101 Dalmatians

There were three singles and the Cessna 303 and eleven souls. G-BURT and G-CBTT the PA28s, G-BBGX the C182 and N154DJ. I would fly BURT with the insurance broker, the IT manager and the accountant took CBTT. The hotelier and the account manager flew in their 182 and the financier, the carpet maker and the diplomat completed the roll call in the Cessna 303.

Our imaginations had been caught by a simple, central idea: we wanted to fly along the Dalmatian coast, between Dubrovnik and Portoroz. This core evolved into a loop that would take us from Denham south through France to Corsica, across the north of Italy, then across the Adriatic to Dubrovnik, north along the Dalmatian coast, from there into the Czech Republic and home via Germany and Belgium.

We picked the beginning of June, because it doesn’t conflict with holidays and isn’t yet too hot but still has long days. Meetings were held, aircraft maintenance was scheduled, charts were procured, flight manuals studied and weight and balance graphs revised. Flight plans were filed, GAR forms logged, weather forecasts were downloaded, hotel details investigated and NOTAMS checked. And in a minor miracle, never to be repeated, we all arrived early at the airfield, all pre-flight checks were ok and all flight plans filed for Troyes. So there we were. A week to play with, full tanks and plenty of hours to the next check.

Our plan was to be quick to the south of France so that we could be slow later on and enjoy the scenery and the good weather. The weather on departure was not bad, but as we flew south it quickly became north Europe standard: dry, but overcast beginning at 3000 ft. After departing Denham, we routed north about London via Lambourn and turned south to Dover. Our channel crossing was unexciting: direct to Cap Gris Nez and then via the Boulogne VOR to Cambrai. This dog leg puts you almost due north of Troyes. From here you can fly down the eastern side of the Paris airspace and a reasonable altitude of 3000 ft puts you comfortably below the outer reaches of the Paris TMA and above some of the military corridors that thread the area.

The tower at Troyes is unmanned at weekends. Only the gliding club was active when we arrived, that is to say, the gliders were parked out on the grass and nobody was doing anything much. Eventually, the passenger terminal opened and we could use the washrooms and carry out the touring pilot ritual of laying maps on the floor and crawling over them with rulers and pencils, muttering traditional touring pilot incantations. We had no lunch, but we had managed to get out of UK airspace as planned and we were fuelled and ready to go on the next stage, Avignon.

The second half of our day was long (350nm) but simple. There is a congested area around Lyon-Saint Exupéry airport where you must avoid the approach and departure routes, which run north-south, by going either to the east or the west. In BURT we went west via the VOR at Vienne, just on the southern edge of Lyon where we turned to run due south to Avignon.

There was enough scenery to make the view interesting, enough radio and radar coverage to make us feel safe and those wide open French skies to make us feel welcome. Only the discovery just north of Lyon that a PA 28 can’t keep up with a TGV spoilt the feeling of being masters of all we surveyed.

Avignon is the right size and in the right place. Also it has a certain mediæval notoriety having been the home of seven popes up to 1414 when Rome was not thought suitable, and of a further five “anti-popes” after that decision was thought better of. Also it has that bridge we had to sing about when we learned French at school. (“Sur le pont d’Avignon l’on y danse, l’on y danse…” I’m sure it brings back uncomfortable memories).

There are two airfields at Avignon: Pujaut, small with grass runways and Caumont, large and with a hard runway. We were aiming for Caumont. The approach from the north is mostly problem-free; there are prohibited zones around the power stations along the Rhone and the usual control zone and MATZ around the airbase at Orange, about 15 nm north of Avignon. Here we switched from the west of the valley to the eastern side, putting clear distance between us and the river. Caumont is French-speaking only so we spent some time in the cockpit briefing our French phraseology. However, the English-speaking crew of a departing business jet gave us the wind and pressure settings as we approached and the only other people in the circuit were us, so we didn’t have to suffer the embarrassment of using our French publicly this time.

We fuelled to be ready for the next day and headed off to our hotel feeling pleased with ourselves. For this first stopover we had actually arranged the hotel by booking from UK before we left. Generally we don’t book hotels in advance because when the weather stops you from reaching your destination the cancellation fees add injury to insult. In this case the cancellation policy was sufficiently generous that we could have cancelled at any point up to departing Troyes, so we had booked ahead this once.

After checking in, we went looking for our evening meal and a sight of the centre of the town. We fetched up at a restaurant recommended by the barmaid at the hotel. She knew the food was good because her boyfriend was the chef. We did not entirely concur, but maybe it was his night off. At night, the significant sites in Avignon are floodlit. We had no trouble seeing most of the history trail. The famous bridge is no exception. It was built in about 1170. According to tradition a shepherd boy named Bénézet was commanded by angels to build the bridge in this location. Despite this divine endorsement, the site turned out to be a poor choice because floods regularly washed away the western end of the bridge. Eventually, people gave up on rebuilding it all the time and left it. Of the original 22 arches only four remain, one of which includes a chapel housing the remains of Saint Bénézet, as he now is, civil engineering shortcomings being apparently no barrier to canonisation.

Having done distance to Avignon, we were now about to do distance plus water and make two industrial-strength sea crossings in one day: to Ajaccio for lunch and then to Siena for the next overnight stop. The first of these is a little over 100nm over water and the second 50. We planned thoroughly, checked everything as thoroughly as possible and those of us in singles reminded ourselves that the main advantage of a twin is that when one engine fails, the second will carry you as quickly as possible to the site of the crash.

The route has only one turn. You coast out at St Tropez, and follow a flight corridor for 53 nm bearing 100º to the intersection called “Merlu”, at which point you turn to 150º and fly the remaining 70nm to Ajaccio. Following the route requires a GPS with the Merlu intersection in the database or manually set up, and careful calculations based on the forecast winds with some equally careful checking on the initial leg over land to make sure the ground speed is correct. The weather was fine, calm and sunny, with a pale blue sky but a hazy horizon. We flew quite high (5,500 ft observing the semi-circular rule for visual flight rules in France) and were rewarded with a first sight of the island from about 80 nm away, rising from the haze apparently posed specially for our benefit. The airfield at Ajaccio is tucked away out of sight in a valley at the head of the bay, just to the east of the town itself. The approach was to fly across the centre of the field at circuit height and turn left to be left downwind for runway 20. We were asked to “report thirty seconds before overhead the tower”, which gave us pause for a moment as to how we would measure it, but our scientific estimate seemed close enough for aviation purposes and we completed a smooth sector with a graceful swoop to land.

It was not until we stopped by the fuel pump that we realised how hot the weather had become. Opening the door produced a blast of oven-like heat and a check of the OAT gauge showed 30° C. Quite a change from the mild but not remotely sweaty UK we’d left the day before. We parked, paid our fees and enquired about lunch. It appeared that there were restaurants in the modern main terminal, a short walk from the GA parking area. We took the short walk. We admired the scenery and the architecture. We did not admire the lunch: it was global standard airport food, of which the best that can be said is that you can live on it, so we settled for that and then returned to the GA terminal to file for Siena.

Our next stage was around the southern tip of Corsica to see the cliff top spectacular of Bonifacio and as much of the coastline as possible and then strike across the Tyrrhenian sea to Siena, Apugnano. We took off into the still clear but still scorching afternoon, this time staying down at 1000 ft so as to get the best view of the coastline. The seeing on this sector was indeed fantastic. The water was crystal clear, there were plenty of secluded beaches and Bonifacio seen from 500 ft above the sea was worth the cost of the avgas on its own. Also, you really can’t go wrong with the navigation on a route like this: just keep the brown on the left and the blue on the right and you’re on track. Count the bays and you have your DME.

As we rounded Bonifacio and turned north we could see that the cloud was beginning to build up over the far end of the island and the tops of the mountains inland were already covered. The forecast out to Italy had indicated scattered rather than overcast, but we started listening to weather information from the airport at Bastia, the point at which we would coast out from Corsica, just in case. The cloud continued to build, but didn’t become solid and the cloudbase stayed above 3000 ft. Additionally, we could see that out on our right, to the east, the cloud gave way to clear skies again, so we felt pretty confident about the crossing to Italy.

Once again we had smooth air and clear skies for our sea crossing. Although it is 50nm to the Italian coast, there is the convenient landmark of Elba at 30nm. This also marked our first contact with Italian ATC. Now, Italy is a wonderful country in many ways, but it has to be said that ATC for light aircraft is a hit and miss arrangement. I’ve suffered Gallic indifference in France, Teutonic rigour in Germany, cold, birch-branched correction in Sweden and even the knife-twisting politeness of the UK, but Italy is definitely the hardest work. Mostly they don’t want to know about general aviation, so it pays to be persistent. On this occasion our first stumbling block came when we reported our position relative to the VFR reporting point “Guardiola” marked on the charts. It seemed that this point was unknown in Italy, so in the end we simply reported “overhead Elba” and left it at that.

Ampugnano lies in a bowl-shaped valley, shielded from the coast by 3000 ft mountains. Unfortunately for us, the clouds that had left us alone for the sea crossing were now back and the tops of the hills were beginning to disappear. Fortunately there was a way through and we did not have to make what would have been a long detour to follow the railway along low ground to the south of the mountains. On the other side of the high ground the skies were clear again and we landed in perfect conditions and the end of a truly outstanding day.

There was a certain amount of to-ing and fro-ing about just what paperwork would be necessary to allow us to enter (and more importantly, leave) Siena, but in the end we worked our way through it, located a hotel and ordered taxis. Again, there was a slight initial hiccup when the dispatcher seemed to think that eleven people plus luggage would fit into a small saloon and an estate car. We convinced the drivers (who were nothing if not game) that eleven into two doesn’t go and they got us another cab, so eventually it came right and we set off.

The streets of Siena when we got there were full of tourists and bands of marching men wearing brightly coloured mediæval costumes and waving banners. Although we were there at the start of June, preparations and rehearsals for the Palio, the horse race that takes place around the Piazza del Campo at the start of July, were already in full swing. The race has been run in one form or another since the 14th century when it was a modified form of warfare between the contradas or geographical regions of the city, each represented by their heraldic animal. If the run up is anything to go by it is quite a spectacle. And if you miss it in July, there is a re-run in August.

For our evening meal, we found a restaurant in the main square with a good view of everything that was going on and afterwards walked around the centre to see some of the architecture. This another city that I’m going to return to at some point in order to follow up on the taster that flying in and out has provided. It was dark, and Siena clearly worries more about its electricity bill than Avignon, but the architecture is magnificent.

Our main point of deliberation for the next day had been the trade off between a longer sea crossing if we coasted out from Ancona and the possibility of not being able to get fuel if we went further south on the Italian side and crossed over from, say Bari. Avgas is reputed to be very difficult to obtain the further south you go in Italy. The majority of fields in the guides show only jet-A1 available. Getting stuck with not enough fuel to reach the next place with 100LL was something to be avoided. In the end we decided that refuelling at Ancona and flying from there straight across to the coast at Split, making a right turn to fly down the coast to Dubrovnik was the best option. This was to be our longest crossing over water yet, just under 125 nm.

The weather at Siena fitted the pattern we had seen so far of being good first thing in the morning. After a rather confused paperwork episode during which nobody was sure what forms we needed to fill in to proceed, least of all the staff in the tower, we eventually arrived at an agreed formula, filed plans for Ancona, and set off. Once again, as per the formula, the clear blue became blue with significant white and then mostly grey. This was a cause for some concern because although the ground along the line from Siena to Ancona is not exactly record-breaking, it does go up to 4000 ft before you hit the coastal plain. Fortunately, the base of the overcast didn’t come so far down as to obscure the hills, and as we got to the point where we began our descent in to Ancona the picture resolved itself into solid layer cloud with clear air underneath, the sort of thing under which most UK flying seems to be conducted.

Ancona is much busier than Siena. They also conformed to stereotype by not wanting a bunch of light aircraft clogging up their skies: more than a little confusion was caused as we approached, were asked to orbit, lined up long final, were diverted off final and orbited again until finally we were able to land. We duly taxied to the appointed parking place and arranged fuel. The next thing we had to do was find some lunch, file flight plans and finally, because we were about to leave the Schengen zone, clear customs. Ancona set a new low for lunches, even more plastic and tasteless than Ajaccio. It also gave us a problem of a less usual kind: there is never a customs officer around when you want one. The handling organisation took some time to understand why we actually wanted to see a customs official but finally a harrassed looking man in uniform turned up, glanced dismissively at us and our luggage and waved us on our way.

Going on our way was not a decision to be undertaken lightly this time. We had a long water crossing and the cloud was low and uninterrupted all the way. We examined the charts and the forecasts and finally decided that as we now had full fuel and there is plentiful radar along the Croatian coat (for all the wrong reasons, but it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good) and since there is little high ground at sea, that we would not run out of space to turn around if we needed it. So, it was back on with the life jackets and off we set. The cloud stayed where it was, the air was still, and the flight completely uneventful. At the expected point we made contact with Split, and were cleared into the coastal VFR route, with its chain of unpronounceable reporting points. You can be very definite about your navigation under these circumstances. Each reporting point is obvious, surrounded by water on all sides and the next one is visible as you report.

The visibility on this stage was still not wonderful, but we felt progressively more cheerful as we got nearer to Dubrovnik. This would be the furthest point of the tour, 940 nm from home in a straight line and we were on time and on budget. The only fly in the ointment was that we were running out of stable weather and having to dodge more showers, finally having to turn out from the coast at about 20 nm from Dubrovnik and fly parallel 10 nm out in order to avoid one particularly threatening clutch of CBs. This did have the benefit of positioning us quite nicely for reporting point Bravo, which is about 5 miles out to sea, before turning inland to join base leg for runway 12 at Dubrovnik.

The runway at Dubrovnik is high, wide, and handsome (well, actually only 527 feet high, but it’s on a cliff top next to the sea and feels as though it’s much higher than it ought to be). After quite a long flight with the threat of the weather ever present, we were glad to be on the ground. The reception was extremely friendly. This is quite a big airport, and handles a lot of tourist traffic again, now that the shooting has stopped in this part of the world. We were welcomed warmly, smilingly marshalled to a parking space, and as a final goodwill gesture, the man who came out with the fuel also handed us envelopes containing an official welcome from the chamber of commerce with a map of the city and some vouchers for various entertainment venues.

Entering Croatia we had to clear Croatian customs. Here, for the first time we met a truly imposing customs official: he was well over six feet tall, built to match and wearing a holster containing a large pistol. He glared at us. Clearly the last group of smugglers disguised as private pilots had suffered a more than usually painful punishment at his hands.

“Well?” he growled, “what have you to declare?”

“Er, nothing.” we said, wondering if he was going to get out the rubber gloves and usher us into search rooms.

“Oh, okay” he sighed and waved us through. I didn’t know if I was going to like the Croatian sense of humour.

Entry into Croatia had proved to be no problem but hotels were not so simple. Admittedly, rooms for 11 people is a bit of a tall order, but we thought we were outside the normal tourist season and hadn’t expected a problem. Alas, it was not to be a simple answer, and we ended up, for the first time on the trip, or indeed on any trip, having to split the party into two. We piled into taxis and set off for our respective destinations. As we left the airport the rain that had been off and on for most of the afternoon became very definitely ON. It was simply torrential. The road immediately turned into a river with six inches or more of rapidly flowing water on it and I can only think that the driver didn’t hit anything because he was so familiar with the road. It can’t have been because he could see where he was going.

The crews of BURT and BBGX found ourselves in the Hotel President, a new-ish building, constructed on the side of a slope down to the sea, laid out in a series of terraced layers. This setup meant that the entrance to the hotel was on the top floor and the rooms were all lower than the entrance. Although the hotel had many floors, a conventional lift was useless because the floors were not vertically one above the other. The charming, and in my experience unique, solution was to have furnicular railways running along each side of the building which would take you to the level of your choice.

We had arranged to meet the others at the entrance to the old city of Dubrovnik. And it is old. Its origins go back to the 12th century when two settlements, one on shore and one on a small island, filled in the channel between them and decided things would be better if they stopped fighting each other and became a single bigger city. It was then at various times part of Byzantium, ruled by Venice, a free state, part of Turkey, conquered by France (Napoleon got there in 1806), independent again and then part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In the twentieth century it was in rapid succession Italian occupied, German occupied, Yugoslavian again (People’s Republic this time) and is now part of the republic of Croatia. The city took a considerable beating during the siege conducted by Serbian forces in 1991, and one of the main things that you notice even now is the amount of reconstruction going on. The Old City has been restored to a considerable degree and is well worth seeing.

There are many restaurants in the city, some better appointed than others. We picked one that looked busy enough to be popular but not so full that we might have to wait too long to be served. As with most sea ports, fish features large in all the menus. We were given a guided tour of the menu and several very unlikely specimens were paraded for our inspection. (I’m not a fish person, I can’t help it. To me they all look like cœlocanths and I’m only interested if they’re deep fried and with chips). It was basic and unpolished but the welcome was warm and even though we had very little of any language in common (German is spoken more than English) we seemed to get by all right.

We ought by now to have been getting used to the cycle of fine morning followed by foul afternoon, but it still took my breath away to see just how fine the following morning was. We had a clear blue sky with picture-book puffy clouds and everything set fair. The only problem was that further along our intended route it was set anything but fair. The first part of the day’s route, along the coast to Portoroz was fine, but the weather systems over the Czech Republic and Austria, were bad and getting worse. During the time we would be passing through, the conditions were unlikely to be flyable at all. This was a bit of a blow, but we could still achieve our main aim for the trip by flying the coast in good weather and those in the quicker machines would have time enough to do a little exploring along the way. We decided to fly to Portoroz for lunch as originally intended, and to divert from there to Venice and return home going south of the Alps (and possibly into them for a bit) instead of north. This would be longer than our original plan, but not unduly so.

So we set off up the coast. Departing from Dubrovnik the way we arrived we had a superb view of the airfield and the city. Without the grey blanket of cloud from the day before, even the colours on the islands looked different and we could see why it is such a popular resort area. The islands themselves are fascinating. Even some very small ones have little settlements on them with neatly gridded olive groves contrasting with generally barren surroundings. This was the core of the trip: the treat we had promised ourselves, and it was worth it.

As we moved north, the cloud, though high, became more continuous and by the time we got to Pula we were once again flying under BKN rather than FEW. Portoroz provides an interesting approach. As with most costal airfields, the runway in use during the day tends to be towards the sea. At Portoroz, this means descending quite steeply over the hills on the landward side in order to make the threshold, which in recognition of the approach is displaced by 250 metres. Having last been in Portoroz in 2002, I was delighted to see that some of the eccentricities of the place are delightfully preserved. You are still led off the runway by a “Follow me” moped, and arriving aircrew are still offered a glass of schnapps (let’s see, that’s how many hours from bottle to throttle?). The restaurant is also just about the best of any of the airports we visited. The food is simple and plentiful and served with mordant wit by a head waiter who completely understands the English sense of humour and gives as good as he gets.

Thanks to the mobile phone, we were able to locate some rooms in Venice for the coming night, so even that potential problem was dealt with. We could (and perhaps should) have stayed there all day, but the sunny intervals were getting shorter, the forecast was getting worse, and we needed to be moving on if we were not to be stuck there for some time. So we reluctantly tore ourselves away from the dining table, filed for Venice and took off.

Our plan was to follow the standard VFR route, which goes more or less due north from Portoroz to the Italian coast at Trieste and then follows a series of VRPs along the coast to Venice and the tidy grass strip on the Lido. The weather had deteriorated enough by this stage to mean that we had to make a series of seaward diversions to avoid the showers that were ranged along the coast. As we got close to Venice, we slipped behind this curtain of showers into clear air, but dull and damp beneath the layers of stratus. Even Venice doesn’t look its best under these conditions, but the approach to San Nicolo, turning final over the lagoon and descending to the apparently far too small patch of green at the northern tip of the Lido is one of the most exhilarating there is.

The airport buildings at St. Nicolo are closed for refurbishment. That is to say, they have been covered with scaffolding and plastic sheeting and left that way. The airport is now administered from a series of Portakabins®. When we arrived, only the flight information office was open, a rather attractive stack of glossy dark blue units with more communications and computers than seemed reasonable. We closed our flight plans, and were even able to check the status of the other aircraft on their flights -their most recent reporting points were listed in an electronic log, an impressive level of thoroughness for VFR flights.

We waited while the other aircraft arrived in their turn and then got our taxis to the hotel. This turned out to be rather special. Though relatively modern looking on the outside, the inside was entirely wood panelled in the sort of dark colours that seem to go with traditional English country house murder mysteries. Thankfully, there was no mystery about this place, murderous or otherwise, simply a very hospitable host who keeps a well-stocked bar, suitable for the refreshment of thirsty pilots.

Our luck with the weather that day was emphasised by the extent to which it deteriorated during the evening. We were treated to sideways rain in the style we thought we’d be getting away from. When you’re sitting in a good restaurant however, this just adds to the enjoyment, though it did give an appropriate background to the discussions of where we should route next to avoid being stuck in more of the same.

The next morning was once more a complete change. It was calm, and clear blue skies were once again in force. In line with our decision the previous day to go to Switzerland and then return home through France we decided on Lugano for the end of that day’s travel. Our first problem was to find somewhere to clear customs on the Italian side (Switzerland is not Schengen). This turned out to be far more complicated than we thought, mainly due to the need to find somewhere with avgas, space and facilities without going into something massively commercial at huge expense, just to get a tick in a box.

The airport manager at San Nicolo could not have been more helpful. He got us weather reports, detailed airspace maps and made multiple phone calls on our behalf. Eventually, we settled for a quick stop at Bergamo as our customs post

Selecting this option meant goodbye to our original plan, but the new route promised to be just as scenic. It was also the first day we had not had to wear life jackets at least once, which made it a bit of a novelty on this trip.

The departure from Venice gave us a chance to see the city and the lagoon in fine weather again, which is always good news, but it also gave us another session working with Italian ATC. Departing Venice we routed south along the coast to Chioggia, where we turned inland to route via Padova and from there to Bergamo along the southern flank of the alps. We didn’t want to interrupt the rather busy controllers at Tessera, so we had intended to work with a flight information service from Padova and then to transfer to Garda approach, which covers most of the rest of the airspace we would be traversing to get to Bergamo. Unfortunately, Padova didn’t particularly want to know about four English aircraft, so after taking our details they directed us to call Montegalda radio, a vanishingly small airfield with a very startled operator who rapidly lost all presence of mind when presented with four foreign aircraft, all wanting flight information at once. After a couple of exchanges, we realised we were causing pain to ourselves and others, so we called Vicenza instead and got a very efficient military operator who kept an eye on us until we were north abeam Verona.

Once again we were over terrain made for VFR navigation: mountains to the right, plains to the left, lakes and cities to count your way by. Once again, we had high cloud building, but the air was relatively calm and we had plenty of time to admire the scenery.

The approach to Bergamo is entirely straightforward: the reporting points are all named after geographical features and are sensible things like the ends of lakes, small towns and railway junctions. Amazingly, despite the difference in cruising speeds of our little fleet, we had not spread out very much, so we were asked to orbit for spacing before landing in without fuss. The GA handling organisation was efficiently on the scene with crew buses to shepherd us to the main terminal so that we could pay our bills and get our customs clearance. We were conducted to the appropriate offices to pay the landing fees and file our flight plans. This we duly did, and then, having decided not to risk another plastic airport lunch here, but instead get on to Lugano we made our way back to the aircraft.

On the way I thought it would be a good opportunity to buy some spare batteries (cameras and GPS receivers consume quantities of batteries) and tried to buy some in one of the airport shops. The woman behind the counter wanted my boarding pass before she would let me have the batteries. Our guide from the handling agency spent some time explaining why this was impossible in a long stream of Italian featuring the word “privato” at frequent intervals. At last the shop assistant nodded in understanding and turned to me. “Boarding pass please” she said. I gave up and decided that on balance I could make do for now with the batteries I had.

So we were conducted through the metal detectors, the passport checks and the customs and driven back to the aircraft. Our time on the ground was 1 ¼ hours. For this we were charged a landing fee, a take off fee, a marshalling and transport fee and a documentation services fee, grand total €45. Switzerland is usually rated an expensive country but it is instructive to consider that we landed at two airports in Switzerland that same day and the combined fees for both of them were less than this one visit to Bergamo.

Although it had been overcast at Bergamo, the weather improved as we got into Switzerland and began the approach to Lugano. This is an “interesting” piece of work. The runway is approximately north-south (because that’s the way the valley runs). Our approach was from the south, but runway 19 was in use. There is no room to circuit the airfield in the conventional manner. The approach is via the southern tip of Lake Como and then at the next valley, 6nm further on, you turn right and fly north. At this point you are about 7nm in a straight line from the threshold at Lugano, but there is the slight problem of a 3000 ft mountain in your way. Fly along the right hand side of the valley until you are level with the town, then turn left, fly through the gap in the mountains and there you are, left base for 19. It is a circuit after all, there’s just this hill in the middle. Turning final at about 2000 ft agl is something of a novelty, but there is 2nm in which to get rid of the height, and in a PA 28 you can sideslip with flap on, so that’s alright.

Lugano would have been the perfect place to stay overnight, had it not been for the fact that there were no hotel rooms to be had. We cast the net a little wider and found that Locarno, in the next valley, did have room for us. This is only about 15 miles so we could have gone by taxi, but it was still a nice day and there is an airfield at Locarno also, so we did the sensible thing and flew. Generally these trips feature sectors of heroic length, requiring fuel and bladder capacity to match, but not this time: 20 minutes take off to landing, including an extra circuit to land at the other end.

The airport at Locarno occupies a lot more real estate and has significantly more installations because it is the site of a large aero club and also a Swiss Air Force training station. We arrived more or less at closing time for the airfield, but in plenty of time to down a few beers in the astonishingly crowded flying club. Although the day had started with frustration and our opinion of Italian bureaucracy hadn’t risen any, we had finished off with some spectacular scenery and a very friendly destination.

We had found a hotel in the centre of town. I added up the hours we were likely to put on the plane with this new itinerary and found that we were in some danger of reaching the next 50 hour check some way before we got home. I made some calls and left some messages to see if we could get an extension and wondered what would happen if we needed to stop for an extra day to get a 50 hr check done, and if it could be arranged at the sort of notice we were likely to want. However, after a while, having done what I could in the way of leaving messages, it was time to eat. There was a recommended restaurant a short distance away, so we had a short walk around and a long eat and drink (though, obviously, not too much of the drink) and a good night’s sleep.

The next day was to be serious mountain flying, or rather, flying along valleys with serious mountains on either side. Our overall plan was to fly to Sion and Gap, keeping to identifiable valley routes for safety but taking in some very wild country on the way. For the first leg we would fly east and then north west from Locarno, following the route of the A2 until it takes its own route north through the Gotthard road tunnel at which point we would continue westward to the Nuffenen pass, where we would follow the line of the road to Ulrichen and the start of the Rhone valley, leading us south west to Sion.

The early morning weather was clear and calm. We checked the forecast at the airport very carefully and took full advantage of the presence of some local experts from the Swiss air force to find out it we were heading for anything nasty on our planned route. They thought it fine, so we went. In BURT we knew we would be operating at pretty well the service ceiling both for the machine and ourselves. We flew slowly out of the Locarno circuit, keeping to the right to give ourselves a good wide swing into the first northern leg up the valley, climbing to 7000 ft before we entered it and to 10,000 ft after that. Even at this altitude there is rock all around that is higher than you, so sudden sharp turns are to be avoided. Navigation is by carefully following the landmarks on the valley floors and the valleys and re-entrants in the sides of the hills. Charts with contours marked on them are essential for this, so the Swiss ICAO half million chart is a good one to have handy.

The actions to be taken in the event of an engine failure are very straightforward because there is no choice:you can’t turn you can only go down. But, the valley floors are generally flat, and have many flat, open fields in them, and more airfields than you might imagine. On the leg we were about to fly, we would pass over seven other airfields in the 105 nm before reaching Sion. The seeing was spectacular and the trip smooth, so it was with real reluctance that we prepared for a straight in landing at Sion an hour later. Sion is pleasant, moderately busy but friendly. We stopped long enough for cofee and further planning. I was also able to pick up the messages that my enquiries of the previous day had triggered. These amounted to a request for a complete list of the deferred defects in the tech log and an instruction to “stand by” on the possibility of an extension to the 50hr check. Since the only deferred defect was a temperamental PTT switch on the right hand yoke, I hoped fervently that the this would not pose an obstacle to the engineer back in England who would be signing off the extension. If the answer was no to an extension then we would have a problem no matter what we did from this point on the map, so we decided to carry on.

For the second and longer leg, our intention was to continue along the valley to Martigny, following the sharp right turn it makes here to the eastern tip of Lake Lausanne. From here we would work along the southern edge of the lake to pick up the line of route 205 to Chamonix and from there follow a series of roads to Gap, so that our plog looked more like an AA guide than something connected with aviation.

This section went well to start with, but when we got to Geneva airspace we were directed over the high ground to the south direct to Albertville. We found that there was a lot of cloud in this region and it was getting worse, which did not bode well for the rest of the projected route. I juggled maps while the broker flew. Neither of us felt happy with the rest of the plan, though we could hear the others proceeding en route. We decided to bail out and divert to Chambery (which was on our flight plan as an alternate).

Chambery was large and easy to approach, but seemed completely deserted. There was no traffic anywhere (though this did not stop them from refusing us a straight-in approach), there were few people in the office to take our fees and even fewer to sell us avgas. In the restaurant we were outnumbered by the staff, but there was no food unless we wanted crisps. The concourse, the check-in areas and apparently the rest of the complex was empty. We had a cup of tea and exchanged text messages with the rest of the party, the faster of whom were by now on the ground in Gap. Their plan was to go on south and spend the night in Cannes. We decided to meet them there and filed an “intention de vol” to ensure we had someone waiting for us.

To stay away from the cloud we routed east of the Alps and found ourselves once again flying south away from Lyons and over Orange air force base and Avignon. The weather still didn’t look as though it was going to be very kind to us -the cloud was still thickening and it was getting darker all the time. As we approached Cannes the controller was warning us about thunderstorms in the region of the LUC NDB, cutting of the direct route to Cannes from Orange. We were obliged to turn south again and to head out over the coast to make sure that we could not be forced below safety height by the cloud. We coasted out at Toulon and followed the coast around to Cannes Mandelieu. It was by now raining , but the runway at Mandelieu is so long that you don’t even think about touching the brakes in a PA28, so we were down easily if not exactly happily. I was also conscious that we had probably put more time between us and home as a result of the day’s flying, so if the extension on the 50hr check was not going to be allowed we would definitely run out of time. However, given the facilities in Mandelieu, we were probably in as good a place as any to get the check done and see how French servicing costs compare with those in England.

The refuelling at Cannes is self service, that is to say, you wrestle with hosepipes and nozzles in the wet while a man in a dry office watches you to make sure you’re doing it right. You then do the hike to the office to pay. We then taxied around to the GA area and were conveniently parked next to the other planes in the group. This left us with another walk, this time to the terminal and with luggage. The terminal was deserted, apart from an office occupied by the flight planning staff of what appeared to be a busjet operation, so we bummed the use of their phone to get a taxi to the agreed hotel. Finally, we arrived at the Holiday Inn in Le Cannet, just outside Cannes, feeling that Fate had ruled us overambitious with the route that day, but had let us off with a caution, for which we were duly grateful.

I was also pleased to find a voice mail telling me the extension to 55hrs had been approved, so it seemed we were off that hook as well.

Despite having got from Denham to Avignon in one day on the way out, we intended to take two days to get home from Cannes. We would overnight at Reims and return to Denham via Le Touquet, a suitable customs field for leaving the Schengen area. For our lunch stop we selected Ancone, the small grass field at Montelimar. The weather had returned to being kind now that we were on our way home. There was puffy cloud, but not much of it and what there was at 5000 ft or higher. Our route out of Cannes gave us the coast and the local countryside as they had been on our way out to Corsica, making up for the hard work passage of the previous day. Our only slight concern was that the field at Montelimar nestles up close to the edge of a “zone intérdit” round a power station, making prompt visual identification advisable.

So we made our third transit of the lower Rhone valley in near perfect conditions and found Ancone without trouble. Lunch was served in the very pleasant restaurant next to the clubhouse. We chose to be adventurous and tried a local dish, something like a very coarse sausage, which pleased some palates but by no means all. The end of our lunch break coincided with that of the fuel pump attendant, so we were able to refuel the aircraft as well as the crew and carry on.

The next leg to Reims was quite a long one -280 nm in a straight line. This gave us the choice of breaking the trip by stopping somewhere for a tea break or of minimising the time taken by doing it in one hop. Being in the slowest machine of the fleet, the broker and I decided to do the single hop, which meant a longish flight (3 and a quarter hours as it turned out) but also that we were likely to arrive at Reims in good time. The others opted to route via Mende with its spectacular hill top runway, 3362 ft above sea level where, as we later heard, one of the group found the runway a bit shorter than they expected (but no harm, no foul as they say).

Once again we had excellent visibility and relatively neutral winds. We passed overhead Troyes and Chalons and as the distance to go reduced we made contact with Reims Prunay and started looking for the field, keeping in mind the noise abatement procedures described in the Jeppesen manual. The chart was unambiguous and the position ought to have been clear, but neither of us could see it. We knew where we were from GPS, from VOR/DME and from plain old looking out of the window, but the airfield was nowhere to be seen. Finally, just when I was beginning to think we must have done something so radically wrong as to defy explanation, we spotted it, lying quietly where it ought to have been, where we had been looking for it all along without seeing it.

We circled to land and basked in the feeling of being the first in, the only time it happened on the trip, so worth feeling good about. The fuel point had closed for the day, so we couldn’t refuel. Instead we went to say hello to the flying club, the marvellously named Reims Aero Formation, indicated by a large “RAF” sign. The welcome was warm, the beer was cold, and they sold us some T-shirts for a very reasonable price. We enjoyed the beer and relaxed while we waited for the others to arrive, which they did over the course of the next hour. Once assembled, we phoned for taxis, only to discover that the eleven into two will go syndrome wasn’t confined to Italy, it was present in France as well. The chief flying instructor at the club, M. Guy wouldn’t hear of us calling for another taxi and drove the surplus bodies into town himself. Now that’s the brotherhood of aviation in action.

Reims is another in the long list of interesting French towns. It has aviation associations: Reims Aviation SA was affiliated to Cessna from 1960 until 1989, assembling the ‘Reims Rockets” among other types. Reims Aerospace Industries still manufactures the F406 twin turboprop. It is also the site of the worst kicking that Joan of Arc and the armies of Charles VII of France gave the English and Burgundian armies and not unnaturally Joan is a celebrated figure in the town -hence the large monument in the town centre.

As well as history, there were several very tempting restaurants, and given that this would be our last evening out we decided to close our eyes to the prices on the menus. As it turned out, the eating was not that expensive, but it was certainly good.

After our warm welcome and pleasant evening out, we were reluctant to leave Reims. Nevertheless, this was the last day of the trip and we did have to go home and back to work. In the case of BURT, we would be running close to the limit for hours, even with the extension. Departing from Reims was delayed by the need to refuel (the fuel point had been closed by the time we arrived the previous evening). This introduced us to the mysteries of another self-service system, this one requiring the use of an access card and PIN number, plus the ability to decipher some switches whose use was, shall we say not intuitive.

We routed initially from Prunay to the Chatillon VOR to avoid the Champagne airbase and from there to CMB, Cambrai and Le Touquet. Returning home via Le Touquet was convenient, but brought forward the end of the trip: we’d all been there before, so there was no novelty (though approaching it from the south is a bit different) and at Le Touquet we would be dining for the last time as a group. At Denham, the resident aircraft park either north or south of the runway and the two aprons are reached through entrances on opposite sides of the airfield. This meant that one half of the group would not see the other when we got home, and in some senses the trip was over from the time we said our goodbyes at Le Touquet.

We filed flight plans, refuelled, did some final sorting of receipts for the group finances, lunched and then it was time to go. No flight is ever routine, and if it ever got that way you’d probably be on an expensive route to killing yourself, but this was the end of a memorable trip so the mood was down. In accordance with tradition, we had good visibility below blanket cloud for our crossing and the blanket was low enough and the air busy enough to make it advisable to get a service from Thames Radar for the loop around London from Dover.

Back at Denham, HM Revenue and Customs had decided to give us the benefit of the doubt and had not taken us up on our GAR forms, so it was time to unload our luggage, evict from the aircraft all the stuff that had taken up squatter’s rights, return borrowed lifejackets, complete the tech log (two hours left to the check, enough to fly the plane to the service base, phew ) and phone other halves to request lifts. We cheered ourselves up by planning the get together to see the photographs and to hear the stories. Three thousand miles in eight days. I felt I could sleep for a month. What a shame we’d have to wait for another year to do anything like it again.

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