days after D-Day, Eisenhower flying from here in a two-seat Mustang. The pilot was Colonel Bickle and he came back for a visit after the war.”
Jamie takes me through the restaurant to visit the parachute club and other tenants, and we stop on the way so that he can introduce Andy, 24, and Trakan, 21. They both work in the engineering facility and both also study engineering at Northbrook College. He also introduces me to John Dean, who is currently serving in the restaurant, which is filling up now, mostly with people who have come to parachute or who work in the parachute club. John works in engineering and toay is helping out his partner, Jackie, who runs the restaurant.
Earlier in my visit, I met two ladies in the restaurant, there to take a tandem parachute jump. Mother-of-two Leslie Drake runs a business dealing in disposables and chemicals and mother-of-three, Susan Davies runs a ‘meals on wheels’ business. Both are in their forties. It’s a birthday treat for Susan, “But we’re both jumping”, they tell me.
“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, and we thought now or never...”
In the parachute club office, I meet David Parker, who started parachuting at Headcorn in 1979. He is MD of Headcorn Parachute Club. There are actually two businesses; the other is Skydive Headcorn. Jane Hopkins is the general manager. David says he has worked with Jane for 37 years. And outside in the office is Pete Sizer, the chief instructor. I ask David if parachuting has changed since 1979. “Everything’s changed,” he says. “We use totally different equipment and we do different things. Then we used round parachutes and jumps were solo, using static lines to open the parachutes.
Today they’re oblong sails with a much softer landing, the tandem passengers wear a special harness clipped to the instructor, and there’s a host of additional safety devices.”
I ask about the line of chalets−basic overnight accommodation−that are still part of the parachute set-up at Headcorn. “At first we tried doing all the training you used to require on the same day as the jump, but we came to realise that it was too much to do in one day.
You needed a night’s rest before jumping, or else you were likely to forget something. So we laid on the chalets. They’re still used, mind you, by some of the 150 members a year who take the course so that they can skydive solo−there are two or three using them now. Of course most people come here for the tandem jump and there’s much less training needed if you’re going to jump with an instructor. We’re currently running at 30,000 tandem jumps a year.”
We move on to Thurston Helicopters, where I meet James Tuke, who is MD and head of training. He says, “Headcorn is a great place to train helicopter pilots because we have unrestricted airspace, plenty of room to practise hovering and good relations with the other users.
Helicopter pilots need to be especially careful when parachutists are around and the precautions we have in place are sensible−visiting helicopter pilots must be briefed by phone for that reason, if no other. Our students are mostly from the local area, but we get them from all over; London as well as Maidstone, Ashford and Tunbridge Wells, for instance. Training in the R22 starts at £259 an hour, which includes VAT.” Seeing activity by the Thurston Helicopters’ R44, I go over to investigate. Gerald Hodges, a co-director and instructor, and fruit farmer Sean Charlton are about to take a local flight to continue Sean’s training. He already has his PPL(H) and eighty hours’ flying time.
An Extra 300 has just started its engine near the fuel pumps so Jamie and I go across to say hello. The pilots are kind enough to shut down and open the canopy so that we can talk to them. Matthew Morris, 26 and Shaun Fisher, 25 are both Ryanair pilots based at Stansted and they are flying the Extra to York, where Matt’s going to have some training in advanced aerobatics from Tom Cassells (who is a three-times British Aerobatics champion at Unlimited). The Extra 300 belongs to Shaun and he is being trained by Michael Pickin (son of another famous aerobatic pilot, Richard) who, like Tom has been a British team member at international events.
The Pickins have had a long association with Headcorn. Jamie tells Matt and Shaun about his meeting with Diana Britten (another aerobatic ace) and everyone agrees it’s great that youngsters in their twenties are joining the (mostly) older aerobatic competition pilots. Michael Pickin was the youngest pilot to compete at Unlimited−23 at the time−and is currently Advanced Champion.
Next on the tour list is Aero Legends. It occupies a two-storey building which dates back to the 1940s, but has been completely refurbished and re-styled. Downstairs are mostly empty briefing offices, but upstairs we find Elliot Styles, sales and marketing, Clive Matthews, sales and customer care, and Wayne Marsh, ground operations manager.
They pose for a photograph and give me a couple of brochures, one detailing the refurbishment and history of the new addition to the Aero Legends fleet, two-seat Spitfire NH341, which saw service in 411 squadron. The brochure includes extracts from NH341’s logbook, the earliest dated 14 June 1944−a fifty-minute sortie beginning at 22:10 escorting Lancasters on a raid on the E-boat docks at Le Havre.
There is a museum on the airfield commemorating its WWII service and Jamie shows me a building under construction which will provide more extensive accommodation.
Next we enter the main hangar, which is large and impressive, not least because of the number of classics inside. Towards the back I meet an old friend, Ian White, now 69 whom I last met a dozen years ago when we were both in the Stampe Club. Ian flies and at one time co-owned Richard Pickin’s Bücker Jungmann and he has dropped by to see the engine installation following refurbishment by Vintec.
Nearby we see Alan Bennett-Turner carrying out an annual inspection on the Hughes 300C, which is part of Brendan O’Brien’s Flying Circus. Alan was a disc jockey in the mid-1960s. Known then as Alan ‘Neddy’ Turner, he was one of the founders of pirate station Radio Caroline. Outside the hangar we find Chris Childs prepping one of Flight Sport Aviation’s C42s−he’s flying it to Lewes where he’s booked to give lessons to a couple of students.
The weather has lifted now, the promised warm air has arrived and the airfield is coming to life. It’s time for me to start up the Wot and fly home. Headcorn is clearly thriving and has lost none of its character. I’ve always found it a most amiable place and today’s thoroughly enjoyable visit is no exception.