After the originally planned date of 16th January had to be postponed –planning anything VFR in January has to be a bit dodgy- the morning of Saturday 30th January dawned bright, sunny –and, very, very cold. So cold, in fact, that the countryside to the west of Salisbury was covered in snow, and looked quite magical.
The prospect of having the privilege of flying into the hallowed territory of Boscombe Down and landing on their vast expanses of tarmac was more than enough to warm us up –especially when we found our trusty aircraft at Old Sarum glistening with a snowy coating underlain by a thick layer of ice! It soon became apparent that no-one would be able to make our departure time of 08.30, so while arrangements were made with Boscombe for a later arrival, we busily brushed snow from the wings, de-iced, de-iced again while the sun did its work, and set off.
Departure from Old Sarum was on 06, down to Alderbury, by which time we were talking to Boscombe- who allowed us to fly straight in, over the danger area, on a long final to 35. I don’t know quite what goes on in the danger area, but there was definitely much less snow there! Quickly changing from Zone to Approach, then Tower to Ground, G-ERFS landed and was directed to a parking area, where several other light aircraft were lined up alongside an RAF VC10. In comparison, we looked like model aircraft, but the 16 made an impressive line-up-8 from Old Sarum, 2 from Middle Wallop and 6 from Thruxton.
We received a very warm welcome from Flt Lt Chrissie Arrowsmith and her colleagues, and boarded a coach which took us to The Empire Test Pilot School. Tea and biscuits all round, then a very interesting talk by one of the Test Pilots. ETPS is one of the top Test Pilot establishments in the world and its students come from a varied array of nations.
Our group of 38 was then split, and in turn we visited the Tower (no heads rolled for incorrect radio calls) and the museum section.
The tower and its radar room were very impressive! Seeing the huge numbers of aircraft in the local area on the screen was quite amazing – high flying commercial traffic down to people like us. Boscombe gives us such a wonderful service at all times, and it was great to be able to see how it all works. Actually being within the MATZ does require us to stick to certain strict parameters, but the expert Boscombe controllers keep us safe, away from their own fast and furious jets, and listen out for us when setting out on nav –exes or ‘general handling’, which covers all manner of adventures in the skies above our glorious countryside. While there, a light aircraft signalled radio failure – suddenly the atmosphere tightened while the controllers gave it their full attention. Some pilots prefer not to talk to anyone unless mandatory – but- if something goes wrong, and the workload increases, it’s so much easier if already tuned in. It’s nice to have the reassurance that someone has an eye on traffic – and seeing the blips on the radar screen impresses the importance of squawking mode Charlie. If no-one knows you’re there, they can’t advise you of any conflicting traffic.
The time flew by, and we swapped with the other group to visit the museum section. This was fascinating, staffed by volunteers, and also the fire staff were on hand, proudly showing off their super shiny state of the art fire engines.
The dedicated volunteers have done a wonderful job in restoring and maintaining cockpits of various aircraft, including Harrier GR3, Jaguar, Hunter and Supermarine Swift, which we were allowed to climb into and visualise the life of a fast jet pilot – awesome! Lots of interesting facts were available and the restoration team made us so welcome.
All too soon, it was time to leave, which we did in a reasonably ordered fashion, again expertly controlled, out on 23, tracked to the North of Old Sarum, down to Alderbury and back home onto 06. The sun was still shining, the wind light – perfect flying weather.
This had been a short fly-out in terms or airborne time, but huge in the experience of visiting such an elite airfield and being given such a warm welcome by Chrissie and her colleagues. Thank you very much everyone at Boscombe for such a memorable and happy visit, and for everything you do to help us stay safe in the air.