Life is the greatest challenge of all
Scotland August 2005
DAY ONE The day finally arrived, grey and wet.
I was meeting a fellow pilot friend, Keith, at Shoreham and I arrived there just in time to see the Arrow on final emerging from the murk. Walking out to the plane as it parked on the main apron, I cast an uneasy glance to the sky. Low cloudbase and lousy visibility. At least I may get to practice some instrument flight!
G-UTSY with her two intrepid pilots at Shoreham, about to depart.
Another pilot friend planning to join us on this trip in his own ‘plane sadly watched us taxi to the hold. Unfortunately he only has a PPL without any instrument training. Handy having an IR rated pilot next to you.
Receiving and copying clearance down, the throttle was pushed forward and we launched into the murk, setting heading for Midhurst VOR and tuning into Farnborough, squawk already allocated by ATC at Shoreham. I could get to like this flying by IFR. Transition between providers is so much easier when they have your details already.
The Garmin GNS430 GPS confirming our location, we turned overhead Midhurst and pointed at WOD NDB. The murk below cleared briefly as we flew directly over Farnborough allowing us to watch a couple of jets lining up for take off below us. At one point a concerned sounding controller asked us to verify our height as we were showing 2600' (the base of the London TMA being 2500' at this point). We were quickly able to advise him that both altimeters were showing 2400' on the correct pressure setting. It did make my heart jump ever so briefly though I must admit.
Back into the murk we turned for DTY and spoke to Benson. Slowly the visibility started to improve and landmarks became easier to spot. As Turweston passed to our left and Silverstone to our right I stopped concentrating so much on the instruments and now flying in VMC (though still under IFR), I was able to admire the view.
Though we initially spoke to East Midlands , they quickly passed us to Coventry as we were going to be passing through their extended centreline.
Yet another friendly, helpful controller, of which we were to encounter many of over the next few days.
And so the journey progressed, via TNT and then flying a kink to avoid Manchester airspace, overhead Crossland Moor to POL. The base of controlled airspace is at just 3500’ here and Crossland Moor is at 1000’ so careful attention needs to be paid to avoid becoming entangled with their circuit traffic.
More friendly controllers at Leeds Bradford before we went to Warton Military, climbing to FL45 to get over the ominously high (for a Southerner) hills at a safe height. Warton kicked us off their frequency at 35DME north of POL.
By now the view was amazing, superb visibility as Ullswater peeked around the corner of the Cumbrian Mountains to our left. I made a mental note to return and visit the Lake District one day.
We called Carlisle at 37 miles to run and were told to report at 5 miles and with the field in sight. A gentle descent ensued, both of us sitting back enjoying the view, me marvelling at how quickly the journey had seemed.
Joining on a curved left base for R25 at Carlisle we flew over the village we were staying in that evening, just a mile from the entrance gates.
As we parked up on the main apron, 2 hours 50 minutes after leaving Shoreham, we were met by another pilot friend, John. Always good to have local knowledge when landing at a strange airport.
Formalities completed, we were whisked to a local hostelry for a beer, meeting up with several more local pilots and their partners, before making short thrift of a delightful Leek and Stilton soup, Lamb Shoulder and cheesecake. Woops, better watch the weight and balance tomorrow!!
We eventually rolled up at the bed & breakfast at almost 2300. It turned out that the landlord was involved with the museum at Carlisle Airport and had a great interest in aviation. Comment must be made here that the B&B was very impressive, clean and beautifully presented.
After the excesses of the night before, we contented ourselves with scrambled egg and coffee for breakfast, again of the best quality, in lovely surroundings.
John was joining us on this next leg and picked us up and drove us the short distance to the airport.
Carlisle is fortunate in having 2 gate guardians, a Vulcan and a Lightning. Apparently the Vulcan is rusting rather badly which is a shame, but for the moment it acts as an imposing guardian.
It struck us that for a large airport, Carlisle is very quiet, especially compared to the likes of Southend and Shoreham.
With G-UTSY all packed I wedged myself into the back for a spectators view today. What a choice that would prove to be.
Leaving R25 behind us we headed off to the wilds of Scotland. As the local, John decided he would give us the scenic tour.
As we passed overhead Gretna Green we turned to the West. Passing Dumfries, Keith and I were both surprised at how much more attention Scottish Information gave you compared to London Information. To be fair, their workload is a lot less owing to the lack of traffic, though there was reasonable amount of traffic, nearly all heading toward Oban on this beautiful sunny day.
Having watched most of the Dumfries and Galloway coastline glide by underneath us, we turned at Wigtown and set course for the Turnberry VOR which is on the south west corner of Prestwick's CTR. Looking west I was amazed to see Northern Ireland poking through a bank of cloud.
As we climbed through the scattered cloud layer to 4500' (transition level in Scotland is 6000') I just sat back and was awestruck by the scenery passing below. For a pilot used to the biggest hills being the Downs and the Cotswolds this was quite incredible.
Huge lumps of granite rose up reaching out to touch the cloud, their flanks showing evidence of the invisible force that so effortlessly folded them into the mountains they are now. The odd settlement appeared amongst the forest below and the first of the lochs appeared; Loch Ochiltree, Loch Maberry and the delightfully named Loch Moan and Loch Goosey.
Looking off to the west again, a strangely shaped island appeared, almost as if a child had been playing mud pies and had deposited this mound from his upturned bucket. Ailsa Craig is its name, about ten miles offshore of Girvan, South Ayrshire.
Prestwick asked us to remain clear of their airspace so we headed over the Firth of Clyde to the island of Arran. Its peaks were shrouded in cloud so we stayed just off the eastern shoreline.
By this time, the land below was looking even more rugged, not the place to have an engine problem! The general chatter up front tailed off as we all gazed in wonderment at the landscape passing beneath us. It was dawning on me why I had got my licence; all the expense and the heartache seemed worth it now.
Gigha Island off the port wing
The barrenness of the land below, punctuated by the occasional crofters' cottage, trees clinging on to steep mountain slopes for all they were worth, the sea a stunning blue, coruscating in the sunlight, the reefs visible in the clear water. Golden sandy beaches at odds with the bleak black granite that rose majestically upward, daring you to go near.
Kintyre passed below us, Gigha Island standing proudly alone, contemptuous to all around it. In contrast to the bright blue sea, the lochs passing to our right were deep blue, almost black in places.
As Jura passed below us with its peaks thrusting skyward we dialled up GOTO BRUCE on the GNS430. Bruce is a waypoint for airways use, but we had been told that he was our friend should the weather be a little murky. For good reason. It is a point at the mouth of the Firth of Lorn away from those frighteningly tall mountains, a safe place to descend without fearing a collision with cumulus granitus.
Approaching the waypoint BRUCE
Today though we did not need it. Turning north east, we said our goodbyes to Scottish Info and called Oban Radio. "Morning G-UTSY, welcome to our beautiful land, runway in use today is 19, kettle is on, tea or coffee?"
The circuit for 19 at Oban is not for those that fly commercial size circuits. Late tight downwind you turn, head at the hill ahead of you for a short while and then fly a curved approach over the caravan park onto the numbers.
Having climbed out of the rear of G-UTSY I was struck by how clean the air and everything around us was. We couldn't have asked for a better day.
Oban airfield in the August sunshine
After the compulsory jammie dodgers and coffee, whilst catching up with the others who had made it, we caught a cab into Oban town for lunch.
What a rogue's gallery. Keef, AndyR, Adam, Hollywood285, Mike Hyatt, Cessna152towser and The WestmorlandFlyer all out to lunch in picturesque Oban. The restaurant is situated on the harbour wall and came highly recommended by 2Donkeys. (All names are from the aviation forum at www.flyer.co.uk).
Having never tried oysters I plumped for them. They were the largest oysters you have ever seen, freshly caught too, the size of oversized golf balls!! A popular salmon main course was disturbed by a wasp deciding it really didn't like me, having crawled under my shirt before stinging me. Keith gave it a good burial, pickled in white wine!
After enjoying the sunshine over a cup of coffee we made our way back to Oban airfield to bid goodbye to those who had just come up for the day.
Simon, who we had left looking all forlorn at Shoreham the previous day had flown a marathon 5 hours to join us today, though too late for lunch. WBryce had popped over from Cumbernauld to say hello and the airport was buzzing with activity. A Yak 52 growled its way into the sky just before Adam demonstrated how quickly the wheels will retract on a Mooney! He was barely off the ground before the airframe was cleaned up!
A bright red Aviat Husky on floats declined my offer to join him as passenger, so we sat in the summer sunshine soaking up the atmosphere and playing critique to arriving landing aircraft.
Adam departing, wheels already up
Oban is truly a wonderful place to sit and contemplate the wondrous scenery.
Oban and the surrounding area is a place where you could stay for a few days, exploring all the islands, but also amusing yourself and the children with a wide variety of trips, both on land and sea, including dolphin and seal watching. I can imagine children being absolutely enthralled surrounded by Mother Nature as you are here.
We stayed at a nearby hotel that evening, again making our way into Oban town for dinner. Having flown up from Shoreham, Simon was ravenous by that time. There is something about a Scottish menu that is soul warming. Butternut squash soup, scallops washed down with fine white wine and coffee with whisky to finish topped off a wonderful day.
A pilot's heaven. Good flying, good company and fine food.
We woke to grey skies and poor visibility today.
Munching jammie dodgers, washed down with coffee, Paul Keegan at Oban airfield suggested that if we were to leave, it should be without further delay.
He has many years of watching the weather around these parts so we took his advice seriously.
Keith and John went in the Arrow and I joined Simon in his Warrior. We figured that if we ran into a problem on the short hop to Glenforsa on the Isle of Mull, two heads in each cockpit was the safest option.
We managed 1000' initially, crossing Lismore Island whilst peering into the gloom ahead, fully aware that we were heading for some rather hard granite cliffs. Cloudbase dropped further so down to 500' we went, breathing a sigh of relief when we spied the entrance to the loch ahead.
Hugging the shoreline we rounded a corner to be greeted with a fantastic view of the loch ahead, the cloudbase lifting rapidly, but still black and threatening, hanging off the hills, rolling down the valley sides. It was an eerie view but one I am glad I witnessed.
The airstrip at Glenforsa appeared on our left and we made a low approach, dodging the wooded hill on final to land after an absolutely amazing 11 minute trip.
Trudging across the taxiway toward the hotel in the rain it again hit me that without a pilot licence I wouldn't be here and how lucky I was.
Glenforsa Hotel is right next to the airstrip, Brendan's Cub parked up in pride of place. Brendan and Alison are the owners of the hotel and provide a friendly place to be, in basically what is a large log cabin. For the smokers out there, there is a total smoking ban anywhere in the hotel owing to its wooden construction, which is perfectly understandable. A feeling of peace and tranquillity descends over you as you sit there in the upstairs viewing room gazing out over the ever changing view of the loch.
When the sun comes out the colours are so vivid, the grass so green, yet even in the murk there is an enchanted feel to the place.
The rest of the day was spent ensconced in the hotel talking aviation, eating fine food and just soaking up Scotland.
Glenforsa - idyllic situation
The front had passed through overnight and was soaking those down south. The sun was out, the air was clean and we were ready to go and explore.
G-UTSY preflighted, I was honoured to be given the left hand seat.
We flew up the Sound of Mull toward Tobermory, levelling off at 1500'. The children’s TV programme “Ballamory” is based on this colourful town. Having passed Tobermory we turned right up Loch Sunart, the valley sides extending above us either side, huge chunks of exposed granite seemingly just off the wingtips as the valley narrowed. Being very careful we were taking the right path through the valley we found Glen Tarbert and came out into the wide expanse of the Great Glen. Turning left toward Fort William we marvelled at Ben Nevis towering above us at 4000'.
Ben Nevis off to the right, 4200'
I had to chuckle; if it was situated where I normally fly it would be infringing the London TMA !!
Fort William was an attractive town from above, surrounded by green fields, but as we headed further up the glen, our choice of forced landing sites started to reduce again. I eased back on the control column until we were at 2000' though how much difference that extra 500' would have made I am not sure.
Loch Lochy turned into Loch Ness. No sign of Nessie but we gave a wave just in case she was watching. Again I noticed how dark the water is in the deeper lochs, almost inky black and seemingly impenetrable. Little wonder nobody can find Nessie, if she does exist!!
We tuned into Inverness ATC as the land below us suddenly turned flatter, with arable farming seemingly the main source of income up here. I realised how long it had been since I had seen fields with crops in! Inverness was bathed in sunshine and we could see for miles. At least when you are given reporting points in this part of the world it is fairly easy to pick the places out as there are not that many to choose from. Reporting at Dingwall, we turned inland again to chance our navigation through the hills. A rather handy railway pointed us in the right direction eventually (you can imagine 3 pilots all thinking they know the way, each one believing their direction to be correct but all 3 slightly different!)
I was starting to worry about how hard the mountains were looking and we went up another 500' and then another until we were skimming the cloudbase again at 3000'. Yet still the mountains were higher then us. Incredible!
For those with access to a map we routed up Strath Bran, following the A890 and down to Loch Carron. Back at 2000' we orbited over Plockton admiring the newly tarmaced runway, before routing over to the Isle of Skye to Portree. We were now looking out to the Western Isles, feeling like we were almost on the edge of the world.
Flying down the western edge of the Isle of Skye we headed over Rum, Eigg and the delightfully named island of Muck before heading back to Glenforsa.
The Scottish Islands - starkly beautiful
The final approach into Glenforsa was interesting. Straightening up from a curved approach the tractor on the runway refused to move until almost the last second and then as he cleared the runway we were dive bombed by a large flock of seagulls! Missing them all by luck more than anything else, we landed with huge grins on our faces.
We spent the afternoon in Tobermory. Known as Ballamory on Children's TV, it is a small town with brightly coloured houses surrounding a small marina. There is also a distillery and a small ferry terminal. The ferries serve most of these more remote Scottish Islands . With the sun blazing we enjoyed cream teas and Keef paid homage to the distillery by gracing them with his custom.
A return to the Glenforsa Hotel saw another evening of eating fine food and supping Highland Park whisky.
Tobermory BayDAY FIVE
Time to start the journey home.
We were planning to go to Carlisle to drop John home and then fly on to Shobdon to stay there for the evening before the final short hop home.
Another scud run for fuel at Oban, (and of course the jammie dodgers!), before launching into a heavy leaden sky, climbing as quickly as we could whilst setting course for our friend Bruce. IMC prevailed all the way to Carlisle.
Leaving Oban for Carlisle
We broke cloud at 2000' and with a gusty crosswind landed back at Carlisle to park well away from a collection of Chinooks and other Army helicopters.
The Army left whilst we were replenishing our thirst amidst a wonderful cacophony of noise. Before we knew it we were lined up on R25 again, with the decision to try and remain VMC so I could log the time.
The front we had passed through on our way to Carlisle had already started to overhaul us. Levelling off at 1800' we abandoned the decision to fly to Liverpool in a straight line and decided to fly true IFR – I Follow Roads!!
We joined the M6 at Penrith and headed toward the Shap Pass with the skies becoming darker and more threatening above us all the time. Down to 1500' now, we spotted the kink in the M6 that told us we were approaching Kendal. The hills either side looked very menacing as we aimed for the gap between them.
A lesson in mountain flying was learned as we flew threw the middle of this gap. With the wind coming from the west, (and us flying north to south), the turbulence was such that as my head hit the headlining rather harder than I would have liked, my headset became dislodged!! After a couple of seconds that seemed like minutes it passed with only a fairly small height loss and just a few more grey hairs!
It was plain sailing after that as we broke out of the front and headed southwards, passing Lancaster before heading toward Blackpool and Southport, tuning into Wallasey VOR and getting permission to transit the edge of Liverpool's zone. Due to the high gusty winds we chickened out of flying in a straight line to Shobdon over the mountains and instead flew over Hawarden and down past Long Mynd before landing at Shobdon to sample their coffee and cake. Whilst sampling these we decided we didn't really want to fly through that front again, so an hour later we were airborne again, heading to the CAVOK south east of the country.
With the route now familiar we flew past Gloucester, overhead Kemble and I won the bet with Keith about getting a transit from Lyneham. Basingstoke loomed large before we doglegged around Lasham and Odiham, before routing down to Midhurst, talking to a very sweet lady controller from Farnborough who seemed to appreciate our good manners.
A straight in join granted by ATC, a near miss with an R22 helicopter and an orbit on 3 mile final, saw my worst landing of the trip back on the familiar R20 at Shoreham. Write 100 times…."do not relax before the plane is stopped!"
I sat on the perimeter road and sadly waved goodbye to G-UTSY as she headed back home to Southend. My longest trip yet, my first in a complex aircraft, will hold many pleasant memories for me. Oban and Scotland will see us again.
Places we stayed
CARLISLE – Corbett House, owned by Isobel and George Kerr.
Corbett House, Irthington, Carlisle , CA6 4NN
OBAN – The Falls of Lora Hotel
Falls of Lora Hotel, Connel Ferry, by Oban, Argyll , PA37 1PB.
GLENFORSA – Glenforsa Hotel, owned by Brendan and Alison
Glenforsa Hotel, Salen, by Aros, Isle of Mull, Argyllshire, PA72 6JW