“Runway 33? There isn’t a Runway 33! We must have the wrong radio frequency. Cromer is only 04 and 22.” I was speaking from experience. I had been there, on a rather miserable winter’s day, flown in from Cambridge with Ed and admired the clouds. I had it all planned, mentally. The displaced threshold where you came in over the railway line and had to watch out for the trees or coming in onto the easterly one where you flew towards the sea. Descend deadside, turn left for 22, right for 04. Now we were hearing on the radio that the runway in use was 33. I didn’t know what to do, and a student pilot was coming in to land from the other direction. I turned the aeroplane and headed away to have a think about it, realising as I did so that I was already near another airfield. I had been in the air twice as long as ever before, and it hadn’t been an easy trip. It felt like things were about to get worse.
That’s the problem with flying, isn’t it? You can’t just pull over and catch your breath. I could easily have been in a busy circuit, with others stacking up behind me. I heard them discussing on the radio what had happened to the Skyranger that had called. I didn’t know whether to tell them I was in overload mode somewhere to the east. I simply couldn’t figure where 33 would be, or how I would approach it. If I had been with Ed he would simply have zoomed in on his Skydemon and told it to plot an overhead join. My flying partner, James, was just as stumped as I was. It was truly a rabbit in the headlights moment. Eventually I realised I was basically now facing the runway. “Approaching on a long final,” I called, rather than try and figure out where I should be descending. At least that bit I got right, with a steady approach on the cross runway. The landing was straight into wind and beautifully smooth. What now, I thought, until a voice directed us where to taxi away from the modellers and how to park. I hate parking at an airfield, and sure enough, got told my wings were too close to the runway. This time my passenger just had to pull the aircraft straight.
The whole point of the exercise was to extend my flying stamina, so I didn’t have to keep flying around our home base. James had offered to fly back from Cromer and do as much of the radio as I wanted him to do.
I remembered the flight towards Norfolk from London as being over quite an ugly landscape in the winter, but in the height of summer, it looked so much greener and lusher. We had plotted a MATZ penetration, flying across the American air bases Lakenheath and Mildenhall, but when we were close enough to request permission, all we heard was dreadful static on the radio. “You will hear Elvis at the other end,” Ed had said. “It’s simple,” the CFI added. “All they do is give you a code to squawk and leave you alone until you exit their zone.” The radio guides tell you what is unique about a MATZ penetration is that they give you QFE, rather than QNH. The static was almost unendurable. We looked at each other. No one was going to hear anything over that. I had started to track away from our course when Elvis himself gave a growling response, gave us a code to squawk and then left us alone, while we looked in awe at the fleet of aircraft in both air bases on our left. On the right was Honington, and up ahead, where the ground did look ravaged, was the Danger Area that was not operational over a weekend.
As Elvis bid us goodbye, we had to switch to Norwich ATC to request a transit. We were to regret how much of a radio exercise this was turning into. The controller gave us a code and told us to call as we entered the zone. When we did so, and had to repeat his instructions, he used a phrase I hadn’t heard before: “You are under radar control. You are clear to transit on track to Cromer, VFR.” Until he had heard that phrase repeated in full, he kept coming back to us, saying it slower and slower and getting us more and more confused. Remember, if they say VFR, say it back!
Ed was appalled when I told him my story. “Not a great bit of airmanship if both of you were foxed by a simple runway change onto a runway that is on the airfield plate with circuit directions and all. Moral of the story is more briefing before you go. Why not just ask them on the radio what to do if you really have no idea – that’s what it’s for!” He’s right of course; it’s no use preparing for one set of runways and finding another stumps you.
Cromer itself was delightful, the water was gorgeous and warm and on the trip home we took the long way around and talked to no one. And I wasn’t flying, so I could sit back and enjoy the scenery!
En route: The two American air bases at a discreet distance – Mildenhall (left, under the wing) and Lakenheath just visible in the distance; Honiton (top) and the Danger Area’s scarred landscape (bottom)
Cromer was a delight!
The easy route home: Norfolk Broads and the Ouse River snaking in the afternoon sunlight