Airfield Profile: Gloucestershire
- Credit: Archant
This regional airport has everything from old biplanes to helicopters, microlights and executive jets — and is always busy.
I last flew in to Gloucestershire airport in 2004. It was mid-week and the circuit was active, but not crowded. I had phoned to say I was coming, so when the transmit function failed on my radio I took a gamble and joined non-radio behind another aircraft that was landing. The controller saw and identified my Tipsy Nipper, realised that I must have a radio problem and gave me clearance to land in turn.
Later that morning the aeroplane I had come to fly, a Spezio Tuholer, also turned out to be unable to transmit. As I taxied out in it the brakes were inoperable and the engine – which we had been obliged to start by hand, as the battery was flat – was threatening to quit unless I kept some power on. Faced with a choice of abandoning the flight or keeping going, I kept going, knowing that I could always cut the mag switches. It was a relief to hear the Controller in my headset say, “Tuholer pilot, wave once if you can hear me,” as I taxied into sight. Having established communication via hand signals, she cleared me to enter the runway and then to take off. Once airborne, the Tuholer’s engine settled down and both brakes and radio eventually came to life. (The aeroplane hadn’t been flown for months and damp had got into its vitals.)
I was most impressed. You don’t expect that kind of flexibility from airports with full air traffic control and three, full-size runways. So today, driving down to prepare this Airfield Profile, I’m wondering if Gloucestershire Airport has managed to retain its helpful spirit. As I near the airport entrance, I drive past a wooden building with ‘The Flying Shack’ painted on it, and a board alongside advertising cheap flights at £65. On a plinth next to the shack, there is what looks like the nose cone of an Avro Vulcan. What’s on offer, there, I wonder: flight simulation on a computer?
Gloucestershire Airport has an interesting history. An airfield opened next to the present site in 1931, selling Tiger Moths. The Cotswold Aero Club, still operational today, began there. Cheltenham and Gloucester Councils (the operating company is still council-owned) bought the present site in 1936 and opened Staverton Airport, as it was then called. Staverton was used for training by the RAF, and during the 1940s by Sir Alan Cobham for the development of in-flight refuelling. Post-war it was popular for business and private flying. Smiths Industries developed large aircraft on the site, and companies ran scheduled passenger flights from Staverton to the Channel Islands, Dublin and the Isle of Man. The name was changed to Gloucestershire Airport in 1993.
Once inside the gates and driving round the perimeter road, I’m struck with how many aviation businesses there are here. I’m going to have my work cut out to visit them all. I have to start somewhere, so I park at random outside Tiger Airways and go in. There I meet two characters familiar from my Tiger Club days, Tizi Hodson and Chris Rollings. Tizi is the company CFI and she’s about to take a customer up in one of their three Stampes. A twenty-minute flight in the Stampe with Tizi costs £135, £195 in a Stearman, and you can get half an hour with her in a Slingsby T-67 for £95.
Tiger Airways strikes me as an informal outpost of the Tiger Club – there’s much the same atmosphere, with a dog called Tiger and flying jackets in a row on hooks. In a maintenance hangar, when Chris shows me round, a couple of Pitts Specials and a Stampe fuselage are being worked on. The maintenance part of the business is relatively new. As Chris explains, “Once we realised how much we were spending on keeping Stampes with Renault engines flying, we decided we’d better do it ourselves”. They have five full-time and three part-time engineers. As well as trial lessons, Tiger Airways also offers ab initio PPL instruction and tailwheel ratings, and teaches aerobatics
I ask about Gloucestershire Airport. Chris says, “We’ve been here for eleven years. The advantages include its accessibility, being right next to the M5 motorway. Also, the good facilities and the referrals we get from the other schools here for tailwheel training. The restaurant’s good, and it’s a pretty area with lots to see from the air – that’s particularly important for us, because our main business is gift vouchers for trial lessons. There’s the Malvern hills, the Cotswolds, the Severn Estuary and its bridges. And there are no airspace restrictions to worry about. Plus everyone here is fantastically helpful, and understanding about operating old biplanes. They put in the 300-metre grass runway partly to help us out. “It can get busy and there can be some waiting for slots, but that hasn’t been a major issue. We know that the owners are keen to increase business traffic, but I can’t see it becoming big-scale enough to trouble us.”
