Each year I try to fly to the PocketFMS flyin, which is held at a location, organised by a user, somewhere across Europe. This year the flyin was organised for Atlas Field, at Ganderkesee in Germany. This is just to the west of Bremen.
The flight was to be done in our club’s Piper Arrow II. Normally I do these trips with a friend from the club called Declan. However this year there were to be three of us, after another friend and instructor from the club, Jim, asked if he could come along too. He wanted to experience some longer distance touring. We wanted to be able to carry full fuel, so luggage allowances had to be apportioned to make sure we kept within the max weight. Full fuel is important, as if we don’t have a headwind, it allows us to bypass the UK and avoid having to mess about with GARs (General Aviation Reports) for the UK customs and police.
Some extra gear, such as tents and sleeping bags are carried on these longer trips, because as any VFR pilot will tell you, the best laid plans can quickly come undone when the weather doesn’t co-operate. It’s almost always possible to find somewhere to stay, the tent and sleeping bags provide an emergency backup!
The day before we were due to depart, unfortunately something extremely urgent come up at work for Declan, which meant that he had to pull out. He was quite disappointed about this, but I suppose these things can’t be avoided sometimes. So now there were just two of us.
Given that the distance is so far, and the costs of renting so much, on these sort of trips I like to make more of a holiday out of it, by taking a longer time and stopping at a few places enroute. So the plan was to leave on Saturday 13 June, with the flyin taking place on Friday 19 to Sunday 21 June. Having asked on EuroGA for some advice on nice places to stop along the way, we’d settled for two nights in Strasbourg, two in Koblenz and two in Hamburg. We’d spend the Friday & Saturday nights at the PocketFMS flyin at Ganderkesee. The return home was a bit more flexible, and would depend on the weather. We’d leave on Sunday and plan to stop either in northern France (provisionally at Le Touquet) or somewhere in the UK. Depending on the weather we’d either return home on the Monday or we might take an extra night in the UK and return on the Tuesday.
For our first day, the plan was to depart our home base at Weston (EIWT) close to Dublin in Ireland, and fly direct to Calais (LFAC) in France. We’d refuel there and continue to Strasbourg LFST. But there were two problems with this.
The first problem was that Calais had a NOTAM out saying that their AFIS wouldn’t be operating for a few days. This meant that we’d have to do the radio in French. While my French isn’t great, I’ve done this in the past without problem, and wouldn’t mind doing so again once it was a relatively quiet aerodrome. But I’ve heard and read enough in the past few years to at least have doubts about the legality of doing so without a French language qualification on my licence. If it was necessary I’d do it, but in this case I’d easily available alternatives. Calais wasn’t a destination, but rather just a refuelling stop and a position to clear customs, so changing it wouldn’t mean missing out on anything. So the decision was made to change this to Le Touquet (LFAT) instead.
The second problem was the weather forecast. By the evening before, it was looking increasingly unlikely that we’d be able to fly VFR to France, at least not non-stop. The reason that we’d wanted to do it non-stop was to avoid the need for having to submit GAR forms for the stop in the UK (which require 12 hours notice for a flight from Ireland) and the questions that start to arise about how long of a delay is acceptable etc. But given the forecast, a backup look looked like a good idea. So we filled up a GAR for a flight to Caernarfon (EGCK) in North Wales, in case the direct flight wouldn’t be possible. Caernarfon would be the first point of land in the UK that we would meet. It meant that we could officially enter the UK there and then we’d be free to take advantage of any breaks in the weather to make further progress, if that plan became necessary.
The next morning, it became obvious that we weren’t going to be able to make France, at least in the morning, and we’d have to put the backup plan into action.
This is what the weather looked like on the morning of departure.
This is a screenshot from EasyVFR. Each coloured circle represents the weather being reported in the METAR at that location. The colours follow the NATO colour states which can be seen here.
Basically Blue represents good VFR conditions. White (none shown here) represents “OK” to “Ok-ish” VFR conditions and anything else isn’t really suitable for long distance VFR flight.
So we departed for Caernarfon in good conditions. Conditions were good along the way, as we crossed the Irish Sea. We crossed at 5,000ft, and the flight took about 40 minutes. As we approached Caernarfon, it was obvious that the mountains were trapping some cloud, and that getting any further wasn’t possible until things improved.
On landing we were met by Special Branch (police) to check our passports. This is perfectly normal for Caernarfon. Special Branch there have a policy of meeting every single international fight in or out of Caernarfon. This is unique to the North Wales police force as far as I can see. I’ve never heard of another police force taking the same approach to a GAR, and all others just check a sample, presumably based on risk profile of the flight and persons on board. Sounds like a job creation scheme to me, and a reason that I normally try to avoid Caernarfon, but at least none of my tax is paying for it!
We settled in to enjoy a nice breakfast at Caernarfon.
(Some Caernarfon residents)
I got permission to leave some EuroGA flyers at the information desk in Caernarfon, so the stop wasn’t totally wasted!
We spent a lot of time waiting around, but unfortunately the weather never improved enough to be able to depart. It was nice in France, but we simply couldn’t get through the UK to get there, at least not under VFR. The airport closed at 6pm local time and it wasn’t possible to make it any further by then. In any case, Le Touquet was closing an hour after that (1800UTC) so it wouldn’t have been possible to get there anyway, even if we could have gotten permission to use Caernarfon airfield out of hours.
For these trips, I tend to book Accor group hotels, as they offer a fully flexible rate which can be cancelled up to 6pm local time on the day of arrival. So we were able to cancel our booking in Strasbourg.
The staff at Caernarfon helped us to find accommodation for the night, which proved to be more than a trivial matter, with most places booked out. We ended up staying in a guest house in the local village Dinas Dinlle, which was an easy walk from the Airport.
That evening we had a nice walk up the Iron Age hill fort of the same name as the village, and got to see a lovely sunset. As the sun started to descent, the weather improved nicely, as is often the case. It left us with good hopes for the next day.
(Hill Fort Info)
(The Local City)
The next morning, the weather wasn’t much better than the day before. In fact it was probably worse! How disappointing. So we took a bit of a lie in. Things started to show some signs of improvement in the late morning. The METARs showed things better in the central part of England, but there was still no way past the mountains, and the south of England was still bad, but forecast to get better.
By the early afternoon we’d 1000ft cloud base in the area, and about 15-20 minutes flying to get to much better weather. But still it wasn’t clear in the south of England. We decided to fly to Turweston (EGBT) which was about as far south that the METARs were showing good weather for. We’d reassess the situation there and if things had improved, hopefully make a dash for Le Touquet. Northern France was now showing good VFR conditions, so we only needed the south of England to improve.
The first 15 minutes or so of the flight was done at 1000ft but most of this flight was done at around 2,000ft with an indistinct cloud base fluctuating around that level, with varying visibility.
(Plenty of blue gaps and room to go up. But there is Class A above which quickly comes drops. Don’t want to get caught between class A base and cloud tops.)
(Conway Castle, Wales)
(Stoke Golding Airfield)
(Turweston Terminal Building)
We refuelled in Turweston, and a look at the weather showed that things had cleared up in the south of the UK, but Le Touquet was now under a 900ft overcast. Damn! 900ft might be doable as it’ right on the coast, with no obstacles in the way. The other possibility that we had to consider, was Le Touquet’s propensity to get covered in fog very quickly. We started to investigate where would still be open if we got to Le Touquet and had to turn around. But it soon became obvious that we simply didn’t have enough time. We needed to file customs for Le Touquet still, call some places to see if they’d let us return there after hours, and even if we did make it, Le Touquet would be closing around 15 minutes after landing. It simply wasn’t enough time to refuel and depart again for Strasbourg (which was open until last in the evening). So it would be another night in the UK.
(Another visitor at Turweston)
We settled on North Weald for our next stop. It was good weather there, it would leave us well on our way for the next day, we had a good margin before they closed, and there were hotels available in the nearby village.
On departure we got to fly by the Silverstone race track.
(An unusual building)
This flight took us through the gap between London CTR and the Stansted and Luton zones. I’ve not done this too often in the past, but when I have, it was nice sunny days, and the sky was full of other aircraft. But not today. This time we only saw one other aircraft. We had a traffic service from Farnborough, and they didn’t call anything else to us either.
We spend the evening in Epping. Our second day spent in the UK, when the original plan had been simply to over fly it. The joys of VFR flight. Though on the bright side, I’d two new airfield in my logbook.
The next morning things were finally much better. The METARs looked good and we were confident that we’d make it to Strasbourg, albeit two days late.
Most of this flight was in good conditions, but the bit across the English Channel had a cloud base varying between 1,500 and 2,200ft. The visibility was good though.
(Arrived in LFAT)
(Someone else who had got held up with the poor weather in the UK the day before)
We got refuelled in Le Touquet, and again I took the opportunity to drop off some EuroGA Flyers.
(Spreading the word)
The visibility wasn’t great across some of France but it was improving. We weren’t in a rush so gave it a little time to clear up, and took off again in the early afternoon. The visibility was ok, but across the largely featureless Northern France, a GPS is very welcome when the visibility isn’t perfect.
(The cloud and visibility that we had for much of the middle part of this flight)
(The biggest Ikea that I’ve ever seen! Ok, most of it looks like a distribution centre….but still!)
We crossed a number of control zones and restricted areas. As is normal in France, all requests for transit were approved along the requested routing. Metz advised us of a large CB in their area, which we could easily see, but we were going to pass clear in any case.
Strasbourg (LFST) is a large airport well setup for GA. You land, park in a GA area, and sort yourself out. Exit is via a one way door. To get back airside, you lift a phone beside the door to call security, and hold a copy of your pilots licence up to the CCTV camera so that they can inspect it. They then remotely open the door for you. There is free WiFi to allow you to do your briefing. A sensible solution for GA at a large airport. The only downside, is that they have to send you the invoice in the post.
Strasbourg itself is a very picturesque town. Thanks Aviathor for the suggestion! We spent a pleasant day walking through its streets, visiting its Cathedral and getting a boat tour.
(Little France Quarter of Stransbourg)
(Some narrow streets in Strasbourg)
(European Parliament Buildings)
(European Parliament Buildings)
(Inside the old bridge)
(Parked up at Strasbourg)
Having lost two night to the UK, we’d decided to abandon our two nights in Koblenz. Instead we’d make a day trip there and continue on to Hamburg.
Finally some nice flying weather! The flight from Strasbourg to Koblenz (EDRK) was done in lovely VFR conditions. But because we don’t have a mode S transponder, only mode C, we can’t go above 5,000ft in Germany. So we couldn’t take advantage of the clear weather and climb higher.
The flight time was a little under an hour. The approach into Koblenz airfield is stunning; really picturesque. There are plenty of obstacles about though for the unwary. Not a place to approach in poor weather unless you are familiar with it.
We walked (slid might be a better description!) down through the vineyards to get to the train station and got a train into Koblenz.
(The vines that we slid down through)
We wandered along the river in Koblenz to Deutsches Eck where the Rhine and Mosell rivers meet. It was very picturesque in the bright sunshine. We only had a few hours in Koblenz, but I enjoyed the visit there. Thanks for the recommendation Jan Olieslagers.
(A passenger ferry)
My Irish skin isn’t well able to deal with the sun and I burn easily. But such was the weather on this trip, that Koblenz was the only place that I needed to use sunscreen. But it wasn’t the whole day. As we approached Hamburg (EDDH) the weather deteriorated. We arrived in Hamburg in very murky conditions indeed.
(A solar farm)
(Why do so many fields around here look like mowed lawns?)
