A welcoming airfield run entirely by volunteers — including the flying instructors. Words & Photos Nick Bloom
When it comes to airfields Norfolk is spoiled for choice, because so many were constructed in WWII. Many were ploughed under, but quite a few have been preserved and are still in use.
Today I am flying to Seething, which is just ten miles south-east of Norwich. For mid-October the forecast is promising, but it’s eleven o’clock before the fog has cleared and the cloud lifted sufficiently for VMC flying. When I telephone before takeoff a somewhat laid-back American voice answers and takes my details, including use of the grass runway, which I was told was possible in an earlier call.
The grass alternative to the single hard runway is not shown in my flight guide but is there none the less: sixteen metres wide and 550 metres long, to the left of Runway 24. The American on the phone says, “It’s still a bit foggy here, but it’s lifting. Should be okay by the time you arrive.”
I am trying something new on this flight: in-ear plugs under my David Clarke headset for additional noise attenuation. The idea is to take them out when I get into radio range. They muffle the noise nicely and help to reduce the fatigue of flying open-cockpit in my Currie Super Wot.
This morning, it’s a chilly twelve degrees, but not uncomfortable, so I enjoy the passing scenery?at least, what there is of it. For the first half-hour there’s barely enough to navigate by, a dull grey haze blanking out much of the view. Gradually the sky lightens and by the time I’m crossing the M11, with Audley End off my right wingtip, I can see Duxford clearly, even though it’s a good five miles off to the left. Visibility comes and goes after that, but there’s no mistaking Bury St Edmonds.
Ten minutes after overflying Bury, I’m a little worried that Diss hasn’t appeared and ponder switching on the GPS. Ah, there it is. Diss has an unmistakeable railway running through it, and it runs straight, providing another means of checking that I’m on course.
Just before Hardwick airfield is due to appear, I do turn on the GPS (a moving map Aware), not wanting to overfly the Hardwick circuit which is in fact active?I see someone take off as I drift past. There’s another reason for needing the GPS: in today’s still rather murky conditions, I don’t much fancy my chances of spotting Seething; it’s in the middle of nowhere, not a line feature near it.
I fumble the earplugs out and stow them, and call Seething. “Station calling unreadable,” comes back, so I throttle back and try again. Without the engine noise, they’re “reading me fives”. I’m told “24 left” and read back the QFE, take my overhead photos, drop down in a steep, turning sideslip and land.
The grass runway is ample and I use less than half of it, before backtracking as suggested by the voice on the radio. Sixteen metres is too narrow for a one-eighty in the Wot, which has no wheel brakes or tailwheel. Rather than get out and lift the tail, I take a risk and run a metre or two into the ploughed but flat-and-dry-looking field alongside, before getting the wheels back onto the grass. The voice on the radio stays with me, warning of loose stones as I taxi across the hard at the 24 threshold (tailskid grinding) and then down the narrow strip of grass between taxiway and more ploughed field.
As I near the parking area, the voice on the radio suggests I stop, so I pull the mixture and the prop runs to a halt.
I’m pretty tired after one hour ten and climb out stiffly just as a small welcoming committee arrives. Following introductions, I dip the fuel and there’s enough to get back with a twenty-minute reserve but, quite wisely, they suggest pulling the aeroplane over to the pumps and topping up.
I hoist the tailskid and they pull on the struts. One of them sets the pump to my required fifteen litres and someone else pours the fuel in for me, then all three help to move the Wot to a suitable parking space with its tailskid in the grass. I am being made to feel more than welcome, as will you, should you visit this particularly friendly airfield.
Heading this welcoming committee is a familiar face I haven’t seen for fifteen years, Simon Finlay. We were both (Pilot publisher) Archant employees then, one based in Norfolk, the other in Essex, and we worked together on several occasions. Simon is a professional photographer, now self-employed, who has won a number of awards. He is also a keen pilot based at Seething. The others are Greg Shephard, committee member and Brian Salter, who is one of the club’s volunteer instructors.
Excusing myself for a moment, I grab a quick interview with two men who have just arrived in a Grumman Tiger. David Williams, who works in building construction, and his son Danny, who is a director in a vehicle refurbishment company, have flown in from Nayland?a twenty minute journey?to buy fuel and get some lunch. They are regular visitors, coming here at least once a month.
