A busy training base for commercial pilots, this Essex airfield still retains a pleasant informality

When I was based at Stapleford in the 1980s, there were probably no more than four full-time instructors; today there are eighteen. The shabby clubhouse I remember has been replaced by one smarter and bigger. And the airfield, which was then entirely grass, now has a hard runway. Back then it was the sort of place where the CFI (Fred, long departed) would ask a young pilot who’d just acquired a Pitts Special if he’d care to fly ? regularly, not just once ? a couple of quick aerobatic manoeuvres before departing. “Just keep it short,” he said. “Don’t give the locals time to get out their binoculars.” I was also allowed to take a radio-controlled model out of the boot of my car and fly it in a remote corner of the airfield. (I kept it low and close.) Now that Stapleford is one of the country’s leading trainers of commercial pilots, a lot of that informality has inevitably had to go. However, enough remains to make it an enjoyable airfield for a chap to visit with a 1930s open cockpit biplane with no brakes.

This morning my mission isn’t just to write an airfield profile: I’ve booked an hour with an instructor to renew my Biennial Revalidation. The booking is for nine a.m. From my home the flight ought to be twenty minutes in the Currie Super Wot (as against an hour by car), but in late November the weather could make things difficult. As I awake and part the curtains I see I’m in luck: the sun’s out, the sky’s clear and the wind’s barely ruffling the trees. The threatened early-morning mist seems to have stayed away.

It’s only later when I slide back the hangar doors that I get the full weather picture. The wind may not be strong, but it is from the North and feels as though it’s blown straight from the Arctic. Half an hour later, as the Wot lifts into the sky I receive the full impact, a temperature in the cockpit of surely -5°C. The cold has slowed me down so that even simple tasks like fastening my flying helmet and closing the hangar doors took twice as long, and, as a result, I’m late, but should land at 8.50.

My route takes me almost directly into the rising sun, and gasometers, cranes and tower blocks only become visible as I float over them. The crosswind is stronger than I realised, I don’t compensate adequately for drift and end up south of track. So much mental computing power is lost to the cold that I mistake a busy dual carriageway for the M25 crossing the north-south reservoir chain, stupidly forgetting that the M25 doesn’t run through rows of houses. Fortunately, buried instincts withstand the cold; they warn me in time and I fumble my Aware GPS unit into my lap and switch it on. It comes alive just as I’m about to fly into London City’s CTR. I turn north, no harm done.

I can hear circuit traffic on Stapleford’s frequency. So much for arriving early so that I’d have the place to myself. I wonder if I’ll be too cold to make myself understood. I repeat back runway 04R and the QNH and ask if I might land on one-zero, “as I’ve got a tailskid”. The runway in use is hard-surfaced (parallel 04L is grass) and downhill, not so good in a brakeless Wot. A warm, reassuring voice says, “Fine, no problem Echo Sierra”.

A couple of minutes later I’m down and taxying to the visitors’ parking area, on the far side of 10/28 from the clubhouse.

Stapleford has a fascinating history. It began in 1933 as a base for Hillman Airways, which flew Dragon Rapides to Paris. (One of the pilots was Amy Johnson.) After three years, though, activity dwindled to a few private aircraft. The RAF took over in 1938 for training and then for fighter squadrons. In 1946 the Royal Engineers acquired the site for the storage of armoured bulldozers and other heavy vehicles. They left in 1948 and the Herts and Essex Aero club arrived in 1953, flying Tiger Moths and Austers and renovating the original hangars. Percival built crop sprayers on the site for a few years. The family that owns Stapleford Flight Centre, which runs the airfield today, took over in the early 1970s.

I arrive, almost speechless with cold at the Flight Centre’s reception desk. This is in a large, single-storey office block and has two receptionists sitting behind it. It’s on the stroke of nine and it ought to be a quarter-to. I’d been told I’d be flying with Sharon and half expect an Essex blonde in her twenties, but the lady who arrives is a little older. Sharon has another customer to follow me, but not until eleven, so my late arrival isn’t a problem. We walk past rows of parked school Cessnas and Pipers looking for ‘our’ 152, Alpha Alpha, which turns out to be around a corner at the back of a field.

The hour that I fly with Sharon begins a little strangely. My brain is still stupified with cold. It’s only after twenty minutes that higher mental functions like communicating properly and saying “please” come back on stream. I’m keen to take overhead photographs while the circuit is fairly quiet, so I keep breaking off to grab the camera and open the window. Finally, I concentrate on proving to Sharon that I can fly competently.

