With hard and grass runways, a new restaurant and a car racing track, Thruxton caters for many tastes
Maybe Pilot Editor, Philip Whiteman, suggested that I profile Thruxton because he enjoys fast cars as well as aeroplanes − and he drives a classic Jaguar. Like Goodwood, it’s a racetrack which also has an airfield (or vice versa depending on your outlook).
Today, heading south-west to Popham, Thruxton is nearby−a bit further on−with the racing circuit and one grass, and one hard runway, both over 750 metres long. (For safety reasons, the airfield is closed on race days−check on the internet.)
When I was flight planning, however, I realised that you are supposed to contact Boscombe Down, a military radar service, well before reaching the airfield, to request penetration of the Boscombe MATZ, only switching to Thruxton when you are near to request landing information. As I fly an open-cockpit biplane with a hand-held radio−which can give rise to difficulties both in hearing and being heard on the radio, as well as the communication range−i telephoned Boscombe Down the day before my visit (01930 663246, ATIS on extension 3101) and asked the chap who answered if I needed to call Boscombe on 126.7 for a MATZ penetration if I were approaching Thruxton from the north-east. I told him who I was, about Pilot, the open cockpit and hand-held radio and, after a bit of waiting, he said, “No need to call Boscombe if you’re coming to Thruxton from the north-east,” although the unspoken implication was that they would prefer visiting pilots to call. So if you want to fly to Thruxton and would rather not speak to Boscombe on the radio, you might try telephoning as I did.
As it happens, I actually fly to Thruxton from Dunkeswell, so will be approaching from the west, not the north-east as planned. It’s hot, I’m tired and thirsty, and want my lunch, but pilots I consulted at Dunkeswell confirmed my prejudice that it’s still quicker and easier to leave Boscombe alone and fly the long way round. So I fly to Winchester, turn north up the A34, west down the WhitchurchAndover railway line and finally, after a substantial detour, approach Thruxton from a north-easterly direction. Thruxton hears my call, is expecting me (I booked in by email, stressing that I wanted to use the grass runway) and gives landing information. I hear the operator and he gives me ‘five’ from well out−see; there’s nothing wrong with my radio!
I land in blazing sunshine on Runway 30, taxi as directed to a line of parked aircraft and shut down. ‘Oh dear, I’m in trouble’, is my first thought as two young men in uniform arrive in a fire truck, but they’re not from the CAA, HM Revenue & Customs or the Police, merely uniformed firemen come to assist. Ben and Mark are cheerful fellows, I’m guessing in their twenties. Mark is a County Fireman who works at Thruxton part-time, whereas Ben works full-time at Thruxton and as a County Fireman part-time. They offer to move my Currie Super Wot to a rather tidier parking position and I tell them how: one lifts the tailskid and pushes, wheelbarrow-style, the other pulls on the prop hub. They do as directed, climb into their shiny red fire truck (“Sorry, we’d give you a lift, but there are only two seats”) and drive away, leaving me to trudge across baking concrete to the line of open-front hangars, where I dig out my camera and notepad and get interviewing.
I meet a couple who, by coincidence, are off to Dunkeswell, where I’ve just come from. Jeremy Gildersleeves and his twenty-year-old daughter Abigail are flying a TB-10. She’s studying psychology at university, and he’s a marketing consultant. Their TB-10 is based here and Jeremy, who’s been flying from this airfield for seven years says, “Thruxton’s
fantastic; the radio operators are very helpful, the fuel boys and ground support are exceptionally accommodating and the Jackaroo Restaurant has been revamped recently.” I ask if there’s much social life and he admits, “Not really. They lay on the odd thing, but it’s not the sort of place where you get many fly-outs. There ought to be more.”
“They lay on the odd thing, but it’s not the sort of place where you get many fly-outs. There ought to be more”
Heading towards the restaurant, I intercept Mike Jarman, a retired IT manager and Martin Aver, a retired 747 captain, who’ve flown here for lunch from Lee-on-Solent in their newly-painted, group-owned PA-28. I also see an RV-4, which has flown in from Shoreham, but the pilot’s clearly in a hurry, so I don’t delay him. I catch a quick word with Barry Ward, who is taking Livia Foulds, aged twelve, and Aaron Foulds, fifteen, for a flight in an aircraft from Western Air, the local club. “We’re planning to go to Henstridge,” he tells me, “then Compton Abbas, then back here.” Barry, who is a retired electrical development engineer, began teaching flying in the 1960s, taught gliding in the ATC, then switched to power. He’s known the two youngsters “for years”. I order a bacon, lettuce and tomato baguette, sit down with a coffee−which I’m glad to find is served in a proper china mug−and get into conversation with two chaps at the next table. Both, it turns out, are involved with the flying instructor training offered by Western Air. Tony Harris, 59, is an IT developer. He learned to fly fixed-wing here in 2000, then added a helicopter licence, a Night and an IMC rating and says, “Basically I’m doing the course to improve my flying skills further, although I may do some part-time instructing at some point”. He is on the second day of the course and has a share in a Grumman AA-5 based on the airfield.
