This was my longest flight to date – a return day-trip to Blackpool, and I even came back with a trophy!
I’d heard about a fly-in at Blackpool Aerodrome in north-west England, and I thought it would make a nice day trip. I asked on Facebook if anyone wanted to ride along, and Andrei and Andy were mad enough to respond. They’re both student pilots, and a trip like this had plenty of learning potential.
The key issues facing this trip were weight & balance and fuel management. With three blokes on board, and enough fuel for the journey, we were heavy – at maximum take off weight to be precise. Fuel calculations were particularly critical for the return journey, as there was forecast to be a 20-30 knot headwind on our southbound leg.
I’d calculated worse-case performance scenarios for the day, with the highest forecast density altitude, and assumed no wind. With Biggin Hill and Blackpool having long tarmac runways and my alternates at Hawarden, Gloucestershire, Southend and Lydd being much the same, I had plenty of runway to spare. What I had considered, but not properly acknowledged, was the effect the additional weight was going to have on my climb performance.
The wind was a 100% crosswind at Biggin Hill, and this was unhelpful. I’d put in two stages of flap to get us off the ground sooner, and to give us a greater margin above the stall. But after take off, the flap caused drag and I retracted the flaps as soon as I could, to try and get the climb rate going. It soon did, but for a moment I was worried I may have to turn back.
It’s always nice to get past ‘mig-alley’ (between the Gatwick and Heathrow airspace zones) and Farnborough. Once we climbed to 3300 feet AMSL, the turbulence settled down. We had a fantastic tail wind north-west bound and enjoyed a ground speed of 135-140knots.
En-route, I had an unfortunate exchange with an air traffic controller. There were several of us standing by to pass our details on the frequency, me being the first in the queue. There was a bit of a misunderstanding whereby I think the controller thought I was pushing in. I was also a bit eager to pass my message before being asked to, and I got a stern telling off. I was spoken to like a naughty school child, and it was most unpleasant.
This exchange knocked my confidence to the point where I decided to avoid the possibility of complicated radio exchanges at Liverpool, and routed outside controlled airspace instead. Arriving at Blackpool was trouble-free, and the wind was straight down the runway – albeit quite strong. As part of the fly-in, they had a spot landing competition, and I gave it a go. I wasn’t entirely sure where I was supposed to touch down…but as it turned out, I won the competition and was presented with a trophy!
After landing, we explored Blackpool by walking along the promenade, but we didn’t quite make it to the tower. We were treated to fish and chips at lunchtime, courtesy of Blackpool’s Hangar Three.
The return leg
I didn’t record the return flight, because I didn’t really have time to properly change batteries and memory cards etc. Just south of Sleap aerodrome, we encountered rain and IMC conditions. There was no lower airspace radar service for miles, and so I called up Birmingham, who were brilliant. They gave me a traffic service despite me being miles away from them. We remained in IMC for more than an hour, unable to get above the cloud layer due to an icing risk, and unable to descend because of high ground ahead.
We carefully monitored our flight’s progress, as we only had enough fuel to make our destination, alternate and have 45 minutes to spare. The headwind forecast was accurate though, and we were arriving at our waypoints at the correct ETA which was a relief. I had planned options for a stop en-route, if we needed to re-fuel. As it turned out though, we ploughed on towards Biggin Hill, and landed just as the winds calmed down.
This was a fantastic trip, and a great experience for all on board.
Video: Biggin Hill to Blackpool