The background to Talgarth Airfield, how it began and developed into such a unique gliding club, is probably unlike that of any gliding club in the UK. A dream, an accidental meeting, some lucky escapes, a couple of jet fighters and a lot of grit and determination. With some craziness mixed in.
A great place for a gliding club but not ideal for an airfield
Most Gliding Clubs in the UK are in the flat lands – often large and based on old WW2 airfields. Few are 1000ft above sea level, on a small area of ‘flatness’, on the edge of 1000sq km of rugged upland moorland, steep long ridges and mountain peaks.
Talgarth airfield is located on farmland in the Brecon Beacons National Park. Its founder was Derrick Eckley, a hill farmer who, like many of us, had developed an interest in aircraft in his childhood. It was not till the early 60’s, when Derrick, in his late 20’s, had his first flying lesson in a light aircraft at Rhoose (now Cardiff International Airport). But it wasn’t the experience he’d anticipated, and he then put flying out of his mind and focused on farming and raising a family with his wife Gwenllian.
In 1968 one of his farm supplies reps visited him. As he was looking around and at the amazing westerly facing ridge that overlooks the farm, he asked if anyone had thought about flying gliders from here. The rep was a pilot with South Wales Gliding Club who were looking to relocate to a new site. After a few weeks a group from SWGC visited but decided the fields were not big enough to operate from and ruled it out. But for Derrick a seed had been planted.
South Wales Gliding Club went on to establish themselves at their current site at Usk just down the road. Derrick joined this new club at Usk and started learning to fly gliders there, but soon became frustrated with short winch-launched training flights and slow progress. Derrick got wind of a new gliding operation at Shobdon. He joined and after a couple of months went solo. Derrick flew with Hereford Gliding Club for six years although he had limited time due to the demands of farming.
A chance meeting!
It was towards the end of this period, Spring 1978, that Derrick bumped into John Bally and conversation was struck up as Derrick was wearing a BGA tie. The next day they were both pacing out the fields above Derricks farm. They decided to ‘give it a go’ but first had to remove a hedge and fill in a ditch. They bought a rather breathless Auster and flew this from Shobdon until the ‘airfield’ at Talgarth was clear of crops.
The big day came after Derrick had mowed an east/west strip in the stubble. John flew the Auster in from Shobdon – the first landing at TAL. Derrick jumped in and had a flight and then overconfidence kicked in and they tried to take-off to the East uphill and towards the rising ground, trees and the mountains. They got away with it – just! That sentence seems to appear a fair few times in Derrick’s book, The Story of the Black Mountains Gliding Club (read on if you’re interested in reading this).
Establishing a gliding club
The following year, the plan was to start a gliding club. As luck would have it Hereford Gliding Club was selling their Rallye Tug and a Blanik. John, Derrick and a friend bought the combo. In Derrick’s words “This is when things started getting interesting”.
John was a low hours power pilot, with virtually no gliding experience. Derrick was an inexperienced glider pilot with around nine solo hours and just an hour in the previous two years. John took a tow from Shobdon in the Blanik and became the first person to land a glider at TAL. Derrick then had the first launch in the Blanik aerotowed by John in the Rallye straight onto the ridge which was working beautifully with mile after mile of constant energy. Derrick’s dream had come true, with the help and encouragement of John Bally. They had less than a dozen solo gliding hours between them but with determination, a vision and sheer stubbornness, Black Mountains Gliding Club was born.
But things needed formalising. So Derrick and John approached the Brecon Beacons National Park (BBNP) to get planning permission. This was promptly turned down. But a flight demonstration was set up and conducted under temporary planning permission. The aim was to show how unobtrusive and relatively quiet an operation it would be. Quite a few from BBNP turned up and the demonstration went reasonably well with a glider being launched by the Rallye. Planning permission was granted but it stipulated that there was to be no flying on Bank Holidays! Derrick and John realised this meant that it couldn’t be a viable club. But they persevered for five years.
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A ding-dong with the authorities and a couple of jet fighters
Christmas 1984 came. Flying had been pretty non-existent in the run-up to the festive season, but New Year’s Eve bought excellent wave conditions with it working to Diamond Height levels.
The same conditions were to continue the next day. New Year’s day! A bank holiday…. The only person likely to report them to BBNP was a particular neighbour. Gliders were rigged and Derrick went to smooth things over with the neighbour but had no success. With a dozen gliders rigged they decided ‘what the hell’ and went for it. This was a tipping point. An enforcement order arrived in the post a couple of weeks later. This was a trigger for Derrick and John to get serious and they took the matter to the Welsh Office.
An appeal was set for December 1985. Derrick had the support of local businesses, residents and farmers. The hearing went well as the inspector seemed switched on and understood the issues and impact – or lack of it! As objections were based on noise John Bally had arranged a demonstration of sorts. Since the airfield started operations the RAF had kept a few miles clear of the airfield. John was well connected and had arranged for two Hawk Jets from RAF Valley to fly up the Cwmdu at low level and dive into the airfield. The Jets arrived on cue and flew a second high-energy run into the field practically taking the roof tiles off the hanger. The demonstration was a roaring success and the inspector got the message.
To formalise the planning permission the inspector wanted an operational plan. This was produced, and all points Derick and John had proposed were passed. This is the same operational and noise abatement plan we operate to this day.
A ‘normal’ gliding club at last!
The future of BMGC and Talgarth airfield were secured. It could now function on these important bank holidays and operate as a normal gliding club. Although, it still faced risks as do other clubs. It’s reliant to a degree on support from other farmers, and surrounding land changes hands. But the airfield underwent ongoing development. The road was put in in 1983. The hedge along the East side was removed which opened up the South West runway improving safety. The next and possibly most significant improvement was the extension of the airfield to the North. This probably accounts for 80/90% of take-offs nowadays. John had moved on and was now farming and Derrick was left to run the club.
Until 1997 Derrick was Black Mountains Gliding Club. He ran it, he instructed, he ran the tugging operation. He was completely involved in every other way, practically full time.
The next stage in the evolution of ‘TAL’
A decision was made for the club to buy the airfield from Derrick. A factor in this was a Lottery Grant application for a more modern/larger hanger and clubhouse. A condition of the grant was the club had to own the airfield or have a very long lease. The airfield had makeshift hangers and a club house that had served members well. However, being based on an old Army Hut joined to a Mobile Home was no longer fit for purpose. This was demolished and turned into a seating and BBQ area under the oak tree.
In the past 15 years the club has evolved further, facilities improved. Such as the addition of a second Pawnee, kept in reserve, a large new workshop, decent camping and caravan facilities, a couple of K13s, and a small but well-thought-through single seater fleet, plus of course the many privately-owned aircraft that members fly from here. We have invested in solar, borehole and other measures to ensure the club is sustainable and secure for the future.
From the early days the flying from Talgarth has been pioneering in terms of mountain and wave flying. But it’s also a cross country club with some accomplished XC and competition pilots. That doesn’t mean that it’s just a place for experienced XC and mountain types. The area is accessible and local flying here – a combination of ridge and thermal – brings with it great opportunities and spectacular flights. An easy going gliding club for every glider pilot.
End of an era!
Sadly Derrick passed away in 2018. He’d been ill for some time. His dream from 40+ years ago was to establish a gliding club on his doorstep, in this beautiful area in the Brecon Beacons National Park. He did that and kept on building on that dream and transform it into a well-known and internationally recognised mountain gliding club.
Derrick Eckley has been an inspiration to others and is still with us, guides our decision-making for the club and shapes our vision for its future. And it looks like a good future. Pay us a visit sometime and you’ll see why Derrick Eckley and John Bally were so driven to establish a gliding club here.
Note: This is an abridged extract from Derrick’s book: “The Story Of The Black Mountains Gliding Club”. If you are interested in hearing more about the early antics at BMGC such as the ‘glider in a reservoir’ story you can download a copy here. The Story of the Black Mountains Gliding Club 2007