This is a retrospective report for my Silvester VFR trip from Rotterdam EHRD to Portorož LJPZ on the 31.12.2019 to 3.1.2020. The trip contains a few of my most wonderful flying memories, and ends with an almost fatal VFR-in-IMC incident. It’s a rather long reading as I kept the nice part and incident part together; we can gladly split them off in different threads if deemed useful.
The aircraft is one of the Vliegclub Rotterdam’s Robin DR400 with a 135hp Centurion Diesel engine; my flight training for the PPL was done mostly on this particular machine, otherwise on the same type. At the time of this trip, I had previously flown my PPL training lessons during July and August in a dense schedule, helped by the favourable weather during that time, and had since then amassed about 55h PIC time with local flights in Rotterdam’s vicinity or day trips in the surrounding region.
This trip was preceded by a day trip Rotterdam EHRD to Deauville LFRD on the previous day (about 6:00h total flight time) as I had booked the plane for the whole week and wanted to make use of the particular situation of the massive high-pressure system over central Europe that kept the weather along the Channel coast unusually clear.
The lack of mountain flying experience was offset against the stable and clear weather that was forecasted to hold for at least the 2.1., and was planned from the beginning as either to cross the Alps on top, or not to do it at all. Since I lived until six years ago all my life near Munich and had done tons of hiking and motorcycling in the Alps, I was familiar with the terrain in general, and the weather situation.
The following legs were flown:
31.12. Rotterdam EHRD to Memmingen EDJA
Planned routing: EHRD – IPTAS (west of Eindhoven) – TORNU (entry to Maastricht TMA) – GEBSO (near Mechernich) – OLIVI (west-southwest of Frankfurt) – BETAG (near Pforzheim, for Stuttgart EDDS TMA crossing) – GESLU – EDJA
After a clear night, I arrived at the airport when ground fog started to develop which during flight preparation and inspection of the plane started slowly to rise. I used the time waiting for the engine to warm up and the fog to lift to quickly discuss with Rotterdam Delivery my flight plan which included a planned climb out after Rotterdam to FL95 which is in the Dutch class B airspace managed by Dutch MIL Info; I requested a coordination with Dutch MIL to enable the climb, fallback plan was to remain otherwise inside class E, ask for Eindhoven TMA and Maastricht class D crossings, and climb in German airspace to FL95.
Waiting ca. 20 minutes at the holding point V2, the fog finally dissipated with the sun coming up, and I departed Rotterdam on RWY06 with a ROMEO departure shortly before 0800Z.
After leaving the Rotterdam CTR at the ROMEO VRP, I remained on the Tower frequency as Approach was not yet manned, and received a squawk code coordinated with Dutch MIL Info. East of the Biesbosch delta area, the low Amsterdam CTA above 1500ft ended, and I started climbing initially to FL65. Tower handed me over to Dutch MIL Info which provided a clearance to further climb to FL95, thereby avoiding the need to request clearance for crossing Eindhoven’s TMA. Contrary to the filed route which passed through the Beek/Maastricht class D via TORNU to PIMIP near Geilenkirchen, the controller asked if I could accept instead a direct MILGI which would make his life easier; I agreed and proceeded that way into German airspace west of Mönchengladbach EDLN, called up FIS Langen, and continued on in the quiet skies.
Overhead MILGI with very nice tail wind: 100kn IAS vs 148kn GS!
Typical winter weather with a low overcast:
With the sun slowly crawling up, and the further southward I came, the overcast dissipated with the typical valley fog pockets remaining.
Stuttgart class C crossing was easily accomplished by asking Langen Information about 20 minutes before entering to coordinate a crossing from BETAG to GESLU on present FL; FIS quickly came back informing me to contact Langen Radar who issued a discrete squawk and let me cross Stuttgart:
While I was about 30 minutes away from Memmingen, I overheard on FIS a conversation between another plane leaving Kempten EDMK also en route to Portorož which seemed to have a faulty transponder as FIS could not get a return. Since they were probably not too far away from Memmingen, I offered to take them with me (since they also wanted to return on the 1.1.) subject to W&B; we agreed to meet in Memmingen to discuss the plan further after I had refuelled.
