How, in the days when international airports were open to GA, what started as an off-the-wall thought turned into the trip of a lifetime | Words: Simon Turner
It was a proper aviator’s pub. The charismatic ex-RAF landlord was a highly respected flying instructor who had taught many of us the art of flying. Pat Long (‘Longy’) had even won Instructor of the Year, and more than thirty years on I can still hear his pearls of wisdom.
His front bar was frequented by, amongst others, professional and private pilots?mostly his ex-students?who gathered for the required ‘post flight debriefing’ discussions whilst quenching a thirst. This adventure started right there in the front bar of the White Lion, one Saturday lunchtime back in 1986.
Two friends of mine, Ivor and David, co-owned a much-loved PA-22 160 Tri-Pacer, G-ARGY which was based at Coventry and we all regularly flew her. She was in the late stages of sale, and with Ivor jetting off the following morning to Saudi he felt he’d probably seen the last of the faithful Tripe. ‘Sigh for a Lycoming’ doesn’t quite sound right but is close to the truth.
Meeting in the ’Lion the chat soon got around to the selling of the Tri-Pacer and Ivor’s imminent departure from Heathrow. His options for getting to the airport were few. One was travelling to London that afternoon to stay in a hotel, but apart from the extra expense it meant Ivor missing Saturday evening with friends before going to a ‘dry’ country.
This was quickly rejected as pushing the envelope too far. Another option was to take a pre-dusk final trip in the Tripe to White Waltham and then cadge a lift to LHR, but this wasn’t possible due to the runway lights not being lit that early at Coventry.
Even just one beer can have a strange effect on a chap, particularly when it comes to lateral thinking. The only solution for Ivor to get a final trip was to take the Tri-Pacer to Heathrow the following morning at sun-up. I casually suggested this most logical and brilliant idea only to be greeted in the key of F (the landlord’s terminology not mine).
Never one to be left undaunted, as we departed I suggested sounding out Heathrow, after all there was nothing to lose and everything to gain: EGLL in the logbook for one!
Calling up Heathrow, we asked whether or not permission could be granted. I gave them all the details that they required including emphasising PA-22 single engine, single NavCom, ADF and the answer was “Yes” with a 0735 arrival. Blimey, we had a slot into Heathrow!
The plan comes together
Now the Tripe had limited avionics and thirty years ago valve radios weren’t the most reliable of things; even today modern radios have their moments. The very last thing we wanted was a problem in the London CTR so we called back AIS to double-check the single radio; again acceptable.
The rest of the afternoon was frantic. It was March, daylight would soon fade and many things had to be sorted. We had to get over to Coventry to meet the Airport Director to get a set of keys to open the airport gates at 0600, ahead of normal operations; get the aircraft refuelled; and arrange to have it parked outside the locked-up hangar overnight.
And we still had a nagging doubt over a single radio. Neither of us felt happy about entering the London CTR without some backup Com. We had recently heard of the brand new Icom portable transceiver, the answer to our prayers?if only we could lay our hands on one. The search was on but in the mid-eighties handhelds were few and far between and ultimately, despite all efforts, the search proved fruitless.
It was then that fate took a hand. In came ‘Hudson’, one of Ivor’s lodgers known as ‘The butler’, who assumed responsibility for his house whilst he was in the desert. The point was that Hudson was carrying a mobile phone. Nothing like today’s 3G models, this was in effect a car battery with a handset attached.
So we borrowed that. Any problems and, with all Heathrow’s numbers handy, we’d call them. Not exactly normal standby procedure, but resourceful nevertheless! (The radio worked perfectly as it happens.)
Most of the pieces were in place and thoughts now turned to David. We couldn’t possibly let him miss out on this trip of a lifetime. A phone call was made explaining we were going to London the following morning early and David was quickly on board, although we didn’t fully explain our destination until airborne; well why would you?
Our slot was 0735 and that meant being airborne an hour earlier. Not surprisingly David was very sceptical about the pre-0600 rendezvous at the airport gate. He had a feeling he’d be the only one present and we half expected that he’d still be in bed.
Next step was to plan the route, get weather, change, eat, and return to the ’Lion to brag shamelessly of our intended exploits to whoever of the knowledgeable gentry was present. Reactions were naturally divided, varying from disbelief through “stupidity”, to “great stuff”, to caution “double-check it all with LHR before departure”. The one opinion that may have swayed us was that of Longy, but the big man liked it.
Bright and fresh the following morning, I called Heathrow AIS again to double-check, with the response “I’ll just ask the boss”. Several moments later came the confirmation of everything checked and “see you later”. No going back now, EGLL in the logbook it had to be.
Talking to the forecaster at Birmingham weather centre and taking down various TAFs, there was a frontal system coming through from the west, nearing Southampton, which would start coming over London at about nine o’clock. At least the weather would be OK for arrival ? just.
Meeting before six we unlocked the gates and pre-flighted, cleared some frost off, and taxied just as the skies started to lighten, getting airborne at 0635. Handing a spare map marked up for David to use for some back-seat navigation, I brought to his attention that ‘London’ meant London Heathrow, not White Waltham as he’d imagined. Thinking this was a joke he looked at the map and his face went white. He double-checked my map in the front to confirm, and his lip quivered before a big wide grin appeared for what lay ahead this fine morning.
There was nobody to talk to at Coventry so, on passing 1,200 feet, we called Birmingham hoping to get an FIS and maybe have the craic, after all we knew several of their controllers. We told them who and what we were and primarily where we were headed. “Roger” was their rather unsatisfactory response.
At their request we had flown the Tri-Pacer into the opening of the brand new terminal at Birmingham International Airport to help celebrate their ‘international’ transition when, sadly, Elmdon was consigned to the history books. They even asked us on departure to do a flyby to enthral the crowd?if that’s possible in a Tri-Pacer?
One Christmas David stepped in at short notice to fly Santa into BHX when their sleigh went U/S and he had, whilst airborne on one occasion, re-arranged a date with a Britannia hostess via the Captain over the airwaves with the helpful cooperation of Birmingham ATC. So “Roger” just didn’t seem sufficient.
Navigation was better than perfect; height and heading precise. We were spot on track all the way using the Mk1 eyeball. We were right on our game… not that much navigation was going on in the back. To this day, David has a reputation for a permanent fixation with telephones and is never seen in public without one.
Upon seeing the phone on the back seat, that was it. He called his wife (the Britannia hostess), Longy, a couple of others, then our friend Johnny ‘Guitar’ in the south of France. Near to Aylesbury, David passed the phone to Ivor with Johnny on the other end.
We had all been IMC-trained by Longy more or less to RAF standards. Back in the early eighties the RAF would allow civil flights into Bitteswell to train their radar operators on using the PAR equipment there. PAR stood for Precision Approach Radar used to provide a PRA (similar to a SRA, only ‘precision’) with the radar operator guiding the pilot down the approach path and then into the full flair and touchdown onto the runway whilst still under the hood, with go-around.
We had all flown under the hood in the Tripe with the watchful eye of Longy in the right seat. Nothing like that around nowadays of course, but with CAT 3B ILS why would there be?
Ivor took the phone to speak with Johnny. I could see some low scud coming close and pointed it out to Ivor. “Sorry Johnny, got to go, we’re just going IMC” and he threw the phone back. In and out of the cloudbase at two thousand feet, we could see light snow flurries but just about maintained ground contact and good position reference. We definitely couldn’t enter the CTR in IMC, so the weather over the next few miles was critical. Checking Heathrow weather ATIS they were CAVOK with a base at five thousand feet. And then it popped clear.
Calling up “Heathrow, Good morning, G-ARGY”. Radar: “G-GY pass your message”. “G-GY is a PA-22 Tri-Pacer inbound to Heathrow from Coventry, fifteen miles north-west of LON, two thousand feet, request clearance to enter the zone.”
We were on time, cleared and treated to a tremendous view of the capital and the Thames as we flew radar headings for the downwind leg but then we noticed the side elevation of the glideslope into Heathrow: DC-10, B747, L-1011, B747 etc. We had known what to expect but actually seeing it in real life was somehow very different. How do you fit a seventy-knot final approach light aircraft into 140kt heavies?
But the chaps in ATC had it covered all the way, they were superb. The sheer skill and professionalism of the controllers was something to behold?they’d seen us on radar and planned a large gap between heavies for us to slot into.
We joined behind a Jumbo with a TriStar behind us on about a six-mile final for R28L. Ivor opened up the throttle and we accelerated on the glide to what must have been close to 130 knots to keep pace?and ahead of that TriStar! There was a crosswind from the left which gave an insurance against wake turbulence. Cleared to land we reduced power over the hedge with still nearly a mile to touchdown.
