All forms of aviation recieve a warm welcome at Wales's major commercial airport.
Words and images Geoff Jones
Every time I land on Cardiff’s Runway 30 I marvel that this must be one of the most scenically outstanding approaches in the whole UK. Situated close to the towering limestone cliffs of the dramatic coast of the Bristol Channel stretching west to Gower and Lundy, over the pebble-beach sweep of Barry’s Knap bay, abeam the multiple arches of the Porthkerry railway viaduct and ? if the weather is clear ? the vista beyond the runway of the whole rural Vale of Glamorgan running north towards the hills of South Wales.
But many private pilots I’ve spoken to say, “you can’t fly there can you?” or “it’s too expensive and restrictive for our kind of flying”. Well I want to put the word out that the welcome mat is well and truly in place at Cardiff for all types of general aviation from bizjets through Cessna 172s to microlights. On my recent visit to Wales’s major international commercial airport, I was surprised to find how easy it was, how helpful was air traffic control and how general aviation-friendly it was ? all of course within the gambit of the security that unfortunately goes with any commercial airport these days.
You are now in a semi-foreign country, Wales, and bi-lingual signage is everywhere. Cardiff, the capital and home of the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) is a vibrant international city, transformed from its roots in the industrial revolution and the coal and steel industries. Thanks to the tidal barrage constructed across the estuary of the River Taff about twelve years ago, the development of the Cardiff Bay area has been instrumental in increasing the city’s popularity for many international visitors; a seismic shift from the dark days of the docklands and the legendary, cosmopolitan Tiger Bay. Cardiff is also developing in to a mini-Hollywood thanks to popular TV programmes and films such as Dr Who and Torchwood ? both filmed in Cardiff and its environs. The city’s airport at Rhoose, about 13 miles south-west of the city and close to the former seaport of Barry (location for the popular TV comedy Gavin and Stacey), is also celebrating its 70th anniversary this year
There are few vestiges of the former wartime RAF Rhoose and its Spitfires within the boundaries of this 21st century international gateway although, if airfield archaeology is your thing, there is still plenty to unearth. Had the Irish airline Aer Lingus not decided to fly a new daily scheduled passenger service from Dublin to Cardiff in 1952, RAF Rhoose may have been turned in to ploughshares. Its former grass airport at Pengam Moors, close to where Cardiff Bay now sits, was often waterlogged and unsuitable for year-round DC-3 services. In 2012 the vast majority of general aviation activity at Cardiff airport is on the ‘south-side’.
This is the area that was the 1950s and sixties focus for commercial civil aviation traffic, where the former terminal and apron were located serving famous airlines of a bygone era ? Cambrian Airways, Derby Airways, Dan Air, Euravia and, of course, Aer Lingus ? it was also where flight training and flying club activities took place; the Glamorgan Flying Club, the South Wales Flying Club, Pegasus Flying Club, Cardiff Ultralight Flying Club, Cambrian Aviation Centre and many more. And remember as you tread the turf at the LAA’s annual rally at Sywell this year, that it was at Cardiff in June 1958 and that the LAA’s predecessor, the PFA, held one of its very first fly-ins ? a huge event for its time and graced by seven aircraft from the French PFA equivalent, the R�seau du Sport de l’Air (RSA), including its president Jacques B�raud. Then in 1959, 1960 and 1961 Cardiff hosted the London-Cardiff Air Races and Welsh Air Rally, which in those years were the UK’s premier GA events.
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The general aviation action on the south side is centred on The White House ? the unofficial name of the rectangular white building that was opened as Cambrian Airways headquarters in 1962. This has survived (Cambrian’s former maintenance hangar alongside was demolished in 2001) and is home to the Rhoose Flying Club Cafe/Bar, Aeros flight training, the Signature FBO, and aircraft charter company Dragon Fly. Outside this building ? and to its north ? is the apron, the floor of the old Cambrian hangar, where the majority of resident aircraft are parked and where visiting aircraft are also left. Its western extremity is named ‘The Norman Apron’, as fronting it is the large hangar that between 1985 and 1988 was home to the Norman Aeroplane Company who manufactured the Fieldmaster, Firecracker and Freelance light aircraft here. The airport is currently looking for a tenant for this prestigious hangar. Fronting the Norman apron are some small lock-up hangars erected by Ken Bowen when his strip at Upfield Farm near Newport was closed; on the opposite side of the taxi-way from here is ‘The Cambrian Apron’ used by bizjets and usually accessed from The White House by a Signature mini-bus.
I start my visit to Cardiff at the hangar alongside The White House, in the old wartime Robin hangar that is home to Cardiff’s two elder statesmen ? in aircraft terms ? Alan Crutcher’s 1946 Aeronca 11AC Chief and Geoff Graham’s Tiger Moth. Alan is topping up the oil in the Aeronca prior to a flight and tells me he has been flying this aircraft from Cardiff for about twelve years and, while many people may think such a taildragger is out of context with the modern goings on at Cardiff, Alan finds it both convenient and relatively hassle-free. He tells me that to base their aircraft at Cardiff owners have to attend a one-day security and safety seminar run by the airport’s owner, TBI Plc. Geoff Graham feels the same regarding his Tiger Moth ? the only drawback to operating these types of aircraft here being strong crosswinds, as Cardiff only has its single Runway 12/30 these days. Although it is 2,354m in length, this isn’t much good to a taildragger if the wind is 220�. Cardiff’s former cross Runway 02/20 is now closed and only used as a taxiway or for aircraft parking during busy traffic days associated with sporting events such as the Ryder Cup, rugby internationals, etc. And for those with far-reaching memories Cardiff’s grass Runway 08/26 is long gone. The Robin hangar was also home to a group-owned Jodel D117 until it crashed last summer, unfortunately killing long-term Cardiff-based pilot Geoff Claxton.
At the eastern end of The White House is a beer garden, and if you climb the external steps to its first floor balcony you get one of the best views of a major international airport’s action that you’ll find anywhere in the UK. I’ve arranged to meet Nigel and Kim Wileman-John who have been running the Rhoose Flying Club on the first floor of The White House for over three years. Kim and her team are hard at work preparing for the busiest time of the week, their epic Sunday lunches, but she downs tools for a chat. She tells me that they’ll serve as many as seventy covers today to pilots, locals from Rhoose village and airport staff. The Club is extremely popular and booking is recommended. It is open seven days a week from 9am until 10pm and then on Friday and Saturday until much later, with a variety of entertainment thrown in. Nigel and Kim came here with no background in aviation, but have soon got into the swing of it with their 100 per cent home-cooked meals and snacks. They also do all the catering for the Signature FBO downstairs, these clients flying in anything from a Cessna twin to a trans-Atlantic Gulfstream V.
As I sit at the bar of the Rhoose Flying Club and look out through its huge patio windows, out over the runway and towards the airport’s main terminal building, I can appreciate this marvellous aviation location. Kim tells me, “Although I knew nothing about aircraft when I came here, looking out on this view every day I’m now a bit of a self-confessed plane spotter”. One of the Club’s customers I meet is Richard Allan ? he has been flying from Cardiff for many many years and, whilst regretting the increasing security, confirms that you couldn’t wish for a more convenient and better equipped place to fly from. Unfortunately Richard was a member of the Jodel group whose aircraft crashed so isn’t able to do much flying at the moment, but he still makes a bee-line for the Rhoose Flying Club at the weekends to “talk aircraft and flying”.
I head down to ground level again with Aeros flight training as my first port of call. This group, with flying training at Coventry, Gloucester and Wellsbourne, has embraced the Welshness of its most recent base ? the sign over the door saying Croeso i, Welsh for ‘Welcome to’, a nice touch I thought. The moment I step inside the Aeros offices I get a feeling of professionalism ? the place is neat, tidy and well-appointed, and the ‘Achievements Board’ on the wall in front of me immediately catches my eye. “Lots going on here?” I say to instructor James Dawson. “Not bad,” he replies, considering the company’s only been operational here for about eighteen months ? it is hoping that the upcoming summer months will boost its local 200 memberships and activities. It currently has a PA-28 Warrior and Robin 200 here for flight training, but can draft in a PA-32 Saratoga or its new Tecnam P2006 twin for more advanced work. James is looking forward to the arrival of the Tecnam, which he thinks will reduce twin training costs significantly. He’s also enthusiastic about Cardiff as a flight training location, “we are lucky to be at a major international airport, we can take off and be practicing ‘holds’ within minutes. At other places I’ve instructed, positioning can eat up more than thirty minutes of a student’s lesson”.
Next I talk to Nicholas Keeble, part of a Cardiff airport dynasty. Nicholas’s grandfather George was a DC-3 and Viscount captain for Cambrian Airways ? George’s son Paul is a part-time instructor at Aeros and also a watch controller in the control tower, so you may well talk to him on arrival. Nicholas is continuing the family’s aviation traditions, working towards a CPL, and confirms what a great place Cardiff is for flight instruction ? “not too busy, yet with all the facilities a student will be dealing with in his or her professional flying career”.
