Airfield Profile: North Weald

North Weald is very much a place for enthusiasts, because there are so many rare and fascinating aeroplanes here. It suits jets and warbirds because it has a mile-long runway, and it suits their owners being so close to London.

Some ten years ago, flying to an Aerofair at North Weald in my newly-restored Tipsy Nipper, I made the classic mistake of joining for zero-two instead of two-zero (they are easily confused). Fortunately I realised on base leg and hurriedly corrected. The control tower gives a view right around the airfield, so the operators must have seen, but they let me sort myself out without saying anything. My other memory of North Weald is being taken for a flight in a Jet Provost. As we made our stately way, taxying past the club buildings, spectators poured out. They stayed watching until we drew abreast and the noise of our exhaust reached them. Most shot inside, and the few who remained had their hands clamped over their ears.

North Weald is very much a place for enthusiasts, because there are so many rare and fascinating aeroplanes here. It suits jets and warbirds because it has a mile-long runway, and it suits their owners being so close to London. The other reason jet and warbird owners like it is the specialist maintenance facilities on offer, with a choice of several major providers on site. However, don’t get the idea that North Weald is an exclusive club for the airshow brigade. There’s a microlight school on the airfield and over a third of the residents are ‘humble’ Piper and Cessna singles. One day, fairly soon, there should be Group A training here too; it hasn’t happened yet because North Weald isn’t licensed, and training from unlicensed airfields has only recently become possible. Now that it has, the local authority that owns the site has begun negotiations with several flight training organisations to get one to move here.

Flying started here in 1916, to counter the Zeppelin bombing raids, and the RAF continued operations during the inter-war years. North Weald Aerodrome played a prominent part in the Battle of Britain, when Hurricanes and Bristol Blenheims were based here. There’s also a strong American connection; two American Eagle squadrons flew Spitfires from North Weald in 1940. Norwegian squadrons were based here later in the war. Post war, it was a base for military jets such as Gloster Meteors, de Havilland Vampires and Hawker Hunters (a tradition continued today). The RAF left in 1964 and in 1979, the MoD sold the site to Epping Forest District Council, which still owns it. North Weald was given listed status?and the protection from developers which that implies?in 2005.

Autumn has come early on the day fixed for my visit and, as I head up the M11, I can see it’s likely to be too windy for flying. My first appointment is with the General Manager, Darren Goodey. Navigation isn’t my strongest suit and I turn right when I should have turned left inside the entrance. I find myself in a stream of powerful sports cars, all heading, as I soon discover, for some noisy skid-control practice. “It’s a car club day,” Darren explains when I eventually find him. The airfield has a fence dividing it in two and the side with the disused runway is hired out for this purpose. It’s also hired out to a Saturday market that’s so popular that there’s a bus service from Harlow just to take people to the market.

Darren has been in post for seven years. He says he caught the aviation bug six months into the job, so I ask if he’s had flying lessons. “Not yet,” he says, “but I did get to sit in the back of a Piper Arrow for a flight. It reminded me of riding in the back of Grandad’s car as a child. It felt odd sitting behind the pilot.” So when he says the aviation bug, he means the aviation history bug. “This place is steeped in it,” he says.

North Weald earns its keep in several ways un-connected with aviation. A music video is being shot in one of the hangars during my visit. AMG and Lightwoods both have warehouse and distribution operations here; Kings has a removals and transportation business; and Becro Engineering has a steel fabrication company in Hangar One, the last hangar remaining from WWII. ST2, the AT-3 importer, has its office nearby.

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There is a WWII flying museum on the airfield, housed in the former North Weald Station Office, with a collection of photographs and artefacts and a Battle of Britain Room to commemorate 39 aircrew members who died and others who were killed on the ground.

Rather oddly for a historic airfield in such a prime location (you can see the hangars from the M11), members of the public can’t buy joyrides in a Tiger Moth, or even air experience flights in a Piper or Cessna. However, for �71 they can get a microlight experience flight with Saxon Microlights in a Thruster T600N (the club has two) or a Cyclone AX3. Darren says that enquiries come in regularly about learning to fly. “We direct them to Stapleford or Panshanger,” he says, “unless they mention microlights, in which case we tell them about Saxon.” Saxon Microlight Club members (membership costs �126 a year) pay �106 an hour for flight training. I saw one of the Thrusters tied down outside and, elsewhere on the airfield, the Saxon Microlights office, but on such a windy day it was no surprise to find the office closed and no one around.

The list of the hundred or so aircraft based here makes fascinating reading. The maintenance operations bring in visiting aircraft too, adding to the variety. The resident list includes AT-3s, a SportCruiser, AA-5 Tigers, several Gnats, around half a dozen assorted Van’s RV variants, and close to a dozen Jet Provosts and Strikemasters. The list goes on with plenty of warbirds, homebuilts and military helicopters, and aerobatic types to spice up the variety: a Harvard, a Seafire, Wasp, Scout, Yak-9P, Vampire, Enstrom, Chipmunk, three Rutan canards, a Zlin 526F, DA-42 Twinstar, Mooney M20M, Cirrus SR-22 Turbo, a couple of DC-4s, two Luscombe Silvaires, a Harvard, a Boeing Kaydet, Spitfire, Hurricane, P-51, three Extra 300s and assorted Yaks, Pipers and Cessnas.

Epping Forest District Council announced a District Plan for consultation (with feedback invited until 15 October 2012) including some ideas about the future development of North Weald Aerodrome. I ask Darren about this. “Whereas the airfield as a whole makes a profit, some of it goes into subsidising the aviation activities,” he says, “and the Council thinks aviation should be more self sufficient, and I agree with that.”

What does the Council have in mind, I ask. “The main idea seems to be attracting more business aircraft and flight training. However, the Council has to take into account the wishes of local people and other interested groups – thus the consultation. If you asked me to guess, I’d say most people will accept more flying at North Weald, providing we don’t overdo it and don’t discourage GA and the warbird and jet activity. The group that is lobbying to – in quotes – ‘save’ North Weald seems most worried that the airfield will lose its sense of history. I don’t think anyone wants that to happen.”

Under Darren’s leadership, North Weald has already begun to expand and improve its facilities. Applications are in for permission to erect two more hangars and he has introduced a fire service, acquiring a gleaming red fire truck in 2010. He is particularly proud of one improvement, the refurbishment of the superb ex-military control tower building, which dates back to the early 1950s. It was leased to a now defunct gliding club, but after years of neglect was shabby at best. He proudly shows me around and, fully restored, it looks much as it must have done when built. It’s a charming building filled with period features like the brass hand rail on the stairs and the steel frame windows and, being on an airfield, the upper floors all have large windows with wonderful views and balconies where you can sit outside. The full-size Hawker Hurricane model on a stand next to the building adds to the appeal. At present the control tower block is being let out for meetings and is already proving popular with local businesses, clubs and societies.

We climb the stairs to the top and in the control room I meet Tom Turner, one of nine operators of the Air-to-Ground service. I ask for tips for visiting pilots. “As from 13 September, you must either have a Mode S transponder to fly in from the west,” he says, “or phone Essex or Farnborough Radar before take off for clearance to enter the MTZ without one. Of course, approaching from the East, you don’t need a transponder. When downwind for runway two-zero it’s easy to clip Stansted Zone, so you need to watch that. However we can see pilots about to do it – the water tower is a good landmark – and warn them. Don’t forget controlled airspace is only 1,400ft on QNH and lastly, don’t come here thinking you’re about to land at Stapleford or vice versa. People do sometimes confuse the two.” (And he confirms that I’m by no means the only visitor to confuse zero-two and two-zero.)

Darren says, “Although it’s an Air-to-Ground service we do try to make it a professional one. And we encourage visiting pilots to come up to the Tower if they’re in any doubt about anything. Just ask any member of the ground crew and they’ll drive you over here.” (The Tower is on the non-flying side of the fence that keeps the Saturday market, skid-pan and other non-aviation activities separate from the flying.)

It’s far too big an airfield for me to explore on foot, so Darren has offered to drive me. We are en route to Weald Aviation when I ask him to stop outside one of the many smaller hangars dotted around. (One holds Peter Teichman’s warbird collection.) The hangar we stop outside looks intriguing, to say the least – I can see several ex-military jets being worked on. Nearest to the entrance is a Piper Arrow, whose owner John Havers is happy to talk to me. “The Arrow has been based here for eight years,” he tells me. “Before that it was at Thurrock; I moved it here because Thurrock got too wet in winter.” John is a director of the North Weald Aerial Museum, which owns this hangar and several other buildings in one area of four-and-a-half acres. While the Council owns the land, many of the buildings are leased and/or owned by various tenants; it’s a complicated set-up, and like Topsy, it just grew that way.

