independent

Monday 17 June 2019

Cleared for take-off in Newcastle

Reporter David Medcalf called to Newcastle airfield and spoke to the man in charge, John Nugent. He may have caught the aviation bug after taking a lesson on the flight simulator...

Ben Nugent and his dad John with one of their training Cessna 150s
Ben Nugent and his dad John with one of their training Cessna 150s

The driveway up to the airfield in Newcastle is nothing like the approach to Dublin Airport. There are no pheasants wandering blithely across the roadway in Dublin and no cheerful sign declaring 'Welcome to the World of Aviation' either.

With its orange wind-sock and plovers stalking the grassy runway, this place is the spirit of flying, while Dublin represents the business of flying. Chief executive John Nugent stresses that Newcastle is not so much an enterprise as a club where people come for pleasure and for education.

The cheerful solid fuel stove in the reception area radiates a welcome to members, students and visitors. The hangars are overgrown farm buildings made from corrugated sheeting and a pen full of turkeys has been set up to provide Christmas dinner for members.

Residents of the nearby village, not much more than a kilometre away, are scarcely aware of the flyers. The rule is that take-off and landing are conducted along the little populated coast or over the strand and sea, just a stone's throw away on the far side of the railway line.

This is aviation stripped of all but the essentials, though the essentials include a fire tender and ambulance parked on permanent standby.

The airfield is here since 1992 though John Nugent is only here since 2008.

It was originally a farm - the farmer's name was Billy Smith though it was not great land for farming as it was soft and subject to flooding. At high tide, it is nearly level with the sea. But the ground was drained by the previous management and it is now usable all year round since the drainage work was finished.

'It is the only airfield along the east coast of Ireland, though there is a small one in land at Taghmon in County Wexford,' says John. 'There are other private sites, but nothing else licensed by the State to operate a landing strip and to train pilots.'

His background is as a commercial helicopter pilot, formerly based at Weston in West Dublin. In that role he flew for City West magnate Jim Mansfield and enjoyed that for a while. He has been airborne now for 27 years.

'It's a passion. I love flying,' he says straightforwardly. 'The thrill of being up in the air is simple, in one word, freedom. It's leaving mother earth and going off on your own.'

Now aged 55, he started when he was 28, in microlites - gliders with small engines. He wanted to fly microlites originally but I could not do it in this country because there was no proper training syllabus at the time.

There was nowhere in Ireland to set him on the way so he went out to Portugal to get his licence.

'I certainly remember the first time leaving mother earth, down in the Algarve,' he reminisces. 'We learned on a thing called an X-Air - an onion bag as my son calls it - just like a canvas airplane. The first day I thought wow! It's just a different place. The freedom is unreal, just me and the instructor up there.'

He came back home to Ireland and started flying fixed-wing, four seater aircraft here in Newcastle the Glasthule native ended up going to Weston and eventually began to earn a living as a helicopter instructor - that was bread and butter.

Then came the full-time move to Newcastle full-time: 'All I ever wanted here was a small flying school and a flying club, where people can learn to fly and then go off on their holidays. Then we bring in visitors, people who fly in and fill the local hotels. Most arrive from the UK but a convoy (is that the right word?) of seven planes breezed in together from France in July.

The airfield with its kilometre long runway is also where people drive to from all over Ireland to take their first practical lessons in airmanship.

'The club is training just over 100 students at the moment, making us the biggest flying school in the country,' reports John. 'We see a lot of kids who want to be commercial pilots. They start in Cessna, two-seater training aircraft and they need to do 40 hours flying time to achieve their PPL (private pilot's licence).'

The club owns fifteen training aircraft and has a training school here for helicopters as well. Many of those who enrol are mature guys coming to the end of their careers on the ground and hankering to go flying, to do something exciting after working as bankers, insurance executives or whatever. Once they have the PPL, they can head off, hire an aeroplane and go to the Isle of Man, Scotland, France, wherever they desire.

'They can buy what we call a leg of an aeroplane, a share, so there's a plane here that ten lads own, for example. They might head to Wexford or Waterford or out west to the Aran Islands as they have the freedom to go where they want. The word goes out on WhatsApp "we're having lunch in Sligo" so they go off for lunchin Sligo.'

John Nugent insists: 'We comply with Customs, garda and emigration regulations. The lads who go flying are good guys. They are not heroin smugglers. They are not even cigarette smugglers. The runway here is 1,000 metres, compared with 2,800 at Dublin Airport, enough to take any small eight- or ten-seater, twin-engined turbo prop.'

A total of 52 planes fly out of the airfield in Newcastle where three engineers are employed full time on care and maintenance. Cessna trainers, with dual controls are the most common, referred to affectionately as Toyota Corolla with wings because they have a reputation for keeping going year after year. The comparison appears valid on a glimpse into the cockpit, though these Corollas have Rolls Royce engines.

The crash of the Celtic Tiger killed recreational flying dead for a while but John Nugent has created an alternative business: 'I see a massive future in this country for the training of commercial pilots - for the world and not only for Ireland. Four of the lads who came through here have got commercial pilot work with Ryanair and one of the girls got Aer Lingus. Others have gone off flying jets around the globe. There's one in Indonesia and another off in the United States.

'The world will always be short of pilots. China will be looking for 10,000 pilots in the next five years. Where are they going to get them from?' Anyone who learns to fly a Cessna here above the coast between Bray and Wicklow can clock up the hours to go on and do the commercial training.

The set-up at the airfield includes a suite of classrooms where topic covered include air law, human performance and weather.

The equipment includes a 'full motion simulator' where students can make beginner's mistakes without fatal consequences.

Trainees come to enrol, from the UK and China and Kuwait, with John Nugent confident that the number can only grow as the Irish licence is highly regarded far and wide.

Such commercial considerations have not dimmed his own love affair with aviation as he insists: 'The passion is still there. In fact, it is stronger, bigger, better.'

As classes were slack on the day that he called, your reporter was allowed the privilege of a quick session on the simulator.

The replica cockpit of a Cessna 172, it was housed indoors, in what looked like the cab of a crane, sitting on a 'motion platform'.

Instead of an ignition key, tutor Ken Townsend produced a USB stick unlocking a computer programme, lighting up a series of screen which together formed a very realistic windscreen.

The action was set in and around a re-creation of Waterford Airport, which in the real world is no more than a 45 minute spin away. Ken coaxed me through the procedures of a ten minute simulated flight around the Waterford area. Perspiration levels shot off the scale as we came to land, finishing with at least one wheel on the runway.

Only afterwards did he reveal that nine out of ten debutants crash the stimulator on their maiden flight. We may have ended up at right angles to where we should have been but at least we were still intact...

Incidentally the 'Vikings' of television fame have been known to rent a piece of land at the airfield out the back to do some filming and three of the series crew have taken to flying in and out when not busy on set.

Wicklow People

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