Three factors define Cambridge Airport. Its location is the first?a prosperous university town that is also a centre for hi-tech business. Secondly, it is the site for Marshall, a hundred year-old business whose aerospace company maintains RAF C-130 Hercules and large civil aircraft, with everything that implies: a mile-long hard runway, security cover, full ATC, ILS, radar and fire support and a modern terminal. Thirdly, the site is privately owned by the Marshall Family, which is conscious of its proud history as a training airfield dating back to the 1930s, and wishes it to continue in that tradition.

Cambridge is is one of very few places where it is still possible to gain a PPL in a Tiger Moth and the only place you can get one in an Extra 200.

There is something slightly Alice in Wonderland about Cambridge. If you fly in and decide to stay for lunch, you’ll need a tabard and a temporary pass to get to the restaurant. When you arrive, you’ll find that it is actually a works canteen?quite a busy one with employees in suits, overalls and pilot uniforms. Outside, look in one direction and you might see a jet with the engine cowlings off and engineers in white coats examining it. Look in another and you might see a Tiger Moth flying circuits-and-bumps. It’s a place of charm and potential, undergoing change in the hands of a new airport management team.

The future of Cambridge Airport truly did hang in the balance in recent times. There was talk of Marshall leaving and the site being converted to housing. After a period of uncertainty, this plan was dropped and its future is now secure.

Today, I am visiting at the invitation of Luke Hall, who is a Chief Flying Instructor (and 2011/12 AOPA Instructor of the Year) and former General Manager of the Cambridge Aero Club?one of four flight training schools on the site. He is also a keen aerobatic pilot. Recently, he has been appointed to promote General Aviation on behalf of all tenants at Cambridge. (The Cambridge Aero Club is now managed by the Deputy CFI, Anthony Cook.) Luke is a busy man: I had to book him well ahead. As luck would have it the weather on the day is dismal, so I’ve arrived by car.

The last time I visited by air, it was in a Tipsy Nipper and I’d come to work with engineer Andy McLuskie on a Beagle Pup.I remember a friendly, relaxed reception from the Controller, a landing on a smooth grass runway and a long taxi to the South side. There, I found a small bustling group of homebuilders constructing Europas and Dyn’Aeros in a big shed. When I tell him this, Luke says “The Dyn’Aeros and Europas are all finished and around a half-dozen are still here, but on this side of the airfield?though we are expecting to re-develop the south-side area they moved from. The owner of that Pup is one of a number who were on a peppercorn rent and chose to leave when a more realistic rate was introduced.” (The price for a spot inside a hangar is currently around �400 a month, landing fees not included.)

We’re in the GA reception building, which is also where the Cambridge Aero Club is housed. It’s comfortable, modern and equipped with chiller cabinets to dispense fresh sandwiches and drinks. On one side of the building, there’s a car park and the airport’s 1930s entrance gates. Outside the windows on the other side, there’s the apron and a commanding view of the airport and runways.

“Visiting pilots are directed here to book in and pay their landing fees,” says Luke, “And my staff and I have been at pains to give them a superb welcome. For one thing, there’s Polly and Megan, our GA Administrators. They know they’re the face of all GA activity here and will put themselves out to help in any way they can,” says Luke.

For such a big airport, the number of privately-owned aircraft based here is small?just ten. Even at its peak it was around thirty, a figure that Luke expects to return to in the next few years.

“The number has been in decline for years as tighter budgets force owners off larger airfields,” says Luke, “but I think this has more to do with people selling aircraft they can’t afford to run, than higher rents”. He shows me a recently published list of airfields with their landing fees (VAT not included). Cambridge charges �21, Shoreham �18 and Biggin Hill �23.50, so Cambridge isn’t excessive given its facilities.

The Cambridge Aero Club has a fleet of four Cessna 172S aircraft, an Extra 200 and it is acquiring a 182RG for complex single training and touring. With the other clubs on the airfield, there are altogether around 25 light aircraft based at Cambridge.

One reason Pilot readers might want to visit Cambridge is the club’s Extra 200. A forty-minute trial lesson, including temporary membership, costs �160. Having flown the aircraft myself (Pilot flight test July 2007) I can warmly recommend it.

Unique aerobatic training package

The Cambridge Aero Club is the only club in the UK offering aerobatic, tailwheel and differences training on the machine, and then allowing you to fly an Extra solo. The club even allows you to get a PPL from scratch in the aircraft. One club member, Steve French, did just that and now owns an Extra 300SP. Luke estimates that between 100 and 150 pilots have been trained on the club Extra 200, including a number who have entered Beginner-class contests in it. There are now eleven members signed off to fly it solo.

In the next two to three months, Luke will launch the Cambridge Airport Flying Community. “It will be free to join for pilots and you don’t have to be based here,” he says. “Members will get at least one free landing a month, an invitation to our evening lectures and to our Summer Ball, reduced landing fees and discounted fuel. We’ve modelled it on the MG Owners Club, which in fact is going to administer it for us.” He also hopes to construct a new GA Centre, although that will take longer. He estimates two to three years.

“I know people have been accusing Cambridge of being GA-unfriendly on chat sites,” he admits, “And I suspect it’s down to the perception of higher fees. The other problem is the security here. I’m sure it’s not the attitude of the staff?they couldn’t be more welcoming. As to health and safety, we’re doing what we can. Hi-viz jackets are mandatory, but we’ll sell you one?at a loss?for five quid if you don’t have one when you arrive. Our GA Administrators will quickly print you a pass that will get you into the canteen. We’re not PPR?just make a radio call on your way in?and microlights and helicopters are welcome. Park on the grass, walk to our door, Polly and Megan will give you a big smile and?a week from now?visitors will be able to buy snacks and sandwiches as well as coffee.

“Of course, for those with instrument ratings and bigger aircraft, we have all the flight planning, weather and other facilities you’d expect at a fully-licensed airport. Having said that, we don’t want to be thought of as just a base for twins and complex singles. We also want to see LAA types, classics and microlights based here ?the whole spectrum of GA. The Marshall family came from GA and flight training and GA are their passions and mine too. A variety of types of light aeroplanes is what the people of Cambridge deserve to see at their local airfield and I mean to ensure that they get it.”

Company Founder David Marshall started an automobile business in Cambridge in 1909 and its first association with aviation was in 1912, when his staff repaired the engine of an airship that had made an emergency landing near the Marshall garage. David’s son Arthur learned to fly in the 1920s. Arthur Marshall started an airfield next to the family home and the Marshall Flying School opened there in 1930.

The school and the aircraft engineering business that accompanied it boomed, leading to the opening of the current airport on newly purchased farmland in 1938. The RAF Volunteer Flying Reserve trained there and over 600 RAF pilots learned to fly at Cambridge before the Battle of Britain. By the end of the war more than 20,000 aircrew had trained, and Marshall had repaired or rebuilt over 5,000 aircraft, on the site. Arthur remained in charge until his son Michael Marshall took over in 1989; he remains as Company Chairman with his fifty-year-old son Robert, a keen PPL IMC Pilot, holding the reins as CEO.

Post-war, Marshall became a world-class facility for jets and propliners up to and including Boeing 777 civil and Hercules military aircraft.

Actively seeking new customers

Luke and I leave the GA reception area at this point for a tour of the airport. We begin with the hangar occupied by Cambridge Aero Club Maintenance. This new operation is managed jointly by Luke as Head of General Aviation and Chief Engineer Bill Maltby. It has full EASA Part 145 and Part M Approval and will take anything from Tiger Moths to twins and complex singles. In the hangar currently being worked on are the Cambridge Flying Group’s third aircraft, a Fuji used for IMC training and Michael Marshall’s gleaming Rallye Minerva. Cambridge Aero Club Maintenance is actively seeking new customers and, with such splendid facilities, must be worth considering.

We continue on to ExecuJet UK, where we meet John Brutnell, the General Manager. The company has a large office on the airport (its UK despatch centre), complete with a small executive lounge where its customers can relax while waiting for their charter flight. Alternatively, they might be waiting to collect their private jet or turboprop because, as John explains, ExecuJet will “source a suitable aeroplane for you, manage it and charter it to help spread the cost of ownership. Plus, with our facilities at airports all over the world, we will smooth your path wherever you fly”. ExecuJet is a classy operation that is expanding quickly and currently employs around 200 pilots (jobseekers take note). John explains, “Banks financing executive aeroplanes like to know their assets are being managed professionally, which is where we come in”.

John is a private pilot with an Instructor’s Rating, news that has Luke pricking up his ears, as Cambridge Aero Club is currently looking for more instructors. John says about the changes at Cambridge, “We are very much working in collaboration with the owners, and for both them and us this isn’t just profit and loss, it’s something we care about very much. We both want to grow the airport and increase traffic.”

Next I meet Archie Garden, the Director of Cambridge Airport since January 2011. He says, “The airport hasn’t been well marketed and got into a strategic cul-de-sac during the three year consultation about the site’s future. Once it was decided to separate the Marshall Engineering business from the airport and its other tenants, we could see our way clear.”

Archie is a keen private pilot with 1,300hr, who learned sixteen years ago and flies a TB20. He was head of the team of outside management consultants tasked with providing a business plan for the airport. “I was amazed when they invited me to leave the management consultancy and come here to implement the plan,” he says. “I knew it was a risk, but couldn’t resist the challenge, so I accepted.”

The airport runs scheduled flights to Jersey and to Dole in France and he is keen to build up that part of the business. “My plan is to have between 100,000 and 200,000 passengers going through here a year within the next three to five years.

“Also, the airport is not used by the Cambridge business community as much as it should be,” he says. “We’re working to build awareness of what’s on offer.

“Thirdly, I want general aviation to expand. Frankly I’m worried that it isn’t currently thriving and I’m making growth an early priority, which is why Luke has been appointed as Head of General Aviation. I also plan to open up the south side of the airport with Pilot Training College setting up there to train professional pilots. Hopefully we will have our first tenant there by this time next year. An airport with our facilities is crying out for a Commercial flying school?it’s an obvious gap here.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity here as I see it, with no restrictions on movements or operating hours and a start free of debt. But this site is under-utilised and the number of movements must grow.”

Archie frankly admits that in one respect, “I began in a clunky manner. Tenants were on very low rates and we announced a five-year plan to increase their fees rather too early. We can’t run GA at a loss, but I should have demonstrated the potential for growth first?growth that I believe is possible, even with higher prices.” He has already got Papworth organ transplant deliveries, which was going to Stansted, coming to Cambridge, and the East Anglian Air Ambulance service too. His TB20 is another newcomer: “Until April, there wasn’t room inside and I wasn’t prepared to park it on the grass”. This was when Marshall Engineering rationalised, freeing up a hangar. “The business as a whole didn’t used to look on hangar space as an asset,” says Archie. “I’ve changed that and we have more that we are planning to build.”

As Luke and I stand up to leave, Archie says, “We think it’s significant that we now have Luke as Head of GA. The Cambridge Aero Club has 150 members, a programme of evening talks and all kinds of initiatives, like group fly-outs to Le Touquet and the Isle of Wight. He’s made the club very customer orientated and though its business may be flat, it hasn’t declined, despite the recession. We’re backing him all the way to see that same approach adopted for GA throughout the site.”

Luke and I detour into one of the offices to arrange for a security gate to be lifted. The gate gives us access to the massive concrete control tower; it’s the third to have been constructed on the airport. The first, designed in the Art Deco style, is now the Chairman’s office. “Security is a big thing here just now,” says Luke, “But there are ways to ease things for visiting pilots and club members. I plan hangar tours for people who want to see Tri-Stars and Hercules C-130s being worked on and a peek into the radar room.” Luke also has plans to construct a patio with a family viewing area outside the GA Centre.

We ascend to the Air Traffic Control centre by elevator and are rewarded with a panoramic view of the airport. I ask the duty Controller if he has any tips for pilots flying in. “If you can, give ten minutes notice on the approach frequency outside the ATZ,” he says. “And it helps our workload if you have the ATIS and right QNH already. We’re flexible and if you say whether you’d like a straight in approach, left base, right base or overhead because it’s a training detail, we usually say yes.”

