Review: Fenland Airfield
- Credit: Archant
The objective of the Fenland Aero Club is to promote the amateur sport of flying, offer flying training at the lowest possible rates and provide social facilities for members, visitors and guests. The airfield offers an excellent range of facilities for the aviator, enthusiast or spectator who enjoys all that is flying. Aptly named as the Wash is just ten miles away, this popular destination is much appreciated for its food and atmosphere
Envy of the French approach to light aviation used to be a regular theme in Pilot. Their airfields were praised as being cheaper, livelier and less formal than ours and their food was better. Now, the gap has narrowed, especially when you consider places such as Fenland, which couldn’t be more welcoming and relaxed. The food’s great and it’s got French prices, too, at five quid for a landing. There are fewer people flying here now than before the recession, but the numbers are rising and the ones you meet are true enthusiasts. As one local put it to me: “There are fewer cheque-book pilots now, and perhaps we’re all the better for it.”
The airfield was created on the land of a farming family with a passion for aviation. It won its planning permission in 1972, and grew into a full-scale operation with a flying school, restaurant, fuel supply and on-site maintenance company.
One feature of Fenland particularly reminds me of certain French airfields ? it can be difficult to find, since it is in open countryside without any nearby towns, roads or railway lines to guide you.
In years gone by, I shared a Pitts Special with Alan Cassidy and John ‘Peddling Faster’ (Foster-Pedley). Then as now aerobatics were a regular feature at Fenland. John and Alan were driving up to a contest and I was to fly up from Denham. When I got to Denham after work, I found a note pinned to the Pitts’s instrument panel: ‘Something odd about the brakes’. It took several hot, cramped hours to fix them and daylight was fading when I finally took off.
After reaching the Wash and turning back for another look three times, I realised it was hopeless trying to locate Fenland in the failing light and looked for a forced-landing site. I finally landed in a bean field. By chance, the householder who came to help lived next door to the B&B I had booked. In the morning my host swung the prop and five minutes later I arrived at Fenland, in good time for the eight o’clock briefing. Today, the airfield will give you a sticker: ‘I found Fenland’.
For my flight to Fenland one cold Friday (the thirteenth!) in March, I re-located my Aware GPS from its ‘for use in emergencies’ locker under the seat of my Currie Super Wot and mounted it below the instrument panel, connected to the on-board battery that also powers the radio and oil pressure gauge. All I needed to do was switch it on ? no chance of sailing past Fenland then.
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Despite the superstition surrounding the date, all went well... Well, nearly all. I made nine-tenths of the journey by map-and-finger then switched on the Aware. It showed Fenland on the nose, although further away than I had expected. Thanks to the cold I had reverted to student, thinking I must be there when I still had eight miles to run.
The time it took to arrive was just long enough for the Aware’s internal battery (not charged beforehand) to drain the on-board battery, so the radio went dead as I was about to transmit. I phoned before departing, so a non-radio arrival shouldn’t matter. Still, I switched off the Aware in case that brought the radio back to life. Then I had to take some overhead pictures. I fumbled the cloth bag off the cockpit floor and got the camera out. Whilst I was snapping away, something flew past my head; it was the bag, snatched out of my lap by the wind. Someone will be puzzled when they find it.
I could see a Cessna below taking off on Runway 18, so I dropped down in a steep turning sideslip and soon my wheels are rumbled along the grass. A one-eighty, a quick taxi to the parking area and I pulled out the mixture control. The propeller stopped, leaving silence and an awareness of an urgent need to pee. Two chaps came over to welcome me (“Let me get you a coffee, how do you take it?”) One directed me to the loo.
Feeling a little more compos mentis, I sipped my coffee and explained to the CFI Marcus Palmer and John Parker, club chairman, that I was there to profile the airfield principally by meeting whoever happened to be there that day. We agreed to talk later and I went off to interview two club members who had just arrived. They were Eddie McKenzie-Blyth, 58, who owns a caravan business, and his friend, retired Customs officer Mike Hallas, 75. They had come to fly G-FNLD, a group-owned Cessna 172, to Andrewsfield for lunch. Eddie had been based at Fenland for eight years, flying since he was seventeen, and he’d been in the Hotel Papa group (which operates G-FNLD) for seven years. He flies 25-30 hours a year, pays £75 an hour ‘wet’ and £100 a month, plus the occasional top up when additional maintenance required. Mike learned to fly after retirement, but only goes up as a passenger nowadays. When I asked what made Fenland different, they said, “The cake, the club members and the excellent on-site maintenance facility.”
