RNAS Culdrose & the Scilly Isles

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July 31, 2015

Our 2014 visit to the Royal Navy Air Station Culdrose Air Day had to be cut short due to forecast bad weather and as a result we didn’t get beyond RNAS Yeovilton. This summer’s visit wasn’t shaping up to be much better, with constantly changing weather patterns sweeping in off the Atlantic. With an enormous amount of movements over three days for the Air Day, and the fact that GA aircraft aren’t usually permitted in this visit, an awful lot of planning and liaising with the Royal Navy to make it work. So when it all goes belly up due to the weather as it did last year is particularly annoying. With everything in place for our eight aircraft and sixteen participants to fly in, it was a case of focusing on the forecasts – which up to the weekend previously weren’t great. However, as the day approached things began to look up. The plan was for us to fly in on the Wednesday, stay locally overnight, attend the Air Day on the Thursday, another overnight and depart on the Friday.

After the usual last minute issues on the Wednesday morning, the TAFs were amazingly good, a few forecast showers and a little breezy from the west but improving over the following days. Our arrival slot at Culdrose was a 15 minute window between 17.45 and 18.00 local, which didn’t require an early start from North Weald. The plan was to take a leisurely run down to Dunkeswell, have a late lunch, then look at the wind and estimate the next leg so we would arrive within our allocated slot. Having a lot of flexibility for our first leg meant that, once everything was packed up, our group started to drift off whenever they were ready to head down to Dunkeswell. Most chose the simplest route of heading west towards Bovingdon (BNN), through the Benson MATZ towards Compton (CPT), towards Devizes, Frome and then through the Yeovilton/Merryfield MATZ and into Dunkeswell. For those that haven’t done it, it’s a quick and scenic way to get to the west country – encompassing the rolling hills of Wiltshire with their chalk White Horses and the open spaces of Salisbury Plain, before reaching the Somerset levels.

I always enjoy this route and this day was no exception, the view was as good as always, amazing visibility and with great services from Farnborough Radar, Benson Zone, Boscombe Zone and Yeovilton Radar; the time passed very quickly. We did encounter a few sharp showers but they were isolated and well defined so didn’t take much avoiding.

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Shower over Wiltshire

With a clearance to cross at 2500ft overhead Merryfield, which is a training airfield for RNAS Yeovilton, we had a birds eye view of some Royal Navy Lynx helicopters doing some interesting low level manoeuvres below us. Saying good bye to Yeovilton, we changed to Dunkeswell Radio for their airfield info at 10 miles out. There are no overhead joins for Dunkeswell due to parachuting and very close glider activity at North Hill so we were looking at a downwind join for whichever runway was in use. On establishing contact we were told that the wind was varying a lot and was quite gusty, so although the runway in use was 35, there was the option of using the longer 04 at 968 metres. The flight towards the airfield is really quite lovely with the rolling Quantock Hills passing serenely below, but it’s easy to mistake the old wartime Upottery airfield for Dunkeswell, which at 839 ft is one of the highest airfields in the country.

The airfield (and Upottery) came into view and we slotted in to the right hand down wind leg for 35. It was certainly a bit on the lively side and we could see that the windsock was doing its best to hang onto the pole despite the swirling winds best efforts to rip it off. However, the approach and final didn’t present any problems, and we were soon taxying to the area outside the clubhouse to try and get in with enough time for last food orders in the restaurant. I’m sure the chef was less than impressed with some 10 of us turning up in the last 10 minutes of opening time! Dunkeswell is a very nice airfield in a great location and well worth a visit if you haven’t been. The restaurant is large and the food served quite good and reasonably priced. After refuelling ourselves we went to sort the plane out. With the short 644 metre runway at Dunkeswell being in use, all our kit and passengers and with the fuel available at Culdrose being a real faff to get together (with none available on our planned Scilly Islands stop) we needed to manage our fuel loadings carefully.

As ATC at RNAS Culdrose had given us a very specific 15 minute arrival slot of 17.45/18.00 local to fit us in with the arriving display aircraft, and with just another 90nm to go, we didn’t need to rush away from Dunkeswell. As the time passed the black clouds start to brighten and the wind dropped, and by the time we were ready to depart, although being cold for July, it was a very pleasant flying day.

