“You want to go where?. Can I come too”.
The man asking the question was Martin Temple,who like me regularly flies a Montgomerie Merlin single seat gyroplane and, also like me,has got to an age where the word ‘adventure’ in any form is most precious – even more so since we have both probably used up a goodly number of our nine lives during our combined 15,000 hours of flying.
Martin is a retired(though not retiring) RAF Squadron Leader,who for many years flew SAR Sea Kings.
My flying has generally been anything Icould get my hands on over the past thirty –odd years,fixed or rotary.What we have in common is a deep fascination and high regard for the gyroplane,or autogyro – call it what you like.What better than a flying trip – any flying trip – in an open cockpit aircraft around and over and through some of the most spectacular scenary in Europe?.
Our route would take us north,eventually to Plockton and then south,following much of the wild rugged and sometimes unforgiving Scottish West Coast.
Preparing for a trip of just a few days can be a challenge given the lack of storage space in the MerlinMart’s boast a little ‘luggage’ compartment in his Merlin,giving him rather more in the way of carrying capacity.A quick trip to one of the many mountain shops in Keswick secured me a neat little bag which I could strap to my lower leg,which meant a couple of spare packs of shreddies,socks and other little ornaments,vital to smelling sweetly.
The morning of the trip dawned and the plan was to get as far north as possible on the first day and then meander gently south after than.
So Plockton was the target for that evening,via Blair Athol and Inverness.The weather was stable though with the threat of a fairly active front approaching from the west,toward close of play that day – if we got weaving we would be enjoying that mouth-watering West Coast seafood meal we had promised ourselves before the Atlantic nasties hit.
The trouble is,life is rarely like that and this is basic seat-of-the-pants flying.It’s less about schedules and more about the sheer fun of aviating and meeting lots of like-minded people along the way.
Navigation was by half-mil charts.Mine started just south of the Scottish TMA and Mart’s ended in about the same place.So it was that I would nav as ‘gyro-lead’ and he would nav the last bit on the way back from the Clyde,south.In any event,the first bit was easy,launch from Kirkbride then north across the SolwayFirth to a point on the A74 where my map began.Time to call Scottish.
“Scottish this is gyro formation abeam Lockerbie”.
“Er,station calling Scottish,say again”.
I could imagine the controller wondering just what had invaded his frequency.Pleasanties exchanged,we ambled north towards the gap between Galsgow and Edinburgh at 800ft AGL and at a stead cruise of 60 to 70 knots with an option to land at Cumbernauld to top up Mart’s thirstier two stroke machine.Talking to Glasgow,we decided to do just that.Landing at this friendly little airfield was novel – it seems to be set in the middle of an industrial estate.
Extricating ourselves from our respective Merlins,fuelling for both pilots and machines with ease and after a ‘crack’ with the locals,it was time for our next legt to Blair Atholl in Perthshire.
The route took us north via Stirling and Perth through pleasant wide valleys and rolling hills either side,with nothing more than a inor hint of turbulence,even at our low level.In what seemed to be a very short time after leaving Cumbernauld,we were circling our host’s house at Blair Athol,before landing on the tine grass strip below his house.
Lude is home to Old-Etonian Andrew Gordon who for many years flew Gazelles in the Army Air Corps.He was the previous owner of Martin’s Merlin and now flies an ELA 07(S) two seat gyroplane.
Our planned route from Blair to Inverness was simply to follow the A9.
“No no says Major Andrew,and pointing to a rather large mountain ,”go straight over the top,cut the corner”.
“Yeah but haven’t you seen the spot-heights…3000ft plus”,say I,given to dizzy spells at anything above 1.000ft!.
“It’s fine” assures our host.”Just following the runway heading,it’ll take you all the way to Aviemore.Save a lot of time”.
Our farewells bid,we climbed upthe valley sides and climbed and climbed some more,over the most scary terrain around.High peaks gave way to steep-sided Glens,giving way yet again to even higher peaks and crags.The sun had long disappeared,giving the landscape a very hostile feel.The altimeter reads 3.000+ and I look across at Mart’s Merlin close by and feel better – then I remember that some nutters have taken these things up to 20.000+ – and I start to feel dizzy all over again!.
