Kidlington Airfield, now known as Oxford Airport, has been in use since the 1930s. Their training history began in World War II when it was used as a training centre for Royal Air Force pilots. Today, even with a downturn in new pilots, 73% of their traffic is training flights. Their circuit can get very full. I once ended up in the circuit with half a dozen planes of different speeds, desperately trying to stay ahead of the jet and not overtake the Cessnas. Regardless of the stresses, I’ve found that Oxford ATC remains consistently pleasant, helpful and actively on the look-out for problems so that they can help the pilots avoid them.
I know the airfield well because Oxford is where I did my conversion to complex, soon after completing my PPL. At the time, every circuit was a struggle as I tried to comprehend the speed and weight of the Saratoga after learning in Cessna 172s. But it was back on the ground where I had the most trouble.
After a few hours in the air, my instructor said he was happy for me to take the Saratoga up on my own after a break. Circuits still felt a rush, much like when I started flying, but I was starting to feel like it might be just about under control.
We stopped at the pumps to fill her up. The instructor had another student waiting, so was in a rush. “You can taxi it back OK, right?”
Having just agreed to take the beast out solo I could hardly claim that I needed help moving it from the fuel tanks to my parking spot. I gave him a brave grin. “I’ll be fine, you go!”
He bounded away while I glared at the plane, daring it to embarrass me in public. I went through the complete start-up checks, as if I were about to take it to Japan. Then I took a deep breath and started the engine. So far, so good. My transit across the airfield was approved and I drove at a slow speed, feeling in control for the first time that day.
Except that someone had parked next to my parking space. Not in it but next to it, in such a way that I had to navigate behind it, between the other plane’s tail and a large fence, to get to my spot.
I looked around hopefully: maybe that somebody was about to leave. No such luck, no pilot near. I had just about decided to swing around and park over by the flying school planes, when I noticed three young guys looking at my plane. Watching me, as I vacillated and blocked up the taxi way trying to work out what to do, no doubt wondering what such a little girl was doing in so much Saratoga.
I looked at my parking space again. It was totally accessible if I slipped in between the plane and the fence and then did a hard right; I couldn’t fault the pilot’s parking. I looked at the young guys again and felt an irrational surge of pride. I’ll swing it right in, park it perfectly, that’ll show them!
That’ll show them, indeed. I pulled around, keeping extra far from the other plane, worried about my low wing clipping his tail. Then I realised that I had overcompensated: the left wing was dangerously close to the corner of the fence. I pondered for a moment, should I just go for it and hope? Even I wasn’t that fool-hardy: I cut the engine and got out to look.
I couldn’t carry on: my left wing was clearly going to clip the fence. I needed to push back but I knew there was no chance I could budge it on my own: I’d taken the engine to over 2000 RPM just to get it to roll forward on the grass.
I glanced at the guys but they were now deep in conversation. Did they really not notice my problem? Or were they sniggering quietly? I looked around again in desperation. At that moment, a good looking, dark-haired man came towards me.
He called out. “Need me to move my plane?”
I waited until he reached me to shake my head, no. “That’s not going to help at this stage.”
He grinned. “No, it won’t. What are you going to do?”
Various pitiful answers went through my head but I simply said, “I’m going to have to push it back,” like this were within the realms of possibility.
He nodded; I felt like I’d passed some sort of test.
“I’ll help you,” he told me. We positioned ourselves either side of the propeller and I was about to push for all I was worth when he shouted at the young guys still standing in the car park.
“Hey, give us a hand here.”
They dashed over. “Anything for a damsel in distress,” said my new friend with a wink. With a single heave the plane rolled back. I was clear for another go.
“I’ll marshal you in,” he said as I climbed into the cockpit. The three guys smiled and waved and retreated back to the parking lot. I started up and he guided me straight through the gap and into my spot.
“Nice parking,” said my instructor as I walked into the school. He’d watched it all through the picture window.
“One word about women drivers and I’ll kill you,” I snapped, making a bee-line for the coffee machine. “I said I could do circuits solo, I never said a word about taxiing.”
An hour later, the guys were still in the car park, chatting away. Not a snigger in sight.
I climbed into the plane and wondered why I was so quick to sabotage myself. If I’d asked one of them to guide me in when I saw them glancing at the plane, it would have looked professional and competent – as opposed to having to push the plane by brute force.
I considered that maybe I was my own worst enemy and taxied away.
Of course these days, I don’t have that problem. I simply make a point of hanging out at airfields with bigger parking spaces: