Touring across France in an Ikarus C42. Trip report with accompanying media taken from 'Endeavour,' a C42 based in Newry, N.Ireland.
It was 04:30am and that dreaded sound woke me. That dread quickly turned to excitement as I remembered that today was the start of my first big flying adventure abroad!
I had dropped the Ikarus C42 off the previous month for maintenance in Husbands Boswort, a glider airfield near Birmingham. The aircraft was due for its yearly maintenance check as well as receiving some new upgrades for the tour. The key upgrades that went in were a ballistic parachute, an attitude indicator and a traffic monitoring device to help me detect other planes in the sky that may become a threat.
My lifelong friend Shane O Hagan was to join me on this flying adventure trip across France. Soon we were travelling on the motorway to Dublin airport to catch a 7am flight to Birmingham. We then planned to fly the newly serviced Endeavour on an initial flight first to the Isle of White, then across the English Channel to Cherbourg in France. All being well, we planned to push on to our first stop for the night which was Niort-Marais Poitevin, an airfield in France.
Video Documenting the trip:
Having arrived by airliner into Birmingham at around 8am, we were soon in a taxi for the 40-minute drive to the airfield to be reunited with the aircraft. We had eagerly been awaiting this moment for over 2 weeks having watched the weather forecasts for an ideal window to make it into France. Finally, that moment had arrived, it was a beautiful sunny day at the start of summer with the odd wispy cloud. The channel was set to be completely clear of cloud and with a high-pressure system in the area. Perfect I thought.
Soon we were at the airfield and I was reunited with my aircraft. We quickly got the plane packed which consisted of two small rucksacks containing a change of clothes each, our mobile phones as well as some tools and spares for the aircraft. We were operating with the essentials to keep within weight limits. We planned to stay in hotels and purchase anything we required en route. I had accommodation booked near Perpignan and family were planning to fly out a few days later in the week by airliner. They would transport a bigger suitcase containing all I would need to base in South France for a couple of weeks of exploring the region by air.
Leg 1 - Husbands Boswort -> Sandown (Isle of White)
I was under no illusion as to how difficult this airfield can be to navigate on the ground having arrived previously at Husbands Bosworth in my plane a few weeks before hand. There was on site camping with many children roaming the grounds, and it is a huge glider club with busy membership. The gliding club takes complete priority over any visiting aircraft which are generally not welcome unless they are visiting the popular maintenance facilities on site. Having negotiated a taxi route to the hold at the grass runway, I was instructed to hold my position for around 15 minutes. I considered shutting my engine down as I was aware of the precious diversion fuel I was eating into. Before I could act on this thought, I was instructed to make an immediate take off followed by a South bound turn as soon as possible. They didn’t need to ask me twice, we were rolling before the transmission had completed. The 100hp C42 effortless lifted us into the sky at over 1,000 feet a minute. I activated the transponder with a squawk of 7000 (VFR) so as ATC had visibility of me in the hope at the very least, they can warn others of me. As instructed, we made a south bound turn and accelerated away from the field of which numerous gliders were circling in to land. We thanked our hosts and quickly dialled up London control to receive a basic service for our flight to the Isle of White. London control was hectic, it took around 5 minutes to find a space to transmit which at this stage was beginning to get frustrating. I am not use to this. It quickly became apparent that they were very busy for several reasons. The great weather had called many aviators to the sky today and we were also tracking towards the busiest airspace in the UK. My new traffic system quickly came to life alerting us of many planes tracking in various directions around us within 3,000 feet and a 10-mile radius. Already, I felt it was worth the investment as I sensed my traffic awareness picture improving. However, I was aware that it would not pick up everything in the sky as many planes still operate without a transponder. I kept a good eye on flying the route I had planned exactly and accurately, as there were many airspaces to avoid or climb over. The Southampton area before the Isle of White was to be the most challenging of the route and would require accurate tracking and altitude holding while maintaining a good look out for traffic.
Cruising at 3,000 feet and around 85 Knots, we admired the views of places we had heard of, but never seen or been to before. We were covering ground fast and had around 100nm to run to the Isle of White. Everything felt good, and the aircraft was handling like a dream. I was very excited about getting into France this evening, but also a little apprehensive of the inevitable sea crossing that comes with that. While completing my slow but detailed traffic scan, my eyes suddenly locked on a large bug that had obviously smashed into my windscreen. Damn I thought...right on my forward viewing position. At this stage my mind decided it was a large bumble bee. I found my mind wondering and thinking, what would a big bumble bee, be doing, at 3,000 feet. I had no idea they would fly that high…..before I could complete the thought, my eyes widened in in mixture of confusion and disbelief.
