St Omer

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18th November 2013

Well as with the Culdrose trip the Gods of Sod hit me again with bad weather for the groups last daylight fly out of the year. We were due to undertake a three day trip to Dinan in Brittany and return via Alderney from the Friday to Sunday. However as the Friday brought strong winds low cloud and torrential rain to many places on the route coupled with a decidedly poor forecast for the Saturday and Sunday in those areas, it wasn’t a hard decision to cancel it. Fortunately with our usual Ibis hotel booked there was no financial penalty in the cancellation.

Everyone was keen to do something if the weather allowed and with a quite good forecast to the southeast including the north eastern part of France I thought we would have a go at an airfield and town that have been on my (long) list of places to visit. St Omer/Wizernes (LFQN) which is some 20 miles inland from Calais it was to be. With nearly all the participants quite happy for an overnight stay to make the trip less rushed, Plan ‘B’, and there always needs to be a Plan ‘B’ were put into place at very short notice.

As we have come to expect the morning didn’t dawn quite as good as forecast. In fact it was rather gloomy with some big bands of showers tracking NE. After all these years a little precipitation doesn’t deter our gallant boys and girls and with the GAR forms in and the Flight Plans filed we mounted up for the first part of the journey which was to be a Customs/Coffee stop at Calais. As you are probably aware entering and departing the continent from the UK requires a stop at a designated Customs airfield and the number of these have decreased over the last couple of years due to French budget cuts. However Calais was ideally placed for us on this occasion.

The routing was pretty simple with a turn from Ongar direct to Dover (DVR) and then straight across to Calais harbour, a simple 55min to 1 hour flight. Needless to say routing down towards the Thames estuary the cloud came down and the rain showers appeared but really quite localised. Our long line of six aircraft were all in contact with Southend Radar for that section. Once we were across the Thames the clouds largely melted away to leave a bright blue sky and stunning viz. A pity it wasn’t like this the day before, but that’s really not complaining as at least we were managing a group trip.

Over to Manston for the crossing and having been informed by them that the Waldershare Gliding site just north of Dover was launching, we took a slightly more northerly route to coast out at Deal. The French coast was beautifully clear in the distance and the numerous ferries scuttling back and forth gave a good clue as to where Calais actually was. The wind was pretty brisk and this caused the sea to be quite rough with lots of white caps and a significant swell causing the smaller craft to pitch and roll. Fortunately, sitting in our nice comfy cabin 3000ft above them the thought of what it would be like to ditch in those seas didn’t cross our mind, well not for long anyway as the port of Calais soon came into view.

With the Calais ATIS on box 2 we approached mid channel and went direct to Calais Tower. Entry to the Calais zone was the usual straightforward instruction of reporting at the coast to join downwind right hand for R24. Nice and straightforward it should have been, but with several aircraft inbound we were given number 2 and despite Paul W’s best efforts ended up quite close to a slow number one and were instructed to extend downwind. Unfortunately the aircraft ahead also extended the leg and this presents a problem as one can’t fly very far before bumping into the prohibited area around the nuclear power station along the coast. Requesting a left hand orbit for separation was met with a curt ‘non’ and an instruction to turn right heading 270 which bizarrely put us closer in and going in the opposite direction along the downwind leg with two other aircraft already downwind. Deliberately keeping further out than usual to keep them in sight we were then instructed that with the other traffic in sight we were now number four. A bit of an odd way of doing things to my mind really, although in the clear air it wasn’t much of a problem, but Paul W and I both remarked that it could have been a very stressful and a potentially hazardous situation for an inexperienced pilot making their first visit to Calais. Although I’ve visited Calais quite a few times and on one group trip we had three aircraft orbiting over the beach and sea in the downwind leg this latest arrival was all together different!

However with that little episode out of the way we slipped smoothly onto the long tarmac and taxied to the apron opposite the terminal to meet the others. With no customs officers to meet us we paid our very reasonable 10 euro landing fee (Shoreham please note) and headed off into the recently reopened cafe/restaurant. This is great news as without one Calais airport can be a desolate place as I’ve mentioned before. What was even better was that it was very busy which must be good news for the future. So busy in fact that we decided not to stay and face a long wait for lunch but to head off to St Omer and eat there.

St Omer was going to be somewhat different as there is no ATC or even air/ground radio, its purely the French Safety Com on 123.5 and as such all calls must be made in French. We were all clutching a French radio calls crib sheet from the helpful Franco Flyers website and secretly hoping that when we made the calls nobody actually answered or asked a question. With the possibility of either the hard runway27 or the grass runway 21 in use we agreed that Gordon Horscraft in the GEEP should head off as our pathfinder to assess the airfield first before we all piled in together.

On Gordons arrival the windsock was showing a reasonable breeze of about 12kts straight down 21 and he duly informed the others of us that were inbound. The other issue at St Omer is that landing aircraft on 21 and 27 then have to backtrack, another good reason not to arrive en mass. The plan worked well and although the calls were made in French there was no other traffic around and no one answered. Probably because they were all collapsed with laughter on the floor of the clubhouse at our splendid attempts at murdering the French language.

