This year’s tour saw a change of equipment, namely a Cessna C150 aircraft. The reason for not taking the Ikarus C42 on this year’s trip, was to build some group A hours towards a proposed USA coast to coast flying tour in the near future. My initial mission was to safely navigate my rental spam can 1,000 miles to the Valencia area of Spain, where I planned to base the aircraft for a couple of months. As I was flying solo, preparation was absolutely key to pulling this off safely and successfully. Flying solo had the advantage that I could pack a decent sized suitcase this year and still remain within the weight limits of the aircraft. I then planned to fly to various destinations from this self created hub. Of course, and as with all things in general aviation, it is best not to make any solid plans, something I was to learn again this season. Aeroclub de Castellón was the airfield base of choice this year to operate from. It is located just north of Valencia City and conveniently located along a beautiful beach. At €3 parking a day for the aircraft, and voted by Spanish pilots as Spain’s most scenic approach, it seemed like and was a great choice.
This season was a lot more challenging than my 2017 European flying tour with many new lessons learned as well as having repetitive and variable issues thrown at me to deal with. The weather in Europe was very poor compared to last year, and while aiming to clock over 75 hours on this trip, I only managed 50, in the somewhat slower, heavier, but more comfortable Cessna 150.
Countries visited over the 2 month flying tour:
This year’s tour commenced with an early morning departure from Kilkeel (Derryouge airfield) just in front of a nasty weather front coming in. Having recently collected the Cessna 150 from Bagby Airfield in England, this was to be my second solo sea crossing of the week, and first of two for the day ahead. I really should have hired a flying boat.
The sea was clear for the crossing with blue skies and around 8 mile visibility with a good horizon. As I was flying solo, the reminder sets in that I am in the middle of the Irish sea, again, for the second time this week. It is a very lonely feeling. There is nothing to be seen on any horizon on the long crossing to Holyhead. Visibility was good for a sea crossing, but not good enough to provide me with a glimpse of the Isle of man I usually see. I could hear them and talk to them. But I could not see them. This was to be my 18th sea crossing in a single engine aircraft within the last 2 years, so it was starting to get somewhat normal for me. However, I missed that feeling of safety that having land in view offers you when doing a sea crossing and I was looking forward to getting that back. So, I keep myself busy as usual, check, re check, checking again. Everything was good, all instruments were in the green and I was watching the miles count down to the first waypoint on SkyDemon which is just off the coast of Holyhead.
In what seems to be no time, I saw the coast and soon I was back over the somewhat safety of solid ground again. I felt relived, but I remember that I had another equally long sea crossing to do today to make it into France and stay in front of the weather that was on my tail and eager to trap me for up to a week.
Travelling over Holyhead, I got my first hint of the fun that lay ahead. The smooth stable air was coming to an end. Before departing, my met charts and windy app predicted a fair 10 knot wind. My 'personal SOP' limit for flying near mountains is 15Knts, so it all seemed within my predicted comfort zone. SkyDemon updated to show a 20 knot wind from the South East. Visualising my course that hugs the mountains down the coast of Wales, I started tightening my harness. After a while you get an eye for the invisible turbulence coming off a mountain when you know the wind speed and direction. Sometimes I hate being right and this was one of them. All hell quickly started breaking lose with some nasty rotors seemly doing their best to flip my small plane over. Of course, this was mainly just my unrealistic perception, besides, if we end up in an unusual attitude, we just recover like in training.... right? The thought still scares me even though it really is no big deal but being in a new aircraft without that extra added sense of back up that the ballistic parachute provides in my C42 did come to mind.
One hour later and I was getting bored of getting hammered around feeling like I am in a tumble dryer, but finally Swansea was within 20 miles which was my first planned stop for fuel. On gathering ATIS, Igathered that the winds at surface were 13 gusting 22 at a 30 degree offset angle to the runway. This was going to be fun I thought. I quickly brief in my head the local diversion airports that I had pre-planned to be prepared if I am not comfortable after attempting an approach or two. Regardless of where I go, I always plan to land with 1 hour of back up fuel so as I do not end up under stressful time pressures for a potential necessary diversion. On joining downwind at 1,000 feet AGL, gusty conditions started to get very nasty with some high ground around the airfield to mix the air up even more. The gusts (or poor piloting) caused me to over shoot the turn to final, so I was careful to keep the nose down and not exceed 15 degree of bank and gently got back and established on the approach. The last 500 feet took full use of the Cessna yoke to try and keep the approach stabilised. I decided to go for a reduced flap landing and added 10 knots to the approach for good measure. As always, I told myself to keep calm and carry on if all parameters are good until the last 20 feet. If I am not comfortable after that point, I can climb back out of there. Having the reduced flaps adds to the peace of mind as now I don’t have the extra worry of "spoiler flaps" to deal with should a go around become necessary. Thankfully and as hoped for, it did calm a little on the last 30 feet and I managed to pull off a very smooth landing which always feels good to any pilot of any flying machine especially in less than perfect conditions.
