My co-owner Rich and I packed a lot into two days flying, staying overnight in southern Germany having flown IFR in our TB20 from Gloucester UK with an intermediate stop each way:
- Vectored into mid-channel when IFR route filed was direct over London
- Handled through a couple of large regional airports
- Light icing
- RNAV LPV approach into an AFIS towered airport
- IFR departure from an AFIS towered airport
- iPad shutdown due to overheating
- Alternator failure in flight, resulting in total electrical power loss, flying non-radio VFR and landing with the fire crew positioned on standby
The original plan
We met about a week earlier to discuss our plan for the two days. Schwabish Hall (just north of Stuttgart) was quickly agreed as a suitable destination and a hotel booked online which could be cancelled up to the day itself. We agreed to fly one leg each per day with a lunchstop about half way. The plane itself would have happily flown all the way in one flight if we’d wanted.
At that time, French ATC had announced a strike so we decided to stop in Belgium, selecting Ostende and Antwerp for the outbound/return. We’d have to clear entry into the Schengen zone for which Belgium has six authorised airports. Kortrijk looks quite attractive for GA too, and I set that as my alternate. Later that week, the French ATC strike was cancelled so we routed Ostende outbound and Lille on the return.
08:30 (09:30 local) EGBJ to EBOS arr 10:30 (12:30 local)
12:00 (14:00 local) EBOS to EDTY arr 15:30 (17:30 local)
08:00 (10:00 local) EDTY to LFQQ arr 11:30 (13:30 local)
14:00 (16:00 local) LFQQ to EGBJ arr 15:30 (16:30 local)
Times above in Zulu and local country.
EGBJ = Gloucester, UK
EBOS = Ostende, Belgium
EDTY = Schwabish Hall, Germany
LFQQ = Lille, France
We agreed I would fly the first leg each day and Rich in the afternoon. I calculated a route and filed directly using the autorouter.eu free service (I had only just applied for filing privileges), which was extremely straightforward. An extensive briefing pack and relevant IFR plates are generated, with an updated version sent by email two hours prior to the flight. Rich used Aeroplus, which has a benefit of being integrated with SkyDemon so you can import the plan directly. It also has a smartphone App through which you can update and delay filed plans. Both worked well but Rich did have a hiccup with not receiving the acknowledgement messages immediately.
[Update: Autorouter now does also integrate with SkyDemon, just open the .fpl flightplan file emailed with the briefing pack and it is automatically imported. Their web interface is responsive and adapts automatically when used on small mobile devices, avoiding the need for a set of dedicated apps]
Leg 1: Gloucester to Ostende
I filed a simplified EGBJ N0144F090 MALBY L9 KONAN EBOS
This broadly means:
- True airspeed of 144 knots through the air (not groundspeed). The indicated airspeed is lower because the air is less dense at altitude. With a tailwind, our groundspeed was over 160 knots at times.
- Flight level 90 (about 9000 feet)
- Joining airways at MALBY and flying along airway L9 to KONAN on the FIR boundary, then directly to our destination
We both arrived at Gloucester well before 9am on Friday and pre-flighted, taxiing out for fuel shortly after 9. Unbeknown to us, this was when the fuel delivery had been scheduled so we had to wait about 20 minutes for that to complete. After donning life jackets, we called for start up and our departure clearance.
“Cleared to join controlled airspace 5 miles north of MALBY at FL80, squawk XXXX, expect next frequency Gloucester Approach 128.55 after departure.”
With a north easterly wind, runway 09 was in use. Being a quiet time, we were backtracked rather than taxied around the perimeter, and given a right turn after take-off.
On contacting Approach, I was given “Procedural service, report passing FL50”
Departure clearances from Gloucester seem to vary widely. We were cleared to enter controlled airspace – often you are told to remain outside – but only at FL80 and not “in the climb”. So you can either request a join in the climb or have to fly some extra track miles to achieve that. When I last flew with Rich he flew north and circled back to overfly the airport at 4000 feet. With my right turn out I had to put in a couple of orbits to gain the height – we had 10 track miles to gain 6000 feet.
Gloucester approach, who don’t have any radar screens with height information (and primary radar often isn’t in use), were keen to ensure I was behaving. They checked my progress at FL43 before handing me over to London at FL70. Rich suggested that I should ask for an earlier transfer, then ask to be recleared to enter in the climb and save some track miles. I chose instead to continue orbitting but perhaps I will be more assertive about that next time.
London asked for my requested flight level, which I gave as FL90 (as filed), then cleared me to join in the climb to that level. We were routed on to the next waypoint before being given headings (eg turn 10 left, turn 15 right etc.) As we got closer to London we were vectored well out of the way and given a “Direct Goodwood”. About 5 miles before reaching there (when I was about to call up and ask for onward clearance), we were given “maintain heading” and continued on over the coast towards France.
We were well out of glide range before being given a sensible route: “direct Dover (DVR)”. The frequency was relatively quiet and the controller apologised profusely for having had to vector us quite so far out of the way. It seemed that both Heathrow and Gatwick were fully stacked up with incoming airliners, so our wide diversion was relatively unusual. He asked if this might cause us problems with fuel endurance (no, not on this occasion because like most light aircraft going foreign we were fully tanked up to get duty drawback). We pointed out our greater concern of being out of glide range unnecessarily, which perhaps wasn’t top of mind for a controller used to handling big jets. I do feel that the operational controllers do a great job but that there is something wrong somewhere in the strategic side that works against the most efficient use of airspace for all users.
Subsequent analysis of the flight showed an airborne time of 1:44 vs filed 1:28, 16 minutes or 18% more than planned. ICAO rules don’t require planning includes any additional fuel to cater for deviation en-route but most commercial flights (and Autorouter) allow 5%. We had at least 6 hours endurance with full tanks of 320 litres, after the climb being leaned to just over 40 litres/hour at FL100 with a true airspeed of 145 knots.
During the 1h50m flight, we spoke to no less than nine different controllers on different frequencies.
Just before reaching Dover (DVR), we got a direct to KOKSY (KOK VOR). At the FIR boundary before KONAN, London handed us over to Brussels who immediately transferred us to Ostende Approach. We’d already got the ATIS (Rich listening on radio box 2 while I remained on box 1), so were not surprised to get “expect vectors for ILS 08“, which would be almost a straight in approach. With about 30 miles to run, we were instructed to turn 10 degrees left to intercept the localiser and report when established. We were not yet cleared to descend.
Rich prompted me to consider the descent in good time, which the controller granted (from FL90 to 4000 feet) after a couple of minutes. Visibility was excellent and we could make out the runway from about 20 miles away. We reported intercepting the localiser at 10 miles, were cleared #2 for the approach and transferred us to tower. We were cleared to land in plenty of time, but I had a double-take when hearing that the crosswind was 030 at 17 knots. It was quite gusty when we touched down.
After turning off the runway, we switched to ground frequency, who cleared us to taxi and then a “Follow Me” car. We did indeed follow the car to our parking spot, where the driver got out and marshalled us – I think that’s a first for me.
FlightRadar24 tracked our actual route too, but dropped out on crossing the border
On the ground at Ostende
We parked up on the extensive GA apron 3, having requested fuel. We had to wait about 15-20 minutes for the bowser to arrive. The driver was able to handle everything, taking payment by credit card with a portable wireless card machine. We walked to a nearby building and through a scanner (empty pockets first), then a car came and drove us across to the main terminal. Some friendly border police quickly checked our passports etc. and welcomed us to Belgium.
By this time we were running a bit late – the delays of fuelling at Gloucester, long diversion offroute and refuelling had added up. Rich wasn’t able to get mobile data service working on his phone, through which he could have delayed our outbound flight plan and didn’t want to miss the slot. So after looking at the (very appealing) airport restaurant, we decided to return to the aircraft and proceed on our way. I had brought along a few Scooby snacks for that eventuality.
We reported at the information desk and were again scanned through the full passenger security (but not passports, being already in Schengen), walked around to the office to pay our landing fees, then ferried by car back to the aircraft.
Leg 2: Ostende to Schwabish Hall
Rich had filed EBOS N0140F090 MAK L607 SUXIM DCT AGBUL DCT OLIVI DCT MND DCT XINLA EDTY
These are a sequence of GPS waypoints, with L607 being an airway taking us through Belgium and across into Germany. It was a pretty direct routing with little overhead (unnecessary diversion).
Neither of us has had much experience of SIDs (Standard Instrument Departures). Still on runway 08, ground was ready with our clearance prior to start. It was great to hear the phrase “You are cleared to your destination EDTY as filed”. I’ve not heard that in the UK yet!
The MAK3E SID involves simply climbing straight ahead to the NDB a few miles away, then turning right on a bearing from it. We punched that into the GTN650 as well as the subsequent waypoints. The weather was glorious CAVOK.
Pretty soon after departure, we were given a direct to the next waypoint of MAK. I get the impression that in radar controlled environments like this, SIDs aren’t really used that much for smaller aircraft – the controllers are just as happy to vector you about.
The leg was pretty uneventful really, with controllers typically issuing very long direct legs of 120 miles or more to waypoints much further downtrack. This happened more commonly within the same country, or when controlled by a sector that is adjacent to the border – for example Brussels central might not be able to do that. Controllers were happy to phonetically spell out these waypoint names when we asked. We were mostly VMC but did enter clouds for perhaps 20 minutes or so, and during that time picked up a little ice – something the weather forecast had predicted.
Rich turned on the prop de-icer which also cleared the windscreen quickly. It squirts de-icing fluid out through a few small outlets in the prop blade leading edges. We don’t have any de-icing for the wings and are not equipped to “fly into known icing” (FIKI).
Rich asked for a descent “due icing” – not an urgent request but a sensible precaution. The controller came back with a “standby” and pretty quickly we heard another voice instruct a right turn to a specific heading and immediate descent. We asked for the RNAV approach into Schwabish Hall – this is a full LPV approach with a 300 foot minima. Germany and France have many airports with these (hundreds); the UK currently has only two.
What’s unusual at EDTY is that the airport is towered by AFIS rather than full ATC staff. There is a procedure where Langen Radar control the IFR traffic immediately before landing or after takeoff (from 1000 feet), and co-ordinate with the AFIS who announces to everyone that IFR traffic is present and to keep clear. That’s what happened, with us being handed over to the tower at about 4 miles, told to continue and then “land at your discretion”. We almost got lost in the parking area which is so large (you can park anywhere really). Someone drove out to welcome us, offered us a set of chocks and told us he could drive us to our hotel whenever we were ready – we would settle up for landing fees in the morning. Since we were already cleared through Schengen, no passport checks applied.
What a picturesque town! We stayed in the Golden Adler, a very sensibly priced hotel located right in the main square, with views of the cathedral and in easy walking through the town. We enjoyed a few well deserved Weissbeer in a very pleasant bar/restaurant, where we decided to remain for dinner. The local Schwabish Spatzle (noodles) are a popular favourite of mine.
Leg 3: Swabish Hall to Lille
I had already filed the next leg to Lille and received an automatic updated briefing pack by email in the morning. Rich filed the flight plan and also the GAR for UK Border Force for the afternoon leg.
My planned route was N0145F100 TAGIK1Y TAGIK Z818 UBEGA DCT BOLKI Q762 OLGAD DCT RUDOT Q762 LULAT Z104 TIPUT DCT SOPOK DCT ONC DCT CIV CIV1A
The routing assumed departure and arrival with westerly winds, when instead we had easterlies. The departure SID (TAGIK1Y) and arrival routing via CIV weren’t suitable and were changed during the clearance procedure at both ends.
We had debated about whether to fuel up again before departure or at Lille, thinking we wouldn’t have quite enough to make it all the way home. Fuel is slightly more expensive in Germany, but we thought there would be less delay. Schwabish Hall has a self-service pump, there was no queue, so we added 70 litres which was more than enough for the day.
We presented our noise certificate when paying the landing fee to avoid a surcharge.
