National Flying Centre, an update, what’s next? And some questions answered

From The Beginning

As reported in the BMFA News and on the BMFA website significant progress has been made on the National Model Flying Centre project, so perhaps now is a good time to look at the project in a little more detail and review the various elements that bring us up to date.

The idea of a national facility for model flying has been around for a very long time and the subject was discussed within the BMFA Full Council several times over the last 25 years but never seriously pursued.

Unfortunately, the discussions never resulted in the identification of a site and sadly it could be viewed that the best opportunity in terms of land availability at an affordable price was missed. However, that is of course all history and this is about the here and now and the current work to establish a National Centre.

The Current Project

The concept of a BMFA run and administered national centre was revisited about 4 years ago. This was prompted by a number of factors, a combination of the pressure on flying sites, pressure on high profile facilities, pressure on model flying generally and all combined with the desire to provide a ‘home’ from which to further develop the BMFA and all aspects of model flying.

Driven by these factors I put together a discussion document, (it is development after all) that set out in very broad terms what a national centre might consist of, what it might achieve, what the benefits could be and also how it might all hang together. The document was presented to the BMFA Executive Council for their consideration.

Following this I was tasked with making a brief presentation to Full Council who subsequently commissioned the feasibility study which was sponsored by our insurance brokers, Integro.

The search for a site began and the study took almost two years to complete and focused largely on the concepts outlined in the original document, i.e. the provision of a single site facility as a national centre for model flying.

The work of the study was undertaken with the support of a small number of dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers who put in a significant amount of work towards the project.

Theory to Practice

The work of the study has been covered in the BMFA News and through regular updates on the website so I will not repeat here. However, in broad terms the study demonstrated that whilst a large capital expenditure for a land/building purchase was problematic in terms of availability, timing and perhaps most significantly, cost, it also demonstrated that with the projected usage such a facility could produce an income stream and ultimately cover its own costs.

Following this, further work proceeded with the study specifically aimed at investigating alternative solutions such as leasing and this led us back to a landowner we had approached in the early phases of the study.

As already reported, this resulted in positive initial discussions and the potential to engage in a long-term lease on a suitable piece of land with some buildings and infrastructure already in place.

At the time of writing (November 2016), an agreement has been reached and a 35-year lease has been signed, additionally planning permission has been granted for a ‘change of use’ to a model flying site and visitor centre.

The Project Aims

The initial concept, which has been maintained throughout the work of the study, is the establishing of a facility with the potential to accommodate as large a range of model flying activity as possible. The provision of a flying site has always been the primary requirement but in order to make it an attractive proposition the provision of amenities and support infrastructure have to be a key element of the project.

Whilst the BMFA currently has an administration centre in Leicester (and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future) it has long been the view that the governing body for the sport of model flying should be able to provide an enduring location on which to actually fly model aircraft. Also to make provision for as much supporting activity as possible (some sports already do something similar and use the model of a national centre with regional or club locations).

Essentially the whole aim of the project is to provide something that does not already exist and to provide a stronger base for UK model flying going forward. The aim is to supplement the activities of our affiliated clubs, the individual members and the BMFA as a whole, not in any way compromise them.

There is no doubt that current pressures on flying sites and in particular, the restrictions on the use of military airfields has focused minds on the project and have made it more important to proceedthan at any time previously.

Being Realistic

Whilst we would all like to own and control a site similar to Barkston Heath (or indeed, own Barkston Heath), we of course have to be realistic. A site of several hundreds of acres is always likely to be outside of the financial capabilities of the BMFA (unless we benefitted from a very large windfall). In addition, the ongoing financial liabilities arising from ownership of a very large site (particularly with extensive hard runways) would again be beyond our resources.

Given this background, the project team focussed attention on options that presented a realistic potential for the BMFA and presented a manageable risk profile, hence the change of focus to a lease rather than a purchase.

What are the benefits?

Clearly, this is a fair question to ask and there has been some comment that the benefits of a National Centre have not been clearly set out. Overall I would say the benefits been covered in various articles over the duration of the project. However, this article represents a good opportunity review the key benefits.

