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Friday, August 1, 2014

Up Close: Herefordshire’s Secluded Training Gem

By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief

View inside the Tiger Helicopters hangar.
Photos by Andrew Drwiega
You could not describe the airfield at Shobdon in the heart of the Herefordshire countryside as on the road to anywhere in particular. Located down an unassuming road that bears left at the bottom of a small hill towards the control tower, with two grass and one paved runways, it has the appearance of a small country flying club with a few modernized hangars mixed with portacabins and Nissan huts that hint at the airfield’s history.

During World War II, this was a glider training center with pilots learning to master the Hotspur and Horsa gliders. Some of those men then took those flimsy aircraft (by today’s standards) and flew them packed with airborne troops into the vanguard of battles such as the D-Day landings and the Rhine Crossing. Gliders breathlessly swooped down, landing feet from their objectives such as the famous Pegasus Bridge on the eastern shoulder of the Normandy beachhead.

While the gliders are now long gone, pilots are still being trained at the little airstrip. Appearances are not what they seem either. Tiger Helicopters, run by helicopter enthusiastic and dedicated owner Alan Ramsden, has been quietly conducting a professional international training academy for national and foreign pilots including pilots from Kuwait and Algeria.

Ramsden is one of those people who lives and breathes his business. He learned to fly at 17 and, at one time or another, has invested most of his finances into building up his company. From owning his one and only Robinson R22 and giving flying lessons to friends and those who wanted more, he has built a business which now numbers five R22s, two Bell 206 Jet Rangers and an old AgustaWestland AW109A that has seen the last of its flying days although Ramsden is gradually whittling it down by selling its parts, item by item.

We met almost by chance. A good friend had given me a helicopter flying lesson for my 50th birthday last year. While not being a pilot, or even an engineer by trade, my journalism has given me numerous opportunities to experience the thrill – and difficulty – of taking control of a helicopter to varying degrees. The most difficult was not my day with Ramsden – ours became more of a sometimes “hands-on” pleasure flight with him reawakening my realization of how far down the line I still have to progress in order to remotely claim any flying skills. No, the hardest hour I ever spent was with an instructor at RAF Shawbury, the home of military ab initio training in the UK. I had arrived with the intention of riding along on a SAR exercise over Snowdonia, then on to RAF Valley to meet up with the SAR Force commander, but the weather closed in around the mountains (as it so often does) and I accepted my first flying lesson as a compromise. Let’s say I finished with a very damp shirt and the sweat trickling out from under my flying helmet after closing the session trying to control cyclic and collective in unison for the first time.

Back to Ramsden and my time in the Jet Ranger. Being a large guy, he kindly traded me up to 45 minutes in the Bell 206 when my gift should have meant that I was flying in an R22. Either would have been a first. I found the Jet Ranger to be responsive with excellent all around vision. Although the cloud ceiling was around 1,200 feet, the rain had cleared by the time we took off and Ramsden took me seamlessly through the basics once again (as I had requested). We finished with cyclic and pedal control, then a quick lesson in pulling power through the collective and adjusting cyclic and pedal to account for the increase and decrease in height.

Before the flight, Ramsden had shown me around the Tiger Helicopters facility. A smart new purpose-built hangar was completed in 2003. The all-in-one hangar has as many skylights as the design would allow and offers 28 percent natural light. Light is further provided by roof fixtures. The hangar benefits from a large heater and ceiling fans that circulate that heat during the winter, while providing cooling during the summer. The numerous sliding hangar doors along one side of the building have bristle finishes at the bottom and top which Ramsden states makes the building virtually climate controlled. At the far end is a small area with its own electrically operated hangar door which conceals a privately owned three-quarter scale P-51 Mustang and a couple of general aviation aircraft.

Landing after a flying lesson.
Other than inside the hangar proper, other rooms on the ground floor include the machine shop, engineering office and bonded storage area. On the second story there is a pilots leisure area with kitchen facilities, 1-on-1 training rooms for pilot, pupil review sessions, and Tiger’s administrative offices. Currently Ramsden’s operation is between major contracts and is down to around five staff, but during the busiest period around 2012 when both Kuwaiti and Algerian pilots were being trained here, pilots instructors, personnel looking after the ab initio pilots (and the extra staff required) fluctuated between 50 to 60 people.

The Kuwaiti government contract which was split into two parts stretched over 2005-2008 was a ‘big break’ for Tiger and required the training of 16 police helicopter pilots. Ramsden said that English language training was and continues to be offered to international customers in addition to flight training.

In 2010, AgustaWestland asked Ramsden if he could become a training supplier to the organization. He subsequently helped to train ab initio Algerian military pilots who would eventually fly AW109 and AW101 military aircraft that had been acquired from the Anglo-Italian company. However, after training the majority of the pilots, AgustaWestland decided to take a more independent strategy on training for those nations that bought its military helicopters.

The second building is quarter refurbished Nissan hut, which acts as a pilot/instructor pre- and post-flight rest area and welfare center. The other three quarters of it is a Tardis-like (Google Dr. Who, BBC for those unfamiliar with the Tardis) dedicated training center. The main room can accommodate a full school of around 60 students for a collective briefing. Behind this are three identical rooms with computer desks that double-up to provide flight instruction consoles or English language systems. One room is configured with Internet capability including built-in cameras so foreign students away from home can stay in regular contact with their families.

But there are significant plans to further develop this second building which will entail replacing the Nissan hut and incorporating the area into a broader two floor building complete with an outside viewing gallery. The work is already planned and would take around 18 months to complete, reassures Ramsden.

His wife, Danielle, is a trained cook and has supervised meals for students, including sourcing and serving halal food when it has been required. In the early days, Ramsden provided his few trainees with mobile home facilities located in the nearby campsite, but now students can either stay with local families, which helps them to improve their English, or at a couple of buildings located within a few miles of the airfield. Previously, he has also arranged for students to have cars so they can be independent and travel to the airfield whenever their course required.

Currently Ramsden is in discussions with several potential international government customers, including Libya who has already carried out their own audit on the school. The location is one of the more attractive points, summarized Ramsden. Beautiful countryside, a quiet environment in which to learn flying skills and the ability to provide indoor and outdoor instruction for small or large numbers of ab initio pilots.

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