For the second year running, Paul McMahon, an Irish microlighter, has organised a fly-in to the Irish Parachute Club, at Clonbullogue airfield, about 30 miles west of Dublin. I read about the first one last year and decided I’d like to go this year. Having worked in Dublin recently, I knew the kind of welcome and hospitality we would get from the good Irish folk.
The event is called “Teddyfield”, as each pilot is asked to bring a teddy bear with them to be auctioned to raise funds for the Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin. The other reason for the event is to promote, and raise the profile of, microlighting in the Republic of Ireland. Currently there is no recognised licence in Ireland, and those that want to fly microlights have to cross the border to Northern Ireland and train for the UK BMAA licence. Once qualified, they then have to get exemption from the IAA to fly in their own country. Apparently the IAA are trying to stifle the sport, with talk of transponders and such like, and there’s a real danger they might be successful.
So I asked around East Fortune to see who’d be up for it. Up stepped Richard Murphy (of course), Colin Mackenzie, and Gordon Rae. That gave us a formation of 4 aircraft (3 Quantums and my Blade), with Peter Quinger, Richard’s employee and fellow architect, making a combined crew of 5, as his passenger.
We’ve been well trained at East Fortune about safety over water, so I plotted a route with as little sea to cross as possible. Incidentally, this is something that few, if any, other attendees from the UK seemed to consider, with some crossing 70 miles of water to get there. My route was going to involve crossing the 13 miles of sea between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast. Our plan was to stop at Bute, then cross Arran and Campbeltown, via the south tip of the Mull of Kintyre, and on to a microlight club in Co. Londonderry, near Ballymoney, called Mullaghmore. Then we would fly south for 125 miles, crossing the border to the Republic, and on to Clonbullogue.
In the week leading up to the trip the weather was fine and settled with high pressure and light easterly winds. Things looked perfect. Except for one thing. Every morning dawned with an east coast haar, and this fog was to prevent flying before midday on most days of that week. For this reason, we made a last minute decision to leave our respective works early on the Thursday and make a dash for Bute before dark. This proved a wise variation to the plan, but made for a stressful and rushed day trying to prepare aircraft and domestic arrangements.
Gordon, in particular, needed a few heroes that day, without which he wouldn’t have made it: his manager for giving up holiday to run his factory while he disappeared; Kwik-fit, yes Kwik-fit, for driving to Cumbernauld and back to East Fortune to source and fit three new tyres on his trike; Gordon Douglas for spotting that work needed done and helping out; the local scrapyard for providing some washers he needed; and his wife Debbie, for bringing to the airfield everything he’d forgotten to pack in his haste. He just made it in time.
Leg 1: Thursday April 17th, East Fortune to Bute, ~100 miles.
After the rush to get ready, we took off at 18:45, and the flying was relaxing. Edinburgh Approach talked us past West Linton, and we followed the lowering sun via Kilmarnock to Bute. This routing ensured we avoided the Glasgow control zone. However, while I was working Prestwick, as instructed, the others, for some reason, were doing their own radio thing. It was rumoured that Colin had breached the zone and voices were allegedly heard on the air to that effect. Prestwick and I were blissfully unaware. In the end, nothing came of it, but we wound Colin up at every possible opportunity thereafter. We landed just as the sun vanished over the horizon, pitched tents on the ambulance strip at Bute, and raced to the pub to get food before the chef disappeared.
Leg 2: Friday April 18th, Bute to Mullaghmore, ~75 miles.
Fuelled up, we were now ready to fly to Ireland. The weather was perfect. No clouds, a light tailwind, warm and reasonable visibility.
“This couldn’t last the whole trip”, we all thought. It didn’t.
The flight across Goat Fell on Arran was spectacular. Arran looked small beneath us as we climbed towards the 9000 feet at which we had planned to cross the Irish Sea. From that height the whole island was visible and the ridges and mountains looked awesome, and much higher than their 2800 feet or so. We crossed into N Ireland and as we descended towards Mullaghmore I called them and was told to make any approach that we wanted. Two of our group (who will remain nameless) took this too literally and with Mark Holmes, the CFI, spectating, carried out downwind landings. Mark was a great bloke though, and gave us the run of his place to use as our own. A few days later, on our return, he was also to provide breakfast, the use of his car, spares, and no end of practical help and advice. A fantastic new friend indeed.
The set up was similar to East Fortune, but on a much smaller scale. An old WW2 airfield, with a small portion of runway in use. A portacabin, a couple of small hangars and a handful of microlights. Ultimately, we spent a lot of time there. A lot of time!
