This south coast airfield was founded by Edwardian pioneers flying Boxkites and Blériot monoplanes, and is still going strong

Coastal airfields have a special charm and ‘Brighton City’, as it is now being touted, is one of the most appealing. For one thing, it has a rich history: the first flight from here was in 1910 and it has been in continuous operation ever since.

I can remember when the Popular Flying Association held its rallies at Shoreham and the thrill of my first visit, in a two-seat, non-radio Jodel, some 35 years ago. You drop down over some hills and there it is, laid out right next to the coast, adjacent to the river Adur, a magnificent airfield with three grass runways plus a hard runway that was added in 1982. Then, as now, there is the treat of lunching in the art deco passenger terminal building.

Even then it was a fairly formal airfield, with staff telling you where to park and keeping a wary eye on visitors. The landing fee was higher than at most other airfields I flew to?today it’s £30 for a PA-28?but worth it. And remember to bring your high-vis jacket.

I’ve left the Currie Super Wot in the hangar this chilly November day, as heavy showers are forecast, driving round the dreaded M25 to arrive bright and early. Outside the passenger terminal, I see Dave Kimpton and Eleanor Luton, who have just moved to the area. Previously they flew from White Waltham, and have now joined the South Coast Flying Group.

This will be Eleanor’s first flight in one of the group’s two Cherokees. They say Brighton City is a friendly place, as is the group, whose third aircraft is a C152, and ownership is non-equity, so “no money down”.

Inside the passenger terminal building (a passenger terminal no longer; now it’s offices, meeting rooms and a restaurant) I meet John Davies of HeliFly. This helicopter company has a single Robinson R44, and its business is 75 per cent pleasure flying, fifteen per cent charter and ten per cent trial lessons. Today John is due to fly a couple to a hotel for lunch, which is one of a number of packages listed on the HeliFly website. Later he is due to drop a charter client at a hotel near Rye.

John directs me to the office of Alex O’Loughlin, Brighton City’s Head of Marketing, who wants to accompany me around the airfield. Alex has been in post for six months, marketing having previously been sub-contracted to an agency, and is looking forward to meeting those tenants on the airfield whom she hasn’t yet been able to meet.

We go upstairs to the Sussex Flying Club, where Club CFI James Crabbe tells us it’s the longest established flying school on the airfield?founded in 1992?and the second biggest. We’ve caught him at a bad moment and arrange to come back later.

On the balcony outside we have another necessarily brief encounter, with Alejandra Garcia, one of the air traffic controllers. She is on her way up to the Tower. “I’m due right now,” she says. I limit myself to one question and she tells me that she’s been in post a year and nine months.

Downstairs I spot pilot Phil Simpson, about to fly his PA-28 Archer to Lee-on-Solent for avionics work. He’s a retired importer, flies around a hundred hours a year, started flying in 2007 and has been based at Shoreham since 2009. He lives five minutes away and pays £500 a month to keep his aircraft in one of the maintenance hangars.

“The other hangars are cheaper, but aren’t as good,” he says. Of the aerodrome he says, “It’s got a hard runway, instrument approaches, good air traffic control, a choice of on-airfield maintenance companies and generally good facilities. And that’s exactly what I want.”

Next I talk to retired IT consultant Bob Kendrick, and Edwin Bray, who’s also retired after a career in publishing. They are members of the charmingly-named Old Bus Flying Group, which has 22 members who co-own a PA-28. Bob and Edwin have been on the airfield for twelve years. This morning they are contemplating a flight to Fairoaks, although wondering if the weather’s up to it. I ask them how the aerodrome has been for the last few years.

“Prices have risen and there’s been some uncertainty over ownership and the airport’s future,” they tell me. “It’s more a businesslike airfield than one with a great deal of camaraderie,” they say. “A big feature is the Hummingbird restaurant, especially since it came under new management a few years ago. It’s extremely popular in the local area.”

Bob also belongs to South Coast Flying Group, which he tells me has sixty or seventy members. I ask about air traffic control. They say, “The controllers are as relaxed as they’re allowed to be?and they’re very skilful; I’ve known them to handle seven aircraft in the circuit apparently without effort.”

Next, Alex and I head for KB Aviation, where we meet Director Steve Banaeian. This engineering company has been on the airport for thirty years and currently has around forty aircraft on its books and four engineers. Steve says the airport’s previous owner, Albemarle, is in administration?confirmed by Alex, only she doesn’t believe the airport’s future is threatened.

“However, it’s been worrying,” says Steve; “it worries our customers.” Another concern is that rental fees have been rising and Steve thinks the landing fee is too high. “Also,” he adds, “business has dropped as a result of the Hunter crash. Flying clubs haven’t been getting so many trial lessons. The local community is beginning to put the crash behind it now, but it’s slow.”

Steve says the amount of helicopter, business jet and turboprop activity is tending to increase, but otherwise, “it’s very quiet compared to how it used to be?I can remember landing here and having trouble finding space to park”.

We continue down the line of buildings on the south perimeter road. Most are occupied, although a few are vacant. I see a group of youngsters from the technical college on the airport, who are outside for a cigarette. They say they’re learning automotive skills, but Northbrook College does run some aviation-related courses. I also pop into InterAir, an obviously thriving business providing laundry and cutlery to the airlines; its reception has a rather snazzy sculpture of a jet in it.

Alex says, “The airfield is on a flood plain, so is immune from the pressure to put up housing. The dozen or so non-aviation businesses here, plus all the employment from the aviation businesses, make the site highly appreciated by the local council?or so they tell me.”

Our next visit is to engineering company Apollo Aviation, where I meet Peter Villa, the previous owner. The company is now run by Jonathan Candelon, who is also the managing director of the airport and of the commercial flying school on the site, FTA. (The ownership of the site is complicated: it involves more than one local authority and there are complications with the previous owner, Albemarle.) Peter says Apollo has around twenty aircraft on its books, two licensed engineers, plus four unlicensed and one part-time.

Peter started the company in 1993 and has also worked as an aviation consultant. I ask him if he would characterise Brighton City as small and informal or large and formal and he says, “A bit of both”. On the airport’s future, he says, “It’s going to have to adjust to more commercial training, light business aviation and helicopter charter.”

At Perry Air, on the west end of the perimeter road, the receptionist says there are two students and a trial lesson booked today, but no one currently available to interview. Sadly, the engineer in the maintenance and storage hangar on the ground floor, where I can see a number of classic biplanes, is too busy to stop.

The last building in the row is pilot equipment supplier Transair. Tom Moloney sends his apologies; he’s had to fly to a business meeting in his MD500 helicopter, but Director Robert Norman is happy to talk to me. It’s Transair’s thirtieth anniversary this year (2016) and the company has had its headquarters here since 1999. The shop on the airport is open six days a week. Robert says pilots are going online for their supplies more than they used to, “But footfall is still important. People like to come in and try items.

We get pilots flying to Brighton City in order to pick up something from the shop.” The current best seller is the Bose A20 headset, followed by Aeroshell products. Has he noticed other trends? “We are doing a lot more business-to-business trading: supplying schools, clubs and maintenance organisations, kitting out airlines with headsets and fulfilling student uniform contracts.”

We head back to the passenger terminal building and I nip upstairs to see if Sussex Flying Club’s CFI James Crabbe is any less busy. The club looks to be buzzing but he says he can fit me in, so we go into an office for a chat.

James is particularly proud of a film on Facebook, which he’s had made professionally, following a student, Beth Moran, to first solo, directed by Tristan Loraine, a documentary maker who’s a retired British Airways Captain. “The film got 110,000 hits on Facebook in just two weeks,” says James. “We’re a very publicity-conscious club,” he says, “and the airfield’s management has been good in backing us.”

The club has over 200 members, around 45 students and a fleet of three PA-28s, three Cessna 152s and a Piper Arrow. As well as PPL training it trains to Modular CPL as Sussex Flight Centre, but has no CPL students currently.