John lives half of the time in France and flies 100 hours a year in the Arrow. I ask him to sum up North Weald. “What makes it unique,” he says, “is the length of the runway, its closeness to London and how under-used the place is compared to the equivalent airfields to the west of London.”

Heritage Aircraft is maintaining the jets in the hangar?three Gnats in bright primary colours. Close to, they look surprisingly small. There is also G-HUEY, a Vietnam-era military helicopter that was imported from America and restored and painted in Vietnam War colours at great expense a few years ago. All four aircraft fly from North Weald. In such illustrious company, a Pulsar and Rockwell Commander, also in the hangar, look almost drab.

Back in Darren’s vehicle he tells me about another recent improvement. “Pilots were flying to Panshanger for fuel, but now that we’ve got two competing suppliers on the airfield our prices appear to have become competitive,” he says.

We arrive at Weald Aviation and Darren introduces me to the Managing Director, Russell Smith. “There are nine of us in the company,” Russell tells me, “and we started it four years ago. We all worked in different companies here and were all made redundant at the same time. I struck a deal with the building owners and founded Weald Aviation. Now we are a maintenance business with A820, E4M5, EASA 145 and CAA approval, plus type-approval for a number of ex-military types: the Sea Fury, Vampire and Venom, Jet Provost and Hawker Hunter among others. We look after the Royal Navy Historic Flight’s aircraft and Classic Flight’s and others. Plus we offer hangarage for GA aircraft and vintage types like the Beech 18. Altogether we have 60,000 sq ft of hangar space, plus 40,000 sq ft of hard standing. Our rates for a Cessna 172, for instance, would be �280 a month inside or �80 a month outside, and that includes landing fees. We won’t maintain it, but The Squadron across the road will.”

Ah, The Squadron across the road. ‘The road’ is a broad taxiway and buildings line both sides of it. Those on this side are managed by Weald Aviation and those on the other, by The Squadron. I think it’s fair to say that there is a little friendly rivalry between the two, particularly since they both now sell avgas. The Squadron has been here the longest.

Russell ends, “We’re a small, family business offering quality work at sensible prices. We care about what we do, which is why, for instance, we insist on moving the aircraft ourselves. That way there’s no hangar rash. One of my proudest achievements is bringing the Herts and Essex Air Ambulance here.”

I ask how long Russell has been based at North Weald. “Fourteen years,” he says. “It was very quiet when I began, but it has been steadily getting busier. Darren’s leadership and his inside track when it comes to getting things out of the Council have made a big difference. The management and operation have become more professional, and I’ve seen an increase in the number of movements and in accessibility to average GA pilots since he’s been in charge.”

We go out to the maintenance hangars; more mouth-watering jets and warbirds. I see two engineers struggling with a Chipmunk. “The dreaded wing mounting bolt replacement,” says Russell. He introduces me to ‘Soapy’?Dave Hudson, one of his engineers?who is working inside the cockpit of a Hawker Hunter. “I’ve been here a year,” says Soapy. “Before this, I was a BA Avionics Engineer. It’s a close family unit here and you’re well looked after, but what I mainly like is working with more interesting aeroplanes like this beauty from the 1950s.”

Russell poses for my camera in front of Kennet Aviation’s Seafire, and again with a pair of recently re-covered elevators from a Dakota gate guardian. There’s no shortage of photo-opportunities. In one hangar I snap a juxtaposition of a Zlin Aerobat and a Catalina Amphibian. Outside there are two DC-4s, a MiG jet, a Beech Twin and a Westland Scout.

I am starting to realise the significance that North Weald must have to lovers of old aeroplanes, particularly warbirds. There can be few places in the world where so many are gathered together, and so informally. There’s nothing of the sterile mothballing of the aeroplanes you see in museums; these are all owned, maintained and, above all, flown by enthusiasts.

Darren arrives to collect me and take me across ‘the road’ to The Squadron. Before we nip inside, out of the now howling wind, he has something to show me. It’s two air-raid shelters, or blast-proof rev�tements, dating back to when Norwegian squadrons were based here in WWII. Darren organised their refurbishment to coincide with a commemorative visit by seventy Norwegians, including veterans and military personnel on 7 September. They arrived in a Royal Norwegian Air Force Hercules accompanied by two current jet fighters. Inside, the newly-whitewashed walls have messages written in Norwegian by some of the visitors. Outside, there’s a commemorative plaque which is mounted on a stone brought from Norway.