One of the busiest GA airfields
I next call on Aeros, a flying school up to and including Commercial training, which also has operations at Cardiff, Coventry and Wellesbourne. There I meet Paul Jocelyn, who is a flying instructor and also the Operations Manager. Aeros is the biggest fixed-wing school on the airport with five PA-28s, one a retractable Arrow, two Tecnam twins and a Seneca. Paul tells me, “This is one of the busiest GA airfields in the country. We get the best of both worlds, a controlled airfield in uncontrolled airspace. We already have an NDB instrument approach and with ILS coming in we’ll have a ‘full set’ for Commercial training. The only time all the activity is a problem is when we want to send students solo at weekends, when the radio can be too busy for them, which means sending them solo in the early morning or late evening when things have got a bit quieter.”
Outside, I meet one of the company’s students, John Stephenson, who has just landed from his third solo flight. He started four months ago and has flown 22 hours. “I picked Aeros to learn with,” he says, “after visiting all the schools at the airport. I chose it because it seemed the most formal. That’s a quality that doesn’t suit everyone, I know, but it does me.” Aged 47, John runs an asset finance company and lives ten minutes away. He thinks he’ll get a share in a PA-28 once he’s got his licence. I ask him why he’s chosen this moment in his life to take up flying. “I’ve always fancied it,” he says. “I’ve done most other things, skiing and yachting. I knew the airport was here, so when I wanted to learn, I knew where to come.”
Following a sign saying ‘Executive Aviation Services’ I discover a company that has run jet charter and management from the airport since 1987. It currently has ten aircraft on its AOC, “from King Airs to Cessna Citations,” they tell me proudly, “Including the first XLS Plus to be available in the UK for charter”. Executive Aviation Services also provides training on Citations.
Brand new buildings
The next building looks and, it turns out, is brand new. It’s occupied by Staverton Flying School and Heli Air. There I meet Steve Williams, a strong character who deserves to have ‘dynamic’ as his middle name. He and his wife Kathryn learned to fly in the Midlands in the 1980s.
“We started our own grass airstrip,” Steve tells me, “And gradually got bigger and better aeroplanes. When I moved up to a Piper Malibu in 2005, I realised that we’d outgrown the strip, so I came to see about basing it here. I asked could I build a hangar for it and they said go ahead, they already had planning permission. So I put up this building and we bought the flying school and moved it from its previous site to here”.
“So you’re a builder then?” I ask him. “Not to start with,” he says, “But I soon learned”. Having erected a large and most impressive hangar and office block ? he shows me around and demonstrates the power-operated hangar doors ? he then set about refurbishing the WWII hangar on the airport so that it could accommodate big jets (a Gulfstream is expected). I’m even more impressed when I ask him if he uses an architect. “No,” he says. “I do that myself too.”
Now he has the contract to build the Jet Age Museum, another enormous hangar that will house a collection of historic aircraft on the airport. The Vulcan nosecone I saw earlier is one of them and as I make my tour I see more and more. Apparently they were left here when the museum was evicted from its previous site and have been waiting for a proper home ever since. The foundations are being laid now and the building is scheduled to open in November. Resident aircraft will include a Gloster Gamecock, a Javelin, Meteor, Hurricane replica, aviation artefacts and memorabilia and much more.
Steve flies around 200 hours a year, all over Europe, in the family Piper Meridian. Staverton Flying School has two Cessna 152s and a 172 and is clearly busy, because the aircraft are fully booked for every Saturday for the next two months. He is very proud of his connection with Gloucestershire airport. “This must be the best GA airport in the UK,” he says. “In one recent month it was announced that we were the ninth busiest business airport in the country, and that includes Gatwick and Heathrow. Mark my words, we’ll be running scheduled services to Paris and Brussels twelve months from now. Since the runway was extended we can get a Challenger 604 in here. I’ve heard that a Piaggio P180 will be coming here in January. Word’s getting out about our having an ILS soon.”
