Waits Farm Strip (in a sea of grass)

I’ve been farm strip flying now for about a year, since completing additional training required to take club aircraft into farm strips I’ve been into quite a few farms (most of which I’ve not had chance to write up 🙁 ).   It’s safe to say though that this is my happy niche.

Not the Original choice: Get the book of phone numbers out!

G-MEGS External


I’m signed off to fly the clubs G-1000 equipped C172 G-MEGS (I love flying farm strips in this plane, it just seems to like coming in slow).   As MEGS isn’t popular with students due to all the bells and whistles and I had a plane booked until 3pm and MEGS was booked again at 4pm with someone I knew.  It made sense all round that I took G-MEGS.

I knew I wanted to go farm strip flying and the weather looked generally nice, so I’d planned up a route out to one of the trickiest places in town:  Nayland.

Unfortunately when I rang the owner (and in pretty typical farms strip flying tradition, first got through to his wife), he said their was a pretty strong cross wind and because it’s a tricky place to land on this occasion as I’d never been in there before, he’d have to decline 🙁    No matter, just the clock was ticking now and I had Nayland planned up, now I needed another farm.    Thankfully I’ve got a book of mobile phone numbers so I just rang around.

I rang Waits Farm because a friend had recommended it and said I should go there some time.   Just typical I got through to the owners wife again, she sounded like this happened regularly, but she didn’t deal with it so I should try another number.   No answer 🙁   I knew I might be pushing my luck, but this farm would be a perfect distance away for my flying time so I rang the original number back, apologized and explained nobody was answering the other number and if there was anything she could do to help get me through?   Perhaps a little reluctantly she said she’d try to get someone to call me back and took my details.   Five minutes later, I had prior permission to fly in!

Waits Farm Strip

Waits Farm Strip

Waits Farm Strip

Waits Farm is about 5nm west of Sudbury, it’s 500m of grass (hedge to road!) with a slight downslope on runway 25 (or 1 in 60 incline on 07 if you prefer).   The wind in this part of the world trends towards coming from the south during the day so you face a typical farm strip dilemma of working out if you should land into wind downhill or land with a tail wind up hill.

I found an instructor who I’ve flown with before to sign me out and as I’m known for farm strip flying there weren’t any issues about where I was going (this place is on the map, it even has a wind sock I was told on the phone – this is a proper airport compared to some places I’ve been! 🙂 ).

Now the above picture doesn’t do Waits Farm justice, it’s a grass strip surrounded by a sea of fields of grass!!!   But we’ll get to that….

Taxi out & Navigation

Having to change my plans, re-plan a route etc. had chomped into my time.  Still Sudbury is a 15-18 minute flight from Cambridge.  The Nav is really simple two turns and you’re done, the intent was to come back pretty much the reverse of how I got there.

Waits Farm Chart Navigation

Waits Farm Chart

So the usual 80+ point check of the plane and we were soon startup done and requesting to Taxi.

Finding a 500 x 20m strip of grass in a sea of fields

It’s not far to Sudbury, but the 210/20 (20 knots wind from 210 degrees) forecast couldn’t have been more wrong if it tried.   Approaching Sudbury I was about 2.5 nm off track as a result, but this isn’t a big deal you can see out the window for easily 6nm so it’s pretty easy with a good look out to mange this sort of thing and being off by a mile or so is reasonably routine, if the wind predictions are wrong by 10 or more knots you’re going to have error not of your making.

It’s the simplest, typically rushing, mistakes you have to watch out for!!!

Let me first refresh your mind that I’d originally planned to go to Nayland and I’d been thinking about a stop at Waits farm on the way back (which is one of the reasons why it was the next phone number I called).   Nayland said no, so instead of all the Nav from Sudbury to Nayland and the headings to come back etc.   I just needed a row entry to Subudy and a row entry for Waits Farm.   I scribbled out the bits in the middle and made 2 PLOG sheets into 1.   Let me show you the resulting PLG sheet, look back at my Chart/Route above and perhaps the eagled eyed might spot a fundamental mistake!

Waits Farm PLOG

Waits Farm PLOG

Spotted it?

I planned to fly Sudbury->Waits Farm, over Sudbury I should be turning to fly a Westerly heading.   Look at my row entry for Waits Farm above again:  Magnetic Heading of 101 degrees!!!  (i.e. East).

