France for Lunch

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Pea Soup for Breakfast

Perhaps this weekend’s flight was just too ambitous.The intention was to reward my family for indulging me in my hobby by flying them to France. Being so close to the shortest day in the year, and not operating from an airfield with lights meant that it would be much more enjoyable to stay overnight. We originally intended to go to Le Touquet, but very few hotel rooms were left (due to a book fair) and so instead I found a nice hotel (with a swimming pool) in Calais at a reasonable price. After keeping a close eye on the weather forecast during the week, it looked quite stable and promising.

We all got up early, I checked the weather/NOTAMS and filed the flight plans/GAR forms from home then set off for Kemble airfield at 8am. Visibility was good at home, but I’d had a quick look at the Kemble airfield webcam and it was very misty/foggy there. Despite driving through some quite promising weather, we arrived to a very much fogged in airfield – possibly a Kemble micro-climate due to being slightly higher up. The Lyneham Club had moved offices during the week and only just got sorted out. I was able to prep the aircraft, find and load the safety equipment (life jackets, PLB and liferaft), and fill in the club paperwork. All was ready to go apart from the need to fuel the aircraft. Since the fog hadn’t lifted, I suggested I would taxi round to the fuel station, fill up and park outside the restaurant while my family relaxed inside.

The only airborne traffic during the morning was a solitary helicopter, who had reported the cloudbase at 300 feet. Nobody else was moving, but the restaurant was quite busy. Various people reported good conditions 20 miles away while we were definitely fogged in. After checking the TAFs/METARs using the excellent  PilotWhizz on my iPhone, and reading that the 100 to 300 feet cloudbase was likely to remain all along the coast, I decided to abort the flight – much to the dismay of my passengers. Despite having an IMC rating, which would have allowed me to take off and fly through cloud if I had known the destination was clear, I wasn’t prepared to risk it from a VFR airfield in a non-IFR equipped aircraft (and in any case, my IMC rating isn’t valid in France).

So we stayed for lunch and came home. Andy managed a short local flight during the afternoon in the club Arrow, and there was other activity by the time we left. In retrospect, it might have been feasible to fly to a different destination – learning point is to always have a Plan B.

Better luck second time

The weather looked more promising for Sunday. This time without the family, I again checked the forecast and NOTAMs in the morning, filed flight plans and the GAR form for a solo flight. I checked the aircraft out and got everything ready, but again the weather was closed in around Kemble while sunshine persisted further afield. Unlike the previous day, it was quite windy. The TAFs looked much better, especially for the afternoon, and I was confident that conditions would improve once I got airborne. So again, I taxied around for fuel (I had only filled up to tabs the previous day because I was carrying 3 passengers) and filled up to the brim. By the time I had done this, the cloudbase had risen and although there was a stiff easterly wind, it was certainly well above minimums.

A quick departure

With one other aircraft already airborne, I asked to depart on my flight plan. There was a momentary delay while the AFIS looked out my plan on the system. After confirming how many were on board, I then carried out my power checks and departed on 08 with a straightforward right hand turn out, heading south toward Lyneham. I was advised to change to Brize for a radar service, which I did as soon as I’d reached cruising altitude. My plan was to fly at FL35 as filed, which conforms to the quadrantial rule and avoids having to change pressure settings frequently (or so I thought). After switching onto Brize, the frequency was so quiet that I wondered if I had got the wrong one. It seems I was the only aircraft flying in the area that early in the day.

There was a layer of haze/mist around – not so thick you couldn’t see the ground below you. Horizontal visibility was very good, but you couldn’t see the ground in the distance. Being solo, the workload was slightly higher than when flying with others, but the lack of passenger distractions also allowed me to concentrate on things. FREDA checks, changing tanks, confirming the squawk code, tuning in the VORs all kept me busy. Despite the relatively quiet radio, I still needed to keep a good lookout.

With such a long flight and being up at almost 4000 feet, I leaned the mixture to reduce fuel burn and increase flight range.

A haze lay all around

Changed to Farnborough Radar when around Popham, who then gave me a Basic Service until Petersfield, when I changed to Goodwood at their suggestion. There were a few other aircraft around in the area, so it was helpful to be able to listen in and hear what was going on. I saw one or two pass by. Changed to Shoreham probably a bit too late – I think I was focusing too much on my next waypoint of Seaford which has a VOR to track – passing south of the field. My flight level 35 was around 3,900 feet due to the high pressure of 1027 today. (Flight Level = 1013, and the difference of 14 times 30 feet = 420 feet). It was noticeable that when reporting my height as FL35, I was then given a pressure setting and asked to confirm what my height was in feet – I used the second altimeter for that – making the “officially correct” use of Flight Levels pretty worthless. (As an aside, there is a proposal going through the CAA at the moment to raise the transition level to 6,000 feet nationwide due to be implemented at the end of 2013).

Getting my feet wet

As I tracked towards Seaford VOR, I switched to London Information in preparation for my next leg across the English Channel. In addition to the usual response to a “pass your message”, I also included my estimated arrival time at DEVAL – the mid channel waypoint on the English/French border that I would pass through. They asked me to report coasting out from Eastbourne and gave me the standard squawk code of 1177. At this stage, I was flying parallel to the coast for a fair bit. If the engine had conked out, I was within gliding range of the coast or pretty close it it. But not knowing that it was over water, it continued as normal. I had changed tanks just before coasting out and planned not to make any further changes in altitude or speed until after the crossing.

London Info was comparatively quiet – it covers a very wide geographic area – and I could hear people reporting in from Swansea and Shobdon as well as a two or three others heading across to France. So I requested if they could find out the weather in Calais – I was too far away to listen in on the ATIS at this point, but if they were fogged in it would be better to find out before leaving England and divert elsewhere. Very helpfully, they came back within a minute telling me the visibility, pressure setting, runway in use and wind conditions – it all seemed to be very promising.

A stowaway appears

It was at this point that I noticed a wasp crawling around the front passenger dashboard – it must have been hiding in the air vent in front of that. Perhaps having been attracted by my bright yellow liferaft and/or reflective yellow jacket on the ground, it must have been there for the entire flight. I briefly considered whether to land at Shoreham and decided instead to press ahead – it didn’t look like it was about to attack me or had any other company. I can imagine that it could freak out some passengers though. (I tried to find it when in France, but it must have found a way out by then and I didn’t see it on the return leg).

Across the border

Just as I was about to report crossing DEVAL and entering French airspace, London Info told me to Squawk VFR (code 7000) and contact Lille Information.

Here I made a boo-boo. I’d been expecting to be switched directly to Calais Tower from what I’d read beforehand – certainly other pilots heading towards Le Touquet were being told to switch directly to Le Touquet tower. So I called up Lille Information on the Calais Tower frequency and only after I had splurged out my full details did I realised my mistake. Quickly switching to the correct frequency got me a much better response, with a dedicated squawk code. There were several warnings about parachuting activity taking place overhead Calais.

It was at this point that I realised my SkyDemon GPS had not got the French charts loaded. There is an option to choose which charts you have downloaded into the device in order to save memory and speed it up. My route took me off the end of the coast and although the route was marked as a magenta line, there was no context or chart to match it with. I would have to rely on the printed approach chart and plate which I had ready alongside my standard half-mil chart – these clearly marked the waypoints used by the tower.

Entrance into Calais

Switching to Calais Tower, who welcomed me back again!, I was told to report when airfield was in sight. I heard another aircraft practicing ILS instrument approach, and to keep me clear I was asked to do a 360 at Calais Harbour and await further instructions. I’ve been asked to do an orbit before, but never heard the term 360 used, so I had to ask them to repeat the request. An aircraft behind me was asked to do the same at “Whiskey”, which is clearly marked on the approach chart. That pilot, working from his Pooley’s chart, didn’t know where ATC meant and this needed to be clarified.

The orbit gave me a great view of the harbour, where a ferry was leaving, but I was too busy to be able to snap a picture.

After a single orbit, I was then cleared to approach for a left base join for runway 16. At that point, I still hadn’t quite identified the airfield (I thought I knew where it should be) and was still up at around 1500 feet. Passing just north of Calais, I turned away from the coast and quickly identified the runway, calling that I was established on base. I had to descend fairly quickly while getting the speed down, flaps in and completing the pre-landing checks. Turning onto final above the residential area at some 600 feet, I was then well positioned for final approach. I was cleared to land and with good visibility and a slight crosswind managed a reasonable landing. I stopped before the midway turnoff and asked for taxi instructions, which I think were something like “park at your discretion”. I positioned myself directly outside the passenger terminal, checked that this would be OK, and shutdown. It had taken 2:30 from start to finish and I was now in another country.

Parked up directly outside the terminal at Calais

There wasn’t much evidence of yellow reflective jackets, but I took mine just in case, along with passport and pilot license. Walking into the terminal, I looked around for somewhere to pay the landing fee. The office there was unmanned, but someone kindly phoned through and an official appeared shortly afterwards. My French is pretty non-existant, so I needed a bit of help to figure out what I was being asked – the aircraft registration and the ICAO codes for the airports that I departed from and would next fly to. The landing fee was 9 Euros and we were done.

Lunch in France

The airport was very busy – there was parachuting activity and many had come either to join in or watch. There is a cafe/restaurant inside the terminal run by a Frenchman with extremely good English and it was overrun with customers. He was rushed off his feet and working extremely hard.  It took a while to order, but the food came quickly enough. I saw another crew choose instead to go into town which would probably have required a taxi both ways. I didn’t have time to do this sadly, because I had to get back before dark (there are no night flights at Kemble). I watched the parachute aircraft takeoff, making a sharp turn when almost immediately airborne and climb quickly away. It’s approach back to the field was also quite dramatic, with a very rapid descent directly towards the runway followed by quick flattening out and a very long float before touchdown. The parachutists were equally skilled, timing their “stall” to land gracefully on the grass.

Departure

With my flightplan scheduled time of 14:00 UTC (3pm French time), I returned to pre-flight the aircraft. It needed a quart of oil which we carry in the back, but otherwise was all ready to go. Another aircraft was just about to depart, so I watched it carefully. I called for start and was told to report ready to taxi. After taxi-ing to the hold following the other aircraft and conducting my run-up checks I asked for my clearance. Are you VFR or IFR I was asked? VFR. Then you don’t need any clearance – you just fly under your own navigation! I was surprised at this because I remember from my one and only other foreign trip (when under PPL training) that at Le Touquet we had been given a clearance of direction and height to follow.

After the other aircraft had departed, I was given a conditional clearance after a landing aircraft to line up, then later take-off. Another aircraft was doing circuits, so I simply followed the left hand circuit and departed on the way I had arrived along the coast – not sure if this would be best when the airfield is busy, but was easy to follow. I was told to report mid-channel, which I did at DEVAL, and transferred back again to London Information.

Back to Blighty

As with the outbound leg, I squawked 1177 and gave my estimated time of coasting in. There was quite a bit of cloud around over Seaford.

Looking South over the Channel - Clouds on the Horizon

 

Brighton Marina

There was other traffic around Eastbourne, but much higher, and I also saw a couple of bi-planes that weren’t on frequency. It felt good to be back in Blighty. Switching to Shoreham, they remembered me from my outbound leg and told me about other traffic in the area. The airfield was now considerably busier than earlier in the day, but I was able to get my calls in OK.

Switching to Goodwood, then at Petersfield I planned to switch to Farnborough. They were extremely busy, with one caller being told to “standby you are number 4”. I just monitored the frequency, then changed to Brize when north of Andover. Being told to standby, a different voice come on air almost immediately to ask me to pass my message – I had called just as they changed controller. There was little activity and I changed back to Kemble as I passed overhead Lyneham. They welcomed me back, warning me of someone in the overhead and one other aircraft in the circuit.

Joining crosswind, it was a straightforward pattern and landing. Refuelled again, checked they had closed my flight plan and then parked up in the club parking area. Once packed up and paperwork done, I met up with Andy who had arrived in time to see my landing and we debriefed our flights of the weekend.

Looking Back

Today marked a number of achievements for me:

  • First international flight since passing my PPL
  • First time filing and activating a flight plan
  • 100 hours total time since passing my PPL test, almost exactly a year ago
  • Qualifying cross country flight for AOPA Silver Wings Award. I now only require 70 hours PIC (another 5:35) to satisfy the requirements
  • Over 60 hours PIC, which according to club rules extends my currency period before requiring a check flight to 44 days

Perhaps it was best in the end that I did this solo, rather than with my family – there could have been  a lot more pressure to press on if the conditions hadn’t been so good and I now know better how flight plans, over-water trips and French ATC work. Hopefully, it won’t be the last but it will probably be next summer before my family trust the weather to try this again.

Technical Details

Today’s flight was in G-VICC, a PA28 Warrior 2, rented from the RAF Lyneham Flying Club, now based at Kemble Airfield, a VFR only airfield in the UK. The aircraft has ADF, 2xVOR, ILS, GPS (no moving map display), but the DME is not operational. The flight was VFR, under a flight plan, direct from Kemble to Calais, France and back, routing via Lyneham, Popham, Goodwood, Seaford VOR, coasting out at Eastbourne and crossing the coast just north of Calais Harbour. SkyDemon Plan and SkyDemon GPS were used to plan the route, file the flight plan and fly the track.

Total flight time today: 4:30
Total PIC time to date: 64:25
Total flight time to date: 155:30

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