I ask about Shoreham. “I’ve been here 25 years,” he says. “What can I tell you? It’s got three runways and one hard runway which is great in winter. The instrument approach facilities are an asset, as are the air traffic control service, fuelling and other facilities.

We got some bad publicity after the airshow accident but things are recovering now. I know the landing fees are a bit steep, but personally I think the management has probably got them set about right. Instrument flying is what brings in the revenue and that suffers if you get too many visitors. I’d say, to me it looks pretty stable here now, and if things go on as they are I’ll be happy.”

I meet some of James’s students. Anthony Antat is 22, works in customer care and lives in Hastings. He’s had forty hours’ training with the Sussex Flying Club and, if he can raise the money, intends going on from a PPL to a full Commercial and getting a job as an airline pilot.

Kerrie Higgins is 24 and a chef. She is twelve hours into her PPL course and is going to stick with being a leisure pilot. Her grandfather was in the RAF. She lives in Brighton and found the club through a website, while Anthony was recommended to it by Wycombe Air Park, when he told them he was moving down.

The third student I meet is just sixteen. Liam Woodhouse is at college studying maths, physics and medieval history. He is twenty hours into his PPL course and intends going on to become a commercial pilot. “I love flying,” he says, “and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do for a living.” His father is a pilot?in fact, he’s a member of the Sussex Flying Club.

Alex is outside, waiting to introduce me to James Latham, 29, Senior Air Traffic Controller at Brighton City, who’s worked in air traffic control since he was eighteen. At present there are six ATCOs at Shoreham plus three assistants. There are always at least two controllers in the Tower. The number of movements has been steady at around 50,000 a year for the last few years.

ATC service at Shoreham is from 0900 to 2000 with an air/ground service between eight and nine in the morning, albeit with PPR. The movement numbers work out at around 400 a day and James says sixty an hour is not unusual in summer. About three-quarters are light fixed-wing aircraft, fifteen per cent helicopter and ten per cent business jets or turboprops. Most are home-based aircraft with roughly one in five being a visiting aircraft.

“The airport is popular with visitors,” says James. “There’s the restaurant, and the town of Shoreham-by-Sea and its beach. The location next to the coast is spectacular. The Goodwood Festival of Speed attracts a lot of visitors. And then there’s the Transair shop and the airfield’s history. Lastly, coming here gives students a chance to experience an ATC and training environment if they’re from an airfield with an air/ground service.”

James grew up near Birmingham Airport and air traffic control caught his imagination as a child, rather than aeroplanes. He would quite like to get a pilot’s licence one day, but hasn’t had any flying training. “I do like to work around aeroplanes though,” he says. It seems that a career in ATC is quite well paid; according to James, controllers can earn £100,000 a year at Heathrow. He adds, “But that’s not the appeal. There’s endless variety and it’s always interesting.”

Next, Alex takes me down the eastern end of the perimeter road to meet James Piper, Chief Pilot at Flying Time Aviation (FTA), which is the main commercial flying school on the airport. “We train around forty full-time students a year,” he tells me, “and a handful of part-timers.”

The fleet at Shoreham is Diamond DA40s, DA42s, a PA-28 and an Aztec. FTA has twelve instructors at the airport. It also has a considerable facility in Spain, which trains for the first eighty hours?students then move here to complete their studies. The Spanish operation is fully booked. “FTA has been here for ten years,” says James, “and when we introduced our integrated course a few years ago it proved to be extremely popular.” Half the students are from the UK, half from elsewhere.

James, who is 28, started flying at eighteen. He tells me a fully qualified flying instructor can expect to earn £30-35K. “It was my ambition,” he says, “to work for the airlines, but after instructing for a while I decided to stick with it. I enjoy instructing, but also you get a regular daily commute between job and house and family. Once I got settled into that way of life, airline flying didn’t seem so attractive.

In addition, this is a brilliant location, the south coast gets better weather on the whole, and for our type of training, proximity to large international airports is a definite plus. The facilities here are first class, especially now that we have a GPS approach. We’re expecting to get one with vertical guidance?an LPV service?next year.”

