In the heart of the east Devon countryside, Dunkeswell offers a warm welcome and plenty of aviation activity

It may be a busy airfield but the atmosphere at Dunkeswell is relaxed and it’s well worth a visit. Check on the weather first though, because it’s the highest licensed airfield in the UK at over 800 feet above sea level and some fifteen miles from the coast. When other parts of the South-West are clear, Dunkeswell can be socked in?and vice versa, so the locals tell me. You also need to be aware of the parachute club on the airfield, although they’re as relaxed about that here as they are about most other things. The word ‘officious’ just isn’t in their lexicon.

I’m going to meet airfield co-owner Brendan Procter and visit some of the airfield’s businesses and facilities. My flight to Dunkeswell begins with a 0715 takeoff and, dodging cloud on the way, I arrive at Dunkeswell airfield at nine o’clock.

No one answers my radio calls so I make several blind ones (the service is

Air/Ground and I emailed for PPR, so they’re expecting me). Runway 35 is in use, so I land on that, turn right at the intersection and taxi up 05, the tailskid dragging noisily over the concrete.

This is a new experience for the Wot?its first landing on a hard runway as opposed to grass. It copes, despite having nothing to brake with but the scraping tailskid, and no means of steering but rudder with blasts of power.

Finally a voice in my headphones asks me to taxi to the line of aircraft near the Tower and park there. I do so, pull the mixture control, the engine runs to a stop, and I then rather stiffly climb out.

My host, Brendan Procter, who owns the airfield with his daughter Nichola, arrives and takes me into the clubhouse, heading off to fix me a coffee. This gives me the chance to butt in on a student who’s busy in a briefing room with his ‘whizz-wheel’, charts and flight plan. Chris Standford is 36, a design and technology teacher and 45-hour student, who, half an hour from now, is booked in to take his skills test.

He says he’ll use his PPL for recreation and self-fly-hire of club aircraft, adding that Dunkeswell is “fantastic, the people here are very supportive”.

Brendan and I sit down together. He tells me Devon and Somerset Flight Training has eighty students. That’s a lot for one flying school, so it must be good. There are 260 club members. The club has three full-time instructors and four part-time. The fleet is also impressive: five Cessna 152s, two 172s, a Warrior and a Citabria, which is used for tailwheel training. The school offers PPL, LAPL, IMC and night training and liaises with nearby Exeter for ATPL training.

The volume of trial lessons is rather small, given such a busy club, around twenty per week, but this is essentially a country airfield. The nearest major towns, connected to each other by the M5, are Taunton and Exeter. Both are around fifteen miles away ‘as the crow flies’. And the airfield is at least ten miles from the motorway.

There are 105 aircraft based at Dunkeswell and Brendan and his team are still erecting new hangars. The airfield has eighteen to date, some fairly small and built in rows, others larger. Brendan tells me he has obtained planning permission for another three hangars and 120,000 additional square feet of hangarage. Hangar rent is £200 a month plus VAT, and that includes landing fees. Visiting pilots pay £10 to arrive in a single, £20 for a twin.

Brendan is 58. His daughter and co-owner Nichola looks after the administration and his wife also works here. “She helps me run the business,” says Brendan. They bought the airfield 32 years ago and took over the flying school twenty years later.

Prior to that Brendan was a thatcher (an occupation you don’t often come across) and had a wood-shavings business making animal bedding. He started coming to Dunkeswell regularly in his early teens, got his PPL when he was seventeen and now has 3,600 flying hours. His current aircraft is an SE5a replica, which he co-owns with Dave Silsbury. “My wife use to fly a lot with me,” says Brendan, “but these days we are too busy with the airfield to fly as much as we used to.”

Forty people are employed on the site in one capacity or another, although only a handful by the airfield owners. Other employers include AH Helicopters, AT Aviation, Somerset Microlights, the parachute club and various maintenance and aircraft spraying facilities, all of which I am to visit today.

We start with AT Aviation, a regular advertiser in Pilot, usually featuring a double-page-spread of aircraft for sale. There I meet Andy Caddick, who says, “We are not a normal aircraft broker, more an aircraft dealership offering a one-stop solution for the GA pilot.

Andy Twemlow started the company three years ago as a result of attempting to buy an aeroplane himself and being mucked about in various ways?for instance travelling to inspect various aircraft, only to find that they were in a much poorer state than claimed by brokers and vendors.” I speak to Andy Twemlow later and he tells me that AT now offers buyers the chance to view multiple types under one roof. The company offers aircraft from its own stock, part-exchange, finance on selected models, and also offers a ‘store and sell’ programme.

Apparently half of the sellers leave the disposal of their aircraft entirely to AT Aviation. There is free collection and storage while aircraft are prepared for sale and marketed. A three-strong management team is supported by web marketing manager Mark Day and PA Leah Gething, with technical support from LAA inspector and aircraft restorer Robin King, and pilot and mechanical design engineer Zac Rockey.

We move on to visit Somerset Microlights.

Proprietor, Jim Greenshields is away but I meet club member James Lugger, 24, who is about to become an airline pilot, and flies a Somerset Microlights C42 for his off-duty aviation. With him is his mother Jacqueline, whom he plans to fly down to Perranporth this morning. Somerset Microlights has three instructors and gives dual instruction at £132 an hour.

It also offers instructor training and provides hangarage for microlights at £168 a month, or £60 a month for a de-rigged flexwing. There are at least a dozen microlights of various kinds in the hangar. Our next stop is Flymoore Aircraft Engineering, where I meet managing director Alan Moore. Flymoore is mainly a respray and restoration company but it also provides maintenance, for instance looking after the school aircraft here.

Alan, who is 38, says, “I started off cleaning aeroplanes and sweeping the floor?Dad is a pilot, so I grew up around them.” Flymoore has been at Dunkeswell for thirteen years and now has eight employees (some part-time).

Next we go to see the replica SE5a Brendan shares with Dave Silsbury, who is the LAA inspector for the South-West and has been based at Dunkeswell for thirty years. I photograph the two of them in front of their aeroplane, which is, of course, based on the Currie Wot, same as the variant (the Super Wot) I arrived in. I ask Dave to sum up Dunkeswell, but he’s been here for so long and it’s so integral to his life, he has difficulty in answering. In the end he says, “It’s got concrete runways, so you can fly all year round.” After a pause he adds, “It can get busy.”

I suspect Dave is a man of few words; like Francis Donaldson and most other LAA seniors he’s learned the hard way: ‘least said, soonest mended’. But he is more eloquent when I ask how the SE5a copes with mud. “The standard wheels on my Super Wot bury themselves to the axles,” I tell him. He says the SE5a’s spoked tall-and-narrow wheels do just the same. We agree that the straight axle on the SE5a can be a hazard landing in long grass and the Super Wot’s split axle is better in that respect.

In contrast to Dave’s long association with the airfield, the next pilot I speak to has only been based here for six months. Robin Charles is a retired electrical engineer and he is approaching completion of an RV-9. Why finish it here, I ask? “It’s a good environment for test flying,” he says, “I plan to get it painted here and I’ll almost certainly base it here because, unlike Exeter, there’s no commercial traffic, although there are the parachutists.

Exeter makes you orbit for ages; I’ve had to wait twenty minutes to land there. Here, you’re left to your own devices. It’s the kind of place where the pilots take responsibility for their actions; the atmosphere’s a bit like Compton Abbas, which has the same ‘priced to sell’ approach to hangarage, fuel and landing fees.”

Nearby there’s a hangar used by a local maintenance engineer, but Brendan says the engineer wants his name left out. “Not because he’s shy or has anything to hide, just that he’s already got more work than he knows what to do with,” he explains. Another business owner, Andrew Harvey, whose company AH Helicopters has a flying school here using Hughes 300 and 500 helicopters, is off-airfield today, so we go to visit Skydivebuzz, where I meet the chief instructor, Andy Guest.

Jumping from 15,000 feet

Before becoming chief instructor, Andy was in the Royal Marines and then provided armed security in Afghanistan?a background which must make skydiving seem as risky as knitting. Customers pay around £270 for a tandem jump from one of the company’s three Beech 99 turbine twins. The company sold 29,000 descents last year, so this is a very popular facility. Skydivers exit the aircraft at 15,000ft. Andy explains that they ‘pull the pin’ at 6,000ft (the parachute opens at 5,000), so there is a whole sixty seconds in free-fall descending 10,000 feet?almost two miles.

I say sixty seconds is a long time and it must go by slowly. “Actually, most first-time jumpers can’t believe it was as long as that. They don’t take it in until the second time, once they realise the air isn’t just empty space and has cushioning effect and get less boggled,” says Andy.

This seems a shame, because most people never jump a second time?all but one per cent of the jumps are tandem skydives, the equivalent of flying as a passenger. Nevertheless, a few customers of Skydivebuzz do undergo instruction, so that they can jump solo. “We currently have four students attending our accelerated freefall course,” Andy says. “And 180 members who have qualified. Some do ten jumps a day.” Wow.

From my Tiger Club days in the 1980s I have memories of seeing groups of people at Redhill being taught how to roll after a parachute drop. That, says Andy, was in the old days of solo jumps. “It was a minority sport then; it only boomed when tandem jumps came in.”

This reminds me of the hugely successful rides the public take in dual-seat Spitfires and Mustangs, which help to keep these magnificent warbirds in the air. However part of me thinks that flying?in which freefall parachuting could be included?should be more about skill than thrill, whereas it seems that the trend is going in the opposite direction.

Seeing a PA-28 taxying in, I go to investigate, meeting Stephen James, 83 and Geoff Brookes, 84, both retired airline pilots. “We’ve just flown from Compton Abbas where we’re based,” they tell me. “This is a club aircraft. We always fly together and swap seats for the return flight.” Ah, now that’s more my kind of thing?and what a great way to sustain an active life and a friendship in your eighties.

My next encounter is with Mike Beeston, whom I find readying a club Cessna for flight. Mike, 60, is a CAA Authorised Examiner. “I’m based at Exeter,” he says, “but I work around the South-West.” I ask him what he’s doing at Dunkeswell today. “An initial assessment of competence for a flight examiner,” he says. Mike has been earning his living as a pilot for some forty years, mostly out of controlled airports like Exeter. “But it’s here that I keep my Piper Cub,” he says.

“I like Exeter, but Dunkeswell is for recreational flying and more relaxed.”

Popular restaurant

Next Brendan takes me into the restaurant. There I spot a group waiting for two family members who have just jumped, and then I meet a charming pair, Fred Baulch and his grandson Lloyd, who is sixteen and has been flying with Fred since he was eight, “And now I’m learning to fly,” he says.

Brendan introduces me to Julie Gilmour, who took over as restaurant manager a year ago. I ask if she’s been taken up in a light aeroplane yet. “No,” she says, “But I’ve been in the jump plane.” I ask if the bar is busy in the evenings. “You bet,” she says. “Thursday’s carvery night and we do a carvery for Sunday lunch too.” I ask who comes?is it pilots? “No, mostly locals,” says Julie. “They come from all over: Lyme Regis, Sidmouth, Seaton, Branscombe…” Eleven people work in the restaurant and it’s £3.75 for a bacon sandwich or £6.95 for today’s special, burger and chips.

Leaning on a fence outside I meet another grandad-and-grandson pair, Richard and nine-year-old Ben, who have simply come to look at the aeroplanes. “Do you like aeroplanes?” I ask Ben. He nods gravely, “Yes.”

Returning to the clubhouse, I meet operations assistant Matt Bowley, who is 35 and a 200-hour pilot, flying club Cessnas. He got his PPL when he was twenty. And then I meet a flying instructor, Christopher Swinhoe-Standen, who has just flown in from Wycombe Air Park in a club 172 to pick up his daughter. Having flown past Wycombe on my way here, I ask if he met any low cloud. “Lots of it,” he says cheerfully. “Some of the flight was at 500ft. And I’m keen to head back, because there’s a cold front on the way.”

Time to go

That seems like a hint from Fate that maybe it’s time for me to make my own departure. First, I need fuel. Brendan helps me pull the Wot over to the pumps and Matt takes my credit card. I sign out and return to the Wot, where Brendan swings the prop for me. Waving cheerio to Brendan, I make the appropriate radio call, then head away from the pumps.

As I line up on Runway 35 the voice in my headphones gives wind direction and confirms there’s no one on final ? you do not, of course, need clearance to take off with an Air/Ground service. The Wot accelerates, I lift off and we climb away. With parachutists on the airfield, a functioning radio is necessary. I am listening, but it seems all three dropping aircraft are currently on the ground.

I set heading and wait for the first landmark so that I can adjust if necessary. Most of my navigating in the Wot is with finger on map, magnetic compass, read from what you see to the map and not the other way round.

As I head for home, I reflect on what I have seen and heard. Dunkeswell is somehow both busier and more relaxed than other airfields I’ve been to and it’s particularly encouraging to see it expanding. It has the two key qualities of financial viability and secure ownership; both are necessary to ensure survival in these uncertain times.

It’s always pleasant to find an airfield run by two or three members of the same family and it’s a boon for everyone in aviation when it has attractions that bring in the public at large and not just existing pilots. The parachute business does that, as does the restaurant, which seems, with its new management, to be in very capable hands. Whether in search of lunch and an outing, or as a jumping off-point to explore Devon, Dunkeswell has a lot to recommend it.

Image(s) provided by:

Nick Bloom