We end with her having me fly the standard circuit flown by students, including noise abatement procedures ? like tracking 050 after crossing the motorway and only turning crosswind after crossing the power lines. For my final landing, she gets me low and slow over the grass extension, the nose coming up and me adding power so that we touch down taildragger-style, the nose blotting out the view ahead. The gentle landing this induces is actually a few feet short of the hard, but she says she’s pleased. The flight ends happily with her signing me off. She has a share in a Christen Eagle at Andrewsfield and flies aerobatics. As an instructor she struck me as having just the right balance of firmness and tolerance.

Sharon (her second name is Nicholson) learned to fly at Stapleford in 1976 and currently instructs part-time, as she has an office job with the CAA. “I had a poor East End childhood,” she tells me in response to my questions, “although quite happy. Both my older brothers joined the Air Cadets, which wouldn’t take girls, and I was so envious of their tales of gliding that I went out and booked a trial lesson, then got hooked.” After she became an instructor she taught one brother to fly.

About Stapleford, which she has flown from for much of her life, she says, “It’s grown hugely, but it’s never lost its air of friendliness, probably because it’s still being run by the family that has always run it. There are people who come here and get overwhelmed by all the activity, but not often; most who come, stay”. 
I say goodbye to Sharon and head to the clubhouse, a long room overlooking runway 10/28 that doubles as a restaurant and function room, with a bar at one end. It’s busy and, after buying a coffee, I rather boldly go to butt in on a group of people who look like pilots. Apart from anything else, there’s one instantly-recognisable pilot with them?he has a title and is a television celebrity. He sees me, tenses and looks away, evidently hoping I’m not going to try and interview him. Fair enough. I learn later from someone else that he’s been flying from Stapleford since the days when he wasn’t a public figure and I imagine this is one of a few places he can come without being pestered. I leave him alone and get into conversation with two others in the group. Keith Cullum is 58, a freelance IT consultant. Keith owns a share in a group-operated Cirrus. With him is Bob Smith, 66, a retired furniture manufacturer who keeps a PA-24 Comanche at Stapleford and has been based here since 1968. “Aviation’s in my blood,” he tells me, “I’d have been a commercial pilot if I hadn’t been needed in the family business”.

I ask how Stapleford’s been doing in the recession, “It’s barely touched us,” they say. “Nor did all that fuss with the Olympics. We soon got used to it. I’ll tell you the secret of this place?it’s its position close to London, the M11 and the M25. Yet it’s relatively relaxed compared to places like Biggin Hill that have tighter security.”

For such a busy airfield, the number of private aeroplanes they estimate to be here strikes me as rather low?around 25. The site also has a car valeting company and a substantial helicopter maintenance and charter business. In addition there is LEA, one of Europe’s largest air taxi operators, which operates two King Airs from the airfield and, elsewhere, some twenty privately-owned jets. And a fixed-wing maintenance company, closed for the weekend. One enterprising facility installed in recent years is a couple of accommodation blocks for students who come here from abroad; it must be handy for them, living on the airfield.

Stapleford Flight Centre has a Slingsby T67, which I know from previous visits is popular for aerobatic training. There are a couple of pilots approaching it now, so I go out to meet them. Asad Sher is the thirty-year-old aerobatic instructor and with him is eighteen-year-old Dan Steel, an IT programmer. Dan has a PPL and sixty flying hours and is aiming to become a commercial pilot. Their sortie is an Aerobatic Experience Flight lasting twenty minutes, a gift from his girlfriend, who is sitting at a table on the viewing terrace in front of the clubhouse, camera at the ready. Back in the clubhouse I see a young Iranian couple with flying textbooks on the table and meet Hasti and his wife Hessam. He’s currently doing his PPL with a view to going on to a Commercial and becoming an airline pilot. He’s an architect (she’s a pharmacist) but, he explains, “I’ve always loved flying. Since I was five I’ve dreamed of becoming a pilot”. They live in Hendon and it takes them forty minutes to drive to the airfield. He was close to soloing, then stopped air training for a spell of groundschool and today is back to flying again and hoping to solo soon.

I’ve got some warmth back into my bones by now, so I brave the chill (actually it’s beginning to warm up a little) to walk across the airfield to the hangars on the west side. There I meet Bob Smith again, pulling out his Comanche for a flight. He introduces me to Stefaan Vansteenkiste, a pilot who bases a twin Comanche on the airfield. His is the 1970 model with counter-rotating propellers. It’s only 11.45, but already this morning Stefaan has flown to Belgium and back to drop his wife and child off at his parents’ house there. Stefaan is a company restructuring adviser and lives in Kent, but has based himself at Stapleford since coming here in 2010, even though Biggin Hill would be closer. “I had been flying in America and asked around at Southend for an FAA instructor. They told me about Eddie Lamb here and recommended this place. Now I’ve made friends here ? I like the camaraderie. Also it’s cheaper here than at Biggin.”