His companion, Matthew Whitefield, 44, flew Sea Harriers in the Royal Navy and is a former Sea Vixen display pilot. After leaving the RN, he has had a career as an executive coach, “Passing on the skills I learned in the Services to civilian managers.” Matthew is due to renew his flying instructor rating tomorrow. They both say that the quality of training at Western Air is a big attraction for them. The CFI who heads up the training is a former chief test pilot at Boscombe Down, Bob Cole. “Both the guys who run the school are exceptional. In fact,” says Matthew, “It’s a privilege to work with them.” He may instruct here himself. “I’ve trained jet pilots in the Navy and taught multi-ratings for the Army and I hope to share my enthusiasm for flying with civilian pilots.” I ask if there’s any difference about the pilots based at Thruxton, and he says, “You get all sorts flying here, from teenagers to ‘old lags’.”
They list Thruxton’s many advantages: “It’s in Class G airspace, you can get a radar service if you need it from Boscombe Down. The weather ‘actuals’ and other briefings provided by the two adjacent military teams are superb. The airfield has excellent access, and things like this restaurant, refuelling facilities, ground staff, flight planning facilities and even the parking are super-efficiently run. It’s
designated for Customs and there are runway lights for night landings. It’s a real advantage having two runways, one hard and the other grass. Henry Pelham, who owns the airfield, has a policy of pricing it attractively, because he wants it to thrive.”
My sandwich arrives. I eat it quickly because it’s high time I met Henry Pelham, who is expecting me. Unfortunately, I discover he was planning to buy me lunch and I apologise for not seeking him out earlier, Henry graciously accepts my apology and I follow him to a briefing room where we sit down to talk to each other properly.
Henry is 79 and has owned the airfield since 1959. That’s 55 years and means he must have bought it in his mid-twenties. I’ve met a lot of airfield managers who own the lease on the club and lease their airfield from landowners, but not too many who own the whole caboodle, land and all. What a shrewd investment it must have been over half a century ago. I ask how much he paid. “It was about £30,000,” says Henry.
“And what was it like in 1959?” “Well, it was a derelict aerodrome with a tenant, the Wiltshire School of Flying, and various agricultural services such as a grass-drying operation, and was owned by the Air Ministry.” I ask about the background to the purchase and Henry says, “My family had a property business, we heard the airfield was up for sale and bought it”. At that time, he had been flying for a year, having obtained his licence at Fairoaks in a Tiger Moth in 1958.
Thruxton’s history began when the Air Ministry constructed an airfield for Wellington bombers, which opened in 1940. Subsequently Lysanders, Mustangs, Hurricanes and P-47 Thunderbolts (among other types) were based here, both for RAF and USAAF use. Large numbers of Horsa gliders were stored in the open at the end of the war. The RAF left in 1946 and a year later the airfield was leased by the Wiltshire School of Flying and became for a time a busy centre for private aviation with flight training, a number of private aircraft, and a maintenance facility. In the late 1950s no fewer than eighteen Tiger Moths were converted on the site into ‘Thruxton Jackaroos’ (remembered today by the naming of the restaurant on the airfield) by widening the fuselage to accommodate (rather optimistically) four occupants.
Henry got vacant possession in 1966. “We bought three Piper Cherokees from David Rimmer and started training,” he remembers. “At that time there were four annual light car and motorcycle meetings
Henry got vacant possession in 1966. “We bought three Piper Cherokees... and started flight training”
on parts of what remained of the old military airfield, so I decided to build the racetrack. The first race meeting using the circuit you see today was held in 1967.”
Today there are around fifty aircraft based on the airfield. I ask if he has any plans for further development. “We don’t need to extend the runway,” he says. “We hope to establish a GPS approach.” I ask him if he looks on the racing circuit as a way of providing financial support for the
flying. “Not at all,” he says. “I enjoy being involved in it. And I think the skid pan, go-karting and opportunity to drive a Ferrari are complementary to the flying, don’t you? I mean pilots can fly here and get some new driving experiences.”