When on downwind at Hamburg, we were advised that we were number two to an Emirates Treble Seven on a four mile final.
(The follow me car. I always and disappointed to get one. It’s like a statement “We don’t trust you to be able to find your way around a big airport, like the professionals do. So we’ll send someone out to guide you around!”)
Hamburg was well set up for GA. There was no delays on arrival nor on departure, and everything worked like clockwork. Landing and parking for two nights for our PA28-200R (1200kg) came to €96. From reading the forum, I suppose there will a further approach charge to come in the post from DFS, so can’t advise the total charges here.
For our non-flying day in Hamburg we enjoyed walking around the city, and the docks and we got a walking tour of the harbour and St. Pauli district. We visited the U434 submarine, and took a walk through the old Elbe tunnel.
(Rathaus. Town hall)
(Old Elbe Tunnel)
(Airbus Super Transporter)
(I wonder does it deliver on its advertising!? I’m engaged now, and Jim is married, so we didn’t bother checking it out)
In the morning, the weather, as forecast, was wasn’t flyable in the morning, but it was forecast to get better. So enjoyed a lie in. In the afternoon we made the flight from Hamburg to Ganderkesee (EDWQ) to meet up with our PocketFMS friends; a flight that was made in good conditions. There were plenty of showers around and a few CBs, but they were isolated, easy to see, and easy to avoid. There we met up with many old friends and made some new ones too.
I was very impressed with the hotel. It’s the first time that I’ve seen a hotel on a GA airfield that I’d be happy to stay in. The rooms were huge, well kept, perfectly clean, and cost just €55 for a single room (room only).
We spend two nights at Atlas Field, chatting about aeroplane, flying, EasyVFR, meeting old and new friends, and enjoying no less than two BBQs.
When it came to depart on Sunday though, once again we faced weather issues. It’s a long time since I did such a trip through Continental Europe where we faced so many weather issues. Those flying east got away without any problem. But those of us flying west waited around, checking METARs and rainfall radars and other weather charts, hoping for a front to pass by. As time went on, it was becoming increasingly likely that we would be spending another night there. I’d set a mental deadline for take-off of 5pm. After that I figured it was too late to make Le Touquet. It closed at 8pm, and the flight would take 2:35 without wind. We would have a headwind for most of it.
Some calls were made by some of those waiting, to airfields between Ganderkesee and the Netherlands, which weren’t reporting any METARs, for local reports of the weather. By 4:15 we decided to go.
But I’d made a fatal mistake. I’d not fuelled up on landing, as I wanted full tanks for this flight, and had considered doing one or possibly two local flights during the stay. Now we needed fuel. This would not have been much of an issue….I knew that we needed fuel and had allowed the time for it…..except the fuel pump wouldn’t work! Back at the tower the officer said “I know! I will make a phone call and see what can be done.” Buttons were clicked, computers rebooted, pumps rebooted and swipe cards used, and eventually the pump was coaxed into working again.
Now we were ready to go, but had lost a lot of time. This time I needed to take wind into account, as things were much tighter. Thankfully EasyVFR will do that for me, and as we lined up on the runway, it told me that we’d land 12 minutes before Le Touquet would close, so off we went. We normally fly at 65% power, so had a little in reserve if needed.
The weather for the first part of this trip was poor. We had cloud bases around 1,000ft (900 at times) but good visibility. This was in accordance with the METARs we had seen and the reports that we had from the phone calls others had made to enroute airports. However this wasn’t robbing us of much altitude. As we were only mode C equipped, we are restricted to a maximum altitude of 1,200ft in Dutch airspace anyway. So it didn’t affect us too much. Apparently everyone doesn’t know about that restriction though! We heard another aircraft on frequency arrive into Dutch airspace, under VFR, with mode C only at FL75. Though the lack of mode S was the least of their problems, as FL75 put them into class A airspace under VFR. Apparently they couldn’t descend without entering IMC, though when advised that they were in class A, they said that they’d try to descent to FL65 and see if they could do so without going into cloud. Apparently they managed that.
