I had heard and read much about this event and I determined sometime ago that I would have a go this year for the first time. Up to eight days flying that would cover the Scilly Isles and Northern Scotland with loads to see in between and this year the weather forecasts were promising throughout the whole week. This event has now become so popular that participants go off in smaller, colour coded groups so that airfields we visit are not swamped. The red group went south, the blue group went north - I never found out where the purple and green groups headed off to!
Fly-UK is a completely non-competitive event. The challenge is in the planning, the fettling, the packing and the camping, as well as in the navigating, and flying a route that perhaps otherwise, you would never accomplish on your own. The slogan is ‘Fly by Day and Socialise by Night’, but actually I think the secret is more about safety in numbers. Long flying trips are so much more interesting when there are others sharing the fun and sometimes, the radio and navigation workload. Leaning on the experience offered by others helps enormously when you are out of your comfort zone!
As it happened, I finished Fly-UK early because the NHS decreed at late notice that my wife would be in hospital during the last couple of days of the schedule. I hadn’t planned to spend as much as a divorce would cost so I needed to be back. The great thing about this event is that you can join in and then leave at any point of your choice. However, I still saw more of Northern England and Scotland than I could have otherwise hoped and the weather was generally very kind, if a bit thermally at times.
My own planning was atrocious due to work, a crisis and other assorted commitments but in the end, the first flight was completed down to the start point at Old Sarum on Friday evening where I met others from the Blue Group as well as Jim Tyler in his latest Skyranger with Phil Hanman navigating and John Hamer with Monika in their Escapade who made up the Over Farm contingent. I soon realised I had too much of some stuff and not enough of others but fortunately we called into Over Farm as we travelled north the next morning and I made a few changes to make life easier. Next year I am going to take a lighter tent, fewer clothes, a better torch and more cash because finding a cashpoint can be a real challenge in the more remote parts of Scotland! Steve Sykes and Myron Burak had by now sorted out the last minute radio repairs they needed and they joined us in another Skyranger for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately we lost both Mini Max aircraft on this first leg due to unexpected issues – at least they were both safe and relatively close to home!
The original route planning included a flight up the east coast to Scotland via Beverley and Morpeth, however the forecasts indicated strong northerlies and few of us fancied the hard work it would involve. Ince near Liverpool was made our next fuel stop and though unplanned, it also made for an interesting overnight stay together with a fun evening in the pub where we realised we were in the exalted company of none other than Rob Hill who is the BMAA’s Chief Inspector. He was doing the trip just like us and for the first time too! Rob was entertaining while making some serious points about safety, the qualities of the BMAA and the future of leisure flying throughout Europe. He also seemed to enjoy listening to our views on a number of issues too.
Sunday was a long flying day. We traversed the Lake District in beautiful sunshine after flying along Blackpool beach and refuelled at Carlisle, (very formal and strict), followed by a bumpy flight to East Fortune where I suffered a second puncture of the day. (I was one of three aircraft who had to make running repairs throughout the afternoon. A can of ‘Tyreweld’ will always be carried with me on future trips). East Fortune is well worth a visit though landing over a busy road not 20 yards from the threshold was ‘interesting’. The people there were very friendly, relaxed and helpful. In fact, the further north we went, the more welcoming our hosts became. Tom Dawson who organises the trip each year must spend hours on the phone organising discounted or free landings and how he arranges the BBQ’s, fuel runs and other social events, I have no idea – just admiration!
After a longer than scheduled stop which involved tyre levers, loads of swearing and a new inner tube, we made our way up the East Scottish Coast past Aberdeen. The coastline here was amazing – castles, cliffs, small bays and reefs made for great photo opportunities especially as we were told ‘not above a thousand feet’ by Aberdeen ATC. It was a relief however to fly out to sea where the air was calmer and my arms could have a bit of a rest; this was where the trip had become a bit of a marathon and I was not used to it. To fly three or four hours during a weekend is generally considered good going. Suddenly I was doing five or six hours per day in unfamiliar territory.
The night was spent at Longside where their club members laid on a BBQ together with hospitality and indoor sleeping arrangements – both for pilots and the flexwing aircraft! This was very welcome because it saved rigging the aircraft and messing about with tents for one night. The ‘indoor Microlights’ as the fixed wing aircraft were nicknamed on the trip had to remain outside overnight but hey, their seats don’t get wet if it rains.
The next day proved to be the highlight of the trip. Some of the group were determined to visit Wick and possibly go even further north but the rest of us heeded the forecasts and instead flew across to Culbokie which is just north of Inverness. Like all smaller sites, they were very hospitable and I thoroughly enjoyed the freshly made Bread & Butter pudding served for lunch, (it must be a local tradition and it would be rude to have said ‘No thanks’!). The views of the surrounding hills were amazing from here but the scenery became spectacular as we started along the Great Glen: Loch Ness down to Fort William and beyond. We flew below the tops of the Glen and I was quite content in the relatively still air until someone mentioned we should keep close to one side in case we met the RAF hurtling up the Glen as we flew gently down it.
At this point the Blue Group splintered some more and just three of us went out to Tiree airfield and then eventually, Glenforsa where we stayed for the shortest night of the year. (It didn’t actually get dark during the night). Mark Peters in his analogue Savannah and Mike Scholes who was flying a glass cockpit equipped QuikR were excellent company even though their 3-Axis v Flex-wing arguments became increasingly ludicrous and corny! During the next couple of days we occasionally bumped into other pairs or small groups of Fly-UK aircraft at various airfields. I was amazed that everyone seems to have their own ideas about favourite places to visit and the best routes to follow – I guess it comes with experience.
Glenforsa is only a few miles from the colourful village where they film the popular kids program ‘Ballamory’, so we went to have a look at this after our first hot shower of the holiday and some real Scottish kippers for breakfast at the hotel by the strip. (A visit here is well worth it especially as the hosts are aviators too). We then flew out to the Isle of Islay followed by brief stops at Ghia and Bute before making our way south to Kirkbride for fuel and a bit of a rest. Eventually we finally flew down to St Michaels near Liverpool where we camped and enjoyed a Chinese meal in the local town. They have a great new club house here and made us very welcome.
The next morning we intended to do Anglesey, Caernarfon, and Swansea and then for me, home. Unfortunately, we encountered the micro-climate of North Wales and after battling in through a 30 knot headwind it was only early evening that we were then able to get out by making our way back up the coast and around the Mersey estuary before heading south to Half Penny Green. The other two guys were going on down to Lands End and the Scilly Isles to finish their week away but I needed to return to Over Farm which was still actually the tightest strip of the whole trip! After the dust had settled I worked out that I had flown for an average of five hours a day and visited fourteen new airfields. Most of these I had heard of, or read about, but I would never have thought of visiting them on my own. I made some good friends and met a number of well known names. I challenged myself and enjoyed scenery as I had never seen it before. I also think I learnt much about our sport and the beautiful country we live in.
Much more could be written about Fly UK. Old hands will recognise the place names and have many more stories of their own but the best advice to those who have yet to take part is; Book the time off and give it a go; it’s well worth it!