This family-owned licensed airfield has a strong Rolls-Royce connection – and it shows

Derby has been home to Rolls-Royce since 1908. The company has a worldwide reputation for quality, especially in aero-engines, and much of its spirit (and quite a few current and ex-employees) can be found at nearby Derby Airfield. I am including in that spirit a reverence for history, as well as engineering excellence and attention to detail.

The airfield is unusual in several of its features. It’s all-grass and has no fewer than three runways, though all are rather short at 602, 528 and 456 metres. Despite this, it is fully-licensed and one of only two UK airfields founded since WWII to then have its owners fight for and win full planning approval.

Martin Jones, his wife and two sons own and run it and make their living from it. It has an exceptional variety of interesting aircraft, a flying school and maintenance company, and is the base for the restoration of two famous historic aeroplanes. Visitors by air are strictly prior permission only as it’s surrounded by villages and market towns and you have to follow noise-abatement procedures. The short runways mean that it’s not to every pilot’s taste, but several twins and complex singles based on the airfield demonstrate that the short runways aren’t that short. There’s a club room with self-service tea and coffee but no restaurant?nevertheless it’s exceptionally friendly and welcoming.

Of course it’s ideal for a tailskid aeroplane like my Currie Super Wot and I am looking forward to visiting again. I last wrote a profile of Derby eight years ago and my only other notable visit was six years before that, to sample an ARV Super 2 (Pilot Flight Test April 2003). The flying school was an early adopter of this innovative design produced by Richard Noble. However, the school nearly went out of business after the aircraft’s Hewland AE75 engine proved prone to catastrophic failure. (The school now operates Cessnas.)

I arrive just as the airfield opens, after a one hour and fifteen minute uneventful?if somewhat chilly?flight, mostly over open country. The final stretch is the prettiest, with a canal meandering through pasture. Contact with Derby’s Air/Ground radio is established several minutes before the airfield’s unmistakable triangle of grass runways comes into view.

After taking some photographs from above (mindful that overhead joins are not permitted and East Midlands CTA is at 1,500ft), I sideslip down and land on Runway 05, remembering to observe the displaced threshold. There are some dozen assorted aircraft staked out on the grass in front of the Control Tower (more in the distance). Among them is a Beagle Pup and the voice on the radio suggests parking next to it, which I do.

Martin is waiting to greet me and he takes me into the office, where his wife offers me coffee and a piece of home-made cake, still warm from the oven. I’m suffering the usual (mental and physical) stiffness after a long-ish open cockpit session, so begin my interview with something simple?asking how many aircraft are based here. Martin says 45, including about a dozen homebuilts, ranging from a Colibri and a Turbulent to a couple of Twin Comanches. Derby Aero Club is the flying school and it has four Cessna 152s, a (tailwheel) Cessna 140, a Cessna 172, a Beagle Pup and “occasional access to a Bulldog”. Martin’s oldest son, Paul (with whom I flew the ARV) explains, “I teach aerobatics in it on an ‘as and when’ basis. As you know, the Bulldog is somewhat heavy for aeros. It’s not a bad preparation for aircraft like the Van’s RV though?so far two RV pilots have done their training in it. There’s also a 747 captain who owns a Chipmunk.”

I ask how many students the club has. Martin says, “About eighty, but that includes some who only want the occasional lesson. We average twenty or thirty first solos a year.” The busiest Cessna 152 annually accumulates around 1,000 hours. The club has two full-time and two part-time instructors. Martin introduces me to Liz Morrow, who it seems is one of the students not too intent on completing the course.

Liz is a university lecturer in Computing and co-director with Martin of a trust to restore G-APNZ, the Turbulent once flown by Prince Philip. It used to belong to the Tiger Club and I remember it well as, in the 1980s, I turned it over on landing at an airfield in France that was flooded; the crosses at each end of the runway were under water and invisible from the air. The trust is linked to the Duke of Edinburgh Award and doubles as a means of getting young people involved in aviation. Prince Philip is one of the trust’s sponsors.

