Last weekend, it was once again time to take advantage of this extraordinary flying winter in Central Europe.
The idea was to fly from Lübeck in the north of Germany to Marseille, in the south of France. Unfortunately, Marseille’s Marignane airport (LFML), which obviously has rental cars on site, is not keen on light GA and now charges roughly 250 Euros for an overnight stay. The good news is that there is Aix-en-Provence (LFMA), a good GA airfield, only just over 20 kilometres north of Marseille. So, the plan was born to fly IFR non-stop to Aix, stay two nights in Marseille and then fly back to Lübeck.
The day before departure, the weather forecast didn’t look bad. During the night, there would still be some snowfall in the Swiss Alps, but that was already on its way out towards the northern Adriatic. A new (much weaker) front was supposed to reach the west of Germany in the afternoon of the next day. The DWD’s prognostic charts (for 12 UTC) reflected this:
The GRAMET for our route at 08UTC was totally clear, which dawned a tad optimistic to me, but still gave a very positive tendency:
The winds aloft however were supposed to be out of the southwest for most of the flight, which made this (non-stop) flight a bit “borderline” for my taste, both in terms of fuel endurance but also in terms of our personal dislike for flights longer than four hours. Thing is that the airways routing up to the Bern area would be pretty much a straight line, but at that point, it curves to the west (via Lyon) and from my experience, it is not easy to get any shortcuts in the western Alps region. This, in combination with the good weather forecast and the fact that I always fancy doing something different (I have previously flown the Lyon route several times), led to the idea to fly IFR only up to the Bern area and then cancel IFR to proceed VFR more or less on a straight line to the destination. This would take us right into the French Alps, passing only a few miles west of Mont Blanc.
So, I dug out the charts to define a couple of waypoints for the VFR section of the flight and see what how it would turn out. Well, I think it turned out very neat:
As you can see, according the plan, IFR would be cancelled at OLBEN (just northeast of Bern) and then the routing would continue VFR through the southwest of Switzerland (OLBEN – FRI – INTIP) up to the eastern tip of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman). After that, it was GEMLA – RETNO – LFMA. Obviously, for the VFR part, some more planning was in order…
Switzerland: There were no restricted areas or similar to affect our flight at FL110 or whereabouts. Also, the routing INTIP – GEMLA would nicely take us just to the east of the Geneva TMA (which is known for being mostly impenetrable for VFR trafffic). So, the only real consideration was that on the stretch from OLBEN to INTIP, we would need a VFR clearance for airspace Charlie since in the Mittelland region, it starts at FL100 throughout. I figured this wouldn’t be a problem though. The good thing about these situations (cancelling IFR and then proceeding VFR) is that one is already in radio contact with the responsible ATC unit for that area, so one is able to negotiate the further clearance before actually cancelling IFR.
France: Since it was a saturday, none of the restricted areas on our route would be active (checked this in advance), which came in very handy. Also, we would not have to deal with any airspace Charlie in that area, since its lower limit is at least FL130 in that part of France.
Early the next morning, the first thing was a look at the satellite image, which was totally reassuring (I have added a rough courseline for your orientation).
METARs were perfect, too, so all was set and done. Out to the airport.
It was a beautiful morning at Lübeck.
In fact, the only piece of IMC during the whole flight would be during initial taxi :
In the first part of the flight there was not too much to see. We flew at FL100, later briefly climbing to FL140 due to the Frankfurt TMA and then descending back down again to FL110.
This is the beautiful Bad Pyrmont airfield (EDVW) in the Weserbergland.
My second home in Germany, Mannheim, and the Rhine (called “Oberrhein” in this area)
However, in some parts of southern Germany we flew over a shallow undercast…
…with occasional holes in there. This is the Black Forest. No snow, which is not normal for February.
The good news was that the headwind turned into a slight tailwind somewhat earlier than anticipated, as it turned from a southwesterly to a northwesterly direction.
The first sighting of the Alps in the distance.
The Rhine (“Hochrhein”), east of Basel.
Some snow at last (Swiss Jura).
At this point, we cancelled IFR. Bern Approach was happy with our further routing but asked us to descend from FL110 to FL100 “for trafffic”. I really wondered what traffic she was talking about…
A first view of Mont Blanc. It was not “in a good light” for photos from this direction though. Also, a Lenticularis was sitting on top of the mountain, obscuring its summit. I have found that this is very often the case with the Mont-Blanc.
More snow. This was in the area of Fribourg.
