Airfield Profile: Breighton
Home of the Real Aeroplane Club, Breighton houses a valuable collection of historic aircraft, yet offers a down-to-earth, friendly welcome to all...
I used to live not far from Breighton — in the days before I could afford to fly, when its runways were crumbling Cold War relics and this ex-Bomber Command airfield was being used as a base for a crop-dusting operation, with a resident Grumman Ag-Cat and Piper Pawnee. Thirty-five years later and boy, has it changed — and very positively, too. Breighton (pronounced ‘Breeton’) is now the undisputed centre for vintage and classic aviation in the North of England. Located in the flatlands of Yorkshire, where rivers converge to flow into the Humber Estuary, the aerodrome is easy to find from the air. The vast cooling towers of the Drax power station to the south are great landmarks — as long as you don’t mistake them for the other cooling towers further west — and the nearby motorways, town of Selby, and York to the north help too. The River Derwent flows close along the western perimeter. The current aerodrome is at the south-western corner of the wartime airfield, as industrial complexes have taken over the remainder of the old airfield. A source of confusion for some visiting pilots is that the black tarmac strip aligned 11/29 is actually the taxiway, parallel to the main 850m grass runway just to its north. The taxiway has ‘X’ at each end to warn pilots in doubt, and it dates from a brief period in Breighton’s history when its owner operated an L-39 Albatros jet from the field. When flying to Breighton from the south you will probably speak to Doncaster (Robin Hood) and RAF Cottesmore who are usually very helpful. To the north, Teeside and the military are friendly too. Church Fenton is the closest MATZ service in- or out-bound to the north-west, followed by Leeming who are always much busier. Also to the west is Leeds who will provide a LARS service. There is an abundance of other small airfields in the vicinity and the RAC have reciprocal landing agreements with many of these, including Bagby, Sherburn, Wickenby, Netherthorpe, Sturgate and Rufforth. My hosts at Breighton are Tony ‘Taff’ Smith and Chief Engineer Ian Ross. Everyone I meet is extremely hospitable and welcoming, all keen to talk about the airfield and the pleasure they get from operating their aircraft here. The aerodrome is unlicensed, owned and operated by The Real Aeroplane Company — pilots who fly from Breighton are all members of The Real Aeroplane Club (RAC), and their well-appointed club house is manned at weekends by volunteers who provide catering for members and visitors. During the week there are often members hanging out in the club house, and there’s no excuse for you to leave without a cup of tea and a cake. Until recently, there was no flying training school, but changes to the CAA’s ruling on training at unlicensed airfields have made a huge difference. On 8 October 2011 the York Flying School (YFS) opened its doors using a Cessna 150 and 172 for flight training and hire, with Mickey Kaye and Matt Walker the CFI and instructor. The school is open during daylight hours on Saturday and Sunday, and during the week on request. (Due to demand, they now fly regularly on Mondays.) Forty-year-old Mickey has held a FI rating for twenty years and recently moved to York with his ‘day job’. When I spoke to Mickey after the school’s first month, he told me that the first month of operations had “gone really well — we currently have six PPL students plus another three RAC members who have been hiring our aircraft”. The YFS is open to all newcomers, but students have to join the Real Aeroplane Club for liability reasons — which also entitles them to free landings during their operations. Mickey tells me that he insists on lessons being two hours long to enable a sensible pre- and post-flight brief. Breighton’s 24/7 fuel availability is a big attraction for pilots in this area, with both avgas and Jet A-1 at the automatic pumps which take most credit/debit cards. At the time of my visit, avgas was priced at �1.92 per litre — and many helicopter operators drop in for Jet A-1, finding it considerably less hassle to re-fuel here than at some of the area’s more commercial airports. If you buy fuel, a landing fee is not expected, and if you don’t — and aren’t from a club airfield with a reciprocal agreement — a �5.00 ‘donation’ is expected to go into the blue bomb (yes) that’s attached to the bar. There is no air traffic control, although radio frequency 129.8 may elicit a response, so the usual non-radio procedures are required, with overhead joins and all circuits to the south at 700ft avoiding overflying the villages of Bubwith, Breighton and Wressle. The Real Aeroplane Company requests that visitors telephone for PPR before setting out to visit. To the north, there is a CAA Rule 5 low-level ‘box’ in which resident pilots and some visiting pilots can practice aerobatics. Also, beware of quite a few high-tension power lines, particularly to the east. RAC members are hoping that a proposal to build a wind farm about a mile from the threshold of Runway 29 is abandoned.