After 330nm and ca. 2:30h flight time, I landed uneventful. Memmingen is nicely organised and shuffled me off to the south apron where the fuel pump for GA was located. After filling the 110 litre tank up, I was whisked away to the main terminal by the marshaller’s van, and met the crew of the Jodel DR1050, a nice guy and his girlfriend who were also off for a Silvester trip to the Adria.
We discussed the options, and decided in the end that due to the clear weather, we would file a formation flight plan with me providing the transponder. We synchronised my planned route via Salzburg and the Tauern, set an air-to-air frequency between us, and that I would lead the formation with him keeping station off my starboard wing at a very loose distance. The general idea was that with my two radios, I would stay with COM1 on FIS/Radar and do any coordination, and using COM2 monitoring our A2A frequency, where he would give status reports, etc. In case of losing visual contact, I made it clear that they would be on their own then as I had no clue how to find a lost “wingman” again; we also made it clear that in case of lost visual contact, I would climb at least 500ft above our pre-agreed cruising altitude, while he had to descent at least that amount.
With that organised, we paid the modest landing fees, and took the marshaller van back to the south apron.
31.12. Memmingen EDJA to Portorož LJPZ
Planned routing: EDJA – Salzburg – Pass Lueg – Bischofshofen – Altenmarkt im Pongau – GAFOR route LO60 – Mauterndorf – GAFOR route LO62 – Spittal an der Drau – GAFOR route LO42 – NIPEL (border crossing into Slovenia) – GAFOR route LJ14 / VFR route 3 – LJPZ
With the Alps on the starboard wing, we proceeded eastbound towards Salzburg; here the Starnberger See on the nose, it’s a beautiful region with the municipality of Starnberg on the northern end home to many very affluent people.
Photo op with my “wingman”: We agreed after having good lookout that I would hold course while they slowly approached closer for a few pictures; I would initiate a climbing turn to port in case I felt unsafe while they would descend in a turn to starboard. During normal cruise, they were about five times the distance abeam my wing, and with strobes and nav lamps on, we easily saw each other’s position.
Entrance to the Inntal / valley of the river Inn; this area I know almost by heart as I often went skiing in that area due to the proximity to my old home, and all the motorcycling and hiking around the Kufstein mountains, Wilder Kaiser, and the valleys off of the Inntal. Quite a nostalgic feeling with a tinge of feeling almost exiled now ;)
Schloss Herrenchiemsee on the larger of the islands in the Chiemsee; it’s a miniature copy of Versailles which our mad king Ludwig II. built along with his other “Märchenschlösser” / fairy tale castles.
Approaching Salzburg; in order to cross their controlled airspace, I also asked about 10 minutes before entering on FIS Langen to coordinate a crossing from the west proceeding further down to the Pass Lueg VRP. FIS organised everything and handed us over to Salzburg Radar who gave us a discrete squawk and instructed to proceed to the field and then to turn towards our next waypoint.
Crossing Pass Lueg into the Salzach valley.
The Tauern, following the little valley that is the GAFOR route, we climbed a bit higher for increased ground clearance; I would not like to fly that valley with any overcast …
Approaching Spittal an der Drau.
NIPEL border crossing point directly on the nose, it’s the dip in the ridge ahead with Slovenia in view; also, last look into Austria:
Melting water from the mountains I believe is responsible for the amazing turquoise colour of the lake; some wispy remains of fog over the Slovenian hills.
It was very dry on the south side of the Tauern; I wonder how long it took them to prepare that single ski run:
Slovenian ATC gave us no problems, and only asked to remain below 1500ft AGL after the KOZINA VRP. I was getting busy with preparing the arrival at LJPZ, but managed to shoot quickly a view towards Trieste.
The city of Koper (I believe):
And back where I know my way around a bit, having gotten my sailing licence in that area; the church tower of Piran on the peninsula dead ahead.
Maybe it was overkill, but in order to ensure that my formation partner had no problems flying transponderless, we asked the Tower that we would sequence me as nr. 1 and him as nr. 2, with me doing a low approach and going around, landing after finishing an additional circuit. No problems there, everything easy and relaxed.
As many of you have written, Portorož is a great airport with excellent service! Fuel came quickly with a curious question if JetA for me would be really correct ;) Having imbibed the offered welcome drink, the airport organised a van to us to our respective hotels after we had exchanged phone numbers and agreed to depart around noon the next day.
After 287nm and 2:30 flight time: sitting in the evening sun on my room’s balcony and enjoying a very untypical Silvester is worth it!
Since I had arranged my trip with the intent to visit friends I knew from my sailing days down there, I freshened up and we met for nice dinner in one of the many restaurants near the harbour; afterwards there was live music on the town’s square and firework over the harbour. With my long flying day, and them with their two young children, we called it an early night about one in the morning, I walked a few minutes along the sea back to my hotel, and was on New Year the first guest digging into my breakfast.
Walking back to the city, I said goodbye to my friends, and took a few pictures of the location of last night’s festivities:
1.1. Portorož LJPZ to Memmingen EDJA
Planned route: LJPZ – along to coast to Chioggia – Verona – Riva del Garda – Meran – Stilfserjoch – Reschenpass – Landeck – EDJA
After finishing all preparations, we were picked up by the airport van in turn at our hotels, and we left LJPZ towards the north, crossing at VICKY VRP into Italian airspace. Ronchi Radar gave us what we wanted, namely to follow in about 1500ft along the coast, and handed us later over to Padova Information.
Empty beaches on the northern Adria.
Venice on the wing tip, but due to haze and without decent zoom capability, no better photos taken.
After Chioggia we turned west towards Verona, and ended up quickly in the haze of the Po flats:
Cruising again in loose formation:
We were kept around – if I remember correctly – 4000ft by Verona Approach, crossed the centreline, and continued towards Peschiera.
Overhead Peschiera, with Sirmione on the peninsula in view; memories from student vacation in the camping grounds of Bardolino close by came back!
And after Peschiera, instead of following the highway, I thought it not too unwise to follow the Lago di Garda to its northern shore.
Some impressions of the slowly sinking sun on the Alpine peaks; the Alps between Munich and Lago di Garda are almost Heimat … A wisp of melancholy that I am for the time being living in a 2D landscape.
Approaching the lake at the Reschenpass:
The sun starts to set and with a bit stronger headwind than forecast, we can’t waste too much time as my formation partner wants to land in Kempten EDMK before they close, and I need to go a few miles further to Memmingen EDJA.
After 330nm and 3:15h flight time, I was happy to park my plane in Memmingen, head to the hotel, and have dinner. As it was the case, the restaurant of the hotel was closed as they had their yearly meeting, so I was just heading down the street, had a simple dinner, and the relaxed a bit before turning in.
2.2. Memmingen EDJA to Zell am See LOWZ
Planned route: EDJA – Bad Tölz – Achensee – Zillertal – Gerlospass – Mittersil – LOWZ
Originally, the plan for this day was to make use of the still good weather to swing by Zell am See for a cup of coffee (and to have a look at the airfield!), and then leave for Schwäbisch Hall EDTY for refueling and evaluating of any further progress towards the weather coming in from the north would be possible.
Of course I was initially rewarded again by a glorious Alpine panorama while proceeding east.
Crossing the Inntal to the south with Innsbruck Radar providing instructions to remain below FL95.
At the end of the Zillertal, turning east overhead the Gerlospass towards direction Mittersil.
Mittersil, with Zell am See at the end of the left mountain ridge.
Long final into LOWZ; due to the unknown field, I managed to come in too steep, floated too long in the first third of the runway, and opted to go around the funny-shaped traffic pattern for a second try. The “downwind” leg along the mountain side is really, really close to the terrain, it’s good that I flew it before the trip a few time with X-Plane and high-res orthophotos to get a feeling for it.
Coffee break in the wonderful airport restaurant :)
And finally a picture or two of my faithful steed:
2.1. Zell am See LOWZ to München-Oberschleissheim EDNX
Planned route and actual route taken differed massively. Initially planned was a departure from LOWZ, and then heading more or less directly from Kufstein to Schwäbisch Hall EDTY. Due to the weather, the actual route flown was as follows.
After finishing my coffee, I departed LOWZ to the north over the lake.
Saalfelden, turning left towards the Wilder Kaiser valley.
Approaching Kufstein at FL95:
Last view of the Tegernsee where we went often as children for hiking up the surrounding peaks.
Overhead the Ammersee with the monastery/brewery of Andechs abeam.
As it might be visible on the photo above, the weather had quickly rolled in from the northwest, and I ran into the first issues as Schwäbisch Hall EDTY had already a low cloud base and was not reachable in VMC. FIS advised that Friedrichshafen EDNY was also not VMC anymore, and my first idea to return to Memmingen EDJA where I started from in the morning was also fruitless as the fog that had lifted in the morning hours never fully dissipated and lowered again in freezing conditions.
The closest field Oberpfaffenhofen EDMO was inaccessible to me without an emergency, and the weather line was visible at the northern side of München. By chance a pilot on the FIS frequency who came from the aeroclub at Oberschleissheim EDNX overheard my back-and-forth with FIS and offered to ask if EDNX would be able to take me in. Luckily, this worked out, and with Skydemon inadvertently switched off as I was working with my paper chart and the GTN750, I routed in the end along the A99 highway towards the highway crossing in the north of München which I knew very well, and tracked from there to the field.
Since part of my family lives in the south of München, I could arrange a pickup from EDNX and a stay, and sat then down to figure out how to proceed from the current situation.
The afternoon and evening were spent with the map and the weather forecasts to figure out if a return on the next day to Rotterdam would be feasible. Having spent about half an hour with the DWD flight weather consultant on the phone, the situation was predicted as frontal weather rolling further in from the northwest with gusty wind and showers along the way. I lined out a planned route from EDNX to Mönchengladbach EDLN passing Schwäbisch Hall EDTY, Mannheim EDFM, and Köln-Bonn EDDK as weather exits, and the weather briefer talked me through the frontal situation and expected a cloud base about 2000ft AGL on the way with the most problematic point the hill ridge of the Hunsrück before Frankfurt.
In the end, I decided to file a flight plan for this planned route for the next morning, and to call up the weather briefer on the morning of the flight to get last minute briefing with the current situation. I considered that since a lot of my training flights in the Netherlands were constrained by the 1500ft Schiphol TMA on top, I was not in unfamiliar terrain to consider a 1500ft to 1700ft AGL flight. Furthermore, I planned to get as much current weather information as possible for the legs in front of me whenever I was approaching one of my weather alternates, and to land at one of those if the situation was doubtful.
I left EDNX around 0800Z once the Flugleiter arrived and I had paid my landing and parking fees. While the weather was still sunny and nice there, soon after heading north I encountered lower and lower clouds and settled for a flight about 1200ft AGL, keeping my distance from the clouds.
Proceeding along my planned route was in the end uneventful as the cloud base did not change once I had to duck under, and while the Hunsrück provided some nasty, bumpy minutes of flying, once passed the ridge and approaching the Rhine valley, the weather improved slightly with patches of sunshine every now and then. Still, strong winds with gusts.
Finally, I approached Mönchengladbach EDLN and had coordinated with FIS beforehand to warn EDDL tower that in case I would abort the approach due to crosswind, I would proceed to EDDL for landing. FIS informed me that the EDDL had my data and that I would just need to call up EDDL Tower when necessary.
Until touchdown, I managed a reasonable crosswind landing in EDLN, but as I kept the airspeed a bit higher than normal to account for gusts, I touched down with 80kn. Either I neglected after touchdown to put the aileron fully to the left into the wind, or because I was too slow to react to a wind gust, the result was that I drifted quickly to the left from the runway into the adjoining grassy area. I decided not to brake too hard and let it run as I felt that I was still quite fast and wanted to avoid a ground loop. Luckily, there were no obstacles in my path and the grass short on a hard soil, so that the runway excursion was comparable to a grass field landing. I got back on the taxiway, parked in front of the tower, and went to ask for refueling and paying of fees.