At present Manx2 operates scheduled flights to Belfast, Jersey and the Isle of Man and OSET Holidays provide package tours from the airport. Up the stairs in Steve’s office building, I meet Brian Kane, Heli Air’s Head of Sales and Marketing. He tells me about the company’s new venture on the airport. In its smart new offices, next to its spotless new hangar, it will have an academy specialising in teaching helicopter flying instructors, which will also provide PPL(H) and CPL training on two R22s, an R44, a Bell 206 and eventually an R66. “We chose Gloucestershire Airport as it’s the best GA airfield in the UK,” he says. “Its facilities exceeded our expectations. It’s in the perfect geographical position, with full ATC and great pilot services. The attitude of the airport directors couldn’t have been more encouraging and we admire their ambition. The site is always immaculate; as soon as the grass grows, they cut it. The best way I can sum it up is by saying that whatever you ask for they always say yes.”
On my way out of the building I see a youngster hard at work with PPL paperwork and meet Craig Parker, a twenty-year-old apprentice at RGV Aviation, where he’s learning instrument repair. He’s also embarked on learning to fly and is preparing for a cross-country. Steve takes me to the WWII hangar he converted (20,000 sq ft of floor space), where I’m due to rendezvous with Darren Lewington, the airport’s Head of Operations. The business that will shortly be occupying Steve’s converted WWII hangar with big jets is Direct Aviation, an executive jet management services company.
I meet Stephen Middleton, one of the directors and Gerry Morton, its Chief Pilot. “We’ve been based at Kemble, but we’ve chosen Gloucestershire Airport for our expansion,” they tell me. “This has got longer opening hours, landing lights and landing systems... everything we need, not least this wonderful, beautiful hangar.”
Darren arrives and, as it’s now lunchtime, we go to The Aviator?the restaurant and bar on the airfield. It’s absolutely buzzing.
Copying the supermarkets
Our baguettes arrive and we go to Darren’s office to eat them. He tells me that the airport has around 68,000 movements a year. There were 8,000 in the preceding month. Three per cent of the airport’s traffic brings in thirty per cent of revenue: the corporate and scheduled flights. Most movements, though, are GA training. There are 160 aircraft based on the site, from flexwings to corporate jets. Five companies offer hangarage, and a typical rate for a PA-28 would be £400 a month. Landing fees for a PA-28 are £19.99, or £12 if you buy fuel.
“We copied the supermarkets a couple of years ago and introduced a loyalty card,” says Darren, “and it’s been hugely popular: 600 pilots have signed up for it. Every fifth landing is free, plus we email members a special offer every week, such as fuel price discounts or a free weekend’s parking.”
“We’re lucky,” he adds. “This is a relatively affluent part of the world, between Cheltenham and Gloucester, on the M5 motorway and near the M40 corridor and Oxford. All the schools here say that new people keep coming through the door despite the recession.”
Darren is a pilot with 250hr and lapsed IMC and night ratings. On his office walls there are photos to commemorate flights he’s had in the back of a Mustang, Sea Fury and Tiger Moth. His father was an aircraft engineer, “so I’ve always been captivated by aeroplanes”. He came to his present position after working as an Air Traffic Controller.
After lunch he leads me through the well-appointed departure lounge. On the way out I spot two men with flight bags who look as though they might be heading for a light aircraft. Pilot Ken Neilson and his friend Jon Trudgian are on a jolly to Dinard where they plan to stay overnight. Ken tells me he flies around fifty hours a year and has just moved to Gloucestershire Airport from Kemble. “From the day I landed here to visit RGV for some maintenance, I’ve found everyone most pleasant and helpful,” he says.
We leave them to carry on and head for the control tower. I usually ask the controller if he or she has any tips for visitors, but I can see that everyone is busy, so I ask Darren instead. “Having three runways in use can disorientate people,” he says. “The default is to join overhead, but if you want to join direct, ask on your first call. If you’re in doubt about anything, don’t hesitate to ask and don’t be overawed if you’re used to a ground to air service. I tell the controllers here that they’re to remember they’re providing a service to customers. Eight out of our ten controllers are current or lapsed PPL holders, so they do understand.”
Earlier I asked Darren about The Flying Shack, the building I drove past on the way in. It turns out to be a thriving microlight school and flying club and we’re heading there next. In the small car park outside I meet a couple of members, John May, who flies one of the club’s Eurostars, and Dave Nixon. Dave flies a flexwing from his own airstrip, but is converting to three-axis with The Flying Shack. John says, “I got my licence here last year, which isn’t bad for a 67-yearold. The airport is very friendly. I came on one of their open evenings and got taken up to see the control tower. There’s a lively social side too.”
