This ex-WWII bomber station turned GA airfield is getting ready for the upturn

I have fond memories of Wickenby, because I used to enter aerobatics competitions there in the 1990s. Some airfields are run by club committees, and some by ‘benevolent dictators’. This Lincolnshire airfield was then, and is now, in the latter category and it makes it pleasantly informal. The cathedral town of Lincoln is only eight miles away, but the airfield is in open countryside. Rather than have the bother of riding taxis to bed-and-breakfast accommodation, I asked if I could pitch a sleeping bag on the floor of the Tower building. John and Bob, the two friends who ran the place, said yes. Competitions were all-weekend affairs; I used to fly up after leaving the office on Friday and fly back again on Sunday. That gave me two successive nights in the Tower. If it was haunted by the ghosts of Lancaster aircrew (1,086 who flew from here were killed between 1942 and 1945), I never saw them.

Today, I am flying up in my Tipsy Nipper. It’s an hour and a quarter transit from my airstrip, passing Gransden and Conington and then north into less familiar country. I manage to keep the 21st Century military airfields of Cranwell, Waddington and Scampton on my left and Coningsby on my right, but overshoot Wickenby. These days I am trying to keep in practice with map and compass navigation, but carry a portable GPS for emergencies. When it finally picks up satellites, it turns out Wickenby is just over my left shoulder; one orbit and I’d have seen it.

I’ve been listening out on radio, so I know the runway, QFE and circuit direction. I receive an acknowledgement from the Air/Ground radio service, drop down and land on Runway 21, backtrack and park by the fuel pumps. Judging by what I saw from the air, it’s where visitors go. As I climb stiffly out of the Nipper, the scene that greets me is a bit like stepping back in time. Several lean, athletic-looking men are standing near some high-performance aerobatic single-seaters; one has a parachute strapped on his back. I checked the NOTAM before taking off and an aerobatic practice day was mentioned, but I didn’t realise it was top-level. These guys and their Quarter-of-a-million-pound aeroplanes are unmistakeably Unlimited. I go over to say hello and Gerald Cooper says, “Thought it might be you from the way you came over the hedge”. When I say I dropped down to land, I mean it literally; descending 700 feet on short final in a series of steep turning sideslips. I knew there was no one else on the approach and I didn’t think anyone would mind a slightly unconventional circuit-join.

Gerald Cooper is co-owner of Wickenby, has a hand in several other aviation enterprises, and flies aerobatic displays and competitions. He has achieved the highest placing of any British pilot in Unlimited World competitions, where the standard is several notches higher than at National level. The dedication required, quite apart from flying ability, was substantial in my day and today it’s higher still. Fortunately, he’s modest and friendly: a thoroughly likeable chap, in fact.

“You find us at the end of a training camp,” explains Gerald. “And we’re all a bit wasted.” I tell him I remember the feeling. Unlimited aerobatics does rather take it out of you. “After practice days,” I continue reminiscing, “I used to grey out slightly if I leaned forwards too sharply on the drive home.” No one comments, which either means that particular symptom is so common that it isn’t worth mentioning… or no one else has had it.

After a short interview and posing for a photograph, Gerald suggests I walk over to the Tower building, where I can get a coffee. I take the hint and leave them to their preparations and the laconic, professional conversations I remember. Subjects then ranged across aerodynamic and control refinements, engine tuning, problems with CS propellers, display fees and occasionally the minutiae of high-speed flick roll and other tricky manoeuvres… and I dare say they still do.

I’ve been back to Wickenby a few times over the years, including once for a Pilot Flight Test of the Zlin 242 that was for hire here and once for an airfield profile. That was four years ago and there have been changes. Before leaving Gerald, I ask him what it’s been like co-owning an airfield. “Fun, but a challenge,” he says, “it was my dream to make it a thriving GA airfield that’s also in good shape financially and we’re just about there.” He was living nearby in 2005 when he heard that Wickenby was for sale. At that point his family aerial surveying business was looking for a base. A local businessman and keen pilot, Stephen Turley, was also thinking of buying Wickenby so the pair bought it together.