Real Aeroplane Company pilots I meet Cliff Whitwell, one of a handful of Real Aeroplane Company’s display pilots. Display pilots are recruited from the club, coming up through the ranks until they become skilled and trusted enough to fly certain aircraft in the RAC museum collection (following appropriate proficiency check-outs). Steve Hall is a member and a commercial pilot who flies Jetstream 41s with Eastern Airlines — he has an instructor’s rating, and is experienced in flying several of the older aircraft. At present, all RAC pilots come under the watchful eye of Chief Pilot Alan Marsland. Alan is a local farmer who came up through the RAC ranks, and succeeded Tony Smith. Cliff Whitwell, who lives and works in the Manchester area during the week, comes to Breighton most weekends to fly. His favourite aircraft is the 1936 Aeronca 100 (British-built C-3) with its 40hp JAP J-99 engine. Many RAC members, including Cliff, have caravans on the aerodrome for their weekend stays here, and they enjoy the atmosphere and camaraderie. Cliff is occasionally rostered to man the club house, and told me that the duties are many and varied — from maintenance work and tea-making, to cutting the grass and flying. There’s never a dull moment! I bump in to Kate Howe, another RAC member and Breighton’s ‘Bumble Bee Girl’. The nickname isn’t because she has a sting in her tail — she has a great affection for her yellow-and-black-striped Tipsy Nipper. And when I meet her, Kate is excited about having just purchased the UK’s only Dart Kitten II single-seater. She has been flying for 22 years and used to fly at Barton, but joined the RAC about four years ago — yet another member who travels a distance to fly here. She has flown an Evans VP-1, a Skybolt, and bought a share in her Nipper in 2000. In 2004 she bought it outright — and now she takes off to give me a flight demonstration of her pride and joy. RAC members currently total around 150. All are PPL-holders, and all have a passion for ‘interesting’ aircraft. The membership fee is a modest �55 a year, and there has always been a queue of pilots wanting to base their aircraft here. The rule is that ‘spamcans’ are welcome but there is no hangarage for them — they have to stay outside. Tricky economic times have, however, somewhat shortened the queue for hangarage. At the moment there are about sixty aircraft based at Breighton, roughly fifteen of which are ‘museum aircraft’ from the Real Aeroplane Company. The varied social calendar, administered and organised for the last three years by Ness Carr, is a big pull for visitors. As well as several fly-ins and an annual British Aerobatic Club competition, there are non-flying events such as the Breighton Christmas Party. Several fly-aways are also organised each year, usually by Condor pilot Andy Chadwick; last year’s jaunts were to France and the Czech Republic. No profile of Breighton would be complete without mention of Anthony ‘Taff’ Smith. Born in Port Talbot, his packaging business enabled him to indulge his passion for old aeroplanes and aerobatics. After the crop dusting operation at Breighton, Dave Fenton moved his Hornet Aviation aircraft restoration and maintenance business here from Sherburn-in-Elmet in the late 1970s, and in the late 1980s Taff bought the airfield and started to upgrade it. The tarmac strip was laid during an early dalliance with the L-39 Albatros jet, but as it wasn’t long enough for safe operations the L-39 was moved out to Church Fenton. The tarmac is now an excellent taxiway. Over the years more hangarage has been added, but the core of the Real Aeroplane Company is the museum hangar, with its annex workshop where Ian Ross and Adam Bates maintain the varied and diverse museum fleet. Ian is now in his fifth year at Breighton and enjoys the ever changing nature of his work: “I could be unblocking a lavatory one moment and then testing a P-51 the next”. He is a CAA-approved licensed engineer with M5 approval to work on military types such as Yaks and Harvards, as well as being an LAA inspector. He is often asked to do third-party work on non-Breighton-based aircraft, but he is employed exclusively to work on the Real Aeroplane Company’s aircraft. Asked which of the Company’s aircraft he likes the best, he replies: “the one that’s running the smoothest and requiring the least amount of my attention!”
Quirky and rare types Taff slowly built up the collection of aircraft at Breighton, acquiring a Spitfire and a Hurricane at one stage, as well as more quirky and rare types such as the Arrow Active biplane, the Percival Mew Gull, the Aeronca 100, a Ryan PT-22, a Harvard, Miles Magister, Comper Swift and both a B�cker Jungmann and Jungmeister. Several non-airworthy types were also added: two Flying Fleas and the Ward Gnome and Elf, all of which are suspended from the museum hangar roof.Roughly five years ago Taff sold the Real Aeroplane Company to Robert Fleming, a helicopter pilot, who is still the current owner. Robert maintains a low profile, allowing the established and long-term members to lead in the majority of operations. In the maintenance hangar I am shown Taff’s Glasair Super IIsRG, in which he nearly broke Alex Henshaw’s 1939 London-to-the-Cape record during his mid October 2010 attempt (thecaperun.co.uk). He broke the record to Abuja in Nigeria, but then 700 miles short of Cape Town at Windhoek, Namibia, a series of instrument problems forced him to abandon the attempt. The aircraft has now been flown back to Breighton where it shares hangar space with The Real Aeroplane Company’s ‘star’ aircraft: that same 1939 Percival Mew Gull flown by Henshaw for his record breaking flight to the Cape and back. Aircraft from The Real Aeroplane Company perform at a limited number of air shows around the British Isles — the Mew Gull was a visitor to this year’s LAA Rally at Sywell. During my visit we heard the characteristic ‘pop-pop’ noise of a Kinner radial engine approaching – it was the Real Aeroplane Company’s Ryan PT-22 back home, flown by Les Clark and Andy Wood following a visit to perform at the Portrush Air Show in Northern Ireland. It was accompanied by Simon Ducker flying the Yak-52. Breighton aerodrome is a real pleasure to visit; there really is a vast amount of piloting knowledge between the club members here, but no one I met thinks that they know it all. Above all, it is a friendly and welcoming destination – and one which I look forward to visiting again in the future.
Essential information - PPR: 01757 289065 - Frequency: 129.8 MHz - Landing fee: �5 (unless uplifting fuel or a reciprocal agreement with a neighbouring club and no fee on fly-in days) - Fuel: avgas; Jet A-1. Oils: W100; W80; Straight 80 and 100; Multigrade W 15W-50 - Runway: grass 11/29, 2,790ft/850m - Circuits: to the south at 700ft avoiding nearby villages - Operating hours: 0900 to 1700 seven days a week (sunset if earlier in winter) - Email: email@example.com - Website: realaero.com - York Flying School: firstname.lastname@example.org, yorkflyingschool.co.uk