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It was a crisp, clear January day.  When I arrived at the airport the frost was glistening on the wings of the plane, the temperature had just risen above freezing and the warmth of the sun was just beginning to render some hope that it might become flyable that day.

Scilly Isles

A unique place to fly – Land’s End in southwest England.

The day before I had flown down to St Just Airport at Land’s End, the southernmost airport on the mainland UK. As a newly-minted private pilot, the flight had been quite a challenge. A winter cold front was approaching with lowering cloud bases and poor visibility but one of my best friends was getting married that evening and I just had to be there. After all, that was what I got my license for.

Now here I have to digress a little and explain that across most of the UK there is no high ground. The highest mountain is Ben Nevis and that is way up in Scotland and rises to a majestic 4000 feet but in the south of England you are struggling to find anything over a few hundred feet elevation. Add to that the airspace restrictions that have class A airspace down to the surface around London and then rising slowly through 1500′ and 2500′ as the airways spread out from Heathrow and Gatwick, it was not at all unusual for a pilot like me to have never flown above 3000 feet. So a 250 mile flight down to the West Country at 2000′ descending to 1000′ under a low overcast was interesting but not outside of my comfort level.

Getting back to the day in question, it isn’t often that you get those really sharp clear days in England, pollution from the industrial regions of Northern Europe combined with a very moist atmosphere more often than not leads to poor visibility even on the sunniest of days, but this day was different. The cold front had passed during the night and the crisp, clear air promised a beautiful flight if only I could get the frost off the wings.

By noon things were looking good. Although the air temperature was still only just above freezing, most of the frost had melted off the wings in the direct sunlight and with a little bit of help from a window scraper that I had borrowed from a helpful motorist I felt my AA5 Traveler was ready for flight. The layout at Land’s End airport is interesting. There are four intersecting grass runways and a kind of hump in the middle of the field that means you always feel that whichever way you are pointing you are on a very short runway. Today that was not an issue, the little Traveler with its 150 hp Lycoming was off the ground in no time at all and climbing away at nearly 1000 fpm in the crisp cold air.

It simply took my breath away.

I couldn’t get enough of the view. I kept climbing way out of my comfort zone until I reached the giddy heights of 7000 feet, by far the highest I had ever been. From there I could see almost the whole of Southern England, I picked out towns that I recognized, I saw the Isle of Wight way off in the distance. Everything was crystal clear in a way that I had never seen before and have never seen since.

Thinking back on my many years of flying and all that I have experienced, I will never forget that day. The simple beauty, the breathtaking views, the exhilaration, the sense of privilege. Nothing untoward happened; there were no in-flight emergencies. I didn’t bust any regs or upset any controllers but, when I look back on thousands of hours flying all over the world, that was a truly memorable flight.

This is one of my memories. I hope that you enjoyed it and will share one of yours.

Editor’s note: share your memorable flight below in the comments section, or write an article and email it to [email protected]

Stephen Gray
Latest posts by Stephen Gray (see all)
9 replies
  1. John
    John says:

    A few years back my wife and I were flying a 152 from Louisville to Mansfield, OH to visit a friend. We were 3 or 4 thousand, VFR with flight following, in southern Ohio headed north when Columbus approach had us climb to about 7k. We flew directly over Port Columbus at that altitude and I remember seeing the airliners landing and departing directly beneath us. At that altitude in a 152, sensation of speed all but goes away. Just another way in which flying is magical.

  2. Fred
    Fred says:

    The day was great, the winds at 40,000ft. and 100,000ft. were just OK, if I was to make it to 100,000ft. Acceleration with the rocket at 37,000ft to Mach 1.3 was right on. At Mach 1.7, I fired the rocket and started a pull to 45 degrees, rocket burned out at about 85,000ft and I coasted over the top at 106,000ft. Started the main engine at 45,000ft and circled to land at main base. A great day.

      • Fred
        Fred says:

        To Stephen, more detail. For pictures, google NF-104 and I think there are pictures. It’s hard to take pictures when you are In a full pressure suit. For more detail, the aircraft is a NF-104, which is a F-104A modified with a G model tail and 2 ft wing extensions to house the reaction jets. You also have reaction jets in the nose to control your attitude above 85,000ft. Take off is normal with a climb out to 35,000 or 37,000ft. You start the acceleration and use the rocket to help get through the high drag rise at Mach 1 and then shut it down. The main engine is a J-79. Continue acceleration out to about Mach 1.8 and then fire the rocket, it’s an AR-6, same engine as used on the X-43 research plane. As you accelerate to Mach 2.0+, you pull the nose up to 45 degrees, shut the J-79 down at about 70,000 so it does not overtemp and the rocket shuts down around 95,000 ft. You coast over the top at whatever altitude your energy gives you. In this case it was 106,000ft. You would like to have tailwind on the run in to increase your energy and a headwind at the high point, but due to local considerations, it was just the opposite. It’s all flying regardless of how high or fast you go. I prefer sailplanes.

  3. Robert West
    Robert West says:

    Second flying lesson.J-3 Cub. Beautiful Saturday morning. The IP is teaching me spiral dives, gives me the stick and says climb to 2000′ and then do one. At 2000′ I push it over and begin. Suddenly there is silence and a stationary propeller in my windshield.
    Long story short we dead sticked onto a farmers field, got some waterless gas and returned to home station.
    Lesson ? Always check for H2O in gas B4 T.O.

  4. Don R
    Don R says:

    Well, I will not try to compete with Fred. My most memorable was much closer to the ground. We departed Grand Canyon National airport and headed out over the Grand Canyon on a calm clear day. We made our way up the Colorado river at about 8000 ft. (back when that was legal) all the way up to the Glen Canyon Dam. We did a little sightseeing over Lake Powell and landed at Page. It was beautiful.

  5. Dan
    Dan says:

    “As a newly-minted private pilot, the flight had been quite a challenge. A winter cold front was approaching with lowering cloud bases and poor visibility but one of my best friends was getting married that evening and I just had to be there. After all, that was what I got my license for.´´
    Sounds like the introduction to a NTSB report …

  6. Dan Fregin
    Dan Fregin says:

    One just happened Friday: My replacement got his 25 hour insurance reqmt so I rode in the back first time in 13 years with this plane. And my last trip after 43+ years as a ‘pro’ pilot. Neat way to retire. Email me at [email protected] for info on all (100+) my stories.

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