County Times' high flier reporter Keri wings it on first piloting experience

Reporter:

Keri Trigg

PLANES soar overhead, a control tower looms over the runways, and people of all ages bustle around on the ground as they prepare for take-off.

But there are no passports needed to fly here.

Shobdon Airfield, near Leominster, is Herefordshire’s only licensed airfield and home to Herefordshire Aero Club, one of our nearest flying schools.

Having always wanted to experience flying a plane, I am finally about to tick it off my bucket list. Pulling up at the airfield, my nerves begin to alleviate. I still have no idea what to expect but excitement has begun to tip the balance.

Before I take to the skies, Dawn Manning, administration and events co-ordinator, shows me around one of the original wartime hangars and takes me through a flavour of the airfield’s rich history.

After opening in 1940 as Pembridge Landing Ground, it was renamed Shobdon Airfield in 1942 and was home to the No. 5 Glider Training School throughout the rest of the Second World War. A memorial to those who trained here was unveiled last year.

Many of the aircraft in the hangar have their own stories to tell, including two rare BA Swallows, one of which was used by Mary Ellis when she was in training.

Back outside, the clear skies we had our fingers crossed for don’t seem to have arrived, meaning our planned flight over the Wye Valley and up to Builth Wells has to be re-thought.

Dawn says: “In winter, on those cold, blue sky days, it’s perfect for flying. It’s calm with clear views and you can see for miles.

“We are really lucky this is designated class G airspace, so there are no restrictions. We can roam as we want to.”

With on-site gliding and helicopter schools, the airfield is also used by the air ambulance and for military training, as well as events like the Food and Flying Festival.

Keeping everyone safe in the skies is Mark Wallington. He’s on the radio as we walk in, speaking in what I first think is a foreign language. Learning the lingo is one of the more challenging requirements of getting your pilot’s licence, and something I thankfully won’t be expected to master on my first lesson.

Air traffic control is a high-pressure job, and things don’t always run smoothly - a student flying in from Gloucestershire got lost in the sky the day before our visit.

“It can have its moments but we are trained to deal with the pressure,” he says.

“You still have to put the same work and effort in even though they are not big jumbo jets.

“We are out in the countryside, it’s not the easiest to find, but we don’t have many people lost or with difficulties.”

Hearing about the lost student brings my nerves back to the surface, but I am put at ease again when I meet Geraint Thomas, chief flying instructor, who seems like a safe pair of hands for my first flight.

My vehicle for the day is a Piper PA28 Archer II, one of the flying school’s fleet. Despite its four seats, photographer Mike declines the chance to experience my flying skills first-hand.

“It’s a common training aircraft, really stable and responsive and fun to fly,” says Geraint.

“The plane has dual controls just like when you are learning to drive.”

After a brief lesson on how to work the controls, it’s time to climb ungracefully into the cockpit. Geraint has to run and fetch some cushions for a makeshift booster seat when he realises I can’t see over the dash – somewhat of a necessity.

My first task is to take off, and luckily it’s easier than starting a car. With just the push of a lever and a pull of the control wheel we are soon soaring into the sky, the airfield shrinking beneath us as we climb to 1,800 feet.

On a clear day you can see the Brecon Beacons and the Cambrian Mountains, but even on a dull, cloudy day like this the patchwork fields stretch out for miles.

We circle Leominster and the villages around the airfield, church spires puncturing the landscape, framed by hills in every direction. It’s easy to forget what a picturesque part of the world we live in, but seeing it from the air brings a whole new perspective.

Geraint shows me the basics of steering left, right, up and down, before I get to experience the stomach-flipping effects of gravity with sharp inclines and sudden dips that mimic a rollercoaster ride.

“We wouldn’t usually do this on your first lesson,” he jokes as our seats drop from under us, before quickly pulling the control wheel to send the plane into the clouds and squash me into my seat.

Another thing newbies don’t usually have to worry about is landing the plane, something that is put off until you’ve clocked up at least 10 hours’ flying time. So, naturally, Geraint says I can have a go. Thankfully, he only means steering in the direction of the runway and not actually making it stop.

“We get a range of all sorts of people to come and fly,” says Geraint as we touch down.

“You can’t fly solo until you’re 16, but I have got three students hoping to go solo on their 16th birthday. Some people have their flying licence before their driving licence.

“We also have older retired people, people of all ages, and people who want to go on to do commercial training.”

Since it was founded in 1961, Herefordshire Aero Club has held the aim of promoting flying to people from all walks of life, and it’s clear that this ethos is still going strong.

With my feet back on the ground, I’m already itching to get back in the pilot’s seat. It’s definitely something I would urge everyone to experience - it might be the first step to a new hobby or even a career.

For more information, go to www.shobdonairfield.co.uk

Email:

keri.trigg@nwn.co.uk

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