• River Cruises - The Thames

    River Cruises - The Thames

    By Derek Swanson (25 August 2009)

    The Thames is the longest river entirely in England and the second longest in the UK. Its source is somewhat in dispute with arguments for both Thames Head near Kemble and Seven Springs near Cheltenham. A 215 mile journey takes the Thames through a number of well known English towns and cities - Oxford, Abingdon, Reading, Henley, Windsor, Eton and of course London; before it empties into the North Sea. Many places along the Thames are associated with significant history and the river is often referred to affectionately as "Old Father Thames".

    A number of historically important airports and airfields lie close to the Thames, almost a "who's who" list of English Aviation, which become very good VFR landmarks for navigating this cruise. You can in fact use the airports as navigation tools for this flight. Once again, we will follow the river from source to estuary, but before we get to the detail of the flying, some thoughts on the set-up of the sim for this flight.


    Thames Source

    I usually fly in the UK with FS2004 VFR scenery (Horizon version) which is great for VFR. For this flight, however, I suggest disengaging this scenery (via the scenery library) because with it the river's path is not as easy to discern and distinguish from other tree-lined feature such as roads and hedge borders etc. The river is also quite narrow for most of its length and once again I recommend the FS2002 New River (NEWRIVER.ZIP) enhancement as a navigation aid. As in previous cruises, I used FS2004 with FScene Europe, which enhances the landclass and thus the variety of scenery types that you see. The detail of some default FS2004 airfields can be enhanced with the following add-on freeware scenery:

    • Kemble (EGBP) - the KEMBLE06.ZIP or Gary Summons' UK2000P5.ZIP
    • Fairford (EGVA) - ALRAFFAI.ZIP - significantly improves the very bland default
    • Kidlington (EGTK) - EGTK2004.ZIP - this adds IFR landing aids to the default
    • Booker (EGTB), Chalgrove (EGLJ) & White Waltham (EGLM) within Gary Summons' UK2000P5.ZIP
    • Heathrow (EGLL) - there are a number of payware and freeware upgrades available but beware of very low frame rates!
    • London City (EGLC) - EGLC-V2.ZIP
    • Southend (EGMC) - EGMC2K.ZIP which adds lots of static aircraft including a Vulcan

    One other point is weather. I started making this flight with real weather, however the UK was rather dull and wet at the time which meant low level flying and difficult navigation. Although realistic, it made a hard job more difficult so I opted for the FS2004 "Fair weather" option to enable flight at around 5000 feet and a better view of the river's path. Since many of the airports en-route have west-east runways, because of the UK's prevailing winds, I opted for an easterly wind to make for simpler landings.

    Fairford default

    Fairford upgrade

    Start the flight at Kemble (EGBP), which was built as a military training and maintenance base in the late 1930s as part of the RAF expansion, then used during WWII for assembling and preparing aircraft for overseas deployment. Kemble became home to the Red Arrows Gnats and also a USAF base until the early 1990s, when its military role came to an end. Now in private hands, Kemble is home to Delta Jets Ltd who fly and maintain several classic British jets. Take off from runway 08 if wind and ATC allow and head north looking for the crossing of the road with a railway line (looks like two roads) and you should see the river's source ahead and to the right. There is a short gap in the flow just before the first of several lakes and near the last of the lakes a tributary joins the Thames. As the river turns right it is joined by another tributary but the Thames is the river that flows to the right (east) and the one to follow.

    Fairford (EGVA) appears on your left and while it may be bit early for a landing, you could make a touch 'n go on the very long runway. Built in 1943 and opening a year later, Fairford was an RAF base for Short Stirlings and Horsa gliders. In the 1950s, Fairford became a USAF base flying B29/50s and later B36 Peacemakers, B47s and B52s. If you've installed the upgrade quoted above, you will see B52, F117 and B2 aircraft as evidence of the USAF occupation. Fairford was used as a test base for Concorde in the 1970s because of its long runway.

    Beyond Fairford there is another lake and a maze of rivers, which you follow east, when Brize Norton (EGVN) appears to the left. Having a similar history to Fairford, Brize Norton has been home to RAF and USAAF/USAF aircraft since it was built in the 1930s. Brize's role as the main RAF transport base started in 1965 with aircraft such as the Bristol Brittania, Vickers VC10 and Short Belfast. As well as transport, Brize has also become home to the VC10k tanker force, now being supplemented by Lockheed Tristar tankers and C17 transport aircraft. The airport itself is quite well presented in FS2004 including the large mass of buildings to the north-west as in the real place.

