I am a UK-based Cirrus pilot but having trained in the US and flying an N-registered aircraft across Europe, I wanted to give American visitors an idea of what they can expect if they decide to go flying in Europe.
First the good news: the laws of physics don’t change when you cross the Atlantic, and Cirrus aircraft work the same way they do back home. Now the bad news: the laws of common sense and the market don’t apply here. Prepare yourself for a bit of a shock when you turn up at the airport.
Here are a few of the things that will surprise you. The authorities don’t understand GPS. Not only are you are legally required to have an NDB and DME to fly airways in the UK and some of the handful of GPS approaches in Europe require an ADF for the missed approach. Go figure. Similarly, watch out for licence confusion. For example, you can fly a British-registered plane on an FAA licence but not into France. In Germany, you can’t takeoff or land at any airfield unless there is a controller present. This means that during the day there are hundreds of airfields available, but at night only a dozen or so.
Then there is the language problem. While all controllers in Germany are legally required to speak English if required, the French avoid it if they can. Even English controllers can present a challenge to Americans if they have strong regional accents – I recall a frustrated American Airlines captain getting a Glaswegian controller to spell an intersection phonetically. To add to the confusion, each country publishes its own charts with different symbols.
Local knowledge is vital. For example, in the UK the RAF provides most of the radar service for light aircraft, but they go home at 5pm and don’t work weekends. There’s no such thing as 1-800-WXBRIEF anywhere in Europe. Instead, each country provides its own weather services, NOTAMs and methods of filing flight plans. “You can’t do anything without an internet connection,” says John Page, a Cirrus instructor at TAA . Even then some services, such as the French system, require you to register offline before you can access the system.
John Page has four main recommendations. First, do plenty of ground school before you get here. Second, buy Jeppesen VFR charts and approach plates, because they are standardised across the whole continent and they’re all in English. However, even in unrevised ‘trip kit’ format, they’re not cheap – expect to spend around $500 for a full set of European plates and VFR charts. Third, get training. There are Cirrus instructors like John throughout Europe who can spend a few hours briefing you about local procedures and requirements, and also provide advice for any trips you are planning. Four, try to fly in N-registered aircraft because then there is no need to convert your FAA licence.
However, nothing can prepare you for the cost of flying in Europe. Expect to pay over $150 to land at a big airport like Amsterdam Schiphol or Nice. Even quiet regional airports charge up to $100 in landing fees, and in the UK even the smallest airfield will charge $10 or more. Handling is compulsory at some airports which adds to the cost. Fuel is also expensive and taxed very heavily. An hour’s gas in an SR-22 will cost more than $120. Mastering the lean assist function is an economic necessity.
Flying IFR can make things a lot easier, although it restricts you to the larger airports. Everyone speaks English in the airways and at IFR airports. Also, it is very similar to IFR flying in the USA whereas VFR flying is full pitfalls and surprises. In fact, many Cirrus pilots in Europe tend to stick to IFR when leaving their home country. However, it can be a challenge going IFR to or from a non-IFR airport. For example, there are procedures to join airways from my VFR-only base at Denham, near London, but you can’t find them on any map – you just have to know who to ask.
On the upside, even if the authorities put obstacles in your way, you will get a warm welcome. There’s a strong Cirrus community in Europe. For example, there are seven Cirruses at Denham. The European distributor is based at Groningen in the Netherlands. In Germany there are over 50 FAA instructors. One, Timm Preusser, is the CFI of the Darmstadt Flying Club and a COPA director. All his aircraft are N-registered and everyone speaks English. He finds that “2-5 hours of flying around VFR showing them the procedures at different fields” is enough to familiarise a foreign pilot with operations in Germany.
Once you have got your plates, completed your ground school, done your familiarisation training and found someone to rent you a Cirrus, you’re free to enjoy flying all over Europe. Here are some instructor-recommended destinations to whet your appetite: Le Bourget for Paris, Schiphol for Amsterdam, Biggin Hill for London, Shoenhagen for Berlin, lovely Cannes or lakeside Friedrichshafen to name a few. Le Touquet in France is popular, as are Jersey in the Channel Isles and Edinburgh.
If that isn’t enough to tempt you, as a hobby Stuart Ungar and I write restaurant reviews for pilots (they’re published on this site) and we’re slowly working our way through all the best airport-accessible restaurants in Europe. On the basis of our extensive research so far, I can definitely recommend all of them. Come on over. We’ll have lunch!
This article was first published in an edited form in COPA Pilot.