  • To represent a ‘home’ for model flying in the UK
  • To provide facilities in line with the stated aims of the BMFA
  • To provide facilities for competitive flying
  • To provide facilities for the hosting of events and displays
  • To provide facilities for sport flying over and above existing club sites
  • To complement the established model flying calendar
  • To provide a pleasant environment in which to promote all aspects of model flying
  • To provide facilities in support of BMFA educational activities
  • To provide a home for the BMFA Achievement Schemes
  • To provide a base to promote model flying through trial lessons and experience packages (the equivalent of ‘Red Letter Days)
  • To provide a location to run courses and seminars including practical application
  • To provide facilities attractive to other organisations
  • To increase the overall profile of the BMFA and model flying
  • To provide a home and access point to the BMFA reference library and archive
  • To provide a home and opportunity to display historical modelling artefacts
  • To provide facilities attractive to the modelling trade
  • To provide facilities in support of corporate events
  • Essentially to provide a facility that doesn’t already exist for the benefit of the membership and the wider model flying community

Introducing Buckminster Lodge

Buckminster Lodge was identified in late 2015 as a potential location and further work with the landowner established that the site could accommodate a National Centre for model flying operated by the BMFA. The site benefits from ample space, a location central within the UK and close to major transport infrastructure.

Buckminster Lodge is a former equestrian centre until autumn 2015. The land is part of a very large estate and the owner is supportive of our plan to establish our National Visitor Centre at this location. The estate owner sees the NC will generate local benefits such as tourism, sport and recreation and importantly, would represent a positive addition to the local area and economy.

The site is located about five miles to the west of the A1 and between Grantham and Melton Mowbray and comprises 43acres of land mostly flat, well drained and under grass with a predominant East-West orientation, which lends itself well for R/C flight line layout.

The site has several existing buildings that will be refurbished to meet our requirements as part of a phased project plan.

The buildings are currently in a poor state of repair (the house was occupied up to September 2015) and will require refurbishment and some redesign to accommodate our specific requirements. The landowner is funding a significant portion of the cost of the refurbishments

The buildings consist of an indoor manége (square barn), a house (to be used as an office and reception centre) plus a range of associated traditional agricultural buildings, stabling, and groom’s quarters.

The buildings are all located to the Southern edge of the site and accessed from a straight private single-track concrete road 225 meters long leading from a B road so the site is not adjacent to the road. The access road is being upgraded to incorporate two ‘passing places’ in line with conditions of planning consent.

The size and orientation of the site lends itself to the establishing of multiple flight lines plus control line circles and an FPV racing course.

The area is rural and importantly the surrounding land is under the same ownership as Buckminster Lodge and not close to any noise sensitive premises.

There will also be accommodation for significant event ‘overflow’ parking in addition to the formal parking arrangements close to the buildings.

Who Will Benefit?

The short answer is model flying in all its forms will benefit and primarily members of the BMFA, of course not every BMFA member will visit the site on a regular basis. The aim is that over the longer term a significant number of members will visit the location, again, the more facilities and activities that can be incorporated, the more reasons to visit.

There has been significant comment that the project is entirely focussed on competitive flying but this is certainly not the case. However, as an organisation that supports a strong competitive element we do have a requirement for a location that can accommodate as many competition disciplines as possible.

The ability to hold domestic, national, and potentially international competitions on a self-run facility is certainly a key attraction and an important element of the financial model (all of the competition disciplines currently pay for the use of flying sites).

However, competitive flying will only be one aspect of the overall facility and competitions would dovetail in with a whole range of activities in support of non-competitive ‘general model flying’.  

The aim has always been to create a location that not only provides facilities for the flying of a significant range of model aircraft types but also provides a pleasant environment and an attractive place to visit.

Of course, in order to realise maximum income, the site will have to benefit from maximum usage. The aim is to accommodate some non-model flying related activity as additional revenue streams, as just one example we are already speaking with the BRCA (British Radio Car Association) to see how their members could make use of the facilities at Buckminster and increase the overall use of the site.

Will it Compromise the Existing Work of the BMFA?

The short answer is no. The aim has always been that the project complements the existing work of the BMFA and in no way detracts from the ongoing activities of the BMFA and its staff.

The primary aim of the BMFA will always be the promotion and protection of UK model flying in all its forms.

All of the previous work will continue but of course, there will be some switching of responsibilities in terms of the office team. In the early days of the five-year development plan, it is likely that senior staff would be located at Buckminster Lodge on a ‘rota basis’ to ensure appropriate cover but still provide continued levels of service through the ability to work remotely.

Looking at possible usage

It needs to be borne in mind that the list of possible uses is a long (and growing) one and is therefore difficult to forecast, however we have started putting a calendar together for 2017 and are already taking bookings.

