Flown by Raphael O'Carroll and Liam Lynch in Sportscruiser G-MUTT on Sunday 11th October 2020
Few flyers will forget 2020. It was a year that had seen a complete halt brought to flying in March, with some of the most calm, warm and beautiful flying weather for many years to follow through until Easter. As the lockdown was eased... and flying returned... so did the rain and wind. Possibly the best flying spring turned to the wettest and windiest of summers: and with those gusts, seemingly, blew away any chance of fulfilling one of the most fantastical of flights.
The forecast for October 11th was starting to look more and more promising. With high pressure pushing in, and the days getting shorter, that Sunday looked like our best window of opportunity. After about 6 weeks of organising, research and planning with the help of our third team member, Jacqui Lawrence, our adventure was almost go.
Many a night, the possibility of setting off on a flight around the "international" airports of Ireland has been discussed in the clubhouse. Logistics, routings, the most efficient way around - it had all been planned many times, and yet, the opportunity to fly it, has always seemed just a little too far as one considered the complexity of the flight. However, with the downturn in commercial air traffic due to the covid-19 pandemic, it seemed like now just might be the time.
Jacqui, an air traffic controller by day, is a student pilot at Kernan Aviation. For months she worked with us on securing the nessecary permissions from the various airports around the country - introductions, explanations of the flight, and plans for how a 600kg light sport aircraft would mix with the "big boys" at the international airports. Adding to this, with some airports closed on certain days, and others running reduced hours, creating a plan that brought all these factors together into a flyable plan, was no small task.
Week after week went bye, where the weather teased and taunted us: clear skies in Tandragee yielded only to marginal conditions in Waterford: still air around Shannon was rivalled by squalls and gusts in Belfast.
With the plans in place, and permissions granted (to which we owe the IAA a huge debt of gratitude) it was only for the weather to fulfil it's end of the bargain. Week after week went bye where the weather teased and taunted us: clear skies in Tandragee yielded only to marginal conditions in Waterford: still air around Shannon was rivalled by squalls and gusts along the East Coast. With the evenings starting to draw in, and the change in the clocks not far away, a small window of opportunity on Sunday 11th October looked like our last chance.
And so, in a flurry of emails, phone calls and texts, our team sprung into action. A slot in Dublin was confirmed. Our timings for the flight would be based off our landing slot at Dublin. 9:03am. Runway 28L it would be, and we'll be reporting Swords. Oil was checked, tanks were filled, iPads were charged and paper maps and charts stowed just in case. The all important snacks and drinks were packed away and the canopy given one more buff clean.
As the hanger doors were drawn, and the sportscruier rested before her marathon.. a red sky cast a glow across the apron... a pilots delight?
This flight was a very special one: flown in memory of the pilot Raphael’s daughter, Christine, who sadly lost her battle with a Brain Tumour aged just 31. The flight was to raise funds in her memory, for the Christine O’Carroll Research Fund, helping to fund research into a cure for Brain Tumours, the leading cancer killer of young people under 40.
Support The Christine O'Carroll Research Fund
The Christine O’Carroll Research Fund supports research into Stage 4 Brain Tumours, the most serious type, with the lowest survival rates. The Brain Tumour Charity is the UK's largest dedicated brain tumour charity, committed to fighting brain tumours on all fronts.
They fund pioneering research to increase survival and improve treatment options and raise awareness of the symptoms and effects of brain tumours to get earlier diagnosis and to help families cope with everything that the diagnosis of a brain tumour brings. They also provide support for everyone affected so that they can live as full a life as possible, with the best quality of life.
The Charity funds and promotes the UK-wide HeadSmart campaign, raising awareness of the signs and symptoms of brain tumours in children and young people to make earlier diagnosis a reality. Earlier diagnosis will reduce long term disabilities and save lives. In just three years, HeadSmart has reduced average diagnosis time from 9.1 weeks to 6.5 weeks.
To date, over £2,500 has been raised for The Christine O'Carroll research fund by this flight, and you can lend your support using the link below.
As it turned out, the previous night's sky wasn't the omen we had hoped for, and at 6:45am on Sunday morning low cloud and rain greeted us as we made our way to the hanger. We had already submitted the mandatory GAR and filed our flight plans the night before, but Mother Nature doesn't care much for plans.
With our aim to be airborne by 8:15am hampered by a wall of low cloud and rain, it was looking like mission too far for today, and with the days getting shorter: for this year also. We knew the weather was good just south of us, beyond the hills of South Armagh, but unfortunately, with no way out from our base, things weren't looking good. We pushed the plane back into the hanger and dried it off.
9:03am was a firm slot in Dublin, and with everything planned so intricately, missing our first slot of the day would not be an option. We either made it to Dublin on time, or the whole flight was off. Thankfully, the rain started to ease as beams of light made a brief appearance on horizon.
With iPads on, engine temperatures rising and a clearing sky ahead, we were off!
We took off at 8:27am, not far off our original start time, and wasted no time heading South through the Gap of the North. Sure enough, as we made our way south along the coast, light filled our cockpit as the clouds lifted to reveal an uncharacteristically good day for this time of year.
Aldergrove ATC helpfully opened our flight plan, before transferring us to Dublin Radar. We'd speak to Belfast again later. We were soon cleared through the Northern Zone boundary, advised to orbit to facilitate traffic, then expect a left base for runway 28L. It's 9:00am.
As we orbited abeam Malahide to allow space for an inbound Ryanair, Dublin Airport started to come into view in the distance. From the control tower sticking out like a golf tee, to the sprawling terminals, carparks and hangers, it was an impressive sight on the horizon. Dublin Air Traffic Control couldn't have been more helpful had theyflown the plane for us, and before long we were flying down the approach to the impressively large runway 28L.
After a wave from the airport ops vehicles which had lined the taxiway to see what has to be an unusual sight for Dublin; and a quick touch and go on the tarmac, we were offered a left turnout for Pigeon House Chimneys, offering us a fabulous view over the Pheonix Park, Dublin City Centre and the South Dublin hills. Departing South our radios transferred to Shannon for the first of many friendly chats, now on a direct route for Waterford.
The current downturn in air travel due to covid-19 has left airports throughout the country quiet. On a normal October day, bringing a light aircraft into Dublin would have been unheard of; it was only due to the current circumstances that it was possible to do so. The hospitality of the DAA towards facilitating our flight was incredible, and we extend our sincere thanks to all of the team there for their help.
Waterford, situated on the edge of Tramore bay on the southeastern coast, is somewhere we used to spend holidays many years ago, and was our next stop. Waterford tower cleared us to take up a down wind right for 03 looking out over the water with spectacular views of Tramore beach. Cleared for a touch and go on 03 with left turn out, we were left on a direct routing for Cork.
Ireland's beautiful south east coast remained to our side as we made good progress south towards Cork, and of course, back on for one of our chats with Shannon. Even though it's only 40min flying time, we had time to enjoy the views, passing the beautiful towns of Dungarvan and Youghal.
A change away from Shannon again had us speaking to Cork approach, where we were given a quick clearance to enter the zone and proceed to Carrigaline VRP; to expect runway 34. Cork were very obliging, and gave us a straight climb out routing direct for Kerry, which was our planned fuel and comfort stop before starting a northerly trek up the west coast.
Kerry is only 43nm from Cork, but if you want to fly direct you have large lumps of granite in your path. The Cork and Kerry mountains, or to give them their full names, Boggeragh and Derrynasaggart mountains, straddle the border between the two counties. If that wasn't bad enough, a large antenna is erected on their summit, rising 2,679 ft above sea level.
With low clouds in the area, certainly much lower than the transmitter, stress levels began to rise! With the cloud being broken, and a quick chat to Kerry on the radio to confirm the same on their side, we elected to climb above the clouds and continue along the path of least resistance to Kerry.
With a light wind, Kerry gave the option of runway 08 or 26, and as we were approaching from the south we decided upon 26, this time for a full stop landing to uplift fuel, and an all important comfort stop. To this point, our fuel burn had been only 49litres, very impressive for the sports cruiser!
Parked on the ground in Kerry, Liam muttered something, as he was getting out of the aircraft, about needing more padding for the seats. I've no idea why so!
We must record our thanks to the team at Kerry airport for the warm welcome, hospitality and generous donation they made during our time there. While things cannot be the same during covid-19, this did not stop the warmth of the welcome, and we greatly appreciate the support they gave us during our flight. Go raibh maith agat!
Startup in Kerry was approved at 11.15am local, and with taxi clearance to Alpha, we were soon on our way direct for Shannon. We were now headed back in a generally northernly direction, and alongside talking to Shannon (for the umpteenth time), we'd be organising a touch and go.
Shannon ATC work a large area of Ireland, and on this particular Sunday were being kept very busy by a myriad of aircraft taking advantage of what must have been one of the last flying days of the year. Even so, they were patient enough to facilitate us for most of the day, and to coordinate a touch and go.
It wasn't long until the mouth of the river Shannon appeared large as life on our left hand side, and we joined base for runway 24, enjoying spectacular views of Bunratty castle in the process. At 3,199 meters (10,495ft) Shannon has the longest runway in Ireland (which, years ago, meant it was an emergency/ alternative landing site for the American space shuttle). At 11.46 we put wheels down, the sports cruiser certainly not being fazed by the legacy of the tarmac it was about to meet!
At 3,199 meters (10,495ft) Shannon has the longest runway in Ireland (which, years ago, meant it was an emergency/ alternative landing site for the American space shuttle)
Moving North again from Shannon, we got lovely views of the Aran Islands where we had visited only a few weeks previous, then onwards across Galway bay, Galway City and lough Corrib. Watching our ETA for Ireland West (Knock), it soon became apparent that we were under pressure to reach Knock, before it closed for the day at 13.45pm. With only 5 minutes to spare, and a headwind building, we opened the throttles and did all we could to make it in time. Missing this stop, the rest of our flight would be scrubbed, and alas, our challenge be over, so it was full steam ahead on the 50 minute flight!