Climbing out of 35 and remaining on runway heading for 4 miles to avoid the gliding site, we changed to Exeter Approach. In the distance we could see the high dark shape of Dartmoor and set course towards it. The air was crystal clear and one of those few occasions where you can actually say that the viz was limited only by curvature of the earth! Stewart and I had planned to cross Dartmoor, go down to Plymouth and then follow the southern Devon and Cornish coast west towards Culdrose, which sits close to the Lizard point.

The views were simply stunning and this is really one of my favourite areas to fly in, with the wild rugged beauty of Dartmoor giving way to the rocky cliffs and bays of the coast, with (on a day like this) a beautiful calm, clear blue sea. Even throttled back we were making good time, so even had time to take a detour to Callington to take some unplanned aerial pictures of a friend’s cottage. As we followed the coast towards St Austell, we called Culdrose Approach and could hear they were pretty busy with various arrivals.

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Inbound Culdrose at Falmouth

We continued to soak up the views such as the Eden Project’s giant domes passing on our right hand side, as we made our way along the coast and over Falmouth harbour positioning for a long final into Culdrose’s R30. The ATC controller had that slight tension in his voice as we got closer and it was clear that with so many of our aircraft arriving quite close together and with very similar call signs, after what was probably a very busy day, was the last thing he needed. With the huge radio telescope of Goonhilly Downs out to our left the approach into Culdrose with the airfield approach and runway lighting and surrounded by a patchwork of fields with the cliffs and sea beyond was nothing short of stunning. On our visit two years previously we had been scudding under a bank of cloud up the estuary of the Helford River and fighting a very lively crosswind to get in before the weather closed in, so the beauty of the area rather passed us by on that occasion, this time it was all very different.

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Turning long final for 30 Culdrose

With a landing clearance and VB’s tyres lightly kissing the 1830 metre runway at 17.46, we had arrived safely and perfectly on time. The temptation to do a ‘Ryanair on time arrival fanfare’ was fortunately overcome. We were directed to our remote stand on the northwest corner of the airfield. Once all of the aircraft were wrapped up for their two nights on the stand, I called ops for some transport and before long a couple of vehicles were arriving to take us to the main gate where the group headed off for the Premier Inn at Helston for a well deserved beer.

The following day was of course the RNAS Culdrose ‘Open Day’, which promised a great day of aviation related entertainment. The traffic is notoriously bad on these days and most of the group set off on foot for the main gate entrance in what can only be described as glorious, but somewhat ‘cool’ weather for the summer. Our aircraft and the base were very close to the front of the Premier Inn but on the wrong side of the wire. Culdrose is a huge site and on foot takes a good 35-40 minutes to walk to the pedestrian entrance. No harm done there though given the quantity of food and a few drinks consumed over dinner at the hotel the evening before.

We split off into small groups, as we all wanted to take our time looking at different things. The Air Day is usually a huge draw for locals and holidaymakers alike and this year was no exception – but with a very efficient system of entry there was no queuing to get in. The day certainly was as good as expected and, as I mentioned, although it was rather cool, the sky was clear and the visibility excellent. The ground exhibits were excellent and encompassed all different types, but as expected lent towards a naval aviation theme. The flying display was a full six hours long with a huge array of different aircraft, both fixed wing and rotary. Some of the helicopters were doing things that one wouldn’t think they could or should do, especially the Lynx and Wildcats, but even the big twin rotor RAF Chinook carried out some manoeuvres where I couldn’t understand why it didn’t break! The SAR Sea Kings Mk 5’s of 771 Sqn gave a very poignant fly past with this being their last Air Day before being retired from SAR operations next year after a very long and distinguished service in both Royal Navy and RAF colours.

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Sea King of 771 Sqn SAR farewell

There were too many highlights to list but the Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori put on a great and very colourful display in their Aermacchi MB339s. We were also treated to stunning displays by the North Weald Gnats and also the North Weald based Hunter. Watching and listening to the sight and sounds of these classic aircraft was a total joy and nobody watching could ever imagine what tragedy would unfold over the following month with those aircraft.

