Tucked inside the M25 to the east of London City Airport, this small airfield boasts more variety than many larger aerodromes
Words and photos by Nick Bloom
This is an airfield of contrasts, yet everything fits together seamlessly. It’s a happy place and you won’t be charged a penny to fly here, since the owner recently abolished landing fees. It’s only a fiver to park your aeroplane overnight, making for a tempting mini-holiday, should you fancy exploring East London; just half an hour away by taxi and train (to Fenchurch Street). This is also an ideal airfield for Group A pilots wanting to experience microlights.
But I’ll come on to all that. For now, you find me sitting on the clubhouse veranda, sipping coffee, thawing out after an open cockpit flight. Behind me I hear contrasting Estuary English and Public School accents. In front, a girl-on-the-wing Stearman is making a low pass, the girl’s delighted shrieks audible even over the radial engine’s thunder. Two sturdy types sit in bulky thermal suits in a flexwing microlight, waiting to take off. A gleaming, freshly-painted Van’s RV starts up its engine and over to my right, an instructor debriefs a student who’s just landed in a less-than-gleaming workhorse Cessna 172. In an adjoining field I can just see a radio controlled model stunting extravagantly, flying manoeuvres that full-size aeroplane pilots can only dream of. And I think, this is unique. No other airfield has this. Damyns Hall is close enough to the WWII airfield of Hornchurch ? long gone ? that the two almost overlap. The first airfield on, or at least close to the site, was Sutton’s Farm, opened by the RFC in October 1915. Initially it was no more than two tent hangars for the two BE2c aircraft and a length of mown grass. Pilots were billeted in the White Hart pub. As the threat from Zeppelins grew, so did the airfield. William Leefe Robinson flew from here when he famously shot down one Zepp raider in 1916. The site briefly reverted to farming, then was rebuilt, opening as RAF Sutton’s Farm in 1928, the name quickly changed to RAF Hornchurch. It was a Spitfire base during the Battle of Britain and for the rest of WWII. In the immediate postwar period there were big airshows at Hornchurch, one in 1952 attended by 40,000 people, but in 1962 the aerodrome was closed. Much of the site became a gravel quarry or was built over. Damyns Hall was founded in 1969 in the open fields just to the south-east. It had a microlight school, the Metropolitan Police Microlight Club and a few Group A aircraft. It first appeared in the CAA list of UK Aerodromes in 1986 and is the only privately owned GA aerodrome in Greater London, because in 2004 Damyns Hall was acquired by Timothy Lyons, a businessman and keen pilot. He invested in buildings, hardstanding and landscaping on the 120 acre site. Formal applications for aerodrome status began in 2007 and this was granted with some restrictions.
The day of my visit begins nervously. I said I would arrive at eleven a.m. It’s ten, and I have just hugged my wife goodbye and am sliding back the hangar doors. Various batteries have been charged, the fuel tank filled, the Currie Super Wot fully pre-flighted. I have visited the Damyns Hall website and clicked on the pages for flying in and noise abatement. I filled in an arrival form and received an email confirmation. The flight is modest: just half an hour. Yet my route is strewn with hazards and ends in a perilous squeeze between Stansted’s transponder zone and London City’s controlled airspace. I have flown few cross-countries in the last couple of years and am determined to buff my skills and fly this one by map and magnetic compass… though I do have an Aware GPS that I can switch on for back up.
The weather, which was supposed to be sunny, has settled into mist with the threat of drizzle. I take off and pass in succession Plaistows and London Colney microlight airstrips. The chain of reservoirs bisecting North London gives me a definitive navigational fix, yet in the final ten minutes of my flight I grow increasingly uncertain. I don’t see Stapleford. The Damyns Hall website emphasised either arriving from the north-east, reporting abeam Brentwood, or from the south. I risk arriving from the west, so I give in and turn on the Aware GPS; a couple of minutes later I’m fully orientated. My calls to Hornchurch Radio on 119.55 (air/ground only) get no response at first, so I transmit ‘blind’. But then I hear Deepak’s unmistakable voice in my earphones, “Golf Echo Sierra, receiving you fives, state your intentions”. Five minutes later, after an overhead join from 1,400ft I’m on finals for 21, which is a generous 599m long. (Damyns Hall has two runways, although the second one, 14/32, is unlicensed.) Deepak suggests I park near the windsock and shortly afterwards the Wot’s engine is running to a stop.
I could have called Thames Radar, but while this adds a safety factor, with an open cockpit and handheld radio I elected not to. You in your comfortable Cessna or Piper with a long-range panel radio could call not only Thames Radar, but Farnborough East for a LARS service.