One thing that’s important when microlighting is a pub and/or restaurant within walking distance of the airfield. Mullaghmore provided just that with the wonderful Brown Trout Inn a 20 minute walk from the portacabin. Ultimately, we had a lot of meals there. A lot of meals!
Mark ran us for fuel, and we bought him some lunch at the Brown Trout. Soon after we were ready to crack on.
Leg 3: Friday 18th April, Mullaghmore to Dungannon, ~40 miles
With 125 miles to run to Clonbullogue, we decided that it'd be prudent to "splash and dash" en route. That's the term we came to use for refuelling from cans on the back seat without having to go looking to buy petrol. Mark recommended a private grass strip at Dungannon about 40 miles down the route, so we set off looking for that. It was easy to spot from above but as we swooped down to the field it was obvious that the strip was short and narrow, and there was no sign of the windsock in the tree we'd be told about. The runway was 300 yards of undulating but immaculately cut grass, running north-south, with the town of Dungannon across a main trunk road at northern end. With a stiff wind, at 100 degrees, it was going to be interesting. I approached first, from the north, and in my attempt to avoid flying too low over the houses, arrived too high at the threshold and had to go round. Five minutes and a few nerve-ends later we were all on the ground, and talking to Glenn Millar. Glenn was a tall, enthusiastic and jovial Irishman, who owned the strip, and had arrived on a quad bike as we came in. He was a great character who we all took to immediately. He'd have done anything to help, although, as it happened, for once, we were self-sufficient on landing.
Leg 4: Friday 18th April, Dungannon to Clonbullogue, ~85 miles
Glenn watched us depart, saying he'd be visiting Teddyfield the next day, and we looked forward to sharing a Guinness or two with him then. This leg was fantastic. We travelled further south, crossing the border in smooth air, and we watched the fields beneath grow smaller and be gradually replaced and outnumbered by peat bogs as Clonbullogue got closer. Completely relaxed, we digested the views and had banter on the radio as the miles slipped past. This was to be the calm before the storm however, and did not prepare us for what was to come. I would think that the landing at Clonbullogue will remembered as one of the most "exciting" of our short flying careers. The runway seemed infinitely long, oriented east-west, but had a significant line of mature trees running close beside it up to about half way when approaching from the west. As I called base leg, the answer came back,
"Golf India November, wind is easterly 15 knots, gusting 25, severe turbulence from the trees to the left, land beyond the trees, repeat land long, land long, land long".
“That’s copied, land long, India November” I replied, and tried hard to keep height and high airspeed as I flew over the first half of the runway 200 feet above. Despite my efforts, the approach felt like being in a washing machine. I was thrown left and right, up and down and they continued to shout “land long, land long”. With a third of the runway remaining it was time to commit to the landing. Amazingly, in the last 20 feet it all came together and power and ground effect assisted me to a decent touch down. The other three followed in with the same advice ringing in their radios, and they all made good landings too. As I taxied past the organiser, Paul McMahon, who was acting as marshal, I was given high fives and he yelled “Great Landing! Welcome to Ireland”. I really just wanted to hold onto my wing. As they parked me next to Brian Milton’s round the world Quantum, I cut the engine, and a most memorable flight was over. What a welcome. What a welcome to Ireland indeed.
Incidentally, while chatting to Brian Milton it was apparent he was interested in our background and our flying, and was genuinely enthused by “new blood making trips like this”, as he put it.
So far, things had gone pretty much exactly to plan. Friday evening, and we’d arrived on schedule. We had a few pints and retired to the tents. From this point onwards though, nothing went to plan. The Irish weather was to see to that.
The idea on the Saturday had been to fly up to the north west and tour round by Donegal as we worked our way back towards Scotland. We awoke to a still stronger easterly wind, but decided it was flyable and made preparations to depart. As I sat warming my engine I watched as my airspeed read 25mph. While stationary! Doubts began to grow in my mind. As we taxied to the fuel pump, the wind increased further, and they announced that it was gusting 35kts and all parachuting had been cancelled. We quickly pushed the planes into a vacant hanger and decided to stay put. There were comings and goings of heavier stuff, but no microlight movements at all that morning. We kicked around the airfield, a little bored, in the sun and the wind, until the entertainment began about lunchtime.
Rumour had it that 22 flexwings, flying in formation, had departed Newtonards and were heading to Clonbullogue. We picked a sunny spot in the grass to sit down, and readied ourselves for the spectacle to come. And watching them arrive was an spectacular sight indeed. There was about one landing per minute and it looked like Heathrow. Each arrival was treated to the washing machine experience, and the landings were not without incident. At one instant we counted six in a line on final approach, with one on the runway and another few downwind. One had a puncture and got stuck at the side of the runway, one landed with a passenger who’d been sick in her helmet, and one poor bloke crashed when he ran out of airspeed and dropped the last 20 feet vertically, wrecking the undercarriage of his Rapier and flipping it over. Fortunately he wasn’t hurt, and was walking away by the time the airfield fire tender reached him.