After a one hour stop, I was ready to go having had the fuel tanks fully topped up for the next hop across the English Channel to Cherbourg. Thankfully the winds had calmed a little to 15 knots, but I knew I was in for a bumpy departure. Having checked the latest weather outlook, I deemed some more rocking to be worth it. The weather 30 miles south was stated to be clear and calm, just what I needed to hop across the English Channel. As predicted, the departure was bumpy, but shortly after, half way across the Bristol Channel the smooth skies returned. I quickly switched the radios to London control and started taking a sharp look out everywhere as I entered the very busy south England general aviation territory. In my experience, London is always too busy on the radios to be offering any traffic awareness advice. Having had a more than comfortable close pass in the area last year, it backs up the need to be sharp and alert especially as I was operating alone on this venture. I had armed myself with the best set of defences I can which includes:
A basic service from London
Traffic Aware for SkyDemon
Making sure I am keeping my eyes out the window 90% of the time and scanning
ADS-B out capable to make sure I am visible to others
Soon I am approaching Plymouth, so I ask London control if I can switch over to Plymouth Military to see if I can negotiate a way through their restricted zones and thus cutting out some lengthy detours around the ocean to get to Cherbourg. On speaking with Plymouth military, they told me I could pass through 2 of 4 of their zones. It wasn’t perfect, but it did cut 10 miles of the sector, so I was happy. Coasting out over Plymouth was spectacular with many war ships in the area as well as in the restricted sea zones I was now entering with their permission. As I overflew one of their larger warships, I could spot big guns on the deck. I wondered if they would shoot me down if I accidently bust the denied restricted zone next to me. Anyhow, this thought made sure that if I ever was going to accidentally bust some airspace, it was not going to be today.
Soon the coast of England was disappearing behind me and the dreaded sense of being all alone in the middle of the ocean was growing. I had a Deja vu moment, and it was from doing the same crossing the previous year. I can’t help but think, for the busiest shipping lane in the world, there sure isn’t too many boats about. Boats give that small sense of security to a private pilot in a single engine plane crossing a sea that can very well kill you if an engine issue results among other things. Sure, I take all the precautions needed like PLBs, life jackets, radio contact, as much height as is viable, but being realistic, it is the stuff of pilot nightmares. While battling to keep negative thoughts from my head about the welfare of my engine, I decided now would be a good low work load moment to catch up with some lunch.
It was not long before the coast of France started coming into view. That sense of human contact starts building with each mile coming off the count down. Soon I am passed from Plymouth Military to Cherbourg and I heard my first European air traffic controller. The change of accent is welcoming, almost like the change of scenery ahead. New lands and new adventures really began from this point. Having flown much of the UK, Europe still has that magical undiscovered adventurous appeal to me.
Within minutes, I was vectored on to a final approach and informed the tower that I was looking for fuel so as there was no confusion with taxi instructions upon landing. After filling the tanks again, I went to clear customs. Like last year, there was no customs, so I was free to go and fly about Europe now that I had completed the necessary customs stop.
After checking the weather, getting some refreshments and a necessary toilet break, I was back in the air. Soon I was tracking towards my intended final stop for the day which was ‘Niort’, an airfield 2 hours south and approximately half way down France. The change of scenery was immediately refreshing. The flight was unfortunately choppy and effected by thermals for most of it which is a lot more tiring to deal with having already flown 4 hours. France has ATC to cover all areas and offer the equivalent of a basic service. The only difference is that they call it a "flight Information Service". I always take one of these in France and find them very helpful in keeping one aware of traffic and any restricted zones. Often they may let you pass through some military zones that are active of which there are many to avoid in France. Usually flying in France consists of climbing or descending to pass the maze of zones or restricted areas. It is almost like an assault course in the sky only for planes instead of people. But hey, that’s all part of the fun and I enjoy the challenge of it!
Just over an hour later, I was 50 miles from my final stop for the night, so I started practicing my French as this is a French speaking only airfield. Ironically, I don’t speak French, but, I can speak ‘French radio speak’ and I can understand others. As there are not so many words and numbers, anybody can learn this in a relatively short period. Anyhow, in my broken, dodgy, French tainted Northern Irish accent, I managed to mumble out that I was 10 miles out at 2000 feet and closing in fast for a full stop. Like last year, all the local pilots hear a crazy sounding foreign pilot coming in using broken French. My experience in most cases is they get out of your way or make way and let you go first.
As usual upon landing, l chatted with the pilots and ATC and apologised for my terrible French, but like last year they said:
"No problem, it was good."
The guys at Niort are so modest....my English is weak, so there is no way that my French could be anything other than terrible. The airfield manager offered to take me to a local hotel where he could get special rates for arriving pilots. Pleased with my €30 saving on the hotel and a free lift, I set off to debrief for the day and catch up on some rest. Niort was a beautiful French town which I had stopped off at the previous year. As this years hotel was more central to the town, I took a quick walk in to get some food for the evening and reflected on the trip so far. Sitting in the middle of France having started at Kilkeel in the morning, it finally hit me that I was living my dream that I had always dreamt of, touring and exploring the beautiful Earth by private plane. It was a nice sense of accomplishment having hand flown accurately and confidently without any issues and negotiated my way through 4 countires all in one day. After some planning for the following day, which mainly consisted of checking the weather for my planned route, I opted for an early night to get as much rest as possible. It is safe to say I had no problem sleeping with the day's winds and thermals giving my arms a decent work out.
The next morning, I was back at the airfield for 8am to complete pre-checks and to refuel the aircraft for today’s trip, which would take me into Spain. I was eager to get in the air early for two key reasons:
The first, was that nasty weather was due to roll into France later in the evening and the outlook for the week ahead was very poor. Spain on the other hand looked great for the foreseeable week ahead.
The second, was that this next area through Southern France is notorious for sparatic and random CBs (Thunderstorms) that can play havoc to your planned routes. I learnt from the previous years flying in the same region that these mainly form in the evenings after the ground has been heated. So, I was keen to get through 'thunderstorm valley' early to avoid any of them making a mess of my proposed schedule. I usually want to be at least 20 miles, but ideally 30 miles away from any of these to play it safe. Operating anywhere near these is simply not an option if your expecting to land in one piece. So beautiful, yet so deadly, the type of nature than needs to be viewed at from a safe distance.
Today’s first stop was to be Carcassonne, a medium sized airport near the south west coast of France which sits in a valley at the foot of the Pyrenees mountain range. I pay special attention to the winds having experienced a real kicking the previous year in that valley, but everything looked good and I had plenty of diversion options en-route so I made the call to go. I departed at 9am and waved good bye to my French helpers as I pointed the nose south and got ready to navigate the maze of restricted areas ahead.
I quickly called up for a Flight Information Service for added traffic awareness and I was grateful I did, as they quickly notified me of traffic 5 miles away at 12 o’clock coming my direction at the same altitude. A few minutes later having ajusted my altitude, I spotted the potential threat which ended up being a very nice Sport Cruiser aircraft. I gave a wing wave as we passed to confirm I had him in my sights and he quickly returned the gesture. Our visual handshake in the skies signals another safe passing. The cloud cover soon became 6/8 and seemed to be heading towards overcast. This was not predicted, but hey, that is forecasts for you. This was not a problem right now, but I was aware that I was tracking towards higher ground the closer I got to my destination. SkyDemon has a useful feature that if you tap the altitude it changes to display height above the ground. Soon after, I was down to 900 foot clearance above the ground while cruising at 2,500ft above MSL and with the cloud layer starting to squeeze me in, I decided it would be a safer option to get on top of the clouds which had tops of around 3,000ft MSL. I asked Toulouse Information if they would kindly get me updated ATIS information from Carcassonne and informed them that I intended to climb up to 4,000ft local QNH. I was pleased to hear "a few scattered clouds only" in the area at Carcassonne airport so I opted that it was safe to continue and the 6/8 cloud cover should start reducing with only 50nm to run. Shortly after, the peaks of the spectacular Pyrenees became visible in the distance. These are real mountains I thought. Toulouse handed me over to Carcassonne who were expecting me thanks to the flight plan. As the cloud cover reduced, I started descending again and I was given a nice VFR routing over the old city to keep clear of two aircraft that were training in the circuit and to make way for a Ryanair that was turning onto finals. Shortly after being instructed to orbit at a holding point South of the city, I was vectored on to a final approach path.
After landing and requesting that my flight plan was closed, I was informed there was a problem with the fuel pumps and engineers were currently working on them. This turned out to be a pain as I had a new flight plan already in for a quick turnaround. After heading to the airport to pay the very impressive €6 landing fee, I took some time for lunch and submitted an updated flight plan which was mandatory for crossing into Spain, my next landing destination. The pumps finally got fixed around two hours later, but this put me an hour behind 'schedule' which wasn't a problem but left less time for issues on the remaining planned sectors for the day. I quickly filled up G-FFEN myself using the self service Air BP card, a lesson learned from the previous years flying through France. This saves a lot of time and requires no paperwork to be filled or other time consuming delays that come with a refill of fuel in France. You can read more about this in the tips for lying in France section.
The next leg of the tour took me across another international FIR boundary and into Spain. The weather this year was more favourable to track down the South East coast of France, past Perpignan and follow the coast to Barcelona which was the next planned fuel stop. The downside of this route is that you are forced through the tricky and very busy Barcelona airspace which is further locked in with surrounding high mountains making it a difficult place to pass through which is required to travel further South into Spain. As Barcelona itself is one of the busiest airspace in Spain, General Aviation aircraft are not welcome at the International airport. Another airport called Sabadell is used for general aviation and is happens to be one of the biggest training flight schools in Europe so that was to be the next stop. The departure from Carcassonne was controlled with VRP points being given to get safely out of their control zone. Spectacular views of the Pyrenees kept me company and I felt like I was driving down an old familiar road picking out many unique sites from the air that I had recognised from the previous year as I tracked towards the South East coastal area of France. I felt comfortable, everything was going perfectly, little did I know this leg was about to throw a few curve balls at me.
The flight to Perpignan, the last area to overfly in France was uneventful, I called them up early to try and negotiate a higher crossing of their airspace as the VFR routes are very low (around 1,000 feet). The reason for this request is that Perpignan sits at the foot of the Pyrenees mountain range and it is not a nice place to be when a westerly wind is blowing over the mountains as I got to experience last year. Dealing with nasty rotors at 1,000 feet is not exactly comfortable. I got approved to cross at 2,000 feet, but I was hoping for higher. My worries turned out to be unfounded as passing Perpignan was fairly smooth considering there was a 15knt westerly wind in the area. Shortly thereafter, Perpignan advised me that there was no further ATC. I was expecting to be passed to Barcelona or Girona, so this kind of caught me by surprise. As I was over the ocean at this point which is necessary to track south due to high ground and controlled airspace (image below) .
I would prefer to have some radio contact with life should I get forced into the sea. With 90 mins to run to Sabadell and 30 mins extra being given before wondering why you haven’t turned up, that would be at the very least two hours before anybody even asked questions as to where I was. It would equate to a long time at sea should I not be able to swim to shore. I decide I am going to try and call Girona once I cross the border. I am aware that Barcelona are too busy to speak to GA and do not want radio calls, they strictly enforce the squawk and listen only process. I hear many foreign pilots calling on the station and they are simply ignored which I believe is in revenge for not reading the charts! (Fair enough).
So, I finally cross the invisible border into Spain just after lunch time having set off from Kilkeel the previous morning and flown for approximately 10 hours and through 5 countries now. This piloting business is magic, I think.... My own seat that carries me over Europe to explore the lands from above. This beats TV any day, and the scenery is forever changing just as you start to get a little bored of it.
I quickly tuned Girona Approach.
"Girona Approach G-FFEN with you"
....... Radio silence.
