Flying single-engine over London during the coronavirus lockdown

Shard and City

Shard and City - Credit: PHOTO: PHILIP WHITEMAN

The coronavirus pandemic and associated decline in Commercial Air Transport open up an opportunity for private pilots | Words: Colin Goodwin Photos: Philip Whiteman

Colin and Dumbo

Colin and Dumbo - Credit: PHOTO: PHILIP WHITEMAN

This reminds me of loitering outside a chemist as a teenager, plucking up the courage to go in and buy a packet of Durex.

I’m orbiting just east of Reading in my RV-7 going through the same kind of emotions as I steel myself to call Heathrow Radar and request a Special VFR clearance through the London CTR. I’ve never requested one before and I’m nervous.

Yesterday I was at home lazing in a deckchair enjoying the fine weather and wondering which newspaper column deadlines I was in danger of missing, when I thought I heard a light aircraft overhead. Our house is in Hampton, Middlesex which is well within the CTR.

Often when I’ve heard what I thought was a single-engine light aeroplane it’s turned out to be the ears playing up, and it’s a just a Robinson navigating the heli route along the Thames, or a turboprop at high altitude in the airways.

This time, however, I was right because I saw clearly a high-wing Cessna single going overheard at what looked about fifteen hundred feet or so?at any rate low enough to make out the paint scheme.

Rushing inside for my field telephone, I immediately got onto a tracking app and looked for the Cessna. Not difficult as hardly anything is flying, of course. It turned out to be a Cessna 150 out of Blackbushe. Fascinated, I tracked it across Richmond Park, Putney and over south-east London.

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Inspired to emulate this, I carefully plotted a simple route that involved entering the CTR abeam of Bracknell, then heading for Ascot, Kempton Park, overflying my house, then Teddington Lock and from there direct to Thames Barrier and then a turn north to Stapleford.

Over London

Over London - Credit: PHOTO: PHILIP WHITEMAN

Shouldn’t be too complicated, but then apart from a short maintenance flight a week ago, I haven’t flown since the start of the lockdown. Experience tells me that the first thing to go rusty is my R/T. Not ideal in the circumstances because if there’s one thing that’ll put a controller off permitting entry into controlled airspace it’s a mumbling and vague pilot.

Often in life, and particularly in flying, once you’ve done something it’s demystified for good and you wonder why you made such a fuss in the first place. Heathrow Radar gives me a squawk on my first call and then, within barely a minute, calls me back with clearance to enter controlled airspace and to track to Ascot at “not above 1,500 feet”.

Just as I am passing over the racecourse the controller calls me and requests that I continue on the present track as far as the M25/M3 junction, so that I’d be clear of Heathrow’s departing traffic. Not that there is much of that...

And that’s the last I hear from ATC until leaving controlled airspace just to the west of Stapleford. I’d been extremely careful to keep both track and altitude as precise as possible and didn’t try anything fancy like asking to orbit over the house.

In truth the view out of the left-hand side of central London and then the City is more than enough. Just stunning: the Shard, looking pointy and close; City Airport, deserted; and Canary Wharf, usually bustling, now empty of people.

I used to be a motorbike courier in my youth, so I know London really well, but it’s impossible to spot small landmarks such as Clapham Common. Although I’ve got Dumbo throttled back to about 19in mp and 2,300rpm, there’s a heck of a tailwind so we’re still smoking along above the ground at 120 knots.

It’s tempting to retrace my steps and return the same way, but instead I think I’ll keep it simple and come back along the top of the CTR via Elstree and back into White Waltham via Marlow. Farnborough North LARS is closed and Heathrow Radar suggests I stay with them until I need to change to my home airfield, White Waltham’s air/ground frequency.

Canary Wharf

Canary Wharf - Credit: PHOTO: PHILIP WHITEMAN

I’m still buzzing hours after the flight. I think that might have been the best £53 I’ve ever spent on 100LL and it ranks along with a lap of Capri and Ischia on the Amalfi Coast as one of the most magical experiences I’ve had in my aeroplane. It’s also been thought provoking on several levels.

Firstly, not just in flying but in many aspects of life, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives - of which the new Farnborough airspace is a prime example. Undemocratically established, it is potentially dangerous and bafflingly complicated.

For example, there’s one sliver of Farnborough Class D that applies between 1,500 and 5,500ft. It’s such a small slice that there’s not enough room on the chart to fit in the digits, so they’ve been put in the next box (which is the 3,500ft base of the London TMA south of Reading) with an arrow pointing to the tiny wedge they refer to. If you think I’ve explained that in a confusing way, wait until you see it on the chart.

But all the lingering frustration and anger with Farnborough slipped away, replaced by the joyous experience over London.

And I’ll give you another thought: the two controllers that I spoke to while in the CTR were not only extremely friendly, straightforward, easy to understanding and far less intimidating than a sneering chemist, but they also seemed to really enjoy helping a small aircraft fly across south London.

London City Airport and Thames Barrier

London City Airport and Thames Barrier - Credit: PHOTO: PHILIP WHITEMAN

It’s a reminder that these professionals tend to have a passion for aviation just like us. The folk in the Farnborough Tower, most of whose voices I can recognise, weren’t responsible for constructing the mosaic of the Farnborough CTR and probably have the same opinion of the jumbled and misleading hotchpotch of controlled airspace that we do.

Finally, and I’m sure I’ve made this point many times over the years, we still have an enormous amount of freedom. Yes, we must fight against threats against it, but we must seek out every opportunity to maximise our enjoyment of this fantastic world of flight.

Who knows, after this pandemic has been beaten, or at least controlled, and the skies are once again full of Airbuses and Boeings, whether I will again be allowed to make a flight across London. I don’t see why not.

Even though there was not an airliner in the sky approaching or leaving Heathrow (or hardly any) correct separation was maintained between little Dumbo and the IFR traffic. Controller workload of course is an issue in normal times, but if one flies accurately and follows the initial instructions, there is no need for the controller to keep talking to you.

Little did I think when I wrote the June issue’s feature on flying in California and over Los Angeles, that I would be flying across our capital city with the same sense of freedom and amazement.

I hope one day to do it again, but even if I don’t, it will live on as one of my treasured memories.

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