Perched on the western edge of Heathrow CTR, this historic airfield has more than its share of enthusiasm for flying... in all its forms.
Words and pictures by Nick Bloom
Everyone who knows it says that White Waltham is special. It served as a wartime base for the ATA, houses a wealth of classic and aerobatic aeroplanes, has an exceptionally active club and a great restaurant. Despite its proximity to London, it has never had a hard runway. Instead, the singularly large site ? 196 acres ? is all grass. This not only makes it beautiful, but perhaps explains why it attracts so many enthusiastic and dedicated pilots.
There are cliques here, just as at any airfield ? the pilots who tour, the well-heeled businessmen-in-a-hurry, the aerobats and the homebuilders and the historic aircraft buffs. Yet more than anywhere else I can think of, the cliques avoid exclusivity and they all mix without prejudice.
I am driving down today, but I must have flown in hundreds of times, since White Waltham is only a fifteen minute flight from the private airstrip adjoining my home. At various points it has been where I came to buy fuel, take part in Stampe-only aerobatics contests, eat club dinners, give informal lessons in tailwheel landings, and has been a base for Pilot flight tests for everything from a Yak 18T to a D.H.60. When I was a newly-qualified pilot with an Evans VP-1 in the late 1970s, I often flew here just to buy a coffee and soak up the atmosphere.
You needn’t use a radio to fly to White Waltham, although most people do. It’s a good idea ? and about to become mandatory ? to telephone before taking off, as it is on the edge of the Heathrow CTR and there have been a few zone-busts. NATS has been forgiving, but would like visitors to have a short briefing. There is also the proximity of Wycombe Air Park (Booker) to consider.
From my strip I take a heading of two-four, identify High Wycombe and steer for its southern tail. Once across the M40, I steer south-west for the reservoir, bearing in mind that students making circuits at Wycombe can appear on my right. Staying on that heading brings White Waltham in my eleven o’clock and the dead-straight railway line on a heading of 24 that crosses the airfield makes it particularly easy to spot. They like you to make overhead joins at 1300ft and having three runways can be a little confusing, though I don’t think I’ve ever flown in without someone already in the circuit to ‘point the way’.
But today, as I’ve said, I’m driving in. No sooner do I arrive than I see a family with two little girls. They are the Richardsons and are flying to Sandown on the Isle of Wight in a TB-10. They own a share in the aircraft, which is group-owned with nine members. Bruce Richardson says, “This is a very sociable place with an active club, decent food and lots of interesting aeroplanes. When we moved here in 2006, our house was on the approach path so I came and asked about learning to fly. I got my licence in 2007 and then a share in the TB-10. I just recently got my IMC rating.”
My next encounter is with an old friend and flying partner Alan Cassidy. I remember him telling me that he was planning to set up an aerobatic flying school with John Foster Pedley, the third member of our Pitts Special group, back in the 1980s. John dropped out, but Alan stuck with the plan, starting Freestyle Aviation, which has been teaching aerobatics at White Waltham ever since. Alan was recently granted an MBE for services to aerobatics. One of his students, Matt McCulloch, is with him. Matt is taking the AOPA Aerobatics course and they are about to go flying in the Freestyle Pitts S2A to rehearse deep stalling and recovery from inverted spins. Matt, a Rolls-Royce engineer, has 130 hours... Alan has 6,500, including at least 4,000 in Pitts Specials. I ask him to sum up White Waltham. “It’s a big airfield,” he tells me, “with one club that is also the operator. Unusually for a place with so many pilots and aeroplanes, it isn’t split between different organisations. For instance, there is only one flying school. That means a rare combination: the critical mass for a successful, thriving airfield, yet a remarkable degree of unity.”
He gestures to the long wood-panelled building behind us. “That’s important,” he says. “We all use the same clubhouse and bar.” He adds, “And London being so close is a huge generator of new members and flying students.”
I ask about aerobatics. “There must be at least forty pilots who fly aerobatics at White Waltham,” he says, “and a core of about thirty who fly aerobatics regularly, many of them in competitions”.