Glenn Webster is holding the fort in the clubhouse, which has its own kitchen and serves sandwiches and drinks. He shows me the club fleet of two Eurostars and a Quantum weightshift. There are several other microlights in the hangar, which are privately owned. Last month, he tells me, the club flew 125 hours in the Eurostars.
I wonder if all the ‘big aeroplane’ facilities might not be rather over the top for microlight pilots. “Not at all,” he says. “The training and ATC environment is an excellent thing. All our pilots get a radio licence. I think it’s rather an anomaly when microlights can cruise at 100mph not to be using radio and not to be familiar with airport procedures. Having said that, we do a lot of flying to farm strips from here, so we get the best of both worlds.” The club rates are unusually attractive – £62 an hour wet for members, and membership is just £55 a year.
Continuing my tour of the airport, we stop outside a T-hangar housing a Cherokee Arrow III, the property of the Gloucestershire Flying Club, which is a group with twenty members. The aircraft flies around 150hr a year. Two members called Trevor and Bob are putting the Arrow away after flying to Halfpenny Green. Trevor says, “I’ve been based here for forty years. It’s grown and developed, but it’s just as GA-friendly as it ever was. The biggest change is how much more helicopter flying there is now. The best instructor on the field is Phil Matthews; he’s spent his whole life instructing. He does all the group’s biennials and check outs.”
Our next call is at RGV, one of several maintenance companies at the airport, and the biggest there for GA. I meet Stuart Vincent, the Managing Director. “We’ve just added a new hangar,” he tells me, “tripling our capacity. Now we have thirty staff here, twenty of them engineers. This is a really good place.”
We drop in at another of the fixed wing schools, Cotswold Aero Club, but everyone’s out flying. This is the oldest club on the site, pre-dating the original pre-war airfield alongside this site, because the club was founded in 1927. It has five instructors, a Robin R2112 for training and aerobatics, two Robin DR400s for training and touring and a Piper Arrow for touring. Training rates start at £173 an hour.
We could visit some more of the rotary schools, but we’re running out of time, so I ask Darren to sum them up for me. “Trevor was right about helicopter training,” says Darren. “It is the most rapidly growing activity on the airport. When I came here originally, the police had just a handful of helicopters, but now every Force in the UK has access to one and Police Aviation Services has grown accordingly. Air Ambulances were equally rare, but now they are the norm for most areas in the UK.
Bond Air Services, based here, probably looks after three quarters of the working helicopters in the UK, maintaining, crewing and acquiring them for customers from Network Rail to the Lighthouse Service. And on top of that, a lot more private pilots are learning to fly helicopters and then buying one. As well as the companies I’ve mentioned, we have Heli Flight, Rise Helicopters, Gloucestershire Helicopters, and let’s not forget Bristow Academy, which has a big operation here.”
The newest school
As we’re driving back towards Tiger Airways, so that I can talk to Tizi before I go, I spot yet another company, Clifton Aviation. “That’s our newest school,” says Darren. “They have a Cirrus SR22 and offer training on it and glass cockpit conversions.” We find Tizi climbing out of a Stampe that’s just landed. Climbing down from the other cockpit is 52-year-old Graeme Spinney, a civil servant who rode all the way down for his experience flight from his home in the Wirral by motor bike. “Someone bought me a gift voucher,” he explains. I ask what he made of his flight. “Oh, I’m very glad I came,” he says. “It was smoother than I was expecting. I had a go at the controls. I was surprised at how sensitive they were.”
Tizi has more customers waiting to fly, but she can’t allow me to leave without a demonstration of Tiger, her Labrador Greyhound cross, and his party trick. This is to fly an aerobatic sequence: spin (he chases his tail), recover (lie down), wingrock (hold up one paw then the other) and slow roll (you can guess that one).
As I drive away, I just catch sight of the Stampe climbing back up into the sky and reflect on how hard Tizi works. But it’s that sort of airport; it buzzes with action. Quite amazing, really, when you think of how sleepy some airfields can get, even on a sunny day.
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