Most folks en-route to Heathrow Airport from London have no idea what gems they’re zipping past. If you’ve got an adventurous spirit and some spare time prior to hurling yourself into Heathrow’s labyrinth, visit nearby Wycombe Air Park, an active World-War II airfield, and fly a Cessna low over the astonishing manors of the past and current Prime Ministers of England.Recently, David was on a business trip to England and, with some time on his hands before his departure back home, he rented a car and paid a visit to Wycombe Air Park, a World-War II field that has been adopted for General Aviation use, about a 30 minute drive from Heathrow. He then rounded off the day with a trip to the nearby hamlet of Hambleden. Here’s his experience, in his own words:
When I got to Wycombe Air Park, the airport was closed because the tower was short-staffed and the controller was having lunch. Not even taxiing or fueling is allowed when the tower is closed.
I’ve learned that this is a procedure unique to this airport. In fact, there are so many unique procedures at this airport that pilots from other UK airports refuse to come here. They get almost no transient traffic (2 or 3 per year). But the tower was expected to open within 30 minutes, so they assigned me a very young pilot and we went off in a Cessna 152. They have a single paved runway, with the only taxiway entering it from one end. It is, obviously, called Taxiway Alpha. But look at this sign: Taxiway Alpha has 3 hold-short lines along it’s length. When the controller says “Taxi Runway 25 via Alpha 3” he means: use taxiway alpha, but hold short at the A3 hold-line. You see: gliders fly across this taxiway at 10 feet when landing on the grass. Yet another local concept.
It was a beautiful 45-minute flight. The young “instructor” was very impressed by my skills. I was flattered until I realized that he thought this was my first time in a plane (Note: David has 30+ years as a GA pilot!). This area is where the Rich and Famous live. For example, the house you see below is the home of Tony Blair (an ex Prime Minister of England): And here is the “Summer Home” of the Rothschild Family. They, apparently, own most of the Banks in England: And lastly, here is another “Summer Home”. This one belongs to Theresa May – the current Prime Minister of England: Even though the Prime Minister was at home, there were no airspace restrictions around any of these homes. The instructor told me that they often fly down to 500 feet over the house, but – as a matter of courtesy – they call the house to ask permission. It’s never been denied. Upon landing, he showed me the bulletin on the wall where they have the phone numbers of all the famous houses in the area.
They have this funny concept of Q-codes in Europe. Apparently everywhere in the world accept Canada and the USA. Upon takeoff the controller told us: QNH 1001. When we set our altimeter to 1001 (millibars – not inches of mercury like we use) it showed our field elevation of 500 feet. So far, so good. While returning to the airport, however, the controller said “QFE 996” (not QNH like he did before). So, while flying around at 2000 above sea level, I set the altimeter to 996 and it was suddenly showing 1500 feet. At this QFE setting (instead of the QNH setting) the altimeter was showing altitude above the runway. So when we landed it said zero (not 500 feet). At another point, when we first called to re-enter the zone, he told us “QDM 140”. This isn’t about the altimeter. It means to fly a direction of 140 degrees magnetic to get to the airport. Apparently there are dozens of these “Q-codes” one has to learn.
After I landed, the controller said “Vacate Left” (they don’t say “exit”). I continued to taxi along the runway, expecting to see a taxiway. No. Another local procedure is to simply exit the runway onto the grass. There is no taxiway off the runway. Outbound aircraft taxi on the pavement. Inbound aircraft taxi on the grass between the runway and the grass strip used by the gliders. I earned my “First Flight” certificate:
After my skyward adventure, I drove through narrow passages… past fields of dangerous beasts … and avoided more than one diabolical maize … to arrive at the charming hamlet of Hambleden.The town, of course, has it’s requisite church: And the few classic English Gardens: But it’s most famous for the enormous manor house of Lord Cardigan. It’s similar to the houses I photographed from the air. The entrance is secured with a formidable wall, an iron gate, and two burly security guards who forbade me to take a picture. After some negotiation, I was permitted to photograph the name-plate on the gate:Yes. This IS the same Cardigan after who we have named the clothing apparel. That is according to Cathy – a local woman who was sitting at the bus stop across from the entrance. It was an ancestor of the current Lord Cardigan of course – but living at this same manor. According to Cathy, this ancestor led a couple of famous battles in the 1800’s and dressed his soldiers in button-up sweaters. I’m not completely sure that the story is true as Cathy had a bit of a twinkle in her eye as she told it to me. But a quick search on Wikipedia did seem to confirm that the sweater is named after an Earl Cardigan, who was a military man from the mid 1800’s….
So there you have it: an interesting, off-the-beaten path adventure en-route to Heathrow! David leaves you with this witticism:
Did you know that the British have an official Garden Police?
Yes. They call it Lawn and Order.