I often get asked what is the high point of the flying trips we’ve done to date. There are so many to choose from – we’re very lucky!
If I had to choose, the most special would be a trip in our TB-10 to watch the total solar eclipse over the Faroe Islands on Friday 20 March, 2015.
There are so many things that make it so – the combination of the flying challenge, the fact that we were both so involved in the planning and execution and the absolutely incredible location, views and unique event. This trip really had it all!
ROUTE: EKGB – EGPK – EGPO – EKVG – EGPB – EGPN – EGKB
(Biggin Hill – Prestwick – Stornoway (Isle of Lewis) – Vagar (Faroes) – Sumburgh (Shetland Islands) – Dundee – and back to Biggin!)
Wednesday 18 March
We set off from Biggin at 10:00Z having crammed an impossible collection of sleeping/camping gear and rented survival kit into the plane. There was a fair bit of unpacking and re-packing to meet the added challenge of having the latter items accessible should we actually need to use them!
It was overcast and misty in Biggin, and pretty cold too – we climbed above the cloud and had a pretty uneventful flight up to Prestwick (I can’t believe we’ve become so blasé!). It was mostly cloudy on the way, but with some good views over the Lake District. With me on radio, and for the most part the autopilot at the controls, J was largely surplus to requirements (or at least I told him so!). Time enroute was 3hrs 17mins.
Prestwick Flying Club ground staff were amazingly friendly and helpful as ever (this was our 4th stopover with them) and turned us around – including fuelling and paying – in under 15mins. Other than an RAF guy doing training circuits and an orange Antonov spewing dark fumes, the airfield was quiet, but stunningly sunny in stark contrast to what we’d left behind in London!
Our next leg, Prestwick to Stornoway took us just under 2 hours, with beautiful visibility over the Isle of Arran, Islay, and the Scottish coast. Approach to land was also stunning, with good views over the Isle of Harris and Lewis. The weather was sunny and surface wind non-existent. The TAF said 3knots, but we think that’s because they can’t forecast a 0 wind – the actuals were giving 000/00KT!
We took a taxi from the airport to the Cabarfeidh hotel, where we have stayed before when on a trip with a friend – the drive takes about 20mins and costs under £10. The hotel has a good restaurant and the centre of Stornoway (about 10mins’ walk from the hotel) has a large supermarket and a number of other shops, and there are some beautiful walks in the vicinity.
Thursday 19 March
We left Cabarfeidh about 9am and packed up the aircraft again. Over to the tower to pay fees and we had a lovely chat to the two ladies, who fed us tablet and were excited to hear about our plans to try and get up to the Faroes. At this point it was still very much a case of trying – we always knew the weather might force us to turn back. They said we were the first GA landing fee that they’d had to process in 2015 as it hasn’t been good enough for anyone else to get in!
As it was raining and quite windy at Stornoway, we donned our immersion suits in the tower, making use of their stairwell to get changed. This earned us some funny looks and giggles from the tower staff as we contorted trying to get into the suits and jumped around squashing the air out. When that was all over, we also had to put on our life vests over the top. Not at all comfortable but they definitely serve a purpose!
Reading the CAA’s leaflet on ditching instructions as we took off made me incredibly glad we had chosen to rent a life raft as well, in case of engine failure over water. We still didn’t fancy a ditching, but the chances of survival are at least above zero if you can get the raft out and inflated in time…IF. The instruction if you ditch without a life raft, however, begins with “in situations like this, the most important thing is not to lose hope.” (i.e. you’re screwed).
We climbed to 5000ft initially out of Stornoway but expected to descend en route as we knew the cloud base and freezing layer was considerably lower up ahead. ‘YC has many awesome things, but de-icing is not one of them, so it’s important that we always avoid icing conditions. For a while we were between two layers of cloud, but as it got more murky we started to see crystals forming on the wings, so we dropped down to stay below the freezing layer and in sight of the surface.
