Saturday, 5 May 2007

Day Two: Dieppe to Old Buckenham

As dawn breaks I go in search of a boulangerie for breakfast. We recce’d several last night and ascertained that they open between 6.30 and 7.00. It’s 7.15 and they’re all shut. I eventually locate the only one that doesn’t lie about its opening hours and buy fresh chocolate croissants, warm raisin bread and some outrageous pineapple tortes. The Cub’s going to be heavily overweight today.

Adrian goes to get the meteo

Weather at Dieppe is looking OK, and improving rapidly. The Cub just might be going home today. It’s cold but clear, and the angle of the windsock steadily decreases as the morning breeze settles down.

We’re seeing the birth of a perfect flying day.

Clear skies and a drooping windsock. The trip is on

Flying over water in a single-engined plane calls for thorough preparation and a healthy regard for procedures. When everything within gliding distance contains fish, the last thing you want is an embarrassing silence from up front. Adrian and Martin are always conscientious about safety checks, but today there’s a definite sense of added thoroughness.

Adrian checks whether there's any fuel in the water

We’ve got starting down to an approximate science, so AHC confidently pours a sightglass-full of fuel into the right front inlet manifold. After only 20 minutes of cranking we’re rewarded by the mechanical clatter of a happy Continental.

Adrian risks a few more fingers

The Cub taxis away and I climb into the Jeep, pausing to watch the little yellow kite make its characteristically lazy ascent into a violet sky. As the Continental snores into silence I point the Jeep’s nose homeward.

Take-off from Dieppe

I’m alone with the Grand Cherokee. It’s a strange mixture; the 2.7 litre diesel pulls it along at a highly creditable gallop, and you can’t fault the comfort or equipment. It’s just a shame that the steering seems to be transmitted through knicker elastic. I had a 1960 Morris Minor that required almost this much sawing at the steering wheel. The built-in Traffic Master system would benefit from a little more thought. “Your route of 476 miles will take you along the…” by which time you’ve missed the turning and it has to recalculate. Then it says it all again, by which time you’ve missed another turning. I turn on my TomTom and the two squabble all the way home.

Mart announces imminent arrival at Le Touquet. Or Margate

Up above, navigation’s a more straightforward affair. Adrian’s contention is that technology can go wrong; maps can’t. This pre-supposes that you can recognize ground features. My own abilities in this area are modest, so I’m always impressed when pilots convince me they aren’t really lost.Whether they’re secretly using their GPS receivers or not (they’re carrying one each – so traditional), Le Touquet comes up on the nose

Notice to Airmen: The right-hand runway is a bit soggy
I get a call as I approach Le Touquet. They’re on the ground and refuelling for the cross-channel leg. The Cub’s behaving beautifully and they’re enjoying perfect flying conditions. They’ll be airborne again before I get there.

I’m settling down with the Jeep’s directional numbness and finding considerable diversion in Martin’s choice of on-board CD entertainment. I descend under the channel to the accompaniment of the Malcolm Sargent/Huddersfield Choir version of the Messiah. I know it’s not authentic; I know purists say the choir’s too big; I know Handel didn’t use clarinets. Know what else? I don’t care. Elsie Morrison knows that her redeemer liveth, and right now she’s got me convinced.

Those cliffs are twenty miles away - much too far to glide

Life jackets in place, the boys start the crossing. The Continental O-170 is a wonderfully simple – and hence reliable – engine. It’s extremely unlikely to fail, but the channel still looks very, very wide. I can attest from personal experience that when the big fan on the front of a Cub stops turning, the plane has more of a trajectory than a glide angle.

As soon as the French coast falls behind, the engine note switches to automatic rough. Every change in noise, revs or glide angle is suddenly keenly noticed.

Martin see something slower than the Cub

At 75mph there’s plenty of time to look around. The channel’s one of the world’s busiest sea ways, so there’s always something on the surface to look at. The Cub can race ships. It can even beat some of them.

D'you know, I think we're catching him!
The Continental snores happily over the channel and Dover’s soon passing under its flared nostrils. The hop fields of Kent slide smoothly by as the nose turns towards Headcorn.

Overhead Dover. Normal respiration resumes

The landing strip at Headcorn has the consistency and colour of thick Bisto. The cub slithers to a halt in a corner of some English field, covered in most of it. Floats might have been a good idea.
As I pull out of the Eurotunnel terminal I receive a text to say that Adrian and Martin are on the ground at Headcorn. The Cub’s back in England!

Headcorn - quality English mud

Pilots and plane need refuelling. Adrian celebrates his return to Blighty with a bacon and egg sandwich in the airfield café. You can tell a good one by measuring how far up your elbows the yolk runs.

French cuisine may lead the world, but sometimes your arteries need a good British breakfast.

International gourmet and his bacon and egg buttie

I’m back on British motorways. You can tell because everyone drives on the right. I sit in the interminable fast-lane traffic and yearn for French roads. The Cub’s on the last lap, heading for its new home in Norfolk. As usual I’m behind and, impressively quick though it is, this Jeep hasn’t quite got the power of the trip one and two conveyances. They’re going to beat me again.

I pull into the car park at Old Buckenham. No sign of the Cub. A scout round the apron, hangars and bar confirms it: they’re not here yet. Is everything OK?

Ten minutes later, a dot in the sky resolves into a yellow crucifix. G-BFBY is coming home. With his club mates watching, Martin takes extra care with the landing and produces a creditable greaser.

Lots of man-hugs and back thumping ensue. The odyssey is over, and the Cub has a new home.

We did it! The aircrew at Old Buckenham

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