The Luton-Stansted Gap

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30th September 2016


Those of you with long memories may recall that a few years ago I climbed into Fox-Alpha one summer’s day and successfully managed to bash off ten grass airstrips all located within Essex and all of which were new to me at the time, (see:

With the exception of Audley End, all of the strips visited that day were to be found ‘this side’ of the Stansted zone, and this got me thinking….

If you look at the chart there are in fact a good number of airfields in and around the narrow little strip of airspace that we know as the Luton-Stansted gap and which we all tend to blithely whiz past on our way to or from ‘someplace else’.  So, with my usual partner-in-crime for such adventures, Malcolm, we began the process of trawling through the available references and began to hatch a plan.

A few airstrips in and around the gap were ruled out:  Nuthampstead, High Cross, Audley End, Fowlmere and Duxford already featured in one or other of our logbooks; enquiries about Hunsdon suggested that even a small GA aircraft like a C150 wasn’t really welcome (despite the fact that the strip looks quite doable); and of course Panshanger is sadly now shut (or possibly just resting?).

Nevertheless, and in part spurred on by a special offer on landing fees from our friends in the RAF at Henlow, between us, Malcolm and I managed to identify eight airstrips that fitted the bill and that neither of us yet had in our logbooks.  So one hot day in late August, here’s where Malcolm, Fox-Alpha, and I went this time:

Coleman Green (470m 06/24 400’amsl)

Situated just north of St Albans (and just outside Luton’s southern zone boundary) you won’t find this one on the charts but it is in Lockyear’s.  It turns out to be owned by a very nice chap called Roger who is a regular at The Squadron.  You may or may not know Roger, but you will almost certainly know his work.  Together with his son Nigel (himself a famous TV wildlife presenter) he developed the technique that has enabled us to enjoy stunning and unique air-to-air footage of flying geese.  Roger and Nigel trained the geese from birth, initially getting them to chase after a motorbike, and eventually getting them to chase and formate on Roger in his microlight.

The airstrip itself is beautifully kept and Roger came out to meet us and very kindly gave us coffee in his house.  Roger keeps a C182 and a C150 on the strip, as well as the microlight and geese, and after giving us a few tips and wishing us luck (this always makes me slightly uneasy!) weighed us up by eye and set off down the strip to wave us goodbye.  Roger obviously knows his C150s, because he positioned himself alongside the strip at precisely the point our mainwheels lifted free.

Coleman Green: Really rather splendid

Coleman Green: Really rather splendid

Rush Green (550m 16/34 350’amsl)

Rush Green is inside the Luton zone, just south of the ‘LUT’ NDB.  Although neither of us had this one in our logbooks, I had in fact visited once before some 30 years ago as a passenger when the flying school I belonged to at Luton used to use it as its maintenance facility.  And therein lies a tale….

Rush Green being located inside the zone, we initially tracked due east from Coleman Green, talking to Luton as soon as we were airborne.  Within a couple of miles we intercepted the A1(M), and with clearance received, this gave us a nice line feature to follow up to Stevenage.  Rush Green is then just off to your left – if you can see it!  I must admit that in the end I advised the Luton radar controller that we had ‘field in sight’ simply because it had to be there somewhere and I was worried that as we were getting to within a mile of where it ought to be the controller would be looking at his radar screen wondering what sort of short-sighted buffoons he had let into his zone…   As it was, no sooner has I uttered the words than we saw the windsock, and then of course it was bleedin’ obvious where it was, wasn’t it?

After tackling the ‘interesting’ approach over the scrapyard and through the trees I safely plopped FA down on runway 34 and then taxied her back in to the deserted parking area and airfield buildings.

As there wasn’t much to do there I contented myself with telling Malcolm that the reason my flying school stopped using Rush Green as a maintenance facility and I never got the chance to fly in myself, was that the school’s instructor had succeeded in rolling the best C152 in the fleet into a ball there and having to travel back to the airport on the bus as a result.  Malcolm gave a look which told me he was going to file this one under ‘Things I didn’t wish to know’….

Fox-Alpha parked in front of the Rush Green scrap yard. No unkind comments please.......

Fox-Alpha parked in front of the Rush Green scrap yard. No unkind comments please…….

Graveley  (500m 01/19 300’amsl)

Our next stop was much more fun.  We didn’t actually put it to the test, but Graveley is literally a stone’s throw from Rush Green!

In the ‘C’ hut at Rush Green we found instructions about phoning LATCC before take-off so that they could coordinate our movement with Luton’s controller.  Assigned a squawk, we took off, climbed to our right checking-in once more with Luton Radar as we did, and then chopped the power and positioned straight in for runway 01 at Graveley.  At just 3nm the whole flight could almost have made for a realistic EFATO simulation, however Malcolm wisely decided he wasn’t entirely happy with the approach and therefore repositioned to give himself a bit more space.  Nonetheless we were safely down and parked just minutes after releasing brakes at Rush Green.