We go into The Squadron building where engineers and visitors (spotters rather than pilots, given the inclement weather) are having lunch. The cafeteria is one of the attractions of North Weald.

In an office at one end of the long wooden building I meet Alan Crouchman. He is a director and the General Manager of North Weald Flying Services, branded ‘The Squadron’. “The Squadron opened in 1989,” he says in response to my question. “It was formed by Anthony Hutton and Euan English as a living museum and home to the Harvard Formation Team. Euan passed away, but his two sons still serve as directors.”

I ask how he became involved. “Anthony was a friend and asked me to help with marketing. In time he asked me to take over. I’m a glider pilot with a lapsed licence, I write for Flypast and I guess you could say I am an aviation historian specialising in WWII.”

I’ve been wondering about the history of North Weald after the MoD sold it to the District Council and ask Alan to fill me in. “It was pretty quiet in the Eighties,” he says. “The site was in poor condition and there were few movements back then. It was used by London Transport for driver training. Robs Lamplough and Aces High were early tenants. The airfield came to life gradually. We did have airshows here for a while, but they stopped in the Nineties. And the Aerofair was here for a while eight years ago. We hope to have a big airshow in 2016, to mark the airfield’s centenary. We have four fly-ins a year, and can have up to a hundred visitors if the weather’s good. We also have one Community Day a year for the locals to come in.”

At his suggestion we move into the bar, where it’s quieter. The bar is full of character, with wicker chairs and photographs and objects from WWII wherever you look. The building appears to date from 1940, but Alan tells me it was actually constructed in the late Eighties using wartime drawings. It looks great – is it used much? “We tend to open it only at weekends and on club nights,” says Alan. “And we hire it out from time to time. The trouble is, it’s a long way away from the road, on the wrong side of the airfield. If it were next to the road, we’d be open every night and making money.”

North Weald Flying Services has four engineers providing maintenance – the company has LAA, FAA and EASA approval. Peter Teichman’s aircraft are maintained by them. The company also provides hangarage and outside parking for 24 aeroplanes and has spare capacity. Prices are �255 plus VAT a month inside and �100 plus VAT outside, plus club membership which is �150 a year and includes free landings. However, as Darren explains to me later, “There are actually no landing fees currently at North Weald. The Squadron asks visitors to make a donation (�12 for a single and �18 for a twin) to the club for the use of its facilities.”

The Squadron is a club with 340 members, mostly aviation enthusiasts rather than pilots. The nearest thing to a flying club (apart from Saxon Microlights) is the North Weald Flying Group, which has three Cessna 172s, a PA-28 and a Cessna 150. Although it doesn’t offer flying training (except conversion from microlight PPLs), it does hire out its aircraft to members. Its small fleet is housed and maintained by North Weald Flying Services. The SkysportUK Pup and Bulldog are also available to fly (for its members) from North Weald.

Alan thinks that the airfield is crying out for development. Any flying during the week tends to be maintenance-related, although there can be sixty or seventy movements on a weekend day with good weather. “The proximity of Stansted means we couldn’t offer ILS approaches, but we could have GPS ones,” he says. “One current limitation is that we close at seven in summer, at dusk in winter.”

Darren arrives to pick me up and on the drive back I see a Jurca Temp�te, which seems to have braved the wind to fly in. I find the owner, who turns out to be Mark Grimshaw, the chap who took me up in his group-operated Jet Provost for a Pilot article almost ten years ago. “I just bought this Temp�te,” he says, “and before flying any aerobatics I thought I’d get the chaps here to give the main spar a good look with their boroscope.” The Temp�te is based at Felthorpe, but Mark has been flying from North Weald for over ten years. What makes it special, I ask him.

“You’ve got a mile of tarmac, and it’s close to London,” he says. “And despite its size it operates like a small airfield with a modest-size club.”

“What are your hopes and fears for North Weald’s future?” I ask.

“I hope it will remain a GA airfield, though I can see that it needs to attract business users and to become more commercial to make it pay. I just hope the decision-makers remember that you can’t get airfields back once they’ve gone. The airspace restrictions mean that it isn’t great for instructing, but we could do with a small flying school here. Just to teach PPLs, I’d suggest, though?not Commercials. Having said that, a school could easily supplement its training by going to places like Cambridge and Southend for instrument approaches.

“Personally, I like the low-key, enthusiast-run airfields like Seething best, where the members do everything and keep the costs down by using volunteers. We’ve got something of that quality here at North Weald. I hope it stays.”