“Local knowledge. It is what makes the difference between getting into a tricky strip like this one, or not. It is all the information you can’t get off Skydemon or Pooleys.” This was Pete, our inspector, who had once patiently shown me that when all else fails, the spires of London shimmered on the horizon to point us south.
It is a lesson well worth learning. It’s the reason the main entertainment at a Cambridgeshire summer fly-in was seeing who knew about the bump on the 28 runway which threw newcomers – and regulars too – up in the air and at times demanded three go-arounds. I have to say, though, that a former CFI there keeps insisting there is no bump, so I suppose it also depends on which locals you speak to!
“Always try and talk to people who regularly fly there, when you are planning a trip to an unknown airfield,” says Pete.
I found that out last summer when we had our aeroplane at a Devon strip for a holiday week.
“How on earth would we ever find this field if we didn’t have the GPS to guide us back?”, I asked out loud as we headed back to our holiday home base. Exquisite, certainly, these green and rolling fields, but one looked very much like another from the air. It was a question I then asked the two local pilots who chatted to us once we were down. “Oh, there are visual markers,” they assured me.
The no-fly areas over the village make for complicated reading for a visiting pilot. ‘Basically, you should avoid the village at all costs,” John said. “As you climb out, turn to avoid it, and when you come back, make sure you don’t overfly it. There is a long barn you can use as a marker on downwind, and two solar farms that show on the northern side. This mast” – he pointed to what looked like a miniature Eiffel tower in the early stages of construction – “shows your southern marker, and those industrial roofs also show up from a long way away.
“And then there is this short piece of hedge. You can see it for miles. It’s just stuck between two fields. You do please need to remember to land on the right-hand side of the hedge though. We had someone who came in and landed on the left. There was a crop in the field at the time. It didn’t go down well with the farmer!”
The next time we were airborne I scouted out for the short hedge, stuck between two fields. It looked a bit like a moustache, and they were right, you could see it from a distance. It made all the difference. Every time we’d lose the airfield – and that happened frequently turning downwind, or even final – a moment of panic, and bam, there’s that familiar stubby hedge. Phew, we’re safe!
The other nugget of local knowledge they gave us is counter to the maxim that an uphill runway is always better than the downhill one. ‘No,” they shook their heads in unison. “Even with no wind, or on a wet day, we’d rather come in on 27 than 09, where you have to do a dogleg to avoid the village as you approach the uphill runway. You can set yourself up so much better over the fields as you come in.”
My first landing felt like I literally hopped over the hedge, coming down a bit low, correcting – and then hoping those same locals weren’t watching! It is so much harder to judge your height coming in for a downhill slope, but when you hold back on that stick, as I hear my instructor’s voice yelling in my head, it works out fine.
So when the sheriff tells you his strip has rotor from the trees that will knock you about in a northerly wind, or someone tells you to land long because of the hippo pool near the numbers, it’s worth taking note. Those are the nuggets of knowledge that don’t get published on the airfield plate.