Graveley (which I pronounced “Grave-Lee” but Malcolm, perhaps still reflecting on my Rush Green story, had a preference for pronouncing as “Gravel-Lee”) is a great little strip.  It sits alongside, and belongs to, a strawberry farm, and in the summer months (we were a couple of weeks too late) you are invited to fly in and pick strawberries.  Can I be the only person who sees the enormous ‘brownie point’ potential with one’s long-suffering other-half here?!

Graveley’s other notable feature is a golf course immediately off the northern end of the runway.  Sadly we didn’t get to put it to the test, but because approaches onto runway 19 bring you in low over the golfers, they’ve rigged a system whereby you key in a specific frequency and then hold down the transmit button for six seconds.  This triggers an alarm which then has golfers scattering for cover: shades of Apocalypse Now and running in over the beaches with The Ride of the Valkyries blaring from a Huey’s speakers run through the mind!  As it was we took off over the golf course and maybe sounding the alarm prior to departure would make sense too.  The golf course slopes up at around 3 degrees, meaning I had the ‘strange and unique experience’ after clearing the boundary hedge of glancing sideways and seeing golfers strolling alongside us whilst we were supposedly aviating…..

Cottered  (500m 07/25 360’amsl)

Again, not marked on the charts but listed in the likes of Pooley’s, Cottered is a proper farm strip adjoining a pretty little village where rumour had it there was a decent pub.  It seemed to make sense to plan our day around a lunch stop here.

Malcolm had called our LATCC contact again prior to departure from Graveley, so with a pre-assigned squawk we were once again airborne and straight on the radio to Luton as we exited their zone.  Graveley to Cottered will I think go down as my shortest ever land-away flight: just four minutes airborne!  Straight in on runway 07, we were both amazed as I flared to land to see the ground ahead turn yellow.  The whole runway was covered in a carpet of buttercups which we rode in on as we taxied to park at the end.  Never experienced anything quite like it.

Parked up and shut down, the farm manager came over to say hello, and when we told him our plans he had no hesitation in offering us a lift to the village and the pub.  I have to say that the pub itself, The Bull, is one of the best I’ve been to in a long time and the food was absolutely first class.  We’re lucky that we’ve got a few airfields near North Weald with excellent pubs (Nuthampstead, Fowlmere and Keyston spring to mind), and Cottered is right up there with the very best.  [Thinks:  Just how many brownie points will I collect from the Memsahib if I combine lunch at The Bull with an afternoon of strawberry picking….]

Better still, after we’d finished lunch and began our leisurely stroll back to the airfield, the farm manager appeared out of nowhere to give us a lift again.  What service!

Cottered’s ‘C’ Hut!

Cottered’s ‘C’ Hut!

The Bull at Cottered

The Bull at Cottered

RAF Henlow (Choice of three approx. 1000m runways  168’amsl)

OK so Henlow isn’t really a farm strip, but it is a proper grass aerodrome, and somewhere both of us had been wanting to visit for many years.  Earlier this year Henlow had announced the introduction of a £5 landing fee in lieu of the usual eye-watering MOD rates, so it seemed too good an opportunity to let pass by.

Although Henlow is quite sleepy, the RAF does still use it for Cadet training flights, and for this reason you are required to provide proof that you’re good for £7.5m should you accidentally bump into something with a roundel on it.  Although Malcolm generally tends to carry this amount of cash around with him as a matter of course, we decided it was easier simply to furnish them with a copy of FA’s insurance policy.  That seemed to keep them happy and needless to say we didn’t so much as glimpse a single RAF machine the whole time we were there….

As you would expect from the military, the airfield is immaculately kept and we relaxed over coffee in the very comfortable crew room.  Always good to see where your taxes go!  Malcolm and I debated whether we should record this one as plain old ‘Henlow’ or the rather more impressive-sounding ‘RAF Henlow’, but in the end decided that the fact that the landing fee was collected by the RAF meant that we were fully entitled to add another RAF base to our logs.  Definitely worth visiting – all the more so because the MOD plans to sell off the airfield in a couple of years’ time to be turned into a housing development.

By the way, departing Cottered for Henlow, Malcolm managed what I think must be a fairly unique feat: because we were parked just off the end of the runway that we would be departing  from (to take advantage of the slight downslope), and because Malcolm was able to start up and perform the power checks where we sat, the times of day recorded for ‘brakes off’ and ‘airborne’ were one and the same.  Almost like those films you see of Vulcans in the sixties called to Scramble from their Quick Reaction Alert stands!

 Fox-Alpha parked on its ‘QRA stand’ at Cottered

Fox-Alpha parked on its ‘QRA stand’ at Cottered

On short finals at RAF Henlow

On short finals at RAF Henlow

Little Gransden  (810m 10/28 250’amsl)

Another beautifully kept (and evidently thriving) airfield.  The airfield’s website contained dire warnings about the potential difficulties of spotting the place, but we didn’t seem to experience any great problem (maybe our eyes were getting keyed in by then).