As has been indicated from the very start of the project the initial phases will focus on the delivery of a flying site with basic supporting facilities. Going forward it is clear that the level of facilities developed will increase in direct proportion to the rate at which the location is utilised.

Whilst there is an outline 5-year plan in place covering the development of the location from its current status and condition, through to a location with all of the features and facilities referred to throughout the development of the project. Essentially at the one end there is a field with toilet facilities and a couple of buildings and at the other there is a centre with full facilities, the positive aspect in terms of managing the overall risk is that it can be anything in between to reflect the actual usage, interest and available funding.

Where have our views come from?

There will always be mixed views on a project of this significance and a small number of members have questioned the validity of the motives and processes (which is a positive, it is always good to have opposing views), however the general view seems to be very much in favour and is steadily gaining momentum.

One interesting aspect that has developed over the duration of the project is the feedback received at club talks.

During the course of each year, I am invited to a significant number of clubs to talk about the work of the BMFA and answer member’s questions. A regular topic for discussion and questions over the last couple of years has been the National Centre project.

I am always happy to talk about the project and have always concluded by asking attendees the same two questions, “Should the BMFA move towards the establishing of a National Centre on a no cost to member’s basis?” and “Should the BMFA move towards establishing a National Centre if it incurred a small additional cost of £1.00 to £2.00?”

The response to these two questions has always been an overwhelming positive, which is interesting as the clubs involved have been as far apart as North Wales and Dorset.

Managing Risk

A key element of any significant project is managing the risk, in this case this starts with identifying any potential risk to the members and the overall risk to the ongoing operation of the BMFA.

From the very outset, it was decided the National Centre would be set up as a distinct entity within the BMFA/SMAE. This is primarily to protect the financial security of the BMFA but also to identify National Centre activities to ensure continued compliance with the overall stated aims of the BMFA, ‘to promote and protect model flying in all its forms’,

Our assessment is there is no risk to the individual members of the BMFA.

The key benefits of membership such as the insurance are protected and the ongoing work to promote and protect model flying will continue irrespective of activity on the National Centre.  

The funding model for the initial 2 years of the 5-year development plan is underpinned by a contribution from the BMFA development reserves that have accumulated over many years. However, the level of contribution is currently capped at approximately 60% of the existing reserve. This leaves a significant ‘buffer’ remaining in accordance with the BMFA’s historic cautious approach and leaves a significant sum available for the proverbial ‘rainy day’.

To further minimise risk before committing to a long-term lease a set of so called ‘gating factors’ were identified that must be passed before the lease could be signed. These included such key items as obtaining planning permission for ‘change of use’.

Investment in development of infrastructure and facilities will be largely proportional to usage over the initial 5-year period with the 2 years very much setting the scene for the later phase developments.

Leasing clearly represents a lower risk route to acquiring a site and managed within the terms of the lease agreement. The lease includes a 'break clause' in the BMFA’s favour on every fourth anniversary and rent reviews tied to market rates but excluding any improvements made at BMFA cost.

There is an additional potential risk from legal liabilities arising from running and administering the facility with the increased range of activities. This has been reviewed with our insurers who have put together a package of solutions to ensure that the BMFA is appropriately protected from the initial phases of work and on to being open for business.

Making Predictions (Forecasts!)

It is clear that a significant element of the business model, in terms of revenue generation, is based on predictions (forecasts or estimates). There is no other way given the nature of the project and the proposed range of activity.

Where we have estimates to support the financial case we have collected data that backs up the figures.

As an example, we made an estimate on likely number flying days per year as a baseline. Comparisons are based on data obtained from a number of ‘seven day-a-week’ clubs who run activity logs. We have based the annual flying usage on 26 weeks per year spanning late March to mid-October although it is possible the season could be longer.

In addition, we have worked with a number of the competition disciplines to establish their potential usage in terms of number of desired competition days and likely pricing structure. Early stage discussions have taken place with a number of other potential users of the location and this will increase as part of a general PR drive as the project progresses.

The timing of all aspects of a project of this nature is difficult, clearly it requires the support of the ‘stakeholders’ (potential users) but it has been difficult to canvass support in advance of a clear way forward, something of a ‘chicken and egg situation’.

There is no doubt that the initial 2-year period will very much set the scene for the way forward. In simple terms, if the National Centre is fully utilised and well supported then further development will take place as planned. If it is not, then it will continue to operate at a lower level and development will be slowed and reviewed.

