Herefordshire Aero Club: This County is The Perfect Place To Fly
PUBLISHED: 11:30 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:36 20 February 2013
The volunteers of Herefordshire Aero Club talk to Rachel Crow about why the county is the perfect place to take flight and give her the chance to view the county from the air.
Since time immemorial, mankind has had a desire to fly. Its infectious. Once youve got the flying bug, youre doomed, says Bob Cole, Treasurer of the Herefordshire Aero Club and one of the many members and volunteers who devote much of their free time to the club and their flying hobby.
Based at Shobdon Airfield near Leominster, the Aero Club was formed in 1961, led by a group of flying enthusiasts who were granted permission by the Ministry of Defence to use part of the runway. Since then, and with the land returned to private ownership in 1964, business at the airfield has steadily grown and redevelopment undertaken to repair and improve the runways and facilities.
Its one of the last bastions of freedom here. Apart from a few restrictions, you have open air space to enjoy. You can circle the whole county in the space of 40 minutes, enthuses Dennis Davis the clubs Chief Flying Instructor. Supported by a team of part-time instructors, since joining the club in 1975 Dennis has made the airborne dream achievable for thousands. Flying still has as much allure as when I started, he continues. Autumn can be one of the best times to fly over Herefordshire when the trees are changing colour to gold and reds and the sun catches them and it is gorgeous. But every season has its best views. Its fantastic here and one of the friendliest places. People are always coming back.
On the cold and crisp winters morning of my visit, we sit cradling steaming cups of coffee in the warm and inviting canteen, which along with the clubhouse and bar are housed in a World War I hangar. Its mid-week and the atmosphere is buzzing as more members come to join us at our table for a chat or to impart some of their knowledge on the club or their winged obsession. From here, or on warmer days at the picnic tables outside, you can sit for hours enjoying the spectacle of light aircraft, microlights, gliders or helicopters taking off and landing from the runways in this scenic spot.
Theres a misconception that airfields are tightly controlled and you cant come in, but people are welcome to come and visit and then they might decide they want to try flying. Everyone mixes together for the love of flying and our members currently about 300 come from all walks of life. Flying is not elitist, explains Bob Cole. Juggling his committee responsibilities with running his own recruitment business, Bob has been flying from Shobdon since the 1970s, originally as a member of the Herefordshire Parachute Club, which has been running from the site since 1963, before learning to fly a microlight. He now pilots a four-seat Piper Archer II.
I like to travel and tour and get a great kick of flying to the Channel Islands or France and places like that. Its a great feeling of independence to take off from here and within an hour be at Jersey. I took my wife there recently for her birthday. The Herefordshire landscape is also the perfect environment to just bimble and admire the scenery.
As well as the Aero Club, which offers the opportunity of one-off pleasure flights or to obtain your private pilots licence on a tailor-made flying course, the airfield is also home to the countys microlight and gliding schools and a helicopter business.
For enthusiasts who want to take the slightly cheaper option to owning their own aircraft, David Johnstone, a retired agronomist, runs the Shobdon Strut, a syndicate of people who build their own planes.
I built my first plane 15 years ago as a retirement project. There were six of us in a syndicate and it took about four years, he says. We all enjoy tinkering and the sense of achievement. You can enjoy the flying, but if youve built the plane as well theres even more of a buzz. Flying is what Im interested in, whereas some in our group just build the aircraft with no intention to fly them.
There is an immense breadth of knowledge and many years of experience among the members, volunteers and staff at the airfield. Gilbert Davies, Chief Maintenance Engineer of the Shobdon Aviation repair and maintenance service is a specialist in the running and restoration of World War II fighter planes including Spitfires, as well as aerobatic planes.
Ive been interested in planes since I was a lad at school. I flew for a living for a while and was a crop duster pilot in the States before I got involved in maintenance, he says.
Weve increased the types of planes we get here since I arrived five years ago because people know I can handle oddball airplanes, like old wooden fabric airplanes and the like. I enjoy the variety and can be working on anything from a Tiger Moth to DC-3 - a Yak Russian airplane - as well as aerobatic airplanes or your Cessnas and Pipers. But I learn something new every day and theres always something unexpected cropping up.
Training students in aircraft maintenance, hes keen to see his hands-on skills remain. People with the knowledge of the planesare getting thinner on the ground. Unless someone imparts what they know, the whole thing is going to die out.
In order to operate effectively, the airfield also depends on its volunteers to support the smaller number of full-time paid staff.
Bob Bowden, Chief Air Flying Service Information Officer, looks after the control tower and its team and has been volunteering his services for 15 years since retiring from his job in charge of the nearby Madley Satellite Air Station.
Licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority, the airfield has to retain high standards in air to ground radio communication and it ensures the safety of all aircraft in the air and on the ground.
During the week we run an air ground service from the office, which is more basic, but during weekends we have to operate the tower as it gets very busy with three parallel runways.
Many would dismiss the notion of flying as a hobby as far too expensive but as David Johnstone says: A lot of people smoke or drink, and if you look at how much they spend compared to how much an average pilot spends, its not that expensive. Flying a plane is no more difficult than driving a car; its just this mysterious aspect of finding your way around up there when it all looks so different.
A birds eye view of Herefordshire
Accepting Bob Coles offer of a flight over Herefordshire in his four-seat Piper Archer, I see the patchwork landscape of fields and towns of Herefordshire stretch out below as we climb skyways from Shobdon.
Its a beautifully calm day and clear day with not a hint of turbulence. We settle at 2,000 feet and a speed of 120 knots (140 mph) and within minutes are passing over Ludlow, small and compact from our vantage point. Up ahead and to the right, the Malverns appear little more than gentle ridges, while around Leominster, below, we witness the flood damage from the recent heavy rainfall.
Smoke rising from fires and chimneys helps pilots determine the direction of the wind, while using landmarks as their guiders they quickly learn the terrain to navigate themselves around the air highways.
Other than a few restrictions over RAF and military training camps like Pontrilas, Herefordshire offers open air space. Taking the controls for a while, it requires only a light touch to point the nose in the direction of travel and keep on course.
We circle round the edge of the county and gently banking the plane to the right, the land starts to rise up towards us as we near higher ground. We pass over Ledbury, then on to the Forest of Dean, a dark strip below. Distances covered in hours on land are reduced to minutes by air.
With the Brecon Beacons to our right, gazing down the nose of the plane the Severn Estuary sits on the horizon; the Severn Bridge prominent even from this distance.
Keeping on our circular route, we pass over Ross-on-Wye, its church standing at the helm, the surrounding landscape gently undulating. Then past the picturesque Symonds Yat as we near the Brecon Beacons, which have a burnished, copper hue. The highest peak has a light dusting of snow, while ominous grey clouds of an incoming weather front loom overhead. As we cruise over the ridges at about 700 feet you feel as if you can reach out and touch them, while the valleys nestling between appear cut off from the world. Further on I spot Llangorse Lake, identifiable by its distinctive kidney shape.
The time passes quickly in admiring the beautiful scenery and a short 45-minute trip offers a sense how far you can fly and the diversity in what you can see.
The planes compass directs us back to Shobdon, with Kington to our left and the River Severn snaking through the landscape.
We circuit the airfield with Pembridge and Eardisland acting as the circuit borders, drop to 1,000 feet and slow to 80 knots in preparation for landing before gently touching down.
Herefordshire Aero Club, Shobdon Airfield, Shobdon. Tel: 01568 708369 www.aeroclub.co.uk