Later, the wind eased, and Gordon decided to go up for a circuit to test the conditions and find out what ground speed we could get if we headed north that evening. He climbed up, reported 35mph and came back and landed. There were a lot of spectators for this as there had been little to watch for a while, but his take off and landing were immaculate, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
“He’s our hero!” said Colin with feeling, the adrenalin beginning to pump at the thought of being asked to fly that evening.
I reckoned that Gordon was the only flexwing to take-off that day. His ground speed, however, was too slow to make meaningful progress, so we pitched tents for another night, and headed for the Guinness. In the meantime, Richard’s trousers had split.
Leg 5: Sunday 20th April, Clonbullogue to a field somewhere near Navan, ~35 miles
Next morning we awoke to overcast skies and north-easterly winds, and decided to go for it. The difficulty was finding somewhere within range that we could aim for. We considered Enniskillen to the north west, but were told it was closed and being used for HGV training. There was no chance of reaching Mullaghmore, Dungannon or Newtownards in that north-easterly, so we looked for alternatives. Someone suggested a grass strip at Kilkeen, on the east coast, just over the border, under the Mountains of Mourne. It was about 70 miles, so we decided to give it a go.
I filed the flight plan with Shannon, we skipped breakfast and got airborne at 8am. As we disappeared north I called the controller at Clonbullogue,
“Golf India November, 4 microlights, currently 5 miles north and departing to the north east. Changing to the microlight frequency. Bye, and thanks for everything”.
I will never forget the response this provoked, delivered slowly and in a thick and hungover Dublin accent,
“Golf India November, you are brave and courageous pilots and we appreciate you making the effort to fly here to be with us. May God go with you. And God willing you’ll be back next year”.
Colin had been apprehensive before we set off, and I’m not sure this helped. But with Him looking after us, what could go wrong?
It was rough, and the ceiling was at 1200 feet. As our ground speed dropped below 30mph, it was obvious we were not going to reach Kilkeen. After 80 minutes, and with the ground ahead rising, Richard had had enough of the turbulence and put down in a field. We followed him in. It was still only 9:30am, and we were now cold, tired and hungry, and a few miles north of Navan.
As we got out of the planes, we had no plan at all as to what to do next. This field was in the middle of rural Ireland, and we had visions of never getting out of it again. A minute or so later, a welcoming face appeared over the wall of the field. Mary Doggett, a lady in her sixties who lived in a cottage beside the field and had seen us come down, had come to check we were alright.
When she offered us tea, we were over the wall in a flash. I couldn’t image what her husband must have thought as five pilots appeared in his kitchen, looking cold and dishevelled, clad in flying suits and life jackets. We were a long way from any sea.
“You’re an Angel, you’re an Angel” said Richard repeatedly, as the kettle began to boil.
“You’ll have some toast?”, asked Mary and we didn’t disagree. “There’s bacon? Ah, you might as well have an egg too. And sausages?”.
She was fantastic. It was the most memorable moment of the trip so far. We were stunned by the hospitality and could hardly believe our luck. Five full cooked breakfasts were demolished, we were given use of their phone, and Mary flicked though her diary to re-arrange Mass. This was Easter Sunday, and our arrival had turned the Doggett’s plans for their day on their head, but they didn’t seem to mind at all.
Richard kept telling Mary she was an Angel and when she said that she had five daughters, we looked at each other and giggled, and thought to ourselves, “No really, you’ve been generous enough already. Breakfast will be just fine!”.
As we left their house, Gordon demanded of Mary a “big Irish hug”. Without argument, it was warmly despatched.
Leg 6: Sunday 20th April, the field near Navan to Trim, ~10 miles
The phone calls over breakfast had been used to make contact with Trim, a small GA airfield, underneath the Dublin zone, which was located about 10 miles to our south, and significantly, downwind of us, albeit in the direction we had just come. Although reluctant to submit to those elements again, we agreed that it would be sensible to get to an airfield with the potential for weather information, fuel and hangarage. At that stage I had visions of flying home Aer Lingus from Dublin. The Doggetts watched us depart and in no time at all we were approaching Trim. As I tried to transmit, yet another lump of air hit my plane and the control bar and talk button were ripped from my hand. I passed my message again, but no-one replied. Trim has a neat grass runway, running east-west and in the howling north-easterly this provided yet another cross-wind challenge. We rose to it though, and four good landings later we were on the ground again. By this stage, crosswind landings held no fear for us. We’d had plenty of practice.
As a result of these two legs, we had made net progress of 25 miles. There was a long way to go.
Pat Murphy, an Aer Lingus pilot, owns the airfield, and as he showed me how to operate the hangar doors the others met Seamus, who runs the club. Yet again, we were given anything we wanted and had access to hangar, clubhouse and coffee. Everywhere we went we were overwhelmed with the reception from the Irish people. As it turned out, Pat has flown the old Aer Lingus display plane in airshows at East Fortune. It’s a small world.
Despite Trim selling avgas on site, we had time to kill and Seamus was happy to drive us to the petrol station for mogas to save us some money. (Oban, North Connel, PLEASE NOTE!!!). Gordon requested a plug to charge his radio, and Richard ordered needle and thread. Seamus disappeared, and a couple of hours later returned with it all. As Richard did his sewing, the rest of us dozed for a while in the portacabin and watched some Grand Prix on television as the wind blew itself out.
Gordon had phoned for a weather report, and the news was good. The wind was to drop right back in the evening and conditions were to become much more benign. In Ireland when you call the aviation weather you speak to a met office forecaster direct. It’s a wonderful service, but only available south of the border.
Leg 7: Sunday 20th April, Trim to Mullaghmore, ~100 miles
At 5pm, as the forecaster had told us it would, the wind dropped away and we decided to get going. Unsure if we would reach Mullaghmore in one hop we decided to pass close to Glenn’s place at Dungannon again, but decide in the air if we had the range for Mullaghmore. As it turned out that flight was superb. The air had turned smooth and we managed a respectable 50mph. We’d been bracing ourselves after the flights of that morning, and none of us expected such and easy and enjoyable passage north. We crossed the border at Armagh, 1000 feet above the Border danger zone, and tracked up the west side of Loch Neagh. As we passed close to Dungannon, Mullaghmore was within reach so we pressed on. As the clouds parted and the winds dropped still further, I called Belfast Aldergrove for a flight information service. They seemed pleased to have someone to talk to.
As we approached our adopted base of Mullaghmore, the sun was just setting, and we were pleased to have made such surprisingly good progress north. It seemed a thousand miles from the dramas of that morning down near Dublin. As had become customary, I landed first and turned round at the end of the runway to watch the others come in. As number two, on final approach, Gordon could see me on the ground, waiting and watching, and confidently radioed,
“Give me marks out of 10 for this one Graeme”.
After his sixth bounce, I said nothing at all, and he called again as he raced down the runway, seemingly still not quite under control,
“Affirm”, I replied. He knew straight away that he’d won the prize for the worst landing of the entire adventure, and accepted it gracefully. He blamed Kwik-fit for putting too much air pressure into his tyres. We laughed, and then headed for the Brown Trout for dinner. That night, we had a “deep” discussion in the pub, about nothing to do with flying or weather.
The next two days were to prove very frustrating.
Leg 8: Monday 21st April, Mullaghmore to Mullaghmore, ~50 miles, and
Leg 9: Monday 21st April, Mullaghmore to Mullaghmore, ~50 miles
Mullaghmore is situated about 25 miles from the point on the Antrim coast at which we wanted to head out over the sea for the Mull of Kintyre. We woke up to bright skies, but they quickly closed in leaving small breaks in the cloud with higher layers visible through the holes. We wanted a safe height for the water crossing home, so decided to climb though the gaps in the first layer, as high as we could, and cross the water ensuring there were always gaps beneath through which to return. On the first attempt, as we neared the coast, the gaps in the lower level filled in and we could barely clear the high ground near Ballycastle. The decision was easy. We turned back and retired to the Brown Trout for lunch.
Later, we tried again as things looked more promising at Mullaghmore, but again, as we got to the coast we came up against a vertical wall of cloud and returned once more. We retired to the Brown Trout for dinner.
We had flown 100 miles that day, with a net gain of nothing. Frustration was growing. We slept in the portacabin at Mullaghmore, and overnight the heavens opened. In the morning the planes were marooned by deep puddles. We retired to the Brown Trout for breakfast.
By this stage our relationship with the Brown Trout had blossomed to the extent they were happy to provide us with shower facilities, a mobile phone charging service, and lifts for fuel. They were glad of our business. We grateful for their help.
