You could say that this challenge got off to a poor start with a name change, a new organiser and a last minute start point. The long range forecast was miserable and some participants had dropped out, but with the end date tied to the IOW Spamfield Fly-in, it pretty well fixed the start.
Friday the 18th of June was windy and wet, but with a promise of breaks later in the day, I packed the Eurostar and was in the air by 1830hrs for a short flight over to Hartpury near Gloucester – John Hamers field of Minimax fame. Having dodged rain squalls I had an un-eventful landing, tent up quickly and down to the only pub, here I met up with many of the participants and learned of the outline plan.
Saturday dawned sunny and clear but with a forecast of rapid deterioration from the south-west, increasing rain and wind. So following a quick brief we took to the air. I must admit I never did work out the total numbers, but it included an AX2000, 2 Eurostars, 3 Minimax, and about 6 flexwings, with others joining later, even a Gyro! All told quite a cross section of machines. So, north for Hucknall. Rain showers around Birmingham spread us far and wide and saw aircraft arriving hours apart. This was the way of future legs. Whilst there were en-route refuelling stops the main aim was to make the same evening destination.
Having watched a Spitfire perform (it was the Hucknall – Robin Hood PFA Fly-in) and seeing black clouds approaching it was time to move on to Bagby up the A1. More rain squalls, led to a fairly zigzag route being flown but at least the numerous MATZ were not active. Bagby were excellent, friendly and helpful with an excellent café. Probably just as well with the wind blowing 20 mph and visibility steadily getting worse. The decision was made to wait it out and consolidate before deciding about pushing on. Over the next 2 hours everyone appeared out of the rain and all were up beat about pushing on to Eshott (North of Newcastle) our night destination.
I guess it was at this stage I realised I was flying with a hard core of determined flyers, and a team unity was forged. I elected to go outside Newcastle airspace and track north up the coast. It was bumpy and the wind was strong, but even with a 40 mph headwind at 2000ft I made swift progress (100mph on the ASI) to Eshott. Some of the flexwings were down to 20mph over the ground. Just as well I hurried, because the boys at Eshott were in the process of locking up, not believing anyone would get through. The landing was interesting but at least the wind was roughly down the runway, I tied down firmly, manned the radio and lit the BBQ as the Eshott boys shot down to the shops for food and drink. Over the next hour everyone landed safely, cold and wet, but with great hospitality, food and drink, spirits were soon up and the war stories flowed.
Sunday morning dawned and an early start - destination Perth. Once again the early morning clear skies soon darkened and by the Scottish border everyone was in small groups. I departed last, having helped the AX2000 crew with a flat tyre, and then played catch up, giving a running commentary over the radio as I passed aircraft. This in fact became the norm for much of the trip. By the time we got to Perth the sun had re-appeared and the wind lessened (15mph). The next leg was to Insch near Aberdeen and then around the coast to Dornoch, North of Inverness. Unfortunately the cloud over the Cairngorms was bad and Insch was closed to traffic. Following a quick debate it was decided to run up the A9 direct to Inverness staying low, with me in advance to check the bottle neck at Aviemore.
Next followed an exciting hour of low flying, circling rain showers and dodging black clouds, whilst being confined to a narrow valley and flying under the cloud base. Near Inverness it was evil; one big black cloud blocked the route, so in hailstones I pushed to the west and circled behind it, eventually landing in Dornoch and relieved to be down. The remainder had landed in the glider field at Feshiebridge, although I did not know at the time. They got stung for a membership fee but at least had hot drinks with some even taking a shower! Meanwhile I wandered into Dornoch and discovered how nice it was, in the process having a big Sunday roast. Several hours later everyone arrived individually and in small groups. Tents were pitched in the nearby campsite, a fuel run by a team member’s relative and another large meal in the Lowry Tea-rooms reserved solely for Fly-UK pilots.
Monday morning and it was damp and generally miserable, but being near the coast the visibility was reasonable. The forecast indicated it would not improve, so John O’Groats here we come! The flight was relatively simple - follow the coast until it comes to an end - or at least that was the plan… Approaching Wick under low cloud, over water and with high cliffs to the left I ran into a bank of sea fog so decided to cut inland west of Wick. This was a wise move as I found clear spots and by the time I got to John O’Groats it was fairly clear. Being well ahead of the group I continued to the Orkneys before turning back in time to catch some of them for a photo shoot over the headland.