I have arrived as lunchtime is approaching and the clubhouse is filling with people. In the check-in office, while paying £25 for my fifteen litres of avgas, I meet Debby Thompson. Debby, 49, is a medical secretary and bookkeeper and has been learning to fly for a year. “I’m not counting, but I think I’ve done about forty hours,” she says. “Today I’m flying circuits.”
I ask what she plans to do with her licence. “Oh, I’ll stick to private flying,” she says. She is keen to get a closer look at the Wot, so we go outside and I photograph her alongside it. I ask why she’s taken up flying at this point in her life, and she says, “Once the kids have grown up you think, ‘now what would I like to do for myself?’ I suppose the turning point was seeing my grandkids in the Christmas play, just as I’d seen their parents in their Christmas play and thinking, ‘I’ve been here before’.” As well as taking up flying, she tells me, she now plays the cello.
Greg arrives and we go out to see his aeroplane in one of the hangars. It’s a Fred, painted a cheerful pale blue/green. Greg, 68, used to run a vintage car hire business, “Mostly weddings,” he says. His membership of the Waveney Flying Group and tenancy at Seething began in 1989 when he flew a Jodel. He subsequently sold shares in the Jodel and bought the Fred as a part-built project. “The woodwork was immaculate,” he tells me, “but the VW engine conversion and installation were terrible?for instance the carburettor was on backwards.”
He sorted out the engine, finished the aeroplane and now flies it regularly. “Even though it’s a bit slow, the view downwards more than makes up for that,” he says. He has retained a share in the Jodel. I ask him what makes Seething different. “We don’t have a landlord,” he says.
“All the club members are shareholders in the airfield. If the hangar doors need oiling, or there’s weeding to do, you have to get on and do it, because there is only us. It does make for an exceptionally friendly and cooperative atmosphere.” There are currently about a hundred flying members, plus perhaps another hundred who are ‘social’.
I meet two social members as Greg and I head back to the clubhouse. Sitting at a suitable vantage point in the hangar, heavily-clad in fireproof outer wear, are today’s two duty fireman, both retired bricklayers. Bob Palmer, who is 68, is a 200-hour lapsed pilot, who has not flown (as pilot) for five years. Peter Daines, 67, isn’t a pilot, but is a club member.
I ask how they came to get on the fireman roster. They laugh and say, “We volunteered; it was this or work in the kitchen.” They are partners and are on duty every fourth week. “It’s nice to come out here and socialise,” they tell me, “and even though we’re not flying, we just love to be around aeroplanes.”
In the clubhouse, Greg goes off to sign me up for lunch?if you don’t book, the only alternative is peanuts, crisps and chocolate at the club bar?and I get talking to another student. Sebastian Southgate is seventeen and a Cadet in the Great Yarmouth Squadron, and has had ten hours free flying training on a scholarship. The Waveney Flying Group has links to the Air Cadets (also other charities). In addition, the club organises an annual airshow; yet another way in which it supports the local community.
Sebastian is now continuing his flying training towards a PPL. I ask if that means a career in the airlines. “No,” he says, “after taking my ‘A’ levels, I plan to join the RAF. I’ve wanted to be a pilot since I was eight. Learning here may not be the fastest route to a PPL, but here I’ll be learning from people who instruct because they love flying, not because they’re getting paid to do it. The instructors here are all very experienced and the social side is a big plus too.”
The next person I meet is Ben Pettet-Ellis. Ben used to sell cars, but he and his wife recently became full-time foster parents. “It’s freed up just enough time for me to do something I’ve always wanted to do, which is learn to fly,” he says. He explains that he’s here to apply for social membership, which at the Waveney Flying Group also operates as a kind of probationary period so that the club can size you up before you start learning to fly. (Mainly to see if you’re willing to muck in and help with the chores, according to a committee member.)
Greg arrives to tell me that my lunch is on the table awaiting me, but I pause just long enough to photograph John Shaw, a club instructor and his student, Charlie Hicks, who’s an IT Manager. Charlie is just starting her PPL. They’ve just arrived, so I don’t hold them up.