At this point, Bern handed us over to Geneva Information. By the way, the Geneva controller did not know where INTIP was. I found that a little odd. Granted, FIS deals mostly with VFR traffic which often doesn’t define routes through “IFR waypoints”, but I still think the FIS controller should know the most common ones in his area, at least those defining the FIR boundaries…
Anyway, once I explained that INTIP was near Montreux, he was happy with our routing and also with our altitude, even though we were still at FL100, which was right at the transition between airspace Echo and airspace Charlie.
Lake Geneva, with the town of Vevey to the right.
France at last:
Fantastic visibility at FL105. Only some scattered clouds down in the bottom of the valleys.
This is Sallanches – Mont Blanc Aerodrome (LFHZ), with a clear asphalt runway. This one requires a mountain rating. Don’t really understand why.
Minutes after, this is Megève Aerodome (LFHM), where I have flown some years ago. In the winter, they fly on compacted snow. In this case, I fully understand that they want pilots to have a mountain rating. Late go-arounds are impossible.
Here are two much nicer views of Mont Blanc:
This is Meribel. In flight, I tried in vain to spot its altiport (LFKX), which is supposed to be just atop the town, but I didn’t manage, even though I knew where it was supposed to be (see arrow). BTW, Michael Schumacher “crashed” somewhere down there. All the very best!
And just to the other side of the ridge in the above pic is…
Here is another one with Courchevel (LFLJ) and Mont Blanc both in one view:
The ski slopes pass right by the parking platform. On my bucket list…
After this brief excursion (a precious privilege of VFR pilots) we turned back to our general course of 210 degrees. There was a lot of snow out there. Even the steepest scarps were totally white. A beautiful sight.
We then approached an impressive formation called the “Aiguilles d’Arves”, near the Col du Galibier.
More and more ski slopes:
After that, we had to climb some and turn away from the hightest peaks in order to remain clear of the Parc National des Ecrins, whose upper limit is defined as 3300 feet AGL. National Parks are those areas marked in green on the Jeppesen charts (and AFAIK still totally missing in Skydemon…).
After clearing the National Park, we started our descent into Aix.
To the west, the terrain was now much lower and displayed those typical ridgelines of the upper Provence region.
A private aerodrome, Banon.
A view of Mont Ventoux. In the foreground, the (military) St. Christol airport (LFXI).
Aix-en-Provence. We are righthand downwind for runway 33.
Final (sorry, poor iphone shot).
Some interesting hangars at the south (civil) apron.
We managed to borrow a TOTAL fuel carnet from one of the local flightschools and fueled up at 2,16€ per litre. Then we took a taxi to the car rental station and proceeded to Marseille, which was really not much more than twenty minutes away.
In summary, a fantastic flight. A minimal routing overhead, but with very entertaining scenery. The four hours from takeoff to landing literally flew past.
Part II to follow next week.
Thanks for the report, nice pictures! One question: why did you cancel IFR so early in Switzerland rather than proceeding en route to RETNO, for example?
Boscomantico please stop posting your trip reports because you’re making me so jealous :-)
Just joking, thanks for the writeup. Very inspiring! Keep them coming…
Yes, Bosco – wouldn’t it be more simple to just STAY IFR?
As always your pictures are great and they make me start Google Earth and begin planning …
PS: Re-read the whole thing and understand you wanted the VFR flexibility for some sightseeing, correct?
Great report, thanks a lot!
As always, nice write-up and lovely photos!
If you also read his text and not just look at the pictures, then you will see why he changed to VFR
Boscomantico, almost no snow here in north,Finland. All on french alps.
But can you tell what happened to Mooney we saw in your round and revolving hangars last summer returning from Tannkosh.
I tried to explain it above…
a) there is simply no airway forming a straight line connection between say Bern and Marseille, which is what I wanted to to.
b) even if there was one, no way it would be possibile to fly it at FL100 or FL110, skimming mountaintops
c) under IFR, it is not so easy to fly small detours here and there, like the one we did to see Couchevel airport
People who get their IFR at that point usually stop flying VFR entirely (except for very simple short flights) since it is so much easier. IFR makes pilots lazy.
However, some pilots, after flying IFR for a few years, notice that each and every flight is the same. “Maintain xy, proceed yz”. All in all, VFR is more fun, more challenging, more things to see and more things to learn. A purer form of flying.
So, while it would have certainly been “easier” to just remain IFR, no way that flight would have been nearly as interesting (and as direct). Comparatively speaking (for somebody who has flown that IFR route before), the IFR flight would have been downright boring.
Wait for part II for another proof of the huge joys of VFR flying…
Ok, well, looks as if it was my false thinking: thought initially that the routing INTIP GEMLA RETNO was the IFR routing, too, so that you simply cancelled IFR but proceeded the IFR route anyway but VFR (including the smaller detours for sightseeing) – which isn’t the case.
But you are so right: IFR makes totally lazy :)