Last year my wife and me went on a flying holiday to the Southwest of France. Thanks again to those on EuroGA who had answered my questions beforehand. Only now did I find the time to write this trip report. I tried to include some tourist information apart from the flying aspects and hope the write-up is of use to others flying to this region.
We made the trip in the Socata ST-10 that I co-own with a friend. We bought the plane in 2011 from it’s very first owner who had acquired it new in 1971 and had only used it for occasional private flights. The plane is therefore in very good cosmetic and mechanical condition.
While we upgraded the avionics (Garmin 430W, GTX-330 etc.), operations in IMC are limited by the lack of de-icing and the unreliable Badin-Crouzet autopilot, whose manufacturer has long since gone out of business. We have not yet found a way to install an EFIS (Aspen) or a reasonably new autopilot, as there are not STCs for this rare aircraft and the type is considered “orphaned” (but not Annex II) by EASA. With the present setup and fairly little IFR experience, I stay out of IMC most of the time.
My wife and I love France, especially the Perigord/Dordogne region and the Atlantic coast. This time, we wanted to use the plane to return to the Dordogne where we had already been by car and to visit 2 new islands afterwards. We booked all hotels in advance, because nice accommodation is important to us.. While this obviously limits flexibility in case of bad weather, everything worked out fine (as it did on previous trips).
In February, we had decided on the following route and destinations:
Route planning was done with the excellent Autorouter. I also contacted the airports via email concerning fuel/parking/fees. All replied very quickly with no issues whatsoever.
In the days before the trip, it became obvious that the weather would be great – with the likely exception of the very first day: Remnants of a cold front where forecasted to be piled up against the north side of the Alps. They should dissolve during the morning. The Autorouter Gramet showed TCU’s in the Salzburg area, which I was confident I could avoid by deviating to the north, and virtually cloudless skies along the rest oft he track. The Austrocontrol met guy said on the phone that most of the clouds would be gone by mid-morning, with broken layers remaining between FL60 and FL80. He was to be proven wrong …
LOAN to LFGA
The ST-10 has a full fuel payload of 340 kg, so we didn’t bother with particularly economic packing.
Also, some healthy in-flight-catering was available.
We were at LOAN for a departure at approximately 0830Z, but pushed EOBT back to 0930Z because the weather was forecasted to get better. After joining IFR, we climbed trough some clouds over the Wienerwald area. Once on top of them, however, we saw clouds of increasing thickness and height in front of us.
ATC approved “any heading to avoid”, but abeam Linz it became obvious that the intended FL90 would not be sufficient. Also, the clouds extended considerably further north than expected. Soon, we were up at FL100 – 110 – 120 – 130, staying VMC above the rising cloud tops. I didn’t want to enter the clouds, as the OAT was now somewhere between 0 and minus 5 degrees. Without oxygen, we could only legally stay at FL130 for 30 minutes, and it was very obvious that we would need at least FL150 to stay on top.
Therefore, I changed plans and went down below the cloud base, requesting headings that kept me mostly clear of the (still broken) clouds. In those short timespans we were within clouds, no ice buildup was observed. When crossing the Inn and being handed over from Linz to Munich, we were at 4000 ft in warm temperatures. Munich kept us there and vectored us, alternating between VMC and IMC. 20 to 30 minutes later, the cloud cover became much less and the bases went up. By now it was more economic to cancel IFR and proceed virtually in a straight line to LFGA. This was a non-event in terms of the weather, which had become CAVOK, but there were really many gliders in the air when we approached the hills before the Rhine Valley. Some of the gliders were uncomfortably close, none was reported by FIS.
The approach and landing in LFGA were uneventful. I am reasonably confident in French and had additionally compiled cheat sheet with French radio phrases, but I didn’t need it as I was welcomed in English by Colmar Tower.
Once on the ground, refueling was quick and friendly. We had a nice chat with an elder German gentleman who refuelled his Malibu. My wife was quite impressed with the looks of the aircraft, if only I can make the necessary money in my lifetime …
Lessons learned from this flight:
LFGA to LFBX
As opposed to the first flight of the day, this leg went exactly as planned. After t/o, Bale Radar (if I remember correctly) had us climb straight to FL100 because of some military air display on a base along the route. After that, we were back at FL80, cruising in cloudless skies with hardly any wind at roughly 140 knots TAS. The routing was fairly direct, the landscape didn’t change a lot.
When approaching the destination, I told Limoges Radar “anytime ready for descent”, cancelled IFR a few miles out and then made a landing with French blind transmissions on rwy 29. Unfortunately, the quality of the pictures taken on landing leaves a lot to be desired as we landed into the evening sun.
We parked our aircraft next to a C172 that was the only other light airplane on the apron. There was also the Beech 1900 airliner doing the daily flight to Paris Orly, the only scheduled connection at LFBX.
We unloaded our baggage and went up the aeroclub building where there was some life. Just after introducing ourselves, they received a phone call from ATC because I had forgotten to close my flight plan on the number they gave me – dooh .
If staying in the Perigord/Dordogne region, one really needs to rent a car. Unfortunately, this is difficult in LFBX. The rental car companies only come to the airport when the Paris flights land or depart. The airport had given me the numbers of the local Europcar and AVIS franchises when I enquired via email. The lady at Europcar was absolutely uninterested and bordered on being rude (despite me calling in French), the AVIS guy said I had to pick up the car at the Perigueux train station. They have an agreement with the French railway company where you get your keys from the station attendant. LFBX to the station, however, is a 15 to 20 minutes taxi ride after you have waited for another 15 to 20 minutes for the taxi to arrive.
Lesson learned: Do close the flight plan. It’s not enough if I tell it to myself 3 minutes before the landing, as I seem to be braindead for a few minutes after shutting down the engine.
Stay in Perigord
We stayed at the Moulin de Vigonac, a small hotel near the lovely city of Brantome. If I had to pick a single favourite hotel in the world, this would be the one. The hotel is a restored mill dating back to the 15th century and only has half a dozen rooms. It’s in an absolutely quiet location on the Dronne river, next to the river, with a park that blends into the forest on the river bank. The hotel is run by the Alexeline family, their son having been a steward with Air France BTW and the father being the chef in the small restaurant. While it is not cheap, the quality of the food and the atmosphere on the terrace overlooking the park are just wonderful.
Brantome is a 20 minutes walk from the Moulin de Vigonac. It’s a small town with the remnants of an Abbey dating back to Charlemagne and surrounded by the river Dronne on all sides.
One can explore the Dronne, like most other rivers in the region, by canoe. We had canoed on the Dronne and Dordogne rivers the last time, so this time we went for the Eyzere (near the famous Lascaux caves).
In this part of France, you find castles around every corner. This is the Chateau de Commarque, so picture-perfect in its undisturbed setting that it was used by Ridley Scott for the final scenes of his very first movie (“The Duelists”).
Along the Dordogne river, there are famous castles like Castelnaud and Beynac we had already visited in 2009. This time we went for the gardens of Marqueyssac, from which you have a great view over the Dordogne valley.
We also visited the medieval city of Sarlat. Very nice buildings, but the mass of restaurants and cafés proves that this must be an extremely busy spot in high season. It was still rather quiet when we were there, as the touristic season in France is very focussed on the period from July 14th to the end of August. Generally, the area around Perigueux and Brantome is much less touristy than the Dordogne valley.
Just like the Moulin de Vigonac is our favourite hotel, the Moulin du Roc is a restaurant we can really recommend. It too is a restored mill that now works as a hotel. We cannot comment on the rooms, but the food is excellent and the setting on the peaceful banks of the Dronne is wonderful.
LFBX to LFEY
As much as we enjoyed our stay in the Perigord, we had temperatures up to 43 degrees (the French call this “carnicule”) and therefore looked forward to some sea breezes. For the leg from Periguex to Ile d’Yeu, I filed a Z flight plan, as I intended to do some sightseeing first. We refueled…
…and then took a look at Perigueux …
… and Brantome from the air.
After joining IFR, we climbed to FL60. We were in and out of clouds for a few minutes, because a minor front was departing to the East.
We crossed right over La Rochelle and its airport.
Afterwards we passed abeam the Ile de Re.
The coastline to our northeast.
We proceeded straight ahead to the Ile d’Yeu. Interestingly, at 11 nm from the coast, that is the most “distant” island that belongs administratively to the French mainland.
We descended when approaching the island and were then handed over to the AFIS frequency. The approach to rwy 32 is very scenic, as the whole (small) island passes on the right side.
LFEY seems to be a very popular destination for French pilots. There were quite a lot of parked aircraft, despite it being a weekday.
The field itself has RNAV approaches to both runways and PCL (which requires prior notification). They do not have fuel or a mechanic on the island. We knew about the fuel, but we were soon to find out about the latter…
Stay on Ile d‘Yeu
We had booked our stay at Les Villas du Port, not really knowing what we were up to. It turned out to be a most wonderful place run by a retired accountant couple from Brittany who had fallen in love with the island. Officially called a “chambres d’hotes”, it consists of a few small “mini-houses” within an old stone wall, each with bedroom and bathroom/toilet as well as a private patio. The owner was a very cordial host, picking us up at the airport for free and providing us with lots of hints.
We really enjoyed the island. It is small enough to be explored by bicycle in a day or two, has great cliffs and beaches…
… and a ruined castle on the cliffs that allegedly features in a Herges comic.
The lighthouse is visible from most of the island.
Don’t expect to much from the villages on the island, however. They consist mainly of one- or two-storey houses without architectonical relevance. Additionally, thee are hundreds (thousands?) of holiday homes. While they may not look like it, the prices we saw in the window of a real estate agent were astonishing. One could buy 3 beautiful cottages in Perigord for the price of one run-down bungalow on Yeu! Tourism on Yeu is obviously focussed on the holiday homes. There are hardly any hotels and no fine-dining restaurants. However, we can recommend La Creperie Bleue (overlooking the harbour of Port Jointville) with its creative take on Crepes and the like.
The French WW2 collaborationist leader Philippe Pétain was exiled to Ile d’Yeu after the war and died in this house.
Ironically, the street named after General de Gaulle is only a few corners away.
LFEY to LFEA (1st attempt)
We planned this flight as an IFR flight that’s basically a straight line between the 2 islands. Of course, one could fly an U-shaped course to the east, but the gross time over water wouldn’t be much shorter. As usual, that’s a question of personal risk assessment. BTW, regarding risk assessment: On all the islands we were the only ones wearing life vests. The local pilots seem to regard this as somehow unchivalrous …
However, we didn’t get far over the sea. Immediately after takeoff, I noticed a very slow airspeed despite full power being available. My first suspicion was that the undercarriage had not properly retracted like it did last summer, so I recycled it – again, the gear lights indicated normally and the sound of the electric motor was as usual. By now, I had noticed that the airspeed fluctuated unreasonably despite me having levelled of with unchanged power setting. It obviously was either an indication issue or a problem with the pitot-static-system. Therefore, I circled the island (weather was plain VMC) and re-landed on the GPS groundspeed and the wind given by AFIS.
My wife used the circling for some more pictures of the island.
After landing, I investigated a bit but couldn’t find any obvious blockage. Some Gendarmerie de l’Air guys, who had flown to the island in their AS350 for no other reason than to check the papers of a single training aircraft, helped me, but to no avail. I therefore did what every responsible pilot does and posted on EuroGA .
In the end, the head of the local aeroclub phoned their mechanic who agreed to have a look at the aircraft the next day, despite this being a Sunday. The only problem was that his company is based on the mainland, at Fontenay Le Comte (LFFK). Therefore, we arranged for a local pilot to fly me over the next morning and take the mechanic with us. Luckily, at Les Villas du Port they had our “house” available for another night and the hotel on Belle Ile was fine with us arriving a day later.
On Sunday, morning the flight to LFFK proved to be interesting. At first, there were thunderstorms in the vicinity and the pilot (understandably) delayed the departure.
During the preflight, we found out that a substantial number of screws on a fuselage cover were missing and we searched for suitable replacements. When we finally took of, taxying along the runway beforehand to scare off the seagulls who had spent the night on the warm asphalt…
… I immediately noticed the not-quite overwhelming performance of the aircraft. It was a 120 hp Robin, and despite the reassurings of the pilot I started to wonder if the aircraft was capable of taking to the skies again with us two, the mechanic and his tools.
