Barely recognisable from its origins as a much bigger USAAF base in WWII, this Essex airfield is neat, modern and efficient
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.”
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.
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.
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: CFI Eddie Ford pointing to the instructor duty chart; there are fourteen instructors at the airfield
Bottom left: Bradley Wright, 23, PPL student whose granddad flew a Swordfish in WWII
Bottom right: the focal point where pilots gather has coffee and tea and an honesty box
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
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
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 club Robin to Rufforth and back
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