    Kidlington approach


    The countryside in this area is very flat and after Brize Norton, you will see another series of lakes after which a tributary joins from the north as the Thames heads east towards the city of Oxford. Shortly after this, the Thames turns north, passing to the west of the Farnmoor reservoir with its distinctive causeway across the middle, before turning east then south around Wytham woods to enter Oxford from the north. Before following the Thames though Oxford you may wish to detour a little north to Kidlington airport (EGTK) yet another WWII airport now in civil hands. With its history of pilot training facilities, Kidlington's single runway was calculated to be the busiest in the world during the 1960s and was consistently second to Heathrow in this respect. Kidlington is much quieter today but being the closest airport to Silverstone, it can handle around 1,000 movements per day when the Grand Prix comes to town.

    As the Thames enters Oxford, it follows a south-easterly route and is accompanied by the Oxford Canal to give the appearance from the air of two parallel rivers. As it reaches the south of the city, the Thames turns easterly and merges with the Cherwell, a major tributary to the Thames at this point, with the confluence of the two being very clear in FS2004. Beyond Oxford, the river flows south-east before turning east towards Benson Airport (EGUB) with Chalgrove (EGLJ) to the left.

    Benson is yet another 1930s RAF expansion airport, first housing squadrons of Fairey Battles which were then very modern monoplane bombers. Sadly, when the squadrons moved to France in September 1939, these aircraft proved not to be the success hoped for and squadrons were decimated at the hands of Luftwaffe pilots flying Bf109s. The King's Flight (later the Queen's Flight) moved to Benson in 1939 and though suspended during wartime, the service resumed post-war. At the onset of WWII Benson became a training unit for Wellington Bombers but became most well known for its Photoreconnaissance unit (PRU) founded in 1941 by Sidney Cotton. This unit, flying specially modified Spitfires and Mosquitoes, was initially experimental and only nominally under RAF command being known as "Sid Cotton's air force". The PRU went on to prove itself to be one of the most important strategic contributions to the war effort, providing photographs of key military targets. Although the PRU activity continued post-war, Benson later housed transport aircraft, including the Queen's flight and is home today to three helicopter squadrons.

    Windsor and Heathrow

    Heathrow landing

    With the UK2000p5 scenery, Chalgrove (EGLJ) stands out quite clearly though quite a small airport. Built in WWII it was first occupied by the USAAF and with its close proximity to Benson it became a USAAF photo-reconnaissance base. Closing for military use in 1945, the Martin-Baker company took over Chalgrove for ejector seat testing and they remain at Chalgrove for this purpose today.

    After Benson, the Thames deviates south towards higher ground, then turns easterly through a shallow valley between two sets of hills, before returning south to the city of Reading. Looking to the east at this point, the city of London and the Thames estuary appear on the horizon.

    Flowing through Reading, the Thames meets the Kennet Canal at the south of the city, which FS2004 displays as a "cross roads" of rivers. The Thames is the easterly flowing arm of this "cross-roads" and it soon takes a long northerly curve to Henley-on-Thames (of rowing regatta fame). As you pass over Henley, this you will see White Waltham (EGLM) airfield to the right. Being a grass field, the FS2004 default is not easy to spot, but the UK2000p5 enhancement makes it much more visible and adds quite a bit of detail.

    White Waltham is one of the largest grass airfields in Britain and the home of the West London Aero Club. It is one of the UK's most historic airfields having come to be in 1928 when the De Havilland family bought the land to build an airfield for their flight training school. In WWII White Waltham became the center for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) whose role was to fly new aircraft to their squadrons, saving RAF pilot time. Fairey aviation also had tenure of White Waltham for a time before it became a civilian airfield after WWII.

    Entering London

    Central London

    Continuing north, the Thames skirts some higher ground before turning east again towards Heathrow. At this point you have White Waltham to the south and Booker (EGTB) to the north. Also of WWII origins, Booker started off as a flying training centre with Tiger Moths and Miles Magisters. The training later extended to glider flying and post-WWII some military presence remained, including University Air Squadrons, as Booker changed towards a more civilian role. Booker was renamed "Wycombe Air Park" in the late 1960s and is operated today by British Airways.

    After another short deviation south, the Thames turns eastward toward a set of lakes with Heathrow airport (EGLL) just beyond them. Heathrow is claimed to be the world's busiest airport and the "hub of the aviation world", with 90 airlines making it their base. Heathrow started its aviation life as a military base in the First World War, but by the end of WWII it took over from Croydon as London's premier airport. Heathrow grew steadily from 1946 with its first jet airliner, a dH Comet 1, landing in 1952 and its first proper terminal building opening in 1955. Following the Comet service, Heathrow has seen the early arrival of all the latest aircraft, Boeing 707 and 747, Concorde and the newer Airbus series. The last passenger-carrying Concorde flight landed at Heathrow in 2003. The FS2004 Heathrow includes a lot of detailed scenery, so watch out for slow frame rates on approach and landing. There are a number of payware and freeware enhancements available for Heathrow but I suggest you only install them if you have a very powerful PC !! If you're not landing here, give it a wide berth or take a "safe" route over the central terminal buildings between the runways, watching out for traffic. Please note - not to be tried in the real world!