This 'bumble bee' that was on my wind screen suddenly grew a massive set of wings. The bumble bee had now morphed into a large GA aircraft at 12 o’clock less than half a mile coming straight at us. I immediately closed the throttle and put the aircraft into what I would consider a hard dive to the right. Having considered this very scenario in my mind many times, I decided that I will always dive, and go right. The reason I decided I would dive, is that I have presumed most pilots will pull up. We are taught to turn right but I worry somebody may get it wrong in a panic, so I reassure myself that diving adds another chance or layer of protection. The aircraft which I believe was a Cessna 182 ploughed straight through our path. I don’t believe he had seen me at all! I cursed him for not having a transponder on as he zoomed past close enough that I could see he had sunglasses on. Within seconds, I felt like I was going into some sort of shock, the feeling you get when you almost have a car accident and you know it. The realisation of how close that was and the fact he didn’t even budge or see me, shook me to the core. I have read about this and planned for this, but I did not think it would be that terrifying. I was literally shaking with fear with what had just happened. I quickly reminded myself to forget about it and fly the plane, I can analyse this and think it through on the ground. I remained calm on the outside for the sake of my passenger, but inside I just had a serious reality check. This backed up the fact that the traffic system won’t show everything. London Control was way too busy to even begin to offer anybody traffic alerts, so it was vital to keep the see and avoid techniques in continuous use. In hindsight an airprox report should have been filed, but I only considered this months later when the details became hazy.
I asked London if I could change to Southampton as we knew they would be too busy to initiate this to us. After calling up Southampton and explaining my intended routing just under their airspace, they were happy for us to proceed and made us aware of some Dash-8 Q400 Flybe aircraft that were operating in the area. Soon Portsmouth and the Isle of White were in view which looked amazing with the clear blue skies in the background. At this stage it was approaching 11am and we hoped to make a stop for lunch at the famous Sandown Airfield in the Isle of White.
Approaching 10nm to run, we switched frequency to Sandown radio to get airfield information and to state our intentions which was a full stop for lunch for both us and the plane. We were quickly informed of another aircraft also approaching from a similar location as us. Within seconds, a very familiar accent came over the radio waves. I am not sure why this surprised me, but it was female, and it was an Irish accent. I was sure we would be the only people arriving from Ireland in an aircraft at Sandown. A quick scan identified this aircraft further south of us and at our 5 o’clock. I decided to be courteous and let our fellow Irish aviators go first. I announced that I would do a 360 turn to reposition in behind the other aircraft. This was welcomed with thanks from the small yellow aircraft we could see a coulpe of miles away. Having joined a left downwind, I could identify that the yellow aircraft was a Piper Cub. Soon it was our turn to join on final and I looked forward to my first landing in a couple of weeks.
Pleased with my landing and being aware that no aircraft were behind me, I let the aircraft gently slow without the use of brakes. Having the ground map overlays in SkyDemon is very useful, especially for airfields like this where the taxiways might not be so apparent to a first-time visitor. It quickly became obvious that this was one very busy airfield. There were around 30 aircraft parked up and visiting for the day and we joined a queue at the fuel pumps to get a refill for a the next leg across the English Channel to Cherbourg.
We planned to stop for an hour to get lunch, then get back in the air. At the fuel pumps we were approached by the Irish couple who had landed in the yellow Piper Cub. They thanked us for allowing them to land first and asked us about our plans and what we were doing here. They explained that they had flown in from Galway. I am not sure why I felt surprised, but I did think that it was a little bit crazy that they have flown all the way from Ireland in this tiny yellow plane (Which was much bigger than mine!). For some reason, for us doing it in a microlight seems to be perfectly normal. It is moments like this that the gravity of the undertaking ahead hits home. However, I had spent a year preparing meticulously for this and I was determined to pull it off both safely and successfully. I thrive on the aviation challenges and the excitement of touring by private plane. Soon we were enjoying a great lunch from Sandown’s on-site restaurant and were relaxing outside on picnic benches in the sun with around 100 other people all gazing at the sky divers that were continuously jumping over the field. We realised that we had arrived at a lucky time and we were going to need to negotiate a suitable time to depart around the sky diving activity. I planned to turn around the aircraft and ourselves in sixty minutes. Ninety minutes later I found myself still sitting, enjoying the sun, seemingly now in no rush as I knew the next sector was straight into a sea crossing. I look at the pure blue skies and thought now is the time to go to France. After paying our fees at the tower, we returned to prepare the aircraft and our life jackets to cross the sea.
Leg 2 - Sandown to Cherbourg
We fired up the trustworthy Rotax 912 to heat the engine before taking flight again. We got our life jackets on and I looked over at my close friend who was eagerly excited about the next hop which would take us into France. I couldn't help but feel a sense of guilt. I was taking my friend across the sea. In a single engine aircraft. If anything went wrong, I would never forgive myself. I reassured myself we had life jackets, a PLB, there was warm weather, it was a short hop and we would be on the radios if help was required which should not be more than thirty minutes away.... I thought. Besides, it’s the busiest shipping lane in the world, right?
