Near Leighton Buzzard there’s an airfield that deserves to be more widely known
Today’s visit to Holmbeck Farm is on impulse, the result of having to divert from a cross-country to another airfield because of bad weather. This means I haven’t telephoned before taking off. Like at many airfields, the owner, Bob Perkins, is insistent that you be given a telephone briefing. However, I have flown here before and I see Bob standing by the clubhouse and he seems to be waving me in, so I think it will be okay to land. It’s early morning, no one seems to be flying and after a long flight with the diversion I’m keen to get down. So I sidestep the formalities, descend in a series of slipping turns and land.
Bob’s welcoming – he was definitely waving in the hope that I would land. “Your engine makes such a nice vintage sound,” he says, “and who can resist a biplane?” He offers me coffee. Soon there are some arrivals, albeit pedestrian non-pilots. Bob and Rita’s daughter Lucy, granddaughter Hannah and grandson Stanley have just driven in with their cocker spaniel, Jasper. Hannah is sixteen and an Air Cadet?she’s had a flight in a Grob, aerobatics included. Lucy is a teaching assistant and they live in Leighton Buzzard and have come to the airfield to walk Jasper and say hello to Gran and Gramp. The couple have no fewer than thirteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren?quite a dynasty.
Ten years ago Keith Wilson and I visited Holmbeck Farm to produce a Buyer’s Guide article for Pilot on the Kitfox microlight. I had noted then that circuits are to the north to avoid a village to the south, which means overflying power lines on pylons. The Kitfox was light and manoeuvrable and its four-stroke Rotax gave it an excellent power-to-weight ratio, so this wasn’t a problem. My impression at the time was that Holmbeck Farm was typical of private airstrips in its welcome, its informality?providing you behaved sensibly?and its bringing together the right type of aviators, which is to say club-able, self-reliant and capable. The owner of the Kitfox, who sat with me on all flights was all those things, and more.
Except for some microlight pilots, we learn to fly at formal, licensed aerodromes, most with radio and strict circuit procedures, not to mention rules like ‘no entry to the flying area without a hi-viz jacket’. That type of environment is reassuring for students and encourages self-discipline. Some pilots stay on once they have their licences, but others move to small airfields with air/ground radio and a less formal approach. The advantages are lower costs, more freedom, quieter circuits and often more camaraderie. The disadvantages are fewer facilities and no one looking over your shoulder, which some find disconcerting.
It can be useful to be observed. At fully-licensed Wycombe Air Park, where I learned to fly, and ten hours after gaining my PPL, an instructor who had been watching my landings told me what I was doing wrong?and I doubt that would have happened at a country airstrip. I applied his advice and no longer arrived in a series of bounces.
After small airfields, a few take a big step further and base themselves at a private field like Holmbeck Farm. (The final step would be flying from home as the only pilot on the strip.)
It takes a certain kind of pilot to flourish on a private airstrip. You do your own maintenance (albeit with LAA support), bring your own fuel and take responsibility for the state of your hangar; you may even have to build one. Quite often there will be no one around to help, and you’ll be on your own should anything go wrong, such as the engine proving unexpectedly difficult to start.
If the weather’s borderline there’ll be no one to give you a second opinion. Most private airstrips exist on sufferance from neighbouring houses and villages and consideration for the neighbours is vital. Any irritation you cause may not be passed on to the strip owner?he is a neighbour after all?but still cause resentment which builds until there’s an explosion. For instance, it’s good manners not to fly over a service in one of the village churches on a Sunday morning?or overfly a church at any time. Finally, private airstrips tend to have hazards that you don’t find at other airfields, such as shorter runways, runways that slope, and nearby power lines and other obstructions.
Bob and Rita live in a bungalow on the airfield. He tells me there are eighteen aircraft based here, although two of them, Cessna 210s owned by Graham Mountford, are kept both here and at Turweston. There’s a four-seat Jodel, two RV-6s, an RV-7, a couple of autogyros and an assortment of microlights, plus some LAA types, including Bob’s Zenair. He agrees with me that it’s a friendly place and tells me they regularly stage small-scale group fly-outs. On the grass, there’s a barbecue, a pizza oven and outside seating?plus beer on the price list (‘Fosters £1.20’) – so I picture some lively summer evenings.
Bob is 74 and grew up in North London. He began flying in 1968 at Stapleford, “When you got a half-hour lesson in a Condor for three quid, ten shillings”. He had an engineering toolmaking business in Enfield, which had a hundred employees at its peak.
“We moved to this farm in 1986,” he remembers. “We bought it from a Rallye owner who occasionally flew from here, so advertised it rather cheekily as an airstrip. Actually it was just a field at that time. Coming here re-kindled my interest in flying. I’d been too busy to fly for the previous fifteen years. “For twenty-odd years before that I had been hooked on flying?club stuff from Elstree and Stapleford, Cherokees and Grummans.”
I ask what his average annual hours had been then. “Probably not much more than the minimum thirteen,” he says. “I was always too busy with work. A workforce of engineers is high maintenance?they’re terrible grumblers.”
From the beginning of the move to Holmbeck Farm, Bob had a vision of how he wanted it to develop. “I planned on something long term,” he says, “a club with friends in it. That happened quite quickly once I announced there was an airfield here looking for tenants: there was no end of people wanting to fly from here”.
To start with it was just the Rallye (Bob bought a share in it), but then a Jodel arrived within weeks. “Flexwing microlights started coming in as soon as we had a caravan and could make cups of tea,” Bob remembers, “Mostly from Plaistows and Sandy. We still get a lot of visitors from both airfields today.
“In 1992 we had a big fly-in. There were 88 different aircraft during one weekend”. But that led to trouble. “I had a letter from the local council telling me to cease flying. Fortunately, though, after we took it to appeal the whole thing was quietly dropped.” Holmbeck Farm actually has two runways, but the second is rarely used and only then by Bob and a few others. “It means flying across people’s gardens and I wouldn’t want to annoy them,” he says. “We’re on a hill and can be rather exposed to crosswinds, so occasionally it’s useful. The main runway is 600 yards long?I’m British and I think in yards”. You can find out more from the website http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~dartdirx/holmbeck_farm_airfield.html
Bob is keen to attract visitors and pilots are always welcome but you must obtain prior permission before taking off (01296 681925 or 681816. Mobile 07748 557202) and be able to announce your intentions on the radio (the Safetycom frequency 135.475). “You weren’t able to do either,” Bob says to me kindly. “But yours was a weather diversion and we make an exception for those.” I try to pay for my landing fee and coffee, but he absolutely refuses to accept.
He continues with the history. “We went from the caravan to a building made out of two lorry backs. There’s a row of hangars now, some built by me and others by the resident pilots. Today we have proper toilets including one for disabled people, and a self-service tea room?Rita bakes the cakes in the bungalow. Recently we had 400 visitors for a fly-in, most of them Group A types overseen by the LAA. We get some business traffic?people with an appointment in Leighton Buzzard, and microlight students on cross-countries. The biggest visitor was probably the Navajo PA-31 twin that flew in.”
Bob has owned a variety of aeroplanes over the years, including the Evans VP-1 which once belonged to Francis Donaldson. It’s currently in storage on the airfield with the wings removed. He’s had two Zenair Zodiacs, the current one for fifteen years. Also a couple of flexwing microlights. The current Zenair Zodiac had a Permit when he bought it but was still largely in its undercoat paint and hadn’t been flown for years, being stored in a hangar in Nottingham. Bob tidied it up and painted it. Currently he averages about sixty flying hours a year, “It’s so easy to go for a half-hour flight in the evening,” he says. He’s three times been on flying holidays in America, hiring Cessnas, once making his way from Florida to Georgia. And in the Zenair Zodiac he’s been as far as the Isle of Wight.
Bob is just telling me that three of the resident pilots fly or flew for airlines (one retired), when one of them (employed by easyJet) walks in. He’s bought some tools that Bob requested. Richard ‘go-around’ Parris has an RV-7, which he built at home. He finished it two years ago (total build time: nine years) and has been based at Holmbeck Farm for four years. He currently flies as a private pilot around forty hours a year. He says of Holmbeck Farm, “The grass is well drained, the runway’s smooth, unlike some farm airstrips, and it’s affordable. It can be tricky in a crosswind, but then I divert to Turweston”. I gather that another advantage of the airfield is an electronic security system to prevent any interference with the hangars.
Bob builds metal frame hangars to
his own design for a material cost (including metal or fabric covering) of around £5,000. Residents have a choice of renting one of those for £200 a month, or building their own hangar and paying £100 a month. There are no landing fees for residents. (Visitors are charged £3.) Richard Parris’s hangar cost him around £7,000. Like most hangars at Holmbeck Farm, it holds just one aircraft.
Richard takes me down to see his Van’s in its hangar and then heads off. Bob has come with us and we both walk down the line of hangars, talking. Bob’s other great interest is jazz. “I and Reet go to lots of jazz clubs,” he says. He subscribes to (from his description I think it must be) accuradio.com, an internet radio station which plays jazz from the 1940s.
He tells me about a recent 1940s-themed event on the airfield, advertised on internet radio, which raised money for three charities: one for rescue dogs, another for a local children’s home and the third, a local youth theatre?the theatre put on a show as part of the event. The local branch of the WVS had a stand selling refreshments. Four hundred people came and thirty aircraft types flew in, “including a couple from Old Warden,” says Bob proudly. The event actually left him slightly out of pocket. He doesn’t make any money from the airfield, since the rent and landing fees barely pay for its upkeep.
He and Rita have been together 32 years. They first met as children and both had previous marriages when they met again. Seeing them together, it’s obviously a close-knit partnership.
Bob says he regrets how few young people there are in aviation and how that’s reflected at Holmbeck Farm. “There’s one lad in his late twenties whose father also flies, and some who are still working, but a lot of us are retired.
I should think the average age of pilots here must be sixty. The oldest is 79. The two airline pilots still working are in their fifties. We have a fireman, people who’ve worked in electronics and a couple of engineers.”
I ask about the newspaper article with a photograph of a Comper Swift in flight that I see pinned to a notice board?is that based here? “No, it’s at Hinton,” says Bob, “But Phil Cousins, who built it is a neighbour and a friend. It took him ten years and I was there when he took his first delivery of spruce. You could pick it up in one hand.” Bob is a member of the local LAA Strut and the Bucks Microlight Club?I should think he knows most pilots in the area.
Bob says I’m welcome to stay, but he needs to finish the work he’s doing on his Zenair and then head off. I was lucky to find someone on the strip this early on a Thursday, although it’s possible that some other resident pilots will drop by, and as the weather’s nice (now it’s begun to warm up) a microlight or two might land for a self-service tea in return for a landing fee and a quid in the honesty box.
I’d quite like to get home, and it’s only a twenty minute flight from here. So I say goodbye to Bob, walk out to the Wot, climb in and take off. After taking some overhead photographs, I’m on my way.
Like many private airstrips, Holmbeck Farm is a little difficult to see from the air, though unusually for this kind of airfield, it has runway numbers painted on the grass, which, together with the row of hangars, makes it easier than some. Visitors are encouraged, so if you’re considering flying there, don’t hesitate. Just check out the website, use the radio, phone before take off, and be aware of those pylons and power cables. Also bear in mind there’s no fuel.
You can’t help but admire Bob and all those other people who have opened up their private airstrips to visitors and aeroplane owners, not for profit (few, if any make much money), but for the pleasure of the company of fellow aviators. And to promote aviation to their friends and neighbours, as Bob did so effectively with his 1940s-themed open day.
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