Our sport is having a challenging time at the moment, with rising costs and increasing bureaucracy on one side and squeezed personal incomes on the other. Many airfields are a lot quieter than they were five or ten years ago, which is why it’s refreshing to meet one that’s doing well, like Chiltern Park. Some modest expansion is planned. There would be more, but the District Council want it kept low-key.
Words and photographs by Nick Bloom
My day begins with a 45-minute drive to a private airstrip in Buckinghamshire with three aircraft based on it, one of them the Piper Cub L-4 belonging to Pilot’s Editor, Philip Whiteman.
The flight takes twenty minutes. Five miles from our destination, Philip calls RAF Benson on 120.9. Chiltern Park is within the Benson MATZ, but don’t let this put you off flying in, because the controllers there are well used to visitors and generally just pass you directly on to the Chiltern Park Air-to-Ground frequency, 134.025. We did phone ahead for prior permission, as must all visitors, on 07739 802010. When I meet him later, the operator, Dennis Pearson, says that even non-radio aircraft can fly in, providing they phone first. (You should also visit its website, www.chiltern.aero). Philip joins downwind for the main runway, 22. There is no dead side at Chiltern Park and there are no overhead joins. In a short while we are taxying across the grass towards an impressive line-up of autogyros with a pair of three-axis microlights parked alongside.
There are a dozen or so autogyro pilots based here, making it one of the growing number of centres around the UK for this branch of flying. There is a autogyro school at Chiltern Park, and you can learn to fly in one here: I spoke by phone after my visit to Kevin Robinson ? the autogyro CFI here ? who alternates instructing between here and Portugal. He said the equivalent of a trial lesson could be arranged at Chiltern Park. If you’re interested, visit www.autogyroexperience.com. Prices start at �99.
The autogyros based at Chiltern Park are all MT-03s. These have open cockpits, but similar aircraft with enclosed cockpits are growing in popularity. I sampled one of these new generation, long-keel, two-seaters for a Pilot article eight years ago with Gerry Honey and found it stable and easy to fly.
We meet Dennis Pearson, who takes us into the clubhouse. Uniquely among airfields (at least those I’ve visited) we have to walk across a public road to get there. Aircraft parked in the hangar have to taxi across this road to get to the runway, but this hasn’t caused any problems ? there is a strict procedure for crossing and it’s a minor country road.
The clubhouse is up a flight of stairs above an aircraft hangar, currently mostly empty, but sheltering a weightshift microlight and a Van’s RV-6, plus a couple of other microlights under covers. The rooms above are air-conditioned and include a kitchen, club room, veranda and several briefing rooms. Some have a not-quite-finished look.
Dennis, who is 55, and his wife Julie run several companies, “although the aviation business is increasingly taking over”. They started Chiltern Park airfield 24 years ago. “We were driving and we saw a CFM Shadow in front of a house, so we stopped the car and asked the owner how come he had an aeroplane in his drive. At this point I was busy running a fencing business and had barely even thought about flying. He said I should come to the Microlight Fair at Popham, since I seemed so interested.”
Dennis duly went to Popham and after a trial lesson was hooked, embarking on a microlight PPL course. For the next six months he averaged a lesson a week, but the drive to Popham was frustrating ? especially once he learned that his instructor lived “practically next door”, in Reading. “Then I noticed that there was a big, flat field near my house that would make a great airfield. I asked the farmer if I could base a microlight there and he said, fine.” So the next lesson from Popham was a cross-country to land on Dennis’s field.
Dennis bought his own Flash Two Alpha, second-hand from the school at Popham, for �5,000 and finished his training from the field next door to his house. It was at this point that the field became an airfield and was christened Chiltern Park.
“Since it was next to a road, we had a string of visitors who wanted to fly microlights, but couldn’t find a school that would teach them in the area. My instructor, Derek Frank, also known as Slim Pickins for his Country and Western singing act, agreed to train them. Teaching from here was far better for him than flogging down to Popham.