Everything is familiar as I walk from the refuelling area to the Tower building, and go through the entrance and inside. The building is the same as you’ll find in countless RAF aerodromes constructed in WWII: white-rendered red brick, two-storey, with a winding concrete staircase, steel-framed windows and a first floor outside balcony. The three-runway layout with dispersal areas was also standard. Today a road has cut off what was once the main east-to-west runway and shortened the other two to 680 and 580 metres. The declared distances are even less: 530m for 03/21 and 497m for 16/34.

On the ground floor there’s a loo, a kitchen and serving counter, a restaurant area with chairs and tables and a patio at the back for people to sit outside and watch the flying. At one of the inside tables I meet Gregory De Halle, who at 28 has just become the owner of his first flying school, at Sandtoft. He got a degree in politics at Lincoln University and began flying after a student job as a painter and decorator bought him to Wickenby. He owns a Taylor Titch, which he keeps at Wickenby, and also flies one of the Fly 365 Thrusters. Fly 365 is the local club and flying school. It has two Cessnas, two Thrusters, one flexwing microlight and about 150 members. As well as having instructed here and at Blackbushe, Gregory turns his hand to whatever needs doing, and at this moment is operating the Wickenby Air/Ground service from a handheld radio. I leave him enjoying his full English breakfast ? Lincolnshire sausages, a local speciality ? and go to interview the young woman who brought it to him; the charming Maisie who is just fifteen, and it’s her first day. She’s going to serve customers every other weekend, her Mum and best friend’s aunt work here and yes, she does like aeroplanes, “But I’ve only been in the big ones to go on holiday”. It’s so nice to see young faces at airfields, I say… but only to myself, not wanting to embarrass Maisie, who is a teeny bit shy.

A second young man arrives and takes over the handheld radio. Between transmissions he talks over some technical issue about fuel pumps with Gregory. He’s evidently waiting for his breakfast to be served. He breaks off talking, eating and radio-operating long enough for me to discover that he is Mark Yates and 28, the same age as Gregory. Mark came here for a trial lesson when he was fourteen and now works here full-time in airfield management and part-time as a microlight instructor. I have a coffee and KitKat wondering when my brain is going to get into gear. Some of it seems to be still up there in the sky. Hoping for an improvement, I head up the winding stairs to the combined airfield reception area, staff offices, 
Air/Ground radio base and museum. All these functions were on the upper floor on my previous visits, but the museum bit seems to have grown. While I’m examining the exhibits ? there’s a particularly good Lancaster radio set ? Geoff Fulchen and his friend Alainna arrive. Geoff has a trial lesson voucher with Fly 365 to redeem. It would have bought him a half hour in one of the club C152s, but he’s an hour late (stuck in traffic) and both Cessnas are in use now. Would he prefer to wait, or take 45 minutes in a Thruster microlight? He elects for the Thruster and while the forms are fetched, I learn that the pair are both junior hospital doctors, he’s thirty and she’s twenty-six. She wants to specialise in Paediatrics and he wants to work in Accident and Emergency, “Ideally in helicopters, which is why a friend bought me the voucher”.

The aerobatic training has started outside; there’s no mistaking the rising howl and throttled-back grumble of an overworked Lycoming. So I go downstairs to take a look. Gerald said I’d find Xavier de Lapparent training from the ground. James Gilbert sent me to France to profile Xavier for Pilot in the late 1990s when he was dazzling audiences with an act that included hovering his souped-up Sukhoi Su-26 while it slowly drifted backwards. He’s changed a bit, but is still the same lean, rangy professional.

