Birdsong is an unusual accompaniment at a UK airport, but then Elstree Aerodrome is an unusual place to be a passenger on a domestic flight.
I don’t recall ever having heard the chirrups of sparrows at Heathrow, Britain’s gateway to the world. But 15 miles north-north-east from Europe’s busiest airport, Elstree aerodrome is a rural backwater whose tranquility is infrequently interrupted by the urgent rasp of a single-engine aircraft lining up to take off.
The location, midway between Watford and Borehamwood, and barely half-a-mile from the M1, sounds less than idyllic. But as transport terminals for Greater London go, it is the best I have experienced.
You will look in vain for Elstree in the planet’s aviation schedules, because it is strictly a venue for General Aviation — private flying, in propellor planes, rather than those noisy jets. You and I would normally not get a look in to this world of reasonably well-heeled individuals. But thanks to a match-making website called Wingly, a world of new opportunities opens up.
Here's the idea. Private pilots with light aircraft ranging from two to six seats are zipping across the UK — and beyond — all the time. As with private cars, there is often a lot of spare capacity being moved around. While terrestrially those assets have traditionally been filled from time to time by hitch-hikers, pilots like to know a little more about potential passengers.
So Wingly aims to connect aviators with amateurs like me who need to get from A to B but have some flexibility about where A and B happen to be, and can work around the pilot’s timing. For the passenger it promises an exhilarating experience along with transportation. And for the pilot? Carrying one or more passengers helps keep the cost of their indulgence down. It's the Airbnb of aviation.
On the website, you can survey the flights available. “London” covers a multitude of departure points, from Fairoaks in Surrey to North Weald in Essex. Flights may be sightseeing jaunts, on which the pilot is boosting his or her hours in the air; there-and-back excursions, hopping across to the Isle of Wight or crossing the Channel to Le Touquet; or, as I had booked, a one-way business trip.
You can also bid for a flight — saying roughly where you need to be, and when, and hoping that one of the flying community is willing to help. I needed to be in Bristol on Monday, so kept it as open as possible. Unlike someone on the site right now, who needs to fly from Herne Bay to Dundee on 6 June, I kept the options open. Anywhere significantly west of London would do, including South Wales and Somerset.
On the basis of just one bid, I can’t say how fortunate I was, but one pilot - a businessman with commitments in the Somerset area - responded. (Wingly is a respectful community, so I won’t use his name.) He could indeed fly me to Bristol. Probably.
“The pilot has no obligation to undertake the flight if the conditions are not optimal.”
That is one of a number of rules and procedures that Wingly imposes to keep the experience safe. Most of them are obvious: no smoking, don’t bring anything dangerous or illegal, and don’t touch any of the controls — even the door lock, unless the pilot instructs you.
The organisation also requires a scan of your passport, even if you are going no further than the west of England. Unlike commercial flights, you have to specify your weight, and that of your baggage, in advance, so the pilot can make weight-and-balance calculations.
Because you are sharing the direct costs of the flight — fuel, air navigation, landing charges — rather than the onerous costs of ownership and maintenance, you get a good deal. I paid £104 — almost exactly the same as GWR wanted for an Anytime one-way ticket from London to Bristol. But goodness, it was a lot more fun.
Forewarned by Wingly that “Passengers are not used to going to places such as aerodromes”, I allowed plenty of time for the trip — with a Jubilee line Tube to the end of the line at Stanmore, then along Watling Street, across the M1 and beside Aldenham Country Park to Dagger Lane and the amiable shambles of hangars, huts and taxiways that is Elstree Aerodrome.
I wasn't especially hopeful of making the trip, since the weather forecast was dismal, with low cloud and stiff winds. But the pilot, who has been flying since he was 17, turned out to be IFR rated — in other words, he can fly using instruments only in cloud. He had filed a flight plan, and we were to take off at 10am.
“It’s a work tool,” he said as he inspected the immaculate exterior of his single engine Mooney aircraft (made by a Texan company whose founder vowed to “Make it strong. Make it simple. Make it fast”).
“Like a car, only much faster.”
Unlike a car, there are a lot of pre-flight checks to be made.
You are handed a headset with a microphone, but no idle chit-chat, thank you: your duty as passenger is to sit quietly while the expert runs through the checklist. But once the journey begins, your duty is to have the time of your life.
The tiny control tower at Elstree cleared us for take-off; the motor did its best to roar; and we set off up a surprisingly steep gradient. But before the plane reached the 70mph that motorists on the M1 just ahead were doing, we were airborne. “She simply wants to fly,” the pilot later said.
We flew over the morning misery of the motorway, traversed Watford and rose high above Rickmansworth — to the staccato soundtrack of controllers choreographing the busiest skies in the world.
Once airborne, the private plane is a peer to the Jumbo jet and the Airbus A380. Alpha Lima took her place on the radar screens alongside all the normal Monday traffic — identified by their “Easy“, “Ryanair” and “Speedbird” callsigns (the last being British Airways). While the three-dimensional chess involving thousands of passengers in their Boeings and Airbuses was played out, we were cleared to 7,000 feet.
The Berkshire meadows gave way to the Wiltshire downs, which then faded to grey — we were entirely surrounded by cloud, which felt suddenly disorientating in the unfamiliar location of the sharp end of a plane. I started thinking about all the transatlantic traffic taking off from Heathrow and pictured 777s and 747s bearing down on us. But the pilot was ice-cool and professional, even as crystals of ice started to form on the wings and the windscreen. “We’ll keep an eye on the build-up and I may ask to descend.”
On the pilot's tablet computer, I could keep an eye on progress. The speed settled at around 145 knots, around 167 mph across the ground. Not only is this one-third faster than GWR can manage on a good day, you don’t have to stop at Reading, Didcot Parkway, Swindon, Chippenham and Bath Spa. And unlike Brunel’s bendy railway to Bristol, we were going almost arrow-straight for the city's Lulsgate airport.
Ten minutes from touchdown, the pilot stipulated no talking once again. So I could just enjoy the gradual shattering of the cloud cover and the ice crystals as we descended, and listen to the Bristol tower controller assuring us we were “number one for landing” on Runway 27. (There’s only one runway, but this means the approach from the east; 09 is when you arrive from the west). While landing is the trickiest part of any flight for the pilot, for a front-seat passenger it's the best bit'; the pilot made it look a breeze, right through to the exciting experience of landing uphill at a major regional airport.
An easyJet Airbus obediently waited for us to turn off the runway, which we duly did — but headed south, to the General Aviation terminal rather than north to the commercial buildings to the north.
My friend Dave was waiting to meet me (he has a car, which is a good thing when you find yourself on the “wrong“ side of an airport from the buses).
“It’s the only way to travel,” I declared, excitedly and inaccurately. There are, after all, loads of ways to get from London to Bristol. This one just happens to be at least twice as fast as, and a million times more fun than, the alternatives.
I am already planning my next trip. “Short Local over Woking and Guildford”? Perhaps not. My dream destination right now is Carrickfinn in County Donegal, just voted the second-most scenic airport landing in the world (after a Caribbean island, which I think is unfair competition). If the landing is spectacular in a commercial plane, I want a front seat view.
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