“Four years later we had grown to two instructors, fifteen students and six aircraft: two trainers and four privately-owned microlights that were based here. Growth stopped after that. There was a bit of a recession and microlight flying was ticking over after a boom period. It was in 2002 that the next microlight boom started, and it was then that I set up Chiltern Airsports Ltd. Since then, Credit Crunch and double-dip recession notwithstanding, there has been steady growth. This is partly because we have followed the trends. We were early adopters of the Dynamic and Ikarus C42, modern three-axis microlights that look reassuring if you are downshifting from PA-28s and Cessna 152s ? only these two are a much cheaper and more practical alternative for all the Group A pilots who are finding themselves priced out of aviation. And we’ve been quick to pick up on the latest thing, which is autogyros. Plus the boom in parachuting.”
Parachute dropping is the last thing I expected to find in a rural strip, especially one inside a MATZ, but it’s popular here. The London Parachute School bases a Cessna Caravan here most weekends between March and September and it’s usual to drop 200 parachutists over a weekend. Parachute dropping makes it especially important that visitors by air get prior permission. The Drop Zone Manager’s phone number is 07817 216363. “It very rarely means delays for visiting pilots, though,” says Dennis.
�5 landing for a PA-28
Landing fees are �5 for PA-28s and other Group A aircraft, microlights and autogyros, �10 for helicopters and �10 for gliders (which includes the tug’s landing fee when it comes to pick them up). Fuel is currently brought to your aeroplane in jerrycans on an electric golf cart, so you might want to top up your tanks before you leave home. There is something appealingly adolescent about Chiltern Park, the refuelling and catering arrangements being examples. Although Dennis plans to add in a cafeteria, it is actually only when there’s parachuting that you can get lunch at Chiltern Park because a catering caravan comes in. But one of the locals will almost certainly ferry you to a nearby pub. Also, Dennis keeps a BMW with the stuffing coming out of the driver’s seat as an airfield hack: ask him nicely and he’ll lend you the keys so you can drive to a village for lunch or an overnight stay.
There is a bus service to Reading, only eight miles away, and Oxford, which is thirteen miles distant. “One chap comes regularly in an EC120 helicopter, gets his bike out and goes off cycling,” says Dennis. “And a businessman based up north ? Manchester, I think?regularly parks his PA-28 here and takes a taxi to meetings in Reading.”
Returning to the airfield’s history, I ask Dennis what he did about getting planning permission. “Ah,” he says, looking arch. “By the time the local authority found we’d been in breach of the 28-day rule, we had records to show that we’d been getting away with it for over ten years. Either there hadn’t been any complaints or the council had failed to log them. So they were forced to give us retrospective permission to operate as an airfield.”
The council did introduce one restriction: unless aircraft are being operated commercially ? in other words, for training ? they can only use the 420-metre 04/22 runway. For training purposes, though, the full 700 metres can be used and also the second, 500-metre 15/33 runway. This came about because on the crucial date, Dennis had only mowed as much airstrip as was then needed, leaving the rest un-mowed.
The Ikarus C42 has been here since 2004, the Dynamic since 2008. Neither aircraft is available to hire ? the deal is that you buy a share (�5,995 and �7,995 respectively). You then pay �65 a month hangarage and �175 annually to cover other costs and �50 an hour (fuel included) to fly. Tie-downs are planned for ten Group A aircraft to join the single one currently based at Chiltern Park, a Van’s RV-6. Outside parking, which will be on a hardstanding, with security lights, CCTV and other refinements, will be charged at �200 a month ? give Dennis a call if you’re interested. The Chiltern Aero Club, which provides ab initio instruction in the Ikarus, has around sixty members.
There are currently three shareholders in the Dynamic and eight in the Ikarus, and with the increase in demand Dennis is soon to order another Ikarus. If you want to fly or drive in and sample either aircraft, a trial lesson is �175 for an hour in either.
Dennis thinks there is an average of twenty movements a day. “We’re ‘Sleepy Hollow’ most of the time,” he says. There’s no full time maintenance facility on the airfield, but Garry Masters of Airmasters brings his mobile workshop and looks after all the aeroplanes.
Dennis has some calls to make before we go to the pub, so I go for a wander outside. There I meet a local pilot, John Joyes, who has come to de-coke the two-stroke Rotax 582 on the Kolb Mark III that he co-owns with another pilot. John, a retired electrical engineer, averages fifty hours flying a year in the eighteen-year-old Kolb. He’s owned it for eight years, during which it’s been based at Chiltern Park. I ask him how the airfield has changed in that time. “It’s become busier and there are more people around, especially since the parachutists came. I like it ? it makes for a nice atmosphere. And we’re in such beautiful countryside here.”