We judged that the sea below us was ‘moderate’ according to the guidance, necessitating a ditching into wind and parallel to swell in case of loss of power, which we very much hoped we wouldn’t need to do! We heard our friend’s plane being called for by Scottish Information on the radio, so we knew that he and his passengers were also on their way to the Faroes. We lost contact with the radio station and our friend once we dropped down below the icing level, so we had about an hour of slightly eerie silence until we were able to call Vagar airport, a surprising 90NM away from the airfield.
We had hoped to do a visual approach into Vagar and said as much, but as we got closer it became clear that the cloud wouldn’t allow it. The controller asked if we would like to take the ILS instead, and when we agreed, he responded “Yes, I would advise you to do that” – that is the closest that an Information Service will ever get to insisting that you refrain from being an idiot! We actually ended up below the majority of the clouds at about 4000ft, and we were treated to some spectacular views as we descended over the Faroe Islands.
The landscape of the Faroes is absolutely stunning – dramatic black rock cliffs and grassy mountains with streams and waterfalls running down them, as well as pristine beaches and crystal blue sea! We were in and out of cloud coming in, so we were glad of the ILS, particularly as the approach is along a fjord between two mountains! There is not much margin for error and controlled flight into terrain is a real concern! The runway was wet – as was pretty much everything else in the vicinity – but J brought ‘YC down beautifully. The flight took just over 2hrs in total.
Our friend had had a much more difficult approach to land than us, as the weather really closed in and he did the ILS down to minima, which was a little disconcerting as he popped out of the clouds with terrain on all sides – “ooh, mountain”!
We eventually rounded everyone up and took a taxi to the small town of Vestmanna. Our accommodation was a small renovated boathouse right on the water, an absolutely wonderful location. Without the generosity of its owner, we could not have done the trip – hotels on the Faroe Islands had been booked up for years in anticipation of the eclipse! The Faroes and Svalbard were the only places on dry land to experience totality on this occasion, so we were among the very lucky few.
Friday 20th March
We all got up early for the taxi and wandered around half-asleep. I pulled back the blind whilst getting dressed, only to come face to face with a sheep munching its way up the steep hillside behind the house. I had thought a roof light wouldn’t be overlooked and therefore decided to let some light in, but I had failed to account for the terrain. J christened our new friend ‘pervy sheep’ and he lived up to his name, spending most of the morning lurking behind the house and peering into the various windows!
Incredibly, given our friend’s repeated mutterings about ‘herding cats’ the previous day, we were all ready to go when the taxi driver arrived. He took us on an absolutely beautiful tour of the Vestmanna area, stopping regularly to allow pictures, and then on to the airport.
We were tickled to see both of our GA flight plans announced on the main terminal departures board alongside the BBC News film crew and a special charter flight to view the eclipse in an MD80 with only the window seats booked out! People had come from all over for this special flight, and must have paid a fortune. Some of them had really got into the spirit – including a family complete with customised t-shirts for the occasion and a soft toy camel with its own mini eclipse glasses!
Our friend and his passengers set off about 45mins before us to fly north to the true centre of the eclipse between the Faroes and Iceland. Fuel doesn’t allow us to do likewise and still make it to Sumburgh with sufficient reserves, so we stayed in the vicinity of the Islands and had an absolutely stunning take-off with the broken clouds making patterns in the sunlight across the mountains as we climbed out. We knew we would still experience totality, just for a slightly shorter period than at the centre.
Until very late, it still looked uncertain as to whether the eclipse would be visible from the ground, so we did the right thing by deciding to fly. We wriggled ourselves back into the sexy immersion suits and we took off. Turbulence was the heaviest we’ve ever experienced on climb out but J handled it really well and it calmed down as we got higher.
Through the eclipse glasses we could see that the moon had already moved about half way across the sun, so we flew back and forth a few times, looking through the glasses.
Totality came just after 9:40am and lasted for about 2mins. We could look without glasses and see the corona beautifully from that height.
How on earth do you describe totality? The light disappeared suddenly, but not in the normal way that it does when the sun sets. It was quite eerie and entirely unique – it was dusk, but the shadows weren’t in the right place – it made me feel quite disjointed, as though this was something entirely ‘other’. We were absolutely blown away. When it was over, it was immediately too bright to look at so we continued with glances through sunglasses and eclipse glasses as we turned in the direction of Sumburgh, Shetland.