I have a quiet word with one of the aerobatic pilots who are standing nearby, listening and watching ? Ed Cyster, who is on the British Advanced International team. Ed tells me that Xavier has retired from both display and contest flying. I wonder what this talented Frenchman is doing instead; it obviously includes giving masterclasses in aerobatics. Xavier is watching the swooping, flick-rolling aeroplane, one hand against the sun holding a scrap of paper with the sequence written on it, and speaking into a handheld radio. “You buried that flick a little; it will go a bit quicker…” he says, and “okay, push now… sinking ever so slightly… one-two-three-four…. good…”. Meanwhile, the pilot must be grunting and straining against the constantly reversing high G forces. He is flying an Extreme Air XA-41, which Ed says is more capable, but a lot more tricky to fly, than an Extra 300L. “Like a Sukhoi Su26, then?” I suggest, adding quickly, since I’ll bet Ed has an XA-41 himself, “but greatly improved, of course”. “Yes,” says Ed, “no one knew how to cope with the Su26 when it came out. The XA-41 can come as a bit of a shock in that way too.”

There was a time when watching other people fly Unlimited used to tempt me like the ‘ugly duckling’ when swans flew over. Nowadays I’m more like the reformed alcoholic watching someone down a double and order another ? I remember the hangovers. I leave Xavier and the others to see what else is going on. My next encounter is with Tony Strafford. When I introduce myself, he says, “I know. I’m a Pilot subscriber and I always read your airfield guides,” adding “though I couldn’t see the point of them at first ? who wants to read about other people’s airfields?” Tony is a software developer with a lapsed PPL, which he gained at Clacton, then had to give up. “Financially things are a bit easier now,” he tells me, “So I thought I’d take up flying again”. He’s on his way to preflight one of the school C152s, so I walk with him. He’s having problems with landing, specifically with knowing when to round out. He agrees that this is fairly astonishing, given that he used to fly taildraggers without any problem. “Steve will sort me out, though” he says. “He’s an amazing instructor ? doesn’t miss a thing.”

Peter Grant, who provides Marketing Support for the airfield (including producing the club magazine) and for Warter Aviation arrives to find me, apologising for being late. Like the couple I met earlier, he got held up in roadworks. Meanwhile I’ve met Jim, who’s an excavator driver, lives nearby and has come to see the aerobatics. Jim is thirty hours into a helicopter PPL, though not at Wickenby, and is currently saving up to continue the course. “This is a lovely airfield,” he tells me. “I used to love the Wings and Wheels shows. It’s so sad that insurance got too expensive after the Reno Races crash and they had to stop them.” Peter agrees, but adds, “We might be able to bring Wings and Wheels back, though, when the insurance rates fall again.”

Peter has come to take me on a guided tour of the airfield, but first I have to go over and say hello to a couple that have just landed, the Millingtons who have flown in from Great Massingham in their PA-28. “We come here at least once a month,” they tell me. “It’s so friendly, there is a reciprocal landing fee arrangement, the food and the coffee’s good. After this we’re going on to Boston; they’re great too. There’s no landing fee if you use the café.”

We say goodbye to the Millingtons and Peter begins his briefing. “A lot has changed since you were last here,” he tells me. “We sold the lease for one of the main club hangars to Frontier Agriculture, which together with the other mainly agricultural chemicals tenants on the site, has secured the airfield’s future financially and given us some surplus to plough back.” He points to the long white-painted building next to the control tower. “We’ve put this up and we’re in the process of furnishing and decorating it inside. When it’s finished it will have a big new club lounge, aircraft operations and Air/Ground radio. It will also have several leased offices, some of which are occupied now.”

These include offices for Warter Aviation, which imports 100LL and UL91 avgas from Poland and distributes it to airfields in the UK. Warter is a business venture of Gerald Cooper and Stephen Turley. To date it has sold over a million litres of fuel. Another office is occupied by One Sky, Gerald and Steve’s maintenance and microlight manufacturing company, which also manages vintage aircraft and Gerald’s aerobatics displays.

Next, Peter points out the drainage that has been put in for what will be a secure aircraft parking area adjacent to the new building. There will also be some taxiways to get the best from the new layout. The taxiways ? and three additional hangars ? have just had planning approval. And the main runways are scheduled to be re-surfaced shortly. I hear later on that the club has applied for ATPL training… although it’s early days for that.