Longy used to say that “a good landing results from a good approach, configuration, correct speed, trim, descent rate etc”. So why this turned out to be the best landing that Ivor ever did is a mystery to this day. Speed gently bleeding off, we still touched down at over ninety.
Well, we thought we’d touched down, it was so perfect you could hardly tell until there was a slight rumble and then, with gentle braking, we slowed to clear the runway. Pulling off to the left we stopped, smiled to each other, relieved and ecstatic, then thought, where do we go now? As if by ESP, we received taxying instructions to the GA Terminal located next to ‘Fields hangar’ and duly came to a halt.
Unbeknown to us a chap in Fields was building a model of a Tri-Pacer and was stunned when he looked out the hangar office window and saw us taxi in, and he ran out to say hello. Then the Apron Marshal drove up and pointed us in the direction to log in and pay the landing/handling fee: £70 no less. In old money this was three and half hours flying, which fortunately went on Ivor’s travel expenses to Saudi.
The marshal asked what we were doing here in a Tripe and we told him the story. With no ground handling organised, he was kind enough to run us around to the main terminal and even offered to collect us later, giving us a number to call him up when ready. It probably wouldn’t happen these days, he was a real gentleman.
Unbelievably we have no photographic record! Ivor, who had worked in Saudi for many years and travelled the Far East, had all the kit, including a top of the range Canon A-1 SLR camera, which we had with us but with a flat battery. Nobody at Heathrow sold the batteries and throw-away cameras were yet to be invented. A trip of a lifetime and only the Tower Chief’s log to record the day.
The weather came in then, low scud and drizzle for most of the day, the forecast was bang on. After cheering Ivor off, David and I went up to AIS to get the weather, flight plan and book a slot out. This latter part took several goes and cancellations with continuing low cloud and drizzle, until ATC eventually said to us not to bother booking a slot, just call up when the weather is clear and we’ll fit you straight in.
Much tea later, the weather improved late afternoon. With clearing skies, we started up and called for taxi, receiving instructions to taxi to the hold for R28L. Heathrow switches arrival/departure runways during the day so we were leaving from the same runway we arrived on. At the hold in the corner, as far out of the way as possible, we completed our checks and called ready.
We could see an Aer Fungus 737 waiting opposite and, I think, a 707 coming up behind, and thought we’d be held in a queue, but it was not to be. The call came back “G-GY line up and hold”, which we did and waited for a good minute. Then “G-GY just waiting a further minute for wake turbulence separation, your departure clearance will be to climb straight ahead, fly around the Tower on track to the north.”
We had a short roll and took off with a gentle climb rate accelerating whilst keeping the Tower visible. Waving to the Tower as we set course northwards, we cheekily asking ATC when was the last time a Tri-Pacer landed at Heathrow? They advised that they’d check the records and we were just clearing their CTR to the north when the call came in that they had checked back to the fifties and we were the first. Brilliant! We were the only Tripe ever. Thanking them we QSYed enroute.
Slapping ourselves on the back all the way up country we called up Birmingham, but no reaction again. So we cleared and tuned in to Coventry. It was Sunday afternoon and ‘ten-second Sam’ was in the Tower. There were several aircraft in the circuit and we couldn’t get a word in edgeways. Prattle, prattle, prattle until finally we got a millisecond to chip in, made contact, then called, “G-GY is a PA-22 Tri-Pacer inbound from London Heathrow, eight miles south, fifteen hundred feet, request joining instructions”. ‘Ten-second Sam’ made it twenty issuing the clearance. Pre-circuit checks were completed to virtual silence over the airwaves.
To this day I’m still not sure if we were in full compliance with AIP. At the time, there was no such thing as GPS, the EU was still a common market with no Euro in sight, Maggie was in her prime, and you could safely joke with airport security; today we live in a very different world.
Single engine over London was officially banned a short while later?quite rightly when thinking about glide performance over the capital. The one abiding regret is that we still have no photographic record of ’GY’s day out at Heathrow. So if you were there on Sunday 30 March 1986, and took a shot of us, please get in contact and you will have earned yourself a beer!
After her sale, G-ARGY was converted to a tailwheel Pacer and registered G-JEST and went on to win the Schneider Trophy with her new owner.
Later she was seriously damaged in a forced landing incident and then fully rebuilt as a PA-20/22 ‘Super Pacer’ and re-registered G-ARGY. David bought her back and flew her for many a year until recently when she was sold to reside in France. A great history for a great aircraft.
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