Next I met Jeff Moreland, 67, a retired software engineer. A 390-hour pilot, he was there to fly a club Cessna 152 to Bourn. He’d been based at Fenland for four years, having learned to fly in 1991, and lived locally ? as did Eddie and Mike. I imagined that despite its rural location, it wasn’t a bad catchment area, with the small towns of Spalding, Holbeach and Wisbech each a few miles away, and Peterborough a 25-minute drive.
The club chairman, John, took me through the hangars, where there were quite a few unusual and interesting aeroplanes including a Christen Eagle and CAP 10, some Pitts Specials, a lovely Cessna 120 and?more humbly perhaps?a MiniMax. Undoubtedly, though, the pride of the airfield was David Beale’s gorgeous and fast (200mph) replica Percival Mew Gull, which I found him preparing to fly.
David Beale, 61, was the retired chairman of a machinery automation company. He lived 45 minutes’ drive away and chose to keep his sleek 1930s racer?a taildragger with tricky handling?at Fenland: “For the two long grass runways, the UL91, the affordable hangarage and the general atmosphere, which is friendly and free from in-fighting”. He added that there were no noise issues with the locals and the only drawback was that in winter the runways can become too soft to fly. He takes the Gull for an outing whenever he can, although says it’s quite expensive in fuel, burning 50 lph. I asked what it’s like to fly. “At 200mph, it almost makes England too small,” he said. His most recent flight was a circuit of Kings Lynn, Hunstanton, Cromer, Beccles, Bentwaters, Lakenheath, and back. It took him fifty minutes.
Last year the Gull flew thirty hours, of which David flew 24?the other six were flown by pilots displaying his creation (he built the Gull from scratch) as he didn’t have a DA. His other aeroplane sounded more calming, a Tipsy Belfair... but when I asked what he planned next he rattled off several obscure racing aircraft of the 1930s and 1940s, all of them even faster and trickier than the Gull. “If someone makes me a suitable offer for this,” he said, stroking the glass-like finish on the wing, “I’ll build one of them.” There’s no doubting David’s energy, and I could see (and identify with) his desire not to let retirement slow him down... if anything, it looked as if he’ll be busier than ever.
Afterwards, I took some action photographs outside, of people wheeling out aeroplanes so that the Gull could be moved onto the apron. Whilst I was taking pictures, a smart black Mercedes drove in. John introduced me to the glamorous lady at the wheel Chrisavyi Wright (she’s a Greek Cypriot) who, with her husband of 47 years, John Wright, owned the airfield. Her husband, she told me, doesn’t fly ? his interest is in old cars and motorbikes, but he loves old aeroplanes too, and when Tony Moore (who founded Sibson) suggested starting an airfield, he didn’t hesitate. His father, Bernard Wright, had the cereal farm on which the airfield was built and both his father and mother were pilots, as was his uncle, who was killed flying aerobatics in World War Two.
The passion for flying skipped a generation, because their son Dino?Chrisavyi told me proudly ? is a commercial pilot. Not only that, her father and uncle were pilots, too. “And you...?” I asked. “Oh no,” she said, waving away the very suggestion, “not after...” She proceeded to tell me about an incident of truly terrifying turbulence in an airliner ? the kind where all the luggage lockers fall open. “I take a tablet to fly,” she said, giving us a big smile.“So the airfield has a secure future,” I asked. “Oh yes,” she said. “The family is committed to it. I don’t think we’ll ever change it from being an airfield after all these years.”
My guide, John Parker, told me John Wright makes his own replica cars and restores old agricultural vehicles and machinery ? apparently the pride of his collection, recently completed, ran on a supercharged, two-stroke diesel. John Wright arrived at this point, a slight, bright-eyed man in overalls and wellington boots. I was surprised to find he was 79. Farmers do seem to remain fit and active longer than the rest of us.
He said, “I do like old aeroplanes like this,” pointing to the Mew Gull, which was nearby. “How about my Currie Super Wot?” I asked. He peered at it; it was rather distant. “Oh yes, I can see that’s old,” he said. “I like things to have a bit of character. It makes life more interesting.” He also likes putting up buildings; I gathered most of the hangars were down to him. Fenland was particularly well supplied with accommodation, for people and aeroplanes, and had a fine Control Tower overlooking its two grass runways. The Tower is used at weekends and fly-ins. During the week the air/ground service (on 122.925) is run from the airfield office. The radio is on a shelf by the door so the man with the mike on a curly lead can gesticulate at pilots if necessary. The restaurant has a fine view of the action and there is also a pleasant terrace for outdoor seating. Among the club’s facilities there was a self-serve fuel pump where you can pay by credit or
John Parker and I went into the clubhouse for lunch. I had a bacon and egg bap, a slice of Victoria sponge cake and two mugs of coffee which, amazingly, came to just seven quid. Both the bap and cake (you cut your own slice and there was a row of different flavoured cakes on offer) were delicious. The yoke of the fried egg had only just solidified, perfect for a bap. The sponge was light and tasted of eggs, butter and vanilla.
Two pilots arrived in a C42 from Chatteris. After a quick bite they were flying on to Boston. Another C42 arrived, this one from Conington, and the pilot looked familiar ? he would, it’s James Gross, the 32-year-old who works for Virgin Media and whom I interviewed last month. He had flown here as part of his NPPL (Microlights) course. Next, a Piper Arrow landed and disgorged Peter Walker, Richard Silcock and Peter Habard, all co-owners of the aircraft, which was based at Andrewsfield. I asked why they chose here to fly to. “For lunch,” they said, and one of the Peters added, “mega-chips”. John Parker had those and they certainly
“And there are usually some interesting aeroplanes here,” added Richard, possibly not wanting the trio to sound too greedy. He told me their Arrow was once flown by the owner of Mulberry handbags and painted accordingly but now it has a Union flag colour scheme ? very patriotic.
The club CFI whom I had met earlier, Marcus Palmer, arrived to join us. The club has three instructors and operates a Cessna 152, a 172, and may soon be adding a C42. Marcus a freelance instructor, has been at Fenland for four years. He also instructs at Leicester and Little Snoring and is the CFI at RAF Marham. He’s at Fenland three days a week. Currently he has five students at Leicester, four at Marham and two at Fenland. Most of his career has been as an Air Traffic Controller for the RAF, and because of this he recently arranged a liaison visit to Coningsby, to which fourteen club members went. And he’s a CAA Examiner. (His website is www.eagle-flite-services.co.uk)
I asked him to sum up Fenland as a training environment. He said, “It’s outside controlled airspace, generally there are no noise problems and we have a good relationship with the locals. Sometimes farmers ask us to accommodate something they have going on and we comply. It’s a good location for visiting other airfields ? there are quite a lot not far from here. It’s easy to find once you know where it is. This is the worst time of year; in summer when it’s mowed and in winter when the surrounding fields are ploughed, the airfield stands out a lot better. The main downside is having to close for ten days a year when the ground gets too waterlogged, although the site is actually quite well drained. Having two runways is good, although 26/08 isn’t licensed. For visiting trainee pilots, we treat the five pound landing fee almost as a day
ticket, and allow two or three circuits without charge.”
There are currently 33 aircraft based at Fenland. Hangarage is £225 a quarter for the older hangars, £350 for the newer ones. Club membership is £200 a year and includes reciprocal ‘no landing fee’ arrangements with ten other airfields. Night flying is available on Runway 36/18 on an occasional basis. The airfield has Customs recognition. Marcus said, “It’s always a good idea to PPR, but we don’t ask for it here; you are welcome to come without phoning ahead.”
John Parker, club chairman, has been a member since 1993 and remembers that at that point there were 350 members. “We had everything ? twins, helicopters, microlights and a busy flying school. Then, in the recession, the numbers fell back and it has returned to a grass roots airfield. Things are beginning to pick up and we get the feeling these days that we’re very much back on the map as a place to fly to. Membership now is 150.
“Katie Booth has been a big help ? she runs OK Catering and is also our events manager. Since she’s been here the bar takings have doubled in three years. Among the events, Wings and Wheels
has been particularly successful. The members all muck in marshalling, organising and participating and we
had 900 people attend.” Katie was too busy for me to interview properly, but I did take her photograph with John. She also gave me a copy of the Fenland Aero Club events programme. Every second month there’s a quiz night. Good Friday there’s an ‘all you can eat’ fish night. There’s a Members Night, a BBQ Night, a Car Club Cruise to Fenland, and a host of flying events: spot landing contest, VAC Daffodil Fly-in, aerobatics weekend, vintage, LAA and microlight fly-ins and others. It’s all on their website, of course, which includes plenty of information for visiting pilots (www.fenlandairfield.co.uk).
My final interview was with Ben Butcher, a student who is prepping a Cessna 172 for a lesson with the Airfield Manager and instructor, Steve Brown. Ben is a retired farmer, aged 64, and had twelve hours’ flying. He said, “Retirement has allowed me to afford the time and cost of something I’ve wanted to do all my life, which is learn to fly.”
It was time I was heading for home. First I dipped my fuel and found I’ve got ninety-minutes worth, which for a flight of an hour seemed OK. Next I needed someone to swing the prop; David Beale volunteered. I was parked outside the clubhouse and didn’t really want to taxi down Runway 18, then backtrack to the threshold of 08, which is what everyone seemed to be using. And I’d rather reserve what remained in my on-board battery for the oil temperature gauge and not use radio. My request to go non-radio and take off from where I was parked, despite an 8mph tailwind, was met with a “fine, no problem”.
So I strapped in, David swung the prop, and after letting the engine warm up, I lifted the tail, kicked rudder to face down 08, gave a final look for conflicting traffic and opened the throttle all the way. A climb, set heading, and I was going home. I knew there was a wind from the east and I wanted to go due south, so I set a heading of 175 degrees and waited for a landmark. Except that it was rather hazy and, in any case, there wasn’t going to be a landmark in the featureless landscape for quite a while yet.
I was getting uneasy. Maybe the GPS battery was sufficiently charged for it to confirm my track. I switched it on and it came alive. After picking up satellites, it showed me heading well east of track, not at all what the magnetic compass would have suggested. I steered right until the track line showed me heading south and then a bit more to get me back on track. Then I checked the compass reading, which was 220. Nonsensical though this seems, the GPS does seem to indicate that that was the heading I wanted. I might have needed the GPS battery later, so to conserve it, I switched off and concentrated on holding 220.
It wasn’t until a quarter of an hour had passed that I finally see an unmistakable landmark, two long parallel canals with a weightshift microlight taking off from what must have been Sutton Meadows. After that I began to relax. Something was obviously affecting the compass heading when I flew South (it was okay on the way up). However, the great thing with magnetic compasses, which I’ve learned over the years can be unreliable in homebuilts, is that they are consistent. If 220 was taking me south, even with a fairly strong easterly at the start of the flight, it must have still been taking me south.
The Friday the Thirteenth bug wasn’t quite finished with me, though. After landing at Fenland I had noticed rather a lot of oil under the fuselage. So before taking off I had checked the oil level. As often happens the leak looked worse than it was and I’d actually lost half a litre, which isn’t bad for a high-hours C90 after an hour’s flight. Still, there was a small possibility that whatever was causing the leak was getting worse. If so, the oil pressure would be falling. And now, with fifteen minutes left before I reach my strip, it was.
The needle was definitely sagging; in fact, it had gone below the red line. The most likely reason was the on-board battery running down but... it was Friday the Thirteenth. I switched off and waited a few tense minutes. Maybe unloading the battery would allow it to recover. I switched on again and the oil pressure was back where it should be, so it must have been the battery. Phew!
I was fairly rattled by then and there was one last hurdle to jump: the landing. I was going to have a stiff-ish crosswind and a choice of landing with a tailwind in the relatively easy south-west direction, or a headwind the other way, but that meant dropping down over tall trees and a possibility of low level turbulence. And I was tired and cold. I decided to land with the tailwind. It turned out to be stronger than expected ? you’ll know that feeling of the ground rushing towards you ? but I got the wheels down right at the threshold and my last glimpse of the ASI showed a healthily low figure.
The Currie Super Wot hurtled along (no brakes on the machine) and was half-way down the runway when the tail finally dropped. At last I had a brake, the tailskid. We began to slow to something less manic. However, the steering, sensitive at first, was becoming sluggish as the headwind decayed and the tailwind diluted my rudder control. The rudder was getting almost nothing from the propeller, with the throttle closed. A couple of times I have had to give a burst of throttle to assist rudder and stay on line. Suddenly it all came right, the aircraft slowed to walking speed and I was still lined up towards the hangar with plenty of clearance from the hazards to right and left. I took the last few yards slowly, pulled out the mixture control and the prop stopped.
Despite my fatigue and chill, I cleaned off the oil before putting the aeroplane in the hangar. A dip of the fuel state confirmed 25 minutes’ worth left. And the oil level was just on the ‘low’ mark and still on the dipstick. I planned to sort out the oil leak and the compass later as by then I was ready to sit in front of a fire and drink a great big mug of tea.
Fenland is well worth a visit. Make sure you leave room for the cake. And be certain that you have a functioning GPS – you may need it!
Hangarage is £225 - £350 a quarter; club membership includes landing fee arrangements