Summer holiday to France 2014 – Leg 1 of 4 – La Rochelle

Posted by

A holiday on the Cote Atlantique

After the success of our German family trip last year, we had agreed to take our family holiday this year also by flying ourselves to Europe. Not too far, must have a beach/sunshine, not too hot. So the essential criteria became airports near beaches. I had also been enthused by a presentation at the local LAA Strut, where the chairman shared his holiday photos and experience from a trip to Quiberon the previous year. Looking at airports, we thought La Rochelle and Quiberon would be good choices and we found suitable self-catering accommodation via the web fairly easily.

The outbound flight would be my second airways flight and I researched possible routes using various routing engines. The problem is that there isn’t an airway going directly south from Gloucester and you have to either go west over Cardiff and Exeter or east via L9 to Compton. After consulting with others, I decided to try WOTAN, SAM, ORTAC, MINQUI, NANTES, LUSON at FL100. I filed this using EuroFPL and checked with Gloucester airport that it was in the system. The only other paperwork was to pre-notify French customs of our arrival, because it would be on the weekend. No GAR form was needed until our return. No PPR was needed from La Rochelle itself – just turn up and land. They even have a specific NOTAM that discourages prior permission requests when you only want grass parking.

Bad weather departure

I don’t think the flight wouldn’t have been possible (legally anyway) given the weather on the day without a full Instrument Rating. It was hard enough to see out to taxi through the rain to the hold. Although 04 was in use, I was offered 27 because the wind was only 3 knots. Cloudbase was about 1200 feet and we were soon in the soup, which lasted until reaching about FL85 some 15-20 minutes later.

Barely able to see out to taxi in the rain (wiping down the inside windscreen helped a lot)
Gloucester overcast
Miserable day at Gloucester – great time to leave on holiday

Bristol hadn’t seen my flight plan and didn’t really know what to do with me. I didn’t know specifically what to ask for (perhaps an airways join at SAM might have been appropriate). They asked my planned routing (which I stupidly read out in full), then suggested that for airways I would need to fly L9 to CPT, handing me over to London Control. There were quite a few frequency changes, it seemed about one every 5 minutes, but the route was pretty simple and I was vectored south to Southampton at FL100 then on to ORTAC and overhead Jersey.

I noticed a few problems with the autopilot on this flight – it had some intermittent problems in recent weeks – and ended up flying quite a bit manually.

Cotton Wool
On top at FL100, nothing but cotton wool everywhere
Southampton through a break in the clouds

Once handed over to French ATC, things got very much simpler. I was given two “directs” in turn, one to NANTES, then to LUSON, after which handed straight across to La Rochelle approach. The only other radio call was to change frequency with the same area controller north of Nantes (“call me back on 134.00”). After LUSON, I requested descent to FL80 and setup for a procedural RNAV. This is one of the few airports I’ve been to that has an LPV (i.e. GPS only) approach, which our GTN650 can handle. Shortly after, approach asked me if I was OK with a vectored ILS, which I accepted. In retrospect,  I wish I’d asked for a vectored RNAV, but wasn’t quite sure of the request or whether there was much difference. Comparing plates later, I doubt if the controller would have noticed – it only seems the minima is slightly lower for the ILS. There is currently a Europe wide minima of 250 feet for RNAV/LPV approaches.

This meant a quick reselection of the printed plate, loading of the approach on the GTN, switching from GPS to VLOC mode, tuning and ident of the ILS frequency on both boxes (of course ident didn’t work until nearer), and briefing of the missed approach procedure (initially climb straight ahead to 2500). The controller weaved us in as #2 with clear vectoring instructions (descend to below 3000 within 3 minutes, keep speed up) and spacing the commercial traffic following in behind us.

There had been a stiff headwind for most of the flight, which reduced our groundspeed to less than 120 knots. This and the detour meant that we were airborne for 3h15, and the low fuel warning light (60 mins fuel left) came on just about the same time as I intercepted final approach. I’d originally estimated about 2h30 for the flight.

Long Final La Rochelle
Long final at La Rochelle, vectored ILS. Runway is just masked by the prop tip.
Short Final La Rochelle
Still on final La Rochelle – ringroad to the left, which you follow until this point. You can just make out the runway to the right of the prop (directly below the tip)
Runway at La Rochelle
Plenty of runway at La Rochelle
Tower and fuel at La Rochelle
Tower at main terminal at La Rochelle; fuel bay and grass parking are to the right

There was plenty of free parking on the grass. A portacabin next the fuel pumps hosts the typical multi-tasking French pompier, who does everything from pump fuel, put out fires and (most importantly) take landing fees. His English was as good as my French (i.e. not great), but we managed to communicate. Filled in a (dual language) form with my details which were then typed into the computer and paid by credit card. It would help if I could write more clearly! There is a very well marked exit gate for private pilots, with a code displayed to get back in. During jet operations, the “critical area” is clearly marked, fenced off and patrolled (i.e. out of bounds). The terminal building, a few metres away, has toilets and a basic cafe. There are regular buses into town and taxis on a stand. There are several low cost airlines, including EasyJet and Ryanair, so plenty of background activity. A new terminal building is planned.

Outbound route
Planned and flown outbound route

A taxi took about 15 minutes to reach our apartment in La Flotte on the Ile de Re, a beautiful island connected by a long bridge. During our week, we enjoyed plenty of fresh seafood, roamed the island by bus (1 Euro per trip) and bicycle, walked the beaches and lazed around the swimming pool. It did rain occasionally, and there can be a bit of a breeze, but I preferred the lack of insects, great food and it was plenty warm enough (low 20s Celsius) for me. It wouldn’t suit everyone.

We visited Ars en Re and I resisted the temptation to buy the T-shirt advertising the good weather there, which in English would translate to something like “the sun shines out of my backside”.

Harbour at La Flotte
French restaurant
Typical French seafood restaurant at La Flotte (thoroughly recommended)
Chocolatier – very popular for all ages. The fish and shells are all made from marzipan
Church Spire
Church spire at Ars-en-Re, prominently painted so can be used for sea navigation
Typical french hotel
Typical French hotel near the Ars town square

We took a bus into La Rochelle for a day trip (5 Euros return), hourly service.

Bridge to Ile de Re
Bridge to Ile de Re (viewed from mainland). The 16 Euro road toll funds the island’s conservation
Ferris Wheel
La Rochelle sports a Ferris Wheel outside the tourist information office
Battlements at La Rochelle
Marina at La Rochelle. There’s another one with locked tidal gates for larger craft
Main street
Main street facing marina
Fish market
Fish market – one of many food stalls at the indoor market
Bulldozing seaweed
Daily bulldozing of the seaweed on Ile de Re – they do this on all the major beaches
Bicycle ride around the Ile de Re – plenty of separate cycle paths

PIC time today: 3:35
Total PIC time: 241:55
Total Time: 371:05





  1. I will be asking the question from more knowledgeable/experienced pilots. Perhaps flying IMC OCAS (outside controlled airspace) at (say) 5000 feet and joining airways at southampton may have been a possibility, but would have meant a much longer time in cloud without IFR traffic separation. I think the trick is mostly about knowing exactly what’s possible and what to ask for.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *