Archive for November, 2014

Keyston Farm Strip

Sunday, November 30th, 2014 | Permalink

Look on your chart and you won’t find this place, nor will you find it in the standard flight guides.  It’s in Lockyears Farm Strip Guide, very fittingly – strangely it also appears on Skydemon Light

Keyston Farm - Overhead

Keyston Farm – Overhead

It’s a little farm strip to the north west of Cambridge, I first came across it through searching Google Earth for nearby airfield looking shapes (the best places aren’t on the chart and sometimes a few phone calls can find out who owns the land and get you permission).  A bit of a bigger investigation revealed this was a farm that was right next door to The Pheasant pub – now I was really interested, the phone number you need is on the pubs website, go have a look, just give the farm owner a call first and Prior Permission (PPR) seemed super easy and the owner pretty relaxed about visiting pilots – not being on the chart I was half expecting to give my speech to politely try and talk them into giving me PPR, but no such thing, just a “Yeah sure no worries.”

Just 26nm away, as the crow flys you can be there in 15 minutes.

Do your homework when Farm Strip flying!

It’s all well and good someone you’ve never met before saying it’s cool for you to come try and land a Cessna down on their farm – but you need to remember this is a flight to an Unlicensed bit of grass (airfield would be far to grand for the reality of most farm strips).

I’ve found that I like to try and do a little homework first:

  • Google Earth the place:
    • Any hedges, public footpaths going straight through it?
    • Remember that Googles data is often out of date, but it’s better than nothing.
    • Google Labs has a neat feature for Measuring the ground, even if the farm owner or guide has told me how long the strip is, I like to measure it to be sure.
  • Check the weather at local bigger airfields
  • Think seriously about your diversion plan, it’s more likely that you won’t like what you find on arriving at a farm then it is on arriving at somewhere like Cranfield Airport.

A windsock is a nice to have but most farm strips don’t seem to have them, not essential, but anything you can do to have a plan of where you might see some smoke rising (a local factory, a nearby cottage etc.)  is good local knowledge to have as you can use that smoke to tell you what the wind is doing.

Preparation Prevents Poor Performance……it’s also been known to save lives 😐

Briefing & Passengers

Route to Keyston

Route to Keyston

Flying with one of my best friends, I always brief my passengers – it’s a standard script, that has a couple of extra notes about farms.

Passengers, more so first time ones, are an interesting dynamic.  As the Pilot you’re responsible for their safety and one thing I always try to remember is that even though someone might be up for going for a flight in a light aircraft.  If they’ve never done it before, a variety of nerves, anticipation, uncertainty and varying degrees of confidence will be at play.

My passenger seemed happy to go into a farm strip and had been in light aircraft before, so we could stick to the planned route.

Flight out to Keyston Farm

The other thing first time passengers do is slow your best thought plans right down.  It’s not their fault, it’s a function of never having been in a light aircraft before etc.  I was the same the first time I jumped in a Cessna 172 – where’s the seat belt?  How does it work again?   How do I get the seat to go up?   How do you get this door to close?

Other than running a bit late as a result, the taxi out was all good, ATC were great as they so often are at Cambridge no real delays at all.

Once over Point Alpha Keyston is a very simple navigation:

  • Point the plane at Grafham Water, once there you’ll be within 8nm
  • Keep the A14 on your right and when you see Molesworth, you’ll be virtually on top of Keyston Village
  • There’s a church in Keyston that’s quite a good reference, the big green hangers of the farm are also excellent landmarks.

The strip itself is actually really well maintained, if you’re used to farm strips from the sky then you’ll spot it easily – if you’re not, I’d say Keyston won’t be the easiest to spot.   However, it’s position to Molesworth and the A14 means that if you get the Nav wrong, you’re not going to be left searching for a strip of grass in a field, surrounded by fields! 🙂

Safety trumps Noise

On arrival overhead I was making traffic calls on the safety comm frequency, I joined overhead and it was looking great.   A nice downwind circuit and I was juuuust about to turn base, when with one last glance at the windsock, I paniced myself, convinced myself I was about to do final approach with a tailwind and bailed from the approach.

Making calls that I was repositioning for wind, I never backtracked my thoughts properly, I just repositioned and setup a circuit for the other direction.

Coming in on final, we came in with a really fast ground speed (over time you do get used to judging ground speed relative to the movement of ground features etc.) – what the heck was going on!   I wasn’t happy with it at all and elected to go-around.