Leg 10: Tuesday 22nd April, Mullaghmore to Mullaghmore, ~70 miles
By lunch time it was brighter and we made another attempt. This time there were multiple, complex layers of broken stratus and cumulus. We lost sight of each other as we dodged round the clouds, but on reaching the coast I could still see no way through. Having reluctantly decided to give up yet again, I headed westwards along the north Antrim coast, where the weather looked brighter, for some sightseeing. As I took in the views, Gordon called on the radio to say he’d found a gap and was going for Scotland. I wished him well and carried on with my tour, over Rathlin Island, Giant’s Causeway, the Bushmills distillery, and the famous old golf links of Portrush. Sadly, I’d forgotten to have my camera to hand for that flight, so missed some great opportunities there.
The forecast was much better for Wednesday. Gordon called to say he was home. We were jealous. Peter, Richard’s passenger, said he would be giving up his training. He never wanted to see another microlight again. Sorry, East Fortune, if we’ve lost you a student, but we hope, in the cold light of day, he’ll reconsider.
We retired to the Brown Trout for dinner.
Leg 11: Wednesday 23rd April, Mullaghmore to Bute, ~75 miles
We awoke in the portacabin to freezing fog, and as it burnt off Peter cooked bacon, egg and sausages that Mark had kindly left for us the previous day. We turned the wings into sun to de-ice, and the Brown Trout were summonsed to run us for fuel. By 8am the sun was shining, but there was to be a frustrating four hours before the fog was to clear Bute. Richard had tracked down the phone number for the library in Campbeltown (as the tourist office was closed), and had a librarian looking outside and delivering a fog status report every half hour. In keeping with the entire trip, people we always so helpful.
Eventually, a call came from Bute saying the fog had dispersed and the sun was shining on the airstrip, so I filed the hundredth flight plan with Londonderry, and we were on our way. The weather was kind to us this time, and the flight to Bute was superb. There were spectacular, towering cumulus developing over Arran, but dodging around it just added to the fun.
Leg 12: Wednesday 23rd April, Bute to East Fortune, ~100 miles
We splashed and dashed at Bute and the flight back to East Fortune was uneventful. Colin flew a very wide berth round the Glasgow zone, still conscious of his alleged misdemeanour six days earlier.
We landed, tired, but happy. Colin kissed the ground, and we all went home. That evening I ordered some flowers to be sent to the Angels of Navan.
Although we’d made arrangements to be away for three days, it had turned into six. It was a wonderful adventure, the longest and furthest any of us had done in a microlight so far. There was frustration at times, but there were so many memorable moments, and people. It won’t be long before we’ll be planning the next one, I’m sure. We all gained experience and confidence, and many valuable lessons were learned. A good craic!
For anyone at the club thinking of flying to Ireland here are my notes on the formalities to be completed. I don’t guarantee this is necessarily the full legal position, but in practice, it worked for us. I have all the contact numbers and addresses if anyone needs them:
1. To fly in the Republic of Ireland you have to get exemption from the IAA. Best to do this a few days in advance.
2. To fly from Scotland to Northern Ireland you need to tell Special Branch your plans. They have a form to fill in, but I found it easier doing it over the phone. You must contact Special Branch in the region you’re leaving from. For us, that was Strathclyde police, as we were departing from Bute. I called Lothain and Borders, but as our last point of contact was Bute, they were not interested.
3. You also need to file a flight plan with Scottish ATC. Again there’s a form to fill in and fax off, or it can be done on the radio, but I found it easier to do it by phone. One plan covers all the planes in the group.
4. You also need to call Special Branch in Northern Ireland of your plans. Again I did it by phone. They occasionally gave me a hard time about not giving 24 hours notice, but Mark assured us the rules are 1 hours notice, so I just told them of our intentions, ignored the abuse, and then got on and flew it.
5. For flights between Northern Ireland and the Republic, again a flight plan is required, and Special Branch in NI must be told.
6. For the return flights, again all of the above should to be done. It’s not a problem though. It’s just a few phone calls really. Well, a lot of phone calls, when you make as many attempts and adjustments as we did.
As far as flight plans go, it is also essential that on landing you call to close the plan. This is to say you have safely arrived (or turned back in our case, quite often). If you don’t do this, the theory is that within half an hour of you being late, search and rescue will be launched to go looking for you.
In practice though, I found flight plans a complete waste of time. Every time, without fail, when I called to close a plan, I was answered with something like “What plan is that? Never heard of it? We have no record of that.”. At one point I queried this, and was told that Scottish pass the details to “Brussels” and they are meant to pass them on the destination ATC. Somewhere along the lines, this (not surprisingly) didn’t happen. It therefore seemed pointless, but to keep legal I carried on making the phone calls, in the knowledge that if we wanted emergency help we’d have to ask for it on radio, as is normally the case anyway.
East of Scotland Microlights