Air­field pro­file

Barely recog­nis­able from its ori­gins as a much big­ger USAAF base in WWII, this Es­sex air­field is neat, mod­ern and ef­fi­cient

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words & Pho­tos Nick bloom

Earls Colne combines pri­vate fly­ing, avi­a­tion busi­nesses and the Es­sex Air Am­bu­lance (but re­mem­ber; PPR)

A ‘tight ship’ is the de­scrip­tion that comes to mind when I think of Earls Colne. It’s pretty friendly, but they do like vis­i­tors to fol­low the rules. So check out the web­site and tele­phone to tell them you’re com­ing. Then you’ll be sure of a warm wel­come.

The air­field is out­side con­trolled air space, to the east of Stansted’s manda­tory transpon­der zone, and just to the north of the Brain­tree-colch­ester road, and it’s easy to spot from the air, with its hard run­way and lo­ca­tion in a clear­ance in an area of wood­land next to a golf course and in­dus­trial es­tate. You can help your­self to cof­fee or tea, with an hon­esty box for non-club-mem­bers.

I flew into Earls Colne in the Cur­rie Su­per Wot, tak­ing the most di­rect route through the Stansted TMZ. The Wot doesn’t have a transpon­der and my ra­dio trans­mis­sions from an open cock­pit can’t al­ways be heard clearly, so I tele­phoned Farn­bor­ough Radar (01252 526015) twenty min­utes be­fore take­off and booked a non-ra­dio, non-transpon­der tran­sit, which was read­ily granted, and I man­aged to hit my tran­sit time slot right on the nose.

Once well clear of the MTZ, I call Earls Colne on 122.425. The voice on the ra­dio is crystal-clear but sounds doubt­ful, ask­ing: “Did you PPR?” I tell him I did, two days be­fore, and con­firmed to the club CFI by email. “There’s noth­ing in the book,” he says, plain­tively, and for a mo­ment I think I might be turned away. Then he gives me run­way, cir­cuit and QFE, so my ar­rival is ac­cepted. I drop down and land, us­ing (as agreed when I phoned for per­mis­sion) the grass Run­way 24 on the right of the hard run­way. Al­though the man who an­swered my PPR call seemed to think the grass would be barely us­able and warned me to ex­pect a bumpy land­ing, the ride from the Wot’s wheels couldn’t be smoother. I taxi across the hard run­way, stop at the end of a line of parked air­craft and pull out the mix­ture. Just as the en­gine stops, the voice on the ra­dio says he wants me parked fac­ing the run­way and on the other side of the air­craft cur­rently on my left. “No prob­lem,” I tell him. For­tu­nately the Wot isn’t much harder to move than a loaded wheel­bar­row. On my way to check-in, I spot a pi­lot walk­ing out to an air­craft and stop to say hello. Ian Wright is an engi­neer for Royal Mail, got his li­cence in 1996, and is here to fly a club Robin. He has av­er­aged six hours a year pretty much since he got his PPL, oc­ca­sion­ally tak­ing pas­sen­gers, mostly stooging around the lo­cal area for an hour. “I would fly more than the min­i­mum, but it’s too ex­pen­sive,” he says. To­day he may fly to Elm­sett. He’s keen to get go­ing, so I wish him a happy flight and carry on.

When I walk into the club­house, there is a slightly cool at­mos­phere at first. (After­wards I learn that Earls Colne has a par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult set of neigh­bours who are quick to com­plain, so vis­it­ing pilots re­ally do need to heed PPR by tele­phone.) My email, say­ing I was com­ing from Pi­lot and why, ob­vi­ously hadn’t been read. How­ever, Keith and Wal­ter, who be­tween them are vol­un­teer fire and ground crew and man the air/ground ra­dio, be­come more friendly once I ex­plain who I am and why I’ve come. More par­tic­u­larly, that I re­ally did PPR, al­beit two days in ad­vance and not to ei­ther of them per­son­ally.

The air­field, they ex­plain to me, has two full-time em­ploy­ees and no fewer than fif­teen vol­un­teers. There’s a duty chart on the wall list­ing them and show­ing who’s do­ing what and when. To my eyes the chart is im­pres­sively neat and thor­ough. Keith, whom I just spoke to on the ra­dio, is a semi-re­tired para­medic who flew in the air am­bu­lance at one time. He is also a 600-hour PPL. Keith does Wed­nes­days and Thurs­days. Wal­ter is a semi-re­tired RAF engi­neer who has also had a ca­reer teach­ing maths. He has a Night and IMC rat­ing and 360 hours.

Af­ter sign­ing in, I head out­side to see who’s here this bright July morn­ing. There are two large hangars, plus a row of seven small ones. One of the big hangars is oc­cu­pied by the Es­sex Air Am­bu­lance (part of The Es­sex & Herts Air Am­bu­lance Trust) and hasn’t opened yet. The one next to it is leased by Cavendish Avi­a­tion, a sales and main­te­nance com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in So­catas which is also an Aerocoat sup­plier. Aerocoat is ‘nano sur­face tech­nol­ogy’ which is claimed to stop the el­e­ments af­fect­ing paint­work and also re­duce drag, im­prov­ing cruise speed. Cavendish ap­plies it to air­craft here at Earls Colne. The com­pany has been at the air­field for just eigh­teen months.

I meet ad­vanced tech­ni­cian Avin Vargh­ese who ex­plains that Cavendish strips down used So­cata air­craft and to­tally re­fur­bishes them for re-sale in im­mac­u­late condition to cus­tomers mainly across Europe and in Amer­ica (see the Cavendish TB-10 flight test, p.24−ed). The com­pany also of­fers main­te­nance for most air­craft types. Avin is one of three en­gi­neers, the other two−paul and Bob−are off-site to­day. Avin, who is 29, started as an avi­a­tion engi­neer in In­dia, came to the UK in 2008 and worked for B/E Aerospace, and then The Fighter Col­lec­tion be­fore Cavendish. Avin takes me up­stairs where there is a Poo­ley’s shop. It’s cur­rently un­manned, but if I wanted to buy any­thing, ap­par­ently Avin could take the sale him­self.

I head out to do some more ex­plor­ing and dis­cover the rather in­ge­nious cater­ing fa­cil­ity on the air­field, Norm and Debs’ Snack Bar. Norm is fry­ing ba­con for what I can see is go­ing to be a well-filled ba­con bap, but it’s not for an air­port worker or lo­cal pi­lot, it’s for a wood­worker from Nightin­gale Join­ery, one of a num­ber of

com­pa­nies on an in­dus­trial es­tate just up the road. The in­ge­nious as­pect of this is that the Snack Bar is in a wooden hut right by the main road, just in­side the pedes­trian ac­cess gate to the air­field. Fac­ing it is a small yard with benches. So it’s kept busy and fi­nan­cially vi­able with­out hav­ing to rely on the rel­a­tively small num­ber of cus­tomers from the air­field. Some­one tells me later that Norm sources his ingredients from lo­cal farm­ers and the snack bar is well above ‘greasy spoon’ stan­dards. Anglian Flight Cen­tres is the fly­ing club on the air­field, with a Robin Alpha 120 and four HR200S with a mem­ber hire rate of £122, £140 with an in­struc­tor. (A plan­ning lim­i­ta­tion means no cir­cuit train­ing from mid­day on Sun­day.) In­side the club­house, I meet Ed­die Ford, the CFI. He says there are around thirty air­craft based here and es­ti­mates around thirty move­ments a day dur­ing the week and forty at week­ends. The club also has a PA-28-161 and a Cessna 172. There are cur­rently thirty stu­dents and 300 club mem­bers. The club teaches IMC and Night as well as PPL, al­though night fly­ing is limited to win­ter months (“when the clocks change”) for two hours a night. The land­ing fee is £15. Out­side park­ing is £116 a month on hard, £90 a month on grass.

The fly­ing club is ac­tu­ally the lesser oc­cu­pant of the club­house build­ing, most of it be­ing taken by Es­sex Air Am­bu­lance, which has a lec­ture theatre and a lounge­cum-dis­play area on the air­port in ad­di­tion

to its air­craft hangar. Ed­die points me to an­other wall chart; this one is a duty ros­ter where the four­teen in­struc­tors are listed. They are all part-time; Ed­die does five days a week and to­day he’ll be joined by two oth­ers, Dave and Digby. Ed­die has two ra­dio train­ing ses­sions booked, “but it’s a sunny day and I ex­pect some pass­ing trade”, he says. “You never know who’s go­ing to ring.”

Peo­ple are be­gin­ning to ar­rive now and I meet Nigel An­drews, a PPL club mem­ber. He’s booked three slots, the first dual. “I’ve gone past the five weeks the club al­lows, so my next ses­sion has to be with an in­struc­tor,” he ex­plains. As­sum­ing the in­struc­tor is sat­is­fied, he then plans to fly down the coast and in the Ip­swich and Felixs­towe area in one of the club Robins. Nigel is a plumber, 55, has been fly­ing for four­teen years, al­ways from here, and av­er­ages twelve hours a year. He says at first he kept his fly­ing lessons a se­cret from his fam­ily but, three months into the PPL course, his son an­nounced that he wanted to learn to fly, “so it must be some­thing in the blood”. Nigel kept it se­cret be­cause, “I had al­ways wanted to fly, but I’d al­ways been told it was some­thing you can’t do− not for the likes of us, sort of thing.” He says Earls Colne is, “a lovely, wel­com­ing place. They re­mem­ber you, even if you haven’t been for seven months. The wartime his­tory is part of the ap­peal; with all the pho­to­graphs from the war up on the walls you can’t fail to be aware of it.”

Wartime his­tory

Earls Colne was built as an Amer­i­can bomber base in 1942. B-17F ‘Fly­ing Fortresses’ ar­rived a year later and a nearby El­iz­a­bethan man­sion be­came the HQ of the US 8th Air Force Bomb Wing. The Fortresses moved elsewhere and Ma­rauder bombers came to take their place. Bob Hope and Glenn Miller gave per­for­mances at Earls Colne while the Amer­i­cans were in res­i­dence. The RAF took it over later in the war, with Hal­i­fax bombers, Horsa glider tows and SOE drops. Af­ter 1945, the site re­turned to civil­ian use for farm­ing, small in­dus­try and even­tu­ally (early 1990s) a golf course. Any civil­ian fly­ing was small-scale and in­ter­mit­tent un­til the for­ma­tion of Anglian

Flight Cen­tres in 1983, still owned by the present lease­holder, Mick Man­ders. A keen pi­lot and pros­per­ous lo­cal busi­ness­man, Mick Man­ders has seen that the site re­ceived in­vest­ment (for ex­am­ple lay­ing a new run­way and erect­ing new hangars) and is prop­erly main­tained. The land is owned by a lo­cal farm­ing fam­ily.

My next in­ter­view is with an­other lo­cal pi­lot, Tony Zymelka, who is 61 and a direc­tor of a sub­sea cable com­pany. He rents one of the seven hangars at the far end of the air­field and drives me down to see it. He nor­mally keeps his TB200XL in the hangar, but it’s away in France. Tony learned to fly in glid­ers thirty years ago. He flies around twenty hours a year and upgraded to his present air­craft from a TB10 which he owned for fif­teen years. He has been based here at Earls Colne for all that time. “It has good fa­cil­i­ties and a hard run­way, so it doesn’t get wa­ter­logged,” he says. His fly­ing tends to be mixed; he flew the TB10 from the South of France when he bought it, and has flown a week of tour­ing round France. He has also flown to busi­ness meet­ings. “Some­times I fly with friends or fam­ily,” he says, “and some­times alone.”

His hangar is a thing of joy, truly ec­cen­tric (as−i hope he won’t mind my say­ing−is Tony him­self, not least be­cause of his habit of of­fer­ing plain cho­co­late di­ges­tives to all and sundry). In the hangar, he has sev­eral ra­dio-con­trolled mod­els, a mo­tor­bike and a sec­ond res­i­dent air­craft, a Ru­tan Varieze. “Not mine”, he has­tens to tell me. “The own­ers are putting it to­gether and hope to fly it soon.” Tony has fur­nished his hangar with sev­eral com­fort­able leather arm­chairs, a large desk, a fridge, a cooker, a sound sys­tem, and a com­puter and printer. “It dou­bles as my of­fice,” he says. The hangar door is opened by an elec­tric-con­trol hy­draulic lift and you can leave it half open. “It can get a bit noisy with the air­craft when I’m on the phone,” says Tony. He’s rented the hangar for a year.

Ap­par­ently a Navion 260, owned jointly by Mick Man­ders and Cavendish Avi­a­tion’s MD, Steve Allen, is in an­other of the seven hangars−i flight-tested one for Pi­lot for the March 2006 is­sue. Six of the seven hangars (the sev­enth is big­ger) are de­signed to take a sin­gle air­craft, or two mod­est-size ones. A Cirrus SR22 is in an­other. Mick Man­ders also owns a heli­copter, but it isn’t based here.

Lo­cal pi­lot and com­pany direc­tor, Tony Zymelka, uses his hangar as his of­fice

I leave Tony and walk back down the line of res­i­dent air­craft parked out on the grass, which in­clude a Bull­dog, a Thorp T-18 and an Ex­tra EA300/200. My next in­ter­view is with Bradley Wright, who is 25 and a sales man­ager in the two fam­ily busi­nesses: one mak­ing cho­co­late and the other pub­lish­ing mag­a­zines. He is here for a les­son and quite close to com­plet­ing his PPL. He plans to keep his fly­ing as a leisure ac­tiv­ity. “There’s a bit of a fly­ing tra­di­tion in the fam­ily,” he says. “I have an un­cle who was an air­line pi­lot and my grand­fa­ther flew a Fairey Sword­fish in the war. My un­cle teaches here, ac­tu­ally.”

In one of the brief­ing rooms off the main clu­b­room, I find an in­struc­tor, Dave Trouse, re­pair­ing the R/T sim­u­la­tor. I can tell he’s an in­struc­tor be­cause they all wear ‘proper’ shirts with ‘Anglian Flight Cen­tres’ em­broi­dered on them (an­other ex­am­ple of be­ing ship shape). Dave is a semi-re­tired char­tered engi­neer who started work orig­i­nally as a BT engi­neer, which is where he did his train­ing and learned to use a sol­der­ing iron and volt­meter with the skill I see be­fore me now. He’s also got a les­son booked to­day, so is not just here for the elec­tron­ics. I ask him about Earls Colne as a train­ing site and he says, “It’s got a nice big hard run­way, but it’s only ten me­tres wide, which keeps stu­dents on their toes, es­pe­cially if there’s a cross­wind.”

Some­one has just landed and is sign­ing in, so I go to learn more. Andy Hill, 51, is a restau­ra­teur (his de­scrip­tion), and has flown here in his Robin from Great Oakley to have a new transpon­der fit­ted by Cavendish Avi­a­tion, “But I’ve just learned that the engi­neer’s at An­drews­field, so I’m off there now,” he adds, cheer­fully.

Group fly­ing

Pilots con­tinue to come and go. The next one I meet is re­tired GP, Ashley Pain, who has a quar­ter share in a Chero­kee 180 based at Earls Colne. “I’ve been based here on and off since I got my PPL 28 years ago,” he says. “It’s a nice, tidy, use­ful lit­tle air­field, with all-year hard and soft run­ways. The peo­ple here are friendly and help­ful. We used to have di­rect ac­cess to Cus­toms and flight plan­ning, but it proved too ex­pen­sive. One thing I like about this place: if you’re based here, you can land af­ter hours be­fore sun­set.” The other Chero­kee share­hold­ers are a com­mer­cial pi­lot, a banker based in Nor­wich and a chap who works in the City of Lon­don.

Ashley likes to fly once a week. “It’s a nice day, so I’m go­ing to Dux­ford,” he says, “and maybe Old War­den.” He usu­ally flies alone. It costs him £90 an hour in the Chero­kee syn­di­cate plus £50 a month. “I fly half the hours, the other three the re­main­ing half be­tween them,” he says. He learned at Ip­swich and was based at Southend. “This is far cheaper,”

he says. The Chero­kee is parked out­side and main­tained at Elm­sett.

Out­side, pre­par­ing to set off in a War­rior, I find Ur­sula and Peter Fitzger­ald. They own one-sixth of the War­rior, which ap­pears to be kept tied down on the concrete apron near the club­house (as dis­tinct from the cheaper park­ing on the grass). The own­ers of the War­rior have a col­lec­tive name: the South Wood Fly­ing Group. Ur­sula and Peter run a soft­ware de­vel­op­ment com­pany from home. To­day they are fly­ing the War­rior to Not­ting­ham, where their daugh­ter has just set­tled into a new house. They’ve vis­ited her by road and are now go­ing to try the jour­ney by air−they live near Bury St Ed­monds. The cou­ple has been based here for eight years and say it’s very busi­nesslike and ef­fi­cient, “But it’s not got the in­for­mal­ity of our other base, Old Buck­en­ham, where we also have a share in a PA-22 Colt. The fuel’s a bit cheaper there, too. You get peo­ple go­ing to Old Buck­en­ham for tea, which per­haps doesn’t hap­pen quite as much here.”

The Es­sex Air Am­bu­lance hangar is now open and I find pi­lot Mark Holmes up one side of their MD902 twin tur­bine heli­copter, ready­ing it for flight. Mark is a ca­reer heli­copter pi­lot and he says, “We’re get­ting ready for the af­ter­noon shift”. While I’ve been at Earls Colne I have been aware of a vis­it­ing group view­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion and be­ing shown a film about the work of the Air Am­bu­lance. So I imag­ine the Es­sex Air Am­bu­lance is pub­lic­ity-minded, but I still feel a lit­tle shy of tak­ing up too much time, so I thank Mark and move on.

Next I meet Ste­wart Sch­leip and his friend Brian Mur­ray, both club mem­bers. They have come to hire a club Robin to fly to Ruf­forth and back. My fi­nal en­counter of the day is with a young fly­ing stu­dent, Matthew Childs and his girl­friend Molly. Matthew is eigh­teen and says he is five hours off fin­ish­ing his PPL. He’s go­ing to use his li­cence for leisure fly­ing, and in Septem­ber he is start­ing an ap­pren­tice­ship in air­craft de­sign with Marshall Aerospace.

Be­fore I can de­part, I have to be given a brief­ing on the noise abate­ment pro­ce­dures. Wal­ter takes me through them. They are fairly sim­ple: I have to climb to 500 feet be­fore turn­ing and, with typ­i­cal ef­fi­ciency, there are charts with noise sen­si­tive vil­lages and cir­cuits pinned up for Wal­ter to point to. I head out to the Wot, swing the prop, climb in and de­part, mak­ing the usual ra­dio ex­changes, then hap­pily switch the ra­dio off, de­tour­ing around the Stansted TMZ and land­ing back at home un­event­fully.

Earls Colne is a strik­ing air­field, a happy place with a thriv­ing club and ob­vi­ously a pleas­ant train­ing en­vi­ron­ment. It is home to some in­ter­est­ing air­craft and some lively char­ac­ters and I was im­pressed by how many of the lo­cal pilots were tak­ing ad­van­tage of the good weather, not just to fly around the area, but to land away. I must fly there again; this time I’ll stay longer and or­der Norm and Debs’ fa­mous ba­con bap. And then maybe I’ll ex­tend the out­ing and go ex­plor­ing up the coast. Or I could land at Earls Colne and then fly on to lunch at Clac­ton, twenty min­utes fur­ther out, for some mem­o­rable sea front take­away fish and chips.

Fi­nally, I ought not to end this pro­file of Earls Colne with­out men­tion­ing Mark Waite and his com­pany Blue Yon­der Avi­a­tion, which is the Euro­pean deal­er­ship for Amer­i­can Champion air­craft. It’s a mile or two north of Earls Colne, and the web­site gives the air­field as its op­er­a­tions base.

Ad­vanced tech­ni­cian Avin Vargh­ese with one of the So­catas re­fur­bished by Cavendish Avi­a­tion Re­tired GP Ash­ley Pain, who has a quar­ter share in a Chero­kee 180 based at Earls Colne Ste­wart Sch­leip (left) and Brian Mur­ray will take it in turns to fly a...

The Poo­ley’s pilot sup­ply shop

Above: Ur­sula and Peter Fitzger­ald, about to fly to Not­ting­ham in their group-owned Warrior; they also have a share in a PA-22 Colt at Old Buck­en­ham

In­struc­tor Dave Trouse skil­fully re­pairs the R/T sim­u­la­tor

Tony Zymelka re­lax­ing in his well-equipped hangar on the air­field – which dou­bles as his of­fice

Smart vis­it­ing Robin Re­gent – one of around thirty week­day move­ments

Left: Keith and Wal­ter (right), two of the fif­teen vol­un­teers who man the ra­dio, and act as ground and fire crew Below left: Norm and Debs’ Snack Bar is where you get your ba­con sarnie – as do the lo­cals from the nearby in­dus­trial es­tate Below right:...

Bot­tom right: the fo­cal point where pi­lots gather has cof­fee and tea and an hon­esty box


Es­sex Air Am­bu­lance pilot Mark Holmes ready­ing the ser­vice’s MD902 twin tur­bine heli­copter for flight

Mar­shalls Aero­space apprentice and soon-to-qual­ify stu­dent Matthew Childs with his girl­friend Molly

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