For Londoners who are just starting to learn to fly, or have their PPL and are looking for further training, Turweston has a lot to offer.
On the map it looks a long way off compared to White Waltham, Panshanger or Biggin Hill, but it’s probably closer than you think. The airfield’s entrance is just fifteen minutes’ drive from Junction 15A on the M1 or eight minutes from Junction 10 on the M40. Turweston is a licensed airfield, but has an easy-to-cope-with, air-to-ground radio service, no controlled airspace and a choice of two grass and one hard runway. At present the two flying schools there are under-utilised and the training rates are attractive. The atmosphere is relaxed and welcoming, with none of the London ‘buzz’ – it is a country airfield, after all.
It would also be a great place to keep an aeroplane, yet there are fewer than sixty on the site and a waiting list for hangar space. This is partly because a lot of the available hangar room is taken up by a maintenance company and an aircraft painting business, both of which are busy enough for customers to need to book ahead. More hangar space in the future is a possibility.
This is my first visit to Turweston. I see the sign off the A43 and drive through a picturesque village, arriving shortly afterwards at the airfield gates. My first impression is that everything is beautifully landscaped and maintained, from the flower beds to the small lake outside the windows of the office building occupied by the Light Aircraft Association (LAA) and Turweston Flight Centre.
Inside I find Francis Donaldson (the LAA’s Chief Engineer) at his desk in a very smart office, one of a row on the ground floor. Another doubles up as the LAA shop. Francis says, “We’re happy here. The people who run the place are welcoming and helpful, the facilities are good and there’s a nice little restaurant. Plus, it’s got good motorway access and a central location, and there’s the option of members flying in… and for us to fly them. Flying to meetings is often a lot quicker than driving to some of the more remote farm airstrips.” The LAA doesn’t have an aircraft of its own, but members with aeroplanes there will lend them out.
I go upstairs and through a door marked ‘Turweston Flight Centre’ to meet Tanya Coles, who has offered to be my guide to the airfield. I find her sitting in another smart, new office, which she shares with Tracey. Tanya and Tracey look after the airfield administration, and, Tanya explains, when the lady who ran the restaurant retired, Tracey suggested that they take on the running of the café, which she has grown to a seven-days-a-week operation serving freshly cooked food made to order.
Tanya introduces me to Bill Tollett. He and Simon Coombs are the two instructors employed by Uplift Aviation Ltd, trading as Cirrus Training. Both of them have completed the Cirrus factory course and are qualified to train the owners of these remarkable aircraft. I’ve written a couple of flight tests on them for Pilot and gave them an enthusiastic thumbs up. The glass cockpit, plus the aircraft’s high performance, have led Cirrus to make completion of its training mandatory for owners. Bill and Simon are both also FAA examiners (so if you operate an N-reg aircraft on an FAA licence you can do the biennial revalidation with them) and are qualified to teach FAA from PPL to CPL and IR. Cirrus Training has access to several Cirrus aircraft and also a Cessna 152 Aerobat and teaches aerobatics and spin recovery. The company can also examine, though not teach, multi-engine.
“We do FAA biennials for around 100 pilots,” says Bill, “and they come from right across the UK and Europe, so the accessibility of Turweston is a big help.”
Tanya is now serving in the restaurant, so it’s Bill who takes me on to my next pre-arranged interview, which is with Nick Tarratt – MD of Caseright Aviation, the sole UK distributor of Cirrus aircraft, and agents for Vulcanair (which used to be Partenavia, making light twins) and Aquila (fast, hi-spec composite tourers). He tells me, “Caseright came here in 2003 to start the Cirrus distributorship. I chose Turweston because I could see it was being invested in – unlike other airfields which were stagnating. I wanted somewhere central in the UK with good transport links. It was an advantage to be in uncontrolled airspace and also the relatively low movement levels mean less time stuck waiting to get onto the runway or join the circuit. Not only was Turweston on the up but it was also competitively priced. When I saw this smart new office block and hangar, that clinched the deal.”
Another part of the Caseright Group at Turweston is Caseright Engineering, an approved Cirrus Service Station, one of six in the UK. It has four engineers and occupies the hangar, which is part of the ground floor.Nick tells me, “We’ve sold around 150 Cirrus aircraft and we think there might be another thirty flying in the UK. We’ve also sold four Aquilas and three Vulcanairs.”
I ask him about the changes he’s seen at Turweston. “It’s five years behind where it should be,” he says, “And it’s entirely down to planning obstructions caused by a handful of local residents. But since the last public enquiry, we’re back on track with a wider, longer runway and at least talk of some new buildings.”
My next appointment is with Mick Allen & Son Aircraft Resprays. They have a hangar entirely to themselves, divided into two big rooms, the first for prepping and the second for spraying. Mick and his two sons, Shay and Ty are a delight, one of those family businesses that make you glad to be in aviation.
“The business started as the paint shop for Rogers Aviation at Cranfield,” Mick tells me. “When they went bust we carried it on as an independent company. We moved to Spanhoe. David Owen, who owns Turweston, came to us with a club PA-28 and suggested that we might like to move here. That was fourteen years ago. We’ve had more work than we can handle ever since and there’s currently a two-year waiting list. There’s so much passing traffic here, people see us, see how we’ve got two really big workshops, and they want us to do their respray. Homebuilders, typically building Van’s RV aircraft, find out about us when they come here to see the LAA. A third of our business is homebuilts. For people with bigger aircraft or high performance machines, like the Christen Eagle we painted in 2011 and which won an award at this year’s LAA Rally, it helps that there’s a good set of runways here.”
Anyone considering a re-spray should visit the Mick Allan website www.allenaircraftresprays.co.uk Their work really is first-class, and they paint to last.
It’s lunch time so I make my way to the restaurant. Tanya makes me a terrific bacon bap, which I round off with a slice of home-made cake. I meet Eddie Towndrow who, as a director, can tell me all about Turweston Flying Club. He’s sharing a table with fellow club members Chris, Sheila, Angie and Ricky.
Formation flying training
“I’m the Operations and Business Director,” Eddie tells me. “The club leases two Cherokees, a Warrior and a Cessna 182 from my co-directors. We have 120 members, including some who are in syndicates co-owning aircraft. Currently there are eight students learning to fly with us full time, plus a number of ‘irregulars’ learning when they can. Mike Robinson is our CFI and two of the club directors are BA pilots. One of them was in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight so, perhaps rather unusually for a small club, we include formation flying. Also night and instrument ratings, although those use facilities of other airports.” (There are temporary landing lights at Turweston.)
“The club has been around in various forms for donkey’s years, but the current owners bought it and gave it its present name in 2009. It was a flying school but we’ve tried to make it more of a club with fly-outs and events.
“I began flying here in 2005, finishing off the PPL course I’d started at Brize Norton, which was interrupted by the Iraq conflict and runway re-surfacing. A friend said Turweston was a really friendly place and I should move here, even it was a bit further. The club’s reached the stage where we ought to take on another full time instructor and we’re thinking of going up a step.
“This is a great place to fly from. We attract pilots from more formal airfields who get frustrated by hold-ups with access to the runway and slots. It relies on volunteers and good will. The airport manager is the only full time airside employee. Personally, getting involved has been a great eye-opener. Now I have some idea of how much work goes into running an airfield.”
Ricky – his surname is Delve – offers to show me his newly-acquired Jodel D117. He’s been flying from here for fifteen years, most recently in a Robin DR400 that he rented from its owner, “But I thought it was time I tasted the joys of ownership and also tailwheel flying.
“What I like about Turweston is that it’s rural, beautifully landscaped and cared for by its owner. It’s a business for him, but you can see that he puts his heart and soul into it. There’s a great spirit of camaraderie with everyone helping everyone else out, visitors especially. One of the joys, I dare say not just for Turweston, is how classless flying is. You can get a Lord mixing with a window cleaner. People with several decades of flying experience are here putting something back by helping others who’re just starting out.”
Sharing the Jodel’s hangar are some other treasures, including a Miles Whitney Straight, a Jungmeister, a Puss Moth and a Cessna 180. Outside on the tarmac I meet Frederick Saker and Theo Miller, who have come to fly Frederick’s Socata TB20 Trinidad, which is based at Denham. They brought it to Akki Aviation at Turweston to have the engine zero-timed. They are currently running in the engine with short flights at full power. The pair explain, “We don’t only fly here from Denham for maintainance, it’s a frequent destination just for coffee or for lunch. We’ve got friends here and it’s got a pleasant atmosphere.”
My next meeting is with Chris Brown, the airfield manager, who is manning the radio in ‘the tower’ – actually one end of the first floor. Chris says, “Visitors should not be put off by the Turweston noise abatement procedures. They aren’t complicated and we can explain them over the phone or you can find them in UK AIP or the flight guides.” The noise abatement circuit is wider than standard, with some legs angled to avoid three villages and the town of Brackley. The circuit height is also notable – 1,300ft. I ask if there’s anything else visitors should know. “Saturdays can get busy, Sundays tend to be quiet. When the Grand Prix is on we can be very busy.”
Next on my list is Phil Turvey, MD of Turweston Helicopters, a charter company that also offers training. It has access to a JetRanger, R44, R22 and Single Squirrel, all leased from owners, and has been at Turweston for two years. As well as running his own company, Phil is a freelance pilot for Sloane and others. Sloane has a training operation in Majorca and Turweston’s single PPL(H) student is finishing his training there at the moment.
“In 2010, Sloane closed down its charter operation,” explains Phil, “so I offered to run it from here as my own company in what had been the Sloane Air Ambulance office. I plan to grow the business and get more students, but the charter work is ticking over nicely. For instance, I recently flew a Ferrari racing driver from here to Battersea and back for a television interview.”
I spot a pair walking out to a Cessna 152 and go across to talk to them. They are Jeremy Dawson, an instructor from Alma Aviation in Coventry and Iman Ellyien, who is on a structured hour building sortie. The pair have diverted to Turweston because of bad weather. Iman is a professional artist who is looking for an aircraft to paint – if you are interested, visit www.ellyien.com to find out more.
The weather is beginning to clamp down and it’s clear that there aren’t going to be many more aircraft movements. Just as I’m scanning the horizon, a car drives up. At the wheel is David Owen, the airfield owner. He drives me down the runway so that I can see how it’s been recently widened and extended, from 18 by 800 metres to 23 by 1,256 metres. “My goal is to attract more business aviation and more traffic from Silverstone, and a bigger runway is a good start,” he says. He points out lingering traces that indicate the original WWII dimensions: 45 by 1,850 metres. We park and go to his office so that he can fill me in on how he came to own Turweston.
Wellingtons and Ansons
RAF Turweston was opened in 1942 as an airfield to train bomber crews. It had three concrete runways and a single hangar. Wellingtons and Ansons flew there to begin with, then Bostons and Mitchells from 1943. Other types based on the airfield included Mosquitoes and Hurricanes. It was closed as a military air base in 1945 and was used to store Bren gun carriers in the Fifties. Private flying from what remained of the runways continued sporadically, but the 220-acre site was increasingly returned to farming and activities such as car rallying – a car rally track is on the airfield and in use today.
David shows me the ‘Airside to Trackside’ film, which you can access on the airfield website www.turwestonflight.com (click on the right side of the home page). It’s an inspirational video that shows how busy Turweston becomes during its equivalent of a retailer’s Christmas – the Grand Prix at Silverstone.
I ask about beginnings and David says, “In the early sixties, my father’s farm included part of the airfield. The Air Ministry had gone, and it was a farm strip with some crop spraying and glider training. When Dad died in 1985 his farm was sold and I bought the airfield because I had a hunch that it could be developed. I was too busy running my building company to do anything about it, though.
“In 1989, I decided to learn to fly and began instruction at Wellesbourne. My instructor was saying that he wanted to start his own flying school and I happened to mention this place. He immediately got excited and there was no stopping him.
“I’m afraid I never did complete my pilot’s licence. I was kept far too busy with Turweston, which had no facilities but seemingly endless demands from its growing list of tenants. We got the grass runways licensed and started circuit training, and then the District Council threatened us with an enforcement notice. There was a long process of applications and appeals that culminated in 1992 with a public enquiry and permission finally being granted in 1993. We wanted to be all-weather, so in May 1994 we laid the tarmac runway. The building we’re sitting in now – which attracted the LAA and Caseright – was erected in 2003.”
Headquarters for the LAA
My next meeting is with Richard Dunevein-Gordon, the LAA’s CEO. He says, “Turweston is a great place to have an HQ. It’s in the centre of the country, has fabulous facilities, beautiful surroundings and clear airspace. Members come here to see our engineers or buy stuff from the shop, to attend our training workshops or for members’ meetings. We also run our test pilot courses twice-yearly from here, which we run with the CAA.
“The LAA has a small core of paid employees, but we depend on an army of volunteers to organise the Struts, fly-ins and Rally and to conduct annual inspections on aircraft, and supervise aircraft builders. Turweston operates in much the same spirit, a lot of people giving their time unpaid to help fellow enthusiasts. So, it’s fitting that the LAA should have its headquarters here.”
Waiting to meet me I find one of Turweston Flying Club’s part-time instructors, Paul Shenton. “I’m a commercial training captain for an airline,” he says, “and instructing here is really my hobby… although I do have a business interest in the club. I used to fly in the Battle of Britain Memorial flight, so I thought it would be fun to bring some of those skills here by adding formation training. I have a share in a Pietenpol Aircamper and I’m also building one, plus I part-run the Pietenpol club website, so I love the LAA connection. “This is a great airfield for training, with minimal delays and clear airspace. Having said that, we do a lot of IMC training and one of the advantages of Turweston is that there are several airfields with instrument approach facilities a short flying distance away. And at the other end of the scale, a lot of little airfields in the region for touch and go practice.”
My final visit is to Akki Aviation Services Ltd, a substantial and well-equipped maintenance company. I get three of the engineers, Colin, Ivor and Iain to pose for a photograph. “It’s a great airfield at which to work,” they tell me, “In a good location that gets plenty of visitors and movements. It only gets really busy on Grand Prix day and then it’s really exciting, though you do tend to get rushed off your feet.”
A company director, Joe Kuttapa comes out. “I started the company here fourteen years ago,” he says. “I could see that this place was likely to expand. Today we have ten employees and people bring their aircraft here from Scotland and Wales, and even France and Germany, especially N-reg aeroplanes. We are expanding the hangar to accommodate the bigger twins. I read about other airfields shrinking, but this one gives us plenty of business.”
Long drive but no delays
I go back up to the Turweston Flight Centre offices and David Owen comes out to say goodbye. He says, “We are a popular destination for West London Flying Clubs because you can fly here and back in an hour, which is useful for those keeping licences current. Some pilots temporarily relocated here during the Olympic restrictions, the extra driving time being partly offset by the lack of delays. However not many people want to drive over fifty miles to get to their aircraft.”
Well, maybe this article will do something to correct that; Turweston certainly has a lot going for it.