By the time we reached Markermeer, things had improved significantly and by the time we reached the coast, it was clear blue skies. The estimate for landing at LFAT remained steady, with a touch down time expected 11 minutes before closing. However once we turned the corner at the coast, and started to head south, the gap started to disappear. I think a coastal effect meant that the wind was stronger here than forecast. While it was entirely a cross wind, it still had a significant effect. So we stepped up the power to 75% and our estimated landing time gave us a constant 8 minutes to spare now.
We flew along the Dutch coast line, now in clear blue skies, at 1,200ft. Once we left Dutch airspace, we briefly passed though Belgian airspace, and we still had 8 minutes to spare. So we decided to see if a climb would help or hinder our speed. In the end, the speed after climbing to 3,000ft did nothing to our ground speed, but we lost a few minutes due to the climb itself.
(Some opposite direction traffic also following the coast line)
We landed four minutes before the airport closed. After landing, we were told by ATC “Take the next left. You can taxi all the way to the apron and park in front of the terminal building. Once you reach the apron, you are cleared to leave my frequency. Good night!” That was the last we heard from him, and I think he left the tower as we came to a halt on the apron!
The airport staff were very friendly and told us to be in no hurry as we organised our bags. They even, very kindly, gave us a lift to our hotel!
It was too late to do anything more than have some dinner that evening. But that was ok, we were in no rush the next day so could wander around the town in the morning.
…or so we thought! We woke up to stormy skies, with the rain pelting down. When it looked to be calming down, we walked into the town to get some breakfast. But as we walked, it started up again, and we got totally soaked. My waterproof jacket was soaked on the inside!
(The view from my hotel room the evening of arrival)
(The view the room the following morning)
After breakfast the UK started to clear up. There was no cloud base reported for Le Touquet (only wind and visibility were being reported), but it looked to be clearing up out to sea. So we asked the hotel to call a taxi for us to go back to the airport. They called around, and told us that the next one available would be in 1 hours time! Feck that! We decided to walk, and got wet again doing that! But it only took 50 minutes and was good exercise!
The bad news was that the weather at the airport was much worse, with the cloud base being just off the ground. I’ve a friend in the UK based in Kemble who saw my trip postings on Facebook and asked me to stop by. A direct flight from Le Touquet to Weston would have taken about 3:40 with a little head wind. I’ve a personal limit of not flying more than 3:30, so I wasn’t going to do that. So stopping somewhere in the UK for fuel was a requirement, and so meeting my friend at Kemble seemed like a good idea.
However the weather took longer to clear than I though and eventually it became obvious that we wouldn’t make it to Kemble before they closed at 5pm. Now we had a problem because of the GAR system. We need to give 4 hours notice of a flight into the UK (still no problem…we had time to do that), but we needed to give 12 hours notice of a flight out of the UK to Ireland. This wasn’t going to be possible, even if the weather did clear up.
As time passed by, it also became obvious that we couldn’t make Weston before it closed at 8pm. We’d given notice to Irish customs that we’d re-enter Ireland at Weston. So getting home tonight was starting to look impossible.
Then the weather started to improve, and I’d already the starting of a plan in my brain. But there wasn’t enough time to think and follow it all through yet. The first part was to get to the UK. So I send a GAR to Exeter. Exeter is one of the few GA accessible airport in the UK which is designated for police, immigration and customs which meant that we could arrive there without giving the required notice periods. We still needed to give them a GAR in advance, but there is no minimum notice period. The other reason for choosing Exeter was that they were one of the few airfields still open, and having checked earlier, I knew that there was hotels with vacancies nearby. I filed a flight plan in EasyVFR and called Exeter for PPR as we were about to start-up.
The weather was fine for this flight, and positively nice one we left the French coast. In hindsight, we probably could have sneaked out under the low cloud base at Le Touquet earlier in the day and it would probably have been fine once we got out over the sea. But I suppose many people have gotten themselves into trouble making decision on “probably”.
