Buzzing with trial lessons even on a bitterly cold winter Friday, this Midlands airfield has all the right stuff
The last time I flew from Coventry, it was with Mike Collett in the Air Atlantique Avro Anson (Pilot Flight Test November 2003). Driving there today with Pilot’s Editor, Philip Whiteman, I’m keen to see how much has changed in ten years.
From my preliminary research I already know that today this is a lively airfield with several flying schools, apparently thoroughly recovered from troubled times. It closed entirely for a week in December 2009 and was then un-licensed until June 2010. Since then it has been a licensed aerodrome again.
Coventry Airport has an illustrious history. The earliest date I can find is 1932, when the Coventry Aeroplane Club was formed. In 1933, the city council, like so many others across the UK, decided that a municipal airport would attract investment and prosperity and decided to build one. It opened in 1936, the year the Coventry Aeroplane Club began training operations; the club still trains on the site today. Shortly afterwards Armstrong Whitworth built a factory here, constructing aircraft like the mainly-plywood, nine-to-seventeen-seat, four-radial-engine Atlanta, flown by Imperial Airways on its Africa route.
In WWII, the airfield became RAF Baginton. A Polish squadron flew Hurricanes and Spitfires from here and a Canadian squadron, Tomahawks. In the 1950s and 1960s the demobbed airport offered scheduled flights to the Channel Islands in Herons and Dakotas and Freddie Laker’s car-carrying development of the DC-4, the Carvair. By the 1980s, passengers were offered flights to several countries in mainland Europe in Viscounts and Dart Heralds. The airport lease was acquired by Air Atlantique shortly after it moved to Coventry from Jersey in 1985.
Air Atlantique grew steadily in its new home, offering cargo transport, pilot training, survey, airshow and joyriding services. Its principals, Mike Collett and James Foden, demonstrated to an admiring world that there was plenty of commercial life yet in piston-engine workhorses like the DC-3. As Mike and James approached retirement, though, Air Atlantique split into a number of separate companies and now has a declining presence at Coventry.
Philip and I have some difficulty in finding the right entry point ? Coventry seems to have at least three?and begin mistakenly with the airport fire service security gate, which is also the access point to the control tower. A friendly fireman directs us to the west entrance, where we find Anson House. This has two flying clubs, Almat and Aeros, one on either side of the airport administration offices. There we meet Rob Sweeney, who is the Operations Director for the airport. He fills us in on the latest developments. “Since 2010, the Patriot Aviation Group has owned the lease,” he explains, “Patriot’s chairman Sir Peter Rigby is the licence holder, and Coventry City Council still owns the site. Since we took over, the airport has recovered.” He produces a print-out of movements to prove it. From 2006, when there were 62,000 movements a year, they dropped steadily until 2010 when there were just 7,000. Since then they’ve gone back up again, reaching a healthy 42,000 in 2012.
I ask what caused the collapse. “In 2004 Thomsonfly put up a temporary passenger terminal and began operating 737s from here. Wizzair came here too. Warwick District Council disliked the idea of scheduled jet services and made planning difficulties. Wizzair and Thomson pulled out in 2008. The airport was sold to new owners who went bankrupt, at which point the CAA shut it down. Now that Patriot is in charge and the scheduled jet services have gone, everything is on a solid footing again… except Classic Flight AIRBASE, one of the two aviation museums here, which is moving to Newquay at the end of July. We’ll be sorry to see them go of course, but I can see how a holiday area like Newquay might bring in more visitors.
“So what that will leave us with from July is, firstly, the Atlantic Air West cargo airline. It ferries things like tractor parts right across Europe and has three scheduled flights in and three out a night. Next, there is a handful of bizjets based here and around 140 privately-owned aeroplanes, some of them operated by groups. Then Patriot’s own helicopter school and the four fixed-wing clubs, all of which offer flight training: Aeros, Almat, Coventry Aeroplane Club and Midland Air Training. Patriot has an engineering facility here and there’s also Aerotech’s. Plus, there’s a new and very busy flight simulator business, a ground school for Commercial pilots, a Tecnam dealership, the Midland Air Museum and two restaurants. The Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance is based here. Finally, the Executive Jet Centre which looks after the bizjet and charter customers and has rooms for business meetings.
“Landing fees are £12 per ton, so a bit less than that for a Cessna 172, or half that for a Piper Cub. Hangarage is negotiable but around £300 a month. The airfield has a full Air Traffic Control service and a 2,000 metre runway, 1,615 metres of which is usable. There are two ILS approaches: pilots undergoing IFR training come here quite often from Oxford and Biggin Hill.”
I said before coming that I would like to meet locally-based pilots, and Rob has one lined up (greatly to the delight of Philip, who owns a Jaguar) Jim Randle. Jim was the Engineering Director at Jaguar from 1978 to 1992, Chief Engineer for the Jaguar XJ40 and developer of the J-gate automatic gearbox gate nicknamed ‘the Randle Handle’. He obtained his licence at Coventry in 1980 and currently has a Bulldog and Rockwell 114B based on the airport. He’s a member and former Chairman of the Coventry Aeroplane Club and flies fifty to sixty hours a year. “This is a friendly place,” he says. “The owners know how to run a business successfully and keep customers happy. Anyone who wants to know what’s going on can come to the Safety, Tenant and other meetings, and they’re very open to questions, suggestions and criticism. I hope Sir Peter can keep it all going ? we’re certainly backing him. Of course 2010 was a difficult year, although to be honest I quite enjoyed that spell when we were an uncontrolled airfield; it made a change. I make regular flights to Jersey, where I keep a boat and it’s useful to have full ATC in marginal weather. Most times when you ask for a vectored or ILS approach or whatever, even when they’re quite busy, they’ll accommodate you. I’ve never been turned down.
“I don’t go in for the group fly-outs as much as I used to, but I have lots of friends here who do. The last one was to Woburn and they’re planning a tour of Ireland.” Jim grins wolfishly. “The thing about this place is it’s a ‘Defence of the Realm’ airfield and that means that it can’t be closed without an Act of Parliament,” he says.
It’s time to visit the flying clubs. We start with Almat Aviation, which has two Cessna 152s, two 172s, a Grob 115 and access to other aircraft, “which we don’t use much,” says Glyn Matthews, the club’s Operations Director. In the room outside his office, which overlooks the apron, there’s a group of eight people, none of whom appears to know each other. It turns out they all have a different family member who is being taken up for a trial lesson. I ask them to pose for a group photograph. “Our readers will want to see this,” I tell them. I’ve seen one or two individuals waiting like this before ? it’s a common enough sight at airfields ? but never so many. Almat’s gift flight vouchers are obviously popular.
Then I spot someone in flying gear who doesn’t belong with the others, Laura Sanchez. She is training to be a flying instructor. “I’m flying with Cath Burnham,” she says in a worshipful tone. “Cath’s fantastic, really experienced. She flies classic aeroplanes. This is a really nice, friendly place,” she tells me. “We all help each other. And there’s a very active social life.” She points to a notice pinned up advertising the ‘Spring Thrash’. “Last time 250 people came and they flew seventy circuits. There’s a bar, and chilli and baked potato.” Rather sportingly, she agrees to be photographed with the Almat bear, who sits behind a desk and is the first thing visitors see.
My next meeting is with the CEO of Aeros, which has another of Coventry’s flying schools. He introduces me to Jacqui Suren; they have just ended a meeting. Jacqui is the Chief Ground Instructor for a rapidly growing company based on the airport, ProPilot. ProPilot provides full-time and distance learning courses on ground subjects for ATPL students, and, Jacqui tells me, “We are all about providing a proper education, not just passing exams ? and since the airlines know that, it helps our students find jobs”.The CEO of Aeros, Tom Dunn strikes me as an energetic man. He has ‘serial entrepreneur’ on his business card. He tells me his most recent (fourth) venture was in cars and that aviation (fifth) is likely to be the last one he tackles before retiring. He says, “I saw a niche for affordable modular Commercial flying training ? instruction that will enable second-careerers to carry on with their current jobs while they get their ATPL. It’s working well. ProPilot has similar thinking and looks like becoming one of our business partners.”
Aeros has flying schools at Gloucester, Cardiff, Wellesbourne and Nottingham as well as here at its HQ airport, Coventry. Tom shows me a map of the UK with coloured circles indicating the company’s plans to expand even further. (It also has engineering facilities at Nottingham and Gloucester and is the Tecnam agent for the UK, Ireland and Iceland.) It has an impressive fleet at Coventry, ranging from a six-seat Saratoga to an aerobatic Robin 2160i, but mainly PA-28s and Cessna 152s, in which self hire is £130 an hour. A thirty-minute trial lesson in the aerobatic Robin costs £115.
Tom is an experienced pilot who’s flown helicopters and fixed-wings, including tailwheel and aerobatic aircraft. He has 1,000 hours, though he says he’s a hobby pilot.
I ask why he picked on Coventry for the Aeros headquarters. “It’s so well placed,” he says. “Only Birmingham has a stronger catchment area and it’s not a GA airfield. The facilities here are second to none?it was those that attracted us to come here at a time when the airfield was struggling. I appreciate what it lost, living nearby. Having an airport with scheduled flights to the near Mediterranean on our doorstep was superb and it’s a shame that Thomsonfly left. Sir Peter has opened things up, though. It was a brave thing for him to take on at the time. We have doubled the size of our commitment since then and we’re planning to add a maintenance facility. At the moment we have six aircraft based here: a Cessna 152, a Warrior, an Arrow, a Tecnam twin and single and a Slingsby for aerobatics.
“It’s taking some time, but I have no doubt that this is going to end up as a very big and important airfield. I see it growing week by week.”
My next meeting is with Trevor Barnsley, the Coventry Base Manager of Patriot’s helicopter operation. This provides PPL(H) training and has an R22, two R44s and a Squirrel and JetRanger, the latter two for charter work. I’m not surprised when he tells me, “We get a lot of trial lesson customers. We take three at a time in the R44. Our Castle Tour is particularly popular at weekends, flying round Kenilworth and Warwick castles so you can see them from the air”. The school currently has ten students. I ask what it’s like, helicopter training from Coventry. “Good,” Trevor says, “The ATC service is excellent, there’s a great local area to practice in to the south, there’s radar monitoring and yet you can be left alone. It’s particularly helpful on lighter evenings that the airport stays open and we can carry on training until ten pm.” I ask about fly-outs. “Not so much here,” he says. “Our Redhill operation does group fly-outs into France, but there are more privately owned helicopters based there. We’ve only got two or three.” I photograph him in front of the school’s R22 in the Patriot maintenance hangar. Patriot is a Cessna Service Centre for all Cessna piston single engines and provides maintenance for piston and turbine helicopters. Today, alongside a number of Cessna aircraft, the engineers are working on a Diamond, with the wings and nose cowling off.
Philip and I are (slightly) getting the hang of the airfield layout and drive to a newly built and very smart hangar labelled ‘Air Park’. This appears to be the home of another flying club, Midland Air Training, but Ron Walker, who runs it, and also owns the hangar, seems to be out flying. We admire his SE5a replica, beautiful Waco and the three gleaming Midland Air Training Cherokees and go to meet Robert Doherty. Robert, a 1,000-plus-hour-pilot with a Seneca ? “One we inherited from a customer” ? is the CEO of Aerotech, the maintenance company occupying most of the building. Aerotech has been on the site since 1986 and can look after most aircraft types, but the JetPROP Malibu conversion with the PT6 is currently a speciality, alongside other turboprops. The company has seven employees. Robert says of Coventry, “It has just the right degree of activity and it’s a plus to have all the navaids, full ATC and fire cover, which means we don’t have to worry about weather when bringing aeroplanes in or delivering them”.
Rob Sweeney obtained permission for Philip and me to go up to the Tower. The Controller is busy, but in between transmissions he offers a few tips for visiting pilots. “We like it when visitors phone before taking off, so we can fill out a strip for them well in advance,” he says. “You should know about the VRPs and airfield layout. The traffic levels can get high with all the clubs here and the lack of a full-length taxiway for backtracking can make things a bit complicated. Listen out before you press the transmit button. The other complication for us is the IFR departures from Birmingham, which can occasionally cause minor delays.”
I interview Simon Coltman, Air Traffic Service Assistant and just twenty years old. He’s here as part of a sandwich course in Geography at Coventry University, but, he says, “I hope to make a career in air traffic control. I had a gliding scholarship with the Air Cadets at school and I’ve flown a few hours in light aircraft. I did think about a career with the airlines, but it would be expensive to train and jobs are tricky and working here has changed my mind. Also I wanted to be close to family and stay in the UK. It was Dad who got me started with aeroplanes, taking me to airshows. I expect I’ll be a private pilot one day.”
It’s lunchtime, so we head for the DC-6 Diner, a delightful restaurant very tastefully fitted into the fuselage of a converted Air Atlantique DC-6. “Did you book?” asks the girl inside. No we didn’t and as it’s half term every table is full. I plead that we’re journalists and how can we write about their food if we don’t try it, but to no avail. This is obviously a popular venue with limited seating, but definitely worth flying to Coventry to sample. To book a table, telephone 02476 882604. Steaks are £12.50 or £19.50, burgers start at £7.50, fish and chips £10.50. Waffles, maple syrup and ice cream is £4.25. Instead we make do with The Oak pub, which is within sight of the airfield and not bad, though I thought £7 for my ham sandwich and chips on the steep side (chips lukewarm, wilted lettuce) and found the décor a bit too Seventies-shabby for my taste. Shouldn’t complain really, because it did the job. I’ve eaten there before, and I would again.
After lunch we are once again on the road that runs around the airfield. Rather confusingly, it seems like an airport perimeter road one minute and runs through houses the next. Off it, with its very own entrance, we stumble across the place we’re looking for ? the oldest flying club on the airfield and one of the oldest anywhere, the Coventry Aeroplane Club. On the upper storey of the combined hangar and clubhouse there’s a much nicer place where we could have had lunch, had we known about it ? the club bar and restaurant. Apparently various leaseholders for serving refreshments have come and gone, but the club thinks the present lot ? who have just started ? will have more staying power.
Inside I meet my first instructor of the day. All the others have been out flying, either with students or members of the public wanting trial lessons. Alistair McBain is shortly to go flying and is busy with two students and more trial lesson customers, but he makes time for the chaps from Pilot. The student I photograph with Alistair is Darren Cheshire, who has come in for some exam revision ? he’s about to take his Skills Test. Darren is a metal treatment operative (this is Coventry) and plans on becoming a private pilot. Alistair says, “He’ll probably end up owning a share in one of the group-owned aeroplanes here. There’s usually one up for sale.”
Alistair has just landed from a trial lesson and introduces me to his student, thirteen-year-old William Carlo. “It was an amazing experience. I want to be a pilot when I’m older,” says William, a little breathlessly. Alistair is certainly having a busy morning, because he’s now about to fly with Josh Mason-Allen. Alistair tells me privately that this sortie will probably end with Josh’s first solo. (Alistair emailed me later; it did, and Josh’s solo went well.)
I hate to interrupt a man on such a red letter day, but in an ultra-quick interview find out that Josh runs an IT business, has fifteen flying hours, lives in Warwick, is planning on gaining a Commercial licence and might transfer to a flying career. He’s got the bug, in other words. Discreetly, I follow him outside, grab a quick, slightly out-of-focus shot of him prepping one of the club’s fleet of PA-28s and leave him in peace.
Philip and I go upstairs to the bar-cum-restaurant where we might have had lunch had we known about it. Alistair says, “Tell your readers about this. We want lots of people to come here. The Midland Air Museum is next door and we can sign you in and take your landing fees.” Then he dashes off to attend to Josh.
I pause to photograph Louise, Lisa and Cerian ? Lisa is the one serving ? at the bar and then interview Peter Jenkins, who’s enjoying a drink with other club members and take a photo of him on the balcony with the PA-24-260 he co-owns in the background below. Peter has a fire alarm business, learned to fly in 1985 and has been based here for four years. He says the group pays £216 a quarter for parking, plus club membership, which is £250 a year. “It’s a great club,” he says, “and gives us somewhere warm and comfortable to hang out. The food’s good, unpretentious and affordable, which is what pilots like.” I have a quick look at the menu. You can get the small breakfast for £3.95 and the larger version for two quid more. Oh the bacon sarnie I might have had…
Philip and I go downstairs for our last call of the day, which is with Chris Rigby, ex-airline captain with RyanAir, Thomsons, BA… you name it, he’s flown it… and now managing director of Flight Simulators Midlands. This gives you the chance to fly real (not replica) B747 and B737 simulators, complete with the latest glass instrumentation with Chris or other ex-BA captains alongside. “It’s proving very popular,” he says. “It feels and sounds just like the real thing and the software lets you fly to Hong Kong or just about anywhere you want.” It isn’t especially cheap ? gift vouchers start at £150 ? but it’s what a large slice of the public want. Also, Chris says, some London companies are charging double that price.
Driving back down the M45 and M1 Philip and I discuss our day. Yes, we did visit during the half term holidays but, even so, there was an impressive amount of activity at Coventry. It’s long been known that trial lessons (and sessions in simulators, come to that) are often the first step in learning to fly. Coventry airport is obviously well placed geographically to bring people in to sample flying. From what we saw, Philip and I agree, the clubs there are equally well-geared to give them competent and reasonably affordable training and look after them afterwards.
Yes, there’s little doubt that after its troubles a few years ago, Coventry Airport is back, drawing in the punters and planning to expand. The entrepreneurial spirit for which the Midlands has long been famous is thriving (though rather feebly, it must be said, at the airport’s close neighbour, The Oak pub).