We made it to LFFK.
Not only that, we also managed to take off again, but the climb rate was a mere 300 fpm. At 3000 ft AGL, we were hardly climbing at all, and the pilot decided to level off and cross the sea at this altitude. The no longer seamlessly closing hood, the vintage instruments, the tattered seats and the distinct smell of the cockpit made the experience complete …
Back at LFEY and there the mechanic discovered that the static lines were blocked with insects invisible from the outside. There “nests” were that compact, however, that we had to use a compressor to get them out. Only then did I notice that most aircraft on Yeu had static plugs. I have never seen those in Austria, so it may well have to do with the local fauna, but I use them now too.
I returned the mechanic to LFFK, where he showed me around his impressive workshop a bit – modern, spacious, spotlessly clean. He told me his also servicing the engines of the French team participating in the world aerobatic championships, and he worked on a De Havilland Mosquito replica. Despite the fact that I had deprived him of most of his Sunday, he wouldn’t even accept money at first. Therefore Fly West gets my vote when it comes to aircraft maintenance in Southwestern France .
Flying back to LFEY again, I photographed some impressive salt fields …
… and this private airstrip together with private chateau. Somebody has really made it.
Lessons learned: I now use static plugs and I am more confident of repairing such a comparatively minor problem on my own, should I ever encounter it again.
LFEY to LFEA (2nd attempt)
Our aircraft successfully repaired, we spent the evening and the next morning on Ile d’Yeu and departed for LFEA around midday. This time, the flight went exactly as planned, with us climbing through a shallow layer between 3000 and 4000 feet an then descending through scattered clouds.
On the approach to LFEA, it was soon obvious that Belle is a much larger and also much “greener” island than Ile d’Yeu.
We were greeted by a very friendly lady in perfect English on the radio. Due to preceding traffic on the final to rwy 24, we made a 360 overhead Le Palais (the main town on Belle Ile) and had some nice views of the harbour and the Vauban fortress.
Despite the island being larger, the aerodrome is smaller (max. 840 metres concrete runway, no instrument approaches) than LFEY. They do have fuel, however, and chains running through the grass apron to secure the aircraft.
Lesson learned: wife doesn’t enjoy too steep 360’s
Stay on Belle Ile
We stayed at the hotel La Desirade, which is just 2 or 3 kilometres down the road from the airfield. They picked us up by car – again, very friendly hosts. Breakfast was excellent with several choices of homemade cake, and we enjoyed the dinner we had one evening in the restaurant. This is a very fine 3 star hotel, but still a 3 star, and one should align one’s expectations according to that.
We rented bikes at the hotel to explore the island. As opposed to Ile d’Yeu with it’s short distances, you need to be really sporty to tour the whole island in one day. Instead, we made 3 easy daytrips.
The most impressive thing on Belle Ile is the stark contrast between steep cliffs and sandy beaches.
These rock needles have been painted by various artists, among them Monet.
On Belle Isle, there is a grand lighthouse too.
The sheltered beaches between the cliffs are excellent for swimming. Note how few people there are – I guess that things are different after July 14th, however.
We ended our first daytrip with a picknick on some cliffs, far away from anyone else.
At the stormy northern point of Belle Isle, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt turned a military outpost in a luxurious holiday home at the last turn of the centuries. Now it’s a museum, again with impressive landscape around it.
Le Palais is completely surrounded by a defensive wall. The old town and the harbour are really pittoresque. They are best viewed from the impressive 17th century fortress, only the fortress museum is rather underwhelming.
No visit to Belle Ile is complete without buying generous supplies of fish conserves (despite them being mainly produced on the mainland) and local biscuits.
One evening, we cycled to the small harbour village of Le Sauzon – very scenic, a nice café-restaurant (Café de Cale) and, again, surprisingly few tourists.
LFEA to LFEQ and LFRV
Time went by quickly on Belle Ile, therefore we decided against the originally intended daytrip to Ile d’Ouessant (LFEC). Instead, we planned a short VFR sightseeing flight over the Gulf of Morbihan with its countless islands, landing at Quiberon (LFEQ) afterwards.
We had been warned at LFEA that refuelling was only possible on certain days and hours in LFEQ. However, as this was not mentioned in the official French documents, we decided to give it a try. As expected, the “official” AFIS guy who should have manned the fuel station was not there. Some aeroclub members who were having lunch nearby were not willing to help us with their fuel cads. The operator of the airfield restaurant didn’t leave a particularly positive impression, too: While she is renting out bikes, she insists on paying for at least half a day – even if one needs them for just an hour, as we did. We therefore walked to the city centre and beach.
I have to say we were very satisfied that we had stayed at other destinations: Quiberon seemed loud, crowded and run-down in comparison to Belle Ile.
After this excursion, we flew VFR to Vannes (LFRV), which is the nearest airport with AVGAS. A vast former military airbase built by the Germans in WW2, it was used by some para-dropping PC-6’s when we arrived. There were also 2 or 3 aeroclub aircraft, but apart from that nothing – despite a recently built terminal with bistro, pilots lounge and so on. It’s nice to have these facilities, but I strongly doubt the investments will ever be recovered. They also seem to have few GA visitors, because it took 3 firemen about half an hour to work out the process for refuelling non-resident planes…
Lesson learned: improve on visual descent planning, for I was waaaaaaay to high when approaching LFRV. Luckily the runway had been built for an overloaded Heinkel 111 or the like.
LFRV to LFGA
The last flight of the day was a long leg from Vannes to Colmar, where we had decided to stay for a night. This was an IFR flight in perfect VMC, with only a few scattered clouds in the east of France.
Except some vectoring abeam Rennes, the flight was uneventful to the point of being – yes – boring. As nice as France is on the ground, from the flight levels the view hardly ever changes.
We cancelled IFR when approaching the hills west of Colmar, in order to descend in the quickest and most convenient way. Approach and landing were this time to rwy 19 and uneventful except from the first radio contact. I called them in English, since I had been greeted in English on my first arrival. A lady answered in a stern voice that “outside ATC hours this is a French only airfield, but as an one-time exception, we could talk English”. She was audibly embarrassed when I answered her in near-perfect French, aided by my cheat-sheet …
Stay in Colmar
Colmar is a very well-known town with nice historic buildings, but also loads of tourists.
However, for us the stay turned out to be quite uniqe, and the reason was the following one: We had booked a room at the Hotel Quatorze via booking.com 2 days in advance. A few hours later, an employee of the hotel mailed us that there was a mistake on the part of booking.com and they had no more room available. We were surprised, but okay, what can one do …
At this point, the owner (and manager) of the hotel joined the email conversation: She wrote she was terribly embarrassed and would either arrange another hotel for us or offer us an apartment for the night – for free. I hesitated whether we should really make use of the offer, but we did – and wow, the apartment turned out to be the flat used by her mother when she was in town. A beautiful medieval building, tastefully restored and with a modern designer interior – and all that just for the price of breakfast in the hotel.
We were blown away by so much generosity and returned the favour with a bouquet of flowers. The breakfast was great and the hotel itself looked really nice, BTW, so we will definitely be back.
LFGA to LOAN
After some sightseeing in Colmar, we embarked on our final flight of the trip in mid-afternoon. The weather was as perfect as it gets – not a single cloud between France and Austria. I nevertheless filed IFR for ease of navigation and airspace avoidance. The flight started interestingly with the assignment to climb in the Colmar NDB holding – my first NDB holding outside of the simulator.
During the 3rd holding, I was handed over to Bale Radar (if I remember correctly) and given a very welcome direct. However, quite a lot of vectoring first by Zurich and then by Munich followed.
Abeam Lake Constance.
Crossing the Salzach river north of Salzburg.
Lake Traunsee in the Salzkammergut area.
Landing was uneventful, and after unloading our baggage for the last time we put the aircraft to sleep in its hangar…
…and were off to a well-deserved steak.
Most important lesson of the entire trip: do something like that again this year
This report by “Blueline” last edited 15th February 2016