Initial Facilities

We are embarking on a programme of development that covers the first 18 to 24 months of occupation.

The aim is to deliver basic flying facilities (with toilet facilities) at an early stage of the project, the first phase is structured to provide an office/admin area, reception and basic meeting facilities (utilising the existing house on site) and also provide a basic overnight camping area. Additionally, there is a large barn (previously the indoor riding arena) which will be developed as a multi-purpose indoor space along with the adjoining building that will be refurbished to serve as a support building to the large barn, providing storage, catering and additional toilet facilities.

Further development will be governed to a large degree by usage and available funding. The aim is to promote fund raising activities and apply for grants to develop the remaining buildings. In particular, we plan to develop the so-called ‘long barn’ and adjacent buildings to become a visitor centre with a range of facilities supported by further improved facilities for camping but as referred is part of the longer term aims.

Usage and Charges

One of the aims of the National Centre has always been to include as much activity as possible, not only to gain maximum benefit from its existence but of course as the route to covering costs and hopefully, looking to the longer term, generating a profit.

There is no doubt that one of the challenges is going to be striking an appropriate balance between the various disciplines and overall activity.

An outline programme of activities has been drafted as part of the initial study process and all forecasts are based on 26 weeks use per year to reflect the historic weather patterns. There will also be activities that fall outside of the 26-week ‘core period’ and represent an addition to the forecasts.

Activity will be split between formal pre-booked events and competitions as well as ‘turn up and fly’ opportunities for sport flyers. Facilities can be pre booked at varying levels, such as whole site or individual flight lines, as will the indoor spaces.

A scale of charges will be available in the near future and there will be favourable rates available for those who may be regular users (in essence a season ticket arrangement) and for those who plan to camp and fly (a combined ticket at a favourable rate). In addition, group bookings will be available for those who want to spend a few days away together.

We also plan a number of ‘themed events’ from type specific fly-ins (the list could be a long one but electric weekend, retro weekend, scale weekend are the type of thing) to larger public displays with a trade presence.

The location is well served by local hostelries and attractions so will have the potential for a few days away with a model flying theme.

We are in the process of developing a BMFA National Centre website and the scale of charges will be included as well as information on booking the facilities, a calendar of events and a running blog of developments and activity as well as a link to an on-site weather station.

Again, the first 2 years is very much about establishing the way forward, we do not expect the initial charges, the booking scheme or the split of usage to be set in stone and after the initial period, all of these factors will be re-evaluated and modified to reflect the experience gained.

Phase 2 Development and Beyond

Looking to the longer term, (3 years and beyond), the aim is to fully develop all of the buildings on site towards providing the ‘visitor centre’ element of the project, the existing structures, whilst in fairly poor repair will benefit from preservation works during the early stages.

Further development will be dependent on usage and funding but the buildings have the potential to accommodate a reasonable size visitor experience with such additions as bunk rooms, workshops, storage, audio visual facilities, a museum, a reference library, simulator experiences, retail outlets and cafe facilities……the list goes on but importantly, assessed and reviewed on an ongoing basis.

Chacksfield House

We are frequently asked; “What the future holds for Chacksfield House?” and whether the project involves the disposal of the existing office building in Leicester and the relocation of existing staff.

The initial 5-year plan makes no provision for the disposal of Chacksfield House and the intention is to retain the primary office and membership administration services in Leicester along with the existing staff.

It is likely that over the longer term, any additional or replacement staff will be recruited from the locale of Buckminster and looking to the much longer term it is possible that a more complete migration of services and facilities could take place.

The Nationals

A question often mentioned is the future of the August Bank Holiday R/C Power and Control Line Nationals and the fact that Buckminster Lodge could not accommodate the Nationals in its current format. This is of course accurate and Barkston Heath is fairly unique in terms of size, shape, orientation, lack of structures and (generally) manageable security and access arrangements for what has become a very major public event.

Whilst the focus remains on a return to Barkston Heath for future R/C Power and C/L Nationals and there are positive signs for 2017, it has to be kept in mind that going forward, the Nationals may have to evolve to match the facilities available to us.

One of the most significant challenges for the Nationals, in its current format, is the fact that set-up and breakdown has to comply with the airfield operators’ schedule. Essentially, we gain access to the site at 5.00pm on the Friday and have to hand it back completely ready for operational use at 8.00am on the Tuesday morning following the bank holiday weekend.