After lifting the tailskid and leaving the Wot facing into wind, I head for the cluster of buildings. Parked on the grass outside, a Stearman is having a woman strapped to a harness on its upper wing. The pilot walks towards me waving his arms and shouting, “Clear off”, but it’s only Richard Pickin teasing me. At one time we both competed in Unlimited aerobatics contests. I flew this particular Stearman (Pilot Flight Test, December 2002) with its owner who is also the owner of Damyns Hall, the aforementioned Timothy Lyons. He still flies it, but nowadays it is mainly used by Aerobatic Tactics pilots Richard Pickin and Tony Richards to take members of the public wing-walking (strictly speaking, wing-riding). This is obviously very popular ? Richard tells me he has eight customers lined up for flights today ? and must be great for Damyns Hall, since the customers all bring their families and everyone buys something from the airfield restaurant. Some might even catch the flying bug and return for a trial lesson. It also makes a great spectacle, the big biplane thundering up and down over the airfield.
After Richard, the next person I meet is Ian Harding. Ian has come to fly his Van’s RV-4, one of eight RVs based here. I ask what his plans are for the day. “I may go to the fly-in at Thorney Island,” he says, “but only if there is a group fly-out and it doesn’t look like the other RV pilots are coming. In which case, I’ll fly some aerobatics for my Go-Pro.” This, I realise must be the latest must-have gadget for making videos in flight and chaps like Ian must use it as a training aid. Ian is Communications Director at Kingfisher and a director of Majestic Wine. He works in the West End and lives near Southend. “Until two years ago, I was based at Southend,” he tells me. “Then, when Easyjet moved in, I transferred here and to Gransden, where I’ve a share in a Yak-52.”
Ian is an instructor and examiner. Locals with a microlight NPPL who’ve done their Group A conversion course can get signed off at the end with a flight with him. “I love being based here,” he says. “It’s very relaxed and there’s always something interesting to look at, not least whatever is Dave Stephens’s latest project ? Dave’s a prolific builder. So far he’s produced a Fokker E3, a Titan Mustang and an RV-8 and now he’s test flying a twin-jet-powered microlight.” And there it is, in the hangar, on a raised platform, sleek and bright yellow.
My next interview is with Ian MacAdam, the proprietor of Learn to Fly (Learn-to-fly.co.uk), a flexwing microlight school that also teaches hang gliding. It has been at Damyns Hall for the last seven years. The school currently has fifteen students, all studying for flexwing microlight NPPLs. The hang gliders are two-souls-in-a-bag and towed into the air behind a microlight, which must be something to see. Ian says hang glider experience flights launched this way are quite popular with the general public; he flies around ninety a year. He has 4,500 flying hours and has flown Group A aircraft, three-axis microlights and is considering taking up autogyros, but likes flexwing microlights best ? “It’s the feeling of being out in the open,” he says. Of Damyns Hall, he says, “it’s ideal for us, close to London, unrestricted and a friendly club with an understanding airfield manager in Keith Reynolds.”
Keith runs Rochester microlights, which has a small fleet of Jabiru Calypso microlights; he’s currently out of the country in one of these on a group fly-out. These sleek, fast and modern composite aircraft have recently replaced Thruster Sprints as the school’s trainers. Although I found the Thruster I flew quite delightful, I can see that with its fabric covering and aluminium tube structure it would have rather less customer appeal that the modernistic Calypso. According to the company’s website, lessons start at £110.
Outside on the grass I meet Mahesh Arora, one of Deepak Mahajan’s students. Mahesh is a specialist in dealing with alcohol and drug addiction who is based in Leicester. “I know it’s a long way to come,” he tells me, “but I read about Deepak in a magazine and also a friend recommended him, so I’m learning with him.” Mahesh, whose boyhood dream was to one day become a flying doctor, owns a CTSW and has 300 hours, but hasn’t yet obtained an NPPL. “I’m a slow learner,” he says, smiling modestly.
I’m seeing increasing numbers of family groups arrive. One group I stop to talk to is the Dalys (no Arthur in the family, I’m sure): Emma, Hayden, Scarlett, Debbie and Andrew. Andrew is a business analyst from Romford, who’s here for a microlight lesson; the others have come to watch.
The latest in today’s line of wingwalkers has just landed so I go over to meet her. Julie Coe is an admin assistant and the flight was a gift from her partner Michael, who’s been watching. “It was brilliant,” she says. Richard’s next customer is waiting, so we agree to catch up later.
Next I photograph a group watching Ian’s RV-4, which has just taxied out, and learn that they’re a family from Dagenham. “We’ve just come to look at the aeroplanes,” they say. Although in the Green Belt, the airfield is close enough to several towns to attract ‘spotters’, but I do wonder how much it has inherited from the RAF Hornchurch days when airshows attracted 40,000 spectators. There might be the remnants of a local tradition.
