Turning up towards the address I had for the airfield we were looking out for the tell-tale signs – a glimpse of a control tower, a wind sock, a small fleet of planes glistening in the glorious sunshine, a foreboding sense of realisation began to sink in. On approach, I recall some jokes about the strip of grass mown into the crops of the adjacent field to the farm road we were driving up being our runway. The slack-jawed silence became all telling as we rose up to the brow of the hill to find anything but what we expected. As the eye followed the natural line of grass strip and found focus on the gleaming aircraft proudly sitting as if basking in sunshine and admiring itself. To the north, a couple of cars. North west, an old caravan that had seen better days. Gulp. What had I got myself into this time...
Apprehensively I parked up next to the cars (seemed logical, but certainly not a formality) and went to find to my instructor, Paul. There really weren't any options other than to head for the caravan. Cleaning the rust of the old stove in the caravan, we made our acquaintances and I explained more about Fidgetstick/ and what we were trying to achieve. Foolishly, I also inquired as to the whereabouts of the “microlight” that we would be flying in today, as the little aeroplane sitting outside was all well and good, but this was to be a microlighting review. I did my best to gloss over and not convey any surprise over the apparent lack of facilities.
It was explained that I had fallen foul of a common misconception of the uninitiated, in that a microlight is essentially an aircraft that weighs less than 450kg. They come in many guises – from the flex-wing “hanglider and a basket” style craft that I had envisaged to this “little aeroplane” fixed wing aircraft that we were to experience today.
Not to beat around the bush, we were soon strolling towards the microlight and strapping in. Taking off from the airfield at Deptford, just off the main A303 in between Salisbury and Warminster, the airfield abuts the military restricted airspace over the Salisbury Plains. Keeping out of harms way of shrapnel and heavy artillery fire were to be a priority. It's always reassuring when someone asks you “how strong's your stomach?”, you just know what's coming next!
Hard bank to the right just after take off and climbing followed by sharp left and falling quickly. A few more quick changes of direction and I fail to recall the exact moves – by this time I was desperately trying to keep a grip on my camera. A few minutes of showboating and aerobatics and we set a course for the iconic Stonehenge monument. Crossing the Plains in a microlight is a beautiful and enchanting experience, enjoyed by very few. The bright yellow rape seed and sun shimmering off the surface of the lakes made it very difficult to take in anything but the view.
Paul explained, in between a number of bumps and changes in elevation caused by thermal pockets and windy gusts, that their facilities hadn't always been so basic and that this is somewhat of a rebuilding phase. He elaborated that they used to have multiple aircraft that were tethered to and sheltered by a hangar structure. One day, they arrived at Deptford ready for a days flying, following what must have been a particularly wind torn night. They found that the hangar and all three craft had been swept out of their night time resting and into the trees lining the north end of the runway. Everything was written off in what must have been a bitter pill to swallow.
Since that time there have been ongoing challenges with local residents, other airfields and local authorities in trying to redevelop the site to make the facilities much better suited to the people who want to learn and experience flying microlights.
We approached Stonehenge and couldn't help but marvel at the site of hundreds of people, on a scorching hot weekend, marching around and gawping at a big pile of rocks in a field! That said, the sight from the air was indeed spectacular.
We made our way back to land and Paul, who by now I had come to appreciate as an utterly eccentric, extremely competent and totally passionate aviation enthusiast, felt that we could sneak up on the waiting crowds (my wife and two of his students). The plan was to follow the line of the valley from the north of the airfield and down to the west, essentially flying below the level of the cars parked by the runway, hidden by the valley and the surrounding trees. Paul had told me earlier how on a thermal day (and this was one of those) the thermal pockets could cause a craft to drop many feet in the air, and since we were flying so close to the ground, I was a little twitchy.
When close enough, Paul gunned the engines and the aim was to try and get to the onlookers before the sound from our engine did, and as we soared across in a Top-Gun style impromptu and unsolicited fly-by, we were more than a little smug. We drew the line at flying upside down over them just to give them the finger aka Maverick! Gliding gracefully round using little power we landed safely on the grass and brought our short but very sweet adventure to an end.
I hope that Paul and the loyal members of Swallow Aviation can get the approvals they require to give them just the basic facilities they need to provide a service on the ground like they provide in the air and one that would only serve to enhance the enthusiasm, passion, expertise and experience that they so clearly possess. A thoroughly delightful group of people, a buzz of excitement and a nice suntan from sitting in a field soaking up the rays and chatting about flying for the next couple of hours.
A strange experience, as initial hesitation was overcome by the enjoyment of the ride, never once feeling that safety had ever been compromised.
A taster flight with Swallow Aviation costs £25.00 for 15 minutes, up to £99.00 for 1 hour. I recommend at least 30 minutes to get the most out of it. To achieve your NPPL Microlight license, you'll need about £2,500.00 and time to devote to learning – a minimum of 25 hours flying time is required in addition to the ground study. Swallow Aviation provide courses for all of this.