I leave him dismantling the engine and go to photograph David Webb, who is a volunteer groundsman on the airfield. David wants to show me the Hawker Hunter GA11 nose section that is parked at the airfield on a trailer. “They were going to scrap it,” he says, “and let me keep it on condition I took it to shows where enthusiasts could look at it.” He spent two years restoring it and the first show where it was displayed was in Dubai.
I have a brief conversation with Martin Harris, a parachuting instructor who’s been falling out of aeroplanes for 22 years and owns the parachuting school. If this sounds attractive, you can fly in and buy a tandem sky dive for �230. Martin got his PPL in 2003, but allowed it to lapse ? evidently getting more of a kick from floating under a ’chute.Dennis arrives, we collect Philip and head off to the Perch and Pike pub, seven minutes away in the BMW ‘hack’. The landlord, Neil Dorsett, has a son in the RAF and has had flying lessons. He shows me the upstairs rooms, which are �85 to �100 a night for bed and breakfast. They all have en-suite bathrooms, look smart and newly decorated and are definitely a cut above, for rooms over a pub. The food is also superior. I choose the pork stroganoff, one of four ‘today’s specials’ on a blackboard. It costs �9.25, is obviously freshly made, and is delicious.
Over the meal Dennis tells us about the money raised this year so far by his airfield for charity ? �4,000, plus a staggering �700,000 by the parachute club. “The woman from the District Council more or less implied that we were raising money for charity as a shield,” he says, “which is nonsense, of course. It does help protect our future, though.”
“Is the airfield under threat?” I ask. “Not really. We do have a few local enemies like most airfields,” says Dennis. “Oddly the aircraft no one ever complains about are the noisiest?the warbirds. Peter Teichman likes to do fly-bys, here. Actually, our biggest problem is people practising aerobatics nearby, and we get the blame even though I do tell everyone that it’s not here the pilots fly from. Not the guys from White Waltham, though, not since they set up their grid system to spread the noise so it doesn’t get concentrated in a few places.”
After a very pleasant lunch we return to Chiltern Park where I meet Graham Robson and his girlfriend’s daughter Siena. They have flown in from Sturgate in his beautiful Cessna 120 (both of them are pilots). “I come here about once a month,” he says. “I love this place, it’s so friendly and relaxed and the runway’s perfect for an old taildragger, always smooth and well-drained. No matter how much it rains, Chiltern Park is always open.”
Next I meet one of the local autogyro pilots, Clive Rose, who is a web services developer. He has flown 180 hours in gyros, despite having trained initially on a fixed-wing Ikarus C42.
“I had a trial flight in one of the Popham autogyros with Mac. The idea was that I’d get it out of my system, but instead I fell hopelessly in love with them.” He went halves to buy one with his friend Garry, who works offshore in the Gulf. “We charge ourselves �80 an hour wet,” he says, “which includes something towards rotor and engine replacement.” He flies 100 hours a year, usually with his wife in the passenger seat. “We’ve been to Wiltshire and Dorset and we plan to tour further afield. Then I’m going to train to be an instructor.”
Clive and Garry’s MT-03 was at a Hampshire airfield, but they moved it here, “because here it’s in a proper hangar, not the leaky shed we had there. There’s a great gyrocentric community here. One pilot Kai, is qualified to work on them and does all our maintenance.”
A little group is gathered admiringly around a machine that has just landed, so I go to meet the owner, Martyn Love. Unlike the others, his Calides 914 Turbo has a closed cockpit. “I flew down from Farley Farm near Winchester,” he tells me. The journey took 25 minutes: his autogyro is fast for an aircraft of this type, cruising at 100mph. Martyn owned, successfully, an RAF 2000 and admits it wasn’t for everybody. “I took an instructor up in it once and he couldn’t manage it at all,” he says. “The Calides is a real thoroughbred, by comparison, much more forgiving and a lot easier to fly. I saw it on an exhibition stand at the Birmingham NEC and had to have one. I’ve owned it for two months. Dennis contacted me when he found I’d got it and invited me down so that everyone could see it. I’ve been a regular visitor ever since.”
Next I meet Sam Palmer, who earns his living as a London black cab driver. His autogyro is also unusual, an Italian VPM M-16 (modified), classified as an LAA homebuilt. Sam lives in Muswell Hill in North London and it takes him an hour and twenty minutes to drive up. “I did all the work on it at RAF Benson?I used to be based there,” he says. “What I like about this place is the absence of rules and regulations, plus the sense of community. It’s more lively than at Benson where there were just three of us.”
My next encounter is with the owner of the RV-6, John Gatfield, a 53-year-old management consultant. He actually is a one-third owner ? there are three in a group. They’ve had the aeroplane for three years. “I absolutely adore it,” he says. “It’s got a ‘wobbly’ prop, 180 horsepower and it cruises at 180mph using 29 litres an hour.” All three in the group were glider pilots at Wycombe Air Park. The aircraft came from Gamston, but they base it here as it’s affordable and “there’s no ATC. Plus Dennis is fantastic. He has got so much energy and enthusiasm; he’s brilliant”.
“Would you like to see the airfield expand?” I ask him. “Not really; it’s perfect as it is,” he says and then, “Must go, I’m expected”. He straps in, starts up and heads for the road crossing. Two club members stand in the road while the Van’s crosses it, just in case a motorist appears. A short while later I hear his engine roar and see the RV-6 climb away steeply.
My next conversation is with Trevor Preston, who is the CFI at Chiltern Airsports, the microlight flying school here. He says, “I went solo on my sixteenth birthday in a glider ? that was 34 years ago. In 1997, I got my PPL in a Robin DR400. I was working as a civil engineer (I still am?instructing here wouldn’t pay anyone a living wage, I’m afraid.) Anyway, I went on to get my IMC, Night, CPL and Flying Instructor ratings and then taught JAR PPL, IMC and Night, but also aerobatics. I was a Check Pilot in the Tiger Club, so I flew the CAP 10, Tiger Moth and Stampe. I also taught in the Cessna Aerobat. I’ve flown aeros in a Stearman, an RV-8 and a Pitts Special. I’ve got a share in a Pitts now.”
I ask how he came to instruct at Chiltern Park. “Entirely by accident,” he says. “I saw an advertisement on the notice board at Popham for an instructor and had no idea it was on microlights or here when I applied. That was in May 2011. I had a check ride with Dennis in the Dynamic, never having flown microlights, and was hooked.”
He asks if I’d like a flight in the Dynamic. I last flew one when it was introduced to the UK by Nick Marley (Pilot flight test YLAC Dynamic WT9, July 2005). Today, with Trevor, I fly some figures of eight at different speeds and a couple of low passes, and these remind me of what a superb little microlight this is. The Ikarus C42, which I’ve also flown, is equally impressive and makes a superb trainer: rugged, efficient and very nice to fly. Having two such great aeroplanes and a well-qualified instructor puts Chiltern Park on my map and, I suggest, on yours too.
I ask Trevor about Chiltern Park as a training airfield. “Couldn’t be better,” he says. “It’s a large site with two ample-length, well-drained grass runways, un-constrained by Traffic Control. We have noise abatement procedures, but they’re not complicated or vital like they are at some places. Most of the gyros have double muffler exhausts and are very quiet. Everyone flies microlight circuits, which are tight by Group A standards ? they date from the old two-stroke days when you had to be able to get in if the engine stopped. But that speeds up training. I’d be really frustrated if I had to go back to the enormous training circuits you get at some airfields.”
What about the proximity to RAF Benson? “When they’re using Runway 01 they vector training helicopters on a talk-down approach, which is right on top of us, making it especially important that we keep to our 700-foot circuit. But we have a good relationship with them. The only real cloud on the horizon is hostility from some locals as we will get busier as word gets around about what a great set-up we have here. I’m looking forward to getting the Group A tie-downs, though. I plan to have a Cessna 150 to convert microlight pilots to Group A.”
“So there is a future for Group A ? it’s not all going to microlights?” I ask. Trevor laughs. “Good grief no! Without Group A there would be no Pitts Specials to fly. And even I can see that twins and complex singles have their merits.”
Philip and I say our goodbyes and clamber into his immaculate Piper L-4 for the short flight back. “Great airfield, isn’t it?” he says over the intercom as we taxi out for our departure ? it was his idea that we come here. “Yup,” say I.