Elstree airfield profile
After trickier times, Elstree is now busy again and planning an even better future
Elstree has always been surprising−right next to the M1 and just a dozen miles from central London, you would expect it to be grand and self-important. Yet it is an unassuming place with a single runway of modest length (651m). There isn’t enough hangar space, so most resident aircraft live parked outside. The control ‘tower’ was for many years at ground level, housed in little more than a shed. The pilot you meet at Elstree might drive a black cab, live in Golders Green and own a share in a scruffy Cessna. Or he (or she) might be a multimillionaire with a new, six-seat twin.
The manager for some six decades was an enthusiastic pilot, John M Houlder CBE, and Elstree mostly thrived under his direction. Cabair used to be a prominent flying school at Elstree, as it was at other airfields across the UK. It prospered in the boom years, then went out of business in leaner times. In later years Houlder perhaps let things go a little and when the 1990s recession hit and then Cabair ceased trading, Elstree faltered. But then I heard it was under new management and couldn’t fail to notice (I live nearby) that it had become busy again, so I put in a bid to profile it in Pilot. The new manager, Michael Murphy said, “Yes, but not yet−we’re still making improvements”.
Eventually he declared himself ready, so here I am, making the twenty minute drive into Elstree again. I can’t fly in because my Currie Super Wot has a tailskid and Elstree has only a hard runway. However, there is nothing to stop my flying over, so I do, later, to take overhead photographs. It’s a Monday morning, the first after Cheltenham races. Michael thought weekends would be too busy and, as I understood him, so would The Festival week. I pictured fleets of helicopters ferrying racegoers.
There are signs for Flight Training London near the first car park (there are at least three places on the airfield to leave your car) so I go to look; the building seems to house currently deserted offices, so I head outside again. (I later discover that there is a club in there, the biggest at Elstree, but it’s at the end of the corridor.) On the ramp, refuelling a PA-28, I meet Flight Training London instructor Meziati Mohamed with student Mr Ratnayake, who is a bus driver living in Edgware and is about to fly solo to Leicester.
The hangar facing the fuel pumps is now occupied by a new tenant called VVB Aviation Services. It currently has half a dozen helicopters and an assortment of fixed wing aircraft inside. An autogyro is being towed out by a mini-tractor. There are a lot of these aircraft-towing devices at Elstree, and quite a few ground staff to operate them. Watching next to me is Lee Grover, a 38-year-old in the Ambulance Service. Now 35 hours into his NPPL (Microlights) he has come to sample Fly By Light, the microlight school at Elstree. Fly By Light’s owner, Kevin O’neill is about to fly the autogyro, a Cavalon, which has R22-style, side-by-side seating in a fully enclosed cockpit. Fly By Light has been at Elstree for three years and has a Eurostar and two C-42s−the Cavalon is its latest addition. Also in what is now a little group of watchers is Matthew Pryor, 49, the MD of a construction company. “I come Mondays and Wednesdays for a flying lesson in VVB’S R44”, he tells me. He has 46 hours and is hoping to solo today. Matthew lives in Essex and intends using a helicopter to visit the offices his company has all round the country. “Elstree is a busy place,” he says. “There’s always lots going on.”
I leave them and head off in search of more interviews. Standing in front of Ikaron, an airfield restaurant that must have opened since my last visit, I find retired photographer David Magnus with
retired electrical engineer Don Wright. They have shares in a Cessna 172 and plan a trip to Sywell. David has been flying since 1972, trained at Denham and has been based at Elstree for twenty years. Don, who looks after the airfield electrics, has been here almost as long. They tell me, “Elstree’s current manager is very active, improving the Tower, the taxiways and encouraging new schools to take the place of Cabair. The Ikaron restaurant is wonderful and Elstree’s busier than ever since the closure of Panshanger. It’s friendlier than it used to be; there was some animosity between the schools, but they get on better now.”
A new arrival asks us where you go to sign in. He’s Ed Thorne, 22, trainee commercial pilot, who’s flown here from Coventry in a PA-28. Don and David direct him to the base of the Tower, which I see has gained a storey since my last visit− although it still looks a bit shed-like, with a wooden construction.
Flying at Elstree began before WWII, when it was a grass airfield (with a hangar) for the use of polo players−the polo ground was next to it. The RAF laid the hard runway in WWII and used the site for servicing Wellingtons. Post-war, London Aero and Motor Services had a flying club, but it went into receivership, and in 1950 John Houlder, who kept a Miles Messenger on the airfield, took over as airfield and club manager. He subsequently acquired a forty-year lease, plus the hangars and three Austers, then passed the club on to Ron Payne, retaining the airfield management role. Customs facilities were granted in 1968. John stayed in charge until 2010, an extraordinary sixty years. The site is owned by Aldenham Aviation LLP. Pre-war, Lord Aldenham was Chairman of Westminster Bank and his brother lived in Aldenham House, on a site today occupied by Haberdasher’s School. Jessica Gibbs, the daughter of the present Lord Aldenham, has recently started flying lessons at Elstree, which must be good.
My eye is caught by a young woman sitting in the restaurant window, poring over a half-mil map, so I go over to say hello. Priya Rajgor, 24, is Sales and Marketing Manager for Elstree Helicopters, the company which occupies what was once Cabair’s building, and also trades as Flying Pig Helicopters. The former does flight training, the latter, voucher trial lessons. Priya is about to have her second flying lesson; she’s learning fixed wing rather than helicopter. “Because I prefer it,” she says, adding, “I’m considering either flying passenger jets or a career in air traffic control.” Priya has a degree in International Business Studies and a sister, nineteen, who also wants to be a pilot. Their father owns supermarkets, so there is no flying ‘ancestry’. “Elstree strikes me as a warm place”, she says, “One big happy family.”
Inside the restaurant three friends are sitting together. Daryl, 64, drives a black cab and lives close to the airfield. John, 53, is a builder based in Camden, and Robert, 53, is an HGV driver from Palmers Green. Daryl has come to fly with a friend; John self-fly-hires from Fly Elstree; and Robert has a share in a Cessna 172 on the airfield. “The controllers here were a bit boisterous at one time and got rather a reputation,” they tell me. “If you did something wrong you were roundly told off on the radio. They’re calmer now, more friendly and they know what they’re doing. There are lots of people that know one another here. It’s like a little family.”
Outside again, I find one thing that hasn’t changed−pooley’s shop selling pilot supplies. Inside, Sebastian Pooley tells me this is one of five shops at different airports, three of them franchises. “This is probably the busiest shop, though”, he says. “We sell a lot of headsets and charts, including quite a lot
of European charts. In terms of spend, we get a good spread: students who are trying to keep costs down and more well-heeled customers who want the latest and best. Products related to the ipad are selling especially well. It was very quiet after Cabair left, but the airfield has seen some investment and is much busier and a bit friendlier. The restaurant does the best food we’ve yet seen here.”
I’m wearing my hi-vis jacket and I don’t think anyone will object if I walk across to the runway. There’s a Jet A1 fuel pump with a ring of helicopters parked near it. Nearby a young man in instructor’s uniform is staring out at the runway and speaking into a handheld radio. He is David Villacampa, 25, Spanish, who has just started instructing with Flight Training London and is out here to observe a student, “Not one of mine”, he adds. I later learn that the school does this in case a pilot who is new to solo flying is having difficulty landing, so that he or she can have the problem diagnosed. David learned to fly in Poland, where he lived for a couple of years−his girlfriend is Polish− before getting his instructor’s rating in Spain. He has also worked as an aircraft engineer for Poland Airbus Military. His ultimate ambition is to fly for the airlines.
I see a Cessna 152 about to start up and go to talk to the occupants. They don’t seem to mind being held up for a minute or two−when I point the camera, one gives a ‘thumbs-up’. He’s a student, Daniel Ghabrial, 22, who lives in Edgeware and is a bus driver, “But hoping to be driving an Airbus soon”, he quips. He’s 25 hours into his PPL and today’s sortie is circuits. In the right seat is Juan Torregrosa, 32, an instructor from MAK Aviation. Like David, whom I just met, he’s from Spain, and has been in the UK for six months. “The UK is the best country in the world for pilots”, he says. “There are more opportunities... the air traffic... the weather... aviation here is for everyone.” One development at Elstree, as I am discovering, is that you meet people from all over (though this is far from unique to Elstree).
I now head for the second hangar, which is at the top of a slope with its entrance by the Tower. Inside I meet Martin O’grady masking up the interior of a gutted−all the interior lining and seats removed−1980s Bonanza that is being refurbished by Air Interiors. The company’s boss Richard Baldwick comes over and tells me its headquarters is at Elstree (he shows me one of two workshops on the airfield) but the company operates at other sites across the UK. It has four full-time and two part-time employees and uses contractors as needed. I ask about prices and he says that refurbishing the interior of a Cherokee would cost around £3,000.
Next I make my way up the Tower stairs to meet Paul Taylor, one of two full-time FISOS. The second storey was added three years ago, he says. I ask for advice for visiting pilots. “We no longer insist on straight-in approaches like we used to,” he tells me. “Now we generally prefer pilots to fly a standard overhead join. And we do like them to phone before takeoff, although if they announce themselves on the radio, that is just about okay. Once you’ve landed, ask for taxi instructions.” Elstree has a grass taxiway for backtracking, but when it’s waterlogged you have to backtrack down the runway. Plastic mesh has just been laid over the grass to facilitate taxying from the old Cabair building to the runway. There’s a ‘panhandle’ short of the runway threshold where aircraft used to be (but are no more) asked to hold before takeoff or taxying to the parking area. I ask how busy Elstree is these days. “On a weekend we can get 250 to 300 movements,” he says, “and 100-150 even on a quiet day.” He does a quick count. “We’ve had 82 in the last two-and-a-half hours. It’s ticking over now, but it can get very busy, very quickly.”
At this point a pilot comes up the stairs, Tony Yarnold who flies an ex-cabair Grumman AA5 and is checking out before heading to Peterborough Conington. He learned with Cabair and has been based at Elstree for twenty years. “Pilots have to come up here to book out?” I ask Paul. “Either come up here,” he says, “or phone”.
The landing fee for a PA-28 is £12. Paul guesses that around 100 aircraft (including fifteen helicopters) are based on the airfield, of which perhaps 25 are hangared, the rest parked outside.
Next I go to Cabair’s old building, which is mainly occupied by Flying Pig/elstree Helicopters. The office accommodation is shared with ‘The Hub’, a rental facility for a variety of companies; one of whose cards I pick up is Dragonfly UAV Technologies. Another tenant is a company providing music for events−i come across two young DJS unloading their van. Some offices are unoccupied, others appear to be in use but locked. The office at the far end (currently un-manned) belongs to Elstree’s microlight school, Fly By Light. Returning to Reception for Flying Pig/elstree Helicopters, I meet Harriet Hudson, who is Student Liaison and Office Manager. She tells me that the company has an R44, an R22 and a Guimbal Cabri
G2. There are currently around twenty students and Flying Pig Helicopters sells about thirty voucher trial lessons on an average weekend.
I feel like a coffee, so I head back to the restaurant. There I briefly meet Murray, who’s 92 and EX-RAF, sitting with Laurie and George, making a trio of retired pilots. “We meet up here regularly,” they tell me. Then the Spanish instructor I met earlier watching a student land arrives; he has been sent to find me and bring me to Flight Training London. This time we go to the end of the corridor in the little cluster of white hardboard offices near the airfield entrance. The door opens into a large lounge with further offices off it. There I meet Ivan Kurbanov and Tamsyn Illman, the couple who jointly own and run Flight Training London; Ivan is the CFI. He is on the phone (with, rather charmingly, the club Siamese, Speedcat, in his lap), so I interview Tamsyn. The club has three C152s, a C150 Aerobat and another C150 and five PA-28S (so ten aircraft in total). There are around a hundred students and 250 members, and there are seven full-time and eight part-time instructors. “We need more”, says Tamsyn. The company started in 2012. Ivan is from Bulgaria and was instructing at Panshanger when he and Tamsyn met. Tamsyn, who is Australian, and a freelance graphic designer, had begun learning to fly (she currently has ten flying hours). Haim Merkado asked Tamsyn to take on Panshanger’s branding. The couple lived first in Hertford, then Oxhey. They decided to start a flying school after Panshanger closed and Ivan couldn’t find a suitable replacement job. To an extent they took over Firecrest, a previous school at Elstree, but Firecrest was saddled with debts, so it ceased trading and they started Flight Training London, which is clearly doing well. Ivan joins us at this point. He says the club is fully booked at weekends, although it’s quieter during the week.
Ivan says they are careful to keep a good balance between mature instructors – the club has ex-military and ex-airline – and those like the two I’ve met who are younger, “So there’s always someone to keep an eye on the keen youngsters”. The school, which teaches PPL up to, but not including, Commercial, has around ten per cent of its business in trial lessons, so it is predominantly instructing PPL. Its aircraft each currently averages around 500 hours a year, which can’t be bad.
Having an interest in aerobatics – the first loops I flew were in a Cessna Aerobat
Right: Air Interiors’ Martin O’grady refurbishing a Bonanza’s cabin
Above: Daniel Ghabrial (giving thumbs-up) with instructor Juan Torregrosa in MAK Aviation Cessna
Bottom: inside Pooleys Pilot Shop on the airfield, Sebastian Pooley standing on the left
Right: Fly By Light’s newly-acquired Cavalon autogyro
Below right: Priya Rajgor, 24, Sales & Marketing Manager for Elstree Helicopters/flying Pig Helicopters – here for her second fixed-wing PPL lesson
Below: the control tower at Elstree overlooks a crowded apron
Below, L-R: Murray, who’s 92 and EX-RAF, sitting with Laurie and George, making a trio of retired pilots
Left: VVB Instructor Clive Clark with VVB’S FNPT2 simulator
Left: Elstree eccentricity – Canadian-registered Lake amphibian is one in a row of apparently abandoned parked aircraft
Above: Flight Training London co-owner Tamsyn Illman poses with club mascot, Speedcat