Talking again to Scottish we were now like old friends;and did I detect a barely concealed note of surprise from him that we had managed to get even this far?.Eventually we slid down the steep valley sides of Cairngorm and Aviemore passed below and the crags gave way to huge forests as we headed toward Inverness.Calling at Tomatin,we provoked a response from Inverness “ have you booked?”.
“No,we haven’t actually”.
“Ok,call at ten miles”…clearly they were hardly rushed off their feet!.
The rest of the journey to landing at Inverness was uneventful,aparts from yet another remeinder about PPR.But Inverness was a bit of a mistake,not because of the mild bollocking but because large airports aren’t necessarily geared up for little aeroplanes and so the exercise of paying landing fees and ordering fuel became very time-consuming,added to which,Mart’s pre-rotator cable was in need of urgent attention – if we were to go any further than evening.
Looking toward to west however showed a fine collection of wave bars,heralding a strong wind aloft.Our next track was scheduled to take us north-west over the Moray Firth,across the Black Isle,towards Dingwall to pick up the right valley to take us to the coast.
Linded up together on the westerly runway we were given departure clearance,with a Saab turboprop hot on our heals.My request to follow runway heading to the bridges and therefore cross the Firth with a tad more security was flatly refused,so an early right turn over the cold grey water was the only option.I didn’t care so much,being pushed along by a purring four-stroke engine but thought of poor old Mart behind with his two-stroke – he had said flatly right from the beginning that he didn’t want to fly over much water.
“You’re joking” said I,thinking of all his vast experience.
“Look”,said my elderly companion,I’ve spent 25 years hovering over water.Flying this thing with a two-stroke is definitely pushing my luck”!.
“Tell you what”,he added” for the water crossings,you fly mine and I’ll fly yours….”
End of conversation…….
So we headed north-west,over the Black Isle with yet another radio reminder about the virtues of PPR.The light was starting to dim a little,as I picked up the valley which would take us west,toward the coast and our final destination for the day.The wind was south-westerly and increasing with every mile and we hugged the windward valley side which was steepening and darkening.Turbulence started to kick in.Not surprising really,looking at all the wave lenticulars around.Eventually the valley turned south of west and we were faced with a fierce headwind.
We reached 2.500 to avoid the worst of the bumps lower down.We came to a bend in the valley at Achnasheen and couldn’t believe how little progress we were making.We droned on and I caught conforting sights of Martins Merlin against some very very dramatic rocky poutcrops and crags.The landscape was dark and intimidating.The valley floor too holding little salvation.
An age passed and evcentually we reached Strathcarron.Loch Carron looked dark and forbidding.There were deep patches of back etched all over the water marking strong winds and pretty horrible turbulence.The wonderful little machine just pushed on through it,their rotors slicing and absorbing much of the rought air.
Finally the steep valley sides gave way to the sea and in the lowing light ahead was Plockton.We landed without ceremony,relieved to be downin the now semi-darkness.We quickly stored ouir aircraft in the hangar and within ten minutes were sinking our first pints in the this beautiful of West Coast hidaways.
The following day dawned dank and miserable and we joined a bunch of microlight pilots in the hangar who had been going nowhere for days.
We told flying stories as the rain pounded on the hangar roof.A couple of microlighters seemed genuinely interested in autogyros and asked all the right questions,whilst another of their number say dark and brooding,wearing one of those ‘you-wouldn’t-get-me-in-one-of-them-things’ look!.
Of all the places to be weathered in,Plockton has to be one of the very best.The walk from airfield to village is less then ten minutes and,given the number of tourists passing through the village,retains a very natural inspoiled look.There is a wonderful relaxed atmosphere about the place with amazingly hospitable people.