Quarterly membership for joining Aeros is �45.00, or lifetime at �150.00 ? for instruction the current rate for a Warrior is �188.38 and for Aeros Owners’ Club the weekday hire rate of �115.00. Operating from a room within the Aeros facility is Dr Rhodri Morgan ? a CAA-approved medical examiner who is available for Class 1 and 2 medicals, a real bonus service that saves sitting around in doctors’ waiting rooms and takes up a great deal less time. If you are flying to Cardiff from within the UK, do not require handling and are flying a single of under two metric tonnes weight then you can pay your �23.40 (inc VAT) landing fee at Aeros. It will telephone for a taxi if you want to get out and about, but remember that once you’ve parked for more than four hours you will be charged extra, at the rate of �19.20 per 24 hours or part thereof. If your aircraft is larger than you’ll have to go to Signature. Dave Pearce, who is the company’s Cardiff manager, left the RAF in 2001 to join Signature ? now the largest FBO company in the world. In- or out-bound he’ll make your passage through Cardiff airport as swift and as smooth as possible with information on weather, filing of flight plans, special branch clearances, and organising car hire, taxis, hotels, fuel and anything else. He told me, “Our business at Cardiff is expanding rapidly, which demonstrates that the South Wales economy is also starting to kick off after very hard times ? we maintain complete confidentiality with our customers, our repeat business a huge part of our reputation”.
Finally I head to the other side of the airport, which most private and corporate pilots won’t visit, to the airport offices and to meet Steve Hodgetts, Cardiff airport’s Business Development & Commercial Director. Cardiff is part of TBI Plc, which also owns Luton airport in the UK and several foreign airports including Orlando (Sanford). Cardiff has had a torrid time of late ? one of its major customers, bmibaby, having withdrawn all of its services in autumn 2011. I asked Steve how he saw GA fitting in to the Cardiff scene, “We can’t afford to neglect any part of aviation and will work with any aspect of business and private aviation to try to help them. If anyone wants to base their aircraft at Cardiff, small or large, come and talk to us about rates and fees. We are pleased with the way all general aviation is now centred on the airport’s south side and, whilst in the past there has been considerable instability amongst the various flying clubs that have tried to operate here, now that Aeros is established there are no issues. The airport is also happy to talk to any business that wants to come to Cardiff and even better if they want to invest in infrastructure”. Steve points out the new radar on the airport’s western boundary, 2011’s investment by airport owners TBI.
Flying to Cardiff is straightforward. The Cardiff LARS extends in a 40nm radius from the airport and up to FL95, so you will be speaking to the approach controller from a long way out. However, with the former RAF St Athan just to its west you must keep a watchful eye open for its Grob Tutors and other fast jet traffic. Cardiff’s controllers provide an approach-radar service to St Athan permitting semi-autonomous operations with a Local Flying Zone established around St Athan, enabling aircraft to arrive there and depart VFR by entering and exiting the Control Zone via the Nash Point VRP without obtaining clearance from Cardiff. So if St Athan is active you will not be allowed to route in-bound to Cardiff from the west along the South Wales coast. Instead you’ll be asked to join at Junction 36 VRP on the M4 motorway (there’s a huge out of town outlet store just to the north of Bridgend) and then route via the St Hilary TV mast (don’t mistake this one for the Wenvoe TV mast, another VRP closer to Cardiff city) before flying inbound probably, if Runway 30 is in use, via a right hand down-wind for 30.
Approaching from the east is also straightforward ? you may have been talking to Bristol and it’ll hand you over. Remember though that Cardiff is a major international airport and the sooner you can call for entry to its Class ‘A’ airspace the better, so it can slot you in. From the south-east ? again you’ll probably be talking to Bristol, but will route in over either Flat or Steep Holme islands that sit like huge, dark icebergs in the middle of the Bristol Channel between Barry and Weston Super Mare and to the Lavernock Point VRP on the coast between Barry and Penarth. Also from the east Cardiff Docks and the Cardiff Bay ‘lagoon’ are another VRP used, when you fly close to Cardiff’s heliport at Tremorfa and the site of the original Cardiff airport at Pengam Moors. If this is your route you’ll be treated to an incredible view of the city of Cardiff and, dominating it all, the huge Millennium Stadium.
From the south you’ll probably route over Watchet on the Somerset coast, carefully avoiding danger area D119 and the restricted area around the Hinkley Point nuclear power station. On this route, the chocolate brown colour of the turbulent Bristol Channel will also surprise you, since the second highest tidal range in the world flows here (the Bay of Fundy in Newfoundland has the largest). And whatever you do make sure you’ve clearly identified and located Cardiff airport and have not, as a few commercials have done over the years, lined up for Runway 26 at nearby St Athan thinking it’s Cardiff.
Then it is Croeso i Cymru on your arrival on Welsh soil at Cardiff. You should wear a fluorescent waistcoat to cross the apron. Everyone here speaks English, despite the- bilingual signage, and Pound Sterling is the currency ? but that pinch of Welshness makes everything that little bit different, ensuring your Cardiff airport visit is a fruitful and memorable experience.