Aircraft that were housed in the hangar which is now occupied by Frontier are now kept in spruce, modern blister-hangars. There is certainly no shortage of hangar space at Wickenby, since even without the Frontier hangar, there are still a half dozen buildings for the fifty or so aircraft based here. One, pointed out by Peter, stands apart from the others and has ‘Vintage Skunk Works’ over the doors. This is where Gerry Cooper, father of Gerald and founder of the family aerial survey company (no longer operating) keeps his private collection of aircraft. Peter says, “Gerry prefers to be discreet about his aircraft, but he has a number of classic treasures in there”.

Another hangar is the exclusive provenance of John Frecklington and Bob Merewood. They have just arrived, so we go over to meet them. John taught Bob to fly when Bob was just seventeen. Between 1956 (when it was decommissioned by the RAF) and 1964, the airfield was owned by a local farmer. John and Bob with some other friends persuaded the farmer to allow them to set up a flying school and club. Bob takes up the story: “We started with a Proctor Four and two Austers. It was a huge effort to get the runways usable again, but we got the airfield licensed, including a licence for night operation. At one time we had 23 employees. We sold it, as you know, to go into part-retirement, in 1997.” Two of the original founders have died, but John and Bob are still going strong and their company, Wickenby Aviation has in its hangar a Chipmunk and Auster on which they still train around 150 hours a year (charging £190 an hour plus VAT dual). The hangar also houses some Pitts Specials and other aircraft belonging to their customers.

The airfield has its own maintenance company (closed today, since it’s a weekend) housed next to the Frontier building. The maintenance business is part of One Sky Ltd, as is also a small production line making Thrusters to order. I flew one of these delightful two-seat, three-axis microlights recently for a Pilot Flight Test and was impressed by its handling and rugged construction. I thought it made a perfect and economical club machine for training and touring.

Wickenby’s co-owner Steve Turley has arrived and I follow him into the cockpit of his beautiful Malibu JetProp for a quick interview. He trained as an accountant with Deloittes in London and got introduced to farming through his wife, whose family farms in Lincolnshire. Steve is also involved in farming in Central and Eastern Europe. He has been flying for over thirty years and currently manages around 200 hours a year, two-thirds of it on business. He doesn’t just fly big, fast turboprops, though, he also flies a Thruster, a Tiger Moth and the replica DH2 based at Wickenby (unfortunately locked in the maintenance hangar, otherwise I would photograph it). He also owns the Zlin 242 I flew. “I had been keeping an aeroplane here for fifteen years and always wondered about buying the airfield,” he says. “When I met Gerald we got on well and found that our business skills dovetailed nicely, so it was natural for us to buy the place together.”

Peter escorts me around the hangars, which have a high proportion of aerobatic aeroplanes, classics, homebuilts and microlights plus a relatively small number of conventional Pipers and Cessnas. One beautiful aeroplane ? a new arrival as it turns out ? is both Cessna and classic, a C120 taildragger. The owner, Paul Espin, is squatting on the hangar floor servicing its door handles. “I saw a C120, fell in love with it and wrote to every British owner of one,” he says. “There was one couple who’d had theirs for 21 years who said they had been thinking of selling it. Sturgate, where I was based, didn’t have any hangar space, so I’ve brought it here.”

In amongst all the singles, there’s one twin, at least one that I see on my tour. However, my main impression is that this is an aviator’s airfield, as against the kind where shirts have epaulettes and the dream is to fly airliners. Among the many notable residents is Peter’s immaculate and beautifully-constructed SportCruiser kitplane. He’s flown 400 hours in it including a trip to Tannkosh… and he’s just started on another kitplane.

It’s time we had some lunch, so we head back to the Tower building. I see a young woman sitting on the grass outside next to a Thruster and go across to meet her. She is Joanna White, a video producer and digital technician, and she has flown some 300 hours as a microlight pilot in the ten years since having learned with Fly 365… and she’s waiting for Steve Turley, whom she is flying to his home three miles away.