Back in Dornoch the Tain range was active and Tornados were passing through low and fast. But with comms to the RAF established I took the previous night’s restaurant owner’s young son, Tom, for a short flight; his first plane ride. The night stop was Oban but with the option of taking in Plockton, near the Isle of Skye. Most of the team elected to fly the Great Glen due to weather concerns and lack of fuel availability at Plockton. So we split and I went with Julie and Terry in their Quik to Plockton, then on to Glenforsa, Mull for scones and coffee (all very civilised). We had perhaps the best days flying I have had, the weather rapidly improved and by Plockton we had glorious sunshine, no cloud, and superb visibility. Taking our time we arrived in Oban at about 1700 hrs and found everyone there safely, with the exception of the three Minimax’s who had landed and pushed on. I later found out that with a poor forecast they wanted to get south to avoid being trapped. We enjoyed ourselves without them! The Oban boys left the clubhouse open, and after a great meal in a local restaurant we retired. This was the longest day and being that far north it was barely dark for a few hours so early Tuesday we were up and about, ready to move by 0700 hrs.
Those aircraft with the fuel range were heading direct for Carlisle, with several others dropping into a small field near Irvine harbour (Prestwick) for fuel, where the owner, William is another Eurostar man. Having been before I escorted them. William was a great host and we had difficulty getting away from the cake and sandwiches! The weather was once again favourable but with an increasing wind and a storm due by nightfall, the race was on! I made fast progress to Carlisle and was on the ground for less than 20 minutes. The weather was still holding but further South it was already closing down. We were working well as a team and the late arrivals were refuelled in minutes and pushing on, initially to Tarn Farm for fuel if required or direct to Barton the planned night stop. I crossed the Lake District at 6000ft under high stratus cloud and a lot of turbulence and by the time I was approaching Manchester the wind had increased to 25mph from the South East. Barton were great, opening the into wind runway (which was NOTAM as closed) to get the microlights in safely. Over the next few hours everyone, bar one flexwing, landed with quite a few stories of turbulence to tell, including several missed approaches and one flexwing taking to the long grass. Incidentally the other flexwing remained at Tarn Farm and was looked after grandly – Flash 2 Alpha with a 40 hr pilot and his 67-year dad flying for the first time! (They caught us up later at the I.O.W.).
Wednesday and Thursday saw constant strong wind and rain. Just how many movies can you watch in the Trafford shopping centre? I saw 5! Ate lots of popcorn and spent hours drinking coffee and people watching. With increasing concern over the remaining time to complete and concerns over the weather, many plans were redrawn. Some elected to fly to their home fields while others decided to head direct to Sandown. Friday dawned cold and clear with a breezy north-westerly and a promise of more storms on Saturday and Sunday. Glad at least to be flying again, the first stop was Shobdon for an English breakfast. Unfortunately the chef failed to turn up for work so lukewarm coffee sufficed. We met up with the Minimax’s here on their way to the IOW. Dropping into Broadmeadow I filled the tank and flew direct to Lands End routeing along the North coast of Devon and Cornwall.
Here I got the long awaited breakfast and within the hour was circling Lands End camera clicking before heading to the Lizard to take in the most Southerly point.
With a 25mph tail wind I had a smooth but fast flight along the coast, straight lining apart from a small detour over the Eden project near St Austell. With even Solent radar (normally anti microlights whatever they say) being helpful, Sandown came into view and with a quick join downwind I was on the ground, mission complete. With a bad forecast I had already decided not to stay (plus there are no cinemas near by!) so within 20 minutes having said “Hello and goodbye” to friends it was time to beat the setting sun back to Hereford.
In summary; an experience and adventure – with much bad weather. We visited a few new fields, made a stack of new friends, and had hospitality second to none. We flew in marginal conditions but saw the beauty of the British Isles. Memories of flexwing pilots making snowballs collected from the pod in Dornoch having flown around John O’Groats in snow showers. The shortest night in Oban and them damn midges. Going stir crazy in Barton where they pulled out all the GA aircraft from the hangars and housed us safely but would take no money. Finally helping a low hour pilot around the British Isles with his retired father. It makes me smile that they gave the award at Spamfield to the CT pilot. I could have nominated half a dozen flexwing pilots who made his flight pale into insignificance.
Would I do it again? Yes.
Adapted from Merv Middleton’s report in the Wye Valley Flyers Newsletter October 2004