The Tiger Club’s new airfield – also home to Vintage Aero – offers London pilots hire of a Tiger Moth, CAP 10 or Turbulent. Nick Bloom flies down for a visit
Pent Farm isn’t for everyone. It has a hill at one end, a farm track across it and radio service is negligible. Yet none of this has prevented a Spitfire landing there and one of the locals has based his T-6 Texan at the field for the last ten years. The location is spectacular, a mile off the coast, right next to the M20 just before it reaches Folkestone.
Recently, the Tiger Club moved from Headcorn to Pent Farm. It’s no ordinary flying club – it’s where pilots go to become aviators. It certainly had that effect on me when I joined as a newly-qualified PPL back in the 1980s. In those days, the Redhill-based club asked you to undertake five hours dual training in a Tiger Moth. If you could solo safely in that time, you were free to join. If not, “Sorry chum…”. I only just made the grade.
The club currently has nine aircraft but just a hundred members, so now would be an ideal time to join. Hire rates for members start at £75 an hour for the Turbulent, up to £200 an hour for the Tiger Moth or CAP 10. Flying membership is £250 a year. The club offers tailwheel and aerobatic training. Training in airmanship, non-radio operation and farm strip flying comes as part of the package.
My visit began with a call to the operator of the airstrip, Chris Reynolds. You absolutely must obtain a briefing before flying in to Pent Farm so you can get permission, be told about the hazards ? like the hill and power lines ? and plan your arrival to avoid annoying the villages to the south and east.
Farm strips have their own etiquette and one unwritten rule is that not everyone is welcome. You are effectively visiting someone’s home and they must live with the consequences if you overfly a neighbouring house when the occupant is sunbathing in the garden or trying to get the baby to sleep. So don’t assume a right to fly in. Be polite, fly safely and you probably will be welcome.
My flight took the Currie Super Wot east-south-east, past the north-east corner of London/City’s controlled airspace. I held my heading, keeping well clear on the north side of Damyns Hall until reaching J29 of the M25, where it crosses the A127. Then south-east, drifting overhead the yacht marina at Chatham and eventually picking up the M20. I was careful to avoid overflying Challock, where I could see cable-launching gliders in the distance.
My flying time had been prolonged by a headwind – and after one hour ten in an open cockpit, the brain cells start to fade – but as I neared the coast and Hythe, I scanned for Pent Farm. The map showed a railway line converging on the M20 on one side of the airfield and a radio mast on the other. When you see Pent Farm, it’s no more than another farm really, save for the glimpse of a runway.
As I arrived, I see an aeroplane about to take off on R25, the downhill runway. In nil wind, the advice was to land uphill on R07, but I elected to approach down the hill, firstly to conform to the aeroplane already in the circuit and because there was a stiff-ish wind blowing up the hill.
The hill at the end of the runway isn’t really visible until you are on approach, and then you realise it’s quite steep and you’re going to have to descend rapidly to have any chance of landing near the start of the runway. I sideslipped madly, avoiding trees and power lines. It made for a much more exhilarating approach than normal, especially with people watching. One warning was that the ground at the lower end of the runway had been mole-drained and was slightly corrugated, but I didn’t notice anything.
After lifting the tailskid and turning the Wot so it’s parked into wind, I headed for the portakabin that must be the Tiger Club’s headquarters. This took me past a Zlin and a handful of other aircraft parked on the grass, as well as Vintage Aero’s open hangar doors. Various Tiger Club aeroplanes – among them was a Stearman – were in front of the clubhouse in the sunshine, making for a pretty scene with the hill behind. I do like an airfield with a hill, it gives the setting an Alpine feel.
I found Tiger Club manager Glyn Richards with a small group of visitors, including Rob Davies and Tug Wilson, who just arrived in Rob’s Stearman. ‘We’ve dropped in for a chat and then we’re off to Rochester or Headcorn for lunch,’ they said. ‘Haven’t decided which yet.’ Rob was seventy and, prior to retirement, was MD of Meggitt Defence and Tug used to work in the Fire Service. Rob said, ‘I come here every six weeks or so, mostly ferrying aeroplanes to Vintage Aero and to do odd jobs like making up pressure hoses’. Along with the Stearman, which he kept on his own private airstrip, he owned a Yak 11 and a Harvard, while Tug owned a Sportcruiser, which he built. He recently checked out on the Tiger Club Tiger Moth, then going on to fly the Turbulent.
The next person I spoke to was 22-year-old dancer Cherry Charters, there for an aerobatic lesson. Another club member, she had a share in a Cessna 150 and just learned to fly tailwheel with Glyn in one of the club’s two 90hp PA-18 Super Cubs. It’s good to find a young woman taking up aviation, especially with the Tiger Club. Although the club has had women aviators and young pilots for as long as I’ve known it, most members have always been older men. ‘I’ve always loved aeroplanes, ever since going on a Ryanair flight as a little girl,’ said Cherry. ‘At first I wanted to be an airline pilot. Then I heard about being a bush pilot and switched to that as an ambition. It sounded much more exciting. I’m currently doing my skydiving licence and I’ve won a couple of flying scholarships.’
At this point, Chris Reynolds arrived. He was 68 at the time of writing, and had been flying since he was eighteen. He had 350 hours, which would have been more were it not for the ‘raising-a-family’ years. He had three children – his son also flew, as does his wife, albeit as a passenger.
Chris came to this part of the world when he was 21, working in farm management for the last 47 years. He established the airfield in 1992, and his connection with the Tiger Club went back a dozen years, ‘It includes my father-in-law, who flew Oxfords, Halifaxes and Lancasters in World War II and then soloed the Tiger Club Super Cub at the age of 88,’ he told me.
‘In a place like this, you have to keep the locals on side and it’s very strictly prior permission only. Mind you, we’re nothing if not flexible. There’s a hot air balloon operator who lands here from time to time. He’s got a knack for reading the air currents and climbing or descending at the appropriate moment. And that’s with sixteen people on board. In a way, we are getting close to saturation on movements, but that depends on what kind of aeroplanes we’re talking about. Cubs aren’t a problem, nor is anything with a four-stroke Rotax, because they’re quiet. We never seem to get any complaints about noisy aircraft that have historic appeal ? we’ve had Spitfires and Hurricanes fly in.’
Glyn then chimed in. ‘Pent Farm is not to everyone’s taste. When the wind’s from the west and you’re taking off uphill, and then you’ve got to clear the hill at the end of the runway, it can be rather unnerving. We don’t encourage pilots who find such things difficult. Having said that, most club members love it. And Vintage Aero are on the spot and are great at looking after the club aircraft, and those of our members.’
Four good-sized hangars
There were around twenty aircraft on Pent Farm before the Tiger Club moved in, but there are probably thirty these days. There are four good-size hangars (one advantage of farm airstrips is that another barn or hangar is readily achievable).
My first point of exploration was Vintage Aero, where I met Howard Wade, co-director with Chris. Now 56, he started maintaining aircraft in his teens, passenger jets at Manston. ‘But I was always drawn to classic light aircraft and started working on them as a sideline in my twenties, at Lydd, Manston and other Kent airfields, mostly during the weekends. I then co-founded an approved company at Biggin Hill for warbirds in the mid-1990s. I am still working on commercial jets on a contract basis ? sometimes on mainland Europe ? but for the last ten years, Vintage Aero has been my main activity and in recent years I’ve been here full-time.
‘We’ve got four or five employees and about fifty aircraft on our books for maintenance, major repairs, complete overhauls and restorations. We’re doing a major repair on a Yak-3 at the moment, an overhaul on a Robin, we’re finishing off a Jungmann and have just done a ground-up restoration on a Cub. Someone from the CAA was saying the other day that he doesn’t know any other company that takes on such a wide scope of work, because we look after Islanders and gas turbine aircraft, all the way down to Cessna 152s ? although we do tend to specialise in classics, it doesn’t stop us looking after typical flying school aeroplanes.
‘It’s nice having the Tiger Club here, which has opened up the strip a bit more and it is good to see more flying. I expect in time it will bring us more work.’
At that moment, I heard the Robin I saw taking off come in to land. I went out to meet the owners, Andrew Hopper and Ryan Vella, and Andrew’s son Jamie. Andrew flew an Airbus for a living, Jamie was a History student and Ryan an estate agent. The Robin had been based at Pent Farm for several years, but Andrew and Ryan had only been here for eighteen months. It’s the aerobatic variant, and yes, they did aerobatics in it, but hadn’t entered any contests yet.
Hangarage for the aircraft is £240 a month. I asked Andrew what he makes of Pent Farm. ‘It’s an interesting airstrip ? it focuses the mind. I’m a fairly new PPL so it’s been a bit of a baptism of fire.’
The next pilot I met was a local, Chris Bellhouse, whose name will be familiar to Tiger Club members as he was chairman for a while. In the immaculate hangar where he kept his Texan and other aircraft, he said, ‘If I only had to choose just one aeroplane to own, it would be the Texan. I’ve kept it for thirty years.’ He had operated it from Pent Farm for the last decade after moving it from Headcorn. Vintage Aero’s engineering support was one reason for the move. His wife kept a Jodel and they owned a Midget Mustang and an under-restoration Yak-3.
‘I got involved with the Tiger Club in the early seventies, when it was at Redhill. At that time my passion was Formula One pylon racing. After the move to Headcorn I got on to the Committee and had a spell as Chairman, but that was a good while back. Now I’m just a club member.’