Joining crosswind for a left hand circuit took us right across a small hill and woods with the huge concrete dome of La Coupole the WW2 V2 Rocket site nestling inside. This German facility was frequently bombed by the Allies to prevent it becoming operational and is now a museum and certainly looks worth a visit in the future. The link below gives information about the site.

Slipping low over the trees between Longueness and La Valuer we positioned for final onto the 660 mts of R21’s quite smooth grass surface. Backtracking we headed off to the grass parking area near the hanger. A really nice airfield this, set in slightly rolling hills, very green and with a few houses in the trees to the north it was a very peaceful setting with the sun shining brightly and a few ‘Simpson Clouds’ passing gently overhead. This current day peaceful setting disguises the very long and turbulent past of this airfield. It was very easy standing in the warmth of the sun to look towards the runways and conjure up many ghosts from the past. Having researched it before, one of my reasons for visiting was the history of the airfield going back to 1914 and the Royal Flying Corps a memorial to which is near the front gate. This was also an important airfield for the Luftwaffe who had Me109s and Ju87 Stuka’s based here during the Battle of Britain. Later Fw190’s took over and there are numerous accounts of the airfield being attacked by the Allies including by B17 Flying Fortresses. I find this period of history fascinating and it’s certainly an area rich in that.

Snapping out of my little nostalgic bubble as the other NWFG aircraft appeared overhead taking the place of ME109s we watched as they all landed safely and taxied in. We were met by the President of the Aero Club, a very nice man who also runs the airfield restaurant. He was genuinely pleased to see such a large group appear at ‘his’ airfield and told us that there would be no landing or parking fees, just fill in the movements book and come to the restaurant for lunch. It was due to close at 14.00 (it was about 13.55 by now after the usual faffing) but he said they were very happy to stay open open for us. And so they did, laying out a long table for us and providing a very nice lunch at a very reasonable price and the icing on the cake was that the two waitresses very kindly offered to do a shuttle run and take us in their own cars to our hotel. Absolutely delightful and a real pleasure to visit. Unfortunately James Chan had to get back for a function in London that evening and after lunch disappeared in ‘XK’ for a solo flight back to North Weald via Calais.

The afternoon was taking up with visiting the town itself which is dominated by the impressive Notre Dame Cathedral and the town square. After a bit of wandering it was the usual group ‘beer time’ and a leisurely hour was spent in a pavement cafe in the surprising warmth people watching in the square. Jonathan S and Stewart B had done a grand job of a local recce and found a restaurant for dinner. A little later the we regrouped and headed for the Restaurant du Cygne where we were ushered into a cellar below the main restaurant where a long table had been prepared. This had echos of our stop at Perigueux on the way to Asturias in 2011 and the food was just as good, well almost. Waddling back to our hotel it was an excellent end to a very good day.

With the weather due to change for the worst in the UK during the afternoon we decided to make a reasonably early start and have a leisurely return to get back to North Weald by lunchtime. Cabs to the airfield and a walk around the aircraft in absolutely stunning weather, the sky was crystal blue, the air clear and the windsock just giving an occasional slight gentle movement, almost a contented ‘sigh’. Unfortunately the GEEP had suffered a fractured prop spinner on the way from Calais and Gordon after consulting with the engineers had taken it off with the aid of a few borrowed screwdrivers. With the risk of a slight loss of performance the bags were spread around the other aircraft to reduce the weight. Once we were all packed up the engines burst into life and we headed out for the 597m hard R27. Given the light winds, the shorter but slightly downhill hard runway was preferable to the grass. This was especially relevant to those that were three up and particularly for NUKA that was also carrying Stewarts legendary amount of luggage that must tip the scales at around 1/2 ton.

Accelerating down a short runway it’s amazing how quickly the distance gets eaten up but we were comfortably off with a good 150-200m to spare. Climbing out it was just a slight right turn towards Calais and amazingly the white cliffs at Dover were totally clear on the horizon. An orbit around the town gave a great aerial view and allowed us to put the places we had seen on the ground into a little more perspective. Heading off towards Calais it was a case of reaching for the crib sheet again as surprisingly Calais doesn’t have ATC on a Sunday. The join was a lot more straightforward this time, slipping into the downwind leg for R24. It was a case of deja vu in the terminal, again no customs check but a chance for the inevitable cheese and ham baguette in the cafe.

The group did well on their French calls for the departure and climbing out towards the coast we made a call to Lille info to open our flight plans. The controller was all ready for us and opened them as soon as we called in. Very efficient and helpful. The return was just stunning, Beachy Head was visible in the distance beyond the Lydd peninsula and Dungeness power station. The air was super smooth and the return a simple reversal of the outbound. We were all back in to North Weald by midday quietly satisfied with our very good weekend.

This was the last planned day time fly out of the 2013 season and I’m very pleased that the Plan B worked out so well, especially as the weather took another nose dive as forecast that afternoon. We haven’t managed as many trips as were planned but it hasn’t been a bad year all things considered. Once again thank you to all who take part, the flying is great but the company of the group makes all the organisation worthwhile.

If we are lucky it will be night flying next. Looking at the rain and low cloud skudding bye I’m hoping we are going to have a lot more success with that this year given the appalling weather of last autumn and winter.

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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.

phone: 01992522090