I logged my times in the plane’s logbook, and also logged the runway excursion. After landing, as there was not even dirt spatter on the wing’s underside, and as I kept the front wheel unloaded as much as possible and the landing gear and plane looked as always, I did not consider that anything would be damaged.
280nm, 2:50h flight time. And in retrospective a very stressful and exhausting flight.
3.1. Mönchengladbach EDLN to Antwerp EBAW
Okay, if anyone has read until here, to see a further leg must be a colossal stupidity of the pilot, and I would fully agree. What I thought would be a quick 45min leg back home ended up as badly as possible.
What happened? After refueling and phoning my club to let them know I was now in EDLN, I was so relieved to have made it there that I completely missed in the call to mention the runway excursion as it had after my check of the plane already been filed mentally as “a little whoops, just like sliding a bit on a wet road without issue”.
In retrospective, I was falling of course prey to “get home”-itis as the relative success of a long flight in crappy conditions gave me the impression that I could rely on the forecasted weather being true. Also, I completely bollocksed it up when considering instead of a full weather briefing only the TAF for EHRD which indicated improved cloud base and wind conditions later in the day. I neglected to inform myself, and as a second front was rolling through close behind the first one, the improvement of the TAF of course never materialised.
Looking out from the terminal in westerly direction, I saw – or wanted to see – that the rain was gone, the clouds were lightening up, and there were already substantial holes in the lower clouds.
In the end, I decided to depart EDLN and expected at worst another hour of crappy flying.
So there I was, leaving the EDLN CTR along the highway to the west. There were actually good-size holes in the lower cloud layer, and I was under the impression that there was a substantially large clear layer between the lower and next cloud levels; thus, I started to climb out underneath the class D, being very wary of the large amount of tall wind turbines along my path.
Of course, no weather improvement was taking place, and I was trapped in between two cloud layers. Exacerbating the troublesome situation was a misconfigured radio on my part – I put in the Langen FIS frequency on the GTN750 (COM1), but my audio panel was still switched to transmit and receive on COM2 which had the old FIS frequency selected. I was concerned that I could not reach FIS, and was also very concerned about terrain and obstacles unseen below me. I knew that there was forecasted icing from 5000ft on, but at this time, I thought it the least worst idea to continue climbing in the hope that this would be the tail end of the passing front.
With Pitot heat on, and the landing and taxi lights switched on as well to discover if any ice would accumulate on the leading edge, I managed to reach Dutch MIL Info whom I informed that I needed a climb to at least FL95. After a short standby, I got clearance to do that and proceeded further with climbing.
Lastly, I popped out of the clouds around FL100 and was heading in generally westerly direction avoiding the tops, meanwhile being handed over from Dutch MIL Info to Brussels Control. At this stage, I actually had time to take a breath and consider what I had gotten myself into. With full fuel, I had still more than three hours endurance, but with the sun setting soon, and a potential icing layer below, I decided to declare an emergency, call Mayday, explained a VFR pilot in IMC and stuck on top, and request vectors to the next field with decent cloud base.
Surprisingly, I was not moved to a different frequency, and Brussels Control advised that Antwerp had 700ft cloud base and a runway almost directly aligned with the wind, and that they would vector me there. While every now and then calling me up to request a status update, the rest of the big iron was also handled on the same frequency it seemed, and so I proceeded towards Antwerp.
Sooner or later it was clear that while I was relatively safe on top, I would need to descend through 10.000 feet of potential icing and land at a field I had only crossed once on a cross-country flight. I requested from Brussels Control Antwerp’s ILS frequency in order to get some indication in addition to the GTN750’s display, and started a descent.
Thankfully, I did not pick up any ice while descending, there were only a few pinprick-like spots appearing on the windscreen and landing light cover. While still in the clouds and IMC at 2000ft, I saw the localiser needle pick up the signal, and while handed over to Antwerp Tower proceeded further towards the field. In the end, I descended slowly until around 700ft I saw ground and proceeded visually to the field. The GTN750’s screen helped a lot to maintain course as it indicated quickly on a big screen any turning which was easier to pick up in peripheral vision than the smaller DG. In the end I knew I had to trust my instruments even if now and then my inner ear screamed to get back upright from a turn when in reality I was upright and stable.