Within 5 seconds of reaching full throttle, Endeavour, our small but ridiculously overpowered flying machine had its nose up and was rocketing out of Sandown at impressive rates for any aircraft especially with it being 26 oC and the air being less dense than we were used to operating in. Soon we were departing the circuit and thank Sandown for a very enjoyable stop. Within minutes, we were over the white cliffs on the south tip of the Isle of White. I dialed in the frequency of Plymouth Military which offered a service for the first half of the what should be a short sea crossing. I was pleased that there was a high-pressure system is in the area, I usually equated this to good flying weather and the sea ahead looked just that. Little did I know at this stage in my lack of flying experience is that high pressure systems and sea crossings are not a good mix. We watched the Isle of White disappear off in to the distance behind us. There were pure blue skies and decent forward visibility of around seven miles with a light haze in the distance near the FIR boundary. After zig zagging over some ships below us I started to become aware the forward visibility was reducing with the haze seeming to thicken. I cross checked the latest weather outlook and it reassured me again with clear skies and a very favourable ATIS from Cherbourg which was now only 25 miles ahead but with no land yet in sight.
It soon became apparent that visibility was starting to further reduce with the sea starting to slowly merge as one with the sky thus making it more difficult to determine the horizon clearly. I was now glad I had the attitude indicator fitted which provided another layer of safety to keep the aircraft at the right attitude and wings level, however its not an IMC rated plane, nor is the pilot! I found myself relying more and more on the attitude indicator as the miles closed in to the coast of France. I made a mental decision if this was to reduce any further, I would pull a gentle 180 turn and track back towards the clearer airspace. This would have meant returning to the Isle of White to attempt getting to France the following day or finding another way in. Spending more time over the sea than was planned was not exactly high on my agenda either, so I weighed up all available options. The visibility remained reduced, marginal at best and we were down to ten miles to run, but still with no sign of France. Looking up, we had clear blue skies, looking forward we had a mesh of sea and haze with around 4 miles forward visibility now. A large oil tanker started becoming visible through the haze and this helped set the horizon once again. Within seconds the haze around us seemingly vanished displaying a very beautiful looking and inviting coast of France.
Cherbourg Tower instructed us to join on a left downwind and call final. Soon we were lined up with one of the biggest runways I have ever seen. Having studied the ground charts before departing on this leg, I was well aware that there was only one turnoff to the parking area which was over a mile down the runway. With this in mind, I planned to land long as I was aware of traffic behind me that was also inbound. As we gently lowered our aircraft back on to solid ground, we gracefully and proudly deposited some rubber for the first time on French tarmac. We asked for taxi instructions to the fuel pump to ensure there was no delays on trying to get back out after the planned 1 hour turnaround.
We pulled up to the pumps and shut the engine down and stepped onto French land for the first time. A fuel guy approached us and in broken English asked if we had a fuel card. Unfortunately, we did not. Clearly disappointed, he walked off to his office to collect the necessary paper work required to buy fuel in France. 15 minutes later, we had refuelled and paid using a credit card. We were soon pointed towards the terminal of which we expected to clear customs. Having grabbed some paperwork and passports, we set off across the apron to the main terminal. On entering the building, we were presented with a customs desk and nobody there. After waiting 10 minutes, we decided to walk on through and found an office to pay our landing fees. I mentioned that no customs were available at the stand. They explained not to worry about it, that customs are not always on site or available and if that is the case you are free now to travel on through France. So, our stop was somewhat pointless, but still necessary to show we had landed at a customs port of entry. We felt full after eating lunch just 1 hour before on the Isle of White, so we decided to have a look around the airfield and relax for an hour. After another weather check, we were keen to get back in the air for our next sector which would take us well into France and down to Niort, our planned stop for the night. As Cherbourg is directly on the coast, we really hadn’t seen anything of France yet and we were eager to get off and start exploring our new scenery playground.
Leg 3 - Cherbourg -> Niort-Marais Poitevin
I felt a new sense of calm now that the sea crossing was completed. We could relax more and enjoy the scenery we came for. After getting our checks and engine warmup completed, we requested taxi for departure. We were asked to hold our position to allow for two inbound aircraft. Once these aircraft had cleared the runway, we were free to taxi to the hold. I asked the tower if we could get an intersection departure, as the runway was long enough to handle a jumbo jet and there would be a considerable backtrack to be completed otherwise. With this being approved and getting our take off clearance, we were quickly accelerating towards rotation speed and once again excitedly rocketing into the unknown skies of above.
