Leicester’s centrally-located airport is run by a club committee with efficiency, style and warmth…
It wasn’t long after I got my Pilot’s Licence before I started venturing on increasingly ambitious forays into France. The airfields always felt more friendly over there, and they seemed to do aviation so much better. But, in time, I realised that this welcoming, pro-aviation spirit wasn’t confined to France ? it could be found in the UK, though only at some airfields. Leicester is one of them. I drive up on a sunny but bitterly cold morning. As I follow the signs marked ‘Airport’, I remember taking this route in the 1980s, when I flew an aerobatics contest here in a shared Pitts Special and it was another owner’s turn to fly in.
The airfield is operated by Leicestershire Aero Club, which is one of the oldest in the UK – it was founded in 1909. The club was active during the Edwardian era and the Great War, but was only able to operate from a permanent airfield in 1929. In 1935 the City Corporation built the City of Leicester Municipal Airport and the club was designated to run it. Commercial flights were introduced for a short period – the return fare to Paris was seven guineas – but they proved commercially unviable. The club thrived, however, and had 1,000 members by the outbreak of WWII.
The Municipal Airport saw military service, but it faded away after the war. The club then moved to Stoughton, built as Leicester East Airfield in 1942 for use by Bomber Command. The club first leased it from the Air Ministry in 1951. Stoughton Airfield, as it was then called, had been built on land requisitioned from the Co-operative Wholesale Society. In 1955 it was returned to the Co-op, which became the club’s landlord – as it is to this day. The club nearly went into liquidation in the Sixties but survived by the skin of its teeth, and both it and Leicester Airport (the Stoughton name was dropped) have thrived ever since. The airport is still operated by a members’ club, self-funded and headed by a council of eight elected members.
My first encounter is with Jonathan Voce, who is pulling a bright red Pitts S2 out of one of the hangars. He shares it with his brother Neil. “We moved here when I was two,” Jonathan says. “Dad was an instructor here – you probably know he was with the Barnstormers Flying Circus.” I ask him to sum up Leicester. “It’s brilliant,” he says. “It has unrestricted open spaces and multiple runways, the site is well maintained and there’s a great social side”. He flies the Pitts once a month. I head over to the Tower building. The entrance takes me into the reception area for the club and its training facility, and there I encounter an instructor, Jo Shuter, 24, and student, Ricky Chauhan, 19. Jo has been an instructor for three years and did her instructor’s course here. Ricky is about to make his last flight before the GFT. He’s studying Aviation at Coventry and wants to be an airline pilot, as does Jo. “Leicester has a great club atmosphere,” Jo says. “Everyone stops for a drink after work. And the club is good at keeping students flying after they qualify.” The airfield manager, Mac Clarke, is expecting me. He is in his sixties and immediately strikes me as being both relaxed and sensible. He has held the post for a year. Mac tells me that there are nine club trainers on the airfield, and ninety privately-owned fixed-wing aeroplanes, as well as nine helicopters that belong to HeliCentre. The helis are all parked outside for now, though they will soon be hangared in a building that’s about to be erected. All but a handful of the fixed wing aeroplanes are kept inside – the site has a generous allocation of hangars and runways, a legacy of its WWII origins. An unusually high proportion of the aeroplanes based here are aerobatic: nine Pitts Specials, two Slingsbys, a Starduster and three Cessna Aerobats. Being Barry Tempest and Rob Millinchip’s ‘local’ probably has much to do with this – Barry, who was the CFI here, is a famous aerobatic pilot and Rob is ‘Mr Pitts’. There are two dozen homebuilts, and Pete Holloway keeps some of his Shuttleworth Collection-connected Miles aircraft here. Five of the fixed-wing aircraft on site are microlights. Anne French joins us. She gives me a copy of the club history booklet that she compiled. Anne, like Mac, is on the council of management elected by members. There are currently 430 members, including around fifty who are students and thirty who fly aerobatics. The club has three full-time instructors and some part-timers, and roughly six full-time and three part-time employees, plus a host of volunteers. Volunteering is a way of life here; twenty members have their air-to-ground radio tickets and man the radio on a rota. Mac is one of several qualified to act as firemen. Training at Leicester isn’t in the sausage machine category, but it is fairly brisk. Mac and Anne reckon that each instructor averages around four training sorties a day. It’s a fairly busy airfield with a ratio of two or three leisure movements for every one for training purposes. Trial lessons are popular, mostly from gift vouchers; the club gives nine or ten most weekends.
