Proving that neither dud weather nor the Terrorist Act should put you off!

Words and images: Bill Vidal

Back in January my friend Glyn Meredith suggested that as soon as the weather got better ? say early April ? we could take his Beech 36 Bonanza for a week’s flying around Spain and Portugal. What could be better? We planned the trip meticulously, booked hotels and lined up the restaurants as we noted the Iberian Peninsula’s summery weather throughout March. Then along came April, a massive low swung in from the Atlantic and the entire Bay of Biscay (our intended routeing) sank into wintry gloom.

Rather than accept total defeat we considered where else we could go that week. After all we’d allowed the time, the memsahibs had signed our exeat chits, we had a plane on the ramp and Euros in our wallets. Glyn is a weather-wise pilot, a sailor and golfer and he put his money on Ireland: the weather there and back would not be perfect, he warned, but it did not look like a metal-bender either. So we settled on Cork (EICK) and set off from Lydd (EGMD) at noon on a wet Thursday in April. My business partner Roy Panniers hitched a back-seat ride.

When planning a flight to the Irish Republic you must bear in mind that it will be governed by the conditions set out in the Terrorist Act 2000. It may seem like an anachronism these days but the Act requires all flights to depart and enter Britain through a Designated Airport. The same would apply if you were flying to Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands. There are 36 such airports and the full list can be found in Pooley’s Guide or the AIP. If you wish to fly from a non-designated field you must first obtain permission from the Chief Officer of Police in the area where such an airport is located, giving at least 12 hours’ prior notice. On a previous trip ? Lydd to Kerry (EIKY) in my Archer III with four on board, plus two dogs and luggage ? I had to refuel on route so I chose Haverfordwest (EGFE) in South Wales. It is a non-designated airport with enough runways to ensure almost into-wind arrivals and departures and offers fuel as well as hearty food. Obtaining clearance under the Act was painless.

In this instance, with only three of us in 150 knot Bonanza, we would fly non-stop from Lydd, which is a Designated field. We planned to route via Southampton and Cardiff then direct to SLANEY ? a reporting point above the Irish Sea on the London-Shannon FIR ? coasting in around Waterford and on to Cork for a total distance of 360nm and an estimate of 2hr 30 minutes. We expected some zigzagging along the way to avoid Cbs and thunderstorms, but our first deviation was on account of something else.

Approaching the Southampton ATZ, flying level at 2,500ft under a grey overcast sky, we were unable to raise Solent Radar to request transit. Compelled to remain clear of controlled airspace straight ahead, we looked right and saw black clouds unleashing a ferocious downpour whereas to the left brighter clouds and thinner showers appeared less daunting. We turned towards Portsmouth and had barely entered the cloud’s edge when two bolts of lightning made us jump. A further course adjustment took us round the weather and over the Isle in Wight. Transmissions from other aircraft explained Solent’s silence: a fire emergency at Southampton required the evacuation of all ATC personnel.

The skies cleared abeam Bournemouth and we followed the coast past the line of seaside villas at Sandbanks ? that exclusive spit of sand across the entrance to Poole Harbour rumoured to be England’s most expensive real estate outside of London ? before turning to a north-westerly course towards Minehead on the Bristol Channel. The only controlled airspace ahead would have been the Fleet Air Arm station at Yeovilton but it was closed for the week, so once we said goodbye to Bournemouth we changed to London Information who would stay with us until the Irish FIR.

Crossing the Irish Sea is a simple procedure: London Information will give you a transponder code for conspicuity (1177), ask what your crossing level will be ? 3000ft in our case to remain VFR ? and your entry point to the Irish FIR. They’ll then give you a frequency to contact Shannon Radar, as well as your Irish transponder code to be used at the FIR should you be out of London’s range.

We had originally planned to route via Strumble (STU) and SLANEY, which gives approximately 80 miles over water with a landfall close to Waterford. But, after taking weather into account (it looked worse to the north), we opted for a 130-mile routeing from Milford Heaven to BAMBA and then direct to Cork. That’s a lot of water but the Bonanza’s Continental was humming reassuringly and once past BAMBA the coast would never be too far! A higher altitude would have been preferable, but I’d rather risk a swim than fly through thunderstorms! Incidentally if ‘single-engine over water’ makes you nervous you need not write off Ireland entirely. The crossing from the Mull of Kintyre to Ballyscastle is a mere 11 miles ? though from Lydd that would require a 300-mile detour!

The crossing was quite relaxed and the visibility remained superb throughout. We caught sight of the coastline a good 30 miles out, remained clear of Waterford’s zone, and ten minutes from our destination got on to Cork Approach. From crossing the shoreline to the airport we flew over a stunning topography of hamlets alongside emerald rolling hills and aquamarine inlets. Passing over the city of Cobh, on the south side of Great Island, we watched a cruise ship come alongside the docks. This was particularly poignant for a century earlier almost to the day (Cobh was known as Queenstown then) the RMS Titanic had sailed from this very harbour towards her appointment with destiny.

Cork is a busy airport, serving over forty European destinations, and as we approached we heard two airliners and a private jet positioning for the ILS on Runway 35, so when we were offered a left-base join for Runway 25 we accepted it gladly as another downpour was imminent. Unfortunately an Air Lingus A320 beat us to it and as we called final ATC asked us to “orbit left or right, your choice”. It was Hobbs choice as either way we had to fly into the deluge and when we rolled out and turned final again, we had to land through a water curtain.

Arrival at Cork is painless: South Aer, located at the airport’s southern end, handles light aircraft and we were soon parked for the night and driven to the main passenger terminal to catch a cab into town. We noted that a coach service goes to the city centre every 20 minutes and we gave it a try. A cab costs about €15, so for three people it equated to the coach at €4.70 a head. For our return next day we took a cab but both services deserve a thumbs-up. Parking at Cork is €8.40 and parking is charged at €2.20 an hour. There is also a passenger charge of €7.15 and a security charge of €5.50.

Multicultural, cosmopolitan city

The city of Cork ? Corcaigh in Gaelic ? straddles both banks of the River Lee as it flows from Lough Mahon to the Celtic Sea. The Lee divides at the city’s western end before merging again at the eastern quays effectively turning the old town centre into an island. Cork started life as a monastic settlement during the 6th Century and became a Viking city in the 10th before growing into a significant trading centre in the Middle Ages. Today it is a multicultural cosmopolitan city that has managed to retain much of the traditional Irish charm. It also hosts a jazz festival in October and a film festival in November.

For three thirsty and hungry pilots the old town contains all the ingredients. We had booked rooms in Jury’s Inn, a modern hotel on Anderson Quay offering good value at €69 per room. Jury’s also has a cancellation policy essential to weather-sensitive private flying: cancel before 6pm on arrival day and there’s nothing to pay. The hotel’s central location meant we could enjoy the city on foot. I was surprised by the number of people out and about on a Thursday night. Ireland is supposed to be going through a recession worse than ours, but there was no sign of that along the colourful narrow streets of Cork. Pubs and restaurants did a brisk trade.

We met up with Neill Kennefick, an old yachting friend of Glyn’s, under whose guidance we discovered the best pubs in town and compared the merits of Guinness versus Cork’s own Murphy’s and Beamish. Deehenneys, a tiny traditional pub on Coal Quay, and Boardwalk, a trendy modern one on Lapp’s Quay, came top in my judgement. We finished with dinner at the ever popular Issac’s Restaurant on McCurtain Street where we enjoyed great service, excellent food and a good wine selection at around €40 a head ? though I can only guess how much the bill came to for Neill, in a magnanimous display of Irish hospitality, picked up the entire tab.

Friday morning I woke early and, as pilots do on flying days, turned to the TV for weather news. The BBC predicted thunderstorms, hailstorms and all manner of ugly things over south Wales with slightly less frightening but definitely uninviting conditions in south-west England. The newsreader also reminded me it was Friday 13th.

With these in mind I went down for a full Irish breakfast and a closer look at the weather. Years ago I would have scrubbed a flight in such conditions but over time I have learned that ? given the right aircraft, plenty of fuel and good planning ? safe flights are still possible. Glynn is a very experienced pilot with an exceptional understanding of weather, and I was thus pleased to hear him say that an early getaway would be preferable or else delay until the late afternoon. There were two unfriendly weather systems heading our way. The first affected Ireland and if we could get away before 11am we could escape before it reached the south coast. The second, over Britain, was moving in a southerly direction and we aimed to get past it before it blocked our path.

With these factors in mind we departed Cork as expediently as possible, settled VFR at 2500ft and made direct for BAMBA. Once over the Irish Sea it became apparent that retracing our outward route would be out of the question: a black squall line of the there-be-dragons kind laid straight ahead, but a few degrees to the right the sun still shone. Glyn reset our course direct to Barnstaple Bay in North Devon ? this time we’d be 160 miles over water ? and the rest was uneventful. The one time we were unable to get round the weather, we descended to 1200ft to duck under it. As we came out on the other side we got a grandstand view of Lundy Island on the Bristol Channel. None of us had seen it before but we’d heard there is a runway there so we searched for it: the island in only 3 miles long and not even one mile at its widest, yet it took us three orbits to spot the 400m strip, which looks better suited for Jodels than Bonanzas. Wouldn’t it make a neat logbook entry?

From overhead RAF Chivenor we aimed direct for Bournemouth then followed the coast to Lydd in perfect sunshine, ugly weather to our left notwithstanding. We landed at Lydd 2 hours 28 minutes after departing Cork. The rain arrived seconds later so we parked, shut down and sat in the aircraft, smiling, watching it come down. Bad weather doesn’t have to mean no flying: just flying of a different kind.