The controller at Vagar had ‘signed off’ shortly before the eclipse, saying there would be a delay in him responding to calls as a gap in the clouds had permitted him to see the eclipse after all – we were very glad for him and the other airport ground staff!
Flight towards Sumburgh was another long over-water stretch and the sea looked very rough, but up high it was calm with beautiful cloud formations to keep us distracted.
I did the IFR radio work coming in to Sumburgh, which was good practice for me, and we heard our friends call in on their way back down from the eclipse centre to Wick. With a significant tailwind it took about 1hr 45mins down to Sumburgh, on top of the 45mins flight we had made around the Islands to view the eclipse.
We had planned to make a brief stop in Sumburgh for fuel and from there to fly on to Bergen on the coast of Norway, but the weather to the East was deteriorating rapidly. We decided that, whilst feasible, the flight would have been unpleasant and probably quite stressful with climbing and descending to avoid weather and icing. We therefore chose to stay for 2 nights in Sumburgh and explore the Shetland Islands instead.
Sumburgh airport is one of the UK’s most remote, but it was surprisingly busy with inter-island commercial flights, oil rig workers going back and forth and search and rescue helicopters stationed there. ‘YC was parked all alone on their final stand, well out of the way and by far the smallest plane on the field!
We were able to hire a car at the airport to help us explore, and we found space at the Sumburgh hotel, which is just up the road from the airport – we could even see YC from the window of our room! We went around to the bird sanctuary at Sumburgh Head and explored the loch and beach at Spiggie. Sumburgh Head is a breeding ground for puffins in June-July, and I am determined to go back and see them! For now there were just thousands of pairs of Kittiwakes and a few cormorants.
The airport has a curious procedure whereby the road goes straight across the runway threshold, so when there is an incoming flight two guys have to come out and close level crossing gates, which flash until the plane is safely out of the way, when the traffic is allowed to continue. We couldn’t help checking the approach path warily as we drove across!
The hotel was very friendly and the food was great – we were mostly joined by oil rig workers and pilots at dinner!
Saturday 21st March
We drove over to the west of the ‘mainland’ to see the more remote areas – every corner we rounded was more stunning, and the roads were almost deserted! We bought a picnic in Lerwick and ate it in the middle of a heath with sheep all around. The weather was gorgeous and sunny, and the wind had died down compared to the previous day. We saw a seal on a rock down on the coast, and laughed at the ‘otters crossing’ sign – the first of its kind that we’ve seen!
I walked round to Sumburgh Head again in the evening – about 30mins along the cliff edge from the hotel. The wind was getting up again and the birds were absolutely everywhere! It is a complete miracle that I didn’t get crapped on.
We could hear the wind whistling outside all night, and the rain started pouring down again – I think this is pretty normal for Shetland, as everything from the car doors to the hotel entrance has a warning about potential for wind damage and a message asking people to take care when opening and closing things! We certainly needed to watch the doors of the plane when getting out at the airport, and J was a bit worried about the plane out in the middle of the apron with gales roaring around it.
We got up early to head back to the airport, prepared for a long trip back to Biggin, but there was some confusion with airport opening times – the information we’d seen said it would be open from 09:45 onwards, but we arrived then and everything was completely locked up, and on calling the tower they advised us that the airfield wouldn’t open until 11am. There was some work going on on the runway threshold with diggers, cranes and other heavy equipment, so it was probably good that we weren’t trying to take off just then!
We decided to go back to the hotel and explore the Jarlshof, a Prehistoric and Norse settlement just in front of the hotel. It has a great audio guide that took us through 4,000 years of history and explained the different construction methods used. The settlement is right on the sea, and it was absolutely freezing and bucketing it down, but amazingly some of the constructions afforded real shelter from the elements, and it was easy to imagine what life might have been like there.
We had a good chat to the owner of the hotel and then headed back to the airport for our second attempt at taking off!