A little stroll around revealed a couple of gorgeous Spartan Executives being worked on, one in gleaming polished metal, as well as an old friend of the Group’s being wheeled out of maintenance: Cessna 172, G-DCKK.

Little Gransden had a fairly extensive and positive write-up in Pilot a couple of months ago so there’s probably not much further we can add.  We didn’t get to meet Mark Jeffries in person, but he was very laid-back and welcoming when I spoke to him to arrange PPR – as indeed was everyone at all the airfields we visited.

An old friend at Little Gransden

An old friend at Little Gransden

Top Farm  (700m  06/24  200’amsl)

I’d long had the impression that you only ever got permission to land at Top Farm if you were going there with a view to buying or selling an aeroplane.  However, Paul B had told us that he’d been in there a month or two earlier in ‘VB without problem and recommended that we paid the place a visit.

Perched on top of a ridge, the runway is perfectly flat and the airfield enjoys easy open approaches and commanding views.  As you would expect there are lots of interesting aeroplanes dotted about looking for new owners – as well as llamas and guinea fowl wandering around (the guinea fowl claimed our intended parking space before we could get there, obliging us to carry on and find somewhere else to shut down).

Other than the exotic fauna, the place seemed deserted – although we did eventually track down a lady in the office in the farm house who refused all attempts to offer to pay a landing fee.

With the afternoon heat and humidity reaching the point where a sudden deterioration in the weather looked likely we decided not to hang around any longer than necessary, and fifteen minutes after landing were heading off down the runway again.  Fortunately as we turned southwards the threat of bad weather receded behind us and we headed back once more into the Luton-Stansted gap for our final stop of the day.

Pushmi-Pullyu spotted at Top Farm

Pushmi-Pullyu spotted at Top Farm

Benington (440m 06/24 360’amsl)

I’m sure most pilots have played the game of ‘Let’s see if we can spot Benington’ when flying through the Luton-Stansted gap.  Some days it sticks out like a sore thumb, but most other days you’re left concluding that they’ve either marked its positon wrong on the map or you’re not quite where you thought you were.

It does exist though, albeit at 440m it’s quite a shorty.  For this reason we had elected to leave it as the last stop on the day so that we would be at our lightest (although I think our lunch at The Bull may have put a hole in that plan!).

Moreover, when Malcolm had spoken to the owner for PPR he had advised against using runway 06 if the wind was from the north due to the possibility of curl-over from the adjacent woods.  As it was the wind was slack, although what little wind there was favoured an approach on 06.  We decided we would give it a go but be prepared to knock off the approach and carry straight on back to North Weald if we weren’t happy.

Positioning for a left base join for 06 puts you very close to Luton’s zone boundary and for this reason we elected to speak to them once more to let them know what we were up to.  As it was the approach and landing were uneventful, although the first 50 to 75m of runway 06 are quite steeply sloped, leading to a feeling that you’re rapidly sinking on short final: I can see how if you added a genuine downdraft you could soon find yourself with your hands full.

The strip itself is gloriously isolated and peaceful: with FA shut down the only sound we could hear was distant birdsong.  Having arrived on 06 we decided 24 was better suited for take-off, and this time the slope at the end acted like the down ramp of a ski jump – accelerating us into the air and away across the valley.

Enjoying the tranquillity of Benington

Enjoying the tranquillity of Benington

Back at North Weald we decided to round the day off fittingly with a landing on 20 Grass.  We then set about the considerable task of completing tech logs and personal log books over two of the possibly hardest-earned cold beers of all time!

Remarkably, despite everything we’d crammed in to the day, we’d recorded just 2.1 tach hours between us.  In fact my total brakes-brakes time for all four of the flights that I did was just 55 minutes.  On FA’s current hourly rate my day’s flying worked out at just under a hundred quid, and I challenge anyone to have any more fun for that sort of money!  We were both pretty exhausted afterwards, and again I would challenge anyone to cram much more experience and satisfaction into an hour’s flying than both of us managed.  We also paid less than £20 each in landing fees in total for the day.

Putting together the original Essex airstrips flight with this one, plus airfields previously visited and one Essex strip added since (Barling), and another two or three still lined up to visit, I make it that there are just over 30 grass airstrips within 30nm of North Weald, and most of those are in fact within 25nm.  Many don’t charge landing fees, and those that do often only charge a token fee.   I’d struggle to think of one where I’d think ‘I’m not bothering to go there again’, although there’s no denying that some of the shorter ones need to be approached with a healthy dose of respect, and of course many have to be regarded as ‘summer use only’.  On the other hand at none of the strips visited did we encounter the dreaded Yellow Jacket of Authority :- )

A big thank you to Malcolm for being willing to play his part in one of my hare-brained adventures again, and to the strip owners for their kindness and hospitality in allowing us to visit – and an even bigger thank you to dear old Fox-Alpha for once again doing everything asked of her without even the slightest hint of a grumble.

Malcolm demonstrates the first rule of successful strip flying: Always use the smallest practicable aeroplane available

Malcolm demonstrates the first rule of successful strip flying: Always use the smallest practicable aeroplane available

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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