Guest article written by Mark Smith
From I first found out about Oban Airfield in Scotland I’ve wanted to fly there, seriously, it looks amazing! A mixture of nerves, weather and other commitments has meant I’ve had to put it off….until now that is!
So it was on 18th October 2018 that myself and fellow pilot Gavin Curtis took advantage of a brief break in the Autumn weather to hit up Scotland. On the Monday he had took a trip up and the photos were just too good to resist so I asked if he wanted to go again in a few days time and YES! was the answer.
A flight of firsts
To for me this flight was going to tick off a lot of boxes. From I got the Jabiru I have stuck to flying purely within Northern Ireland, occasionally venturing further than the local area to Enniskillen, Eglinton and Bellarena (you can read about this flight here).
So this flight will be my first time:
flying over water
flying over 4k feet
filing a GAR
low level island hopping
So yeah, to say I was nervous was an understatement, but I felt ready for it, especially after my flight a few weeks before up the North Coast of NI.
I largely let Gavin do most of the planning with regards to the routes, he had already been and had a good idea of what he wanted to see. A route was plotted taking us over many castles, islands and round the Isle Of Mull.
I did PPR and filed my GAR using an online service which made it pretty easy, good thing I did call the airfields ahead of time as one of our stops, Glenforsa , turned out to be closed. That would have been embarrassing! Instead we planned a stop off at the gorgeous island of Gigha.
I had a checklist of items with me as well to keep me right, they included:
charging the tablet & phone
maps for NI & Scotland
frequencies to add to the Jabiru’s radio
fuel (can’t forget this!)
I always run through everything I may need to prepare in the days leading up to a longer a flight.
Leg 1 - Ards to Gigha
I met Gavin at the Ulster Flying Club where he flew up from his home base of Mullaglass, about a 20 minute flight from Ards at 10:30. I was ready to go having checked out the plane, fuelled up and grabbed a cuppa from the club cafe. This meant it was just a case of jumping in the plane, quick mag check and then off, so, once Gavin fuelled up I did just that. Departure was at 10:55am and to say I was excited was an understatement!
The METAR at takeoff shows just how amazing the morning was:
Wind: Variable in direction, Speed: 1 knots Visibility: 10 km or more Temperature: 11 degrees Celsius Dewpoint: 07 degrees Celsius QNH (Sea-level pressure): 1029 hPa
I spent the first bit catching up with Gavin who took off before me, I was surprised how fast I needed to go to catch up, hitting about 95kts seemed to do the trick. He got a Basic Service from Belfast Radar as a flight of 2 and it was a simple flight up the East Coast of Northern Ireland. We had planned an altitude of 6k feet for the water crossing to the Mull of Kintyre so we performed a gradual ascent as we headed north. 6,000ft is an important number, when running mogas you can get vapor locks above this altitude so it’s effectively my max.
It’s interesting because, at 6k, feet the planes, in theory anyway, could glide to either side of the Irish Sea which kind of didn’t make it a proper water crossing, in my head anyway!
Once we hit Scotland it was obvious we didn’t have clear skies like back home, so we descended to get out of their way and to prepare for our first stop off, Gigha Island. I was, by this point, over the nerves I had before the water crossing and had settled into the formation flying as well, I found it easiest to keep the other plane on my right hand side as on the left the pillar of the UL-450 tended to obscure the plane I was following.
My PPR calls to Gigha had gone unanswered so we decided to first do a low formation pass of the runway, to check condition and also to check that there weren’t any sheep on it! We flicked over to SafetyCom and with no other aircraft about did a very low pass over the field confirming all was clear. Gavin went first for the landing, to create separation I broke off from the circuit to explore an abandoned house on a nearby island from the air, gotta love low level VFR!
After he landed, Gavin confirmed that the first part of the runway was marshy but the 2nd half was fine, so I rejoined the circuit and made an approach. This was made easier by a wind that was nearly down the runway. Due to the damp runway, I made a conscious effort to land deep, so held off before dropping her in. The grass was fairly long so no brakes were required, in fact, I think if I’d used brakes I’d have stopped in about 10 metres, if even! Take a look at the landing yourself, Gavin kindly took a video which is below:
Leg 2 - Gigha to Oban
And so about 20 minutes after landing we departed for Oban, hugging the east coast of Gigha at 500ft made me realise what a beautiful island this was. It also made me realise there was a much nicer looking field than the airfield we landed at to the North of the airfield, but it was occupied by cows so I couldn’t try it out!
We had a VFR route route plotted which took us up the west coast of Scotland via many castles, we were then planning on heading round the Isle of Mull before landing at Oban. This was about a 1.5hr flight but weather was to but a spanner in the works!
Gavin has done ALOT of flying and racked up many more hours than myself so I was a bit anxious when we dropped down to about 1k feet and skirted round islands and hills. I always have my instructor in my head saying “height buys time” and when flying over some pretty rugged terrain I did think I’d be pretty screwed if the engine cut out!
We also got a chance to play with closer formation flying which Gavin managed to capture a part of:
Luckily the engine never skipped a beat, I relaxed and really loved this aspect of flight, something I’m going to do more of now I’ve got the confidence to do it, so exhilarating as you really get a sense of speed and the views are great! We started to head West towards the Isle Of Mull but the surprisingly huge mountains on the island were shrouded in cloud and rain showers. After a bit of deliberation we decided to fly over and see what it was like.
Isle of Mull
First impressions were “wow, those are HUGE cliffs!” reaching near 1k feet. At this point the bad weather was starting to kick up some wind and turbulence which is to be expected. It seemed to affect the C42 more than the Jabiru though, I didn’t really feel it much, which I wasn’t complaining about.
We made it to south east of the island before it was obvious the weather had beaten us. Cloud was too low and we could see showers ahead. I could however see Moy Castle, one of our way points to our right, so we descended down for a good look.
As we couldn’t head any further west we decided to head into Oban. After coasting out over the Eastern cliffs of Mull and dealing with some turbulence over them, it was a really straight forward approach into Oban.
We broke off our formation and handled our radio calls in the circuit separately, we had never planned on landing in formation. The approach into RW19 is great, you enter a right hand circuit over the bay and on base have to avoid a mountain, I loved it!
An uneventful landing later and I was down and parked alongside Gavin. This was also my first time talking to a FIS at an airfield and I didn’t make an utter tool of myself, which was a bonus!
We went for food at a hotel about 10 minutes walk away called the Locknell Arms, I had a lovely soup & a sandwich with a cup of tea. Highly recommend stopping in here if you ever fly into Oban and fancy some nice food. They were very quick as well which suited us, as, after checking weather, realised we had a 2hr flight home!
Leg 3 - Oban to Newtownards
What should have been a 1.5hr flight ended up coming in at 2hrs on SkyDemon due to the winds aloft, 20kts in our face the entire way home! We were expecting this to be a bumpy leg due to the wind direction and the mountainous terrain that lay before us. We couldn’t have been further from the truth, it was lovely.
After some quick pre-flight checks, warm up and engine checks we were away from Oban and heading South. As with the outbound legs we were flying in formation for this trip also.
I had totally lost my fear of water by this point having spent most of the day over it. We spent the entire leg hugging the coast from Oban to the Mull of Kintyre. Again we were met with amazing scenery the entire way down, but don’t just take my word for it, take a look at the photos below!
We again climbed up as high as we could for the sea crossing, we were limited by cloud this time, so, made it to about 4500ft for the crossing back to Northern Ireland. It’s really not a major water crossing and if you are using this as an excuse to not visit Northern Ireland you really shouldn’t, just get up high and you are fairly safe. Plus, your engine doesn’t know it’s over water, though do wear a life jacket just in case.
The trip back down the East coast of NI has us on radio with a busy Aldergrove Approach, though it was all class G until we hit Belfast Lough.
ATC in NI are very accommodating, provided you sound like you know what you are doing you shouldn’t have any problems.
All in all a hugely successful first trip with a lot of boxes checked off for me. It was a pity we couldn’t get round the perimeter of Isle of Mull but it’s best to err on the side of caution as weather can close in extremely quickly. There will be a next time and hopefully Glenforsa will be open as well.
I clocked in 4 hours flying which is the most I’ve done in one day, the scenery was amazing and the company was great. I highly recommend if you are doing a trip like this to try to go with another plane, for both the company and also the formation flying which is great craic!
My Flyer magazine has given me 3 landing fee coupons for 3 airfields in Scotland, stay tuned, if I find the right day I’ll be back over in November!
Read more great articles from Mark Smith at left-downwind.co.uk