The reality is we get limited access in the evenings during the prior week to start installing the infrastructure (marques, campsite areas etc.) but this presents a huge challenge in terms of logistics and manpower and considerably adds to the overall cost (overtime payments etc.) of the event.

Of course having control of our own site would remove this restriction and there would be nothing stopping the Nationals being held over a longer period. As an example, the AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) Nationals in the USA occupies over a month of activity with a number of key phases and headline events.

One important consideration when considering events held at Buckminster Lodge is the ‘proportional’ cost and resultant profitability per head when staging public events, the ability to set up infrastructure in realistic timescales and utilise self-owned equipment will mean that more of every entrance fee ends up in the pot that goes to running and further developing the centre.

Funding Considerations

The initial structure of the project relies on an ongoing contribution from the annual surplus generated by the BMFA as well as support from the insurance sponsorship arrangements (with the full support of our insurers).

The longer-term aim is the centre becomes an entirely stand-alone facility that contributes to the overall BMFA finances but this will of course take time to achieve.

There is a commitment not to seek an increase in the annual subscription fee to support the initial development of the centre (although research indicates that a significant number of members would support a minor increase aimed at further developing the National Centre).

However, we have always indicated that donations and bequests would form an important element of the development funding along with additional external sponsorship.

We have already received a number of significant donations specifically to the project development fund as well as bequests from member’s estates, we are keen to encourage further contributions of this nature and going forwards all donations will be publicly acknowledged at the centre (the AMA have a “walk of fame” featuring the names of those who have donated)  

The Bigger Picture

There is no doubt that the National Centre project represents a significant venture and expansion of activities for the BMFA. Whilst the risks have been assessed, and addressed as far as possible, there will always be some element of uncertainty resulting from factors outside of our control, the weather and the support of the members being just two examples.

The National Centre has the potential to deliver a range of facilities and opportunities that are not currently available in one location. However, in order to gain maximum benefit, it perhaps requires a change in the way we view our model flying facilities.

As I have written on a number of occasions, there is an element of unrealistic expectation within model flying regarding what we pay for facilities. A look around at comparable sports and leisure pursuits indicates that this approach is not sustainable.

Increasing pressure on space and facilities means that more and more we are going to have to pay closer to ‘market rates’ for the facilities and opportunities to support our leisure activities.

Whilst the aim of the National Centre will be to deliver good facilities and opportunities at sensible cost, it could be seen that this is the first step to a more structured future and perhaps the first of a number of similar facilities.

Be Involved

The current aim is that the National Centre will open its doors with a basic level of facilities and infrastructure in the late spring of 2017, however there is much to achieve before this happens and the weather over the winter of 2016-17 will play a significant role in the progress of the various external works.

As already referred the centre can benefit from members input in a number of ways, not only financially from those who wish to make a donation but also from those willing to give up a little time, either as a one off or on a regular basis.

Going forward the aim will be to establish a ‘friends of Buckminster Lodge’ group and put together a rota so that the site is appropriately resourced (as an example it may be that we have a rota of instructors to support trial lessons and basic training or individuals who are happy to assist with running events and flight-lines)

If you are interested in being part of the National Centre ‘story’ either to support, volunteer or donate then please get in touch.

The new website for the centre will be going ‘live’ early in the new year.

I look forward to publishing progress updates over the coming months and hopefully welcoming many of you to the new BMFA National Centre for Model Flying in 2017.

Manny Williamson - November 2016

Click here for further information and images of the site.

Some National Centre dates to pencil into your diary for 2017 (all subject to confirmation at this early stage)

  • May 20th/21st – Spring Sport Fly and Swap Meet – All model types welcome up to 20kg, no certificate required up to 7kg, noise test at 82dba, 2 supervised flight-lines with camping and trade.
  • May 27th/28th – Radioglide – BARCS Soaring Competition with camping.
  • June 3rd/4th – Festival of Rotary Flight – Fly-in with 4 Flight-lines, Helicopter and FPV with trade.
  • June 9th/10th/11th BMFA University and Schools Payload Challenge – Education Competition, spectators welcome.
  • June 24th/25th – BARCS Interglide Soaring competition with camping.
  • August 26th/27th/28th – BMFA Silent Flight National Championships, Soaring classes with camping.
  • September 23rd/24th – Festival of Pylon Racing – FAI classes plus Rare Bear Racing and come and try it sessions.