“ Compton Abbas Airfield / Ashmore Salisbury SP5 5AP / Wiltshire „
I like to think that I'm not an easy person to set up or to surprise but my entire family were in on the springing of last year's birthday shocker. The biggest surprise was that I got a birthday treat at all as I'd really not expected anything and haven't had a birthday present from my parents for years. I can never think of anything I want or need and skipping a birthday gift doesn't bother me at all.
Two weeks after my birthday last year we went to see my parents down in Salisbury. Our visit was a bit of a last minute decision so all the more reason that I wasn't expecting to be surprised since we had only announced we'd be turning up two days before. We arrived late on the Friday night and my mother told us not to stay up too late as we were going out the next day and needed to leave from the house at 10 am. She wouldn't tell us what was going on but the next morning at breakfast she changed this plan, saying cryptically that our 'lunch appointment' had been changed and we didn't need to leave until 11.30 am. My husband started cracking jokes about where we might be going - a picnic, an antique fair or maybe my step-father had bought a stately home and not told us about it. This last one might sound bizarre - and indeed it is - but my parents have previously bought their home without telling us they were even looking and once revealed that they owned a shop with a flat over it which we knew nothing about. Unsurprisingly, those are the kind of surprises we've come to expect.
My husband was programming the post code of our destination into the Tom Tom for me to drive there. I had no idea that HE knew where we were going. We set off across the countryside and over the rolling hills and drove for about 20 to 30 minutes. The Tom Tom distance was ticking down and when we came close to our destination, my mother called out "Turn here" and I turned through a gate into a car park and found myself at Compton Abbas Airfield. Seeing the little light aircraft standing on the grass, I got a bit suspicious and a little bit excited.
"Are we going flying?" I asked.
"We're not", said Mum, "You are."
My sister and her partner appeared out of nowhere on the other side of the car park and my mother explained that she and my step-father had booked a flying lesson for me for my birthday. I was astonished. I don't think I'd ever expressed a particular interest in going flying but I realised that it really should have been on my 'must do' list. I fly in the back of planes most weeks but I'd never had the chance to be the person pointing it in the right direction. My mother also explained that a passenger could go up with me. I knew my husband would absolutely hate it (and not because I'd be driving) but I also suspected that my mum would be game for giving it a go. I think my sister also realised mum would like to go up and so she said she didn't want to fly either. The deal was done, mum and I were going flying.
Compton Abbas has a large restaurant and bar and the plan was that we'd eat and then go flying. My flight was booked for noon but when we first arrived the weather conditions were still a bit misty and we were told that we'd have to wait for them to improve. I think some wires got crossed between Mum and the flying instructor since we'd ordered lunch and the first few dishes were being delivered just as the instructor came to tell us to get ready to go. We asked the waitress if she could hang on to our food for later and we went off to complete our paperwork and collect our head sets.
The instructor asked us to join him by the map of the area so he could show us where we'd be going. With only a half hour in the air, the options were pretty limited and once he'd worked out that we were too far from anywhere we knew to pick a particular route, he suggested we fly off towards an old Roman hill fort. To be honest I didn't care where we went so I was happy to go along with the suggestion.
~Walking round and kicking the tyres~
We stepped outside and headed towards an unfeasibly tiny plane standing beside the runway. It was a cute little blue and white Piper Warrior. The actual body of these planes is less spacious than a small car so anyone who's not good in tight spaces probably wouldn't enjoy flying one of these. Mind you, anyone who's scared of confined spaces probably wouldn't want to fly a plane anyway. In the pre-9/11 days I'd often been up front to talk to the pilot on flights and even with a large aircraft, there's not that much more room than in a tiny 3 or 4-seater plane. The smallest plane I'd previously be in was an 8-seater private jet and that had given me such a rush of excitement that I'm ashamed to say I did squeal 'Wheeeeeeeeeeee' on both take off and landing and had to apologise to the people I was travelling with.
The instructor started by walking us round the plane, lifting all the covers, showing all the bits that wiggle and giving a briefing on how the plane works. My advice if you do something like this is don't show off that you understand 'lift' because you got an A in A'level physics or you'll instantly get the 'advanced' intro talk and quite possibly be as baffled as I was. I was still feeling pretty cool about the flight. My assumption was that it wouldn't matter too much if I didn't pay attention; I was only planning on shooting photos out of the window. It turned out I was completely wrong and the instructor had very different ideas. In fact I took only one photo in the entire flight - a shot of my mum squeezing into the back seat and smiling like a 4-year old on her first plane adventure.
The stroll around the plane completed, it was time to get inside. Mum went first because there's only one door and once the front seats are taken, nobody's getting in the back. I was a bit worried because she had a hip replacement last year and I wasn't sure she'd be able to get in but with the incentive of a flight to come, she had no problems. With Mum in and belted up, it was my turn. The instructor asked how tall I was and offered me a cushion because you can't really adjust the seat in these little planes and it would bring me a little closer to the controls. Once we were all inside, he went through the long and complex process of checking all the controls and showing me what to push, pull or wiggle at different times. I was still thinking that it would just be a nice little joy ride and not paying too much attention.
Once all the checks were finished we were ready to go. I steered the plane towards the grass runway, trying a few of the controls along the way and then we were ready to go. Thankfully I wasn't expected to do more than hold on to the controls and leave the job of taking off to the instructor but once we were up in the air, it was over to me to manoeuvre the darned thing. So much for shooting photos out of the window, that wasn't on the agenda at all. As we flew along I basically did whatever I was told to do - turning with the steering control, combining the steering with the foot pedals, levelling the plane using the levelling display and realising that you really cannot tell when you're going along whether you're flying level, going up or heading down. I hate to think how confusing it must be in bad weather.
Throughout the flight the instructor and I were cracking jokes. I confess - and it's decidedly not cool - that he also let me play at being a World War One fighter pilot (cue lots of decidedly dodgy machine gun noises and waggling from side to side). Mum in the back was giggling along with the action and taking photos of the fields below. We passed the hill fort and started to head back to the air field. I asked if there was any chance of a 'loop the loop' and the instructor laughed and agreed that we'd limit it to some steep banking and a really good climb. We came in to land for a 'kiss and go' landing - one where you touch down and then bounce up again and go round for a second time. This was arranged to just check that the rest of the family were paying attention.
We flew around for another five minutes or so until my time was up and we had to go back to the airfield. My expectation of being flown around by someone else doing all the work had been completely wrong - Compton Abbas really do make you have a go, even if you're feeling a bit lazy like I was.
Back on the ground we completed the 'back on the ground' checks, turned everything off and climbed out again and headed back to the restaurant where Mum's liver and onions had survived the wait (I assume they gave her portion to someone else as I recall from my meat eating days that liver's not very forgiving) and my prawn baguette had been kept to one side. The portions were enormous and I only got through my greedy-girl chips with a lot of help from the rest of the family. Whilst we were eating I was given my flight certificate and my sister went off and bought me a Compton Abbas Airfield fridge magnet to remember the day.
Compton Abbas offer five options for experience flights varying from my 30 minute flight at £104 (or £99 if you book and pay online), through 45 and 60 minute experiences and two more expensive 'land away' options where you - not surprising - land away at another air field before coming back. Prices go up to £399 for the extended land away for which you can call ahead and discuss where you want to go. The website says that on the 30 minute flight you could go as far as Longleat or Salisbury but I think that's an exaggeration. I'm similarly suspicious that you'd have to really go some to get to Corfe Castle and back in 45 minutes or to the Isle of Wight and back in 60. If you really want to fly over a particular place, I'd suggest to phone ahead and discuss how long a flight experience you'll need to get there and back again.
~Risks and Recommendations~
Flights like these are obviously very weather-dependent and it's likely that many people will book and not be able to fly on their first choice date. If we'd not been able to fly that day, I think the parents would have just kept hush about what they'd booked and waited to try again the next time we visited. Just keep in mind that if you want to book a flight for a very specific date, you're more likely to be successful in the summer months and you might want to keep some other activity in reserve just in case you can't do it when you plan.
Also please make sure that if you're buying it as a gift you know the recipient well enough to be absolutely sure that they'll be as delighted as I was. If anyone had bought this for my husband he'd have felt awful but he'd have had to say 'No' out of sheer terror about going up in such a small plane. Having sat beside him in a helicopter in Gozo, I knew full well that wild horses wouldn't get him in a light aircraft. Mum told me it was actually my step-father's idea to buy this for me and I was really impressed that he'd known me so well to realise that it was absolutely something I would want to do and to also know that unlike all the other things I'd had on my 'to do' list that I'd already done, this was something that I'd actually forgotten I wanted to try.
I don't think I've had a better present from my folks since I was a teenager. This gift absolutely hit the mark and will be something I don't forget for a very long time.
Compton Abbas Airfield
Dorset SP5 5AP
Tel: 01747 811767