The visibility and weather for this sector was due to be CAVOK with calm winds both on surface and in the air. This leg which was estimated to take around 2 hours, would be our final stop for the night. I was expecting some thermal activity due to the high surface temperatures which were 27 degree Celsius and it was now in the afternoon around 3pm local time. Surprisingly, there was not a single bump. It almost felt like we were not flying as the conditions and ride quality were flawless. We followed the coast south enjoying the views along the beaches and over small French towns and villages.
We took a flight Information Service from ATC who were very helpful in providing traffic awareness reports of other aircraft operating around our planned routing. Checking engine parameters, it became apparent that the Rotax engine was thriving in these air temperatures with all indications exactly in the middle of the green temperature bands. The aircraft was cruising effortlessly with a ground speed of 90knts. Soon we had passed over many unique features as the airspace in the North of France is fairly open and not too complex which led to a very relaxing, enjoyable and easy sector.
Realising I was closing in on my first ever French speaking only airfield, I felt the nerves rising. I had spent some time studying French 'circuit speak' and I had learnt all phrases I would ever require. I had never spoken French on the radios before. Actually, I had never spoke any French to any person in my life, and the thought of making a mess of it or not understanding radio replies started to become more of a worry. I had prepared a backup sheet for my kneeboard checklist with all the phrases I expected to use to arrive safely. I quickly transmitted in this alien language that I was 10 mins out, North of the field and inbound for landing.
Surprisingly, the radio instantly crackled into life.
“Bonsoir Guulf Tangooo Luima!”
"Welcome to Niort, we eagerly await your arrival, one aircraft in the circuit downwind, report 5 miles North."
The English surprised me, and I was not expecting this, but it was most welcome. I decided that I would still try and make my remaining calls in French. As French people would like that, right?
Niort tower updated us in English that the circuit aircraft had landed and to report when joining the downwind leg. The airport looked very neat and impressive and had a distinctively black runway. It turned out that this was newly laid tarmac and probably the smoothest and best condition runway I have ever operated from. We enjoyed the final approach an hour before sunset as we descended gently down into these unknown lands of central France where we planned to stop and rest for the night.
After asking for fuel, we were told it was shut for the evening, but we could get some from 8 am. We were directed to a spot to park the aircraft on grass where we could tie it down safely for the evening. The winds were due to be calm over night, but I would never feel comfortable leaving the C42 without being tied to the ground. I still look at it as a glorified kite and it is designed to fly, so an unexpected gust could potentially move the aircraft or worse.
After realising we had made it to our hopeful stop, we now had the new and previously untested challenge of trying to locate a cheap stop for the night after arriving. In general aviation, it is hard to plan anything when travelling long distances. Usually a mixture of weather and airport delays may prevent you making it to a planned destination.
We used booking.com and went into the map view and identified the airfield, then started looking at the prices of the closest accommodation. There was one close by, or so it seemed. It appeared to be similar to the travel lodge in the UK and was offering rooms for €39 so it seemed like the best pick of the available options.
The airfield manager welcomed us and applauded my terrible French. He was very friendly and offered to give us a lift to the hotel as the airfield was shutting for the night. The control tower stayed open an extra hour for us thanks to the PPR we had put in well in advance.
He mentioned that it was very rare to see a small plane from Ireland at their airport and was keen to hear about our planned journey and insisted we stop there again on the way back. We were made very welcome at the airfield and driven to the hotel which we had just booked. On the map, the hotel appeared to be a lot closer to the airfield than it was, but ended up being a good ten minutes' drive. I would have estimated 2 minutes’ walk. I realise my air navigation skills by far outweigh my ground navigating skills.
Hotel Atoll was basic and the lady at check-in spoke zero English. I can’t complain, I am in France after all. I do know basic French radio speak which consists of numbers, heights, directions and circuit patterns, but this isn’t much use for checking into a hotel I found. After some awkward sign language we used Google translate on our phones to set up some form of communications with our host. We managed to explain we had prepaid and booked just ten minutes previously on booking.com
Without so much as a facial acknowledgement, she buried her head in the computer and was typing away endlessly for the next few minutes. I was starting to wonder does she think we are here to fix something, maybe she is browsing Facebook…. Perhaps writing a new novel, I think. But then she then looks up and smiles.
I take that to mean that we may have some form of a result, and it seems we do. She quickly throws a set of room keys on to the counter and starts telling me many, many things in French that I was never going to understand. I decide the best option for me is that every time she stops talking, just smile, and keep saying 'Oui'. Everything should work out ok, and we should be allowed to leave to find our room. This appeared to work out just fine after having used the the 'Oui' word around twenty times. She soon announces “Au revoir” which I understood to be good bye. We quickly found our room and crashed onto the bed as the tiredness suddenly hit. It's been a very long day with a lot of travelling which commenced in Newry at 04:30am this morning.
After a quick freshen up, we are both hungry again and would like to treat ourselves to a decent local meal before an early night and to prepare for tomorrows sectors. Soon we set off in search of somewhere nice to eat. The size of this place and our location on the outskirts of town meant there was no restaurants close by, apart from one, a Mc Donald’s fast food outlet. Phoning a taxi with French circuit phrases didn't seem like a logical solution either. So after feeling rather burnt out from walking a mile or so, we begrudgingly settled for Mc Donalds without any other options to choose from. We sat and reflected on the completion of the three sectors we flew, the sights we had seen and the plans for tomorrows flying which was to consist of two further sectors.
Leg 4 - Niort-Marais Poitevin -> Villeneuve Sur Lot
Our alarms were set for 7am and after a quick breakfast we organised a taxi mainly via sign language at the hotel reception. We were soon back at Niort airfield and first in line at the fuel pumps. Once again, we were asked by a hopeful fuel operator as to whether we had a fuel card. It seems that not many people fly in France without these fuel cards, so I make a mental note to get one. As with Cherbourg, I was advised to get a fuel card to make life easy and the process much more convenient . It has quickly become apparent that the amount of paper work required for a refuel in France in quite extensive with detailed invoices to be filled out requiring your address among other endless personal details. The paperwork part takes much longer than the refuelling of the aircraft. I am happy to see the same tower controller that speaks English is working again this morning. Soon after paying our fees and thanking our kind French hosts, we promised we would be back in a couple of weeks on the return journey home having been made feel so welcome.
Today's adventure was a 2-sector trip to Perpignan in France, or so we thought. It was here that I planned to base the aircraft for a couple of weeks. From this central hub base, I then planned to fly to various destinations and explore the area. The weather was clear but a little hazy which I expected to get quickly burnt off by the hot morning sun. I was glad to have opted for shorts over the usual pair of jeans for today's flying, as the cockpit was already feeling hot and uncomfortable. I am eager to get in the air so as we can open the air vents and get a stream of cold air coming in. Like the previous day, the flying conditions were once again great with calm cruising conditions. This route was set to be my most challenging yet with a maze of military zones to navigate our way through.
On departing the circuit, we quickly called up for a FIS (Flight Information Service) and activated our flight plan. ATC checked with us if we were aware of the active military area that we were approaching ahead. I confirmed that we were aware of it, and we intended to fly below it. There was a second military zone shortly after it that was also active, however ATC called us to say they had arranged approval for us to pass through that one without restriction. This saved us from having to do an immediate climb after ducking under the first restricted military zone that we did not have approval to pass through.
Further on there were several military zones that were stated as not active. I cross checked this with ATC to be sure having heard many stories of what can happen when you bust military airspace in France. All French pilots will tell you about two key things to not do when flying in France. Busting military zones or flying over a nuclear powerplant is one way to lose your aircraft very quickly. One French pilot told me his friend was asked for €20,000 to get his aircraft back. So, being careful not to infringe in military airspace when not welcome, was at the very top of my agenda for the day.
The skies soon turned to a light overcast leaving the landscape still brightly lit. Sunglasses were still an absolute must to see in the bright atmosphere. The flat lands and mainly yellow fields soon turned into light mountainous terrain as we gazed down at the many chateaux buildings some with their refreshingly blue swimming pools. I instantly decided that tonight's hotel was going to need to have a swimming pool. Even with the air vents open its was very warm in the cockpit. I took a sip of water trying to find the fine balance of not getting dehydrated while also being wary that the next toilet stop was 90 minutes from here.
Soon we were within 50nm of our next stop which was to be Villeneuve Sur Lot a small little airfield I had researched from the comfort of my own home six months previously. I felt a little nervous again as I remembered this was an FR only airfield and based on my PPR requests being replied in French via email, I was expecting this to be strictly the case with the radios. As we approached, we tuned in the airfield frequency and I was hoping I was the only plane arriving to make life easy for me. I was yet to hear other French pilots speak, and would I understand anything they say I wondered. Shortly after tuning the radio, it came to life with a French accent speaking quickly. I replayed it slowly in my head and realised I could work this out and started thinking of words I knew. I picked out downwind, 1000 feet, to land runway 28. Feeling chuffed with my new-found skill, I transmitted that I was ETA 10 minutes out inbound from the North and stated my altitude in my broken French. I got a quick response which I gathered was giving me airfield information and one aircraft to depart to the East. Listening on the radio we heard the departing aircraft making its calls and quickly identified it climbing into the sky a few miles ahead of us. We deemed its tracking not to be a threat and continued to join on a crosswind leg making position calls as we went. This small airport along a river made for one of my most favourites approaches to date. Shane recorded the approach as we descended into Villeneuve Sur Lot. As was apparent from the glass like surface of the river, there were no winds on arrival allowing for a smooth approach.
After landing, we had to backtrack the full runway as there was only one taxiway at the start of the runway. We soon found the small fuel pumps and pulled up for a fill of Avgas. On exiting the aircraft, the heat was over powering. It turned out to be a very hot and humid day in south France. After looking around the seemingly deserted airfield, we tracked down the airfield manager who seemed equally disappointed as all the previous airfields to find out we did not have an Air BP card. After a refuel we went back to the office to complete the usual mountain load of paperwork. We were offered some complimentary cold tins of coke which were close to freezing. Feeling refreshed we sat in the flight office under the cool air conditioning to check the weather for the route ahead. Unfortunately, the outlook had greatly changed for the next leg which was to take us across some tricky airspace, then down a valley between Carcassonne and the Pyrenees mountains. Both winds and visibility were at the top of my agenda for this route. The winds were fine, however, the visibility had dropped in the valley of Carcassonne and the TAF had also now updated with a reduced prediction. Based on that I decided that we would be best delaying here to see if it cleared up throughout the day. It was almost hard to believe, with such beautiful weather here, that it could be so different 60 miles away. Having endlessly checked the weather over the next 4 hours with my friend expecting me to announce we are going, I broke the news that we would be staying here for the night. With his life reliant on my decisions I felt more need to be the responsible pilot and make safe choices.
We looked through booking.com and quickly realised we were in anything but a tourist town. There were too not many options, and due to the sweltering heat, I really wanted a place with a pool so as we could relax for the rest of the day. Having picked out a hotel based on the picture of a pool, we used Google translate to try and get the French speaking airfield manager to call us a taxi. After a number of phone calls, he gave us the thumbs up. Soon after we saw a large Renault people carrier coming down the road leaving a dust trail behind it. We started walking towards it then stopped realising there was no taxi sign on it. A middle-aged French lady pulled up and shouted something to us in French and pointed in the back. I noticed two children's seats which confused me so I said;
"No comprende" which when I think back now, was actually Spanish.
“Taxi” I stated again, trying to make it clear that we were obviously not who she was looking for.
"Oui, Oui" she shouted pointing in the back once again motioning for us to get on board.
Oddly, I noticed that the two child seats in the back left only a middle seat. Spotting this inconvenience, I quickly jumped into the front passenger seat leaving my friend to climb over the assault course in the back to find a space to sit. This was very bizarre I thought. I show the driver the booking.com address of the hotel and she nods and starts speaking in French. We are now experienced adventurers in dealing with unknown communications in France. So, for the next 10 minutes we smile and continually nod our heads and agree to many unknown things with the odd “Oui”.
Soon we were pulling into what appeared to be a quiet housing estate on the outskirts of town. Odd place for a hotel I found myself thinking. I eagerly looked out the windows looking for this pool and hotel I have booked us into for the evening. Suddenly the car stopped, and the driver announces "Voila!"
I didn’t see any hotels, so I pulled out the booking email once again to show the driver. She nodded and suggested we were at the address. I decided the hotel must be somewhere about here, so we decided to jump out and paid the driver the €20 she had requested. Soon the driver sped off leaving us in what seemed like a deserted and quite French neighbourhood. Most houses had shutters over their windows and huge gates to prevent any unwanted visitors (like us). Having walked around this estate endlessly we started getting frustrated, unable to work out where the hotel was. On comparing the booking map to Google Earth, we were in the right spot, but all I could see here was a seemingly small boarded up French house with the same number as the hotel address. As we were pretty much lost in the middle of France, I figured we may was well knock the door, maybe somebody knows something?
Within a second of pushing the doorbell, I had instantly regretted it. It seems we awoke a huge beast from within the building that went berserk and instantly began trying to tear the door down to get at us. Whatever type of dog this was, it sure was a big and angry one and it instantly had me freaked out. As a dog lover, I was smart enough to know his tone was one not to be messed with. Soon we could hear the door unbolting and somebody shouting at the dog. A French lady opened the door and looked as surprised to see us as we did her with this almighty dog she was trying to restrain. "Bonsoir," I said in my most friendly voice whilst squeezing a brave smile.
"Hotel?" I asked hoping she might have an indication of what we were talking about.
As with everybody we met so far in this town, nobody seemed to speak a word of English. I quickly tried to fish my phone out of my rucksack which was a complete mess. I could not locate my phone that I had a few minutes ago, so I started emptying the contents of my bag on to this lady’s door step. First, I pulled out a hammer, followed by some large metal stakes with which I tie the aircraft down. Then I started pulling some blue rope out of my bag that endlessly seemed to go on forever which further pulled out some duct tape (wing tape) which it was tangled up with and finally some industrial sized zipper ties. I suddenly realise that I must look like I am carrying a professional kidnapping kit, and sensing the hosts growing concern, I anxiously fished out my phone and quickly showed her the booking email. Looking at the strange objects on the ground which I don’t think would be typical of a usual tourist, I tried to explain that its ok, because:
“We are pilots, pilotes d'avions!” I tried to reason.
For some reason I thought that this would make us both sound good and look normal. We sure didn't look like any pilots, that’s for sure. Standing there with our holiday shorts, T-shirts, sunglasses and backpacks full of not very touristic contents or pilot like contents to the untrained eye. She studied my phone and slowly waved for us to follow her in. I really just wanted to know where the hotel was at this stage. She took us through and out the back of this house to the most amazing looking swimming pool.
The same pool from the hotel advert I quickly realised which only added to my confusion. It quickly dawned on me that we booked into some authentic and random French house and not a hotel. Initially I was disappointed, as I was looking forward to a cold beer at a hotel bar that I had already pictured. Communication with the host had to be done via google translate which was not easy and was very time consuming. She had many questions, Who were we? What were we doing here? How did we get here? Where were we going to next? I am sure our baggage, a rucksack containing the most bizarre contents had her intrigued if not startled and hence the questions. We did our best to explain that we were doing a flying tour and landed at the local airport. She appeared to understand. Through Google translate, she offered that her husband would take us to the airport in the morning for our flight, which we were very grateful for. We enjoyed a few hours basking in the heat while lying in the swimming pool and our hosts left us in peace. It was very refreshing relaxing in the pool. We decided we would go into town for dinner and to do some exploring as it looked very impressive from the air on the way in. Soon we were exploring the old French town and it was clear this was not a tourist spot.
For once, absolutely nothing was in English nor did we meet anybody that could speak a single word of English. Having travelled France extensively by road, I found this strange. I guess we really are off the beaten track. We had great difficulty in choosing a restaurant as we could not understand any of the menus and after spending a lot of time translating them, we generally found it didn’t sound appealing. Soon we settled on an Italian style outdoor café restaurant where we both enjoyed some Carbonara and a cold beer. Finally, we got some real local cooked food and it sure tasted good. Soon we set off back to the French house for the night. Our accommodation consisted of the full area of the 2nd floor of the house. This included a mini living room, 2 large bedrooms and a bathroom. I thoroughly enjoyed this new and authentic French, chateaux experience. It was made completely of wood and I admired the unusual workmanship until I feel asleep.
Soon the alarm was going off at 7am and we both got cleaned up and ready to go. On doing a weather check it looked 50/50, but due to improve. I decided we would go to the airfield and we could wait there and prepare to go when the moment was right. The French host and her husband were waiting for us when we got up. We had pre-paid them in cash the night before and decided to throw them an extra tip for their superb hospitality. I would definitely be back. They quickly opened a map and started point to Toulouse airport. It quickly became apparent that they assumed we were backpackers or hitch hikers and needed to get to the international airport. I kept trying to explain that no, it is the local airport 10 minutes away.
Via google translate they explained:
No, this airport you cannot fly to any places it is not for people.
I translated back that we have a small aircraft and we are the pilots (which I thought I had explained the previous evening). Both seemed shocked and exclaimed "Quelle surprise!"
I guess we were their first guests who had arrived at the local airfield. In fact, maybe we were their first guests ever. Both were now instantly fascinated in our story. After a long time back and forth on translate, I pointed to my watch and to the skies signalling we needed to go. Our hosts soon had us back at the airfield and got out for a look at the aircraft. They could not get over we had flown this small aircraft all the way from Northern Ireland.
Leg 5 - Villeneuve Sur Lot -> Perpignan
Waving our hosts goodbye, we set off to check the weather and the aircraft. The weather was marginal at best but with a promising TAF for the next few hours. We decided to delay our departure having only a 2.5 hour hop to complete to our last stop in France, Perpignan.
I decided to jump into the plane to prepare the cockpit for the days planned flight operations. Instantly the smell of Avgas was apparent to me. That’s odd, I thought. Having filled the aircraft tanks the day before, any spillage should long have evaporated. I opened the back-cargo hatch of the aircraft and I was instantly overwhelmed with aviation fumes. To my surprise, I could see a small puddle of fuel sitting on the fuselage of the aircraft. I decided as this is now a potential fire hazard, the first task is to get this soaked up. I instruct my friend to run to the toilets and grab as much toilet roll as he could. I watched at the small puddle and tried to figure out where it is coming from only to see a drip suddenly drop which appeared to come from the main fuel pipe!