We managed one flight late in the afternoon at very low level,scud-running down to the Kyle of Lochalsh,following the jagged coastline.Cloud was obscuring the top of the bridge so we did a 180 and headed back,landing and putting the toys to bed.We repaired to the pub where a local band was playing traditional Scottish music.We ordered a plate of Langoustines each and finished the evening with the friendly microlight boys.The crack is good,the beer first class and we all happily fall into our hosts taxis for the trip back to the digs.
Mountains and Beaches.
The next days was bright with a stiffish breeze from the west.We planned a trip around Skye,south down the coast to Arisaig,inland to Forth William and fuel at Oban before a night strop at the Glenforsa Hotel on Mull.
We left Plocktonwith a once-around-the houses wave and headed at our usual low level toward Kyle and the Bridge,passing the seaward side of it over the water and then the coastline toward Broadford.The airfield looked deserted so we decide to do no more than a ‘roller’ there,before going on to explore more of Skye.We flew around,under the shadow of the Cullins before picking up a valley to take us to the Sound of Sleat.An F15 passed us at the same level,going the same way in no particular hurry – so no war on today – and we both craned our necks looking for his wingman…the one we couldn’t see.
At our low level we were starteding to feel the effects of rotor wave in the lee of the mountain ahead,as I look for the narrowest crossing of the sound.The water looked black,rough and unforgiving.I edged the throttle open a little more and headed for the mountain on the opposite side.
I heard a call from Martin,”Lead,can you slow down a bit…?”
I pretended not to hear and rather guiltily opened the throttle a tad more –I just wanted to get to the other side.There was one solitary yacht whether he would see either of us if we splashed on.I doubted it…the boat was going at a fair lick as it beat up the sound in the stiffening breeze.I reached the other side and looked up at a never ending black slab of rock.I turned right and headed across the wide mouth of Loch Hurn.The little toe in my right foot started to ache.It was tension.I was starting to frighten myself.’Why do I do it’?.I spent the next few minutes exercising my toe,which helped me forget about the formidable mountains and balck water all around.
South of the Loch,the landscape gets a little softer,there’s the odd gree field now stretching down to the sea and in places,the slab sided cliffs give way to totally deserted beautiful golden beaches.On cue the sun comes out,the air is crist and clear and the sea turns from black to blue.Out in the distance in the now shimmering Hebridean Sea is the flat topped island of Eigg.
We were down low now,skimming the water in loose formation,the sun shimmering over the sea.Mart looks across and nods,I wave back – nothing is said – this is flying at it’s very best.
We crested a headland and there before us was Mallaig…just time,stick between knees to lift the Nikon for a couple of shots before turning south.We look to the beaches again for the last bit of low level before heading east into the high ground.We picked up the West Highland Railway and followed that into the hills towad Fort William.The wind was strong and thermic off the steep valley sides – all the while that wonderful aerodynamic phenomenon called autorotative force made the rotor blades act like scythes,cutting through the turbulence.I swa the shadow of both autogyros on the rocks below,sculling along the valley sides.
We turned south again at Fort William with Ben Nevis towering high above us,to fly down Loch Linnie and a landing at Oban.
The plan was to refuel and then fly over to Mull for the night but for the last thirty miles I had been experiencing a little more stick shake than normal,the cause of which I traced to a rather worn top-hat bush bearing in the teeter head.Aquick phone call to Jim Montgomerie,who made the Merlin kits,ensured that I would have the spare part at Oban the following morning.I grounded the Merlin until the new part was fitted.Our trip to Mull is out.
So it’s into Oban to sample once again the seafood delights of the Scottish West Coast.We found a great(and expensive) restaurant and gorged ourselves – seafood just doesn’t come any better than this.
We meet a couple from Halifax who are taking a holday from their fish and chip shop.They hilariously recall,after a 23 year engagement,their recent wedding in Las Vegas – stretched limo and a drive thru wedding chapel.Padre appears through a hatch in the wall,does the wedding chant bit,hatch shuts and hey-presto,they’re man and wife.Limo drives out into the Nevada sunset.We all collapse in laughter and go in search of a pub.
