Flying to Guernsey
Plastic Pilot has been planning a trip to Guernsey and I couldn’t help but remember my first flight there. This was also Anne’s first time flying with me. Here is the description I wrote at the time:
It seemed such a good idea. My pilot’s licence was burning a hole in my pocket and I was desperate for chances to use it. My boyfriend’s mother is becoming wheelchair bound and her ability to travel was becoming limited: not because of the flights but because of all the hassle and waiting around. So I came up with a plan: take Anne and her wheelchair for a trip around the Channel Islands. Cliff and I could travel to London the night before and then meet her at Elstree Aerodrome in the morning for the hop across the channel. It’d be a blast.
I knew I was in trouble when the British Airways staff who checked me in for the flight to Heathrow marked my luggage as “heavy”. I compounded this by deciding to leave the case at Elstree Airfield that night, which led to my waking up in a motel with nothing but my flight bag: no shampoo, no hairbrush, no toothbrush, nothing. Just me and the Pooleys UK Flight Guide and a chart. I had planned to call the airfields and check the weather but I’m not a morning person at the best of times; I just couldn’t face it. The Channel Islands CTR is Class A airspace and has 3 pages of instructions in the flight guide. Part of me still suspected they might somehow sense my newness to flying and ban me from coming. I looked out the window instead. The sun was shining. A taxi waited patiently. It was time to go.
That was how I ended up on the apron, sitting in the shadow of the Piper Saratoga, applying mascara without a mirror and wondering if it was too late to cancel. It was. I watched another taxi deposit Cliff’s mother, Anne. She arrived along with her motorised wheelchair and a tiny carry-on bag with everything she needed for the week. I blushed and hid my Samsonite out of the way and made a big show of how heavy her bag was. It weighed slightly more than my make-up bag.
The sky was clear, a church bell chimed in the distance. It felt peaceful. This was in no small amount owing to the fact that the airfield was closed. No coffee, nobody manning the radio, no means of filing a flight plan: we were an hour early.
I eventually called Guernsey out of boredom. A friendly gentleman informed me that the airfield was not accepting flights owing to scattered cloud at 400 feet but that they would be opening soon, once the clouds rose above 600 feet. I paced as I thought about flying at 600 feet over the Channel, searching for an island. Better to wait for the weather to clear a bit more. Anne was pleased to hear she had time for a cup of tea.
An hour later, we were finally organised and at the holding point. “Elstree, November 666 Echo X-ray is ready.”
The radio was strangely quiet. Why wasn’t he letting me proceed?
“Ready for departure,” he prompted me.
“Erm, yes. Sorry. Ready for departure. Echo X-ray.”
I was relieved to see that the weather was fine once we cleared the Isle of Wight. Anne’s crisp voice came through loud and clear on my headset as the English coast retreated from view.
“Does anyone want a biscuit?”
Cliff responded for the both of us. “Not now, Mum. It’s only a short flight.” He shook the map at her, as if she could see it from the rear seat.
I flew straight across the Channel, above the tiny boats motionless on frozen white crests of waves. We’d only been in the air for half an hour when I held up my hand to request quiet as I called Jersey ATC. Despite my fears, I received Special-VFR clearance to enter the Channel Islands zone and was told to fly to the Casquets. I snatched at my map but the spot is clearly marked, a visual reference point to the west to keep planes from overflying Alderney and cluttering up the local traffic lane between Alderney and Guernsey.
“Or some cheese? I have cheese too.” Born in 1924, Anne doesn’t suffer from the traditional war-child malaise of worrying where her next meal comes from. She carries it in her purse.
I gave her a vague wave. I didn’t have time for nibbling. I needed to find the Casquets, My sigh of relief was audible in the cockpit when the three towers perched upon straggly rocks came into view. After changing frequency to Guernsey, I slowed right down so we could get a good look.
Just as we were enjoying the birds’ eye perspective of the sandstone reef, the next call came in: report Guernsey in sight.
I panicked. We were still 15 miles away from the coast. There was a haze of grey land in front of me but did they really believe I could see the runway from this distance?
“I’ve got a bit of chocolate as well,” Anne continued. “As we didn’t have time for breakfast.”
The runway is a mile long; how hard could it be to find? I rubbed my eyes and stared at the rapidly approaching island. I drew out a quick sketch on my clipboard to verify what angle the runway would have from this direction. I looked out at the island and then down at my map and back to the island again. I couldn’t see it.
The radio hissed into life.
“November Echo X-ray, do you have it in sight?”
“I have the island in sight but not the runway.” I look down, as if to confirm the island was definitely there.
As I did I realised, cheeks aglow, that he had meant the island from the start, not the runway. There was a pause before he responded, politely refraining from laughing while the microphone was on.
“November Echo X-ray, we are at your two o’clock. Report airfield in sight.”
I looked to my right, convinced that I was about to run out of island and head straight into France, when I saw it: a beautiful long strip of grey perfectly positioned for me to do a gentle turn towards it and land.
We had arrived. My passengers seemed a lot less surprised by this than I was.
I’ve since taken Anne to the Isle of Wight, the Scilly Isles and most recently, the Isle of Mull. We’re currently discussing which island she’d most like to see next.