Move that made a lot of sense
I asked Chris about the club’s recent relocation. ‘While it’s true the club fell out with Headcorn, the move here does make a lot of sense. The club has been in decline as fashions and tastes change in the aviation world. Also what the club offered ? tailwheel and aerobatic training and hire of vintage aircraft ? used to be unique, but is now more widely available. I believe in recent times the decline has been reversed and although the club is smaller now, it’s on a more sustainable base because overheads are a lot lower here, enabling us to thrive on a lower aircraft utilisation.
‘It’s true that Pent Farm does require more skill from pilots, with its being on a hill, but it’s not as bad as it looks. And it takes about the same time to drive here from London as it does to drive to Headcorn.’
During a tour, Chris took me through a large farm yard with a number of parked agricultural vehicles, some workshops and grain stores. To the far end was one of the hangars, stuffed with aeroplanes. Some, like TG Aviation’s Stearman, which they used for training at Lydd, are complete. Chris’s Jungmann, however, was in pieces, either being worked on or awaiting repair or restoration. His Piper Cub was in here too. In one farm building we passed a launch trailer for a hot-air balloon, complete with twin burners, belonging to Kent Ballooning.
I was curious to get a photo of Chris’s listed farmhouse, where two black Labradors were very eager to be part of the picture too. It’s a beautiful house, mainly 18th century.
After that, I then returned to the clubhouse for lunch. You can get hot drinks at Pent Farm, and you can walk (or I imagine someone will drive you) to the pub for food, but there’s no airfield café at the moment.
I finished eating when a familiar face appears at the door, Tim Barnby, an airline pilot who I used to compete with in Unlimited aerobatics in the late 1980s. In 1997, he became a bit of a hero for successfully landing a crippled Airbus on its nosewheel and one mainwheel. ‘Still competing?’ I asked. ‘I flew in this year’s Advanced Nationals,’ was his answer. He was at Pent Farm with his seventeen-year-old nephew Toby, who was learning to fly. Toby’s mother owned the farm where Tim kept his Pitts S-1 and Jodel ? and Tim’s wife Maggie co-owned a Nord with Glyn Richards.
‘The club has become noticeably more sociable since we moved here,’ according to Glyn. ‘Dropping in for a natter suits quite a few of our members when they can do it at a farm strip rather than a busy formal airfield.’
The next pilot to arrive was Jim Newman – a long-term member of the Tiger Club and check pilot and instructor on the Tiger Moth – there as Vintage Aero refurbished his Robin Jodel. He was about to start having refresher aerobatic training in the CAP 10 with Chris Jesson (another pilot I have competed with.) ‘I think Pent Farm is great,” said Jim. ‘It’s peaceful and slightly eccentric. You’ve got the washboard effect of the mole drains ? at least until we get some rain and the ground softens so that Chris can roll them. Part of the airstrip becomes very wet in the depths of winter, however we manage to keep flying off about 400m at the top end for most of the year with care.’
We got into a debate about how the move will affect the Tiger Club in years to come. Apparently membership was 200 ? double today’s figure ? when things were going well at Headcorn, although many had kept their membership out of habit and had stopped flying. ‘I’m optimistic,’ insisted Glyn. ‘Utilisation of the club’s two Tiger Moths, two Cubs, four Turbulents and its CAP 10 has been increasing, certainly in the last few months. And we average around ten Air Experience flights a week. Being only three minutes’ driving time from the M20 (Junction 11) helps.’
Fuel bowser is one luxury
A little group joined me as I walked to the Currie Super Wot to get ready to leave. Dipping the fuel suggested I had enough for the return flight, but not much margin so Glyn swung the prop and I taxied up to the fuel bowser. This is one luxury you don’t find at many farm strips (others make do with jerry cans) and I see that Pent Farm also has a fire engine and a fire bell. Glyn sold me £25 worth (fourteen litres), making it only the second time I’ve fuelled the aeroplane from a hose.
This was a rather special airfield profile for me, as I have so many fond memories of the Tiger Club and so many friends there. Today’s club is more relaxed, more intimate and in some ways better for being smaller. If you’ve wondered what it would be like to fly a Tiger Moth, I suggest a quick ride in one as a ‘trial lesson’ won’t tell you much. You need to master the aeroplane to the point where you can solo it, perhaps fly some cross countries or, ideally, do some basic aerobatics.
In short, you need to convert at a club where you can go on to hire the aeroplane, which the Tiger Club allows you to do. It is also unique in offering the elfin Turbulent for hire. If this, rather than glass screens, instrument flying and high cruise speeds is what appeals to you, my advice would be to fill in the membership application form on the Tiger Club website and send it to Glyn.
Do it soon – the Tiger Club and Pent Farm together make one terrific package.
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