I checked the frequency again and it looked correct. Then the radio blared to life with Girona Approach instructing an arriving Ryanair on its decent instructions. Once they are finished, I called them up again to receive radio silence. After about 5 more calls over the space of 5 minutes I get a response saying "Aircraft calling.... completely unreadable"
I cursed making sure the radio button was not down and realised the mic sounded strange. So, I started talking to test the mic, and it almost sounded like it was cutting out. So, I sang a flat note to see if there was an issue. The mic was somehow cutting out a few times per second. How can this be happening I think? These are brand new Dave Clark headphones my father bought me for this tour, I like them as they are lighter and clearer. They only have about 3 hours of careful use. I decided to self-diagnose this new issue in the air which basically consisted of pulling at and twisting the mic trying to see if it was a lose wire. Unfortunately, I completely broke the microphone with this bright idea. It quickly hit me that I am now in Spain, zooming South at over 100mph. I am yet to speak to anybody and I am closing in on the very busy Barcelona airspace and I will absolutely need a radio to organise a landing at the hectic Sabadell airport. The good news was I had a spare set of head phones with me. The bad news was they were at the back of the plane and out of reach. I am cruising what I consider to be low over the sea to keep in line with the VFR airspace. Flying solo, taking my eyes off the front of the plane for more than a couple of seconds was not an option. The plane felt somewhat unblanced requiring non stop adjustments to keep at the right attitude. I was the 'autopilot' basically, as long as I could see forward. I decided to take my right hand and started feeling behind the seat to see what I could find. After a couple of minutes having pulling everything from paperwork to oil cans into the front, I finally got my hands on the perfect tool. It was the dipping stick for the fuel in the wings which resembled a steel 30 cm ruler a hook on it. Perfect. Using this I managed to fish around the back of the Cessna without taking my eyes off the cockpit until I could reach its lead and pull the spare set in. After a quick change I now had really heavy headphones on in hot weather, but hey, they worked! Girona quickly responded with a warning to stay out of their airspace. That was fine by me, I never planned to enter Girona airspace anyhow and I just wanted to follow the coast to Barcelona. I just wanted some human contact should I require it.
Surly there will be no more drama on this flight I think. With less than 100nm to run to Barcelona, what could possibly go wrong? I have already had one unprecedented tech failure on this flight... What is the chance of a second one? Unfortunately much, much worse was waiting just around the corner for me.
I have come to learn that some pilots prefer flying by maps, and others by GPS. It is a sensitive subject that requires sensitive handling. My personal preference for navigating when flying, is to use the technology that is available today, just like the airliners do. Besides, what good is a map in the middle of the sea when you are into touring? The map-based guys have argued many times that technology can fail. Very unlikely I reassure myself, not in today’s world or the chance is minimal. As I am very safety focused, I actually had backups of all systems in place. I had two systems to read GPS locations and I had three devices to display the navigation and lastly, two extra power packs should I have any onboard electrical faults or failures. Finally, this was all backed up by my last choice which was on board maps. My thinking on this point was, if anything tech related fails, it wont be an issue as I would simply use one of my back ups.
So, approaching Barcelona, I started getting prepared. Having flown this route on my flight simulator (with SkyDemon) during tour preparations, I was under no illusion that this was going to be some of the most difficult airspace I have ever entered, and I needed to be prepared and ready, which I felt I was. The map below demonstrated the tight and very busy Barcelona airspace that needed to be entered to make it to Sabadell.
At this stage I was very aware of the high ground coming at me, the tiny corridor I had to operate in and the need to be exact with my altitude holding. The winds were picking up now and it took a fair bit of effort to keep the plane on course. I can safely say this was one of the highest work load moments I have experienced as a pilot. There was a lot of things to be aware of, a lot of things to be on top of and a lot of things to watch for with traffic everywhere. Pilot Aware was showing me traffic all around but I was keener on keeping an eye out the window at the other close traffic all squeezed into this tiny corridor. And then it happened. It could have happened anywhere in the world, on any day or time, but of all moments, not now, how could this be possible?