I’m on my way to meet John Walker, the Airfield Manager, but I can’t help stopping to talk to an intriguing-looking couple I see in the booking-out office. Kate Banks and Adrian Mardlin are co-owners of an RV-6 and they’re at the airfield today to carry out the test flight for its Permit renewal. Kate has a familiar look and I realise that I have met her before, when she worked with Brian Lecomber’s display company, Firebird. Kate and Adrian are keen aerobatics contest pilots (he has a share in a One Design) and have been based at White Waltham for four years. I ask them to sum up the airfield and, after a moment’s thought, Kate says, “Shocking runways, lovely club”. Adrian says, “If you can land a Pitts Special here, you can land it anywhere.”
They are exaggerating, but Runway 29/11 does have a slightly undulating surface and is also somewhat lumpy. The other two runways are better, but also have a tendency to induce bouncy landings in even the most careful of pilots. On the credit side, the runways are wide and long and it is rare for White Waltham to have to close even temporarily in wet winters. Landing here for the first time in a taildragger, be careful to prolong the float and lose as much energy as possible before allowing the wheels to touch and you won’t have any trouble.
I ask about the social side, and Kate says, “It’s true, you come to fly and then stay for a couple of hours. It can be a bit like a party – you keep bumping into people you want to talk to.” They live rather far away to come in the evenings, but make a point of attending the club Bonfire Night.
In the signing-out office I step backwards to take a photograph, feel something soft under my heel and hear a startled yelp. This is my introduction to Dexter – who immediately apologises for being so thoughtless as to be stepped on. He’s an affectionate dog who once belonged to the Deputy CFI Rick Gifford. Since Rick sadly died last year it’s been a routine for one of the other instructors to collect him on the way in. Dexter is very much a club ‘regular’.
Airfield Manager John Walker takes me into his office. He begins his briefing with White Waltham’s history: “The land was bought by de Havilland for a flying school in 1928,” he says. “This isn’t the land occupied today, but a site roughly the same size to the north, behind that long line of trees.” He gestures to the trees on the far boundary. “In 1935, the RAF set up No 13 Elementary Reserve Flying Training School there. During the war the site was used by the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and this building was their headquarters... but not here. It was dismantled and moved here post-war.”
He goes on to explain that Fairey Aviation took over the northern site and in the post-war years former members of the ATA set up a flying school on the land occupied today. That was when the building was re-located. John says: “I first came here in the Sixties as an Air Cadet. The flying school and the West London Aero Club were here, but at that time the RAF had the South Western corner, Fairey were still on the Northern site ? since closed - and the University Air Squadron was here too”.
There are around 170 aircraft currently based at White Waltham. All but about forty live in hangars, the rest tied down outside. This includes four helicopters, several twins, and at least two dozen biplanes ranging from a D.H.60 to a Pitts S2C, plus a good handful of single-seat Pitts Specials, some Bucker Jungmanns and Tiger Moths. There are a few Extras and the first S-Bach on the UK register. Richard Goode’s Russian aircraft sales and maintenance operation was based here for a number of years; when it was disbanded, the maintenance business was transferred to the club. Partly as a result there are a number of Yaks and also two Nanchangs based on the airfield. Finally there are some classics and homebuilts, including eight Europas.
Some of the dozen hangar buildings spread around the site are modern, clean and new with swept concrete floors, while others are a bit on the oily side and showing their age. The West London Aero Club owns and operates everything and currently has over a thousand members, including 200 who are social members. The club has fifty employees, some of them shift-workers. This includes four on the catering side and two running the accounts, as well as aircraft engineers and flying instructors.
The school run by the club teaches PPL, NPPL, FIC, IMC and Night ratings. (The airfield sets up portable lights for night training two evenings a week.) There are ten permanent instructors and around ten part-time instructors. The club owns, or has access to, sixteen aeroplanes for flying training. This includes two Super Cubs for tailwheel training that each average around 200hr a year. Most of the remainder are PA-28s from Warrior to complex single and two C172s. Another training facility at White Waltham is a flight simulator run by CRM that for �99 gives you thirty minutes in the ultra-realistic cockpit of a light jet under the supervision of an airline pilot ? telephone 01628 208888 if you’re interested.