The landing was uneventful and not by far my worst, and the waiting fire trucks rolled back to their staging area. I parked at the GA apron, and was taken to the office where the police took a copy of my ID card and licence, and where I filled in a report why I had to declare an emergency. The staff was super-nice and seemed very concerned; I was decidedly in shock and could only after a while type down a meaningful report.
96nm, 1:15 flying time, more than half of that in IMC.
Of course my club was massively unhappy with the accumulated mistakes and crappy decisionmaking from my side. We have a safety management board with which I fully cooperated (with Skydemon or similar, it’s very easy to provide meaningful data) to provide an incident report. There were repercussions which are in my opinion in light of the events fully justified; in the end I messed up a lot and got out alive by being very lucky.
I bet you’re motivated to get an instrument rating
The whole ordeal would have been a complete non-event…..well, apart from the maintenance limitations.
Thank you for the comprehensive report, very admirable of you to talk so openly about potential and real mistakes and analyse them. I feel like you are almost beating yourself up over a few points more than is called for, but if that helps you to stay safe in the future, so be it.
Nice trip report and tanks for high quality pictures of winter scenery, also well done handling that VFR-in-IMC situation, it was the right call to declare mayday and stay on-top literally & figuratively (also being familiar with various rental avionics for instrument flying is not an easy task ), the rest is just trivia !
It is way too brave to wonder in winter frontal weather on long legs with that much terrain & freezing IMC around, one has to accept not making it home or go as planned even with an IR & TKS
Thanks a lot for your honest and open report of the events. I was in a comparable situation once with entering IMC and icing as a VFR only pilot back then. It was in my case also a chain of poor decisionmaking. One of my mistakes was not to declare an emergency – you did better in this regard! BTW I got the IR in the meantime…
Awesome trip, with so many places that like you I have seen on a motorcycle, all those familiar valleys, although they look different sometimes in your photos. One photo in particular got my attention…
I’ve spent some time directly under where you took this photo, notably the last holiday period, and when I was there I watched a plane fly by on the same heading, high up but recognizable as a Robin
Well done, even if the decisions weren’t always right. The story reminds me of my first longer flight to Split in a DA 20. To arrive I had to fly through a thin cloud cover, but little is achieved without courage. Still I don’t want to tempt a beginner. I wonder if a runway excursion, which is a nearby accident, has no consequences, no investigation?
Wow, what a story. Thanks for writing it up. You kept flying the plane and made some right decisions along with the bad ones!
“I wonder if a runway excursion, which is a nearby accident, has no consequences, no investigation?”
My guess is that B737s are not approved to touch the grass unlike the Robins
I bet you’re motivated to get an instrument rating
Motivated, yes – but I am not sure that I can use it in practice: The club’s planes are half N-VFR, half IFR-capable, but as mentioned in the Lofoten trip thread, if I even would get a longer reservation block, I would need to pay every day 2.5 to 3.5 h flying time. That’s perfectly reasonable as the planes are well-utilised normally, taking them away for a week and flying only two or three days a bit would be completely unfair.
“I wonder if a runway excursion, which is a nearby accident, has no consequences, no investigation?”
My guess is that B737s are not approved to touch the grass unlike the Robins
I hope I don’t get anyone in hot water now, but when I parked in EDLN and paid my fees, I asked the person at the counter if I needed to fill out any paperwork due to the runway excursion, but they said that nothing much has happened and no damage to anything, so they needed nothing from me.
Here’s a zoomed-in picture of the landing: I came in a bit faster than usual as I adjusted for gusts, did not align on the centreline as I was wary of the crosswind, touchdown approx. abeam the first wind sock as I floated a bit, and then after about 100m or so of rollout, you see where I suddenly veer off to the left. I came to a rest near the second wind sock, and then figured out where I was and how to get back to paved ground.
Interestingly enough, during the safety report procedure, my instructor mentioned that a) it’s not the first time that one of our Robins has a tendency to pull left after landing, maybe caused by not unlocking the nose wheel which needs some pressure on it, and b) when ferrying home the plane from Antwerp, a colleague had in Rotterdam the same issue on a gusty day.