At the end of June 2012 six of us set off from Aeromega Helicopters in Cambridge in two R44s to try to fly the length of mainland UK in a long weekend.
The weather on the Friday could be summarised as “flyable but unreliable”, and there were lots of comments from fellow pilots about the trip being a write-off. A complex weather chart showed occluded fronts and troughs around a deep low which was travelling northeast near Scotland. It wasn’t great, but on the day the visibility was ok, and the cloudbase high enough, and the showers isolated. Generally everything looked better south than the north. We had a Plan B, if Scotland was too bad, to spend some time visiting friends and tourist spots in Wales.
The planned route for the first day was Cambridge to Dunkeswell Airfield near Exeter for fuel, then a private site at Bodmin to drop in for a social call, then a private site at Land’s End. The further southwest we went, the wetter the weather became. Lifting from Dunkeswell in the rain under a very low grey sky, we scrubbed the Bodmin idea, to allow us focus on getting round the showers. The weather soon got worse, with the visibility worsening in the showers, and we made a precautionary landing near Newquay on a hill top to let a shower go through. We carried on, but by the time we were 15 miles from Land’s End, we were getting the bad weather off the sea from both sides. We decided to call it a day after half an hour sitting on another hilltop, this time in a meadow near Marazion, watching cloud swirling past us between us and the hedge as twilight approached.
Nice locals came and said hello as we waited, even offering us a place to stay at Lower Colenso Farm which we would have gone for had we not already made a booking at Land’s End). We packed up our stuff, tied the machines down for the night, and walked down the hill through the long wet grass to the nearest road, having dropped a pin on the iphone map so we knew where to come back to the next day. We headed off down the road looking for inspiration, food and a taxi. As luck would have it, we came across the Falmouth Packet Inn less than half a mile away, a fabulous pub with great food.
We’d booked to stay the night at the Land’s End Hostel, which we hoped would give us the whole LEJOG experience, and sure enough we found ourselves sharing the kitchen for an early breakfast with two fit-looking guys who were setting off to cycle the route. Girlfriend in support. It would take them more than 7 days, to our 7 hours.
Having taxied back to the aircraft the next morning, we flew in to Land’s End Airport for fuel, in glorious sunshine. Next stop was to be Welshpool Airport in mid-Wales, crossing the Bristol Channel at RAF Chivenor, which we thought might be handy for any Search and Rescue requirements. The hills on the Welsh coast were almost touching cloudbase, and we spent an hour or so working hard to dodge the heavy opaque showers around the magnificent dark green hills before arriving at Welshpool. The bright red Welsh Air Ambulance Service muscular-looking B105 was doing some circuits, and we filled up again with fuel, and lunch.
We had originally planned to route via Penrith and Oban, which would take us over the Lake District, up the beautiful west coast of Scotland, and allow us to fly along the length of Loch Ness, which is always an awesome sight. The weather looked better to the east, and the ground is lower. So we modified the original plan, and opted for Fife Airport, northeast of Edinburgh, instead. This gave us a nice tailwind, and we flew all the way there at 130kts ground speed, stopping on the way in a field of heather to put on lifejackets and personal locator beacons for the Firth of Forth crossing. We phoned ahead to check there would be no parachuting to watch out for, but got told off anyway. We topped up with a second lunch.
By now the weather was some even lower cloud with larger showers in which the visibility was basically zero, so we checked on routing options to the east via Aberdeen just in case going over the hills turned out to be impossible. As it turned out, we were able to get to 3500ft surrounded by huge showers and low stratus clearing the hills west of Aberdeen by 1000ft or so, so kept clear of their airspace. Coasting out at Kinloss over the Moray Firth, east of Inverness Airport, we had a little sunshine, with a beautiful view of the Cromarty coastline draped in thick white cloud. This was lovely to look at, but a problem logistically, because we had accommodation booked at The Old Brewery at Cromarty to land at later on. So we had to reschedule to overnight at Wick. Andy the refueller (Far North Aviation), who knows everyone and everything in Wick, made all the arrangements for a taxi to take us to the Norseman Hotel. It was warm and clean, and served a delicious “haggis tower” with neaps and tatties piled precariously on top. Before landing back at Wick, which was closed anyway, we headed the last 20 miles or so up the coast to John O’Groats (all attempts to get permission to land had come to nothing) for a quick photo orbit overhead. Perfectly landable, but not without permission. The island of Stroma sat green in a sparkling calm evening sea just off the mainland coast. Next time, we will leave time to include a visit to the Hebrides. Back at Wick, the mid-evening light was arctic, powder-blue, and reminiscent of Adelaide. The wind was keen and insistent as we tied the helicopters down for the night.
Over a breakfast of haggis, toast and coffee, we planned our day while the grim maritime weather lifted just a little to allow us out. With the weather on the hills, with widespread showers, we knew we would have to route via Aberdeen Airport’s zone which takes in all the low ground to the east. Inverness was giving a truly unflyable forecast, but it all sounded better on the east coast. We flew along the coast to keep clear of the hills, dodging the heavy showers. At Aberdeen the approach controller was going nineteen to the dozen, handling North Sea helicopter traffic, and held us to the north, slightly testy with us. I tried to make it clear we were happy to wait till he could handle us (not least because we had no choice, as the hills to the west of him made going inland impossible), and after a couple of orbits we were cleared to head along a rainy coastline underneath his approach traffic. It reminded me just a little of being cleared along the beach in an R22 under the LAX approach. But without the California sunshine. In the cockpit we split up our high workload, flying, radio, iPad navigation, between the three of us, to reduce the possibility of mistakes.
Further down the coast, and past the MATZ at Leuchars, Fife were pleased to see us again for more fuel, and made us very welcome. We headed south over the Firth of Forth, looking for the better weather which was forecast, in the direction of Breighton, near Selby. A lovely little airfield. A small party of local pilots were enjoying the afternoon sunshine outside the tower, and made us very welcome with offers of tea and tuna sandwiches. “Help yourself to anything you want, and just put the money in the tin”. The AVGAS is self-service with a card, so is available even when the airfield is closed, which is always handy.
We headed east for the Humber Bridge, majestic above its muddy river, to fly down the east coast in the sunshine, past the Wash in the post-frontal sunshine, and arrived at Cambridge having flown just under 16 hours. A great weekend, a lot of enriching flying in challenging weather, around varied terrain, in great company.
An annual event now, though not in June as the weather is just too unreliable. Please get in touch if you’d like to join me on this year’s Heli-LEJOG.
For more information about helicopter trips like this visit Aeromega.com.