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The Frecce in full flow

On a much happier note we all had a great day and despite the cool conditions, several of us ended up slightly sunburnt and with sore necks as a result of craning our heads upwards for so long! The guys retired back to the Premier Inn to reflect on a very satisfying and enjoyable day.

The following day we couldn’t believe our luck, a third day of weather about as good as it gets, and with a 09.30 departure slot for the whole group, we arrived at the main gate to book in and get our transport arranged for the journey out to our stand. With such good weather it would have been rude not to take full advantage and follow the original plan to fly out to the Scilly Islands for lunch and then back via Perranporth and Henstridge. The latter two being new stops for the log book for practically the whole group.

After a slight detour from our mini bus driver to the wrong location we finally arrived at the stand and prep’d the aircraft, donning our lifejackets for the sea crossing out to St Marys. We were in good time and all ready for engine start in sequence along our long line of aircraft to avoid any overlap in calling the tower for start. This would also allow us to taxi out in order of parking to meet our tight departure time, which like the arrival was planned to work us nicely into the display aircrafts departures. As a pilot you couldn’t make it up really, the departure sequence being, 2 x F18’s of the Swiss Air Force, 2 x Mig 29’s of the Czech Air Force (who’s afterburner engine smoke is something to behold) who then did a tight circuit whilst accelerating and made an incredibly low and unbelievably fast flypast straight down the runway before zoom climbing into the blue. Then the 8 x NWFG aircraft led out by G-VB to be followed by the Frecce Tricolori. Pilot magic! At least we were a lot quieter than the others and looked just as impressive as we all taxied out in a line for the Golf hold for R12. Well ok, nowhere near as impressive but we had a pretty good showing and we were later complimented by the Ops Officer for our tight arrivals and departures just as requested.

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MIG29 Departure

Climbing out from R12 in a right turn gave us a great view of Culdrose and the surrounding countryside and coastline. On reaching 2300ft we could already see the outline of the Scilly Islands on the horizon in the stunningly clear air. Routing past St Michaels Mount we said goodbye to Culdrose radar and changed to Lands End for the initial crossing being told to report at 10 miles from St Marys. The air was clear and smooth, the sea unbelievably calm and the views just stunning, what more could we want on a fly out.

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Departing Culdrose

With the Islands getting closer at 10 miles we called St Marys Approach and got our joining instructions to join left base for R14. It was my second trip into St Marys and I knew what to expect but the approach to the Islands is just amazing but I did mention on our previous visit two years before that the runways and approach are not for the faint hearted or those of a nervous disposition. The main runway 14/32 is hard but only has an LDA of 602 metres and undulating enough to give a roller coaster a run for its money, which gives it the impression of being much shorter.

Our intrepid aviators aren’t fazed by such things and within 10 minutes were all in and parked on the rather bumpy grass apron opposite the terminal, which was very busy with Twin Otter and Islander flights. Still being quite early it gave us an unexpected bonus of time and after paying the landing fee in the tower we headed off down the lanes to the old town to find a place for an early lunch and an excellent local crab salad certainly hit the spot.

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FG short final at St Marys

All too soon it was time to head back to the airport for our departure. By this time the group were becoming a little fragmented as we wanted to do different things before heading off to the next stop at Perranporth. Our departure was somewhat delayed due to the commercial movements but we were soon powering up the slope(s) toward the pinnacle of R14. On reaching the top it is like an Alton Towers ride and as you rocket over the top of the runway, which drops away sharply towards a small cliff and the sea. Not the place I would want to be for an aborted take off!

We had asked Approach for a right turn out and a clockwise tour of the islands before departing via the St Martins Head VRP back towards Lands End. The tour is well worth doing if you can, the little islands are stunning, the sea was blue and crystal clear and with the small sandy beaches and the yachts anchored in the inlets, it really does look like the Caribbean.

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Departing The Scilly Isles

Lands End came up quickly and this time we headed toward the north coast following the rocky cliffs up towards St Ives where hundreds of holidaymakers were enjoying the summer sunshine. After a call to Perranporth Radio and whilst approaching the disused airfield at Portreath it became clear we had timed it just wrong for our arrival as it was just about to clash with a parachute drop over the airfield. This necessitated a rather prolonged hold out to sea until the last parachute was down. It was by now blowing a fair bit and we positioned inland downwind right hand for R27, being careful not to overfly the noise sensitive area. This ex-wartime airfield is in a fantastic position sitting 630ft on top of a cliff that drops straight into the sea, all very impressive and dramatic.

The airfield is under new management and the facilities are a little basic, also as we found when we had a fuel top up it is quite expensive at over £2.00 per litre, but its early days so hopefully the new management will improve things a little to attract more pilots. Number one improvement needs to be the cake, which could only be described as dire! The surrounding area does make the trip worthwhile however in its own right, and a GA facility in that part of the country is a bonus.

So with time moving on it was next stop Henstridge. After quite a long taxi out past the hangers where clearance was a bit tight to get back to 27 for departure, looking back after take-off we were treated to a great view of the airfield as we crossed the cliffs and out over the sea with a right turn towards Newquay. A quick call to Newquay Radar was in order as we were going to be crossing their centreline and we informed them that we were intending to route low level around the coast. What a treat that was, a gentle cruise up the coast at around 800ft gave some absolutely cracking views of the bays, passing Padstow, Port Isaac and then Tingagel; its castle dominating the cliff side, before reaching Boscastle where we climbed and turned inland for a direct track across the north of Dartmoor and on towards Crediton.

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Departing Perranporth

The weather was still fantastic and we aimed to pass south of Yeovil before making our join at Henstridge. Being a Friday afternoon Yeovilton had closed and all was pretty quiet. Joining and landing at Henstridge was straight forward but unfortunately we ended up at the far end of R25 where we had to wait for what seemed like an age, as several other aircraft were waiting to take off and had blocked the taxiway. Typically we had inadvertently arrived at the tail end of an open day at the worst possible time. It was going to have to be a quick stop as the time was now ticking to allow us time to get back into North Weald, get fuel and get out to High Cross before the 19.00 closure.

A flying visit to the facilities, a diet coke and then back to the plane for Stewart and me to swap over. Avoiding the rather broken surface of the taxiway by staying on the grass we headed off from R25 and towards Devizes. Surprisingly given the hour on a Friday afternoon we got a chirpy response from Boscombe Zone and with a clearance to cross the Salisbury Plain Danger Areas D123/4/5 direct to CPT we managed a decent short cut, as well as taking in some parts of the country we hadn’t seen before. Half way across the Danger Areas, Boscombe called to say they were closing and left us to it.

I was even more surprised when Benson Zone answered and we then got another helpful direct routing through the MATZ towards Stokenchurch to avoid Wycombes ATZ. At Stokenchurch it was a right turn for BNN, over to Farnborough and back into the familiar territory of the Luton/Heathrow gap before descending below 1500ft for TMZ 2 and North Weald.

Three nigh on perfect days. Excellent weather, in fact probably the best three consecutive days we have ever had on any fly out over the years. A brilliant Air Day at Culdrose and a very interesting last day with some great scenery and new stops. As always a thank you to the participants for their splendid company during the trip which always makes the non flying time that much more enjoyable.

A special thank you to Lt ‘Teddy’ Thurston RN for all his help in getting our group into Royal Navy Air Station Culdrose for this visit. Also to all the Royal Navy personnel who helped out at various points during our stop there especially the guys on the transport side without whom we would have been stranded. Finally to POAC Emma Whelan the ATC Flight Planning Manager who made my side in organising this so much easier with her input, advice and understanding, as well as accommodating a load of ‘civvies’ into her complicated ‘master plan’ of arrivals and departures.

A great one to remember.

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Our RNAS CULDROSE AIR DAY participants

Paul

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Contact us

North Weald Flying Group operate out of the Squadron at North Weald Airfield.

The airfield is 10 miles south of Stansted and can be seen from the M11. Follow signs from the A414 and on entrance to the field, follow the perimeter track all the way around the field until you arrive at the distinctive Squadron building.

email: paul.bazire54@gmail.com
phone: 01992522090