I have come across clubs that stage regular fly-outs, but not yet one that names them by days of the week; White Waltham has two. They are staged by the Friday Afternoon Club and the Saturday Brunch Club. Today (a good weather Friday in early April) the Friday club is gathering. Eight aircraft are to go to Compton Abbas. “The fly-outs always have an instructor in one of the aircraft,” explains John, “and plenty of passengers coming along for the ride”.
Apparently the Friday Club is more inclined to adventure, sometimes going to France and staying overnight, whereas the Saturday equivalent is less ambitious. “They are currently on a mission to sample bacon butties from as many different airfields as possible,” says John. There are other fly-outs organised by the club or by individual members, including a recent one to Marrakesh and another to Southern Spain. (Robert Linb, who recently flew around Africa in his Twin Comanche is a club member.)
The club features a licensed bar and you can find non-flying members drinking beer most lunchtimes and evenings. There are evening talks staged by the club most weeks, from the likes of Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown and Polly Vacher. This week’s talk is by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
At this point in our conversation a man in suit and tie knocks on the door. He apologises for interrupting, but has come to collect a pass key for the security gate that gives access to the posher hangars. His name is Stuart Thomas. He is Chairman of an oil and gas company and has a share in a Yak 18T and a Yak 52 at White Waltham. Despite a busy working life, he confesses, “I spend far too much time here. In summer, I’m here at least once a week and I can’t resist the Yak fly-outs.” (Yaks tend to go on their own fly-outs, because of the difference in performance over Pipers and Cessnas.) The airfield’s next Yak-and-Chang fly-out is planned for May, a circuit around west Scotland.
“This airfield offers a lot more than flying,” Stuart says. “There’s a tremendous social atmosphere. The camaraderie among members goes beyond the aviation. It’s a fantastic club all round.” He looks guiltily at his watch. “Must dash.” And he’s off. John says, “We want to keep the 1940s spirit here. The building dates from then and we do our best to remind people of that by having wicker armchairs from the period and those 1920s Air Force cartoons in the Gents toilets. Being so close to London and its surrounding towns gives us a stream of customers coming for trial lessons, and quite a few go on to learn to fly. We’ve good access, being close to the M4 and M25 and you can take a train from Maidstone and be in central London within an hour.”
There’s another knock at the door and Sue Thorne arrives, Sue is one of the club instructors and she has come to take me up in a Super Cub so that I can shoot overhead photographs. I learn that Sue has been instructing at White Waltham for four years. Her husband is an LAA Inspector and the couple have a Europa on the airfield. She started as BA cabin crew, and has worked on Concorde, then went into training air hostesses. It was at BA that she met her husband, Alan “He brought me here on our first date,” she says. She got her PPL in 2001 and has 1,800 hours.
“It’s the friendliest airfield you’ll ever visit,” she says. “The owners have kept the feel of the days when it was the ATA’s aerodrome. At times it’s almost as if the ATA are still here. It has the best sunset ? you can sit on the benches outside the clubhouse sipping a gin and tonic and watch the sun go down behind the parked aircraft.” She points; “That little, low rope is the only barrier between spectators and the airfield,” she says. “A child could step over it, yet here it’s deterrent enough ? now, that’s a light touch.”
Sue kindly lets me have the controls throughout the short flight into the overhead so that I can take photographs. I can’t see the instruments very well from the rear seat, so make the approach and landing largely by feel. Despite holding off and floating a good eighty metres down runway 11 with the throttle closed, when we touch down simultaneously on tailwheel and mainwheels, to my surprise we bounce. I hold attitude and wait for the second bounce, which I imagine will be reduced, but isn’t. After the third bounce, I open the throttle to cushion the next arrival, which is normal, barely bouncing at all. “Was that me, or the runway?” I ask. Sue laughs, but doesn’t say. After we taxi in, she goes to attend to a student and I hit the restaurant, where I have a ham sandwich and black coffee for just over six quid and very good they are too. The menu is more ambitious than most airfield restaurants’ and today’s special is scampi.