Back in the clubhouse we order lunch: a bacon bap for me and a sausage and onion bap for Peter. Peter is trying to think if there’s anything he missed out and remembers Flights For Lives, a charity which is based at Wickenby. “We had a day here a month ago. Pilots take up children suffering with a terminal illness for a passenger flight.” I remember that I still haven’t interviewed either Malcolm Howland or Steve Trafford properly. Steve was the Group A instructor with the lapsed PPL student I met briefly earlier. Malcolm was the microlight instructor (though they both fly both Group A and microlights) I saw when the two doctors came in for a trial lesson. However, they were both too busy then. Maybe now…

Well, it turns out that Peter has booked Malcolm to take me for a quick hop over the airfield to take some overhead photographs, and after a busy morning, Malcolm has a slot right now. So, still munching my bacon bap, I follow Peter upstairs. Steve first, though. He is having his lunch in his CFI’s office, and has a customer waiting, but we manage a quick word. He used to be a crop sprayer ? an interesting and rather unusual background ? and currently has sixteen Group A students. The two Cessna 152s fly approximately 700 hours a year. “Now if you’ll excuse me…” I let him go.

So now I’m walking with Malcolm down to the hangars to fly the Thruster. As well as two Thrusters, Fly 365 has a 912 flexwing microlight. The three aircraft probably fly 300 hours a year between them. Malcolm has been here since 2000, coming from Clench Common. “We just had the one flexwing when I arrived, and it grew from there,” he says. “One great thing about the setup here: the microlights and Group A aeroplanes are fully integrated. We get a lot of pilots who start on microlights and move across and vice versa and there’s none of the snobbery about what’s a ‘real aeroplane’ and what isn’t that you get at some airfields.” I ask if he has any tips for visiting pilots. “Remember there’s an inner circuit at 700ft and an outer one for faster aeroplanes ? anything Group A, basically ? at 1,000ft. The other thing that sometimes catches out visitors is the white boxes showing the usable parts of the runways. Just because an aircraft is backtracking outside the white boxes, it doesn’t mean the runway is clear. Other than that, just use common sense. It’s a relaxed airfield. We accept non-radio pilots who phone ahead and we also allow tailskid aeroplanes to land on the grass areas ? though those bits are unlicensed, of course.”

Malcolm quickly removes the left door (held with two clevis pins) and we climb into the Thruster, which I note has the same Jabiru engine as my Tipsy Nipper, and taxi out. Malcolm is thorough and procedural without making a song and dance out of it, and does treat this somewhat basic flying machine pretty much as you would a C152. (For instance he briefs me on what will happen if the engine fails on takeoff.) The short flight reminds me of Welshpool, where I took my pictures from a Robinson R22 with the left door off, because with the engine above the cabin, the view forwards in the Thruster is equally unobstructed. The takeoff isn’t vertical like the R22’s, but the Thruster lifts off after such a short run that it almost is. So there’s not much between the two, except costs, of course… but that’s another story.

I take my photographs within a single tight circuit and then we’re back down again and it’s time to say my goodbyes. Bob Merewood has dug out a photograph to show me; it’s ‘Plums and Custard’, the Stampe I was competing in at Intermediate. The photo is dated 1992. Peter very kindly finds a half-filled jerrycan of UL91 to top up the Nipper’s tanks with, waving away my offer to pay. “We distribute the stuff, after all,” he says. I climb into the Nipper, press the starter and head off.

A great place to learn to fly

On the flight home I mull over my impressions. Wickenby is filled with character and it must be a great place to learn to fly. It reminds me of Booker (Wycombe Air Park) when I got my PPL in 1977, and there were so many interesting things going on in the background. For instance, while I was preparing for my solo cross country in the restaurant, outside, Doug and Tony Bianchi and Neil Williams were taking it in turns to swing the prop on a Sopwith Camel whose rotary engine wouldn’t start. Like Wickenby, it was an exciting place where all kinds of exotic aircraft were around to point you to possible post-PPL futures. I love the way microlights and Group A flying at Wickenby are integrated. And it’s great to see so many young faces. But probably the main thing about the airfield is the partnership between two aviators with a head for business that has secured its financial health. Wickenby has the best of both worlds: it is making money without losing its wonderful, unique character as a place to fly.

Image(s) provided by: