After more than three years of being a qualified pilot, I recently rediscovered the real point of flying. It is that chance meeting of fellow pilots in an idyllic setting, but more than that, when you meet up with friends. It is flying to visit a pilot you met by chance on a runway, feeling cock o’ the hoop because you had aced the landing. And it is the anticipation of planning where you will park the plane when you get where you are going this weekend, when you finally visit that university friend who has been inviting you over for ages.
One of the instructors who helped me become a pilot has more than once dismissively said, “You only fly to the water tower and back,” and I have strenuously defended my right to do just that, if that is all I was feeling up to doing. And post-lockdown, for quite some time, that has been all I have felt up to.
It was a trip up to Leicester that changed that. I am not sure why my fellow P1 had heard such great reports of the airfield, but it was somewhere to go that we’d never been to before. A little further than our local water tower each time. The trip was uneventful, except when a pilot chose to backtrack onto the runway as I had turned onto my base leg. Fortunately, they were airborne by the time I called (short) final.
A rather unremarkable visit then, but on our way there, we had been staring down the runway of a strip we’d both visited before, one of those fantastic farmer’s fields that is always immaculately mown and where Pete, the host, is always welcoming. I had once requested we turn back from a planned sortie there when the weather was beyond my endurance. I was wary of making another arrangement to visit, until I was certain we would get there. This seemed like an ideal opportunity, so I called Pete and told him we’d be there in half an hour.
What you see so clearly on one leg of a trip isn’t always visible on another, and I had moments where I lost the field entirely on my way in, but as we taxied to the caravan, I was delighted to recognise another Peter’s plane. A Peter I knew well but had never met in person before.
Any pilot will know that social media, whatever its ills, is a great place for meeting fellow flyers, but this Peter and I have built a rather special friendship from an online meeting. We have had long telephone conversations about Covid, choirs, quilts and kids. He knows the college where my daughter graduated, introduced me (online) to his choir master, I know his lovely wife, wear the mask she made and have watched with awe at how much this couple, more than a decade or so ahead of me, pack into their busy lives. They follow their passions with gusto and seemingly endless energy. Peter and I have had a couple of planned meet-ups that didn’t happen because of weather, or because of lockdown. This was the day it did happen, but it wasn’t planned.
It was the same farm-strip where he’d met my husband and son, but somehow, the two of us had never been in the same place at the same time. And what a delight that was! It felt as if we had known each other forever, picking up seamlessly from online to in person. The others in the group gave up on us, as we talked nineteen to the dozen.
This is what it is all about, I thought. We were shading from a gloriously sunny day, overlooking such a picturesque scene, and everyone in the party was relaxed, friendly and a flyer (or a wannabe!). The conversation, when Peter and I turned to the others, was pure flying, funny stories and quirky tales. To be honest, we would probably have bored any non-flyer entirely! Flying home – though it wasn’t smooth as Peter had assured me it would be – I determined to do that more often.
The next trip should have been one of those cloudy, perhaps showery days. Not too breezy, with the wind straight down the north/south runway, visiting a pilot who had spent lockdown building a home around his hangar. Or something like that! I had actually met him not far from the strip where Peter and I finally met up. I had also been to France with him, twice, and flown into Old Warden on a solo expedition to meet up. I had watched this new house take shape through the marvels of Facebook and was excited to get to see it in person.
“Let’s rather go on a good day, shall we?” we’d said last time when we’d tried and thought the weather was dodgy. Now, as I flew north, the clouds seemed thicker and blacker than expected, with showers showing here and there. The visibility may have been all the nines, but in my book, it was rubbish. Still, flying around them was possible, and I could see through the grey pall to sunny patches beyond. We were always promised sunshine and showers. Six whole hours of sunshine, that would hopefully materialise in due course.
The Fens lay spread out in their patchwork colours, thinner fields than where we fly from down south, and I contemplated the strip that I had studied on Google Earth and wondered if I would find it easily. When the time came, those narrow canals that cross the entire Fens fooled me into thinking I had found the road I was looking for. John had said the hay was cut and the runway stood out clearly. Long and thin, with a taxiway midway to the house, south of the road and if I got confused I could simply go to the village and follow the road to the west and I would find it. Or so I thought. I hadn’t planned on a massive shower to my right that obscured any vision in that direction and feeling that it was now too late to turn back, but I had to find the field fast. Skydemon was showing we should be seeing it right now, indeed, we were actually over it, and then suddenly it all clicked into place. I was already flying low to avoid the weather, so the circuit was easy.
John and his wife were tucked behind the trees, not wanting to distract me from my landing, but I got a thumbs up from him when we taxied towards the house where the hangar took pride of place. As we sat and chatted in the vast Lincolnshire countryside, admiring a sparkling new home, the sun did make its promised appearance. Checking the Tafs and Metars again before we took off again, it seemed the worst of the weather had passed, and we’d have cloudy patches with sunshine.
I settled in to enjoy being able to take photos as I wasn’t flying this time. It didn’t take long before the ceiling dropped to levels that would have made me turn back earlier. This time we pressed on, flying through the rain, climbing when we could, and grateful that at least it was super smooth. There have to be some plusses! We had the wind behind us, and almost no-one else in the air, so the trip home didn’t take too long. We had only once ventured further north than this (I know, I know! John laughed too!), so it was a relief when the landmarks became familiar. Even more when it cleared and we touched down, wondering if the weather had always been this good down south!
And the next adventure heading even further north? Well, sadly Covid put paid to that as we sit here in self-isolation, frustrated not to be flying, but grateful this is mere inconvenience and not the devastation it has been for some.
Here’s to more flying to friends!
The weather we thought we’d get – and what we actually got!