The summer of 2018 will always be one I remember. It was the day after Midsummer’s Day and I had been reading about pilots going up at sunrise and sunset. My flying was feeling a little stuck – I wasn’t comfortable going much further than half an hour in the air, which didn’t leave many options other than what is affectionately known at the airfield as ‘round the block’ – enough to stretch your wings, take a turn around the nearby water tower and head back for a landing. James, my flying partner, was keen to go places in our aeroplane, but my requirements of time, distance and perfect weather were proving rather restrictive. I knew I had to push myself out of my comfort zone. It helped knowing that an upcoming summer break meant I wouldn’t be able to get up in the air again for at least two weeks.
My flying buddy Dan had suggested we mark the day by going around Luton’s airspace, stopping off at a farm strip with a very tricky runway and famed for its delicious cakes. The weather was predicted to be perfect, and for one glorious stretch of summer, all predictions were coming up true. I was planning on being P1 on the home stretch.
Early that morning, James proposed also doing a quick hop to the beach in a vintage GA plane he has started flying, before we took off with Dan. It wasn’t quite sunrise to sunset, but I was thrilled at the prospect of a flying day to remember. We headed up the east coast from North Weald, watching the water shimmer in the sunlight and the sea smooth as the air above. There was time for a brisk walk into Clacton – too early for fish and chips, but it’s never too early for an ice-cream by the sea!
Flying around the southern perimeter of Luton’s airspace later, I was uncomfortably aware of the difference between open fields and built-up towns. I kept looking for where we’d be able to come down in a hurry, even though James was keeping us at 2000 feet. It was also a lot bumpier over the town and in the midday heat now, so this bit was more experience and endurance than pleasure. Dan was ahead of us and we kept in contact on the radio, but there was a scary moment when we were both in the circuit, but we couldn’t see him ahead. There’s a funny dogleg you need to take to avoid the village, swing past the pylons, over the trees, and up a dip on final – was I ever pleased it wasn’t me flying! I had plotted the route, checked out the runways, radio frequencies and got PPR. I’d studied the area on satellite images, but none of that seemed to help when it came to the real thing.
Instead of heading straight home after tea, we decided to stop off for a pilot’s pint at Nuthampstead, where there is a lovely pub walking distance from the runway. I knew that however scary the first stretch of the trip back would be, I would soon be in familiar territory, and flying home is always easier than landing on an unknown airfield. I had to school myself for taking off and making that sharp turn over the pylons to head east. We were outside the London TMA, so height was no restriction, but with Luton’s airspace running parallel with our path, I kept a keen eye on tracking along the plotted route.
It all felt very unfamiliar, but fortunately I didn’t have to cope with the heavily built-up areas we’d flown over further south. It came as something of a surprise when James pointed out the wind turbines that mark the entrance to Old Warden’s airspace. There was a sudden flood of relief. I was close to home ground, even if I was coming at it in a very unusual way. Similarly, Nuthampstead looked completely different approaching from this angle, and I was a little thrown as I started my overhead join. Then it all clicked into place, and I was down on a runway I knew well.
The evening was still hot and sunny, and as four pilots walked back to their planes after a Coke and a burger, I had a sense of the thrill and freedom being a pilot can give one. True, I had had to push right to the edge of my comfort zone to get here, but that was the day that propelled me onto a new level of flying for fun.
As a little extra bonus, after the relative turbulence all around the Luton zone, the final leg of the flight was liquid gold. It was long before sunset, but the air had smoothed out again. The shadows were a little longer, the light a little softer and it felt like we were up with the angels. Those are the moments that you wish could go on forever. That is the magic of flying.