Brookman’s Park VOR (BPK)

25 Sep 09 14 Comments

I shouldn’t have hopped the fence.

It was shut with a big padlock and surrounded by barbed wire so I can’t exactly claim that I hadn’t noticed it.

Locked
But I’d walked such a long way – 5 miles! – just to take some photographs for my blog, it seemed such a shame to give up at the last hurdle. There was no one else there so it wasn’t like I was getting in anyone’s way. And it wasn’t like there was anyone to tell me off – just me and some cows off in the distance.

I didn’t know that they were guard cattle.

But let me start at the beginning…

Brookmans Park is a small village in Hertfordshire, population 3,475. There isn’t much exciting to say about the place: the locals are friendly, the Indian restaurant is divine, the village green is pleasant in nice weather.

However, pilots who fly around southeast England will recognise the name as home to the Brookmans Park VOR (BPK) which is used by aircraft flying in and out of the London area.

When I found out that I was going to be trapped visiting family staying locally for a few days, I immediately thought of BPK and wondered if I could actually visit a VOR and find out what they look like.

A VOR (VHF Omni-directional Radio) beacon is a navigational aid which broadcasts on a specific radio frequency in such a way that a pilot can get a bearing from the VOR to her aircraft.

Patrick Flannigan has a better explanation of this on Aviation Chatter: How VORs Really Work and you can even test it out yourself on his VOR / ADF Navigation Simulator.

If you want to know the detail, the Wikipedia article on VORs is probably the best single reference:VHF omnidirectional range

You can also read about how pilots use VOR’s on Plastic Pilot’s guide: Flying VORs For Dummies

Path to Brookman's Park VOR
It turned out that the Brookman’s Park VOR is not actually located in the village but a few miles east near Epping Green. The weather was glorious and I needed an excuse to get out of the house thought a walk would do me good, so I made my way there, walking along the country roads and enjoying the mild weather.

I used a hand-held GPS and reached the location after about 2 hours gentle strolling.

That’s when I discovered that the VOR was in a field, surrounded by a fence with two padlocked gates.

Fence around Brookman's Park VOR
It seemed so sad. I could see the field and the VOR and a herd of cattle grazing in the distance. I considered my situation for a few moments and then convinced myself that the fence was merely to keep the cattle in, surely not to keep me out. Besides, I wasn’t going to do any harm. I just wanted a closer look at the VOR.

So I clambered over the fence with my camera in hand.

Brookman's Park VOR
The ground was firm beneath my feet and the sun warmed my shoulders. A light breeze carried the scent of freshly-cut grass to me. The bird song was only interrupted by the roar of the engines overhead. If I had any chance of forgetting my purpose in coming to this lovely location, the air traffic would make sure I was reminded.

Jet Traffic into London
I was taught to avoid routing directly overhead popular VORs and VRPs when flying VFR as it is simply concentrating the traffic into a single place but I haven’t thought about in a long time. This was the first time I had a visual.

There was never any question of danger, the separation was more than enough but it did feel a bit like Grand Central Station above my head as various low planes from all directions flew straight towards the VOR.

Traffic Overhead
I admit it: I regularly plug a route into the GPS, jumping from VOR to VOR in a dot-to-dot pattern to ensure I don’t get lost. Max Trescott recently wrote about flight safety and indentifying local hotspots and standing at the VOR, I could see exactly what he meant.

This was one.

Despite the traffic, it was a pastoral scene, the golden colours of September all around me, the cattle lowing and a blackbird singing in the distance. I walked closer to the VOR.

It was much bigger than I expected. I stepped around the cow pats and peered up at the phased array antenna. BPK looked both old-fashioned and futuristic, like something I might see in a 1950s sci-fi film.

Close-up of Brookman's Park VOR
I walked up to the fencing surrounding the structure and began talking close-up photographs when I realised that the cows were getting louder.

The two clumps of cattle I’d seen off in the distance had joined forces and come to deal with the intruder.

Of course, I didn’t realise this immediately. I simply thought that they happened to be wandering my way. I took a few more photographs, thinking the juxaposition of the cattle and the VOR would make for an interesting contrast.

Curious Cattle
The cows kept on coming. Now in my defence, I’m very much a city girl. I grew up in Los Angeles where there is not a lot of wildlife to be found, unless you count pigeons.

So I still did not realise that there was an issue. I thought the cows were interesting and I was pleased for the great opportunity for some nature shots. I looked for a clean bit of grass and knelt down, taking a few more photographs before I realised …

Attack Cattle
…that they were coming after me.

I smiled nervously and gave the cows a little wave. This had no effect at all. I decided that perhaps I had outstayed my welcome. I assured them that I was on my way and that I hoped they had a pleasant afternoon.

I turned my back. Mistake. Never turn your back on a herd of guard cows.

I heard the trotting of running cattle behind me.

I spun around and they screeched to a halt, a few yards behind me, chewing in a melancholy way, pretending that they weren’t after me.

Killer Fast Running Attack Cattle
I turned to continue walking to the gate. I heard the hooves thud against the grass. I whirled towards them and they stopped again, blinking innocently.

I began walking backwards, keeping an eye on what I now knew were killer attack cattle, ready to defend the VOR against all intruders.

They stumbled forward, slowly closing the gap between us. When I felt the cool touch of shade of the trees, I knew I was close to the gate. I turned around and made a run for it.

Cattle at the Fence
I had no idea I was capable of hopping a fence in a single bound but I’m glad for it.

The cows clustered at the fence and stared at me. They didn’t make a sound but the message was clear:

AND STAY OUT
“AND STAY OUT.”

I assured the guard cattle that I had every intention of respecting fences in the future. Then I edged my way backwards until I was safe on the main road and I made my way back to civilisation.

And people tell me General Aviation is dangerous!

14 Comments

  • Great post! My theory though is that these are mutant cows: over time their brains and genome got affected by the close proximity to the high-power VHF emitter. Do they walk across the field along radials? Did they attack you with a 30-degree intercept angle? You may just have discovered a new mammal species, the instrument-rated cow.

  • In the rush you probably had only few seconds, but have you noticed if the cows had NATS ID cards ? They surely seem more efficient to more efficient than the second fence we see on your picture to protect the VOR.

    I admire your courage to get so close to a possibly access restricted area. Thank for your report.

  • Julien: You owe me a mouthful of coffee and a new keyboard. I was already laughing but the 30-degree intercept killed me.

    PP: They sure were more efficient: I wonder if the TSA has looked into these?

  • I wish I had a VOR nearby so that I could escape the in-laws once in a while! :)

    The ‘hotspot’ issue at BPK (and also nearby BNN, LAM and BKY) is that the airspace structure over London forces a lot of VFR traffic over it even if they are trying to avoid flying directly over the VOR.

    That said, one of my favourite things as a student pilot was navigating to a VOR accurately enough to them so that I could spot the VOR circle on the ground! :)

  • Thanks for the mentions! I wish I could take credit for developing that VOR/ADF simulator, but all the work was done by a Tim Carlson…

    Those cows sound like they share ancestry with the giant ghosts from Super Mario World. If you look at them, they stop. So long as there aren’t any bulls, you ought to be pretty safe though!

  • As an aircraft owner and pilot in the USA, and with the surname Brookman, it was gratifying to discover a VOR was named after me on the other side of the Pond.

  • Not so far fetched. Cows played a roll in my flying experience. Returning to north Jersey from central New York one early autumn evening, I was monitoring the tower frequency of the destination airport. All was quiet save for the controller cautioning one pilot in the landing pattern. He was trying to tell the pilot about geese on the approach end of the landing runway, but was having difficulty remembering the word to describe a group of birds. He finally blurted out, “beware of a herd of birds.” I keyed the mic and commented that it sounded less threatening than a flock of cows.

  • They probably expected you to put out a salt lick or some extra feed. Once,as a teenager, waiting for a slow school bus, I walked into a field next to the bus stop. Very shortly, I was surrounded. These were calves, though. I doubt if any of them weighed more than I do now. No problem at all. Being surrounded by full sized cows would be scarier but probably almost as safe, I think.

    P.S. DO NOT approach a newborn calf. Mom won’t have a sense of humor about that.

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