Heading back to the clubhouse I stop to take photographs of a Robin Aiglon that has just landed. In the cockpit is Keith Pogmore, who’s the school’s CFI and works here three days a week. With him is Alan Burke, who has a share in the Robin and is one of the school’s instructors. The flight was for Keith to revalidate Alan’s instructor rating. Alan has been an instructor for six years, and has been based on the airfield since 1990. A chartered surveyor, he instructs part-time. I ask him to sum up Stapleford. He thinks for a bit and says, “It’s always been a friendly place”.

I ask how many instructors work here. Keith says there are eighteen full-time adding, “and I trained most of them”. As an examiner, I need him to sign off my biennial revalidation flight with Sharon, so we walk across to his office, chatting as we go. Like me, Keith has a Currie Wot (co-owned in his case) and also flies a Tiger Moth, one that was part of the Stapleford school fleet until 1960. He considers Stapleford’s having an air/ground radio an advantage for training, cutting hours off a PPL course by avoiding formalities like having to gain clearance before taxying. Being under a TMA with a 2,500ft height limit is a slight disadvantage, “but we only have to fly five miles to the east to have 3,400ft.

“The circuit is busy, but not busy enough to hold up training and having a lot of instruction going on means that students learn from each other. Finally, one of our biggest advantages is being able to operate off tarmac, when Rochester, Headcorn and Andrewsfield all struggle in the wet season. It’s not the longest hard runway ? 600 metres, with a 477 metre grass extension?and it’s downhill landing to the north ? but that’s not altogether a bad thing, because it teaches students to land properly.”

The runway I landed on, 10/28, is apparently mainly reserved for helicopter use these days, but is also available to fixed-wing aircraft when a crosswind on 04/22 would make landing difficult.

When we reach his office, Keith points out a memorandum pinned to a notice board. It has just been circulated to all the instructors. “Standardising instruction so that everyone teaches the same points is important,” he says. In it he quotes from the Piper Arrow’s handbook that touching down near or on the stall will produce the scheduled landing performance. “Too many pilots are taught to land while the aeroplane’s still flying, leading to a lot of bouncing and damaged noselegs,” he says, truly a Tiger Moth pilot’s point in these days of ‘point and power’ training aimed at students moving on to passenger jets.

With my revalidation signed off it’s time to pay the bill, which for a Cessna 152 strikes me as a little steep at £172.60, but avgas prices just keep on rising and it is probably today’s going rate. Two years ago it cost me £140, but that was at Andrewsfield and ‘out in the sticks’. The landing fee at Stapleford is £15, which is reasonable enough, but there are some cheaper alternatives if you’re looking for somewhere to fly for lunch, notably nearby Damyns Hall, which currently isn’t charging a landing fee at all. However, the catering at Damyns, while cheaper, isn’t quite as classy as at Stapleford. Having said that, the £3 turkey sandwich which I consume after leaving Keith in the club restaurant is a little disappointing. My fault, probably, for not ordering the all-day breakfast, which is what most people seem to be having.

After lunch (and more coffee, which is excellent and not at all pricey) I drop in on Gerry Macro, who runs the pilot supply shop on the airfield, Gerran Aviation. It’s been here since 1982 and he’s been flying from the airfield since 1963, “but these days I fly just enough to keep up my licence”. His shop has been making a comfortable margin despite the recession, “enough to cover my costs, anyway,” he says.

Back in the restaurant I introduce myself to someone else poring over airfield diagrams, maps and textbooks. He’s James Furness, 30 and “CTO of a start-up” (the T stands for ‘technical’). The Chief Executive Officer flies helicopters and “was insistent that I take time off and get trained”. They apparently agreed that fixed-wing would be more affordable for a CTO. James lives in East London, and the drive to Stapleford takes 25 minutes. His lessons are going well, he has one more exam and about ten hours of flying to finish his PPL. I ask, but ? somewhat unusually these days ? no, he has no plans to become a commercial pilot. He has a friend with a half share in a PA-28 (the other half owned by the friend’s dad) and a share in something similar is probably what he will end up flying. He asks about the Currie Wot and says, “My friend got a ride in a Tiger Moth and thought it was great. Aeros sound like fun.” They are, I say, relieved that not everyone wants to be a jet jockey or fly around the world. My kind of guy. So are you flying today, I ask. “Sadly not,” he says. To conserve the grass, movement is currently restricted to hard surfaces only and the hard runway is deemed too short for solo students. He tells me this philosophically, adding perhaps a little wistfully, “Safety must come first”.

