Highlighting the RNLI’s rescue role, one volunteer lifeboatman’s solo flying challenge results in a Pooleys Dawn to Dusk Competition triple win | By Ian Butter
I wanted to do something memorable for my sixtieth year. Parties are definitely not my thing so I decided to treat myself by having a go at the Pooleys Dawn to Dusk Competition. As a relatively low-hours PPL?I’ve amassed around 285 hours over thirty-odd years ? this was going to be a major challenge: probably the longest and most demanding flight I might ever make.
I would be flying a reasonably late model Archer II but with no autopilot, so this was going to be an entirely hand-flown day. And I was going to do it solo.
Being a member of the Blackpool Lifeboat Station crew, I have been involved in a number of aircraft-related services over the years and decided to fly around the southern half of Britain from Blackpool to Humberside, passing as many air sea rescue (ASR) airfields and lifeboat stations as possible.
Whilst the Coastguard is generally recognised for its direct involvement in air sea rescue, the cooperation of the Lifeboat Institution in these services has rarely been acknowledged. However, I established that not only has the RNLI always been heavily involved in saving aircrew and passengers, but was instrumental in delivering the first dedicated air sea rescue operation in the UK (see box).
I decided early on to wear both a lifejacket and immersion suit, even though much of the trip would be within gliding distance of land. From my lifeboat experience I know first-hand how cold water shock and exposure can seriously reduce life expectancy.
The immersion suit may be clumsy to work with in the cockpit but better a ‘boil in the bag’ pilot than the alternative if I had to ditch. After all, I wanted to be able to enjoy my membership of the Goldfish Club (for airmen who successfully survive a ditching)!
Routeing was worked out well in advance then translated onto the latest half-million charts and re-checked for any airspace alterations. A letter in Pilot magazine flagged up a chart error concerning RAF Chivenor, alleging that a landing (emergency or otherwise) might result in being shot at first with questions asked afterwards! Ditching in Bideford Bay seemed entirely acceptable in those circumstances.
To reduce the workload?meaning less time with my eyes inside the cockpit?I prepared a frequency guide for the whole route including useful navaids, ATIS, safety heights etc in likely order of use.
Blackpool to Land’s End (403nm)
As the saying goes, “no battle plan survives contact with the enemy” and in this case my 0700 departure from Blackpool fell at the first hurdle due to a weather front crossing Liverpool Bay. However, bizarrely, this actually enabled me to complete the challenge I had set myself.
The PA-28-181 Archer II (G-BSKW), owned and operated by ANT Flying School, had been fuelled the day before, with an extra quart of oil in the baggage locker, just in case… I preflighted the aircraft in the hangar and, with the rain easing off, suited up and was wheels off from Runway 10 at 0908.
A quick right turn onto track and immediate change to Warton Radar for a basic service. Blackpool had already coordinated the MATZ crossing and it was a standard southbound pier-to-pier (St Anne’s to Southport) departure across the Ribble Estuary not above 1,500 feet. ‘Feet wet’ then, within minutes.
Woodvale is usually active with ATC cadets in Grobs, but I was given clearance through their ATZ en route Wallasey VOR, changing to Liverpool Approach at Formby point. Passing Rhyl, I began to settle in for the day, and on reaching Llandudno contacted Valley for a basic service through their AIAA.
Having expected the area to be swarming with RAF Hawks and Tucanos, it was all very quiet. I think even the military avoid sending trainee fast jet pilots down mist-filled Welsh valleys. A quick call to Caernarfon (an ASR base) to check on traffic and then back to Valley for en route monitoring.
With weather improving all the time the west Wales coast was a delight. I stayed offshore all the way down to Aberystwyth, where I needed to make landfall to come east of the active Danger Area D201. NOTAM advised ‘explosive activities’ (unspecified) near Borth which, needless to say, I avoided!
West Wales information cleared me through their ATZ and on towards the lifeboat stations at St Davids Head and then across St Brides Bay. I’d checked the NOTAM the previous evening and both D117 and D118 were notified as ‘not active’ for 21 June but, double-checking with Pembrey, I discovered D117 was now active with drone flying so routed inland toward St Clears, giving me a good view along the famous Pendine Sands.