Henry is a 750-hour pilot. “I’ve flown Tiger Moths, Austers, Chipmunks, Tri-pacers, Taylorcraft and I owned a Magister. I got my helicopter licence in 1987. When I fly now, it tends to be helicopters.” Why them, I ask? After a pause for thought he smiles gently and says, “I find them more useful.” I ask if he flies with his wife. “Oh yes,” he says. “We fly together; she’s also a pilot. She is especially good with maps.”
The school, Western Air, is able to instruct up to and including Commercials and Henry tells me with obvious pride how valuable it is to have Bob Cole and David Scouller heading up the training. Western Air has five instructors and a hundred students, plus another hundred self-fly-hire members. “We try to keep our fleet modern and in first-class condition,” he says. It currently consists of five PA-28S, the use of a Cougar twin and, for aerobatics and tailwheel instruction, a Super Decathlon. There are ten students on the Decathlon at present. “It’s an interesting, fun place with lots going on. I’m always pleased to see people. It’s not just an airfield to me. I built all the hangars and the road tunnel under the circuit and expanded the wartime tower into a modern building, you see.” Henry is also proud of having the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance based here. “They have an excellent facility on the airfield for training paramedics,” he says.
Henry wants to take me on a guided tour, so we head outside and climb into a (baking hot) four-by-four. We start with Edmondson Aviation, an aircraft paint facility specialising in helicopters. I meet Gavin Jenkins, 49, one of five painters, who tells me he’s been painting aeroplanes since he was sixteen and has been here since 1999. “We’ve been painting new helicopters for Airbus for the last fifteen years,” he tells me, “and we’ve never advertised.” Simon Edmondson, who owns the company, arrives. He’s been painting aeroplanes since he left school, beginning in a paint-spray company at Bournemouth airport. “I started this business when the one I was working for made me redundant,” he says, “and we’ve been busy ever since.” “Well, they do the best quality painting,” says Henry.
Our next stop is at Heli Air, which also has branches at several other airfields and a headquarters at Wellesbourne. Head of Training at Thruxton is Shaun Byam. He tells me, at Thruxton, Heli Air currently has two R22s and four R44s, “and we bring in R66s, Jet Rangers and other helicopters as needed”. Heli Air’s substantial UK charter operation is run from Thruxton. “Most of the work is based around London,” says Shaun. “On this airfield we have eighteen PPL students and also quite a lot of military conversion
training, being so close to military bases. Also, because I’m qualified to do it, we get a fair bit of training for helicopter Commercial licences. Plus we get a good quantity of charter work, from overflights of Stonehenge to carrying photographers to take pictures of crop circles, which are still generating a lot of interest in this area. Finally, we have around thirty self-fly-hire club members based at Thruxton. I’ve been here for fifteen years and it’s a great site for GA training. We have an area for engine-off landings that’s like a billiard table.” I meet a Heli Air student, Austen Short, 40, a sales manager in a mass spectrometer company, who has a hundred hours and is halfway through a CPL course. He’s English, but lives in Cambodia and plans on a career as a charter helicopter pilot. I also meet a Heli Air charter customer, photographer Steve Alexander, off to photograph crop circles. “There’s a market for the pictures,” he says when I ask why; “They get published in books and in calendars and advertising agencies use them.” If you’re interested, his website www.temporarytemples.co.uk will tell you all you need to know.
Next, Henry takes me to meet Ben Faulkner, who owns a maintenance company based on the airfield, Aerofab. Ben, who is 39, has been maintaining aircraft since he was an apprentice. Aerofab has three full-time engineers, looks after everything from a Van’s RV-4 to light twins, and has 45 aeroplanes on its books. I ask if there’s anything particularly different about Thruxton and he says, “Yes, the security”.