Thankfully, ATC at Ireland West were understanding, and with 7 minutes until closure we were cleared to enter their zone on a direct routing, straight for left base runway 36. Ireland West has recently been in the spotlight as final destination for the worlds first 380 to be scrapped, and as we climbed out, we passed this behemoth as it waited it's date with the scrap man.
After reaching Ireland West just on time, we were now making good progress North and soon were pressing down on Sligo, where runway 29 was capped off by a fabulous approach - we'll certainly be heading back for lunch in the airport cafe some day, the scenery being so beautiful.
Fatigue was slowly starting to set in after what was already a long and intense day in the cockpit, with the constant transferring between airports being very tiring. Thankfully we were now 3/4 of the way and returning to more familiar airspace.
Heading out over the North Atlantic Ocean to the west of Mullaghmore saw us looking down on good friend Martin Conway's house, then Killybegs, Ardara, Glenties and Dongloe, heading into the heart of County Donegal.
As always on this flight, ATC couldn't have been anymore helpful, doing anything they could to expedite us through their zone or give direct routings.
Donegal Airport, set within the Sandunes of Carrickfinn has been voted the worlds most scenic airport for three years in a row. It's not hard to see why. As we made a straight in approach onto runway 03 from Dongloe, the landscape, beaches and vistas were stunning. Mount Errigal towered to our right while the Atlantic Ocean extended to the horizon on our left, nothing between us and America but hundreds of miles of water.
City of Derry airport is a small regional airport located outside Derry city, on the site of an old World War II airfield. It was also our first stop after crossing the FIR back into Northern Ireland and UK airspace. After a short 30 minute hop from Donegal, we were cleared to join downwind as the airport was currently busy, but soon were were taking up final over Lough Foyle for a touch and go on runway 26, before, we thought, a direct routing to Belfast.
Unfortunately, the weather, as had been a continuing theme on this flight, had other ideas!
Low cloud and squalls throughout the Sperrins made our routing a little more challenging, as we ducked and dived, weaved and turned to find clear air as we worked our way through for Aldergrove. Eventually though, we made it tobetter weather at the other side, and were welcomed by the team at NATS Belfast.
By this stage, it was a busy Sunday afternoon at the airport, and we were advised that we'd need to take up an orbit at Antrim as 5 Airbuses were on their way into the airport. As we went round and round the hold, we pondered that their inflight catering might be just a tad more elaborate than ours!
Sure enough, as we heard the last airbus transferred to ground, we were cleared to call final 25, which we duly did and had a fabulous touch and go passing a busy terminal complex, great to see under the current conditions. ATC in Belfast are regular contacts of ours as we conduct training flights in the area, and with familiar voices wishing us well, we were given a rather stunning routing over the top of Divis and Black Mountains to arrive overhead Belfast City itself.
By this stage, the warm colours of the evening sun were lighting up the city and lough, with the iconic Harland and Wolff cranes standing like beacons to bring us into the airport. A right downwind for runway 22 brought us overhead the Harbour estate, where huge cruise liners could be seen sitting in dock, more victims of the pandemic which was facilitating this most extraordinary flight. With another airbus slipping in ahead of us, we made our own way onto the former Shorts runway, climbing out on a straight routing for our own base at Tandragee, capping off an incredible day in the air.
The whole team at NATS Belfast (Aldergrove and City) could not have been more helpful in facilitating this flight, since we first contacted them, and we appreciate their hospitality during a very busy period of the day. We thank you all for your assistance and generosity shown.
Support The Christine O'Carroll Research Fund
After 6 hours, and 40 minutes in the air, the sports cruiser finally put wheels down for the last time, just after 16.13pm, on runway 35 at home base, Kernan. It was a huge day of flying that had seen us circumnavigate the entire island, and we truly felt the sense of accomplishment, and exhaustion!! What had initially started as nothing but a wild idea, had turned into the most memorable of days, and at its core, spreading awareness and knowledge of Brain Tumours, in memory of Christine.
We were blown away by the support we received throughout the day from the various control towers and airports we visited, with messages of support, donations from the teams, hospitality and warm welcome everywhere we went. Meanwhile, as we flew, awareness of the brain tumour charity was spreading: online spotters forums, flight academies at the airports and GA pilots across the country ‘sharing’ posts and supporting the fundraising and message. It was an incredible flight, and one which couldn’t have happened without the support of the Irish Aviation Authority, and Dublin Airport Authority, both of whom provided invaluable support in making it happen!
We would like to extend our sincere thanks to all at the Irish Aviation Authory: but in particular CEO Peter Kearney, Darren Pollard and Neil Branagan, who were instrumental in making this happen.
The final thanks must be given to the third member of the team, Jacqui. Not only did Jacqui use her expertise to secure some very special permissions in the run up to the flight: but on the day she was tracking proceedings and communicating with each ATC tower ahead of our arrival - generating so many of the direct clearances we received which were instrumental to making the flight possible in a day. After the sportscruiser passed the FIR boundary, Jacqui hit the road to be at Kernan for it's arrival, completing an equally huge days effort, in support of a wonderful cause.
To all who helped make it possible; to all who contributed in any way; and to all who have supported the Christine O'Carroll Research fund: Thank You.