I’d corrected the wind error and was now back overhead Sudbury, looking at my PLOG I read off the 101 degree heading and turned onto it instinctively.

As I began to leave Sudbury, over-flying the big industrial area it has on its north eastern edge my brain started to engage the gross error checking cogs:

  • I know Sudbury’s industrial area is on the north eastern edge
  • Waits Farm is to the West of Sudbury
  • Why am I leaving Sudbury via the industrial area???
  • Wait a minute, why am I flying heading 101 – I need to fly west, it should be something like 270!!!

Note that I don’t fly using GPS, I like to fly map and compass only, it sharpens you up when you make mistakes like this as you have to look out of the window and put the picture together properly.

Realizing my mistake (and how I’d done it: when I’d calculated the trip, I’d put the protractor on Waits Farm and read off where the line crossed the angle on the right of the protractor and forgot at that point I’d have stopped flying East and would have turned to be facing West!).   A simple case of 180’ing the plane was required and we were back in business, no worries………at 100 knots if I’d not spotted this error, it would have only taken 6-7 minutes to be over Ipswich and have the English Coast on the nose, then I’m sure I’d have figured out my mistake!  😛

Where is this Farm then???

It’s only 5nm west of Sudbury, but it’s 5 nautical miles of grass, fields and general yellow and greenness!!   In which you’re trying to find a 500 x 20m strip of green!.

It’s a 500m grass strip in a sea of grass, as perhaps the below picture highlights:

Where's Waits Farm?

Where’s Waits Farm?

My watch said I must be nearly over it or very close, so I was looking out the windows, left and right trying to find a patch of grass that matched.

After a minute of flying I knew I must have gone past it (you can travel a long way at 100 knots in 1 minute).

So I turned around and started to look again, nothing.

My backup plan was to fly back to Sudbury and try again, but I felt sure it was somewhere nearby and I just had to look in the right place.   I continued my fairly wide circle, watching the airspeed and altitude to be sure I was on top of them in the process.   I was circling at around 1,500ft above ground level to try and get the best compromise of distance visibility and detail of the ground.

On the third orbit, I was leaned over looking down to the left and then:  Ahaha!!!   Straight bit of cut grass, good start, leading to an intersecting bit of a grass with a hanger/barn structure on the end.   That looks like my farm strip.

Going further it had winding road to the south which tied up, now I was pretty certain this was Waits Farm.  Excellent, we’ve found it and all in all it only took about 5 minutes of circling.


Making a blind traffic call I descended and joined cross-wind before turning on to a downwind leg, running parallel to the runway.   I planned to land on runway 25 as the wind seemed to favor that, this would mean landing down hill but it’s not that steep and the surface wind looked like 10 knots from about 220 or 230 (with no ground radio etc. this was all a guesstimate from their wind sock – part of the joy of farm strip flying).

I didn’t want to buzz any of their neighbors if I could avoid it, but I had to ensure I had enough distance so that when I turned onto base and final approach I’d have enough time to get the plane setup nicely for a slow approach and not be caught out high.

You don’t want to mess about floating down a farm strip, if you float for 200m for example, then on a 500m strip you’ll have only 300m to get it stopped and that’d be really pushing your luck!  (I mentioned that at 500m there’s a road right?  It’s not an airport where the end of the runway is just some empty patch of grass, the end of a farm strip is typically THE END).   So I like to be well established and flying a stable 50-55 knots for the last part of final approach (E.g. once the last stage of flap is down).   This is slow by training standards, you’ll be initially taught to come over the threshold at 65 knots and if you let it get to 50 knots the instructor will likely have already taken control or be making lots of noise that you need more airspeed.

Probably worth mentioning that in clean configuration, a Cessna 172SP stalls (according to the book of words) at 47 knots and you must be able to feel the wind for gusts……..you can’t be flying 50 knots final approach with the wind gusting, lose 10 knots of wind and you’ll be in trouble!

Don’t mistake this approach speed for reckless though, I’ve had additional training on how to fly farm strips and have flown into most of them in the area now so this is all done with the right training and experience.  I’d encourage anyone thinking about flying into farm strips to seek some proper training from a club that has expertise in this area before trying it Solo (E.g. Cambridge, Clacton)

It was a really nice touch down, I put the main wheels down maybe 30-50m into the runway and by Google Earths measurements I later calculated I was fully stopped and turning the plane around at 260m,  really quite pleased with that.

 On the Ground:  Barn or Hanger??

I was met by some of what I assume were the owners younger relatives taking a picture of the landing (thank god it was a good one, no pressure!), the owner and someone who had a plane based there – for politeness, I do know their names but I’m deliberately omitting them as I never asked to post about them etc.

G-MEGS parked at Waits Farm Strip

G-MEGS parked at Waits Farm Strip

From the air what you might have thought was a typical farm barn type building, turned out to be a hanger full of toys (aka Aeroplanes).   From a Pitts Special to home built planes and most things in between.

As I was offered a cup of coffee, I asked if they wanted a donation for the landing, but was met with the pretty typical Farm Strip response of “You’ve flown farm strips before right?  We don’t take landing fees….”   I’ve had this explained to me before as essentially being “If you get PPR to a farm = then you’re invited = you’re a guest = you don’t charge guests an entrance fee”.   I know a couple of farms do ask for like £3, but the vast majority, this rule applies and it’s another factor in what makes Farm Strips appealing to me:  Unique challenges of each strip, Meet new people, Talk aeroplanes, drink coffee and with no formal procedures on the ground it takes about 2 minute to taxi out again and take off 🙂

You never have quite as much time on the ground as you’d like, the time seems to wiz by when you’re chatting etc.  so time to crack on and make the 15 minute flight home 😛

Returning to Cambridge

The fuel and oil were still in their respective tanks.  Everything that should be, still attached to the aeroplane, G-MEGS started up first time.  A short taxi back to the runway with a good lookout and blind traffic safety comm call, just in case anyone unexpected was on their way in.

Lined up with the tail as close to the hedge at the start of the runway as I could get it, 10 degrees of flaps, 2000 RPM held on the brakes.   A quick last look for any of the children that had been taking pictures of the plane coming in to land playing etc. before synchronously releasing the brakes and applying full power.

A Cessna 172 Skyhawk is a brilliant plane for getting out of fields, especially when you’re on half fuel tank capacity, no luggage and only have 1 or 2 people on board, even better with just 1.   The airspeed came alive, rotating and it was back up into the blue skies above 🙂

I returned to Sudbury just to set my heading and zero the clock for the return to Cambridge, but from here as you can see on the chart above it’s just a straight line Nav. so as simple as it gets.  I had about 25 minutes before the plane was due back, I reckoned inc. the circuit at Cambridge it’d be 18 minutes to home.

Tight Left Base in front of a B-17 Bomber

About 7 nautical miles from home and knowing I was cutting the timing a bit tight so didn’t really want the full 10 minute circuit experience.  I asked Cambridge Air Traffic if I could get a left base join (basically join at the 2nd to last phase of a rectangle, turn left and then land).

Can you make it a tight base leg, there is a B-17 on long final?

No problem, there was a time when Cambridge was the only runway I knew and it seemed like hard work (verging on the impossible) just to get a C172 landed on its 1 mile runway.   Those times are now long behind me.   However, this also needed due consideration for airspeed:   At a farm I’d fly a very slow final approach, but with a B-17 behind me and their associated running costs, they’d be pretty annoyed if they caught me on final and if I had it stopped by Holding Point Bravo, I’d just have a longer slow taxi, better to land with a bit more speed and stop closer to Charlie so I could immediately vacate.   So I kept the airspeed up.

A nice landing and just keeping the taxi speed up to vacate the runway for the B-17 guys, it was all good.  I had just enough time to get it all stopped to watch Sally B come in and then power on and continue on with their touch and go.

B-17 : Sally B at Cambridge

B-17 : Sally B at Cambridge

As they went around for another circuit it gave me enough time to tie up G-MEGS and get a proper vantage point.  It’s always nice having an air side pass for moments like this 🙂

Paperwork done:  One of G-MEG’s last farms (for now)?

Log books and tech logs updated, just another normal flight.

In the weeks that were to follow though, sadly G-MEG’s had an incident with another pilot at the controls (no serious injuries, but the plane took a beating).   So the picture above might be G-MEG’s at one of its last farm strips, at least for a bit while it gets fixed.

Rules on land aways are being changed, as so often is the case, the mistakes of the minority tend to impact on the majority.   How this will all pan out, as The Great Zen Master says:  “We’ll see

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