My friend arrived back, and I quickly soaked up the small flammable puddle from the back of my aircraft. I quickly identified that there was a drip every 5 seconds approximately which allowed me to home in on its location. Soon it was apparent that the culprit was the fuel filter. Unsure of what to do, I rang the maintenance facility in England where I had just collected the aircraft to see if they could offer me any advice. They explained that they had changed the fuel filter and it must be faulty or have a crack in it, but not to worry as they could FedEx a new one out to us in a few days or I could find a local lawn mower shop to source a filter which I did not like the sound of. I told them I would call them back after having a think about the best form of action, but as far I was concerned, my plane was now grounded. I considered the fact that I had lost around 5 litres in 15 hours, this in theory would point towards the leak not being severe enough to make it to the next airport which would be better equipped. However, would the pressure of the fuel flow increase this leak or make it worse? Also, I had strobes and wiring on the bottom of the aircraft, so the thought of a mid-air fuel leak and fire was enough to make the decision to ground the aircraft until a solution had been found. As much as I liked this town, I was eager to get moving and didn’t want to be stuck here for a few days awaiting on a part.
I decided to investigate further. The fuel filter was in a position that is very difficult to see. Suddenly, I got the bright idea of using my iPhone which I could position underneath to inspect the dripping filter which I could not get a view of. I could then take a video of the problem. After watching the video for a few minutes and with no cracks visible I suddenly got that Eureka moment. Looking closely at the hosing clamps, it was apparent that one was on much tighter than on the other end where the drip was.
"Get me a flat head screw driver," I shout to my friend feeling like an expert aircraft mechanic that was hopeful of saving the day with my technical yet simple potential fix.
Surprisingly, we were to spend the next 45 minutes searching the airfield and its hangars to find a now elusive flat head screw driver. Finally, one was located in a kitchen drawer and I sprinted over to the aircraft hoping I had the fix solution in my hand. It quickly became apparent that the screws on one of the clamp to attach the fuel pipe to the fuel filter were lose on one side but not the other. After tightening the clamp carefully, I decided to place some paper down where the drip was to see if this simple fix has solved the problem. On checking 15 minutes later, it was apparent the fuel leak had been solved with no drips detected on the paper.
The thought then struck me that we had crossed the sea yesterday with a potentially lose fuel pipe. I pondered as to why I had not smelt fuel the previous sectors. I can only put this down to the fact we filled the tanks fully with fuel for the first time on this stop, and the extra weight and pressure of the fuel made it leak for the first time. So, it seemed it was on just tight enough to hold…
Finally, the time had come to take to the skies once again. It had been an eventful start to the day. Soon we had completed our warm ups and waved good bye to our newly made French friends. The departure over the town which we were now more familiar with having explored it the previous evening was spectacular. The weather was overcast and we were in an area of higher ground, so we ended up with around 1,500 feet to play with between the ground and the cloud base.
I wam weary of rising ground 30 miles ahead, but I knew the weather was due to clear the further West we tracked. On checking the local weather and the ATIS of fields en route, the decision was made that it was suitable to go. The FIS we had alerted us to numerous traffic that was passing close by and we manged to identify all of them. Soon the impressive sights of the Pyrenees mountains started to appear on the horizon as we tracked toward the area of Carcassonne.
The scenery started changing from fields and soil-based landscapes to an orange rock like surface that resembled Spain. We enjoyed the new tone of scenery as we tracked along the foot of the Pyrenees mountains and over Carcassonne airport. Soon, we were approaching Perpignan which has a dedicated VFR route into the area at 1,000 AGL down along the coast before tracking to the airfield. The welcome sign of the Mediterranean coast slowly came into view.
As soon as we had passed the Pyrenees mountain range and turned south, we were hit with what I can only describe as a sudden mountain tidal wave. It felt as if we had flown straight into an invisible brick wall. To this day, it is still some of the most severe turbulence I had ever experienced, and I was confused as my forecasts displayed a 7-knot wind at peak altitude, so I was not expecting anything too problematic to be dealing with. I was reminded once again today, that a forecast is just that, it is just a forecast, which means an educated guess at best. As we were at 1,000 foot on the VFR route approaching Perpignan and getting a real nasty kicking. I started wondering if this approach would be a wise idea.
I decided if I was not happy, we could do a missed approach and track back to the calmer areas of Carrcassean. As luck would have it, the winds did calm the closer we got to the airfield having been vectored onto an approach to the huge runway at Perpignan. I opted for a reduced flap landing and kept the speed up on the approach resulting in a smooth connection with the earth once again.
Soon we had vacated the runway and were instructed to taxi to the GA parking area. Once again, the chart overlays came in handy in identify the parking area. I got very excited when I realised, I would be getting to park Endeavour, a little C42, up beside some old Boeing 727s. I never would have thought!
We tied the plane down and jumped out with our small luggage and walked to a turn style exit 100 meters across the apron. On going through this, we were out into the main aircraft carpark and free to go about our business. I just realised I am in south of France and nobody has even asked to see my passport once, never mind my pilot's licence. Surely it can't be that easy?
Follow up trip report back to N.Ireland coming soon.
Quick clips from the tour: