Carlisle Airfield Profile
A potrait in full of the airfield on the Anglo-scots border that has a wider-than-usual mix of aircraft and a wonderful atmosphere
Some companies behave as though they want your custom– like the restaurant owner that greets you by name, remembers what food you like and says, “I’ve just the thing for you”. Others have a take-it-or-leave it approach, inquiring, stony-faced whether you booked and then insisting that you wear a tie. To me, the most striking aspect of Carlisle is how welcoming it is. How many other airfields mix microlights, bizjets, working helicopters and autogyros... and do it harmoniously? At Carlisle, aviation brings people together, no matter how they pursue it. The airport restaurant does a great fish and chips and there’s an impressive aviation museum on-site.
The city is worth a visit (it’s a tenminute drive away). There’s a castle, a cathedral, Roman walls and spectacular Victorian civic buildings in pink sandstone. These are all set in streets, many of them pedestrianised, packed with little bars and cafés. The atmosphere is historic university town−plus a bit of northern rowdiness (I am warned against the drunks on Saturday nights). Sadly, it’s too far for me to fly to by Currie Wot (eighty- knot cruise). Virgin Trains (£110 return) wins hands-down on cost, not to mention comfort. Three-and-a-half hours from Euston, I’m at Carlisle. A lady I meet on the train says she’s going my way and escorts me to The Crown and Mitre, a splendid Edwardian hotel in the pedestrianised area, close to the cathedral and castle (rooms start at £50). And another nice lady has volunteered to take me to the airport in the morning. She is Louise Johnston, 36, and since March, she has been working part-time in Operations for Carlisle Flight Training. Her other job is as a healthcare assistant in the NHS, and she works here at the airport two to three days a week. “It pays for my flying,” she says, “and I’ve just done my first solo”. She hasn’t any plans to go for a Commercial, and is likely to stick to private flying, although she has been helping out with banner towing at Blackpool. “We had our first banner tow here recently; it was exciting−i’d like to do that.” Later today she’s planning to take her brother and five-year-old nephew for a flight. (While escorting me round the airfield she tells me she learned to fly because she’s always wanted to fly a Spitfire−and even though it’s £3,000 for just twenty minutes, she’s saving up. She watches all the WWII Spitfire films again and again, apparently.)
As we drive in to the airport in Louise’s sports car, and we head for Carlisle Flight Training, I spot a trio: Mandy, Thomas and Chris Stevens. They are all going to fly together−it’s a trial lesson, an eleventh birthday present to Thomas from his grandfather. Outside on the apron, Louise introduces me to Matthew Kirkham, who is eighteen and has applied to join the RAF. He is cleaning aeroplanes−he’s buffing the windows in one now−in return for flying lessons. He’s been doing this for eighteen months and has had eight hours’ flying so far.
Next I meet Will Armstrong, 43, who keeps a very nice looking Cherokee 180 at Carlisle. His first ten hours’ training was in a Cub, but he’s been pursuing his PPL in the more usual low-wing Pipers since October−he bought the Cherokee in June. He’s got 44 hours and is due to take his final exam on Monday. Will is the security manager for an oil company and perhaps a little optimistically hopes to use his Cherokee for travelling to meetings. “It
costs my employer £500 for first-class train travel to London, plus another £100 to continue on to Brighton, plus £200 for a hotel. I reckon it will be quicker and cheaper by aeroplane,” he says. However, he intends using his licence primarily for pleasure; he’s already planning trips to Scotland and the Channel Islands−plus he’s aiming for a complex single rating and to trade up next year. “Then I might get a helicopter licence,” he adds.
At this point, Lloyd, the airport cat puts in an appearance. He has his own hi-viz jacket, came from a local farm eight years ago and has lived in the flying school ever since. He poses for the camera... eventually.
Next on the tour, Louise takes me to Cumbria Gyroplanes, which has been here for three and a half years, and I meet owner, instructor and examiner Andrew Lysser. The ‘fleet’ currently consists of five Mtosports, two owned by Cumbria Gyroplanes and three by students. It’s only a year since the rules changed, allowing clubs to hire out ‘gyroplanes’ (we would say autogyro is the more descriptive term−ed!) The school is now able to offer gyroplane instruction on a hire basis at £130 an hour. However, of the seventeen current students, none is hiring−they all have shares or own a gyroplane. But then a lot of them already have a PPL (G) and are here, having trained in the flatlands of Cambridge−to study advanced mountain flying. Or just to gain confidence to go places. The newest generation of autogyros has a 90mph cruise−although 70mph is used in training, as it’s the same speed for climb, cruise and descent and makes circuit training simpler. The maximum level speed is 120mph. Andrew is proud of the practicality of modern gyroplanes, telling me, “I’ve flown them to the north, south, east and west extremities of the British Isles. I believe I’m the only gyroplane pilot to land on Dunnett Head beach, which is near John O’groats.”
Andrew has just taken a student through a practice GFT. “He was trained by Steve Boxhall, who did a good job−i can tell,” Andrew says. He also tells me he has been town mayor for three years and plays electric guitar and mandolin in a band, so there’s more to him than gyroplanes.
I meet another enthusiast of these rotorcraft near the Cumbria Gyroplanes suite of rooms in one of the hangars. He is Keven Mckay, 52, an engineering director. He began with gyroplanes at Wickenby, but after twenty hours switched to fixed-wing, got his PPL, owned an X’air Falcon and flew twenty hours in two years. “But I missed gyrocopters and now I’ve come back to them”. He plans to buy one and take the wife flying. “Is she an enthusiast?” I ask him. “Not really,” he says, “She just goes along with it”. The club seems quite busy, because next I meet David Brown, 62, an engineering manager, who has come for a trial lesson. “I’ve had three lessons in light aircraft, a trial lesson in a helicopter and one in a glider,” he tells me, “I’m an engineer and I’m interested from that standpoint.”
Outside on the apron there are two German-registered Pilatus Porter turboprops and it looks like at least one is being prepped for a flight so I go out to investigate. I meet two German mechanics, Alexander Renhard and Andrea Druhn and the French pilot Pierre Stabile. Apparently the flight operator is in Malta, and the sortie they’re embarking on is a survey flight, “to check that roads are free from falling trees,” although I suspect more than a bit has been lost in translation. One local suggests they are probably mapping power pylons−and someone else thinks it’s something to do with the railways Surveying of some kind, anyway.
I leave them to carry on and go to meet David Parker, who owns Cumbria Microlight Training. The school has been here since 1997, offers flexwing and fixed-wing training and has a GT450 and two C42s, plus a number of students are learning in their own aircraft. There are 43 members in the club, and training is £120 an hour including
VAT and landing fee. David says, “Carlisle has good runways, fire cover and ATC. Students who learn here aren’t afraid to fly to an airport, which is good. It’s nice and friendly and we don’t have to worry about getting waterlogged in winter. Plus it’s a scenic area with the lakes and you can fly up an estuary and have Scotland under one wing and England under the other.” The club gets around five trial lessons a week and utilisation per aircraft varies from 200 hours a year to 600, “Mainly depending on the run of weather”. The club has two instructors.
Louise suggests we head for the airfield operations room at the base of the Tower. Behind the reception desk, where visiting pilots check in and pay their landing fees, we meet Steven Ferguson, ops assistant, who’s been here nine years. “Stobart is a good company to work for,” he says. He operates the radio during weekends when the service is air/ground; it’s full ATC during the week. Steven says the airport has around 16,000 movements a year and 55 locally-based aircraft. “The biggest is probably the Falcon 900 jet owned by Stobart,” he says. Apollo Air Services operates three Agusta 109s from here, and Northumbria Helicopters is based in Newcastle but flies training sorties at Carlisle.
We stop off in the crew room so that I can photograph April and Kenny, today’s fire officers−and Kenny is also duty refueller.
And next I meet Kevin Packer, 57, who is Duty Manager and Manager, Air Traffic Services, and has been here for ten years following a career in various military and regional airports. I ask him to sum up what makes Carlisle different. He thinks a bit and says, “It’s unusual in mixing microlights, jets and gyroplanes and can be challenging, especially when you get military Hawks coming through as well. Eighteen people work here, which gives it a rather homely, old-fashioned atmosphere. We try to be as welcoming as possible to GA visitors. The airport is going through rather a development stage at the moment. After seven years of wrangling, the Air Freight Distribution Centre on the south side finally got its go-ahead and will shortly begin operation. It’s going to generate income that should stabilise the airport financially. Now the runways are going to be re-surfaced and we should be starting scheduled flights in ATR-72 turboprops to Southend and Dublin.” Carlisle Airport’s history began in the 1930s on a site nearby the present one. It was called Kingstown and was councilowned until the RAF took it over pre-war. The runway was too small, so the RAF moved the airfield to a larger adjacent site and it changed its name to Crosby-onEden. It saw out the war training Hurricane, then Beaufighter pilots, and in 1944 became a base for Dakotas.
Cumberland City Council got it back in 1947, which is when it was given its present name. Ownership was transferred to Carlisle City Council in 1968. In 2000, the airport, which was making considerable losses, was sold to Haughey Air (Lord Ballyedmond’s company) which did much to improve it, but sold it again in 2006 to WA Developments, which owns Eddie Stobart Ltd. The current owner is Stobart Group Ltd, which also runs London Southend Airport.
Louise and I go up to the Tower to meet the duty air/ground radio operator, Joe Bezuszko, who is 51 and born in this country−his dad came here from the Ukraine. He says, “Management is getting more involved. They dropped landing fees
This is a happy environment but the airport is a bit under-used...
(currently around £17 for a PA-28, £8 for a microlight). I wish they’d do the same for fuel prices, but I do hear they are under review too. This is a happy environment, but the airport is a bit under-used. We could do with more going on.” I ask if he’s a pilot. He says, “When I was ten years old I used to cycle here from town, just to watch the aeroplanes−in those days it was CSE training pilots from all over the world and really busy. I started lessons at 22−but then along came a mortgage and kids, so I had to drop it until my thirties. I got my PPL and IMC. At that time I was working in a furnishings factory. I went to Air Traffic College in 2010 and my aim is to be an ATCO, preferably here.” His wife works in a hospital laboratory and they have twin girls aged 22. He ends, “I love aviation. I can’t wait to get to work.”
Our next visit is to the museum on the airfield, where we find Lynn Wilman and Kelvin Hardy managing the reception desk. Lynn shows us round. It’s an impressive facility covering mainly WWII and the early postwar years. You can climb inside some of the aircraft parked outside, like the Canberra. There’s a propeller from a Hawker Hart and another from something Great War, possibly an RE8. I am, as a one-time-subscriber to Practical Wireless, rather taken with the valve radios on display, including one from a Wellington bomber. It’s time I took up Andrew Lysser’s offer of a ride in one of the Cumbria Gyroplanes Mtosports, so that I can take overhead photographs. Andrew is just saying goodbye to a customer, so I chat to Mark Winship, 43, an electronics engineer, who has his own Mtosport. “I began by learning to fly helicopters,” he says, “but after thirty hours in an R-22, I was beginning to think of it as a money pit. Then I discovered Andrew and gyroplanes and bought this one; G-YROH. Since then I’ve flown 150 hours in it.” There are two ladies hovering nearby, so I say hello to them, Fiona and her mother Maureen, come for Fiona’s third try at having a trial lesson−previous attempts having been frustrated by the weather. Fiona is a transport researcher at the University of Birmingham.
Andrew’s partner, Ann Pepper escorts me into the changing room and helps me into a thermal suit and crash hat, which comes with a visor. This is the same gear worn by flexwing microlight pilots and is pretty essential, even in summer if you’re in the kind of aircraft that leaves most of you exposed to the elements. I need Ann’s help, especially (“Breathe in,” she says) when it comes to closing the zip that runs past my stomach. Then we walk out to the aircraft, where Andrew briefs me and Fiona−since she’ll be flying next−on safety, how to climb in and out without damaging yourself or the gyroplane, and what and where is in the cockpit. I take the front seat, which means I have to release the handbrake, the rotor lock and press the button on the stick that engages the Rotax engine with the rotors to start them rotating. The rest of the flight I leave to Andrew, although I do try a few turns. I flew an MT-03 autogyro with Roger Savage from Carlisle some years ago ( Pilot Flight Test, October 2007) and he talked me through everything from takeoff to landing. The Mtosport strikes me as a refined version of the MT-03: a bit faster, probably even safer, but with a similar feel to it. Now as then, I find the slight continuous wobble from the rotors a bit disconcerting, but on the other hand the gyroplane is terrific for slow flight and for the view it gives you. Handling-wise, it’s not unlike a Cub and quite stable.
I soon get the photos I want and we return for a landing, coming in, it feels, much too fast, but the moment the wheels are down, the rotor acts like a parachute and we slow to walking pace in seconds.
Fiona is standing by in a flight suit and helmet ready for her much-postponed trial lesson. I say goodbye to Andrew and clomp inside, where Ann’s waiting to help me out of my flying gear.
It’s time for lunch, but I spot a pair sitting in the sun outside Carlisle Flight Training, and feeling a bit cold after my
flight, go to join them. Phil Short is 38, an electrician who started flying training here in April 2014, got his PPL in January 2015 and has flown 110hr in a PA-28 since... plus a short spell in a PA-38 Tomahawk. Gemma Wooding, 29, is a dental tutor and came along today as his passenger. He says, “I live a mile away and come after work”. She says, “He comes whenever he has any spare time; he’s obsessed with flying”. Phil grins at this. I ask him if he’s thought about switching careers. He says he’s thought about it, but he reckons at 38, he’s too old. He does plan to buy an aeroplane, though.
It’s very pleasant in the sun and soon two more people pull up chairs, financial consultant John Tuffield, 34 and journalist Emma Broom, 36. She bought him a trial lesson as a birthday present. He says, “I always wanted to see what it was like; there was an offer we couldn’t refuse, 25 per cent off. Flying an aeroplane was easier than I anticipated, you don’t need to move the controls much and it’s quite calm”. Emma didn’t expect to go up with John, but, “It was offered, so I went. I’ve always been a nervous passenger in jets, but I didn’t mind this at all”. I ask if John’s thinking of taking lessons, but Emma answers for him, “Actually we’re looking to move house and can’t afford it”.
Now we are joined by John Coulthard, who is forty and a graphic designer. He started lessons in January 2013 and got his licence in April 2014. “I’d have got it sooner, but I had to buy lessons as I could afford them,” he explains. He has flown fifty hours since, mainly in the club’s two Robin HR200S. “I really like the bubble canopy,” he says. Phil says, “Oh, I prefer the PA-28. I like jets... and the Boeing Stearman. I like old aeroplanes. I’m hoping to land on Skye next week.” Enthusiastic, you see.
It’s still pleasant in the sun, but I’m feeling peckish, so I walk across to the airfield restaurant. I order a mug of Nescafé and a fish, chips and peas and sit down with the only other occupant, Mike Lawson, 64, a heavy goods driver and a non-flying member of Cumbria Microlight Training. “I go to the Christmas ‘do’s’ and I’m available if any ballast is needed,” he says. I ask if that happens often. “Well, no,” he says, “Just once, I got taken up in a Eurostar”. He tends to be found in the restaurant at lunch time−i gather this from the way he’s greeted as a ‘fixture’ by other visitors. The owner of Cumbria Microlight Training comes in first, then there’s a thunder of helicopter blades and an RAF Sea King in Search and Rescue livery lands nearby. Four burly RAF chaps come in and order massive quantities of food. The prices are cheap here and the portions generous. My cod and chips costs £4.50, and is so good, I follow it up with a slice of homemade lemon cake.
Mike sees all the comings and goings of course and says helicopter crews often drop by for a good lunch. But the airport also gets its share of VIP traffic in light jets. “I’ve seen Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy and Prince Harry in this restaurant at different times,” he says.
After lunch I’ve one more call to make, because sharing the hangar complex with Carlisle Flight Training is Border Air and I haven’t seen them yet. Their bit seems deserted except for a woman in a waiting room, and she’s killing time over magazines while her partner has a trial lesson, so I return to Carlisle Flight Training.
There I meet Bob Stinger. He’s a flying instructor who also works for Air-ads at Blackpool airport. He says he and Carlisle Flight Training’s other instructor fly 2,000 hours a year between them, “which is a lot for two of us, so why can’t Stobart sell us fuel at a reasonable price? It’s 42 pence a litre more than they charge at Kirkbride. I’m told it’s to match the price they charge at Southend”. Bob has been with the club full time for three and a half years. He says, “The airfield’s quite nice. We all get on with each other. It’s a bit quiet to be honest. Today, there’s a choppy north wind: on days with better weather it can be rammed here. I’ll tell you what, the pilots who come through this place are interested in aeroplanes. At Blackpool they tend to get a licence and it lapses, but not here. Sam on the reception desk, he’s sixteen. Louise is nice. Alan Rayson, who owns the club and is the other instructor, he set the club up ten years ago. Previous schools kept going bust because the owners took ridiculous salaries like £30,000, but Alan only takes what the school can afford. His main job is at Metal Box. He’s mentioned setting up a scholarship to celebrate the school’s tenth anniversary−ten hours flying training to someone who deserves it.”
The school has two PA-28S and two Robins. Bob says, “I’ll tell you what’s proving popular lately, companion courses. I just did one for the wife of a Van’s RV-9 owner. In no time at all, she’s learned how to use the radio and make it back here and land, should anything happen to him in the air.” Bob has made seven flights today so far and has five still to go. The club has 54 students.
At this point a young family arrives, the Milligans. Simon Milligan runs a garage, his wife Katherine bought him a trial lesson voucher for Christmas and they’ve come−with children Keegan and Kelsie−to redeem it.
I’m hoping that Border Air’s instructor has returned by now, so go to look. Sure enough, he’s back. The student he has just taken for a trial lesson sounds keen−he wants to know how much it costs to learn to fly−so the flight obviously went well. The student collects his partner and leaves and I sit down with Adam England. Like Carlisle Flight Training next door, Border Air has two principals; the other−the one who owns the club−is Howard Sandham, who isn’t here today. Adam has been instructing for a year, having learned to fly at Newcastle, Leeds Bradford and Sherburn-in-elmet. Before that he was a structural engineer. Border Air, which has been at Carlisle since 1991, is an AOC operator, so can do charter work as well as instructing and hiring out its aircraft to pilots. The company does survey work and aerial photography as well as scenic flights over the Lake District. Its head office is at Carlisle, but it also has bases at Newcastle and Cumbernauld... and Oban, where it has a second AOC. The fleet consists of a PA-28, a Cessna 152, 172 and 310 (“That one’s the boss’s”) and a Piper Arrow 3.
Time to say goodbye
Adam’s next customer has arrived, Ashley Johnson, a nurse whose trial lesson voucher was a leaving present from work colleagues. I say goodbye and head off. John Coulthard, the forty-year-old graphic designer who flies Robins from Carlisle Flight Training, is heading into town and has offered me a lift to the railway station.
He drives his Fiat 500 down the country lanes with sporty gusto, and we chat about
“I’ve seen Harrison Ford, Eddie Murphy and Prince Harry in the restaurant”
flying. John finds his job a bit frustrating, but says flying has lifted him out of his rut. I suggest microlight instructing, but he’s not quite ready to make such a major career move... he’s going to carry on hiring club aeroplanes for now. I’m not surprised; if I had such a friendly set-up on my doorstep, I’d probably do the same.
Inset below: Fiona about to get her long-awaited trial lesson in a gyroplane
Above: Visitors can climb into the Canberra cockpit
Left below: inside are to be found a complete Flying Flea (the aircraft that started the homebuilding craze in France and Britain prior to WWII) and a Chipmunk fuselage
Left: the Solway Aviation Museum’s outside exhibits include Vulcan B.2 XJ823 and...
Below: Danish Air Force Hawker Hunter F.51 E-425 and English Electric Canberra T4 WE188, while...
Above, left-to-right: Amusingly-registered Cessna Skylane G-WIFE; David Parker, who owns Cumbria Microlight Training; and Kevin Packer, Duty Manager and Manager, Air Traffic Services
Top: Carlisle’s WWII-ERA Control Tower
Top left: Duty air/ground radio operator, Joe Bezuszko
Inset below: we cannot resist portraying again Lloyd, the Carlisle Flight Training cat
Left: Cumbria Gyroplanes’ owner Andrew Lysser
Inset: Nick’s lunch – whoops, already started eating it!
Above: Phil and Gemma on the Carlisle Flight Training sun deck
Right: the airfield café