The airfield is also popular with visitors: instructors bring students and pilots fly in for lunch. “The catering is very good,” says Mac (which I can verify). There’s a bar open all day for members. The club encourages casual non-pilot visitors, and has a picnic area outside for them to watch the flying. It also runs an open day every September to promote trial lessons and training, but also, as Mac says, “to say thank you to the locals for putting up with the noise. We give free flights in our aircraft. Last year we took 200 locals for sample flights, all free.” I ask if they have any tips for visiting pilots. “Observe the rule about climbing ahead until you’ve reached 1,000ft on Runway 28,” says Mac. “Sometimes we get visitors who are confused by a ground-to-air service and sit waiting for us to tell them to take off. Of course the rules don’t allow us to say anything that might be interpreted as a direction, so we’re stuck with hints, and they can take a while to get through.” The club-run school teaches PPL, Night, Aerobatic, IMC, Instructor Rating and other courses, and is soon to begin Commercial training. Its fleet includes five complex singles and a King Air. Mac’s father was a club member back in the days when it cost five quid an hour to fly. “He took me up in an Auster when I was eight and we did some flour bombing in a Tiger Moth,” he says. “We still have a flour bombing contest every Boxing Day.” My next meeting is with Helicentre, which does training, sales, charter and survey work. Its fleet of ten to fifteen helicopters (flexible, because it sometimes leases additional aircraft) includes five JetRangers, an R-44 (a second is on order), two Schweizer 300s and two R-22s. On this Friday, four students are at work, one a PPL who’s just gone solo, and three on instructor courses. One has travelled from Norway. The managing director and chief pilot Sarah Bowen tells me, “That’s not untypical. We’ve had students from Switzerland, Portugal, Sweden, Holland, South Africa and the USA. They come to learn from Geoff Day, who has an international reputation, not least because of his book, Helicopter Aerodynamics Made Simple. “For some students, our ability to offer work at the end of training is an attraction. Take Llewis, for example,” she says. Llewis Ingamells, 25, tells me: “I knew from when I was little that I wanted to be a helicopter pilot, so I worked hard and set up as a builder. By the age of nineteen, I’d saved enough to start training. Sarah trained me up to CPL and then Geoff trained me to be an instructor. Now I work for the company, instruct, teach sling loading, fly weddings, school proms, VIP transport, banner towing… you name it, I do it.” Company MD Sarah is 32, and married to a graphic designer. Originally a professional musician, she had a recording studio when she was just eighteen. Aged 23, she bought her husband a trial lesson in a JetRanger and sat in the back. “I thought the instructor had the best job in the world and was smitten with flying helicopters,” she says. From then on, she flew every Sunday. After qualifying, she worked her way up by hour building. “I was doing the instructor course when the Chairman offered me a job as an instructor – it went from there.” Sarah has worked from other airfields, but loves Leicester. “It’s great for training,” she says. “You’re not waiting for passenger jets to take off, there’s a variety of different types of airspace and freedom to do things like sling training, which a lot of airfields wouldn’t allow. Here they all come out to look. When our maintenance and storage building is erected, it will be the largest building on the airfield.” I briefly meet two of the instructor rating students: Natashia Tottman, a charity administrator, and Simon Wiles, a produce buyer… but not in those occupations for much longer, I’m guessing, because they’ll soon be teaching helicopter flying and doing charter work like Llewis. Outside, I meet two pilots about to go flying in one of the club Slingsbys: Martyn Brown, 49, a director of an engineering company, and Phil Hill, 55, an electrical engineer. “We’re off to Wellesbourne for a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea,” they tell me. They pay �120 an hour for the aircraft. It’s time for lunch, and I’m joined by Anne French. I choose my usual bacon sandwich – and very good it is too. Anne introduces me to the Silver Wings Club, whose members are all pilots or ex-pilots who meet here four days a week. Hazel, David, Eddie, Keith and Wally have an age range of 64 to 82; two are still flying (PA-28s and 152s), and one is still flying aerobatics in one of the club’s Aerobats. It seems like a very friendly way of life for retirees. A major feature of Leicester, which I remember from my aerobatic weekends here, is the Tower’s spacious restaurant that overlooks the airfield. Anne tells me the club has plans to expand them. Mac joins us with his charming French wife (the couple have a second home in France) – and I dig into my schoolboy French. I’d like to stay and swap some more flying yarns, but it’s time to meet some more locals. I find Balbir pouring mogas from a can into the Eurostar he owns with three others. I note the fire operative in attendance. At 52, Balbir has his own textile company and 526 flying hours, and today he’s off on a local flight. His plan is to land at the airstrip he owns, but where he doesn’t yet keep an aircraft. My next meeting is with Kevin Jones, CFI and owner of Ultra Air – Leicester’s microlight school. I find him pulling a smart little two-seater out of one of the hangars. The school currently has twenty students and two three-axis microlight trainers, T600N Sprints, plus three weightshift microlights. It charges �105 an hour. Kevin is full time and also has two part-time instructors. He has run the school at Leicester for fifteen years. “Everyone gets on well at Leicester,” he tells me. “It’s a very friendly place. The countryside is very safe for flying, because it’s largely flat.” Well, he has just told me that he prefers the two-stroke Sprint to the one with a four-stroke engine, and two-stroke pilots have to think of things like that. He has a student coming, so I leave him to it and head for the on-site maintenance operation, Swiftair.
