France for Lunch: Club Flyout to Le Touquet

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A large group

16 people in 5 Aircraft from 3 Airports. This was the second club flyout I’ve organised, and the taste of foreign travel brought out the crowds. With two club aircraft out for annual maintenance, we block booked the other 3 tourers (2 Warriors and the Arrow) based at Kemble. Other members were able to borrow a Cessna 172 from Bristol, and hire a Gumman Cougar twin engine from Thruxton. The bank holiday weekend weather had originally looked promising, but at the start of the week it became clear that Good Friday would be much the better day. I was able to block book the aircraft for both days, releasing them on Wednesday when I made the decision to plump for Friday. Fortunately, that did turn out to be a good choice – the weather was nice and sunny, with a warm front bringing some clag to fly through toward the end of the afternoon as we returned on the last leg.

Plenty of prep

This was not my first solo flight abroad or my first trip to Le Touquet – I’d been to Calais late last year – but my first with passengers. I’m still new enough to foreign flights to have to research it thoroughly. I wrote a 5 page briefing note for the crews, with a checklist of what to take and what to file. Broadly speaking, it’s much the same as any internal flight except:

  • Must file a flight plan, which I did using SkyDemon the night before
  • Must email a GAR form to HMRC, with a full list of crew and passengers, passport numbers etc
  • Must notify customs at Le Touquet at least 2 hours before arrival, by sending a short email with crew/passenger names and passport numbers
  • Must take a bunch of documents, including passports, crew licences, medical certificate, aircraft registration, radio licence …. even a copy of the interception procedures
  • Must wear lifejackets, take a PLB (personal locator beacon) and optionally take a liferaft
  • Some Euros also come in handy, and you really need a camera too.

Meeting up beforehand

Only one of the three other pilots (flying from Kemble) had flown abroad before, so there were a few details to discuss and experience from others to share before the trip. I spoke to the lead pilots by phone a few days before to talk through the differences, and co-ordinate the plan. We also met up at our regular monthly pub meeting the night before.

I had pre-arranged authorisation for my flight the day before, as had the others. We all filed  flight plans, emailed the GAR forms and emailed Le Touquet customs the night before.

Early Start

Haydon kindly picked me up and drove us to the airport. I’d rechecked the NOTAMS, weather and printed out an updated PLOG using SkyDemon before we left. Arriving at Kemble around 8:40am, there was virtually no paperwork to do. It had been a cold night, but the frost on the wings had already melted. Sean, my other passenger, turned up around 9am and we pre-flighted, loaded up with safety gear (life jackets, liferaft and PLB) as well as the extra paperwork in the tech log folder.

One of the other Warriors was also ready to go, and after seeing the third crew arrive, we decided to head off. Our flight plan was scheduled off-blocks time of 9:30, but leaving a few minutes early shouldn’t be a problem. Before we started up, we noticed that G-ELUE had been idling for some time without taxi-ing off. It turned out there was a problem with their flight plan. I call up and requested taxi for my flight plan and was told there was no problem with mine, and I could taxi immediately. It seems the other crew had omitted small details such as the colour of their dingy and contact phone number from the remarks field, requiring a refiling. The tower did this for them, and they joined us for power checks at the hold.

I had to wait a few minutes for the engine to warm up properly before the run up, so double checked the GPS was working, ADF and radios were tuned in, and my plog listed all the appropriate frequencies. We took off around 9:30 with G-ELUE following close behind.

South into the haze

RAF Lyneham

My route took us south to Lyneham, then overhead Popham. We spoke briefly to Brize, then Farnborough West who asked us to call Solent because we were so close to their airspace. I had the VOR tracking Goodwood from quite a distance (sadly the DME wasn’t working), and this was a useful double check that I kept to the east side of Solent airspace. We were 3500 feet up and keen to avoid the haze, but visibility wasn’t that good until we reached the coast. I tried the auto-pilot on VOR tracking mode as an experiment. There are three levels of sensitivity, the highest meant for an ILS localiser approach, and I can confirm it was very responsive at that setting, turning quickly to get back on track! With the aircraft trimmed, and RPM/MP set at 2400/24 respectively, the controls needed little adjustment. I preferred just flying manually and switched off the autopilot.

General layer of murk at about 3000 feet
Portsmouth and Chichester harbour, just East of Goodwood

It was helpful to have someone in the right hand seat who was able to change the squawk codes and setup the radio/VOR frequencies. I tried to anticipate these well in advance, but inevitably there are always a few “surprises”, such as the change to Solent.

Keeping clear of Goodwood and Shoreham, we spoke to London Information who weren’t that busy (surprisingly for such a nice sunny day). I asked them for the latest weather at Le Touquet, which they reported back a few minutes later. On first contact, they had asked me for my next reporting point and time. I hadn’t written that up on the Plog at that point – we had just turned overhead Goodwood – so had to do a quick bit of mental arithmetic.

Brighton Marina

We reported coasting out at Seaford, heading directly for Le Touquet via the Aleso waypoint. About mid-channel, we were able to pick up the Le Touquet ATIS (which alternates between French and English). It confirmed the same conditions we had received by phone before departure and more recently via London Info. As we approached Aleso, London told us to Squawk 7000 and contact Lille.