I’m feeling somewhat tired, so I stop interviewing and photographing for a bit and drink a quiet coffee by myself… then look up to see a grinning familiar face, the delightful Matthew Morris, whom I last met at Damyns Hall assisting wing walkers. Matthew is en route to his ATPL and has come to fly one of the school’s Diamond Twinstars with an instructor. He takes me out to this gleaming, futuristic machine, all composite and diesel and I comment that he’s about to do the pre-flight in short shirtsleeves… in this weather! He explains that the intense workload will quickly warm him up, adding that the ‘not on grass’ restriction is going to stretch the aircraft’s takeoff performance. A take off run 600 metres downhill is enough for a two-up Twinstar to get airborne, but there won’t be a huge margin for error.

I leave him running through his checklist and go back inside to my coffee. While drinking it I notice a lively family group. I can’t resist these ? flying being passed down the generations ? and go over to ask if they have any pilots in the party, or are they just there to have lunch and look at the aeroplanes? Well, it turns out to be quite a story, because it’s the Martinelli family with Peter Hammond and his wife. Peter has just taken the Martinellis for a flight over London for the Wooden Spoon charity. His aircraft is a PA-34 Seneca and he’s been flying from Stapleford for 25 years. The flying is continuing down the generations in the Hammond family, because his son-in-law has just finished the theory part of the ATPL and his granddaughter is studying for an ATPL at Bucks University.

That seems like a happy note on which to end my visit, but I’ve one more call to make, on Ray Reddin, who’s operating the radio. I dropped in on him briefly earlier, to thank him for allowing me to use Runway 10. “No worries,” he said, then, “Glad to help”. Now, in a conversation punctuated by radio calls and answers, I ask him if I might ignore the left-hand circuit everyone else is flying on 04R and just backtrack a bit from where I’m parked, do a one-eighty and depart on runway 28. “Fine with me,” he says. “I can tell you know what you’re doing.” I ask if he has any advice for visiting pilots. “Nothing special,” he says. “Standard joins preferred at weekends. Look us up in a flight guide before taking off if you can. We try to be as friendly as we can.”

Sitting quietly in a corner of the radio room is an elderly gentleman, Eric Thurston, who says he began flying from here in 1953. There’s a painting of him in the clubhouse. Eric retired as a pilot eight years ago, but likes to pay regular visits to the airfield. He ran it for twenty years before John Chicken married the owner’s daughter and took over.

I say goodbye and head out to the Wot, stopping briefly to photograph Instructor Roy and student Amanda, who are about to embark on a navigation exercise in one of the club 152s. He’s topping up the oil and she’s running through the pre-flight checklist, climbing the struts to look inside the fuel tanks and running her hands down flying surfaces and checking hinges, looking for damage. It’s a timeless scene that might have been photographed at any time in the last fifty years. After that it’s time for my own preflight rituals, which include handswinging the prop before climbing into the Wot’s cockpit.

My non-standard departure seems to go okay, although I get some odd looks from the crews of two PA-28s making their engine checks before taxying to the active runway, and no doubt some startled looks when I open the throttle, lift the tailskid, make my one-eighty and take off on the ‘wrong’ runway. As I make my take off run I hear a voice on the radio but can’t quite make out the words. It could be a comment on the little biplane scuttling off in the wrong direction. “Say again?” says another voice, probably Ray’s. “Oh never mind,” says the first, resigned to the mad goings-on. Of course they don’t know I’ve cleared my departure and been told it’s okay. As I climb away, I’m careful to set my altitude high enough not to annoy the public below, yet low enough to stay well under circuit height, since I’m crossing the downwind leg.

As the flight progresses I realise that the cold numbing my thinking processes on the way out has now been replaced by fatigue. Half way home I find myself stupidly looking at a small metal-tipped glass bulb held between gloved finger and thumb and wondering where it came from. It takes a few seconds to identify it as a fuse normally forming part of an automotive cigar lighter plug. Engine vibration has evidently dismantled the plug, which I use to power my Aware GPS unit. I stare at it some more, wondering where to stow it. I attach it in the crocodile clip on my headset cable, only to look down a few seconds later and find it gone.

The flight progresses, but ten minutes later I’m uncertain of position. Fortunately there’s enough residual power in the Aware. Before it cuts out it tells me I’m heading for Elstree, having been blown south again. I’m well short of Elstree’s zone, though, and soon afterwards I’m landing, safely home again. It’s only now that I realise that I’ve flown the whole way home with the noise cancelling in my Bose headset switched off. I find the fuse under the seat… and the spring and the threaded cap that go with it that have also found their way to the floor. I reassemble the plug, then open the hangar doors and stow the aeroplane away. It’s so small, it’s like pushing a wheelbarrow.

“How did it go?” Asks my wife in the kitchen. She has been baking Madeleines.

“Pretty good,” I tell her.

“Were they nice?”

“Oh yes. I met some really interesting people.”

“So you had a good time?”

“Yes, apart from the cold.” And it was an adventure; but then, every flight in the Wot is an adventure.

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