Head­corn All-grass Lashen­den has been in the same fam­ily for ninety years and now fea­tures ev­ery­thing from mi­cro­light train­ing to para­chute jump­ing to Spit­fire rides

Pilot - - AIRFIELD PROFILE - Words & Pho­tos Nick Bloom

If you like grass run­ways, clas­sic air­craft and a good restau­rant, look no fur­ther; Head­corn (listed in the flight guides as Lashen­den) is one of the best. The air­field is in open coun­try­side be­tween Maid­stone and Ash­ford, an area of Kent dot­ted with hop gar­dens and or­chards, and is hand­ily ad­ja­cent to a straight rail­way line, mak­ing it easy to find by air. Its po­si­tion half­way be­tween Lon­don and the short Chan­nel cross­ing makes it a pop­u­lar stopping-off point en route to the Con­ti­nent. It also has a re­mark­able his­tory, be­ing owned by the same fam­ily since 1927 and see­ing ser­vice in the Great War (WWI) and WWII. I’ve been a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor long enough to re­mem­ber when the air­field was run by Chris Free­man; now his son Jamie man­ages it. I ar­rive at Head­corn just as the air­field opens at nine. My ra­dio call is met with QFE and a di­rec­tion to join down­wind for Run­way 28 (al­ways a left-hand cir­cuit at Head­corn). It is PPR and I tele­phoned yes­ter­day, so I’m in the book. I clear the run­way and park in line with the other air­craft. Vis­it­ing air­craft are com­mon, es­pe­cially in the sum­mer months. Peo­ple fly here for the at­mos­phere and the restau­rant, plus there is the usual stu­dent cross-coun­try traf­fic. Later, Jamie tells me it’s not un­com­mon in good weather to get a dozen air­craft a day land here to clear Customs on their way to the Con­ti­nent.

Pi­lots do have to be care­ful be­cause of the para­chute club and vis­i­tors must ob­tain prior per­mis­sion by tele­phone. The Air/ground ra­dio ser­vice here is one where I don’t have to throt­tle back be­fore trans­mit­ting in or­der to be heard; they’re clearly used to open cock­pits and high back­ground noise. The web­site has noise abate­ment pro­ce­dures and other in­for­ma­tion and is worth a look be­fore phon­ing for prior per­mis­sion.

Jamie Free­man is pulling out a club C172 with a trac­tor and gives me a wave

of wel­come. We go into the restau­rant and I ask Jamie what changes there have been in the five years since I last pro­filed the air­field. The Tiger Club has gone, but other ten­ants have taken its place, so things are as busy as ever, he says. Cur­rently there are 30,000 move­ments a year. Some 65 air­craft are based on the air­field.

Jamie is 58 and owns half of Head­corn; his cousins and un­cle own­ing the other half. He got his pi­lot’s li­cence in 1987 and has logged 650 hours. I ask if he owns an air­craft and he says, “Yes, thir­teen!” but it turns out he is re­fer­ring to what are ef­fec­tively club train­ing ma­chines−his com­pany owns them and leases them to a num­ber of in­struc­tors, each of whom is self-em­ployed. There are Cess­nas, Robins, PA-28S and−re­cently ac­quired−a Cub, “and I fly all of them”. His favourites are the Cub and Robin.

In the years be­fore the war, Jamie’s grand­mother Betty was a friend of Ge­of­frey de Hav­il­land jr, who sub­se­quently be­came a test pi­lot and was killed test-fly­ing a DH108 in 1946. Jamie’s grand­fa­ther, Denby Nai­smith, was a keen pi­lot, and in later years he also be­came a test pi­lot, test-fly­ing among other air­craft types, the Cessna 150, which first flew in 1957.

I’m cu­ri­ous to know what it must have been like, grow­ing up on a fam­ily-owned air­field. I ask when he started fly­ing. “About the age of seven,” he says. “It would have been with my mother as pi­lot, to France in the fam­ily Auster. We had rel­a­tives liv­ing in Berck sur Mer, and she flew there a lot, some­times just to buy some baguettes. My sis­ter El­iz­a­beth and I trav­elled by air so of­ten as chil­dren that tak­ing a train in­stead was a nov­elty and a treat.” To­day Jamie’s sis­ter lives in Amer­ica. Jamie has two daugh­ters: Alice, who’s eigh­teen and aims to get her pi­lot’s li­cence this year and Emily, who is six­teen. “Alice takes af­ter my fa­ther Chris,” he says, “She’s cool un­der pres­sure. Emily takes af­ter her mother: she’s dex­ter­ous and wants to be a vet like her mum, whose prac­tice is based here on the farm.”

Jamie’s mother, Diana got her pi­lot’s li­cence in Canada and met his fa­ther, Chris, through mo­tor rac­ing; they were both keen am­a­teur rac­ing driv­ers. “It was she who was mainly re­spon­si­ble for get­ting this air­field go­ing again post-war. Af­ter pre-war civil­ian fly­ing, and fol­low­ing the RAF’S de­par­ture, it had fallen into dis­use; she got it run­ning again.” He con­tin­ues: “My mother bought Auster G-AJEI, for my fa­ther and she flew the other fam­ily Auster, G-AJGJ. We had a lot of fly­ing friends, some fa­mous. Neville Browning used to fly his Zlin here and stayed with us reg­u­larly. He was a great fam­ily friend.” I ask if his fa­ther Chris was also a pi­lot. “Not a qual­i­fied pi­lot, no. He went solo, but was too busy to get his pi­lot’s li­cence.” Jamie, too, finds run­ning an air­field (plus farm) means that he can spare lit­tle time for fly­ing. The 250-acre farm used to be mixed, with sheep, pigs, dairy and arable farm­ing, but these days is just graz­ing for sheep and cat­tle.

The first fly­ing school at Head­corn opened in 1970, when Jamie was eleven. He has al­ways been in­ter­ested in en­gi­neer­ing, par­tic­u­larly Bri­tish en­gi­neer­ing. “I own half a dozen old trac­tors and a 1943 grader,” he says, “all Bri­tish-made. And I started work­ing on aero­planes early. I did a two-year apprentice­ship with Martin Sargeant, who had a work­shop restor­ing vin­tage Roll­sRoyce and Bent­ley cars. He had a sin­gle­seat Spit­fire and was killed when it crashed at an air show at Rouen in 2001. I also used to re­build V-8 Rovers for my fa­ther.”

Jamie is now the li­censee for the aero­drome and the li­censee (in a dif­fer­ent sense) for the Wings Bar, which is on the air­field but in a sep­a­rate build­ing, ad­ja­cent to the car park. He is also the ac­count­able man­ager for the en­gi­neer­ing EASA Part-145 com­pli­ance, and chair­man of the air­field con­sul­ta­tion com­mit­tee. He was pri­mar­ily oc­cu­pied in farm­ing un­til the mid-1980s. “Dad could be rather pep­pery,” he says, “And he even­tu­ally fell out with the CAA. They threat­ened to revoke his li­cence, so I took over that part.”

One of the most ex­cit­ing de­vel­op­ments at the air­field is the ar­rival of Aero Leg­ends, which spe­cialises in flight ex­pe­ri­ences in Spit­fires and also the Tiger Moth, Har­vard and de Hav­il­land Dove. The com­pany’s head­quar­ters are here at Head­corn and it also op­er­ates out of Sy­well. Pas­sen­ger rides in a two-seat Spit­fire be­gan at Head­corn two years ago and Aero Leg­ends has just un­veiled an ad­di­tional two-seat Spit­fire to be based at Head­corn along­side the sin­gle-seater al­ready there. The de Hav­il­land Dove, which used to be­long to Air At­lan­tique and is now owned by Aero Leg­ends, will also be based at Head­corn. Cus­tomers will be able to fly as pas­sen­gers in the Dove for trips over Lon­don. It is a beau­ti­ful, his­toric air­craft that first flew in 1945. Orig­i­nally it had a crew of two and car­ried eight pas­sen­gers and was de­signed for short-haul air­line work. As re­gards its new du­ties, Jamie ex­plains, “The most ex­cit­ing thing about the Dove is its speed. It has a 170kt cruise, which means it can com­fort­ably be flown in for­ma­tion along­side the Spit­fire, al­low­ing pas­sen­gers to see the iconic fighter in flight and take their own pho­to­graphs of it.” The Group A fly­ing school at Head­corn is Weald Air Ser­vices Lim­ited, which hires air­craft to the seven in­struc­tors based here. Julie Kel­ley is the op­er­a­tions man­ager. In ad­di­tion to PPL, multi- and IMC train­ing are on of­fer. Tail­wheel in­struc­tion will be added soon. A hand­ful of stu­dents are learn­ing aer­o­bat­ics in a CAP 10 based here and Jamie says, “Just yes­ter­day I had a meet­ing with Diana Brit­ten about how we can en­cour­age low-hour PPLS to get on the aer­o­batic lad­der.”

There is an air­craft main­te­nance and re­fur­bish­ment fa­cil­ity on the air­field, Shen­ley Farms (En­gi­neer­ing) Lim­ited, which has six en­gi­neers. The hangar that houses it is fully ded­i­cated to air­craft work and is ex­cep­tion­ally clean and spa­cious. Most of the pri­vately owned air­craft based on the air­field are housed in the huge− and also spot­less−hangar which Jamie in­stalled some eight years ago. Two aerial pho­tog­ra­phy com­pa­nies are on the air­field: Fotoflite has two Senecas and spe­cialises in marine pho­tog­ra­phy (it has the world’s largest li­brary of aerial pho­to­graphs of ships) and Bill Giles’s Giles Avi­a­tion has two Aztecs. “Bill pho­to­graphs seals and whales and also works with the BBMF and Google,” says Jamie. The para­chute club has a Cessna 208 Car­a­van and an Is­lan­der.

Sky­bus Bal­loon­ing has its head­quar­ters in a hut on the air­field and of­fers hot air balloon rides from here−al­though Head­corn is just one of seven pos­si­ble launch sites in the area, de­pend­ing on weather con­di­tions.

Then there is Thurston He­li­copters, which teaches PPL(H) on an R22 and R44. It has three in­struc­tors and has been based at the air­field since 1989, whereas Flight Sport Avi­a­tion, which of­fers NPPL train­ing in mi­cro­lights, started here just last year. It

has two C42s and is based here and in Spain. Air Train­ing Corps 500 Squadron is lo­cated here, as is Maid­stone Model Club which flies ra­dio con­trolled models up to and in­clud­ing quar­ter-scale.

The hangars are full and there is a wait­ing list. The cost of in­side park­ing is £260 a month plus VAT. The land­ing fee for a PA-28 is £13. In­side the hangars there is a won­der­ful ar­ray of clas­sic and aer­o­batic air­craft. When Jamie shows me round, I see a Proc­tor, sev­eral Stam­pes, a Tiger Moth, a CAP 10, Richard Pickin’s CAP 232 and Bücker Jung­mann, a Stear­man, some Slings­bys, a few un­usual ‘rag­wing’ Pipers, and a new-look­ing weight­shift mi­cro­light, plus some Cess­nas and Pipers.

Jamie of­fers to take me round the air­field so that I can see for my­self what’s where. We start with Keith But­ler, who is the en­gi­neer­ing of­fice man­ager. He’s in one of a row of of­fices lin­ing the cor­ri­dor be­hind the pi­lot check-in room. Next, Jamie in­tro­duces me to Julie Kel­ley, the fly­ing school op­er­a­tions man­ager and Max Couch, one of the in­struc­tors. Max takes us into an ad­ja­cent room where he has a flight sim­u­la­tor equipped for IMC train­ing. Fur­ther up the cor­ri­dor, Jamie shows me the doc­tor’s room, com­plete with couch, for pi­lots un­der­go­ing their med­i­cal with Dr Peter Player, who comes here by ap­point­ment. Out­side we en­counter two chaps in BT Open­reach uni­forms. It seems they’re not here to fix any­thing; they’re on a break and have come to get a cof­fee and look at the aero­planes.

