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Mag Article from March/April 2002 issue

Taking to Water 

Joan Walsh sets herself a challenge over the Essex countryside.

Each year, the committee of the British Women Pilots Association (BWPA) sets a challenge for the members. The object is to plan, fly and report on an interesting or unusual flight around a theme set by the committee. Last summer the theme was ‘Transport and Travel’.

While most entries are individual attempts, we of the Essex & Herts group like to do things differently and an examination of the rules showed that we didn’t have to make the entry in only one aeroplane with only one crew.

After several evening’s planning we set upon the idea of using our three most diverse aeroplanes to make separate flights on the same interpretation of the theme, but showing up the differences in the performance of the machines. We settled on Cheryl’s Cessna 172 as a typical mid-range machine, my Thruster TST as the smallest and slowest of the bunch, and Angie’s Yak 11 as the biggest and fastest thing we could get hold of. (Sharon flies a Citation but didn’t think her boss would allow her to use it for this.) This gave us the interesting range of cruising speeds of 45kt, 90kt and 180kt.

We chose to do three flights from our three separate bases, to last the same time and ideally to be done at the same time. As it turned out, foot and mouth, weather, mechanical problems and families prevented us doing it all together and we had to spread the flights out over nearly a month — but we did get the flights done. We each took another BWPA member as navigator-cum-photographer. Our interpretation of the theme was summarised in verse by my photographer, Margaret.

Angie’s flight in the Yak took her from North Weald, out along the Blackwater estuary and around the East Anglian coast to Great Yarmouth. The main theme of her photographs was the large container ports. Cheryl took the C172 from Stapleford down to the Thames and the Medway and on to Dover, picking out the smaller coastal traffic, some of the fishing fleet, and of course, the ferry port. I flew from Rayne Hall Farm down the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation from its highest point in Chelmsford, down to Maldon and along the Blackwater estuary, which once was much used by inshore barges but is now only used for pleasure craft.

The flight concentrated on points along the route which played a role in the area’s heyday as a commercial transport route. My furthest waypoint was Mersea Island: it was Angie’s first waypoint! We all arrived back at our starting points after a flight of 1h 15min.

Getting in close enough to photograph the start of the canal at Browns Warf in the centre of Chelmsford was interesting because of the microlights requirement not to overfly the town. We were able to make use of the fact that the river¡¯s flood plain extends well into town and was clear enough to provide emergency landing fields (photo 1.)


The turn at the end made full use of the Thrusters tight turning ability to stay within the narrow space available . great fun and a new experience for Margaret. Following the Navigation eastwards, my eagle eyes were looking out for other aircraft following the A12 . a pleasure at this time of day as the rush hour traffic stagnates . while Margaret¡¯s eagle eyes scanned for our next photo stop: Paper Mills Lock (photo2.). We orbited a couple of times, looking out for the barge Victoria, but couldn¡¯t identify her among the pleasure craft moored there. This was to become the story of our flight!

With 10min flying time to go before our next planned photo, Margaret set about shooting anything in sight. My favourite of these is a shot of our route, clearly showing the River Chelmer emptying out into the Blackwater estuary at Maldon (photo 3). Maldon, at the head of the Blackwater Estuary, used to be a significant port, but no longer. Some smaller vessels still come up the river, but on the whole the biggest you'll see here now are a few inshore fishing boats and restored sailing barges.

It was these we hoped to see, but the light wind and the low tide had kept them in. We could see some tied up against the Hythe, but our route didn't bring us close enough to get a decent photo. So I took a photo of Margaret instead (photo 4). The Hythe is that bit of river you can see sticking out of the back of her headset strap. For me it was a real disappointment, I've seen the barges in sail from the land and from on the water, but I've not yet seen them from the air.

We continued along the northern bank of the estuary in the hope of photographing something on the water, but today it was deserted. We took lots of photos of where the boats should have been and I put in the competition entry lots of pictures of boats taken from the ground to show what should have been there.

We had some excitement (ok, not up to Jackson, Milton & Bodill standards, but enough for us) on the way: fire and water, in fact. Flying through the haze of what turned out to be a distant stubble fire we smelt burning and missed a couple of heartbeats before realising where it was coming from, and our return home was delayed by a heavy shower over the field.

Completing the flight was only part of the competition, we still needed to deliver a report. The team had agreed to write co-ordinated reports in matching format, so hacking over the early drafts cost several evenings in a variety of Essex pubs. We celebrated the notification of our winning entry at our pre-Christmas dinner in yet another Essex pub. Here it was, under the influence of much good spirit, that we hatched our next plan: a team photo . airborne. Angie is an experienced formation pilot and has agreed to manage the logistics of getting my Thruster (Vne=80kt) and her Yak 11 (Vs=110kt) into the same formation with Cheryl's Cessna 172 and a camera ship. When we've done it, I'll send in a copy of the photo.

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