(South coast of the UK)
(South coast of the UK)
(Isle of Wight)
As we flew I started to think through the rest of my plan. As Exeter is designated for Police, we could leave without having to give the required 12 hours notice. Just file a GAR with them. The Irish side was a bit more difficult. I couldn’t get into Weston, but I know the owner of Newcastle Airfield and thought that I could ask if he’d allow us to land there after hours. It would be possible to get a lift home from there. But how to deal with the Irish Customs? They don’t publish any details other than a contact email address. But I knew someone who probably had a contact number. So while flying to Exeter we sent a text message to that friend who was indeed able to reply with the relevant mobile phone number.
The next thing to check was the time of the end of VFR at Newcastle that evening. There is no night VFR flight in Ireland, so we had to land before sunset + 30 minutes. EasyVFR will tell me the sunset time, so I was able to determine that we’d still have enough time. So things were falling into place, but there was still one significant problem.
Exeter closed at 8pm local time. Our landing there would be around 7:05pm local time.
In those 55 minutes we had to:
- taxi in,
- pay for the fuel,
- pay for the landing fee (separate location),
- submit a GAR and contact Special Branch,
- file a flight plan,
- contact the Irish Customs to see if they’d accept us going to Newcastle instead of Weston (on the basis of the previously filed notification to them) and
- get permission from the owner of Newcastle airfield to use the field after hours,
- taxi back out and take off.
It was a lot to do in 55 minutes. To be honest I didn’t think it was possible, but decided to try and see how far we’d get.
We landed at 7:03pm. Great…2 minutes saved.
While the fueller did the refuelling, I completed his indemnity form, and then I stepped away and called the Irish Customs. They were ok with us changing our destination. Great! They just asked that we send them a text message confirming the change if we were going to take off. I called the owner of Newcastle Airfield. No problem there; we could use the airfield after hours once customs were ok with it. Fuel bill was sorted there.
So off I ran to pay for the landing fees. To do this you must pass through security to get landside….just a short delay. A bit of searching and I managed to get into the tower to pay the fees. The lovely lady there tried to help as much as she could. My debit card gave her some problems but she managed to sort that. She tried calling Special Branch for me, but there was no one in their office. She checked with the tower and got another number for their out of hours contact. I gave them our passport numbers and they went off to check that we weren’t known terrorists. I tried to file my flight plan through EasyVFR while holding on the phone but their WiFi was down. The lady explained that it was down all day and someone was working on it. While on the phone to SB, she stuck a flight plan form under my nose, and I filled it out. She brought it to the tower for me. A few minutes later Special Branch confirmed that they were happy for us to go.
Its 7:50, so off I sprinted back to the aircraft. Security see me running and wave me through. Jim had the aircraft preflighted already. So in I jump, start up and call for taxi (the engine is already warm from the inbound flight). I sent a text message to Irish customs, and start to taxi.
We’re lined up on the runway, ready for departure at 8pm exactly! Whooo! There was some runway inspection equipment still on the runway, so we’d have to wait a minute for them to clear, and then then we’re off! After things has settled down, I took a few moments to check through the NOTAMs again. I’d checked earlier in the day, but not for this exact route, so it needed to be done again, and a recheck of the activation hours for the various danger areas across the Irish Sea.
The weather now in the evening was beautifully calm and still, and the visibility perfect.
(The Irish Sea)
(The Irish Sea)
(Approaching Newcastle EINC)
We landed about 5 minutes before the sunset (VFR ends 30 minutes after sunset, so still plenty of time) but the area was already starting to get dark, as the sun had already descended behind the mountains. As Hannibal Smith from the A-Team used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together!”
Jim’s son drove to the airfield to give us a lift home, and the next day we repositions the aircraft back home to Weston.
A wonderful trip, only slightly marred by the weather delays.
I hope you enjoyed the report.