Aptly named restaurant

It’s lunchtime so Luke and I go down?by the spiral staircase this time?to eat in the staff canteen, which is open to visitors and is aptly named (given the airport’s history) the Gipsy Moth Restaurant. After lunch, we go to the Mid-Anglia Flying School where I meet the Managing Director, Trevor Lewis. The school moved from Ipswich in 1996 and has a fleet of Pipers: two Warrior IIs, two Archer IIs and a Seneca twin. The club has 100 members, forty students and ten instructors, eight part-time. On such a gloomy day in mid-recession, I find Trevor understandably demoralised by the cost base of his operation and sceptical about the potential to increase his customer numbers. “The trouble is, in this economic climate, people go for wherever it’s cheapest, which for us means Bourn,” he says. He also classifies the local catchment as, “students living on baked beans,” which has more than a grain of truth, but is perhaps a little defeatist. Trevor says Mid-Anglia is hampered by having its students charged for every landing, which means they go elsewhere for circuit training. To help, Luke is liaising with the airport to arrange alternative charging structures.

Helicopter training since 1995

Next we go to Aeromega Helicopters, which has four R-22s and two R-44s and has been at Cambridge since 1995. It has a customer base of around 35 to fifty. There are three full-time instructors. Aeromega is purely a helicopter training school?no charter work. Duncan Bickley, Head of Training, says much the same as Trevor Lewis at Mid-Anglia, “This is a very nice airfield to operate from, but the costs associated with a major airport are making it hard for us. The trouble is, we are competing with one man and his dog instructing from unlicensed airfields and they undercut us. No one offers better or more professional training than we do, and we take our responsibility to turn out safe pilots seriously. Frankly, that mixes poorly with going to wherever is cheapest, which has rather been the trend lately.

“We make sure our students are exposed to challenges beyond just the syllabus. For instance, we had a school trip to the Alps last year for mountain flying familiarisation. Cambridge is great in that respect, a controlled aerodrome where you mix it with everything from a Tiger Moth to an Embraer. Market-wise it is a good location, our catchment area goes up to Peterborough and Ipswich and right down the M11 towns. It’s a high-income tranche of the UK. And there are some hi-tech businesses here in Cambridge.”

We look in on the Cambridge Flying Group and I am able to photograph the two Tiger Moths in their blister hangar, but there’s no one around to speak to. However I later telephone the Group Chairman, David Kynaston. He tells me there are around fifty flying members and the two Tiger Moths jointly fly around 500 hours a year, “which probably makes them the hardest-working Tigers in the world, right now,” he adds. The eight instructors are all part-time volunteers. There are currently six students who are gaining their PPLs from scratch in the Tiger Moths. Group members who are signed off can fly solo. The Group takes the Tigers to Abbeville every year and, “We attempt to get to Land’s End. The Fuji, which is privately owned but available to the club, is a great support aircraft on these outings.” David says the membership and flying hours have been stable for the last five years. “People find us by referral,” he says. Unusually for a club with Tiger Moths, trial lessons are a small percentage of flights?“Maybe one a month. We’re not here just so people can put a Tiger in their log book.” The Group is heavily reliant on volunteers, says David. “Members have to agree to being a duty pilot. No one gets a salary.”

Of Cambridge, he says, “The airfield is sympathetic and supportive and so are the Controllers. If we’re running-in an engine, for instance, they allow us to taxi through the long grass to keep the revs up.”

Despite the overcast and intermittent rain, there is one R22 practising hovering and a Mid-Anglia PA-28 lands, the instructor and student returned from a baulked cross-country after unsuccessfully trying to beat the weather. I have also had glimpses of the Cambridge Aero Club Extra 200 in the circuit and now I encounter a classic scene of an instructor?Anthony Cook?watching a student?Richard Whincup?about to depart for a first solo on type. Anthony used to be a farmer before taking up flying. He learned at Fenland in 1985 and has been instructing at Cambridge for five years, teaching aerobatics for the last three.

Living in the real world

Inside the GA Centre I meet another Extra 200 pilot, Alan Young, who has 200 hours, including seventy in the Extra. Alan learned to fly at Bourn but came to Cambridge, “because they have more interesting aircraft here”. He has reached a slight sticking point with aerobatics contests as, whereas the Cambridge Aero Club takes the Extra to Beginner contests that can be flown two-up, “Once you want to fly at Standard it becomes a lot more expensive because of the ferry costs”. There are several club members ready to compete at Standard, and although no cost sharing has been arranged yet, it can only be a matter of time.

Don’t let anyone tell you that the new management isn’t GA friendly; it is, but it has to live in the real world, and that means fully-licensed airport pricing. Cambridge has a lot to offer in return, and with Luke and Archie in charge, should soon be offering even more.