Bob Davy comes to join me. He owns a Nanchang CJ-6 and has come to meet Tony Bianchi, who is on his way to assess some ‘hangar rash’ damage. Bob says, “This is the best flying club in the world, with its history, atmospheric clubhouse with these wonderful wicker armchairs and flying prints, and it’s still busy even when the weather stops people flying. It’s the hub of all our social lives. Any proper aviator living within a fifty mile radius ends up here.”
I ask if there is anyone it wouldn’t suit. “Tabards and dressing up are banned,” says Bob. “If you arrive in a shirt with epaulettes or one of those flying suits covered in badges, my advice would be to take them off in the car park.”
Bob, who is an aviation author, private jet chauffeur and display pilot among other talents, is known for his strong opinions. “Some of the best and the worst people I’ve met are in the flying game,” he says. “The phonies who turn up here don’t last. On the other hand, it’s famous as a nursery for people with the right stuff. Paul Bonhomme started here as a ‘dongler’, working the fuel pumps. Today you can still see youngsters doing the ground crew work in return for subsidised flying lessons. And somehow this place isn’t at all clique-ey; it’s genuinely welcoming, providing you aren’t stupid or pretentious, and even then you’ll get by.”
There’s a maintenance operation at White Waltham aside from the one specialising in Russian aircraft already mentioned. I walk over to say hello to Peter Shaw, the chief engineer, and a couple of youngsters, Peter and Andrew; who’s the son of one of the employees on the airfield. I expect him to be planning on an airline career, but he says he just wants to go on working on aeroplanes. Ninety per cent of the maintenance operations’s work is for the resident aircraft.
Peter Shaw introduces me to Gena Perevedevtsev, a 49-year-old emigrant from the Ukraine, who came here in 1999. He learned to fly in Russia, carries out flight tests on the aircraft he maintains and repairs, and has recently embarked on an IMC course. “It’s to give me more confidence, but also, I think it’s a shame to fly in an aeroplane and not make use of all of the instruments,” Gena says.
Peter says, “I’ve been here 24 years. It’s just a special place: tatty old hangars, bumpy old runways, but it has a good feel about it. It’s egalitarian.”
Heading back to the clubhouse, I see someone apparently dancing slowly and rather jerkily on the spot and recognise an aerobatic pilot rehearsing a sequence in the ‘Aresti walk’. He’s a young American lawyer called Steuart Walton who’s been in the UK for four and a half years. “It all began when I met a pilot in London who was raving about this wonderful airfield,” he says. “I already had a licence from the States, came up here and got a tailwheel conversion in the Pitts with Alan Cassidy, and two months later took delivery of my Pitts S2C,” he points to it, gleaming by the fuel pumps. He’s about to fly an Advanced sequence in the overhead for Alan to critique, then they’re both off to a contest at Breighton. I let him get back to his rehearsing.
My last encounter is with instructor Bruce Hutton and local pilot Ged Wylie. Ged has been based at White Waltham since 1998, where he keeps his Grob 115A parked outside. Bruce has just been up with him for an instrument flying re-familiarisation session?“An informal one, for a friend,” they explain.
Just as I say goodbye to Bruce and Ged, there’s the familiar howl of a Pitts Special diving to begin an aerobatic sequence and everyone looks up. I can see Alan and some other aerobatic aficionados standing in front of the clubhouse. They are peering up at Steuart in his bright-red S2C, which is twisting and looping its way through one manoeuvre after another. Alan’s talking into a hand-held radio so that Steuart can hear his critique. It’s good to see that there are still airfields where practice aerobatic flights in the overhead are permitted.
One of the advantages of writing these airfield profiles for Pilot is that I talk to people I wouldn’t normally meet. There’s almost always more going on than I was aware of and I end up with a more rounded picture of somewhere I thought I knew. That’s certainly been the case at White Waltham.