Flying to the Isles of Scilly

I took my time arranging the next island trip. After arriving home from the Channel Islands, Anne had suffered a heart attack. I felt guilty at my immediate reaction: thank God it didn’t happen in the plane!

I knew she was feeling better when she started nagging me about our next trip. Which island and when, she wanted to know.

“Are you sure your doctor thinks it’s safe to fly?
“I don’t care what my doctor thinks!”

She made it clear to me that she did not intend to sit at home waiting for the next medical issue to arise. It was, she told me, the right time for her to take risks.

So we planned the flight to the Isles of Scilly. Cliff brought the plane into Elstree and rather unfortunately, went off the end of the runway. The repairs were straight-forward and quick but he managed to get quite a bit of teasing at the airfield. Cliff grimaced and pointed at me. “That’s why she’s flying.” The men laughed a bit too heartily for my tastes.

I often have an urge to dress as unprofessional as possible – mini-skirt and 3-inch stilleto heels, Madonna-style corset (maybe not, with my tummy) and bright red lipstick. I can’t really justify this other than a desire to mess with peoples heads and challenge their stereotypes but I was tempted again that morning, all dolled up before climbing into the left seat. But then I always hear Tom’s voice in my head: “If there was a fire in the cockpit, what would you do then? No protection on your legs and unusable shoes. You deserve what you get.”

So I dressed sensibly in long trousers and flat boots.

Once at the airfield I got out the map and my ruler, plotting a route across the southwest to the Isles of Scilly.

I resisted the urge to make it a sightseeing tour – Stonehenge, Salisbury, Avebury, etc, and instead did a sensible and correct route … on the third try, after lots of cursing about danger areas and prohibited zones.

The sky looked to be full of cloud so I was going to have to fly low. There are three primary issues you must into account when deciding what height to plan a VFR flight in the UK:

  1. The relative height of the ground
  2. Keeping clear of cloud
  3. The quadrantal rule

The quadrantal rule splits the compass into four parts and you choose a height depending on the direction in which you are flying. Presuming everyone uses the rule, it means that there will never be oncoming traffic at the same height as you: clever, huh?

Specifically, a track between 000-089 has an odd flight level, so you can fly at an altitude of 3,000 feet or 5,000 feet above sea level but not 4,000 feet. A track between 090-179 is odd flight level plus 500 feet, so you could choose to fly at 3,500 or 5,500 feet. 180-269 is even flight levels and 270-359 is even flight levels plus 500 feet.

This applies only to flights outside of controlled airspace and is mandatory for IFR flights and recommended for VFR. Note: most of mainland Europe uses the semi-circular rule instead. This is the same concept but you must make sure you know the system in use for the country in which you are flying.

So based on the quadrantal rule, we needed to be at either 2,500 feet (a little lower than I felt comfortable with) or 4,500 feet above sea level. As I was planning, I heard a light aircraft which I decided was a good sign that the clouds were breaking up. I decided on 4,500 feet.

The clouds didn’t break up.

In the end we did it as a low-level flight, 2,400 feet above sea level most of the way because that was quite simply as high as we could get without flying into cloud.

I enjoyed a guilty pleasure at the view but it was a stressful flight – all of the VFR flights were pressed down by the weather and the radio buzzed constantly.

There was one radio call that has stuck in my mind:

“Can you state your destination again?”

“St Mary’s, Scilly!”

I turned bright red as I realised how it sounded. Cliff and Anne both cracked up laughing but the controller seemed to understand what I meant.

St Mary’s won my affection before we even arrived. The controller greeted me and asked if I would like to do an anti-clockwise circuit of the islands. We descended to 1,000 feet and took in the archipelago, an awesome sight-seeing tour that I wouldn’t have thought to ask for.

Once parked, someone came out to greet us and offered to order a taxi for us. Or possibly the taxi – certainly everyone was on a first name basis with Graham, our driver. He agreed to take us to pick up a buggy for Anne (Cliff had tried to rent a car but to no avail – not even a black-market vehicle was to be had) and then to Schooners hotel.

A man flagged him down as we drove away from the airfield.

“Graham, she’s looking for you. She said you have your phone off.”

“I do,” said Graham with a grin and shrug and drove off.

We pulled up in front of the hotel. A man stopped at the sight of us unpiling our stuff out of the cab. “Schooners,” he said. It wasn’t a question. “You’ll be lucky if there is anyone there.” He shrugged and helped us carry the bags in. Keith, who had taken our booking, was there as planned and happily greeted our helper.

“Hello, Ron.”

“One room for the three of us,” Ron said with a wink, his glance encompassing Anne and me.

“No problem,” said Keith, “top floor”

“No chance,” said Ron. “I’ll take these bags up one floor and that’s my limit.”

(Our trip on the Isles of Scilly will be continued next Friday so be sure to pop by!)

Category: British Islands,

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