    Tower Bridge

    London City approach

    Having received ATC permission to land at Heathrow, I turned on final to runway 9L, passing over a 3D object of Windsor Castle which may be FS2004 default or part of some forgotten add-on. Looking around, I realised that me and my de Havilland Devon were trundling down the glide path at around 85 kt with an MD80 following us in at around 130 kt! I was very keen to take the first taxiway after landing, which I achieved, saving us both some embarrassment...

    The FS2004 Thames disappears on reaching the first lake complex west of Heathrow and does not reappear until the beginnings of the estuary west of London. This can be seen quite clearly as you pass Heathrow with the city of London ahead. After the big bend at Kew, a number of recognisable landmarks come into view in sequence - Battersea Power Station, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge, City Hall, Waterloo Station and the London Eye. These are followed quickly by the Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Depending on your altitude, the Canary Wharf towers can block your view of London City airport (EGLC), which can be your next stop if you can cope with the steeper than usual approach onto a short runway surrounded by water! London City is by far the newest airport on our cruise having been built in 1986 as part of the London Docklands development. London City is classed as a "STOLport", designed to receive aircraft with Short-Take-Off-and-Landing capability. To prove the concept, a DHC Dash 7 was landed on nearby quays. The original runway was very short at 1,080 m (3,543 ft) and had a glide slope of 7.5 degrees, much steeper than the usual 3 degrees. In the early 1990s the runway was lengthened to 1,508m (4948 ft) with a shallower glide slope of 5.5 degrees, permitting the use of a wider range of turboprop and jet aircraft. Noise abatement measures imposed on the use of London City include weekday "opening hours" between 06:30 and 22:00 with "half days" only at weekends.

    London City departure

    Bridge fly by

    Leaving London City, the estuary widens quite quickly and ahead is one of the easiest bridges in FS2004 to fly under. Travelling east, the urban landscape of the metropolis gradually becomes more rural as you near the river mouth and the North Sea. There are three airports that can be classed as being at the end of the river; Southend (EGMC), Clacton (EGSQ) and Manston (EGMH).

    Southend (EGMC) is the first in the sequence and has a single runway (06/24) of 1,591m. The default FS2004 version shows the second runway as being still in use and with a curious taxiway arrangement which meets the runway near its mid-point, so requiring a back-track after landing on either runway. The enhanced scenery version quoted above improves things quite a bit, adding lots of static aircraft including a Vulcan. Southend was an early-bird in aviation terms, having been built during WWI and seeing action against the Zeppelin airship raids on the London. After WWI the airport fell into decline until the 1930s when it was reborn as a civil airfield with scheduled flights across the Thames to Rochester. Returning to military use in WWII, Southend was home to most of the well known fighter aircraft of the time, but again returning to civil use post-WWII. In the 1950s the two runways were laid and later developments included cross-channel routes for the then well known company, British Air Ferries. Southend has recently seen a revival with a new terminal and rail link to London.

    A little further up the northern coast from Southend, Clacton (EGSQ) is a small grass strip just east of the town. With a single grass runway (18/36) it is of typical FS2004 standard - surrounded by houses and trees. The solitary tree close to the end of the runway and the high buildings just beyond makes runway 18 a tricky place to take off or land.

    Southend upgrade

    Manston approach

    I considered the third option - Manston (EGUM), now known as Kent International Airport, a more appropriate place to land my Hawker Hurricane and finish the navigation of the Thames, since it is almost on the eastern tip of Kent and slightly more to the east than Clacton. Manston started out as a Naval Air station (RNAS) in 1916 as a seaplane base and grew into a large airfield by the end of WWI. In 1940 Manston was at the forefront of the UK's aerial defence in the Battle of Britain and in 1943 saw the testing of Barnes Wallis' dam-busting bouncing bomb at nearby Reculver. Later in WWII Hawker Typhoon ground attack planes and the first RAF Gloster Meteor jets arrived, the latter to combat the V1 flying bombs coming over the English Channel. Manston continued to house military aircraft until 1999 when the airport came into civilian hands, first being called "London Manston" and latterly as Kent International airport. Manston is now home to holiday flights as well as freight operators.

    So ends this cruise "with history". I hope you'll join me next time - wherever that happens to be.

    Happy Flying.

    Derek Swanson
    [email protected]

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