When we re­turn to the stu­dent re­cep­tion area, a lit­tle group has gath­ered. Tor­ben Theisen is an in­struc­tor aged 25, who pre­vi­ously worked as a builder and then in flight op­er­a­tions. He lives in the vil­lage and says, “I teach in ev­ery­thing, in­clud­ing twins. To­day I’m fly­ing the para­chute club Car­a­van. Head­corn is a great air­field to

“Head­corn is a great air­field to teach fly­ing from” — QFI Tor­ben Theisen

teach fly­ing from, with lots of free airspace and plenty of ground ref­er­ences to help stu­dents find it. And ev­ery­one’s friendly. And there’s main­te­nance and also a good spread of air­craft to keep things in­ter­est­ing. Stu­dents come from Lon­don. One chap who’s do­ing his IMC comes here from Brighton.” Also in the group is An­drew Box­all, who is the ground man­ager. An­drew is learn­ing to fly. Thirdly, I meet An­drew Viall, 54, who is an in­struc­tor, CAA ex­am­iner and para­chute drop pi­lot. He switched from be­ing an of­fice man­ager at Bar­clays Bank to a ca­reer as a fly­ing in­struc­tor when he was 33. He says, “All my fly­ing has been at Head­corn. The set-up here suits me; it has a sort of frozen-in-time feel­ing. I love all the dif­fer­ent types of fly­ing you see here and that it’s an all-grass aero­drome.”

Jamie’s cousin and air­field co-owner Lynn Hes­keth ar­rives with her fa­ther John. Lynn lives in Sin­ga­pore (she’s MD of a com­pany serv­ing ex­pats) and is on a visit. She is a 160-hour pi­lot and has come to have a flight in a club Robin, weather al­low­ing. It has fi­nally started to pick up, al­though there’s still too much cloud for any para­chute drop­ping. John Free­man, who is 87, tells me that there were sev­enty Mus­tangs based on the air­field when he was a boy of four­teen and, “The Amer­i­cans let us chil­dren sit in them”. He still flies and owns a TB-10. He says,

“I re­mem­ber, two days af­ter D-day, Eisen­hower fly­ing from here in a two-seat Mus­tang. The pi­lot was Colonel Bickle and he came back for a visit af­ter the war.”

Jamie takes me through the restau­rant to visit the para­chute club and other ten­ants, and we stop on the way so that he can in­tro­duce Andy, 24, and Trakan, 21. They both work in the en­gi­neer­ing fa­cil­ity and both also study en­gi­neer­ing at North­brook Col­lege. He also in­tro­duces me to John Dean, who is cur­rently serv­ing in the restau­rant, which is fill­ing up now, mostly with peo­ple who have come to para­chute or who work in the para­chute club. John works in en­gi­neer­ing and toay is help­ing out his part­ner, Jackie, who runs the restau­rant.

Ear­lier in my visit, I met two ladies in the restau­rant, there to take a tan­dem para­chute jump. Mother-of-two Les­lie Drake runs a busi­ness deal­ing in dis­pos­ables and chem­i­cals and mother-ofthree, Su­san Davies runs a ‘meals on wheels’ busi­ness. Both are in their for­ties. It’s a birth­day treat for Su­san, “But we’re both jump­ing”, they tell me. “It’s some­thing we’ve al­ways wanted to do, and we thought now or never...”

In the para­chute club of­fice, I meet David Parker, who started parachut­ing at Head­corn in 1979. He is MD of Head­corn Para­chute Club. There are ac­tu­ally two busi­nesses; the other is Sky­dive Head­corn. Jane Hop­kins is the gen­eral man­ager. David says he has worked with Jane for 37 years. And out­side in the of­fice is Pete Sizer, the chief in­struc­tor. I ask David if parachut­ing has changed since 1979. “Ev­ery­thing’s changed,” he says. “We use to­tally dif­fer­ent equip­ment and we do dif­fer­ent things. Then we used round

para­chutes and jumps were solo, us­ing static lines to open the para­chutes. To­day they’re ob­long sails with a much softer land­ing, the tan­dem pas­sen­gers wear a spe­cial har­ness clipped to the in­struc­tor, and there’s a host of ad­di­tional safety de­vices.”

I ask about the line of chalets−ba­sic overnight ac­com­mo­da­tion−that are still part of the para­chute set-up at Head­corn. “At first we tried do­ing all the train­ing you used to re­quire on the same day as the jump, but we came to re­alise that it was too much to do in one day. You needed a night’s rest be­fore jump­ing, or else you were likely to for­get some­thing. So we laid on the chalets. They’re still used, mind you, by some of the 150 mem­bers a year who take the course so that they can sky­dive solo−there are two or three us­ing them now. Of course most peo­ple come here for the tan­dem jump and there’s much less train­ing needed if you’re go­ing to jump with an in­struc­tor. We’re cur­rently run­ning at 30,000 tan­dem jumps a year.”

“We have un­re­stricted airspace, plenty of room to prac­tise hov­er­ing” — James Tuke

We move on to Thurston He­li­copters, where I meet James Tuke, who is MD and head of train­ing. He says, “Head­corn is a great place to train heli­copter pi­lots be­cause we have un­re­stricted airspace, plenty of room to prac­tise hov­er­ing and good re­la­tions with the other users. Heli­copter pi­lots need to be es­pe­cially care­ful when parachutis­ts are around, and the pre­cau­tions we have in place are sen­si­ble−vis­it­ing heli­copter pi­lots must be briefed by phone for that rea­son, if no other. Our stu­dents are mostly from the lo­cal area, but we get them from all over; Lon­don as well as Maid­stone, Ash­ford and Tun­bridge Wells, for in­stance. Train­ing in the R22 starts at £259 an hour, which in­cludes VAT.” See­ing ac­tiv­ity by the Thurston He­li­copters’ R44, I go over to in­ves­ti­gate. Ger­ald Hodges, a co-di­rec­tor and in­struc­tor, and fruit farmer Sean Charl­ton are about to take a lo­cal flight to con­tinue Sean’s train­ing. He al­ready has his PPL(H) and eighty hours’ fly­ing time.

An Ex­tra 300 has just started its en­gine near the fuel pumps so Jamie and I go across to say hello. The pi­lots are kind enough to shut down and open the canopy so that we can talk to them. Matthew Mor­ris, 26 and Shaun Fisher, 25 are both Ryanair pi­lots based at Stansted and they are fly­ing the Ex­tra to York, where Matt’s go­ing to have some train­ing in ad­vanced aer­o­bat­ics from Tom Cas­sells (who is a three-times Bri­tish Aer­o­bat­ics cham­pion at Un­lim­ited). The Ex­tra 300 be­longs to Shaun and he is be­ing trained by Michael

Pickin (son of another fa­mous aer­o­batic pi­lot, Richard) who, like Tom has been a Bri­tish team mem­ber at in­ter­na­tional events. The Pick­ins have had a long as­so­ci­a­tion with Head­corn. Jamie tells Matt and Shaun about his meet­ing with Diana Brit­ten (another aer­o­batic ace) and ev­ery­one agrees it’s great that young­sters in their twen­ties are join­ing the (mostly) older aer­o­batic com­pe­ti­tion pi­lots. Michael Pickin was the youngest pi­lot to com­pete at Un­lim­ited−23 at the time−and is cur­rently Ad­vanced Cham­pion.

Next on the tour list is Aero Leg­ends. It oc­cu­pies a two-storey build­ing which dates back to the 1940s, but has been com­pletely re­fur­bished and re-styled. Down­stairs are mostly empty brief­ing of­fices, but up­stairs we find El­liot Styles, sales and mar­ket­ing, Clive Matthews, sales and cus­tomer care, and Wayne Marsh, ground op­er­a­tions man­ager. They pose for a pho­to­graph and give me a cou­ple of brochures, one de­tail­ing the re­fur­bish­ment and his­tory of the new ad­di­tion to the Aero Leg­ends fleet, two-seat Spit­fire NH341, which saw ser­vice in 411 squadron. The brochure in­cludes ex­tracts from NH341’S log­book, the ear­li­est dated 14 June 1944−a fifty-minute sor­tie be­gin­ning at 22:10 es­cort­ing Lan­cast­ers on a raid on the E-boat docks at Le Havre. There is a mu­seum on the air­field com­mem­o­rat­ing its WWII ser­vice and Jamie shows me a build­ing un­der con­struc­tion which will pro­vide more ex­ten­sive ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Next we enter the main hangar, which is large and im­pres­sive, not least be­cause of the num­ber of clas­sics in­side. To­wards the back I meet an old friend, Ian White, now 69 whom I last met a dozen years ago when we were both in the Stampe Club. Ian flies and at one time co-owned Richard Pickin’s Bücker Jung­mann and he has dropped by to see the en­gine in­stal­la­tion fol­low­ing re­fur­bish­ment by Vin­tec. Nearby we see Alan Ben­net­tTurner car­ry­ing out an an­nual in­spec­tion on the Hughes 300C, which is part of Bren­dan O’brien’s Fly­ing Cir­cus. Alan was a disc jockey in the mid-1960s. Known then as Alan ‘Neddy’ Turner, he was one of the founders of pi­rate sta­tion Ra­dio Caro­line. Out­side the hangar we find Chris Childs prep­ping one of Flight Sport Avi­a­tion’s C42s−he’s fly­ing it to Lewes where he’s booked to give les­sons to a cou­ple of stu­dents.

The weather has lifted now, the promised warm air has ar­rived and the air­field is com­ing to life. It’s time for me to start up the Wot and fly home. Head­corn is clearly thriv­ing and has lost none of its char­ac­ter. I’ve al­ways found it a most ami­able place and to­day’s thor­oughly en­joy­able visit is no ex­cep­tion.

Jamie Free­man, air­field man­ager and co-owner

The fly­ing Free­man fam­ily: Diana and chil­dren, Chris look­ing on from his Jeep A photo from the days when Jamie’s fa­ther, Chris ran the air­field

There’s no Tower at Head­corn: the pi­lot check-in and base for Air/ground ra­dio is lo­cated in a small of­fice

Shen­ley Farm En­gi­neer­ing has six en­gi­neers and is housed in a large, well-equipped, fully-ded­i­cated hangar

Julie Kel­ley, oper­a­tions man­ager at Weald Air Ser­vices, with in­struc­tor Max Couch

Wings bar and restau­rant in the air­field car park

erected, hangar A Proc­tor in Head­corn’s mag­nif­i­cent, re­cently Stampe in 1950s colour scheme of the Pa­trouille de Saint-yan for­ma­tion team

In­struc­tor Max Couch de­mon­strates the fly­ing school’s IMC flight sim­u­la­tor

Car­a­van drop plane used by Head­corn Para­chute Club

Above: Jamie’s cousin and air­field co-owner, Lynn Hes­keth, who is a 160-hour pi­lot Be­low: David Parker, who founded parachut­ing at Head­corn

James Tuke, head of train­ing and MD of Thurston He­li­copters

Matthew Mor­ris (left) and Shaun Fisher, about to fly to York in Shaun’s Ex­tra 300

Owner and CFI of Flight Sport Avi­a­tion Chris Childs about to fly one of the school’s two C42 mi­cro­lights

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