“We could fly closer over the coast. It might be more interesting.” We had just taken off from a holiday airfield in Devon where our aircraft had spent a week outside, and we were heading home. I was flying, and James was suggesting sightseeing. The answer was an emphatic no.
It took me a moment to figure out why. I wasn’t even thinking he take photos of the magnificent views I was seeing unfold beneath me – Cornworthy, Tuckenhay, Brixham, Exmouth. Village names that exist only in the English countryside. They simply didn’t matter now. This wasn’t one of the jaunts we had taken while we were on holiday. This was different. It was a journey. With a destination on quite the other side of the country. And flying the breadth of England meant coping with very different weather patterns as we went.
A lot of planning had gone into choosing the right day for departure. We had to be out by Monday. While we didn’t want to cut our stay short, we also knew that the following week looked windy. Thursday was a lovely day, but we had planned to visit friends in Cornwall – a mini epic for me. That left Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
Leaving home, we had already found that what looks good on paper doesn’t always translate into a great flying day. James had been packed and ready to leave when he learnt that the airfields Bristol way were fogged in. The option was waiting another day to leave, or replanning his route. Flying solo to Devon, he had opted for a route that didn’t involve navigating the many MATZ the alternative route offered. The next day, he flew out and all was well. But what if you don’t have a next day? That was the thought that preoccupied me.
Studying weather patterns on the Met Office charts, it seemed that Friday would only clear early afternoon. Long discussions with the CFI, a whiz at meteorology, resulted in the decision we would go on Saturday. “It’s the best day,” he said. True enough, Friday dawned misty and cleared but then Saturday started out with mist as well. I had a moment’s panic. We didn’t have that extra day.
“Never mind, you’re flying into good weather, and the mist will clear before you leave,” assured the CFI, sending a photo of clear blue skies to prove his point.
The plan was that I did the first leg, then we reassessed, although in my head I knew I wanted to do the whole route if I possibly could. I had visited our first stop twice, so I had a better sense of the airfield than just off a map, and landing at home I knew I could do. James could do some flying from the right-hand seat if I flagged. “This trip will catapult your flying onto a whole new level in ways you can’t imagine,” the CFI predicted.
There was no mist, but a fairly solid ceiling as we took off. Westonzoyland had assured us the skies there were clear, but we had a backstop if that didn’t work out. I was at the helm now, but I wanted to go the route James had flown, so at least one of us was on familiar terrain.
Heading across the river Exe towards the red cliffs of the Jurassic coast I did request a few photos, but then the Blackdown Hills came up to meet me and I felt sandwiched between them and the cloud base. James became more and more insistent that we would meet turbulence if we went higher. I was looking at what we’d meet if we went lower. We passed Exeter first, then Dunkeswell loomed up on the left. I don’t recall that part of the trip with the same pleasure as driving through its winding roads, getting glimpses of the spectacular views every now and then.
Suddenly we had passed over onto the Somerset levels and the aeroplane felt high again. There was a moment to catch my breath and then the airfield was in sight. We were landing on their second runway, and I had to navigate between villages on the downwind leg. Despite having discussed the approach, I was very happy to have James to help guide me down. On the ground, I realised how relieved I was we had broken the journey, even though we could have done it in one hop. Packed lunch, a tea-break and a chance to stretch our legs, and I was back doing my checks again.
This stretch was totally unknown territory to me. I noticed the strange outcrop that is Glastonbury Tor, which we had once climbed and watched aeroplanes go by. The hills turned chalky white and undulating and I saw a horse etched in white. Further on, another. Right there was a flicker of movement and I noticed the hillside was full of paragliders, swooping off the ridge. I tracked away to make sure we didn’t meet them. By the time we got near Membury, which I know so well as a stopover on the London-Bristol run, I needed a break. We had to navigate around an area for aerial display, and I was happy to let James take control for a while. It felt like we would never get home. Then suddenly I was back on known territory, and I recognised Reading, heading for a gap between two large buildings and noting the possible fields I could land in. The Thames came into view, with its beautiful winding vistas, which I knew from my Isle of Wight trip.
Back in London TMA and height restrictions, I once again let James take control to get us past the narrow gap between Wycombe Air Park and Heathrow. Flying the last stretch seemed different and totally unfamiliar. I wasn’t used to approaching from this angle and none of the landmarks seemed to register. I recalled John’s words about keeping your head when you are flying home after a long trip right until you were on the ground as I navigated the last stretch and put the aircraft down on the runway I know so well.
As we landed on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the airfield was bustling, and no one noticed the returning heroes. Not even to offer them a cuppa. Nothing out of the ordinary then. I didn’t know whether to be pleased or put out. Some part of me expected drum rolls and red carpets, but that’s what pilots do. They fly places. And now I was truly one of them.
As a post-script, the following week had three days of high winds, one of them actually a named storm. I thought of the prospect of our poor little aeroplane tied down, alone on a Devon hillside, far from home. And I thanked our lucky stars we’d taken the weather window when we did.