Next, Martin introduces me to Richard Pedley, who is one of the club’s instructors and who has just been checked out on the Tiger Moth. There are three of these biplanes on the airfield, one currently on its Annual, the second having its wings re-covered and the third flying. They are privately owned and operate under the brand name Vintage Flying but their operation is overseen by the Derby Aero Club. Members can hire them and Paul Ford, their owner and an instructor gives trial lessons to the public.

Martin estimates that the airfield currently has 22,000 movements a year, “and it can be a hundred a day on a busy weekend”. The hundred would include roughly 25 trial lessons in Cessnas or Tiger Moths. “We don’t get many pilots flying in,” says Martin. “We have to be fairly selective because of our short runways. Having said that, visiting pilots are welcome, but they must telephone and follow our rather strict noise abatement procedures. We have a good neighbour policy.

Here, as elsewhere, it’s the noise footprint that causes the most problems. We had a big struggle with planning issues some thirty years ago and hopefully all that can remain well in the past. We’ve just got planning permission for a new large hangar and can’t afford any animosity with neighbours. We put a lot of work into being part of the wider community?visits from local schools, Cubs, Scouts and Beavers, Air Cadets, and we take youngsters on work experience.”

At this point Richard Mole arrives. Richard’s name is well known to LAA members for his series of technical articles and his remarkable Jodel D18, which has a JPX 4TX75A 82hp engine (a French development of the Volkswagen) and cruises at 100kt on 12 lph. He is currently designing a new single-seater and has come this morning to test a new type of suspension block he plans to use in the undercarriage.

My attention is caught by a pilot heading out to the parked aircraft. I suggest that Richard, Martin and I go out to meet him. Ian Taberer is a club member and in a five-pilot syndicate operating a Cessna 172. He is flying the 172 to Nottingham for some circuits and then on to practice ILS approaches at East Midlands Airport. Ian is a retired aircraft engineer; lives close by and have been based at Derby airfield for five years. He says, “The people here are friendly and knowledgeable, especially about engine and aircraft engineering. I learned at Wellesbourne, and I’ve been very happy here.”

Leaving Ian, we head off for a tour of the hangars, which are full of interesting aeroplanes: a Van’s, a Bücker Jungmann and a Super Cub on Tundra tyres among others. There we find Derek Toller, who has come in to update the software on the Dynon EFIS installation in the immaculate Sport Cruiser which he built while learning to fly here. He has recently retired from Rolls-Royce, where he was an engineer. To date his Sport Cruiser has flown 330 hours. He says, “I live nearby and I’ve known there was an airfield here pretty much from when it opened. My wife bought me a trial lesson as a fiftieth birthday present and I had it in mind to get a pilot’s licence from that point onwards.” I ask what he’s planning to do next and he says, “I’m restoring an old motorbike.” We leave Derek connecting his laptop to the Dynons.

Martin tells me, “My son David and I are both LAA Inspectors as well as CAA licensed engineers and we’re heavily involved in LAA maintenance and homebuilding in the area.” David, the Chief Engineer, is off-airfield today attending a funeral. David has extensive mechanical and avionic licences. However, his older brother Paul, Derby Aero Club’s CFI, has a break between students and arrives to join us. Paul has 17,000 flying hours and is also involved in LAA aircraft?he made first flights on six newly-completed homebuilts last year. Continuing the tour, we stop to admire Martin’s Rollason Beta.

I note the Cessna 140 parked outside on the grass and Paul and Martin tell me they provide around twenty tailwheel conversions a year in it.

We arrive at the maintenance hangar, where among various aeroplanes there is a Fokker Triplane replica. This has a convincing-looking dummy radial engine at its front, hiding a 180hp Lycoming. It’s used, among other things, to spice up trial lessons in the Tiger Moths; for an extra fee, customers get a ‘fighter experience’ when they’re ‘attacked by the Red Baron’. It’s owned by Paul Ford, who also owns the Tiger Moths and he built it himself.

I meet engineer Ben Davis at work in the cockpit of the Bulldog that’s based here. Aged 25, he was originally a car mechanic and moved across to aircraft work four years ago. He is removing the fatigue meter, which has stopped reading and needs to be sent away for checking and probable replacement. I ask him what it’s like working here and he says, “Great?lots of variety”.

The tour continues inside a massive prefabricated (wooden frame and fibreboard walls) building which the family bought second-hand, dismantled, moved here and re-erected, fitting a pitched roof in place of the original flat one. It contains several large workshops and a dozen or so offices and is, I’d say, a considerable asset. In one of the workshops is the wing on trestles alongside the fuselage of Black Magic, the de Havilland DH88 Comet Racer originally flown by Jim and Amy Mollison.

This has been in restoration for eleven years. Martin says, “The wing is now complete, bar the planking. We have engines and propellers more or less ready to install, and most of the work has been done on the fuselage and undercarriage. At the present rate of progress, we plan to have it flying within five years, but if some Pilot reader would like to donate £100,000 to the ‘Comet Racer Project Group’ we could have it flying in eighteen months. The project is grateful to the half dozen volunteers working on it”

In one of the offices he pulls out a drawer to show me a stack of drawings produced by the group to replace the originals?of which they have a full set, although many of them are copies of copies and scarcely legible.

Occupying a couple of rooms elsewhere in the building is an engine shop. On a stand is an engine from a Cessna Cardinal which Airspeed Aviation Ltd?the family’s engineering arm?has overhauled and zero timed. There are currently 120 aircraft on the company’s books and it employs five engineers. Cardinals are something of a speciality, but Airspeed will take on just about any aircraft. Martin says, “There are a lot of Rolls-Royce people here,” and proudly shows me a wall poster illustrating one of its most famous products (nothing to do with light aviation, though), the Trent 1000, designed for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Back in the office, I meet another arrival, Glynn Wright, who owns a Cessna 177 Cardinal. He has come today for his biennial revalidation. Glynn has been based here for fourteen years. I ask him to sum up the airfield. He says, “Every landing here, you have to be up for it?you’ve not got acres of tarmac and you can’t afford to take liberties.” He’s a retired fish exporter, vet and amateur aircraft maintenance engineer (many strings to his bow). He’s twice flown his Cardinal to Senegal and it has a name, Desert Fox.

I also have a brief chat with the young woman who’s taking phone calls. Katie Wilson is 26, lives locally, and has been here six weeks. She likes watching aeroplanes and, yes, Paul has taken her for a flight, but she gets air sick. She plans to be a primary school teacher. Martin’s wife Margaret oversees the running of the airfield and administration with the assistance of Katie, Freya and Tara.

Over coffee I ask Martin about his background and history. He was born in 1948 in Banbury. His father was a vicar and the family had a jewellery and watchmaking business. He met Margaret at university in Swansea?she was studying mathematics. His first job was in Rolls-Royce Derby, but that didn’t last very long because the company went bust in 1971 (it was subsequently nationalised and then privatised again). He then moved to British Rail Research in Derby. Martin began with model aeroplanes as a boy, working up to powered free-flight, control line and then radio control. He had his first flying lesson in 1970.

“Paul still flies models,” says Martin?Paul Jones has just come in. “I certainly do,” he confirms. Paul instructs for around 900 hours a year and says he thoroughly enjoys it. He also appreciates that his work lets him fly lots of different types, ranging from the Triplane replica (“a challenge to land”) to the Twin Comanche (“58 minutes to Caernarfon”).