My jaw almost hit the floor as I saw a huge message take over my vital navigation map and say:
"Satellite Signals Lost"
I stared at the screen in disbelief for a second before the gravity of the situation took hold. Anywhere else, this would not be a big issue, but not here, with just about every dangerous variable in the book in the area. My head quickly switched into emergency mode, right let’s get the 2nd back up on the go as I always planned I think. Things that seem so simple when planning now become real and things are no longer just as simple as I imagined. I realised the steps I needed to do fast, which included hving to lauch SkyDemon on my phone, ended up being a hassle. It wanted me to log in again. Typing log ins in this situation while solo is far from ideal. I quickly reached for the map and again I was reminded how difficult this airspace was. I considered doing 180 turn to go back out to sea where I would have space to safely enter a hold and troubleshoot the situation or make a new plan. Then, suddenly I noticed the very simple cause of the problem. The satellites had not fallen out of space nor broken down, but rather my USB power charger seems to have vibrated out of the power socket. I quickly jammed this back in and waited a few seconds for it to reboot. In the mean time I cross referenced the map to make sure I was not about to bust some airspace. Twenty seconds later, the panic was over as SkyDemon and Pilot Aware rebooted back into life. Now I was ready to get the aircraft back on the ground, this had been a tough flight and I really needed a comfort stop.
With 15 miles to run, I was expecting an easy conclusion to this sector. I called up Sabadell as per the charts to be informed that I was number seven for landing.
“Number 7 Sir?” I asked assuming I must have misheard.
“Si, señor Affirmative numbero sevan!” Responded Sabadell tower sounding business as usual.
I asked myself again, does seven rhyme with one, two, three or four? It seems it doesnt. A quick look at Pilot Aware confirmed that there was a lot of traffic around the airfield. Trying to identify one plane can be fun, but seven of them?
Joining the circuit was a little nerve wrecking with so many planes pushing for their space. Most seemed to be training planes practising circuits. The controller was excellent and vectored me into position with 6 planes visible in front. The downwind was extended very close to a huge mountain which made me a little uneasy with the winds. As expected, I got the hammering, I was due with some very violent gusts smashing into my small Cessna. After what seemed like being in a 10-minute circuit, I finally got my time to approach which ended up being a spectacular approach and one I would love to do again someday. As always on touch down I went straight to the fuel pumps to ensure there was going to be no delay in getting back out of here. I hoped to do the last leg to make it to my base this evening which was Castellon De Le Playa and to get a few days’ rest.
After an hour on the ground and getting myself well rehydrated, I jumped back into the plane for the final 90-minute sector. I was due to arrive one hour before sunset, so I didn’t want to waste any unnecessary time on the ground. After paying the reasonable fees I departed with some amazing views over Barcelona City. The departure route out of Sabadell to the West was almost as tricky as the entry on the East. Once I get out of this last airspace, I would be in free, less busy airspace again where I could relax and enjoy the sights a bit more. The departure was very, very rough due to the winds, and I was forced to track along some mountains at around 500 AGL due to the airspace and while dealing with some nasty rotors. I was keen to get back to the coast and away from the high ground. Thankfully 20 mins later I was closing in on Reus who offered me a transit over the city which I happily accepted.
The lower ground now led to smoother flying conditions once again. With one hour to go to complete the trip I enjoyed the scenery tracing the coast towards Valencia and my final stop of the day. The weather was smooth in the evening skies and it was a very relaxing sector to conclude the day. ATC were very helpful and used perfect English for all stages of the flight.
Soon the final stop of the initial 2 day trip was in sight. It was hard to believe I took off just the morning before in a cold Kilkeel in Northern Ireland. Clocking just 12 hours, I could then see beaches, palm trees and desert like landscapes. Seeing my final stop from the air was exciting and I was looking forward to finally getting to do Spain's most scenic aproach. Thankfully the winds suited the approach I had hoped for which took me in over the docks while descending along the beach. There is a number of hotels and a police station famously on the approach and it has a fairly short runway too with little room for error.
After making a few radio calls, it was clear the airfield was shut for the day. Having already made PPR arrangements I knew to expect this. After a greaser of a landing if I may say so, I took a quick look around at the many aircraft on site with facination before heading for a couple days rest and to work on the next plans for futher flying adventures from my new temporary base.
The hotel I had booked was just 250m walk from the airfield, on the beach and very cheap! No passsport control, no security, no bags to wait on, no buses to wait on, nobody to add hassle to my day. There was nothing to delay me jumping out of the plane, grabbing my suitcase and leaving the airfiled by jumping over the small fence. 10 minutes later I was checked in and enjoying a beer on the beach to reflect on the completed mission. This is my type of travelling I think. Now what?
Follow up parts to this tour coming soon.