Reasonable prices, a good restaurant and choice of runways, but do call Boscombe Down and remember the airfield’s closed on race days. Nick Bloom visits Thruxton
Thruxton is a place for those who enjoy fast cars as well as aeroplanes as, much like Goodwood, it’s a racetrack and airfield rolled into one.
Beyond the racing circuit is one grass and one hard runway, both over 750 metres long. When flight planning, you not only need to check whether it is a race day (the airfield will be closed) but you are supposed to contact Boscombe Down, a military radar service, well before reaching Thruxton to request penetration of the Boscombe MATZ. You switch to Thruxton only when near to requesting landing information.
Now, I fly an open-cockpit biplane with a hand-held radio, which can give rise to difficulties in hearing and being heard on the radio, so I telephoned Boscombe Down the day before my visit and asked if I needed to call on 126.7 for a MATZ penetration if approaching Thruxton from the north-east. After a bit of waiting, he said there was no need, but the implication was that they would prefer visiting pilots to call. If you would rather not speak to Boscombe on the radio, try telephoning as I did (01930 663246, ATIS on extension 3101).
In the end, I actually flew to Thruxton from Dunkeswell, approaching from the west and not the north-east as planned. It was hot and I was tired, thirsty and wanting my lunch, but pilots at Dunkeswell confirmed that it’s still quicker and easier to leave Boscombe alone and fly the long way round.
I flew to Winchester, turned north up the A34, west down the Whitchurch-Andover railway line and finally, after a substantial detour, approached Thruxton from a north-easterly direction. I had booked in by email, stressing that I wanted to use the grass runway.
I landed in blazing sunshine on Runway 30, taxied as directed to a line of parked aircraft and shut down. My first thought on landing,, however, was ‘Oh dear, I’m in trouble’, as two young men in uniform arrived in a fire truck. They’re not from the CAA, HM Revenue & Customs or the Police, but uniformed firemen who came to assist.
Ben and Mark were cheerful fellows, I’m guessing in their twenties. Mark was a County Fireman working at Thruxton part-time, whereas Ben was full-time. They offered to move my Currie Super Wot to a rather tidier parking position, so I told them how – one lifts the tailskid and pushes, wheelbarrow-style, while the other pulls on the prop hub. They climbed in their shiny red fire truck (“Sorry, we’d give you a lift, but there are only two seats”) and and left me to trudge across baking concrete to the line of open-front hangars.
I met marketing consultant Jeremy Gildersleeves and his twenty-year-old daughter Abigail, who, by coincidence, were off to Dunkeswell. Their TB-10 was based here. “Thruxton’s fantastic. The radio operators are very helpful, the fuel boys and ground support are exceptionally accommodating and the Jackaroo Restaurant has been revamped recently,” said Jeremy, who had been flying to the airfield for seven years. I asked if there was much social life and he admits, “Not really. They lay on the odd thing, but it’s not the sort of place where you get many fly-outs. There ought to be more.”
Heading towards the restaurant, I intercepted Mike Jarman, a retired IT manager and Martin Aver, a retired 747 captain. They had come for lunch from Lee-on-Solent in their newly-painted, group-owned PA-28. I also caught a quick word with Barry Ward, who was taking Livia Foulds, aged twelve, and Aaron Foulds, fifteen, for a flight in an aircraft from Western Air, the local club. “We’re planning to go to Henstridge,” he told me, “then Compton Abbas, then back here.” Barry, a retired electrical development engineer, began teaching flying in the 1960s, taught gliding in the ATC, then switched to power.
For lunch, I ordered a bacon, lettuce and tomato baguette and a coffee served in a proper china mug, and fell into conversation with two chaps at the next table. Both, it turned out, were involved with the flying instructor training offered by Western Air. IT developer Tony Harris, 59, learned to fly fixed-wing at Thruxton in 2000, before adding a helicopter licence and a Night and an IMC rating. “Basically I’m doing the course to improve my flying skills further, although I may do some part-time instructing at some point.” He was on the second day of the course and had a share in a Grumman AA-5 based on the airfield.
His companion, Matthew Whitefield, 44, flew Sea Harriers in the Royal Navy and was a former Sea Vixen display pilot. After leaving the RN, he had a career as an executive coach, “Passing on the skills I learned in the Services to civilian managers.” Matthew was due to renew his flying instructor rating the next day.
They both admit that the quality of training at Western Air was a big attraction for them. The CFI who heads up the training was a former chief test pilot at Boscombe Down, Bob Cole. “Both the guys who run the school are exceptional. In fact,” said Matthew, “It’s a privilege to work with them. I’ve trained jet pilots in the Navy and taught multi-ratings for the Army and I hope to share my enthusiasm for flying with civilian pilots.”
I asked if there was any difference about the pilots based at Thruxton. “You get all sorts flying here, from teenagers to ‘old lags’,” was Matthew’s reply.
They went on to list Thruxton’s many advantages. “It’s in Class G airspace, you can get a radar service if you need it from Boscombe Down. The weather ‘actuals’ and other briefings provided by the two adjacent military teams are superb. The airfield has excellent access, and things like this restaurant, refuelling facilities, ground staff, flight planning facilities and even the parking are super-efficiently run. It’s designated for Customs and there are runway lights for night landings. It’s a real advantage having two runways. Henry Pelham, who owns the airfield, has a policy of pricing it attractively, because he wants it to thrive.”
It was high time I met Henry Pelham. Unfortunately, he had planned to buy me lunch so I have I apologise for not seeking him out earlier. before we headed to a briefing room. Henry, 79, had owned the airfield since 1959 – he must have bought it in his mid-twenties. I’ve met a lot of airfield managers who own the lease on the club and lease their airfield from landowners, but not many who own the whole caboodle, land and all. He told me he paid about £30,000.
I then asked what the airfield was like in 1959. “Well, it was a derelict aerodrome with a tenant, the Wiltshire School of Flying, and various agricultural services such as a grass-drying operation, and was owned by the Air Ministry. My family had a property business, we heard the airfield was up for sale and bought it”. At that time, he had been flying for a year, having obtained his licence at Fairoaks in a Tiger Moth.
Thruxton’s history began when the Air Ministry constructed an airfield, which opened in 1940, for Wellington bombers. Subsequently Lysanders, Mustangs, Hurricanes and P-47 Thunderbolts were based here, both for RAF and USAAF use. Large numbers of Horsa gliders were stored in the open at the end of the war.
The RAF left in 1946 and, a year later, the airfield was leased by the Wiltshire School of Flying and became for a time a busy centre for private aviation with flight training, a number of private aircraft and a maintenance facility. In the late 1950s, no fewer than eighteen Tiger Moths were converted on the site into ‘Thruxton Jackaroos’ (remembered today by the name of the restaurant) by widening the fuselage to accommodate, rather optimistically, four occupants.
Henry got vacant possession in 1966. “We bought three Piper Cherokees and started training. At that time there were four annual light car and motorcycle meetings on parts of what remained of the old military airfield, so I decided to build the racetrack. The first race meeting using the circuit you see today was held in 1967.” I asked whether the racing circuit was a way of providing financial support for the flying. “Not at all,” he said. “I enjoy being involved in it. And I think the skid pan, go-karting and opportunity to drive a Ferrari are complementary to the flying, don’t you? Pilots can fly here and get some new driving experiences.”
Thruxton Circuit runs twelve days of motorsport races a year, three of them for motorbikes. There’s a British Touring Car Championship and a British Formula 3. In addition there are truck races, classic car events and Ford-only contests. Visitors (by road or air) can enjoy a quasi-F1 Racing Car Driving Experience for £165, or a Skid Pan Experience for £99. Other options include a Racing Addict Driving Experience for £399 and the chance to sample various high performance cars, such as the Audi R8, Aston Martin, Porsche Cayman and Jaguar F-Type. Finally, there is a go-kart track, with prices starting at £25.
Today, there are around fifty aircraft based on the airfield, and when asked if there were plans for further development, Henry said there was no need to extend the runway, but that he hoped to establish a GPS approach.
Henry was a 750-hour pilot. “I’ve flown Tiger Moths, Austers, Chipmunks, Tri-Pacers, Taylorcraft and I owned a Magister. I got my helicopter licence in 1987. When I fly now, it tends to be helicopters. I find them more useful.” His wife was also a pilot, and especially good with maps.
The school, Western Air, instructs up to and including Commercials, and Henry told me with obvious pride how valuable it was to have Bob Cole and David Scouller heading up the training. Western Air has five instructors and a hundred students, plus another hundred self-fly-hire members. “We try to keep our fleet modern and in first-class condition,” he said. It currently consists of five PA-28s, the use of a Cougar twin and, for aerobatics and tailwheel instruction, a Super Decathlon. There are ten students on the Decathlon at present.
“It’s an interesting, fun place with lots going on. I’m always pleased to see people. It’s not just an airfield to me, I built all the hangars and the road tunnel under the circuit and expanded the wartime tower into a modern building, you see.” Henry is also proud of having the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance based here.
The next stage of my visit was a guided tour. We climbed into a (baking hot) four-by-four and made for Edmondson Aviation, an aircraft paint facility specialising in helicopters. There I met Gavin Jenkins, 49, one of five painters, who told me he’s been painting aeroplanes since he was sixteen and has been at Thruxton since 1999. “We’ve been painting new helicopters for Airbus for the last fifteen years, and we’ve never advertised.” Henry couldn’t help but add, “Well, they do the best quality painting.”