Further down the perimeter road we visit Advance Helicopters, where I meet Spencer Phillips, who is one of the owners and an instructor. Spencer has been a professional helicopter pilot for seventeen years and before that ran a gastropub. He tells me the company offers PPL and advanced training, including conversions to different types, FAA to EASA conversions and CPL training.

“Basically, we specialise in the unusual,” he says, “and we have a hundred per cent pass rate.” They train four or five CPL students a year. “PPL students are our bread and butter, though.” There are currently around twenty. The fleet is impressive; an R22, three R44s, an R66, a Hughes 269, an MD 500 and an EC120.

One of the R44s is a two-seat conversion on the lines of the Robinson R44 Cadet.

At the end of the row of businesses we find the Real Flying Company. Contributing to the slightly eccentric atmosphere is Vega, an Alsatian bitch, who’s lying down, tired after her walk. I assume she’s named after the Lockheed Vega, a streamlined airliner from the 1930s. Also present are Neil Westwood, the CFI, Lisa, his wife and co-owner of the business, and Caroline Read, “Ops girl and instructor’s wife”. Relaxing in armchairs nearby are Victor Peirce and Adrian Read, both airline pilots and both instructors.

The Real Flying Company has a Stampe, two Chipmunks, a Super Cub and a PA-28. Currently there are around 35 PPL students and ten undergoing tailwheel conversions but, says Neil, “Mostly what we do is trial lessons using the whole fleet?the Chipmunks are the most popular. At this time of year we can easily fly twenty trial lessons over a weekend and double that in mid-summer”. There are twelve instructors.

I ask them to sum up Brighton City. Lisa insists that it’s actually Shoreham, and says, “It’s a nice little airfield. The management are pilots which is always a good thing. Personally, I’d like to see more movements, which means getting more pilots to fly in.

I think more would if the landing fees were a bit lower, but just as important is that the airfield gets a bad press in aviation circles, which it doesn’t deserve. As regards the fees, the airport was loss-making when the council owned it. We all run businesses and appreciate that you’ve got to make a profit to survive. Actually, I’m proud and happy to be here. We were invited to move to Goodwood ten years ago and I’m glad we said no.”

Alex and I head back to the passenger terminal building, but on the way I remember that Dorothy Saul-Pooley has an office somewhere round here. We find the door and it’s unlocked so we go in to a surprisingly roomy two-floor office. We find Dorothy upstairs. She runs a school here for instructors and examiners and also gives refresher seminars.

“I’ve been running it for eleven and a half years,” she says, “and in that time I’ve trained 300 instructors. And I get about one hundred in a year for the seminars. There are currently two people doing a full instructor course. I also teach instructors to teach aerobatics. There’s no fleet?I hire aircraft as required. I’ve been based here since 2005 and recently added a satellite at Lee-on-Solent and plan to start another soon at Fairoaks. There’s me and two other instructor-instructors.”

Dorothy is 59. She started flying at 31 and before that was a lawyer. “I’ve been an aviation lawyer for a while, and an expert witness,” she adds. “I’ve also worked in publishing.” Sebastian Pooley, managing director of Pooleys Flight Equipment, is her stepson.

“I love this airfield and also the town,” she says. “I suppose you know it’s the oldest continually licensed aerodrome in the UK? People sometimes overlook Shoreham, but it’s got some wonderful old houses and a great beach. Shoreham harbour has a long history, especially fishing, and in the Doomsday Book it’s got a big listing, whereas Brighton hardly gets a mention.” She points to a framed photograph. “I got that from a bank in the town. I spotted it on the wall in the manager’s office,” she says. Written on it is: ‘Flight across Europe: Beaumont arriving at Shoreham, July 5, 1911.’

Alex and I head back to the passenger terminal building where she gets me a sandwich and takeaway coffee. It’s one o’clock and I’m anxious to hit the road, with the M25-M3-M40 Friday afternoon nightmare looming. I eat the sandwich on the way back and it’s superior.

Shoreham (Brighton City) airport is well worth visiting. Time your visit for lunch?or better still, park the aircraft and explore Shoreham. I might well do that myself, once winter’s been and gone

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