To any airman looking at the French air charts for the first time, this can be an overwhelming experience. The following is a list of tips, information and things to think about when venturing across France in a light aircraft. For the most part, flying in France is very similar to flying in the UK with a few key differences of which we will cover in this article. I have collected various helpful resources and links from the internet that others may find useful in their planning process and I have included them in this article.
The first challenge starts with getting to France in the first place.
Crossing The English Channel The two most common crossing points from the UK to France are:
Isle of White - Cherbourg
Dover - Calais
I usually always pick the shortest sea crossing if possible, but the weather is what decides the best crossing to take for the day and it can be any of your choosing dependent on airspace restrictions. Safety gear for a single engine sea crossing is a must and at the bare minimum a life jackets and a PLB and for larger GA aircraft, a lift raft may be required. If possible, an immersion suit is a wise addition, especially for them colder months of the year. The chart below will present a rough idea as to what sea temperatures to expect. In lay-man terms, summer is cold, and winter / Spring / Autumn could very well kill you within the hour if you are not prepared. Its serious stuff and should be treated accordingly.
Zig-zagging over ships does bring some comfort. It is commonly known that the English Channel is the world's busiest shipping lane, however, having crossed the channel 5 times in the last 2 years, I can safely say I didn't see anywhere near as many ships as I would have liked to.
Customs / GAR Forms
A GAR to get into France is not necessary, since we can land at one of the available customs stops. The key ones in this case being Cherbourg or Calais, although there are other options. On the return trip back to the UK from France, a GAR with at least 4 hours' notice is required if you are not arriving at a customs airfield (You will also need to depart from a customs exit point). A flight plan for both to and from France is mandatory (since an international FIR boundary will be crossed.) I found it useful to put a way point exactly on the FIR boundary using Sky Demon where I intended to cross (or whichever navigation system is being used). This is useful for when you will get asked for an ETA and crossing Zulu time from London or Plymouth Military, which will happen.
Identifying French Speaking Radio Airfields
A common myth about France is that all small airfields only speak French. This is far from the case. To find out if an airfield speaks French only, you can check the airport chart as follows:
Charts Marked with FR only indicates that it is French speaking when using the radio at and around the airfield. It is safe to say that all medium to large airports speak English. An FR airport leaves you with one option and that is to learn basic French ATC circuit calls. I did it within a week so it's not that difficult. I have included everything you need to learn to get by later in the article. The other option is to avoid FR only airports, but in my experience, they are the best, most fun, exciting and cheapest airfields to be stopping at. Some FR only airfields heard my accent and spoke English to me which was kind, however you cannot reply on this.
ATC in France
You can also expect perfect English from all ATC and Flight information services, so getting from A to B is never an issue in France. There is a lot of military airspace in France and a tip I was given which I always use is to check on the radio that each military zone is not active. It's good to get a confirmation recorded on the radio to protect yourself. I always find the French controllers speak slowly and clearly and I have never had an issue communicating. Everything is pretty much the same as it is in the UK apart from the basic service, we are all so use to. In France they essentially offer the same service as a basic, however, they call it a "Flight information Service." To conclude, ATC is not difficult in France and if you are comfortable operating with UK radios, France will be a walk in the park. Just remember to forget the basic!
The Right Altitude
For general VFR flying in France you are free to fly at any height below 3,000 feet. Once above 3,000 feet, a semi-circular rule is used. To simplify, if you are flying above 3,000 feet and in a direction of:
0 - 179° cruising options are
180 - 359° cruising options are
1013 hPa / mb standard pressure should be used above 3,000 feet. However, don't forget that if you are under a TMA, but above 3,000 feet, you would be using the local QNH pressure setting.
Closing A Flight Plan
As in the UK, it is mandatory to close a flight plan in France. A lot of airfields do not offer this service so you may need to call to close a flight plan. In the UK when this happens, I personally use the Sky Demon app to close a flight plan. On using the same process in France, it did not work for me. I once had Bordeaux control call my phone exactly 30 minutes after my ETA to confirm I was OK. If you can't close the flight plan when arriving, you can use the following nationwide number: 0810437637
Fuel cards are commonly used across French Airfields. These allows you to self-service your own refills. It is a bit like stopping at the garage to put petrol into your car. The key benefit of this is no delays and no paper work or hassle. The two main cards used in France are Air BP or a Total Fuel card. I have come across several airfields that do not accept cash or credit cards, so if you do not have a fuel card, you will not be able to get fuel. Another thing to bear in mind is getting fuel at lunch time in France can be impossible. It is always advised to get the fuel you need upon landing to save on unnecessary delays for your planned departure.
AIP / NOTAM / Charts
Thankfully France makes its airport charts free of charge and they can be access on the following website:
If you click on the French flag, the site will be translated into English.
Diversion planning when flying in any new territory that you are not familiar with is a must. This can be approached in several ways by checking suitable fields around your route having checked the weather. To research suitable landing fields for both Microlight class and GA aircraft, you can use the following link to identify airports and see their respective charts and information.
https://basulm.ffplum.fr/bases/carte-des-terrains.html I was able to mark out every single airfield in France that was suitable to accept my aircraft type. This may seem like a tedious task, but by colour coding the map I was able to highlight airports in 3 grades. The first grade was the most ideal airfields that were cheap and had the least restrictions (Green marker). The next grade was more expensive airports that would be my second choice of back up diversion sites (Yellow marker). Finally, the least favourite was airports that I would only use if I absolutely had to for example in an emergency or if I unexpectantly got caught in bad weather being a couple of good reasons. These least favourite choices had handling fees of up to €300 so it is wise to check the charts (Blue marker). Having marked out all possible diversion fields, I then draw in my proposed route on the map (Pink marker). This helps in that, should I be in the air, and need to figure out a fast diversion, I should have a clear picture of my options at any point in the flight. Below is an example of marking out the Maps I used with my intended routes.
The official source for aviation weather in France can be found here of which you will need to register an account to get access to:
I also find the following site very useful as both a backup and building a better picture of winds and visibility in the area:
Learn to Speak French for FR Airfields
The following are some useful documents in helping to learn the words needs to operate in and around the circuit of a FR only airfield in France.