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
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
. . . and on the ground. Rob Gooderham, Beccles Airfield operations manager
Plenty going on . . .
. . . in the air . . .