Lille were busy, acknowledging our call by telling us to standby, but came back to us and gave us a discrete squawk code, asking us to let them know when we had the airfield in sight.
Cloud as we approached Le Touquet
As we crossed the channel, we could see a layer of cloud ahead, masking out the horizon and land ahead. I didn’t want to find myself above an overcast in France – and not just because it’s illegal – so descended slowly down to 2500 feet under radar control. We knew this would only be a small cloud bank because we already had the better weather report from our destination. The clouds did disperse after a few minutes. As we closed the coast, Lille asked me if I could see the airfield yet – I replied I could see the town, but not yet the airfield. He passed me across to Le Touquet tower, who then assigned me a new squawk and asked me to report downwind for 32 left hand. This would be a very straightforward approach since we were already pretty much on an extended downwind track and I just had to continue my descent to circuit height.
Le Touquet town in sight, but not yet the airfield clearly in view
As we crossed the coast, I continued to slow down and drop the gear at 120mph, adding two stages of flaps for a nice and slow approach. After running through the downwind checks, I was about to make the “downwind” call when the tower told me to report final.
Crossing the coast at Le Touquet
Late downwind, Le Touquet
Base leg for 32LH at Le Touquet
Turning final for 32LH at Le Touquet

As I turned final, I was cleared to land and given surface wind of about 360/10 knots. After landing, I made the intersection turn off half way down the runway and was told to park on the apron. It wasn’t that busy and there was plenty of space to choose from. I understand that on very busy days, there is a “follow me” cyclist who directs you to parking.

Happy passengers - maybe next time they will be the pilots
Le Touquet airport terminal building

We walked into the terminal and ordered refuelling, then went for a coffee in the adjacent restaurant whilst waiting for the others to arrive. The other four aircraft came through over the next half hour or so, and several of the crews joined us for a coffee before heading into town. A refueller drives the bowser truck around the apron to each aircraft and fills up on request, saving taxiing/queuing time and cost.

Walking into town

While some hired bikes, we elected to walk the 30 minutes into town through the pleasant tree lined avenues. The beach was attractive but the north wind meant it was quite cold. We found a restaurant in a side street that was in the sun, but sheltered from the wind. Rather than everybody sharing the same restaurant, we had split up into several groups.

Moules Frite - Yummy!

With a warm front coming down through England during the day, some of the pilots were keen to make a slightly earlier return than originally planned. I’d filed for 5pm local time departure, which would get us back to the UK before 6pm local time. One of the other crew called for a taxi to take them back to the airport, but we found them waiting at the taxi rank as we walked back ourselves more than 20 minutes later. In the end, they left around the same time as ourselves.

After some quick shopping for those left at home, we walked back and prepared to saddle up for the return leg. The sun continued to shine and the forecasts from the UK were good (free Wi-Fi in the airport made it easy to check using PilotWizz on the iPhone).

Paid the landing fee (30 Euros including a surcharge of 5 Euros) and fuel (2.25 Euros/litre), then walked out and pre-flighted. We listened to the ATIS and then called for start and departure clearance. They had our flight plan and so there was little to say apart from taxi to the hold and report ready. We followed several aircraft as they trundled towards the end of the runway, and completed our power checks close to the holding point. After calling ready, we were told to line up as soon as the previous aircraft took off.

Lifting off, it was a straight ahead departure with good views of the town and beach. As we left, I was ready to change to Lille and requested the switch but was told to remain on his frequency. Shortly after, we changed to Lille and then very quickly were told to freecall London information as we left French airspace. We had heard earlier that London Info was closed until 4pm BST, so were not surprised to hear others calling on that frequency get no response. With only 5 minutes to go, I decided to wait rather than talking to someone else. As soon as they announced they were open again, I was straight in and got the first call.

Climb out departing Le Touquet 32
Coasting in just south of Eastbourne

The flight back across the water was pretty uneventful and we were soon coasting in and tracking just south of Brighton, Shoreham before reaching Goodwood. This time I did speak to Shoreham, who advised of 4 aircraft heading towards us – we spotted one below us – and got clear views of the airfield.

Goodwood racecourse

Tracking the VOR towards Goodwood, we turned north west just beforehand and contacted Farnborough West who stayed with us until Popham. Switched to Bristol a few minutes before 5pm, and asked them if they could get airport information for Kemble who would be just about to close. This was very helpful to have, confirming the runway in use and QFE. With some dark clouds ahead, it was good to know that the cloudbase or visibility wasn’t poor and we wouldn’t have to divert.

Popham airfield from about 2500 feet
dark clouds and general clag as we returned northbound

Once through some “clag”, visibility did improve and we got a clear view of RAF Lyneham. Bristol then asked me to confirm that I was just north of that airfield, and clarified that when out of hours we make traffic calls on the Kemble frequency. With the large aircraft on the airfield in sight, I left Bristol and self-announced as inbound. Another aircraft at the field gave me an unofficial QFE and runway, which matched what I’d got earlier.

Kemble descending dead side

Making a standard overhead join, we could see the wind was about 10 knots from the North. My approach was a bit lower than I would have liked, needing a bit more power and I let the crosswind take us a couple of yards to the left of centreline on short final, but the touchdown was fairly gentle. Taxiing back to parking, it was nice to have some help to put everything away.

Before completing the paperwork, I called NATS to close the flightplan (very quick to do) and we were done. We waited for the last aircraft to return about half an hour after us. They also had no problems during their flight back and everyone agreed it had been an excellent day out. My passengers, who both want to embark on commercial pilot careers, were both helpful with the radio/transponder side of things – and took some great photos too. It was good to have them along for the trip.

Only another couple of hours and I will reach the magic 100 hours PIC, which is my next goal. Don’t know if I’ll manage it this month, but can’t be far off now.

Total Time today: 3:25 
Total Time: 191:00 (PIC 97:55)

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