Another look at the windsock:   Idiot, I’d read it right the first time, in a moment of weakness on the first circuit I’d misread it, talked myself out of my original plan and decided to change the circuit direction………the original plan was right all along.

I’m sure the village of Keyston wasn’t massively pleased with a Cessna buzzing round for 5 minutes, but I wasn’t about to press-on into a field with a massive ground speed if it’s not safe, just to try and save them from the noise.   Sure I’d made a mistake, but the best result will come if everyone walks away from it safely and an afternoon at the pub is enjoyed by all 🙂

Point and Power Landing

Since completing my farm strip training, I’ve become a total convert that ‘point and power‘ is the way to land a plane if precision of the touch down point is your primary objective.   I’ve done a bunch of farm strips prior to Keyston – I’m not an instructor so please don’t ignore professional advise as it’s probably geared towards your own strengths/weaknesses – but once you are fully competent at landing, I’d encourage you to find an instructor that you can learn this technique from or attempt it under their supervision etc.   I’ve found it really helps me to put it down where I want it.

Keyston has rough terrain at the edge of its northern side and a footpath, so landing short would be a really bad idea.  Measured on Google it’s about 700m end to end, but as I now have local knowledge it’s on a descending slope (north to south), so if you land to far into it from the north you’ll have gravity against you.  There’s a hedge to stop you at the other end 🙁   Farms are like that – but I wouldn’t worry by the time you get there the gradient is getting pretty serious, though nothing like Tower Farm near Sywell.

I now had enough knowledge of the strip and the surface winds, one advantage of having come at it from both ends, that bringing the Cessna 172 down nice and slow with an airspeed indicated of 55 knots was no problem.   I think I could have got it down to 50, such was the wind, but I wanted a little bit more power on as around 50 the stall warner will start to go crazy as you cross the threshold and with first time passengers, that’s not necessarily ideal (though he had been briefed it might happen).

The wind just dropped ever so slightly on the touch down making it a thump rather then glide touch down, but our ground speed must have been almost zero – we were at taxi speed in well under a quarter of the runway used.   Not trying to be competitive but getting it stopped in waaaay less runway then you have available is a great feeling every time, at farms it’s a bigger rush and why I like farm strip flying soooo much (remember that there’s a hedge to greet you at the other end if you’re the sort of pilot that ends up floating it for half way the runway!)

G-HERC Parked at Keyston

G-HERC Parked at Keyston

One interesting thing to note, if you look carefully at the above picture you’ll notice there are some people in the background.  They literally turned the corner and started walking on what effectively is a runway, moments after we touched down – farm strips are interesting things, to a pilot they’re a runway.  To someone out walking their dog, they’re a public footpath or a bit of grass for the dog to run free – you need to keep an eye out for such things.  It’s a dynamic of dealing with an unlicensed strip.

The Pheasant Pub :   Reason enough to fly to this farm!

Everything about Keyston is cool, the landmarks are picture postcard stuff.   The strip is well maintained and I really enjoyed flying and getting the landing done here – I’m coming back just because the strip is great.   However, the icing on the cake is that once parked up, you just walk down a 2 minute farm trail and you’re at the Pheasant pub.

Sadly the one down side with being the pilot is I cannot drink, the rules on blood alcohol levels area quarter of that of driving – so the best advice is to simply not touch a drop of the stuff.

That said, what a great little place to fly into for lunch!    Friendly staff, good food (Massive chips), pretty reasonable prices – just all good, why would you not come here 🙂

The Pheasant Pub Keyston

The Pheasant Pub Keyston

Oh and although farms don’t typically charge you to land, this one has a donation system of £10, just tell the bar staff etc.   Not the cheapest, but location, location, location!

The Flight Home

After an enjoyable hour or so in the pub, it was time to head back to the plane and head home.   We’d been on the ground a bit longer then I’d planned, so we decided to cut the return journey short to a direct return to Cambridge.

On the walk back we passed some walkers who inquired about if we’d flown in, I guess they’d just walked past the parked up G-HERC and seen the hi-viz jackets in hand.   Can you think of a better way of getting to a pub then flying in?  They seemed to agree it makes for a pretty nice day out.

One advantage of flights out of farms:   The time from Taxi to Takeoff is minimal

I selected a decision point for aborting the take-off if needed, then fired up the engine and taxied up to the far northern end of the runway, giving myself as much runway as physically possible.   The strip drops off towards its southern end and I didn’t want to be fighting a plane going in and out of ground effect as the runway rolled away from under it etc.   10 Degrees of flap for best short field take-off performance, holding it on the brakes while bringing it up to 2,000RPM.   One last check my passenger was happy and not messing with seat belts or anything.   Then it was simply a matter of releasing the brakes and charging down the grass strip.

Airspeed came alive pretty sharpish, it was a comfortable take off.   Grass strips tend to be a little bumpy but as long as they’re dry and you manage the elevator a little so you’re not putting weight onto the nose wheel, the take-off from a farm should be not much different to a take off from any grass airfield.

The flight back to Cambridge was uneventful, if anything the weather had greatly improved from when we’d left – just as it had been forecast to do.   The circuit traffic back at Cambridge was nice and low for once, so we got a right base join, shaving about 5 minutes off the flight time ~£15, so that paid for the landing fee at Keyston, big thanks to ATC 🙂

A great day out, but sadly probably the last farm strip I’m going to do this year:  The weather is beginning to turn for the worst and as the nights roll in, it’s an ideal opportunity to get a Night Rating done.


Farm Strip Skills: Part #3 (Completed)

Monday, November 3rd, 2014 | Permalink

Farm Strip #3 Chart of route

Farm Strip #3 – Chart

The general scheme for this course is 1 hour revision, 1 hour land-away and finally an afternoon of land-aways.   Part #2 got scrapped due to weather, but thankfully the instructor said we could progress to the final part, do the afternoon of challenging farm strips and if I had no issues with them, he’d consider it a done deal and I’d be free to go fly farm strips on my own.   Time to impress then!

The weather was looking great, so no excuses.

Briefing and the Afternoon Plan

No PLOG for this trip, everything on the map again, general plan of attack was to fly up to White Fen farm (not even on the chart!) for a full stop landing, but we wouldn’t get out, then up to Sempringam Fen Farm for a touch and go and a full stop landing.

Neither strip is very big, ~470m x 16m

What makes farm strip flying interesting to me is if you crack open the C172 SP Pilot Operating Handbook a little bit of math will tell you that the plane won’t stop at full weight and zero wind in anything under ~580m.   So you can count these places out if you plan to tank up and take the family, to get into them less fuel is good and fewer passengers, even better.

White Fen Farm

Because this blog post is much delayed, I can tell you that farm strips aren’t always easy to find even with the advances of Google Earth.   Even now I find it essentially impossible to pin point you to where this place is.  Probably a good thing.

With about 2 nautical miles to run I finally spotted the place from the air.   East Anglia is flat and a shade of green/yellow almost everywhere that isn’t a town.  So spotting ~500m of straight grass amongst a sea of grass is harder then it sounds!   That said, I can think back to when I first started to learn to fly and instructors would ask if I could see Cambridge from 7nm out, forget it!   Today I’m so used to the shapes of airfields I look back wondering how I ever missed it, but experience teaches you what to look for.

Making radio calls on a safety com frequency as we joined “the circuit”, to no reply, I really focused on making sure I got my downwind/pre-landing checks in and then really put the effort in to ensure a good circuit, good height and to not turn on to the base leg until I was sure I’d have enough distance on final to get it down in one go.   They were kind enough to let me come and land at their farm, the last thing they need is a C172 buzzing the house on go-arounds if I could avoid it.

My top tip is to not turn base until the runway threshold is just about to disappear out of the rear side window.  If you fly a circuit of about 0.5nm (1km), this should give you, rough numbers, just under 0.5nm final approach which should work, without buzzing the next village down the road etc.   Any sooner and you’ll be trying a military continuous circuit and your workload will sky rocket, any later and as I said you’ll probably just upset the owners neighbors and never be invited back 🙁

Taking care to not come in short, but also not hit the tree on the right it was a pretty nice touch down.  I think if I could do it again I’d like to have touched down maybe 50m sooner, but I was happy with my airspeed control and the landing was controlled and not slammed.   Tick in a box.

We taxied down to the far end and due to the light winds take-off direction was much of a muchness, so just spun it around at the other end.   10 degrees of flap for best short field performance, brakes on and throttled up to 2,000 rpm.   One last check the instructor was happy, then release the brakes and charge down the grass strip.

Airspeed Indicator comes alive, now it’s about judging how fast the airspeed indicator is increasing relative to how much grass we have left.   By a quarter of the runway gone, we were well on our way to rotation speed, so it was looking good.   55 knots, rotate and climb away at best angle (Vx) of climb rather than best rate (Vy) – we care about not hitting the trees, not how fast we can get to 1,000ft 🙂

Onwards to Sempringham Fen Farm Strip

Spotting this one was probably going to be harder and worth remembering that my dead-reckoning and wind calculations were all done on the Chart with Max Drift estimations so weren’t going to be spot on. What I knew from my map was that I’d have Spalding on the right, if I overflew it I was too far right of track, if it was somewhere off to the right in the distance, I’d be to far left.   I also knew that there was a railway line that came out of Spalding and curved round to the west, if I overflew that then I’d gone too far north – I didn’t think the instructor would let that happen, but I was trying to come up with a plan to narrow down the big flat world outside.   Being really optimistic I knew the route crossed South Forty Foot Drain running north/south – I was hoping I’d spot that, if I spotted the crossing for that drain, Sempringham would be on my left.

Of course all best laid plans……I knew I was ball park in the right area, but ~4nm out I couldn’t see it, with hindsight I think I was a little fixated on the idea that it would be in front of me (being a bit optimistic about flying a perfect heading perhaps!).    The instructor asked if I gave up and wanted him to point it out to me?   Ok I give up.

Pointing to the left, about 4-5 nm away was what to me at the time looked like the thinnest strip of grass ever.  You’re joking that’s an airfield right?    It was straight and with a house & barn at the end it was the right sort of shape, but as we got closer, from 2,000ft it still looked incredibly narrow – even if we forget the length!

Impress or fail, we’d have our answer in a few minutes.

Setting up the circuit, I saw a good north/south ditch type thing to the east of the strip that I decided to use as a reference for the base leg.    I didn’t want to fly a silly sized circuit, but I didn’t want to turn and find myself halfway down the grass strip at 600ft either, this ditch seemed like a good sized compromise to a reasonable circuit shape.

On approach my eyes and brain were working overdrive on airspeed and watching the window.   Window, Airspeed, Window, Airspeed.   I took one comment from the instructor to just keep my airspeed up a little as I went through 60 knots – wind consideration here is critical, light winds need as much consideration as gusting etc.   Even so, I was really trying my hardest to put this plane down right at the very start of the strip.

Just going through 50ft the plane sank, I jumped on it and applied a little throttle to counter, caught it beautifully and it corrected just nicely enough to be able to take it back off again and touch down only feet from the start of the runway.   I couldn’t have been happier with it.

Full power, tons of runway left, which is saying something as it’s only 460m end to end!

Another circuit and again I really wanted a spot on landing for the full stop, just to show it was no fluke.

I used the same circuit points as before, they seemed to work out nicely and again went for ensuring I was totally in control of my airspeed on the approach with a constant picture out of the window.   Pointing the plane at just a few feet before the start of the strip for where I wanted the plane to go and using the throttle to keep the airspeed in check – I was still getting the hang of point and power technique, but having done only a few landings using it, I can assure you that post learning, it’s really the way to do it if you want accuracy.

Touch down, nice and soft and right where I wanted it to go at the beginning of the runway, we were down to taxi speed with around half the strip to go.

I chalk this one up as probably the best landing I’ve ever done.

G-MEGS:  Landed at Sempringham Fen Farm Strip

G-MEGS: Landed at Sempringham Fen Farm Strip

The best places to land involve those places that have coffee and cake, with much thanks, both were on offer.   Flying, cake and coffee – I see your hobby and raise you, it doesn’t get any better then this 🙂

Back to Cambridge

Another short field take off and it was off for a really quite pleasant flight back to Cambridge, funny really that some months ago Spalding/Cambridge was a route on one of my first solo Nav’s and I must have concentrated soooo hard to not miss Spalding.   Now I was just glancing at the map, spotting the land marks and really flying with my eyes out of the window just enjoying the views and a casual chat on the way home.

Great day to be flying.

Back on the ground at Cambridge the chief flying instructor said he was happy with my flying and didn’t need to see any more.   My training record now shows I’m cleared to fly the club aeroplanes into farm strips!

Farm Strips:  I’m hooked, more!

It’s been one of the best courses, different to when you’re trying to be formally taught how to fly.  Yet challenging and I really feel I expanded by skill set from doing it.   Not just in terms of flying, but also increasing my confidence to try find and go into shorter strips on my own, with the right training to be able to do it safely.

Hand on heart, I find myself completely hooked on flying farm strips now.

I’ve done a bunch of big runway landings, I trained at one etc.  Big airfields bring different things to the party, lots of radio work, procedural joins and accurate circuit flying being critical etc.  but for the challenge of the landing and even the challenge of finding some little patch of grass in the middle of nowhere. I found myself wanting to just get out there and do more farm strips – I started to wonder who might let me come land in their garden if I asked nicely enough 🙂