Planning the return
Our hosts were expecting us to depart on Sunday, although could be flexible if the weather was difficult. Wanting to make this a gentle and enjoyable tour, we decided we’d like to split the journey back, stopping overnight somewhere on the European coast. This would reduce the flight time per day, and potentially allow some more beach time. My initial thought was Le Touquet, which I’d visited a few times before, even though it would be a slight detour to the south. An alternative option was Middelburg in the Netherlands – re-inforced by one forum suggestion that my best flight routing might be directly west from Braunschweig to Zeeland, then down the coast, avoiding any problems with access to controlled airspace. A third idea was Rotterdam, which has some pretty good hotel deals, and if I could arrange to be “handled” by the flying club, might not be that expensive.
First I called Braunswchweig tower a few days before to reserve a departure slot. “Of course you will be departing IFR”, they said. Alas, while my aircraft might be very IFR capable, I have no IR qualification, so VFR it would have to be. I also called Middelburg to check they would be happy and able for us to land . “Of course you can land here”, said the welcoming voice on the phone. And coming from a Schengen country, there wouldn’t be any issues with border control checks or notifications either. I filed the flight plan from my iPad via SkyDemon and double checked the weather (METARs and TAFs) before leaving the house. We bade farewell to our hosts, paid the (very reasonable) landing and parking fees, checked that my flight plan was known (displayed on a screen in the GAT office) and were driven out to the aircraft parking area. Baggage stowed, pre-flight checks complete and off we went. While waiting for the engine to heat up, I corrected the fuel meter reading and stored a flight plan in the Garmin GTN650.
The controller asked me in which direction I planned to depart (maybe remembering my strange south west departure for Magdeburg the previous day), and proposed the standard VFR route west via Mike which I accepted. Once airborne, I did ask for confirmation that my flight plan had been activated – probably a great insult to the controller – because in Germany as elsewhere this would be seen as simply their job and naturally expected to happen.
Initially, the weather didn’t look great on the ground with a lowish cloudbase, but almost as soon as we were airborne visibility improved and I cruised at 3,000 feet on autopilot for an hour or more. Even this low, there was quite a strong headwind of 20+ knots, but for the first part of the journey it was quite stable. Airspeed 140 knots, groundspeed about 120. With this longer leg, I played more with the fuel flow meter and made some progress with the “lean find” feature which helps optimise fuel consumption – saving at least 10% but without letting the engine get too hot.
I got a Flight Information Service from Bremen Information, who later handed me over to Langen. The Jepp VFR charts are very clear for each area showing exactly who you should be talking with (unlike the complex arrangements in the UK). The geography of the area is very flat and the features don’t change much. I followed our track using SkyDemon/iPad and matched this with the ground view and the Jeppessen VFR chart. As we approached the Dutch border, the cloudbase dropped and I descended to about 2,400 feet. We switched in and out of Dutch airspace for a few miles, watching the barges on the Rhine below us.
Just before reaching our turning point over the Dutch border at Nijmegen, Langen suggested I freecall Dutch MIL Info (nothing to do with the Military apparently), which I did. We then routed towards Zealand, the south west coastal area of the Netherlands. With the weather deteriorating slightly, I asked if Dutch MIL could relay the weather from our final destination Le Touquet – it would help me decide if I should divert to Middelburg or not. Unfortunately they couldn’t help me – “we don’t have any foreign weather reports, try Brussels Information when you get to Belgium”. Perhaps this was just as well, as you’ll find out later. We heard a few other aircraft on frequency, most of which seemed to be British and (from what I could make out) some of whom were equally new to the procedures of flying in Holland.
The cloudbase was down to about 2,000 feet at Middelburg, where (with difficulty) we picked out the grass field as we tracked west of it. There appeared to be a few promising brighter spots ahead (and I could always turn round and return here), so we decided to press on. It was about another 30-40 minutes to Le Touquet.
Brussels Information was very helpful, clarifying that the danger areas I planned to fly through were inactive, and also providing that missing weather report. Broken clouds at 1,000 feet, overcast at 4,000 and crosswind of 10-15 knots – it all sounded a bit challenging for VFR – if I’d had that report earlier I might well have stopped at Middelburg. I kept VFR slightly below MSA now and steered visually around a couple of tall radio masts, but otherwise the ground in the area is quite low and flat with less of interest for passengers to see than in Holland.
Once in France, Lille Info confirmed our direct routing into Le Touquet, which took us past St Omer and over the VOR beacon east of Bolougne (BNE). I copied down the ATIS which now reported a higher cloudbase than before, but still lower than the approx. 2000 feet where we were. With about 5 miles to go and Le Touquet estuary clearly in sight, I was handed over to the tower, given another discrete squawk code and told to join right base for 32. I could hear another aircraft on the radio making a practice instrument approach on the ILS before breaking off, and a third approaching for the left hand circuit, but nothing in sight.
Cleared to land while still on base leg, I crabbed down final with 10-15 knot crosswind, aligning with the runway close to the ground, with a slight gust lifting us up in the roundout prior to a gentle touchdown. While my passengers rushed off at rocket speed to find the toilets, I tidied up and put the cover on.
With a total airborne flight time was just over 3 hours, longer than the planned 2h40 due to the strong headwinds, we’d flown over four countries travelling a distance over the ground of 370 NM. Average groundspeed was 120 knots.
As a treat, we stayed in a nice hotel with a swimming pool (i.e. expensive) but ate out in town on a budget. It was amusing when checking in and being asked for my car registration number which I didn’t have – “you didn’t come by car – Ah! You arrived by taxi? – No, private plane… do you want the registration number for that instead?” The long sandy beach, busy town centre and restaurants have much to offer tourists, although it was quite a contrast from the German villages we’d seen over recent days. Moules frites and crepes were the order of the day.
Flight time today: 3:15
Next: Leg 6 – Homeward bound from Le Touquet (LFAT) to Gloucester (EGBJ)