Airfield Profile: Leicester
PUBLISHED: 10:47 28 March 2012 | UPDATED: 14:12 10 October 2012
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 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.
Words and photographs by Nick Bloom