I still haven’t quite thawed out from my rather chilly flight here, so I go inside the club room for a coffee. There I meet Pauline, the restaurant manageress and her assistant Tae, who’s been working here since her fourteenth birthday, has just turned sixteen and plans to be a vet or an obstetrician. Pauline says the restaurant’s turnover has grown a lot in the two years since she took over and broadened the menu. “It was just all day breakfast before,” she says. She estimates that half the customers are pilots.
I take my coffee out on the veranda and, after admiring the scene for a while, strike up a conversation with the man next to me, Peter Tribe, who is a decorator. Peter ? wise man ? bought one of the ex-school Thrusters. He learned at Stock on the Isle of Grain (Google Medway Airsports if you’re interested), then, because he lives in Dartford, moved to Damyns Hall. Now he flies ninety hours a year, sometimes with the other Thruster on the airfield. “I’ve flown to Cromer, Edgefield and Whitby,” he tells me. “This place is my second home. I come here a lot even when I’m not flying. The members know a lot about flying and maintenance. It’s the kind of place where people will stop what they’re doing and come and help you right away if you’re stuck with something.” One advantage of the Thruster, he tells me, is that it can be kept outside. “The rent is still a bit steep ? £124 a month ? but I reckon I save that on all the help I get.” He paid £12,000 for the Thruster and has since flown 360 hours in it.
A bright yellow Jodel has just landed. I go to say hello and meet Martin and Cynthia Balls. I’m delighted to find it’s a D11 like the one I used to have, the basic model with no flaps and no electrics. They’re based at Nayland and have flown in for lunch. This is their second visit, partly prompted by the recent introduction of free landings. “We thought it was an interesting airfield with good food and friendly people,” they tell me.
Next I go over to meet a group clustered around a Cessna 172. One man is a student, John Williamson, who is MD of a facilities management company. With him is class rating instructor Steve King. John has 45 hours in microlights and an NPPL. He started with a PPL course for Group A aeroplanes at Southend, then moved to the NPPL and microlights and now wants to fly Group A again. CRI Steve, who flies a Van’s RV as well as the Cessna, has been based at Damyns Hall for eight years. He says, “It’s a friendly airfield with a nice café. The three schools all help each other out. It’s a good base for pilots. It’s the kind of place where there’s always someone stepping in to mentor newcomers. It’s like a little family, predominantly owners and a lot of regulars who hire club aeroplanes, plus a few syndicates. The hangars are full, it’s pretty busy as you can see. There’s not much trouble with noise complaints. There are a lot of group fly-outs; no one goes off on their own.”
As lunchtime approaches there are more visitors. A SportCruiser lands from Stapleford with Jim Barber, 65 and John Large, 79 on board. They are both keen LAA members who built the aeroplane from a kit in just twelve months. “We come here at least eight times a year,” they say, “As much as anything, to see what Dave Stevens has knocked up since our last visit. This is a lovely spot. We would be based here, but Stapleford has the hard runway, a slightly more secure feeling as somewhere to leave aircraft and lots of evening activity. One drawback to this place is that it’s pretty dead in the evenings, whereas Stapleford has a bar. However, Damyns Hall wins on ambience. Stapleford is more a training airfield these days, North Weald has the military aeroplanes. It’s quite a variety in one small part of the UK when you think about it.”
Deepak has been busy with students from the moment I arrived, but I catch him for a moment just as he’s finished a cockpit debrief. His student is Angus Wood, who is thinking of getting back into flying after a lapse. Angus runs a gambling software company, works in Farringdon and lives in Clapham, “so I’ve figured out that this is my closest aerodrome”. He has ridden the Tube to Upminster and then taken a cab. He’s obviously loved the flight and was impressed with the CT; I can see he’s tempted to sign up.
Back in the clubhouse I buy a bacon sandwich and another coffee, then go to join Richard Pickin, who’s taken advantage of a spot of drizzle to fend off the queue of wingwalkers while he grabs a bite. His wife, the ever-glamorous Maggie has been tied to a table all morning, dealing with customers. I am introduced to the third team member, Matt Morris, who’s a fit-looking 22. Matt, who straps in the wingwalkers, has nearly finished his ATPL at Stapleford, having obtained his PPL with Richard. So an airline career, then. He is keen on aerobatics, has flown the Slingsby at Stapleford and also the Stearman. “It’s a big old pussy cat,” he says, grinning. (He grins a lot.)