Further down the row of hangar/office buildings we come to Reborn Aviation, a company just six months old specialising in refurbishing aeroplanes. Henry says, “We’d been trying for some time to buy a PA-28 that’s a few years old, but you can either buy a new one, which is expensive, or one that’s twenty or thirty years old, which means it will be worn out. Reborn fills that gap in the market.” Brothers Paul and Fraser Kingsbury are working on a PA-28 that has been dismantled and stripped down to bare metal. “Anything with a defect, we replace, but mostly it’s skin repair,” says older brother Paul. I tell him how much I admire Piper’s classics, and what a tribute to their ruggedness and build quality it is that so many flying schools are still using Warriors and Cherokees thirty or even forty years old. “Not so sure about the build quality,” he says, “Not if, like me, you’re Raf-trained and used to working on Sea Vixens. What we do here is make what Piper did, better−they rarely sealed their joints, for instance. Once the paint is off, you’ll find corrosion everywhere. This one is a 1974 model with 5,000 hours. I
Thruxton has more than the usual airfield attractions... and some very welcoming and enthusiastic flying people
will say this, though: they’re easy to repair.” The refurbishment includes refitting with modern flat-screen avionics and instrumentation and, although Reborn is starting by specialising with the PA-28, it expects to refurbish other aircraft types as well in due course.
Henry has to stop off at his office, so I climb the stairs to the Control Tower on my own. There I meet Duty Operations Manager Gordon Harvey. He tells me that the volume of movements at Thruxton has declined to 25,000 annually, but has been picking up lately and is likely to reach 28,000-30,000 this year. “I’ve worked in aviation for most of my life, most of it here,” he says. I ask about my departure. I am parked near the threshold of hard runway 07, so for a grass takeoff, I would have to backtrack down Runway 12, turn round and take off on 30. Fortunately Gordon says I needn’t bother with that, and taking off on the grass alongside Runway 07 will be fine, which couldn’t be simpler.
Downstairs in Western Air’s reception I meet Emily Bastow, who is nineteen and learning to fly. Her father, who is with her, is a pilot and gives air experience flights to eleven-year-olds following a twelve-week course of classroom instruction. I ask Emily if she’s considering a career in aviation, but she tells me “No, it’s purely for recreation”. I go to say goodbye to Henry, and he offers to drive me to the aeroplane and see me off.
Henry waits patiently while I dip the fuel, swing the propeller and climb aboard. It’s a hot day and the engine is unhappy at idle (I always start it at idle, about 600rpm– well short of producing enough power to move the aeroplane, even on a hard surface.) So I open the throttle until the engine runs smoothly, then start the business of doing up straps and connecting headset. I tell the Tower I’m ready for takeoff and they say nothing to obstruct. Henry fishes out a shoulder strap I’m having trouble reaching, I finish strapping in, give him a wave, open the throttle, and as the Wot begins to move I raise the tail and give right rudder. The Wot yaws, straightens up and heads off down the beautifully smooth grass adjoining the hard runway. After a ground roll of 100 yards, the Wot is ready to lift off, I ease back the stick and we climb away, soon clear of Middle Wallop/boscombe Down. I give a final radio call and switch off, heading for home non-radio.
Thruxton has more than the usual airfield attractions, with its skid pan, opportunity to sample racing cars and go-kart racing, and it also has a fine flying school, a range of high-quality aviation businesses and some very welcoming and enthusiastic flying people. The restaurant’s good, the landing fees attractive, and overseeing it all is Henry Pelham, a truly remarkable pilot and airfield and racetrack proprietor, a gentleman who after so many years of ownership can truly say (to paraphrase Louis XIV): “Thruxton is me”.
Above left: Heli Air CPL student, Austen Short (left) with Head of Training at Thruxton, Shaun Byam Above right: Gavin Jenkins, 49, one of five painters at Edmondson Aviation, which does a lot of helicopterpainting for Airbus
Far left: Ben Faulkner, who owns Aerofab, a maintenance company based on the airfield that has 45 aeroplanes on its books Left: Fraser (left) and Paul Kingsbury from Reborn Aviation, which specialises in total refurbishment of PA-28S
Left: the Control Tower where an Air/ground radio service is provided
Below: Duty Operations Manager Gordon Harvey; the volume of movements at Thruxton has picked up lately and is likely to reach 28,000-30,000 in 2016
Below: most spectators are here to see friends or relatives drive racing cars around the circuit
Top (right): airfield owner for over half-a-century, Henry Pelham is a keen fixed-wing and helicopter pilot; it was he who built the motor racing circuit
Above and right: the wartime tower has been expanded into a modern building
Left: Jeremy Gildersleeves and his twenty-year-old daughter Abigail about to fly their TB-10 to Dunkeswell Below right: Western Air’s Barry Ward is taking Livia and Aaron Foulds to Henstridge, then Compton Abbas, then back to Thruxton Below L-R:...