WINGS OVER BECCLES

Ju­lian Clax­ton drops into a busy north Suf­folk air­field to meet the crew and vol­un­teers who keep it fly­ing. Words and im­ages by Ju­lian

EADT Suffolk - - Places - Beccles Air­field is open daily. In­for­ma­tion at www.bec­cle­sair­field.com

I FOL­LOW a small tar­mac road through this beau­ti­ful cor­ner of Suf­folk, to Beccles air­field, a CAA (Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity) ap­proved air­field, al­most hid­den among the warm glow of the stub­ble fields.

A light warm breeze car­ries the un­mis­tak­able smell of the coun­try­side, while the wind sock flut­ters, and above my head is the un­mis­tak­able hum of an air­plane en­gine. Eyes dart­ing through the cloud, I scan the rich blue sky for a sign of the ap­proach­ing plane. Sud­denly it sounds as if an en­gine is cut and, within what seems like sec­onds, the sky is dot­ted with brightly coloured canopies at vary­ing stages of de­scent. A few years ago that would have been me. Watch­ing the sky­divers touch down, I won­der if I still have it in me.

Hav­ing shed its load, the Cessna Car­a­van swings down onto the run­way and comes to a stop, where a hand­ful of ea­ger sky­divers are ready and wait­ing for their flight to the drop zone.

The Para­chute Club is a small frag­ment of what ac­tu­ally goes on at Beccles Air­field. Built for the US Air Force in 1943, dur­ing the Se­cond World War, the air­field passed be­tween var­i­ous author­i­ties, but was never used for its orig­i­nal pur­pose. It was sub­se­quently passed to the RAF for use as a se­cret re­search base, be­fore com­ing un­der the di­rec­tion of RAF Coastal Com­mand. Per­haps the air­field’s most no­tice­able mo­ment was when it was used by the Mosquitoes of 618 Squadron who used the air­field to prac­tise with their new bombs – the same bombs used by 617 squadron in the fa­mous Dam Buster mis­sion.

Af­ter it was closed in 1945, the site was dor­mant un­til the 1960s, when it was put to use by the bur­geon­ing off-shore in­dus­try. Rainair moved to the air­field in 1997, when Rainer Forster brought his flight train­ing to Suf­folk, set­ting up with just a por­ta­ble cabin, a car­a­van, and a fleet of two Cessna planes. He be­gan of­fer­ing trial flights, which sowed the seeds for Beccles Air­field as it is to­day.

The com­mu­nity at­mos­phere is en­hanced by the sheer va­ri­ety of air­borne ac­tiv­i­ties that take place here.

“If it flies it’s likely to be here,” laughs Richard, one of the vol­un­teers. Rob, the op­er­a­tions man­ager is a charm­ing per­son, full of sto­ries and typ­i­cal air­field wit. He’s just cuts the grass and jumps off the trac­tor to greet me like an old friend.

“Beccles kilo zulu,” bel­lows from the ra­dio, just as the para­chute plane calls five min­utes to drop.

“It’s all go to­day,” Rob says, “This is it, the best place to be.” We set­tle down with a cof­fee, gaz­ing across the beau­ti­fully mown run­way to corn fields, which have acted as an im­promptu land­ing spot for less ac­cu­rate sky­divers.

Rob has al­ways had an in­ter­est in avi­a­tion and be­gan ex­per­i­ment­ing with ra­dio con­trolled air­craft, be­fore an im­promptu visit

to Dux­ford led to a flight in a Rapide.

“I was hooked. I looked out of the rear win­dow and from that mo­ment I knew I had to get up in an air­craft.” Af­ter a suc­cess­ful trial flight in the late nineties, Rob fell in love with fly­ing and did ev­ery­thing he could to get close to the air­craft, wash­ing the planes, cut­ting the grass, mak­ing tea, you name it, he did it.

Then one day, Rob was of­fered a job at the air­field, en­abling him to learn to fly, but also to help de­velop the site from brick rub­ble and farm land into a work­ing ap­proved air­field.

“The grass run­way, as it is now, had a ditch run­ning through it and the CAA wouldn’t let us be li­censed then, so we ex­tended the con­crete run­way by adding the grass, which makes us quite unique.”

As with many small air­fields, the odd in­ci­dent is never far away. Cer­tainly through win­ter and early spring they of­ten in­volve the grass run­way.

“We nor­mally close it over win­ter and use the hard stand­ing in­stead,” says Rob. “Dur­ing a wet spell in spring we had a rather ex­pen­sive plane come in and, although con­trol said to avoid the grass, the air­craft landed and slowly turned onto the – now soft – grass and got stuck for nearly two months. Thank­fully that sort thing is pretty rare.”

The air­field has an op­er­a­tions man­ager and a me­chanic, but ev­ery­one gets in­volved in every as­pect of keep­ing it run­ning.

Beccles Air­field draws peo­ple ex­cited and en­thused by air­craft, but also helps the lo­cal econ­omy. Thou­sands of pounds have been raised through spon­sored para­chute jumps for lo­cal causes, and res­tau­rants and ac­com­mo­da­tion providers ben­e­fit from in­creas­ing num­bers of vis­i­tors. The odd celebrity turns up too, in the re­cent times Nick Ma­son, Jay K, Sam Pre­ston and other mu­sic and TV stars.

The para­chute plane glides to halt on the grass, as sev­eral canopies flut­ter in the later af­ter­noon light. Land­ing sweetly, the Piper PA22 looks a rather ma­jes­tic air­craft. I wan­der over and stand in awe of the vin­tage 1961 air­craft, with its clas­sic red leather in­te­rior and retro look­ing con­trols. Pi­lot Steve is every bit the air­craft en­thu­si­ast I was ex­pect­ing to find at a re­gional air­field. It all started for him with air cadets in 1967.

“I’m now so old, that the two air­craft I had my first flight and solo flight in are in mu­se­ums,” he chuck­les. Af­ter a quick chat with fel­low pi­lots he is back in the Piper, ready for take-off, fi­nal checks done, doors shut, head­set in place and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with air traf­fic con­trol. Within a few min­utes the Piper glides across the run­way, to be­gin its flight back to Old Buck­en­ham air­field.

Head­ing to the of­fice, my mis­sion is to speak to Pe­ter Collings, who is on the ra­dio to­day. He first be­came in­volved in the club around three years ago, when he picked up his pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cense. Since then he has be­come a cru­cial part of the air­field’s vol­un­teer net­work. He’s club sec­re­tary, but this­rather full and var­ied po­si­tion can in­clude op­er­a­tions, re­fu­elling, ra­dio and IT.

We sit in the small traf­fic con­trol room on the edge of the air­field, our con­ver­sa­tion punc­tu­ated by fre­quent com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween con­troller and pi­lots, a re­minder of the back to ba­sics and friendly na­ture of this busy air­field.

An­other beau­ti­ful two-seater air­craft lands, and a cou­ple dis­em­bark and head to the of­fice. They’ve just flown down from Manch­ester.

“For an af­ter­noon on the beach and some proper fish and chips,” they tell us. Not a bad way to spend a Satur­day af­ter­noon.

In­side the vin­tage Piper

Pe­ter Collings on the ra­dio at Beccles Air­field

Steve Davies and his vin­tage Piper air­craft

Beccles Air­field

. . . and on the ground. Rob Good­er­ham, Beccles Air­field op­er­a­tions man­ager

Plenty go­ing on . . .

. . . in the air . . .

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