By AMELIA T. REIHELD
There’s one odd thing any American pilot realizes after a day or two in Ireland: There’s a real shortage of airplane noise.
Wander the Emerald Isle’s spectacular byways, vibrant towns, and magnificent coasts, even for a fortnight, as I did recently, and it’s unlikely you’ll see a single airplane smaller than an airliner. General aviation, as we know it, seems as rare as hen’s teeth. Paved and towered airports are just about the exclusive domain of scheduled airliners.
On day 10 of my GA-free visit to Ireland, I happened past the Cork Airport (EICK), and noticed a couple of cars parked off the departure runway watching AerLingus come and go.
One fellow had a handheld aviation radio and binoculars, just your average Irish aviation junkie, getting his lunchtime fix of wing-watching. He said he’d tried to learn to fly a few years back. He found the expense, the weather delays, and the flying club’s scheduling problems to be insurmountable though, logging only 30 hours in three years. So now he sits in his car over his lunch break and listens to other aviators being paid to have all the fun.
On day 12, I looked up at a welcome sound to see a smallish airplane, my first, circling over Cashel’s massive 4th century fortifications. I talked to locals, most of whom had no idea there was any airport nearby. I finally Googled my way to a well-hidden grass strip.
There, in a Quonset hut/parachute loft/blue-sky-with-clouds-painted hangout, lingered several dozen young people enjoying their Sunday afternoon, the music, the lunch wagon food, and each other’s stories.
Pilots? No, there seemed to be only the two or three AirVan drivers, the guys running the sky-diving operation. The rest were there, faces upturned into the occasional drizzle, waiting for their friends who’d forked over 300 Euros each for the privilege of tandem-jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.
Nobody in this crowd seemed interested in learning to fly, or even buying a sightseeing ride, says David Byrnes (pictured below), the proprietor, who hopes his congenial business will attract them. For now, though, he offers special deals for charity challenge jumps, which bring in the crowds.
On day 13, I finally found general aviation alive and well in Ireland. I emailed the editor of an Irish flying mag, and Joe McDermott wrote me right back. Why sure, he’d be glad to meet with me when we neared Dublin, and even better, he’d try to arrange a ride with his friend, who owns a beautiful RV-7.
I arrived early, my trusty GPS guiding me directly to the geographic coordinates listed for this wee sod strip. There I found dozens of airplanes, little old warbirds, homebuilts, a couple of small choppers, and a number of single-engine Cessnas and Pipers of varying vintage. There was a delightful mechanic, who, like every Irishman I met, was more than willing to tell a stranger his tales.
My flying benefactor, Bryan Sheane, arrived, and began the complicated process of extracting a brilliant RV-7, his pride and homebuilt joy, from the very back of a shared hangar. Soon my new Internet editorial friend appeared, and we all got to talking about flying little airplanes in Ireland.
So, it seems, if you know where to look, there are indeed a few people who fly for fun. They hide out on short, bumpy grass strips carved out of farmland, because of the protected airspace and high landing fees at big paved airports.
Describing the procedure to hop a half hour across the Irish Sea that lay just between us and England, Bryan Sheane ruefully noted, “It’s easier to fly from Beirut.”
Flight plans must be filed at least 12 hours in advance. Customs and police notification are required for private intra-European flights.
There’s no such thing as night VFR. Filing fees for IFR flights and instrument approaches are discouragingly high, and so are the costs and challenges for the training for that rating, with many tests and other hurdles to surmount. Staying current, then, is a whole other challenge.
Even for day local day VFR, then, it’s not cheap. Avgas is a bargain at just under $5 at the little airfield. Oh. Wait. That’s per liter. So, make that $20-ish per gallon. My new friend filled one wing with avgas, and the other with somewhat cheaper mogas, from Gerry cans in a sturdy wagon. He figured using two different sources would provide an added margin of safety, as well as a small savings.
“So, let’s go flying,” he offered. I climbed into the right seat, and admired his fine glass panel. We taxied past grazing cattle to the little seaside airstrip, and soon were bouncing down an alarmingly short runway.
Aloft, my ground-bound impressions of Ireland were confirmed. How many words for GREEN could there be in Gaelic? A crazy agricultural quilt spread over the rolling land in shades of green, greener, and greenest, with the occasional patch of bright yellow, and dark freshly plowed fields, each odd-shaped polygon bordered with hedgerow or stone walls. A web of tiny roads seemed placed by afterthought.
What a fine sight! Scattered ruins of castles, fortifications and centuries-old abbeys lay here and there, and far away from any road we had traveled, a surprising number of grand old manors hid from the hoi-polloi.
We wheeled and swooped, my pilot obviously having the time of his life. He graciously turned the stick over to me. The airplane was a joy to fly, so much so that he drily noted that RVs climb like crazy… Oh. Yeah, huh, I admitted, as I gingerly, with thumb and forefinger, aimed back down to an altitude less likely to interfere with Dublin’s airspace.
We watched sheepdogs working their flocks, admired the calm Irish Sea and its coastal lighthouses, the gentle old mountains just west of us, and kept a wary eye on developing rain squalls. The approach and landing were as smooth as anyone could wish, but no thanks to me! My only contribution was applause.
Some things about flying are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. Like here, aviating in Ireland is expensive, and requires a substantial commitment of time and resources. Like here, there are bureaucratic hoops to jump through, and like here, it’s all beyond the reach of the majority of folk.
But the differences of scale are appalling. It is SO much more expensive and difficult there that our American habit of general aviation flying as a matter of course to do business, conduct law enforcement, ship packages, do medevacs, as a great way to impulsively go visit faraway relatives, spend a day in the city, go to the beach or the mountains, go for breakfast, or attend a great big fly-in, just doesn’t seem to be a significant part of European culture.
Brian Sheane is an exception to this generalization. Despite the bureaucracy, though, he thinks nothing of hopping from Dublin over to Spain, France, or Morocco for the week. The challenges of flying from one very-different neighboring culture to the next are just part of the fun for him. It probably helps that he can call it “business.”
The expense, of course, and the bureaucratic roadblocks, without question, both contribute to the very different face of GA there. There’s also the fact that in the United States, many of our small airports were built as military fields during World War II, and inherited by lucky cities and towns thereafter. So we have many more paved, government-supported airports with good facilities. Airports, even small ones, are recognized as important transportation infrastructure.
Also contributing to our healthier GA environment is that our American distances are vast enough to merit flying from here to there. In Ireland, that pressure is off. It’s a small island and hardly anywhere is more than a three or four hour drive by excellent motorway.
It’s almost as if the whole of GA in Ireland, therefore, is done by devoted and determined fair-weather hobbyists, who do much of their own maintenance, and stay well out of the way of the big guys, rather than horning — as many of us do — into urban traffic patterns, taking our turns between the commuter jets and the 767s as our birthright.
Two lessons learned: First and foremost is how very fortunate we are that aviation prospered here in the United States over the last century, largely unfettered by an invasive and over-controlling government. We should each do what we can to guard and defend that precious freedom.
The second lesson is this: A half-hour’s flying time over Irish countryside is an opportunity not to be missed. It is well worth whatever else you have to sacrifice to make it happen. I was very lucky to find a friend with a friend with an airplane.
And I have to admit, it was one of the best parts of a wonderful trip, a glorious way to see one of the prettiest countries on earth.