We caused quite a bit of confusion at the terminal by trying to get out to the plane. There was a commercial flight departing shortly after us so the ground team agreed after some consultation that we needed to go through the normal security screening procedures. We have had such a mix of approaches that we were not surprised – some airports will let private pilots in via a side gate if you’re going out to your own aircraft, but we have also experienced the other end of the spectrum in Edinburgh, where they screened us fully and then insisted on accompanying us out to the plane and stowing our ‘hold’ luggage in the plane’s ‘hold’. ‘YC does not actually have a hold, simply a hatch in the back which is fully accessible from within the cabin, but the procedure dictated that hold luggage must go in the hold, so that is what happened!
We started emptying liquids out of our bags at Sumburgh and threw away anything over 100mls. We were preparing to ditch razors as well when the security team changed their mind and decided they wanted us to go onto the apron through the arrivals gate – escorted to make sure we only went to our own plane, but without going through the screening. By this point we were half undressed and it would have been quicker to just go through, especially as the colleague designated to escort us accidentally came through the security doors to our side, thus making himself ‘dirty’ and having to go back through the whole screening process before he was allowed airside to escort us – it makes about as much sense as your inevitable confusion implies!!
When we made it out to the plane, it was still blowing a gale and pouring with rain. We packed up the various bits of equipment, conducted the pre-flight checks and then spent a happy 10mins on the apron contorting ourselves to try and get our immersion suits on again. We could have gone back into the terminal to avoid getting rain on the inside, but were worried that if we accidentally went back through security we might never escape!
The weather was awful for the first hour or so of the flight – thick cloud, we couldn’t see anything and it was raining really hard. The only mercy was no icing, but we were on autopilot and IFR until we reached the Cairngorms. Stunning views of the snowy mountain tops as we flew over, and we even saw some frozen lakes close up. We landed in Dundee, also a beautiful approach looking out over the firth. A quick fuel and loo stop and we were on our way to Biggin again.
I took over voice for the final hour and a bit while J dealt with the bumps flying down at lower level. There was a really strong inversion layer, and it was significantly colder on the ground than at 6,000ft, and Biggin was a lot chillier than Dundee, too, which must be rare!
Fabulous views of the light coming through the cloud and bouncing off the central London skyscrapers as we came on the approach to Biggin. We landed at 17:12 after 3hrs 19mins, and fuelled up and unloaded our stacks of equipment from the plane before driving back home. We did around 16hrs of flying in total – a good boost for J’s logbook hours and an amazing adventure for us both. Thank you ‘YC!
That one will take some beating – challenge accepted 🙂
- ICAO code: EGPK
- Elevation AMSL: 65ft
- Runway direction & length: 12/30 (2,986m) and 03/21 (1,905m)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): £20
- Facilities: Briefing room, toilets, tea & coffee in Flying Club. Further facilities in the main terminal building.
- Transport links: Public bus service runs into Glasgow and the airport has its own train station.
- ICAO code: EGPO
- Elevation AMSL: 26ft
- Runway direction & length: 06/24 (1,000m) and 18/36 (2,315m)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): £19.56
- Facilities: Toilets, cafe & shops in the main terminal
- Transport links: Bus service from Stornoway available Mon-Sat. Otherwise local taxi companies are very responsive and the ride into town is under 15mins.
- ICAO code: EKVG
- Elevation AMSL: 280ft
- Runway direction & length: 12/30 (1799m)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): 180 DKK
- Facilities: Toilets, cafe & shops in the main terminal.
- Transport links: We used a local taxi company to get to Vestmanna, but there is a local bus service from Thorshavn that takes about 30mins.
- ICAO code: EGPB
- Elevation AMSL: 21ft
- Runway direction & length: 15/33 (1,426m) and 09/27 (1,500m)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): £20.65
- Facilities: Toilets, cafe & shops in the main terminal.
- Transport links: Local bus service to Lerwick takes around 40mins. Care hire is available at the airport and is probably the best option if you’re going anywhere else.
- ICAO code: EGPN
- Elevation AMSL: 17ft
- Runway direction & length: 09/27 (1,400m)
- Runway surface: Tarmac
- Landing fee (at time of visiting): £20.65
- Facilities: Toilets, briefing room & tea/coffee available at the flying club.
- Transport links: The airport is about a 5min taxi ride from the train station in central Dundee.