Regular readers of my blog will probably be expecting me to write about nature and wildlife, and most of the time that is what I do. However, I have many other interests and general aviation is one of them. National Service in the Royal Air Force first gave me an interest in flying and later, in the 1970’s, I was able to indulge myself and get my private pilot’s licence.
Not that I’m comparing myself to the following giants of the natural history world, but I’m not the only one who works in the field of conservation to be fascinated in aviation… the Late Sir Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and co-founder of WWF was a world famous glider pilot and his friend and wildlife artist, Keith Shackleton, was a member of the family that built the famous Shackleton aircraft during and after the Second World War.
I’m not a plane spotter in the literal sense, but many who are find as much pleasure in recording details of aircraft of all kinds as I do from the study of birds, butterflies and plants and their habitats.
Every year millions of people go to air shows or visit the superb aircraft museum collection at Duxford Airfield in Bedfordshire. But my personal favourite is the annual Aero Expo, a kind of Motor Show of all that is latest and best in light aviation held at Sywell aerodrome in Northamptonshire. Here on this historic airfield you will find offerings from the major manufactures and superb examples of aeronautical engineering from a host of countries. There was a time when the British Isles vied with the USA as premier designers and makers of light aircraft, sadly successive governments have lost the desire to encourage creative engineering in favour of financial services.
When I took my pilot’s licence there was a large number of ex wartime airfields dotted across our beautiful country, but a similar lack of interest in general aviation encouraged developers to plough up the runways and cover the land with buildings, residential and commercial. Airfields are considered prime brown field sites by national and local government.
Nevertheless, in spite of all this, general aviation is alive and healthy. The airfield at Sywell was humming with activity – light aircraft coming and going like bees to a hive. Some of them were new models and shiny demonstrators, others were stalwart Piper and Cessna of the latter part of the last century kept smart and airworthy by proud owners and groups who buy a share in an aircraft and pay for their flying by the hour.
Cessna & Beechcraft Pilatus PC12NG
The exhibitors’aircraft park saw a gathering of some of the latest and most highly developed light aircraft, including an iconic six-seater touring Beechcraft Bonanza (a most desirable fast tourer – rather like an Aston Martin of flight.)
As I’ve already said, most of the famous names in British light aircraft manufacturing have vanished, but in the last 15 years a whole new breed of ultra light aircraft, powered by a variety of engines – petrol, diesel and even electric and rotary petrol engines have emerged. Few are made wholly in this country; the majority are the product of a vibrant industry in Eastern Europe, filling present day demand. They are produced to a high standard of strength, performance and design.
The Americans still hold the long-established market for high standard aircraft, though you have to pay for the quality, innovation and luxury; but there is always a market for quality as shown by the famous Pilatus company in Switzerland. Their 9 seat PC12NG is a mini airliner and rather like a Swiss watch, or Swiss army knife in its perfection. Propeller driven by a gas turbine engine, it looks good both outside and in with elegant leather seating and thick carpets … and it even has its own loo concealed behind a polished wooden door. More to the point, if I just had the odd spare million pounds or four, I could fly it on my licence, although perhaps I wouldn’t dare unless I had a professional pilot in the other seat. I’d be afraid I’d bend it – although I was told it’s an easy craft to fly. After all the Swiss have been making aircraft for years in which to rescue people from mountain passes and also to land and take off from jungle clearings so they know a thing or two about it.
Put Aero Expo in your diary for next year.