Flying in England

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Since I grew up in England, and I'm lucky enough to get back there fairly often, it was natural enough to want to fly there. Of course the actual business of flying a plane is the same wherever you are, but just about everything else is different. The first time I tried was at Stapleford (EGSG), about 15 miles north-east of London. I only had one chance to fly there, so I didn't manage to get checked out. Then in 2004 I had an extended trip to Europe and I managed to fly three times with the West London Aero Club at White Waltham, about 30 miles west of London. This time I was able to get checked out although I only managed a 20 minute solo.

It was a real pleasure to fly in my own country, and to fly at low altitude over places that I've only seen either from the ground or from a jet through a passenger window. And I do mean low altitude. There aren't many places in England where you can get above 5000 feet, and close to London a lot of flying is at 2000 feet or less. This seems strange to someone whose flying has mainly been in California, but of course England doesn't have much in the way of high or hostile terrain. At 2000 feet you are comfortably above anything within 150 miles of London, and you are sure to be within gliding distance of something you can land on.

The biggest difference is the cost. It's a lot more expensive, about three times as much as in the US. An hour of dual in an 172 or Warrior will cost about 160, or about $300. Most of that is for the plane and fuel, flying solo is only about 20/hr cheaper. (In theory, if you wanted to log three hours or more of flying time, it would be cheaper to fly commercial to the US, and do your flying there, than to fly in the UK!)

Partly because of the cost, there are a lot less private pilots in England (as a proportion of the population) than in the US. This in turn means there are less airfields, clubs, facilities, and planes. Of course the famously unreliable English weather doesn't help either.

Legalities

If you have a FAA PPL, you're legal to fly in England, day VFR anyway. You don't need to do anything special, and you don't need another piece of paper. You need to make sure that you have your certificate and medical with you. You don't strictly speaking need your logbook, but there's a good chance people will ask to see it so you should take it with you (in hand baggage of course). It's a good idea to take a headset. If you can find someone with US-registered aircraft - and there a good few of them about - you can exercise all of your US privileges (IFR, etc). But you're unlikely to find them in flying clubs or available for rent, so most likely you will be flying UK-registered aircraft. Of course being legal doesn't mean that the owner will just let you fly their plane unsupervised, just as in the US, so you will almost certainly need to get some dual and go through a checkout. You'll need dual anyway, because of the other differences described below.

The rules for flying are broadly similar to the US but you really need to study them. I bought a book called "Air Law Operational Procedures and Communications" which is part of the AFE series for UK PPL students, and which seems to give enough information. As an example of the differences, the UK requires you always to fly so that you can safely glide to a landing. Of course that's pretty sensible, but it's not the case in the US - visitors are always amazed that you can legally fly over downtown San Francisco. This isn't too much of a restriction since outside major towns everything is fields. Even at 2000' or less you can always find somewhere as long as you aren't right over a major city.

Radio Talk

I think the hardest thing to master is the difference in radio language. Probably you could just talk like you were in the US and get away with it, but it would certainly confuse people and you might not understand what was going on. There are trivial differences, like saying "decimal" instead of "point", but there are more important ones as well. (Actually I've heard people do the "decimal" thing wrong on both sides of the Atlantic, and nobody seems to notice or care). UK radio talk generally follows the ICAO rules, unlike the US, but even so there are differences.

Airspace

I used to think the Bay Area was complicated, until I tried flying around London. First, Class A begins much lower - over White Waltham and Stapleford, at 2500 feet. You won't get into that unless you are IFR. Airways are Class A too, although you can fly underneath the airway and still follow the VOR or whatever. It's a real puzzle trying to figure out what is going on when looking at the chart for southern England, although if you stay below 2500 feet you can ignore most of the complications. As in the US, there is restricted airspace around various sensitive places, such as the well-known nuclear bomb research centre at Aldermaston. There is however no Class B or C airspace. Instead, major airports such as Heathrow are protected by Class A down to the surface.

The equivalent of flying VFR into Class B is "Special VFR". This exists in the US as well, but just as a way to fly VFR in very marginal conditions. I've never used it there. If you want to fly in Heathrow's airspace, then you have to ask for a Special VFR clearance. If they give it to you then it is pretty much the same as flying in Class B - you are under positive control and you go where they tell you, at the altitude and heading they tell you. You may or may not get cleared to where you ask for, or anywhere at all. You certainly will not get cleared to fly overhead or close to Heathrow - unlike SFO or LAX. They keep our little planes well away from anywhere they could cause problems for the big guys.

SVFR is especially important at White Waltham, since half of the airfield is actually in the Heathrow surface zone! There is a special exemption for operations around the airfield itself, but if you want to fly to the other side of London for example then you will need it. There is a special frequency for it, you don't get to talk to Heathrow Tower or Approach. You can also arrange an SVFR clearance on the ground, by phone, if you want to enter the Heathrow zone immediately after takeoff, although I haven't so far done this.

VFR reporting points are generally referred to by name, although this varies from one place to another. The names are just based on points of the compass. Thus whereas in the US you might report "approaching Ed's Tire and Muffler" (OK, I'm exaggerating, but some aren't much better than that), in the UK you'll report "overhead Sierra". These reporting points seem to be as much local lore as anything else (which is the same as the US). They're not shown on charts, except for major airports. So bringing things together, the call you make when returning might be "White Waltham Radio, G-ABCD overhead Sierra for join". Note the absence of altitude - unless you're going into somewhere big they certainly don't have Mode C so it's no use to them anyway. They'll reply with the runway and traffic pattern, and the QFE setting - which you must read back.

Airports

Once you've got over the price shock, the next one will be what you're expected to use as a runway. Most places you're likely to fly out of will be grass. (Stapleford has a hard runway but uses it as a taxiway - that's a bit of a mystery to me). In the US most people wouldn't dream of taking a tricycle plane into a grass field, but in the UK it's normal. Stapleford has King Airs, Barons and other big stuff. Grass in itself is no big deal, and it certainly makes landings gentler, but underneath the grass is a field. It has bumps and dips and is anything but level. The latter part of the takeoff run can be quite wild and you may well find yourself airborne before you expected. After landing it's important to keep the yoke or stick back, just like in a taildragger, to keep as much weight as possible off the nose. Even so you'll have a bouncy ride, and a badly-timed bump may send you airborne again. Even taxying is different - it takes a lot more power to taxy on grass, not to mention negotiating the ups and downs of the field as you cross it. Waterproof footwear is important. Even if it hasn't rained lately (and in the English climate it probably has), morning dew can give you wet feet walking to your aircraft.

There is an advantage to grass though. You can go anywhere you want, and a runway is really just a convention. White Waltham has three of them (i.e. six different numbered runways) and you can always go into the wind. You can exit the runway whenever you want, and taxy directly to wherever you're going, watching rabbits running out of your way. Even if you inadvertently left the runway (say in a crosswind) it wouldn't really matter all that much.

Another big difference is landing fees. Every public-use airport will charge you a fee for every landing. This is payable on the spot and means that you pretty much have to make a complete stop if you land somewhere - no land-and-taxi-back just for fun. The charge is very variable but you can expect around 10 at GA-only airports - more if you go into a "proper" airport with (gasp) hard runways. A lot of airports are "PPR" (Prior Permission Required), which means you have to call them before setting out. This is sometimes true even for active GA places with flying clubs of their own, like Clacton, not just farm strips. The penalties for landing at an airport without permission can be quite expensive.

Since there are a lot less pilots than in the US, there aren't so many airfields either. Around London there are about eight or ten, serving a population of maybe 15 million. As long as you're in or near a major city you'll be able to find one, but don't expect to have the same huge choice that you would around say New York or Los Angeles.

Aircraft

Or "aeroplanes", rather than the American word "airplanes". There isn't much to say about these - the staples of the training and rental fleets in England are just the same as in the US, Cessna 152s and 172s and Piper Warriors. This is almost certainly what you will end up flying. Of course there are more exotic local aircraft. White Waltham is home to several Tiger Moths, and I saw an extremely rare Miles Messenger while I was there.

A common complaint of UK pilots is the condition of the training fleet - old and shabby. This wasn't my impression at all. Maybe I was just lucky. At White Waltham all of the planes I flew in were recent, and had GPS as well as the usual avionics. I've flown in much worse planes in California.

Odds and Ends

You will of course need charts, at least as soon as you solo. I bought Jeppesen VFR charts, which are available in UK pilot shops such as Transair. However both instructors I've flown with looked at these with amazement, and had literally never seen them before. It seems that most people use the official CAA charts (the CAA is the equivalent of the FAA) which are a bit cheaper and come laminated but not folded. As I mentioned before, the overwhelming impression when you open one of these is the complication of the airspace, everywhere and not just in the immediate vicinity of major airports. You need to spend some time studying the charts on the ground, preferably with someone handy to ask questions - you'll have plenty. If you do manage to fly IFR, you can get Jeppesen charts and plates which are identical to US ones.

If you plan to fly cross-country, the definitive airfield guide is Pooley's Flight Guide. It's readily available in pilot shops or at the flying club.

There are three generally available flying magazines in the UK: Pilot, Today's Pilot and Flying. They're about as easy or hard to find as other specialist hobby mags. Airport newsagents seem to have them, and some of the very largest high-street newsagents (although the most common, W H Smith, is fairly hopeless). People have strong opinions about which is best, but in my experience they're pretty much the same.

A big difference, based on my sample of two airports anyway, is the social side of flying. Palo Alto is one of the busiest GA airports in the US, but there is really no social side to speak of. There are three flying clubs but they are all about flying, and nobody goes there unless they intend to fly. By contrast, both White Waltham and Stapleford are as much social clubs as flying clubs. Both have bars which are as good as any pub - they serve good quality food all day long and good English beer as well as soft drinks for the minority of people who are there to fly! One day I flew at lunchtime and I could barely find anywhere to park even though the planes all seemed to be on the ground - but the bar was full. I found this a very pleasant aspect to flying in England.

Every instructor has their own particular views about how flying should be done, and this is just as true in England. I was surprised by a few things but it's easiest just to go along with the instructor, at least as long you're sharing a plane with him or her! (Incidentally both instructors I flew with were women. I get the impression that more instructors are women in the UK than the US. Not that this makes any difference to anything). There are probably generic differences in technique between the two countries, but the only one I may have found was in crosswind landing technique. I was taught to fly these using a sideslip, and have always done so on short final to touchdown. But landing in a 10 knot crosswind at White Waltham (yes, I know I said you never need to, but we did anyway) my instructor had never seen this and kept telling me to level the wings. Luckily I have enough experience now that I can ignore an instructor when things get really critical. It was only later that she said to me, "Oh, I see now what you were doing, I've never seen anyone fly like that before".

In Conclusion

If you get a chance to fly in the UK, take it. You'll have a lot of fun, and you'll certainly learn something different.

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