I look up to find Harry Page at my elbow. I’ve met Harry a few times over the years. He’s a quiet man who is a very experienced pilot and a born instructor (plus, he’s Carol Cooper trained, always a good sign). He has a registered facility at Damyns Hall and is currently training five students on the site, three ab initio, and two with lapsed PPLs. “I am intending to make the operation an ATO,” he says, “but I don’t plan to expand much, although I might take on an instructor. My style isn’t to churn out PPLs; rather it’s to have a few students and give them close attention.” That style is part of the reason why he has chosen to train in a Cessna 172, because it allows one student to observe from the back seat while another is in front with Harry.
“I’ve been here for three years,” he says. “Before this I was at Southend. I prefer it here: there are no restrictions, you don’t have to ask anyone’s permission and personally I think it makes a better pilot. Sometimes my students are nervous about flying to a controlled airport like Southend, but I tell them pilots who learn in a controlled environment have someone telling them what to do all the time. They don’t learn to think for themselves like someone trained here.”
Harry’s student arrives, and I spot two burly young men in thermal suits, who have obviously just flown or are about to fly a flexwing microlight. They are Matt Robins, an instructor from Rochester, and his student, an NHS operations manager, Aggy Finn. They’ve just landed in a 912 Quantum with a cruise speed of 60mph. “It may be slow, but it’s rugged and economical and can land on a sixpence,” they tell me. Matt says he comes here with a student on average once a week, “There’s lot’s going on, it’s nice and local and it makes an ideal destination for a first solo cross country”.
Deepak has finally reached a break in his busy flying day, so we go into the restaurant, where Pauline says they are sold out of cake and biscuits, but she might have… and goes hunting through cupboards and freezers, eventually finding a stash of microwaveable puddings… a few of these, on the house. So Deepak and I converse over hot syrup sponge pudding and tea.
He shows me a book, which is a photographic account of an exceptional fly-out he made with two other club members in 2011. As he puts it, “a Hindu, a Christian and a Jew all flew by microlight to Jerusalem. Now beat that!”
He tells me Damyns Hall Flying Club has 78 members. There are six instructors, three Group A and three microlight. All microlight instructors fly both flexwing and three-axis. Deepak’s club is London Airsports Centre and it has been in operation for twenty years, for the last eight at Damyns Hall. It has six aircraft: two CTs, two Jabirus and two flexwings. Deepak had a business with his wife making jewellery before he got the flying bug. He says his school has never seen a slack period. He currently has nine students.
I ask about Damyns Hall’s future. “Nothing in life is certain,” says Deepak, “but my gut feeling is that this airfield is here to stay and can only grow. I applaud the management’s decision to abolish landing fees this summer and I wouldn’t be surprised if more airfields don’t copy our example.”
Deepak estimates that Damyns Hall attracts around 1,000 visits by air a year. He estimates that some 45 aeroplanes are based on the airfield.
At this point Angus Wood, the pilot with a lapsed NPPL I saw with Deepak earlier arrives. “Sorry to interrupt,” he says, “But do you mind if I book another lesson?” He has decided to get back into flying. They both fish out their mobile phones and compare diaries, giving me a moment to think about what questions I might have left out. They fix a date, Angus leaves and I ask about aircraft maintenance.
“We all do our own,” says Deepak, “and a man comes in a van to look after our Rotax engines for us.” Deepak flies 600 hours a year. His school charges £145 an hour on the CT (which I think might be a more expensive and sophisticated aircraft than the Jabiru), including briefing and ground school. He says he’s expecting a student from China next month and one from India next weekend, but mostly his students come from London.
I ask him to sum up Damyns Hall and after thinking for a bit he says, “The personality of this place is shaped by its instructors. It’s very laissez faire, very relaxed, a microlight mindset, rather than strict formality.” He adds, “For planning reasons we are not allowed to have helicopters based here, but we do get a few helicopters flying in. Sometimes the pilots take a taxi to Upminster and a seventeen-minute train ride to Fenchurch Street for meetings in the City. Next week we will be providing facilities for helicopters during the Helitech exhibition at the Excel Centre.”
It’s time to go, so I walk out to the Wot, swing the prop, climb in and backtrack towards the holding point. The Stearman is waiting, but I can tell that Richard’s doing his pre-flight checks so I make my ‘lining up’ call on the radio, raise the Wot’s tail and with a blast of engine on the rudder swing round onto the runway. A moment later I’m climbing away. I slowly spiral up, taking photographs over my left shoulder, then stow the camera and head for home.
My flight back takes me through a couple of drizzle patches and right at the end I have an attack of staring fixedly in the wrong direction only to find the landmark I’m expecting ? St Albans Cathedral ? is actually a few degrees off to the right and has been for ages. But I make it back on map and compass without needing the Aware GPS. The landing goes well too. After taxying in and shutting down, I lift the skid to pull the Wot back into its stable. I feel a real glow of satisfaction. It’s been quite a day and I can see there are going to be more visits to Damyns Hall in my future.