I’d filed for EOBT (Off blocks, ready to taxi) at 08:00Z (10am local) and was working to that schedule. Rich said he’d heard the AFIS trying to contact me when paying in the office. It seems that was a slot time involved and he wanted me to get a move on! This is very unusual for GA traffic.
I was taking my time, checking everything thoroughly and briefing the departure. When I called for start (wrong – AFIS don’t issue start clearances), my departure clearance was requested. About two minutes later this came through, with a couple of route optimisations before we’d even got moving. I was cleared all the way to my destination LFQQ as filed. So if the radio died immediately after takeoff, I could still legally proceed and land there.
The central clearance computer had accepted my requested flight plan time (off blocks at 08:00) and allocated a departure slot time of 08:05. The five minute allowance from off-blocks to take-off is fairly tight if you are to include power checks. There is a -5/+10 minute tolerance to depart at the assigned time, otherwise you lose the slot, your clearance is void and you have to refile a new flight plan. It was now more understandable why the AFIS was keen for us to get going.
07:50 request clearance
07:52 Clearance delivered (after a phone call from AFIS to Radar)
08:00 Are you ready to taxi?… You were allocated a slot time…Last information from Radar was that you should depart at 08:05
(Times are UTC, add two hours for local German timezone)
After take-off on runway 10, I tried to fly the departure SID, following the Garmin and HSI. I was slightly off track to the south, having mistakenly turned right but recovered that. We had checked in with Langan Radar at about 600 feet AGL but it took a minute for them to acknowledge (when we were about 2000 feet AGL) with “Identified, Climb FL100“. For some unknown reason, the GTN instructed a turn to the south heading 172 when we knew we should be turning north – so we ignored it, flew as we thought using the DI and VOR and very shortly afterwards were given a direct TAGIK by Langan Radar.
As for the previous leg, this 2.5 hour flight was pretty uneventful. We got some really long directs of 120 miles or more, and were seamlessly handed over between controllers with no flight level changes. We overflew a tiny bit of Luxembourg, so were handed over to their controller for the brief transit. In all, we spoke to seven different controllers on different frequencies during the flight.
The wind direction meant it was pretty likely we’d be on runway 08, even though my flight plan was to CIV on the east. We were cleared more directly towards the airport, and I was offered a vectored VOR approach. Instead, I elected for vectors to the RNAV LPV and was informed this might mean a slight delay due to other traffic. For some odd reason, Lille has two GNSS approach plates, named Y and Z. These have different distances from the FAF (Final Approach Fix) to the landing threshold and so also have different platform heights to intercept the glideslope. We were offered the choice and took Y for no particular reason, but it turns out this saved us a few track miles.
After being given some initial vectors, we were then directed to the initial approach fix and cleared for the procedure, and asked to expedite at full speed. Usually vectors take you to the final approach fix rather than the initial, but it was no trouble to set this up. On final approach, the tower again encouraged us to maintain full speed and wanted me to make a rapid turnoff after touchdown at T5 . I ended up approaching a little fast and so needed a slightly longer rollout, exiting at T4. A medivac flight landed behind us with what later looked like some donor organs or other urgent medical supplies.
On the ground at Lille
We put the shades on (the reflective one for the windscreen rather than sunglasses) to keep things cool and sorted out our bags. We didn’t have to wait long at all. After the medivac flight was handled, a minibus came over and drove us to the terminal. Since we had arrived from Germany, no passport checks were required. We were escorted through the dungeons inside the terminal building, took a lift up and emerged into the main passenger check-in area.
Today we had more than enough time to enjoy a pleasant lunch in the airport restaurant, watching the Easyjet and other airline movements. Rich took a call from the UK Border Force, who couldn’t find his GAR form for our inbound flight to the UK. He was able to quote the receipt number and the matter quickly resolved.
Leg 4: Lille to Gloucester
Rich had filed the last leg with LFQQ N0140F100 TRACA B3 RINTI/N0148F100 L10 LAM/N0142F090 DCT CPT EGBJ
This isn’t nearly as direct as the outbound route I had filed, but we were hopeful that the actual route flown might be a lot more direct this time.
On departure, Rich again flew a SID (TRACA3E) before being given a direct waypoint routing and climb to FL100. I’d foolishly left my iPad in the aircraft during lunch, and in the strong sunshine it had overheated and shutdown. It recovered with a bit of cooling assistance from the air vents and worked again after about 10 minutes. Apart from that, it was all looking to be fairly straightforward until we noticed the battery voltage warning and the alternator failure alarm light come on. By this time we were heading out across the channel at FL100 and decided we’d rather make it back to somewhere in the UK than return to Lille.
In the case of alternator failure, you typically have about 30 minutes of battery power before all the electrical equipment stops working. The engine and some of the air pressure/vaccum powered instruments will continue on regardless.
Once talking to London Control, Rich explained our situation and requested clearance to cancel IFR, exit controlled airspace, and divert either to Shoreham or Gloucester. We asked them to notify Gloucester of our expected arrival around 14:00Z and that we would be flying NORDO (Non-Radio). The controller calmly accepted this, cleared us to leave controlled airspace by descent and then seemed a bit lost for words – they are so used to handing people on to the next frequency – that instead he just said “well….goodbye”.
We switched almost everything off – transponder, radios, DME, NDB, GTN, autopilot – but left the turn co-ordinator and fuel/battery monitor (JPI) on.
We still had navigation by compass, airspeed, altimeter and artificial horizon in good VFR conditions plus two iPads and two iPhones all with SkyDemon and a paper chart. That’s far more than many VFR aircraft have, so we didn’t feel underequipped. Rich flew us back VFR at about 5000 feet just below controlled airspace, and we both kept a good lookout for other traffic – sighting a few gliders but little else. Rich kept the speed up (160 knots) because he knew that the battery life was time limited.
Just north of Kemble and with about 10 miles to go, Rich powered up the radios and tried to call Gloucester. Unfortunately the frequency was very busy with some pretty long winded transmissions. After three or four attempts, he got out a “Pan Pan” call which was acknowledged but still had difficulty communicating because of other users. Our signal was weak and we later found that the monitoring radio inside the flying club hadn’t pick up our transmissions. Gloucester requested all stations to stop transmitting for 30 seconds while they co-ordinated. We were given a right base for 04 (the runway in use was 09), which kept us clear of the circuit. We were #2 after another aircraft landing on 09, which I was able to see on its landing roll.
Lack of electrical power meant the gear didn’t go down. Rich resorted to the manual override and we were both relieved to see the three green lights come up. The electric flaps didn’t deploy either. The battery voltage, normally 28V, was dropping below 10 and the GTN screen which had been flickering wildly then went blank but the radio inside still worked. We did just hear and acknowledge the clearance to land “G-CORB, if you can hear this, you are cleared to land 04 and taxi A2 after landing”. We had earlier been told to look for signal lights from the tower for landing clearance if radio contact was lost.
With the wind at 060/11 knots, Rich flew an excellent final approach with a little extra speed for no flaps and made a good touchdown. That was when I spotted the fire trucks standing ready nearby in case there was a problem.
The radio then died.
We taxied back to the hangar followed by the firetruck. A fireman came over to check everything was OK, and also asked us to explain what the consequences of alternator failure were. We very much appreciated they had been there in case of a problem.
After putting the aircraft to bed and a quick cuppa in the club, we visited ATC to thank them personally for their calm handling of the situation. Only then did I realise this meant extra paperwork for them too – they had already filled out an MOR (Mandatory Observation Report) recording all the times and actions taken.
In restrospect I realised we did also have the option to call Gloucester ATC by cellphone – my headset can directly connect to the phone to make calls, and I have known of one other pilot who did just that. Later, another pilot who had encountered a similar problem told me he’d dropped the gear immediately to ensure it would go down, gladly tolerating the slower flight home.
An engineer quickly diagnosed the alternator problem to a broken wire. A right angle bend had chafed through from vibration. The replacement has a nice smooth bend instead.
FlightRadar stopped tracking us when we cancelled IFR and squawked 7000, dropping out of controlled airspace and flying back VFR.
PIC this trip: 4:20
Total PIC: 280:20
Total Time: 413:15