There I meet Andrew Booth and Mark Davies, Swiftair’s directors. The company has been at Leicester for four years, and has a very smart workshop which was originally erected by Marconi until the club took over the lease and converted the building. Swiftair employs ten engineers, some of them part-time, and works half-and-half on locally based aircraft and on aeroplanes flown in. “We do a lot of Fireflies and Grobs,” Andrew and Mark tell me, “so we have a reputation for being good with composites” – but they’ll tackle just about anything. “We’ve watched the airport slowly developing, getting even more organised, friendly and welcoming.” I meet Paul Elvidge, one of Swiftair’s outside customers. He’s just brought in his Slingsby Firefly in for maintenance. Paul is an aerobatic pilot and came second at Breighton, competing in the Standard level contest there.The club has kindly laid on its C172 and an instructor for me to fly a quick circuit and take some overhead photographs. The instructor is very amiable and lets me have the controls throughout. Before we take off, he nips round to my side and unhooks the spring attaching the window retainer so that I can open the window all the way. “True, this will give the engineers some extra work to do,” he admits, “but they won’t mind”. This generous little act is typical of the welcome I’ve had ever since I drove in. Back on the ground, Anne catches up with me. “Enjoy that?” she asks. I did. “Want to look inside the hangars?” she asks. The aircraft are varied and interesting, including some lovely Austers and Aeroncas, a variety of Pitts Specials and Peter Holloway’s beautiful Falcon. “Peter’s terribly keen,” she says. “I’ve seen him on the coldest days imaginable, flying his open-cockpit radial engine WWII trainer on circuit after circuit. ‘Aren’t you cold?’ I ask him and he says, ‘Yes, but I love it so much, I never want to stop’.” I climb up the wing walk on the Falcon to see if I imagined the second control stick which is actually an elevator trim control. No, it’s definitely there. “Peter let me fly this once. It must have been getting on for ten years ago,” I tell Anne proudly, Outside the hangar, I meet two more club members about to fly in a group-owned Super Cub. They are Michael Wright, 47, the MD of an abrasives company and Phil Walker, 39, a laboratory equipment executive. There are five in the group, and the aeroplane’s been at Leicester for two years and flies around 300 hours a year. I ask Michael and Phil where they plan to take their Super Cub today, and the answer is, “Nowhere special, we’re just going for a stooge-round”. Do they come here in the evenings? “Both of us, most Tuesdays and Thursdays,” they say. “Tuesday night is ‘look after young pilots night’ and Thursday is curry night, and when the airport stays open for night flying.” I go back into the Tower building. Like so many flying clubs, the reception there is manned by a youngster with ambitions to fly professionally, but without the money to take the quick route. He’s James Jelley, 19, and he’s already got his PPL and Night rating and is starting on his IMC rating. His ambition is to fly for the airlines. Why? “It’s the best job in the world,” he says. The airfields I’ve visited since beginning this series of profiles have varied. Some have been formal, health-and-safety-conscious and rather severe. Others have been business-like, brisk and highly efficient. Some have been enveloped in history, and others a mine of behind-the-scenes activity. Nearly all have made me feel wholly welcome, but none was quite as charming as Leicester with its club management, Co-op ownership, Thursday-curry-night and Silver Wings Club. And I shall long treasure the mischievous air with which the club instructor disabled the Cessna’s window, just to make it easier for me to take my overhead photographs. You won’t get that happening at many airfields.
Words and photographs by Nick Bloom