The last day.The plan is Oban to Bute for fuel and then home to Kirkbride.The wind is strongish south-westerly with deteriorating weather in Scotland,forecast for later.We get weaving.Just climbing into the Merlin is a major feat,remembering to plug in the comms before getting in and then the correct sequence of…bag strapped to leg,map taped to other leg,camera and glasses before helmet and headset.Mart has to remember all this and pull start his two-stroke before he climbs in.Once in,the Merlin is both comfortable and snug and has the feel of a racing car cockpit.
We l;ift off under grey skies and head south along the coast of the Firth of Lorne,past Oban.
The coastline down to Crinan is supremely spectacular.The sun edged in and out of the cloud,so the picture is changing constantly.Out to the west is Jura,sitting dark and majestic,silhouetted against the Atlantic.
My sightseeing is rudely interrupted.The radio crackles,”look,can we go down a bit?”.Mart sounds a bit miffed.No wonder the altimeter is showing 1.000ft so obviously the rarified air is getting to him..
“Ok” say I and we lower our Merlins in unison and go and have some fun low-level.Our route takes us past Lochgilphead and across Loch Fyne onto the mainland and then to the Isle of Bute.There is a small grass strip at Bute and we have been told to circle the village and a friendly man will come out with fuel-filled JerryCans.We circle and land.The wind is gusty and straight across the strip.No problem,we simply land across it into wind.Wonderful things,gyroplanes.
We wait….and wait and no one turns up.We walk into the village.No one has heard of the friendly but now phantom refueller.Bute has a desolate feel about it and neither of us wants to linger there.Martin has the bright idea of going into Prestick for fuel.I say”You must bejoking,it’ll cost a fortune.
Martin wins the argument and gets permission to land there so once again we’re airborne,heading across the Clyde and down the coast to Prestick,conveniently joining right hand downwind as a 747 climbs off the westerly runway.We’re cleared to land and airtaxi to the prescribed turn off point and are directed to the apron.A man with bats,wearing a crisp uniform comes out and waves us to our spots on the all but deserted apron.He offers to give us a ride in his shiny minibus,the whole thirtymeters to the gate.We decline with a real sense of forboding.This going to be expensive.
We are politely greeted by by what turns out to be handling agents – this is after all an International Airport.We are treated to coffee and biscuits.This is going to hurt badly..it does.
The bill for landing and handling charges(not including fuel) is £75 each.Haggling immedietly ensures a more realistic £35 per head.We bid our farwells.
Last leg and it’s Martin’s turn to nav –Ive run off the edge of my map.We clear the Prestwickzone and head south east toward the Solway coast.It’s early evening and the lowering sun is casting long shadows over the hills.The landscape is beautifully dramatic as the light etches every nick and crevice.The wind has all but died and it’s a magical flight through the Scottish lowlands.
Midway Martin has a social duty to perform.One of his RAF chums lives near New Galloway and they’re having drinks on the lawn.I stay high whilst Mart does his flypast for the adoring crowd.Eventually he finishes his party tricks and we head off,low level and in tight formation past Loch Ken over the hills in the last of the sunlight,toward the Solway.
At the Solway Firth the tide is out and we zoom over the vast areas of sand.There is no wind and the sun is very low – the light now tobacco coloured.We coast in at Bowness and fly the last couple of miles to Kirkbride.Neither of us wants the trip to end,so we flit and dance above the empty runways before landing in the setting sun.
Martin checking his stock of oil at Blair Atholl – one of the drawbacks of cross country flying in a two stroke powered machine.
Martn in flight.
Fading light,high winds,rough terrain and still a way to go – the leg between Inverness and Plockton.
Arrival at Plockton – not the best weather in the world!
Roger with 912 powered Merlin at Plockton.
Skye with Cullins in the background.
View from Martin’s cockpit,heading toward Fort William,with Ben Nevis towering above.
Sampling some of the best seafood on the Scottish west coast at Oban.
Loch Melford on the leg between Oban and Bute.