Our next stop was the airfield’s branch of Heli Air (based at Wellesbourne). Head of Training at Thruxton Shaun Byam told me they had two R22s and four R44s, “and we bring in R66s, Jet Rangers and other helicopters as needed”. Heli Air’s substantial UK charter operation is run from Thruxton. “Most of the work is based around London,” says Shaun. “On this airfield we have eighteen PPL students and also quite a lot of military conversion training, being so close to military bases. Because I’m qualified to do it, we get a fair bit of training for helicopter Commercial licences.
“We get a good quantity of charter work, from overflights of Stonehenge to carrying photographers to take pictures of crop circles, which are still generating a lot of interest in this area. Finally, we have around thirty self-fly-hire club members based at Thruxton. I’ve been here for fifteen years and it’s a great site for GA training. We have an area for engine-off landings that’s like a billiard table.”
I then met a Heli Air student, Austen Short, 40, a sales manager in a mass spectrometer company, who had a hundred hours and was halfway through a CPL course. He was English, but lived in Cambodia and planned on a career as a charter helicopter pilot. I also met a Heli Air charter customer, photographer Steve Alexander, off to photograph crop circles. “There’s a market for the pictures. They get published in books and in calendars and advertising agencies use them.” If you’re interested, his website will tell you all you need to know.
Next, Henry took me to meet Ben Faulkner, who owned maintenance company Aerofab. Ben, 39, had been maintaining aircraft since he was an apprentice. Aerofab had three full-time engineers, looked after everything from a Van’s RV-4 to light twins, and had 45 aeroplanes on its books. I asked if there was anything particularly different about Thruxton and he replied, “Yes, the security”.
Further down the row of hangar/office buildings, we came to a relatively new company, Reborn Aviation, specialists in refurbishing aeroplanes. Henry said: “We’d been trying for some time to buy a PA-28 that’s a few years old, but you can either buy a new one, which is expensive, or one that’s twenty or thirty years old, which means it will be worn out. Reborn fills that gap in the market.” Brothers Paul and Fraser Kingsbury were working on a PA-28 that had been dismantled and stripped down to bare metal. “Anything with a defect, we replace, but mostly it’s skin repair,” said older brother Paul.
I told him how much I admired Piper’s classics, and what a tribute to their ruggedness and build quality it was that so many flying schools still used thrity- or forty-year-old Warriors and Cherokees. “Not so sure about the build quality,” he replied. “Not if, like me, you’re RAF-trained and used to working on Sea Vixens. What we do here is make what Piper did better. They rarely sealed their joints, for instance. Once the paint is off, you’ll find corrosion everywhere. I will say this, though – they’re easy to repair.”
The refurbishment included refitting with modern flat-screen avionics and instrumentation. Although Reborn was starting by specialising with the PA-28, it expects to refurbish other aircraft types as well in due course.
Once we left them to it, Henry had to stop off at his office so I climbed the stairs to the Control Tower on my own. There I met Duty Operations Manager Gordon Harvey, who told me that the volume of movements at Thruxton had declined to 25,000 annually. It had been picking up lately, though, and was likely to reach 28,000-30,000 this year. “I’ve worked in aviation for most of my life, most of it here,” he said.
I took the opportunity to ask about my departure. I was parked near the threshold of hard runway 07, so for a grass takeoff, I had to backtrack down Runway 12, turn round and take off on 30. Fortunately Gordon said I needn’t bother, and taking off on the grass alongside Runway 07 would be fine, which couldn’t be simpler.
Downstairs in Western Air’s reception I met nineteen-year-old Emily Bastow, who was learning to fly. Her father was a pilot and gave air experience flights to eleven-year-olds following a twelve-week course of classroom instruction. I asked Emily if she would follow her father into a career in aviation. “No, it’s purely for recreation.”
I went to find Henry and say goodbye, and he offered to drive me to the aeroplane and see me off. He waited patiently while I dipped the fuel, swung the propeller and climbed aboard. It was still a hot day and the engine had been unhappy at idle, so I opened the throttle until the engine ran smoothly, then started the business of doing up straps and connecting headset.
After getting the ok from the tower, I gave Henry a wave, opened the throttle and as the Wot began to move I raised the tail and gave right rudder. The Wot yawed, straightened up and headed off down the beautifully smooth grass adjoining the hard runway. After a ground roll of 100 yards, the Wot was ready to lift off. I eased back the stick and we climbed away, soon clear of Middle Wallop/Boscombe Down. I gave a final radio call and switched off, heading for home non-radio.
Thruxton has more than the usual airfield attractions, with its skid pan, opportunity to sample racing cars and go-kart racing, as well as its fine flying school, range of high-quality aviation businesses and some very welcoming and enthusiastic flying people. The restaurant’s good and the landing fees attractive. And overseeing it all is Henry Pelham, a remarkable airfield and racetrack proprietor and a gentleman who, after so many years of ownership, can truly say (to paraphrase Louis XIV): “Thruxton is me”.
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nick bloom PIL JAN17 AIRFIELD PROFILE