El­stree air­field pro­file

Pilot - - CONTENTS - Words & Pho­tos Nick Bloom

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

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