Full Sutton airfield — just a stone’s throw from the historic city of York — feels relaxed and welcoming

Smaller airfields can seem standoffish, especially those, which, like Full Sutton, boast some unusually skilled aviators. According to the Merriam-Webster’s online definition, a clique is a small group of people who spend time together and who are not friendly to other people. Full Sutton meets the first half of the definition, but not the second.

At the moment I’ve yet to discover any of this. I’m in my car being chased up the M1 by a cold front. I outdistanced heavy rain after the first ten minutes, but when I stopped for a coffee, the rain caught up. It’s just arriving now, as I park outside the Days Inn in the Woodall Service Area, where I’ve booked a room for the night.

Now it’s morning, with a bright blue sky but an already freshening wind. The lady (who, for some reason, I picture as Polish) in my satnav is directing me. After we leave the M62 she takes me down 25 minutes of long, straight roads in flat countryside. We drive through village after village and each one seems to have a Methodist chapel converted to a house or workshop (one advertises hi-fi, another furniture restoration). The area has an air of modest prosperity, but I’m guessing Full Sutton gets its customers from the big towns ? York, Leeds and Hull. There are no signs for a flying club until the final turning into an industrial estate, built on a WWII airfield.

I drive past various businesses, some heavy agricultural-industrial and one inviting you to pick-your-own, only instead of strawberries, this one (U-Pull-It) offers car components from scrapped vehicles. There are just enough signs for me to find Full Sutton Flying Club. As I park, a car pulls up and a large, friendly man bundles out, followed by a small boisterous dog. It’s my host, Simon Pocklington, who owns the airfield and issued the invitation. I’m a little anxious (and I suspect he is too) because the wind has already made it only marginally flyable. I sent an email a few days ago, asking Simon to put the word out and get people to come whatever the weather. Will they, or will the wind put them off? And once here, will they stick around? So when we go inside and I see some possible interviewees, I tell Simon I’d better net one. “You get on then,” says Simon, “I’ll sort the Cessna out ? you’ll be wanting that overhead photograph before it gets any more windy.” I did say in my email that I’d like a quick ride to photograph the runway layout, but it’s ‘can-do’ how quickly he’s on to it.

My first interview is with Mike Neilson, thirty, a PPL student with fourteen hours who is a Flight Planning Supervisor with Jet2.com. “It’s always been my dream to fly,” he says. “When I was little, Dad would take me to Leeds Bradford Airport. We’d listen to the pilots on his aircraft band radio and he would take down the aircraft registrations. I decided when I turned thirty it was now or never and I’m hoping to become a commercial pilot. Every lesson really feels like I’m fulfilling a childhood dream.” I ask about Full Sutton. “It’s great, really friendly and, I reckon, the best place to learn circuits because there’s not much traffic and mostly it’s a club member in the circuit. You can really concentrate.” Before Jet2.com he worked on the ramp at Leeds Bradford. He did the same thing in Australia (Sydney) for six months. Mike’s wife is a hairdresser in York, which he says is convenient as he can drop her off on the way to the flying club.

Simon’s not back yet so I introduce myself to Bert Pratt, who’s just received the doctor’s approval to fly after three months with a minor medical problem. Bert is 78 and spent a lifetime as a machine setter in a factory making shock absorbers. He started flying in 2000 when he retired and has 230 hours, all in club aeroplanes at Full Sutton. “I won’t be flying today,” he says, “It’s too windy, but I’ve come to see the guys, as I do every week, flying or not.”

At this point I see a familiar figure from my aerobatics contest days, Cas Smith. I knew ? sort of, it hadn’t quite sunk in ? that Cas is the CFI at Full Sutton. I also learn subsequently, via the Internet, that he was in the British Advanced Aerobatics team in the 2000 World Advanced Championships, which is more than I ever achieved. Cas has been sent to bring me out to Simon’s Cessna Cutlass, but there’s a slight delay so we duck into one of Full Sutton’s three hangars to get out of the wind. I tell Cas about Mike, and Cas says his son also works for Jet2.com. I photograph a few aeroplanes in the hangar, a pretty Cessna 140 that used to be the tailwheel trainer at Sherburn, and an Acroduster, which Cas tells me was built by Bob Hague, a 757 Captain who flies out of Leeds Bradford, but bases this two-seat aerobatic biplane here. I also photograph Cas in front of his Pitts S-2B. “I do instruct in it,” he says, in answer to my question, “But the aerobatic trainer we use mostly here, a Slingsby Firefly, is off-site for maintenance today. It’s been getting a lot of use lately ? 120 hours in the last year. That’s largely thanks to the eighty-odd RAF pilots recently made redundant in the region who’ve been coming here to get their civilian licence. Some were at Linton flying the Tucano and with that and similar backgrounds, they feel most at home in the Slingsby. I think they like the way we treat them. Thanks to high levels of instruction, experience and ability, they require very little additional training before their skill test, and so far they’ve all passed.”

Simon’s ready for my flight, so I leave Cas, agreeing to continue our conversation later. The Cutlass has a slightly retro feel, but was actually made in the 1980s ? a retractable upgrade of the 172. Soon we are gathering speed for a takeoff down the south-easterly taxiway-cum-runway. I noticed warning signs for motorists and pedestrians on the way in, because cars use this taxiway too. Today it’s aligned into wind and the obvious choice. Before two-thirds has passed, we’re airborne and climbing. In the air, Simon confirms my first impression of a ‘can-do’ personality and does everything I ask so promptly that it feels like we’ve been working as a team for ever. There are several complications: scattered cloud, some low haze, the strong wind and a low sun from an awkward direction. Finally, there’s HM Prison Full Sutton within the airfield perimeter to the north-west of the main runway 04/22 and overflying it is an absolute no-no. Down there, among others detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, are Dennis Nilsen, Jeremy Bamber and Curtis ‘Cocky’ Warren (they each have a Wikipedia entry and are thoroughly nasty in different ways). I take my photographs and we land, this time using the main runway, which is grass. After all the rain we’ve been having I am expecting a splash-down, but the grass seems almost dry and looks in good condition. We taxi in and I return to Cas.

Cas Smith was Director of Local Health and Housing at Humberside County Council, which I imagine was one source of his considerable skills with people ? he’s known in aviation as kind and welcoming, the best type of instructor. When Cas was fifty, Humberside ceased to exist as a local authority, making him redundant. He switched careers. “I’d been flying as a private pilot since I was thirty,” he says, “so I got my Commercial and Instructor ratings and went into full-time instructing, mainly coaching aerobatics. Ten years ago I was flying 600 hours a year as an instructor ? that was at Sherburn. I don’t fly quite that much now.”

He came to Full Sutton with two other instructors specifically to build it up. There were a dozen aeroplanes then and today there are 43. One of the instructors, Bernard Merlino, subsequently died of bowel cancer and the other, Steve Fletcher now flies 767s. I ask Cas to sum up the airfield. “It’s totally free of politics, the owner’s an enthusiastic pilot who doesn’t interfere and is a daily member of the club. There’s no bullshit. Aviation has its bollocking culture, if you know what I mean, and I’m sick of hearing pilots being told off on the radio. The most you get here is a quiet private word over a coffee. There are two runways. The 400-metre taxiway is used when there’s a strong crosswind. The main 772-metre runway is grass, but it’s exceptionally well drained as it’s on sand and chalk, not clay.”

Instruction covers PPL, aerobatics, tailwheel, IMC and night flying, because, rather to my surprise, the airfield is fitted with runway lights. “And you can keep your aeroplane in the hangar here for less than it costs to park outside at White Waltham,” adds Cas. Landing fees, incidentally are £10. I let Cas get back to work and look for my next interview.

The clubhouse is a large wooden building divided into a substantial lounge, a radio room and office and a kitchen where there are a kettle and fridge. In the lounge I meet a little group centred on instructor Bob Sansoni. He’s sitting at a sizeable table (intended for flight planning and laying out maps) with Mike Neilson, the student I met earlier and two other students. Richard Owenson, aged 25, is here hoping (despite the wind, all three being somewhat optimistic) to have a ‘refresher’ flight after not flying for a couple of months, and then get back to circuit-bashing. He’s got eighteen hours, works in IT and has no plans to fly for a living. “It’s just for enjoyment,” he says, “I’m hoping to take my girlfriend places in a club aeroplane. Then I’ll probably buy a share in something.”

Richard Bentley, also in his twenties, came three weeks ago for a trial lesson and now is thinking of taking things a step further. “I really enjoyed it,” he says. He came here because of a recommendation from someone at the micro brewery where he works.

Instructor Bob Sansoni tells them that it’s safe to fly, but perhaps not the best conditions for a lesson. Who, if anyone, wants to go up? One of the three says no, one says he will and the third wants to think about it, so we all go out to the aeroplane in question, a Warrior in a beautiful grey-and-cream colour scheme, I take some photographs and leave them to carry on.

Back in the clubhouse, Cas is talking to someone who’s just arrived. I wait for a suitable moment and introduce myself. Indy Sohanpal is 29, and one of the RAF pilots who have recently been made redundant in the area. We sit down and he tells me his story. Indy grew up in South Wales, the son of a car dealer. “I decided on an RAF career before I was ten,” he tells me. “I just fell in love with fast jets. They looked like the most challenging and amazing aircraft you could fly.” He joined the RAF at 22. I ask him what was the single best moment. “Going solo in the Hawk at Valley,” he says, “It was very, very exciting.” The redundancy axe fell in August 2012 and he took a year out in America restoring classic cars. Then he came back to the UK and took a job with Netjets last September as a sales consultant selling fractional ownership. He plans, though, on a career flying civilian jets, “and vintage taildraggers, too, if I can arrange it,” he adds. He last flew in July in California and he’s here today to see what Full Sutton has on offer.

My next meeting is with a somewhat different character, Alan Kilbride, a 58-year-old lorry driver who lives in York. Alan is jovial and obviously a keen pilot and club member. I find him poring over a map of Germany, planning a club fly-out for July to a wood and fabric aeroplane fly-in, the ‘Cloth Bomber Meeting’. He proudly takes me outside and we go in the hangar so that he can show me his beautiful Jodel 117. “I got my licence five years ago,” he tells me, “and bought the Jodel three days after getting it. I come here every weekend, flying or not and fly if it’s possible.” With him ? they are obviously mates ? is a man whose name sounds familiar, but it’s only when he brings out his scrapbook of photographs and magazine and newspaper cuttings that the penny drops. He’s the Alan Shipp who built from plans, not just one, but two Jodels, a D150 Mascaret and a D140 Mousquetaire. The D140 is parked out on the grass. We go out to take a look and it’s immaculate ? better than factory quality. “I just need to tighten a tailwheel bolt,” says Alan, goes to fetch a cushion to kneel on and a socket and wrench from his car boot and gets to work.

Then we go back inside. Alan began as a microlight pilot and joined the PFA in 1993. He’s retired now, but was a fire officer. Looking at the quality of build (he did his own painting and seems to have done that and all the woodwork in a domestic garage), I expect to find that he’s been professionally trained, but he says not. “So how did you get started?” I ask. “Built a canoe when I was thirteen,” he says. He constructed the Mascaret before having a licence and came to Full Sutton in 1996 so that he could learn to fly. He got his PPL in the Mascaret in the minimum number of hours ? not bad, learning on a tailwheel aeroplane. Again, I anticipate some prior flying experience, maybe gliders in the Cadets. Not a bit of it… although he did some passenger flying with his brother, who had a pilot’s licence.

I ask the two Alans to sum up what makes Full Sutton different. “There’s no cliqueyness,” they tell me. “Everyone is treated the same and there’s an easy atmosphere. Everyone talks to each other; it’s very much a member’s club.”

Simon arrives at this point. He wants to introduce me to another pilot, Dave Henderson. Dave, keen-eyed and slim, is 59 and tells me he manages and flies small aeroplanes for their owners… and that’s how he makes his living. The aeroplanes include a Saratoga, TB 20 and Simon’s six-seat Cessna 310 twin. “Mainly what I do,” says Dave, “and a few pilots whom I employ on an occasional basis, is make ferry deliveries from Piper and Cessna in the States.” “Across the Atlantic then?” I ask. He nods, “People say it’s risky ferrying light singles, but I don’t think the risks amount to much ? not if you’re careful.”

Dave has 7,300 hours and learned to fly in 1983 at Biggin Hill. I ask whether Full Sutton is his base. “Most definitely, yes,” he says. “I would hate to be based anywhere else. Where these days could I find an airfield where they’ll switch on the runway lights when you need them, and that could be any time in the 24 hour day, any day in the week? They’ll do it at a few other airports, but they’ll charge you the earth. Plus here I can get fuel 24/7. In my business I have to think about the needs of my clients, not the needs of airfield operators or the local authorities who restrict their operating hours… and here I can. I came from Bremen yesterday with an owner. Humberside would have charged us £100 for holding and landing fees, so we came here.”

Having met a good cross-section of pilots, I’m getting a feel for Full Sutton. It’s nearly lunchtime, the wind is still rising and I’m guessing the place will soon begin to empty, so go to interview Simon Pocklington who’s sitting in a group, chatting. On impulse I lift his Border Collie, Bentley, and drop the dog in Simon’s lap to take a photograph of them together. Bentley wriggles and then gets into the spirit of things. I snap them both grinning.

The Pocklingtons have had an animal feed compounding business since before Simon was born. The airfield was built for RAF Bomber Command in 1944 and post-war, was a Thor missile site until it closed in 1963, although small scale private flying seems to have continued without a break until the present day. Simon’s father bought first property on the airfield and then farmland flanking it. He subsequently became a private pilot.

Simon was born around the time the airfield was sold off ? he’s now 52. He learned to fly when he was 21, at Teeside, where he was working in another (though connected) animal feed business. At that time his father was renting part of the airfield to a small microlight school. Simon takes up the story: “I came back to work in the family business and the airfield became my baby from the 1980s. I put down the present grass runway and built a hangar. From the first I had a vision for the site, which I could see had possibilities. I wanted a busy flying school and an amenable base for private pilots. Eventually I got the airfield licensed with the CAA, which wasn’t easy, with the prison being so close. Since training has been allowed from unlicensed airfields, we’ve allowed the licence to lapse, but we’re careful to keep things up so that if the CAA changes its mind, we can easily go back to being licensed again. Today, I’m Managing Director of the family business and spend about a quarter of my work time and most of my leisure time here.”

Simon has two grown up daughters. Rebecca is a freelance journalist with The Mirror, and Felicity is at Brighton University. Both have had flying lessons and the three of them went on a flying holiday around France. “My wife, as it happens, doesn’t like flying,” says Simon. He has a nephew, James, who, like James’s cousins, is also learning to fly at Full Sutton. “I would like to think another generation of the family will take over here one day,” says Simon.

The flying school has access to eight aeroplanes: a Cessna 150, two PA-28 Cruisers, a Warrior, a newly-arrived C172, the Slingsby, Pitts S-2B and the Cutlass for complex single and IMC training. The Cessna 310 twin is available for rental with an appropriate pilot.

The radio is air/ground and there is still a fire service on the airfield, but the airfield ambulance has been sold. I ask if there’s a maintenance facility on the site. “There certainly is,” says Simon, “Robert Hall of RH Aviation is a tenant and looks after just about all the singles here. He’s been based here for fourteen years and was keen to meet you, but something must have stopped him coming.” At present there’s no restaurant facility, but Simon has put in a planning application and expects to have something fairly soon. “There are a lot of people on the industrial estate who would come and eat here,” he says, “plus the pilots, of course. And hopefully we’ll get members of the public coming here. We already do, two or three a week coming for trial lessons in the summer and rather more around Christmas when we sell vouchers via the activity superstores. The vouchers we sell ourselves are better, though, because they are more likely to lead to people taking up flying. And we do get pilots flying in, twenty isn’t uncommon on a fine summer weekend. The free landing vouchers we run in Pilot help ? people come here and see what a nice atmosphere there is. Cas Smith is one of our biggest assets in that respect. He’s a people magnet, the best thing that ever happened to us.

“There is only one rule for visiting pilots: please don’t fly over the prison. Also you must have a radio to come here.”

At present the club has 115 members. I ask if Simon would like to expand. “Not really,” he says. “I like the airfield the way it is. There’s no struggle to get your aeroplane out of the hangar, no queuing for the circuit and yet it’s busy enough that there’s always something going on. It’s pleasant now and although a bit of growth wouldn’t hurt, I don’t see it expanding to the point where it changes its character.”

Before leaving, I have to talk to Brian Willis, who’s been at Full Sutton longer than just about anyone, at least thirty years he tells me. He currently flies a Mooney, but when he came here he had a Grumman Traveler. “In those days there was a single hard runway, no hangars and no clubhouse,” he remembers. “Simon’s dad had a Twin Comanche which he kept in a grain store. He and I built the first hangar ? I used to have a steel fabrication and agricultural engineering business. I wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember and was a boy entrant to the RAF in 1955, but failed the flying exams. They offered me other things, but I said no and left. Now I’ve got 1,800 hours. These days I probably fly 100 to 150 hours a year in the Mooney.”

And my final interview is with the instructor I met earlier, Bob Sansoni. “I’ve been here two years,” he says ? he’s Italian, but I notice he has a marked American accent. “I came here with Cas. We both felt like a change, I guess. My father was in the US Air Force and was based here when I was born. After growing up in the States, and back in the UK again I started gliding at Rufforth, then became a gliding instructor, then a tug pilot. I was a taxi pilot for twelve years and have been instructing since the Nineties.” I ask how Full Sutton compares with his previous airfield. “It’s a smaller club, kind of dedicated to the members, friendly and easy going. If it got bigger it would have to have committees. I like the grass runway. It’s the kind of place where anyone can walk in off the street, even just to socialise.”

I say my goodbyes and set off for the long drive home, which will be windy, with warnings posted on the motorways. Feeling pretty hungry, though, I resolve to stop at the first place selling food, which turns out to be a village pub. It’s weird; a teenage girl serving and two ancients propping up the bar. Still in interviewing mode, and intending to break an uncomfortable silence I ask their ages. (I am tired.) The first one says 87. He wants to talk and it turns out that he used to work on the airfield when it was still RAF. “It were bloody cold,” he says. The other ancient turned surly at my asking his age. “What’s it to do with you?” He demands, then sulks over his beer. After the airfield reminiscences, hoping to disarm the sulker, I ask if they know each other. They laugh in a knowing way, but don’t say. My sandwich arrives at last. I bolt it down and escape. I’ve know some flying clubs a bit like that pub (though not as bad). On the spectrum of unfriendly to welcoming, Full Sutton is definitely at the other end.

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