Lunch is chicken pie with cabbage and carrots. Seated at my table is Peter Bryant, who is 76 and has been in the club for twenty years. Retired now, he began as a woodworker in a bus manufacturer, later moving to fibreglass construction. He’s an ex-pilot, so now he’s a social member as is his friend Tony Deady, 72, a retired book binder who’s been in the club for ten years.
The lunch, which is just four quid, is cooked and served by club members twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Visiting pilots can get it too, providing they telephone ahead and book. It’s something I would warmly recommend, as the food is traditional and there’s a friendly atmosphere. My pudding, which arrives shortly afterwards, is a slice of cheesecake. (The Wednesday lunch is for over-sixties, but in practice anyone can come.) I gather 25 lunches are being served today and that’s a bit down on previous Saturdays, probably because the weather’s not so good today.
After lunch I sit down for a proper chat with Simon Finlay, so that he can fill me in with more details about the club and airfield. RAF Seething was constructed in 1942 and became operational in 1943. It was built to the standard bomber base pattern for USAAF use. B-24s flew from here, bombing aircraft factories, ball-bearing plant, airfields, V-bomb launch sites and other strategic targets.
The airfield ceased operation at the end of the war and most of it was ploughed under?but not all, because the present Runway 24/06 is a survivor from the wartime airfield (at that time the runway was considerably longer). Four pilots set up a flying club here in the early 1960s, which later became the Waveney Flying Group. The original WWII Control Tower has been restored (it’s on the far side of the airfield, just visible in my overhead photograph) and a museum there can be visited on the first Sunday of the month in summer.
The club has just one training aircraft, a Cessna 172. Its only other aircraft, a PA-28 is used for self-fly hire by members. There are currently eight members learning to fly and a waiting list of others. At the moment, 21 aircraft are based on the airfield. Nine members have display authorisations, and one or two are keen aerobatic pilots. The seven-to-eight instructors are all volunteers.
The club charges £200 a year for flying membership and flight training is just £100 an hour?no wonder there is a waiting list! The PA-28 is a little more expensive: £110 an hour. Members don’t get charged for landings and neither, actually, do visitors, although there is a suggested voluntary contribution starting at £10 for a light single. As for fuel prices, “We try to keep them competitive”.
Two senior club members have come to join us. John Shaw is an instructor and co-Vice Chairman and Ivan Mia, Club Secretary. I ask John what are the pros and cons of instructing at Seething. “Not getting paid is actually an advantage,” he says, “it means people are instructing because they want to.
The runway here is excellent, 800 metres long, flat and like everything else on the airfield, well maintained. We have the usual advantages of being in uncontrolled airspace, but we’re close enough to Norwich zone to introduce students to controlled airspace and the controllers there are invariably helpful. We can also introduce students to military zones?Lakenheath and Mildenhall can both be overflown and it is quite something to be able to look down on F-15s in the circuit.
There’s no queue here to get on the runway, which is helpful. And the air/ground radio is less intimidating, although, like being in uncontrolled airspace that can make things too easy. So once students have their licence and go further afield it can come as rather a shock. We have maintenance on the airfield, so that helps too.”
I ask about visiting pilots. John says, “We like them to be aware of noise abatement and ideally to phone ahead before takeoff, but we’re relaxed and it is perfectly okay to announce yourself on the radio and not phone ahead. I think pilots should have the freedom to decide where they’re going to land only once they are in the air, don’t you?”
Simon Finlay is fifty and has been in the club for fifteen years, having learned to fly here. He currently flies a Jodel D.11A. Simon, John and Ivan estimate that well over half the members are like Simon and learned to fly at Seething. I ask them to sum up what makes Seething different. It’s Ivan who answers. “The time, effort and enthusiasm of members,” he says, “that, plus the club ethos which from the very start has always been to make flying affordable for the man in the street.”
Simon takes me out to the latest hangar to be constructed, where his Jodel lives. The aircraft?and hangar too?is immaculate. He tells me that it was built by a German pilot who during WWII was an ‘Ace’ shooting down record numbers of aircraft on the Allied side. A co-owner flew out to the airfield in Germany where the Jodel began its life, sadly a few years too late to meet its builder.
I take photographs of various aeroplanes in the hangars?there is quite a variety?including the latest arrival, a Van’s RV-7. Also of note is a Sonex being built by club member Tim Mobbs, which looks as if it might be nearing completion. We are joined by Dan Gay. As soon as he speaks, I recognise the voice I heard this morning when I rang?yes, he’s the American, from Chicago, actually.
Dan is 52, owns a music shop and provides music lessons, mainly on drums, guitar and piano. He came to the UK many years ago, learned to fly at Seething, recently got his Display Authorisation and tells me he’s looking forward to displaying the Long-EZ he owns.
I am getting a little concerned about the flight back, as rain, low cloud and gusting winds are forecast to arrive from the south-west by early evening, so it’s time to wind up my visit and get going. Before leaving, though, I must pay a visit to Fordaire Aviation and nip up to the Tower.
I knew Rex Ford when we were both based at Little Gransden, but that is maybe twenty years ago and I haven’t seen him since. He’s still doing now what he did then: maintaining aircraft and restoring classics?only now it’s from Seething (he came here four years ago). His operation has expanded since his Gransden days and he now has four full-time and three part-time engineers in his company with seventy aircraft on its books.
In the substantial workshops, covered in polythene sheet is a beautiful Percival Q.6 Petrel?unique apparently?under restoration and, from the look of it, near to completion. It’s co-owned by Fordaire and Finest Hour. The Petrel first flew in 1937 and was designed as a feeder airliner with six seats and/or military communications aircraft. Construction is wood-and-fabric and power is from two de Havilland Gipsy Sixes. Cruise speed is 175mph?not bad, carrying six on 400hp.
On the way to the Tower I pause briefly to photograph club member Alan Youngs driving the club’s 1968 Massey-Ferguson tractor, which they use for cutting the grass. The club owns the buildings and the runway (through a holding company, Wingtask 1995), but the rest of the site is owned by farmers and is cultivated, crops growing right up to the edges of the runways. Visitors do need to keep an eye out for farm vehicles, which can obstruct the approach.
There’s a group of members chatting in the control tower, including Mike Page, who is the senior air/ground radio operator. He’s been a club member since 1960, which makes him the longest-serving member. He must be older than he looks.
A little group gathers at the Wot to see me safely off. We pull the aeroplane onto the grass edge next to the taxiway. After donning earplugs (they said I can depart non-radio), helmet and goggles, I give the throttle three primes, then close it, go round to swing the prop, and after four blades the engine catches and chuckles to itself at idle.
I climb aboard, open the throttle to a more comfortable (for the engine) setting and fiddle with my straps, give a wave and set off down the narrow strip of grass between crop and hard, making pre-flight checks as I go. As I near the threshold it dawns on me that I don’t need to bother with that narrow grass runway; I can take off on the hard. All I need do is turn the aeroplane without letting the tailskid drop.
I give the approach a hard look, just in case someone’s arriving non-radio. No, it’s clear and I saw the club Cessna a moment ago, on the ground, a student and instructor aboard, but the propeller stationary. Stick fully forwards and a burst of throttle and right rudder gets the Wot turning with its tail off the ground.
With the skid no longer acting as a brake it takes full throttle and full opposite rudder to stop the rotation so that we’re lined up with the runway and gathering speed. The Wot accelerates quickly, lifts off and climbs away. Maybe the departure committee has gone back into the clubhouse, but in case anyone’s still watching I give full bank rapidly (well, fairly rapidly) in each direction for a goodbye wave.
The flight back turns out to be far from easy, because the air has turned milky and alternates between murk?when the sun’s in?and total opacity whenever the sun comes out. My required route is a delicate one, threading my way between Stansted’s and Luton’s zones without much room for error. So, the GPS stays on to guide me all the way to my home strip.
It was getting rather late in the season to fly to Seething, but I’m glad I went. I warmly recommend a Saturday lunch there. You won’t be disappointed. The airfield is amazing, truly a marvel of what can be achieved by friendly, democratic cooperation. It certainly represents my kind of flying.
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