Back to Martin. He was twelve years with British Rail, “Then I decided to turn my hobby into a business.” From the start, his move to aviation had to make a profit and support his family. He began, initially with a maintenance business at Tollerton, then adding a flying school at an ex-RAF airfield, Burnaston Aerodrome/ Derby Airport. The site was compulsorily purchased in 1989 to be Toyota’s new UK headquarters, which came as a considerable blow. Then, the move to the present site met unexpected problems with local residents and the planning authorities. After a considerable struggle and four public planning inquiries, Martin ended up with full planning permission, a licensed airfield and owning the site. “Since then, it’s been plain sailing,” he says.

There are two hangars at Derby currently, a third soon to be added and the big workshop-cum-office building mentioned earlier. There are also a Control Tower, office and flying club building. The new hangar will be partly for housing aircraft and partly to expand the existing maintenance operation. Landing fees at the airfield are modest?eight quid for a PA-28. Hangarage is £2,800 a year.

I’m guessing since his t-shirt has ‘The Red Baron’ on it in red capital letters that Paul Ford is the chap who owns three Tiger Moths and a Triplane replica, so I’m keen to find out more. Paul is 56 and proprietor of Jasta Binks, which is an aircraft refurbishment company which also operates as Vintage Flying. He owns six aircraft altogether, the other two being a Fokker DVII replica and a DVI replica (basically a Triplane fuselage with DVII wings), both under construction. Paul was born at Walthamstow and his family moved near to Cambridge airfield when he was four and he got hooked on aeroplanes.

“I was a hangar brat,” he says. He started working on aircraft when he was eleven, but didn’t get his licence until he was 35, with the Cambridge Flying Group, so it must have been on Tiger Moths. By then he was employed by the Cambridge University Engineering Department in a company making small jet engines. He currently has 1,000 flying hours and flies 150 hours a year. As well as flying old biplanes and triplanes, he instructs at the club here on Cessnas, so his average annual flying hours are growing. The Fokkers under construction will be used, he says, “in displays initially, then in dogfight scenarios”. Paul is the only engineer at Jasta Binks, but there are several full-time and part-time volunteers who work with him. It shares premises with Airspeed Aviation.

It’s time I was heading home. Paul Jones kindly offers to swing the Wot’s prop but first I need fuel, so a group gathers to manhandle my aeroplane over to the small fuel bowser. I dip the tank and estimate that twelve extra litres should give me thirty minutes’ reserve, despite a headwind. I offer cash, but Martin refuses, which is nice of him.

There’s a grass taxiway for the 05 Runway, and the turn onto the runway proves manageable for the Wot, despite the breeze, the fixed tailskid and the lack of any wheel brakes. A minute or two later, we’re in the air and climbing. During the return journey it becomes clear that the headwind must be strengthening, making the flight a tiring ninety minutes but it’s reassuring to see all the landmarks I saw on the trip up (towns of course, but also more interesting stuff: a field of solar cells and, towards the end of the flight, the recently-profiled Holmbeck Farm, to which I give a wing rock).

The flight ends with an awkward choice: I can land uphill on the smooth runway, but with a tail- and crosswind, or land into wind, but dropping over tall trees onto a narrow runway flanked by trees on one side, ploughed field on the other. Lately that runway has been chewed up by the passage of horses. I choose the tailwind option and succeed, although I have a brief struggle to lift a dropped wing on short final and there are a couple of bounces at touchdown.

I taxi to the hangar and all that’s left to do is to wipe off the oil. After nearly three hours’ flying there’s quite a lot, but no more than I’d expect for a C90 that’s done 1,400 hours. (Although Martin Jones might see it differently?after my arrival at Derby, he’d eyed the oil streaks on the wing roots and said, “You’ve got an oil leak”. As an old Rolls-Royce man, he’d find the origin of those streaks and have my leaky old engine as tight as a drum.)

You have to admire Martin and his family and what they have achieved. It’s people like them that form the bedrock of flying and help to keep it worthwhile. I take my hat off to them; what they’ve built at Derby is… well, it’s a Rolls-Royce among airfields.

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