Out of control – flying a vintage airplane in Ireland

“Don’t you have to get permission from ATC or someone?” That’s the most common question I get when people discover I launch myself into the sky from a field. Confusion then turns to disbelief when I tell them “nope.” I usually let that little pot of incredulity simmer for a while; sometimes I’ll stir things with a “why would I need permission?” but then I’ll always lift the lid and explain that for much of the flying I do, there’s no need for ATC. People are genuinely surprised at the freedom I have. The idea that flight offers freedom never really crosses people’s minds. Commercial air travel means that a lot of people equate flight with escape – to holiday destinations and warmer climes – but they almost never equate flying with freedom.

Grass runway in Ireland
Take off from here without permission from ATC? Absolutely.

Why would they? Flying with the commercial carriers is more a proposition of logistics than liberty. From the moment you arrive at an airport, you hand over control of your person and parcels in order to be containerized and dispatched swiftly and safely to where you’re going.

For the most part you’re isolated from the actual experience of flying altogether. If you fly with an airline that pays to use the airport’s airstairs, you walk straight from the Duty Free to your aircraft’s seat without even seeing the aeroplane. Apart from the safety briefing and the shove in back of your seat as the aircraft takes off, you’re blissfully unaware that you’re taking part in one of humanity’s great achievements. Magazines, food, in-flight entertainment, and tea in paper cups keep most people distracted from the magic that’s going on outside the window. On landing you’re herded efficiently to baggage reclaim and ultimately pumped out through the doors of the arrivals hall breathing in the fresh new locale feeling like Andy Dufresne as he emerges from the ditch

For those lucky to fly small aeroplanes out of rural fields in the West of Ireland, flying feels nothing like that. Arriving at our little airfield feels more like the closing scene of Shawshank Redemption, where we find Red reunited with Andy, tending to his vessel at some remote idyll. Through the farm gate, there’s a gravel track that parallels the grass runway. It’s bumpy and dusty and it’s a continual battle to keep the potholes in check, but it leads to a little patch of heaven – to a sort of launch-pad to freedom.

At the end of the track is the hangar and a small cabin that the elder wits refer to as the “Old Pilot Day Care Centre.” On a sunny evening, someone will usually be out tending to their vessel at this idyll or getting ready to commit aviation. Around here it’s a case of get busy tinkering or get busy flying… or else put the kettle on.

Here there is no queue for boarding cards, no rushing to fill seats, no ATC slot times to meet, no timetable to fulfill. Is there water in the kettle? Is there milk left? These are the biggest operational concerns at this airport.

Luscombe parked on grass
“There’s not really much more to do other than go flying.”

Despite the apparent nonchalance, safety is still a priority before we think of doing any sort flying. I go through the same sort of ground checks your Ryanair or Aer Lingus crew do even though my little Luscombe is a much simpler machine. Oil and fuel levels are checked and every surface, hinge, cable and wheel are inspected for wear. The Luscombe, like most small aeroplanes, is light enough to move on my own but since there are friends around I borrow a pair of hands to help me push the aeroplane clear of the hangar and the other aircraft parked outside. Other than the cockpit checks to get started, there’s not really much more to do other than go flying.

Startup checks complete, I line up on the runway and increase the power. As grass runways go, ours is lovely, but for those who have never flown like this, the aeroplane undulates, rattles and bounces a little and in just a few seconds we are airborne. As we climb away from the freshly-mown grass, the Luscombe’s shadow appears to fly briefly in formation below us until we peel skyward.

We climb straight ahead for a little while I decide: left for Lough Derg or right for Galway Bay? The hills of south Galway and east Clare sweep cool and shadowy to the south, but I am almost invariably drawn to the light of the evening sun. I bank right, “Galway traffic, Echo Hotel airborne out of Craughwell, south of the field routing towards Galway Bay.” There is no ATC in Galway anymore, but it is the local custom to make a call on the old tower frequency to announce your arrival in the playground.

Luscombe in flight
“It’s an utterly cathartic experience.”

It was cool in the shade of the hangar, but up here at 1500 feet, heading west, the evening sun fills the Luscombe cabin and I fly straight and level for a few minutes, basking in the glow. I don’t know if it’s the warmth of the sun, the beauty of an endless Atlantic horizon or just the sense of being free of the earth but it’s an utterly cathartic experience.

After a little bit of wandering to wherever, our curiosity takes us to a tete-a-tete with the clouds and the Luscombe and I head for home. When the Luscombe’s wheels are reunited with their shadow on the grass, there’s no recorded fanfare or applause; no onward travel announcements, no warnings of errant overhead baggage. We just taxi slowly back to the hangar and shut down the Luscombe’s mighty 100 horsepower engine. It’s been a half an hour’s travelling and we’ve ended right back where we started – in a lush green field, not a control tower in sight; where flight is freedom and the tea is served in real cups.

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8 Comments

  • Eugene, delighted you enjoyed it. It’s real gift and privilege to do the kind of flying we do. I’m glad I was able to share some of it. If you get to visit you know exactly what I’m talking about 😉
    I’ll drop you a line later.
    Regards,
    David

  • Been to Ireland twice and have wondered what the procedure might be to find a light plane to rent having a US license. If I could get my wife to agree, I would like to spend the whole summer there and experience light plane flying. She’s very nervous about it because I told her the next time I go to Ireland I am not coming home. In general, is it really as easy there as it is here to just blast off and go sightseeing? I’m starting to drool.

  • We’re a bit lean on flying training organizations but Eugene’s advice is solid. Around Dublin has quite a bit of controlled airspace but other than that we have plenty of airspace to play in even if the county itself is quiet small.

    There are plenty some regional airfields and lots of small grass fields – we thing 1900ft is big.

    Follow up on Eugene’s link to start with. and you’ll have a good start point for your research.

  • David,

    I really enjoyed your article —. It brings back fond memories. I’m a U.S. pilot (with lots of family connections to Ireland); my favorite flying over the past few years has been in Ireland. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet and fly with some wonderful and gracious CFIs in different parts of Ireland over the past number of years. It has always been wonderful. The aviation community is a kind and welcoming group in Ireland – as well as in the US. Hopefully, I’ll be able to repay them, or pay it forward, at some point in the future. W/r/t your response to Louie McGinnis — it was my understanding that a U.S. pilot with a current medical could fly a US registered plane in Ireland. [Of course, the problem is finding a US registered plane whose owner is willing to let you use it!] Also, I’ve recently heard that a US pilot with a current ICAO-recognized medical would also be able to fly an Irish registered aircraft. I’m not sure what, if any, level of US medical might be recognized in Ireland – I haven’t had the chance to research that yet.

    David, keep on flying and writing about it. Perhaps I’ll run into you on one of my trips to Ireland.

    Richard, thank you for sharing you knowledge, experience and wisdom with us all over the years.

    John Reynolds

  • John, thank you, I’m delighted you enjoyed the piece.

    As you’ve experienced there is some special flying to be had here in Ireland. We may not have the largest or most interesting fleet but we do have some of the most free and easy flying you’ll find in Europe.

    I would offer more advice on flying here with a FAA license but I know there were changes to some areas of licensing recently so I would definitely talk to a training organisation for up-to-date info. That said, it was case and it may still be that a FAA rated/medicaled pilot could fly an N-reg machine

    The winter’s closing in here so the moments aloft are getting scarcer but that gives me more time to write 🙂 Please keep up with my flying and writing over at my website and do get in touch if you’re coming over agin.

    David

  • Gentlemen,

    Permit me to offer a work-around.

    With your FAA License & Medical, apply to Transport Canada for a Canadian Private license. The TC license is to the ICAO standard.

    Foreign licence validation certificate (for recreational pilots)
    Visitors to Canada may have a foreign pilot licence validated for private recreational purposes. The foreign pilot licence must be valid:

    under the law of the issuing state, and
    for privileges appropriate to the reason you’re flying
    You may apply for a foreign licence validation certificate before arriving in Canada. The certificate will be issued for a period of one year. After a year you may renew it or apply for a permanent Canadian pilot licence.

    To learn more about the certificate, including how to apply, read Advisory Circular 400-003: Foreign Licence Validation
    Certificate.https://www.tc.gc.ca/eng/civilaviation/opssvs/general-personnel-usconversion-1806.htm

    Voila you can fly and Irish Aircraft in Ireland.

    Eugene

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