Pembrey kindly cleared me through D118?“call on entry and exit”?and, on reaching Burry Port, handed me off to Cardiff LARS.
My planned route and crossing height for the Bristol Channel would have nipped into the western part of the Cardiff CTA, but reaching Port Talbot with no response to my radio calls (crammed in between IFR traffic) I decided it was prudent to remain outside controlled airspace and re-set for Porlock instead of Minehead.
I heard subsequent calls from VFR traffic perfunctorily informed to remain clear and continue under their own navigation, so it was obviously a hectic day in the office for the Cardiff controllers. I remained on frequency to monitor traffic, and just in case my flight suddenly became ‘interesting’.
The flight down the North Devon and Cornwall coast was a delight, with a chance to spot more lifeboat stations and both former and existing ASR bases. Chivenor was passed at a good height with no small arms fire, flak or tactical ground-to-air systems encountered.
Newquay had an Airbus training in the circuit and it was a somewhat unusual experience to watch commercial jet traffic in front of and slightly below me passing downwind for another touch-and-go.
Handed off to Culdrose, busy with military helicopter training, I saw St Michael’s Mount just visible in the haze to my left so contacted Land’s End for arrival information. Although it was getting misty I had a good idea where the airfield was; the newly surfaced runways and associated lights helped.
I was given straight in for Runway 16 and after landing directed to an ‘X’ in front of the tower for refuelling. The ramp was already filled with Skybus Islanders and Twin Otters which made manoeuvring on the narrow taxiway and ramp somewhat tricky.
The reason for all the traffic instantly became clear when ATC asked how long I would be staying given the expected imminent fog bank rolling over the airfield. The terminal was packed with stranded passengers resigned to the delay. I immediately abandoned my intention to fly to the Scillies.
The Scillies’ lifeboat is always busy, and remembered in aviation circles for finding and saving lives from a British Airways S.61 helicopter which crashed in thick fog in July 1983. I had no wish to trouble them.
Lands End to Lydd (336nm)
I noticed a Twin Otter crew making hasty plans to depart without passengers and quickly followed suit. I fired up the slightly reluctant warm engine, with fog rolling in across the fields only a mile or so to the west, and departed Runway 16 with a swift left turn onto track. I’d obtained an IMC rating several years previously and kept it current, so if the fog had engulfed me I knew I could have simply climbed straight ahead and popped out on top within a few hundred feet. A useful safety net.
The flying became rather busy as I re-routed to stay onshore, keeping Penzance in sight, rather than crossing Mount’s Bay where St Michael’s Mount was hidden in the thickening haze. Culdrose provided a MATZ penetration and by the time I reached Falmouth I was back in clear skies.
I know this stretch of the south-west coast reasonably well, having sailed large parts of it in my youth. Although I couldn’t spot the Falmouth all-weather Severn Class lifeboat on its mooring, I was delighted to see the Trent Class boat alongside in Fowey.
Plymouth was easy to spot in the distance and I threaded my way between Restricted Area R002 and Danger Area D009 straight across Plymouth Sound overhead Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe. Plymouth Military was extremely keen to ensure I did not overfly the dockyard. In 1986 the local lifeboat rescued a Catalina flying boat and its crew in Plymouth Sound following a landing incident.
I stayed inshore remaining clear of Danger Area D012 and received a service from Yeovilton until well past Portland. Although busy they kindly checked and told me Danger Area D026 was active, so I took my pre-planned detour via Bovington and Wareham joining back on track at the Sandbanks VRP, with a quick salute to the RNLI headquarters in Poole Harbour just off to my left.
I didn’t feel the need to trouble Bournemouth or Southampton’s ATC, maintaining a watching brief using the conspicuity transponder setting 0011. I have found this very effective, making contact if necessary but not burdening the controller with additional workload. Somewhere behind me a Cessna Citation was positioning for the 02 runway at Shoreham and catching me fast, so I stayed south of the ATZ out to sea, routeing direct to Brighton Marina.
I made contact with Lydd as I was passing Eastbourne at the same time as a Coastguard rescue helicopter was launching to a ‘shout’ in the Newhaven area. We passed each other in opposite directions abeam Hastings. With Dungeness power station and various military firing ranges in close proximity, Lydd is rather hemmed in.
Initially given an overhead join for Runway 03, this quickly changed to a left-base join and it was useful to identify the windfarm a few miles west to remain clear of D044 before turning in toward the airfield.
Lydd is now the permanent base for the Coastguard helicopter rescue service, having relocated from RAF Manston.
One of their Agusta Westland 139 aircraft was on the ramp and I took the opportunity to chat with an engineer who kindly took some pictures. The Biggles restaurant provided a much-needed cuppa.
Lydd to Humberside (336nm)
A key target for this flight was Dover, given its significance in the evolution of air sea rescue through the imagination and positive thinking of the RNLI in the late 1920s. As I flew over the harbour, the French coast appeared very close and I could readily imagine early aviators picking this spot to cross the Channel. I carried on around the Kent coast passing by the now silent RAF Manston, and on reaching Margate turned east toward London.
In 1940, the Margate Lifeboat rescued fighter pilot Richard Hillary, a descendant of RNLI founder Sir William Hillary. His father, Michael Hillary, expressed “heartfelt thanks of my wife and myself to the coxswain and his crew for returning him to us.
“It would surely have afforded my ancestor, who founded the service, liveliest satisfaction to know that his own kith and kin are numbered amongst those who have benefited from its wonderful work.”
The Lifeboat service was active throughout WWII. Even on D-Day lifeboats played their part, being specifically tasked to provide air sea rescue cover along the south coast. Of the 3,760 ‘shouts’ between 1939 and 1945, the RNLI launched 1,093 times to the assistance of ditched aircraft of all nationalities. The weekly average of lives saved was 21.
I made contact with Southend Radar passing Whitstable, but had only a basic service outside controlled airspace with no clearance through the zone. Continuing across the Isle of Sheppey, and with no further contact by the time I reached Minster, I turned west and began descending to route west around and below the 1,500ft CTA.
I also needed to avoid two gas venting sites. An apologetic ATC evidently spotted my turn and promptly cleared me through the zone on my intended track. Checking in with Norwich, they monitored my tour of the Suffolk and Norfolk coastlines.
It was a very pleasant and now very quiet flying evening. At Hunstanton I was handed off to Humberside with whom Norwich had been in touch?which was helpful, given Humberside was still expecting IFR traffic and rig helicopters, even though I had telephoned ahead from Lydd.
As the cold front began to arrive cloud cover increased and this helped block out the lowering sun for my final leg from Mablethorpe. The downside was that the land began to look gloomy, and although directly on track Humberside airport did not appear in the landscape until I was about three miles south. With a light and variable wind I was offered either runway.
And so my Dawn To Dusk flight was concluded. I had managed to do nine-tenths of my intended flight and, as it happened, the late start helped me avoid an extended stay in the Scilly Isles and a failure to complete the challenge. Funny how things work out.
Flying around the coast may seem a relatively straightforward navigational exercise but the British coastline is littered with restricted, protected and danger areas. Even those deemed inactive by NOTAM can become significant elephant traps for the unwary.
There were numerous airfields to take into account, and coastal areas also host a variety of other aviation activities, together with sensitive wildlife sites, gas venting stations and the like. If nothing else, I had set myself a personal challenge of substance: to fly single-handed for over 1,000 miles in one day, much of which was over water and, in passing, to reflect on the historic and present roles of airfields and lifeboat stations in saving lives at sea.
I submitted my report to the Dawn to Dusk Competition judges and was thrilled – and amazed – to win not only the overall 2017 Dawn to Dusk Competition but also the Duke of Edinburgh Award as overall winner, and the Pooleys Sword for the best flight report. Not a bad birthday present!
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