That perfect flight…
A joyful recollection of the wonders of flying from Caernarfon to Yeatsall Farm.
I am at 6000 feet and my seat is vibrating gently. All around my head, the sky is a dome of perfect blue. I glance over my shoulder and I can see the Irish Sea wearing its late afternoon sheen, scattered with cumulus cloud; below me, the sun is picking out the cliffs and chasms of the Snowdonia mountains.
Glancing at the instruments, I can see that we are still climbing at 250 feet per minute at maximum power; less than what we achieved as we took off, as the air is thinner here. The engine is working hard, but I would really like to climb a little higher before I level off. If my engine should stop now, I will be able to glide for maybe five minutes before I am down amongst those peaks and looking for some piece of ground where I can make a forced landing. There are not many such areas in view at this time.
Each breath feels keen and spiced in the back of my nose, and this reminds me that my engine too is reacting to the lower air pressure. The engine’s fuel metering does not react automatically to this and the engine note sounds slightly lumpy. I reach down to the red fuel mixture knob and carefully wind it out. The engine note clears and smooths out, then falters; too much. Wind back in two turns and she sounds perfect.
It is 15 minutes since I set off from Caernarfon Airport, taking off out to sea, then swinging right in a wide arc to pass over Newborough Beach and the pine forest behind. This was across the Menai Strait on the Isle of Anglesey. I can see people in the waves and families out on the sand. As my little aircraft does not have the power to climb very quickly, I often circle round in this way to gain enough height to clear the mountains. But today we will be taking a more southerly route, crossing the neck of the Lleyn Peninsula to avoid the highest peaks. The land here is quite low, but there is a tall mast to be avoided. I see it as I turn over the airfield, its spidery lattice hard to see, its evil bracing wires still invisible and its upper end shrouded in cloud. I instinctively steer well to the right, climbing as high as I can but staying below the cloud base so I can keep it in view.
Finally topping out at 7000 feet, I let the aircraft accelerate to 90 knots and throttle back. Glancing down at the oil temperature gauge I see that it is registering 90 degrees; high but below the maximum of 105 degrees that the manual recommends. Actually, I have been monitoring this throughout the climb, but I want to make a mental note of the figure so I can compare it with other flights. I have planned my route via a convenient VOR beacon positioned at Shawbury, just north of Shrewsbury. This works as a kind of electronic lighthouse, and an instrument in front of me shows my relative bearing to it. Today we will be following a track of 90 degrees (due east) to it, and as the needle on my instrument centres, I know it is time to turn and follow it.
The land below is mostly a patchwork of buff moorlands and dark green conifer plantations, with occasional deep valleys filled with green meadows. Roads are few and far between, but an intersection of thin threads on the hilltop to my left marks the Bwlch y Groes, an ancient pass linking two of the remote districts of this part of Wales. Soon, another deep valley appears out of a gap between the clouds. This one is full of dark water. It is Lake Vyrnwy and shows me that we are still on our track to the beacon. The hills are lower here, and soon we will be crossing an airway that we must pass under, so it is time to descend. I pull out the throttle a little; the engine slows slightly and we start a slow descent.
Ahead of us, I can see a large and very solid-looking cumulus cloud. It lies directly on our track, so I steer slightly left to pass alongside it, knowing that I will be able to regain our track once we are past it. The cloud is close now, and its side forms a vertical cliff of vapour just off to our right. Just for fun, I turn to my passenger. “Do you think I can skim my wingtip through the edge of the cloud?” “Watch out for the silver lining” he retorts.
Looking ahead, I can see the countryside has changed. We have left the mountains and moorlands of Wales behind. Ahead lies the flat landscape of the English Midlands, patches of fields embroidered with dark hedgerows and small tufts of woodland. It feels like home, and soon I can see the familiar landmarks that tell me it is nearly time to land; the cooling towers of Rugeley Power Station and the familiar outline of Blithfield Reservoir
As we pass Stafford, a final check of the instruments shows that all is well, and I recite to myself the checklist items that will make sure we are prepared for landing. I can see Yeatsall Farm, and the mown strip of grass that is its runway stands out clearly. The evening air is as smooth as silk and the smell of summer grass engulfs me. I make a call on the SAFETYCOM frequency to alert other traffic but get no answer, and the windsock confirms that the wind is still a gentle southeasterly. I swing round onto the downwind leg for runway 22, the outline of Blithfield Hall under my wingtip. Steering around the scattered farm buildings, we position onto final and gently descend to the runway. As we cross the threshold, I sense the texture of the runway surface; now we are a vehicle of the land and no longer the sky. Only a rumbling sound and a gentle vibration tell us our wheels have touched and we slow to a stop. The gift of a perfect landing makes a fitting end to a perfect flight. I am content.
Photos courtesy of Keith and his co-pilot Will Berry.