Change of Plan
The original plan was for a weekend in the Scilly Isles in the TB20 from Gloucester with a couple of friends who had been keen to go there. They had tried to sail their by yacht, but failed due bad weather. Pre-planning confirmed that while St Mary’s airport is shut on Sundays, it is permitted to depart on Sunday afternoon at your own risk. I requested PPR and submitted the relevant indemnity forms, insurance certificate etc. so was all set to go.
The weather forecast initially looked promising but changed daily during the prior week. On the day, we found we might expect heavy rain with 1200 feet ceiling and 25-30 knot southerly winds, so I thought landing fully loaded into 600 meter downward sloping wet runway wasn’t a good idea. Even if we did make it, it would be a pretty wet and unpleasant weekend there.
Plan B was to go to France and I quickly worked out that Lannion (on my bucket list) was feasiblem albeit with some rain forecast over the Channel Islands on Sunday. I booked a couple of rooms at the local IBIS which can be cancelled free of charge up to 6pm. Unfortunately, French immigration supervising Lannion require prior notice of movements by 1500Z the previous day, so we’d have to land at Dinard inbound but could depart home directly the next day. I checked that our friends were happy with the revised destination and filed an outbound flight plan (no GAR form is needed when departing to France) using SkyDemon from my smartphone while being driven to the airport.
We’d had an issue with the autopilot which meant this was inoperative, making for a higher workload throughout these flights. You can easily forget the difference it makes until you are without one.
Weight and balance a challenge
With four grown adults and overnight bags, we would be heavily laden. I had checked the weight and balance chart to find that we could cope with up to about 250 litres of fuel (capacity is 336). Probably more important is the balance, where we would be in the top right hand corner of the chart. Excess weight in the luggage compartment would put us out of limits. My passengers had all been very frugal with their packing, so this wasn’t a problem. Documentation checked, fuel loaded, lifejackets on, liferaft/PLB onboard and toilets visited, we were ready to go.
Taking off was noticeably different with the full load. It needed much less back pressure to become airborne, and positively leapt into the air requiring a firm forward push to accelerate before climbing away. Trimmed out, it flew as normal and happily climbed at between 500 and 1000 fpm.
We were airborne shortly after 11 and flew in clear skies directly south against a 20 knot headwind, coasting out west of Bournemouth at FL55. In a short time we could easily see France and each of the Channel Islands in turn. Jersey Zone must have had my details from the flight plan and gave me a VFR zone transit with direct routing at FL55, updated with a descent to FL50 when reaching Jersey. Just south of the island I requested a descent to maintain VMC and was given a block clearance of anything below FL50. This made for a gentle controlled descent towards our destination. I was handed over to French area control (Rennes Approach) who gave me a squawk, confirmed I was identified and when seven miles north of the airfield passed me across to the tower.
There was no other traffic around, so I was able to make a straight in approach to runway 17. The full ATC service is being downgraded to AFIS at several of these northern French airports, and the phraseology is different. You aren’t cleared to land or even “land at your discretion”, but when reporting on short final are given the wind and told to “report runway vacated”. There were NOTAMed RA(T)’s (Temporary Restricted Areas) which initially looked serious but actually just meant you had to be in radio contact with the tower when in the area. In fact, I was given a proper landing clearance so presumably there was still a fully qualified ATC officer on duty.
I tried to pay the landing fee immediately but was recommended by the pompier to do this on departure. Entering the terminal building, you find several prominent signs instructing pilots to report at the immigration office. The door is locked but was quickly opened where staff checked our passports thoroughly. Toilets are landside.
We did consider stopping at the cafe, but instead decided to depart almost immediately and were led through the special door I’d seen used before. Another quick check that we were indeed the same people leaving, and we were let out onto the apron. The reason that the pompier hadn’t collected our landing fee before soon became clear. Another member of staff tried to enter our details into the computer system, which had just been updated with new streamlined software. After what seemed like ages (at least 5 minutes, maybe 10), he resorted to taking our details down on paper instead. I guess the new software may not be quite as user friendly as it could be. With a short stop of less than two hours, the landing fee was 7 Euro.
Dinard to Lannion
After starting up, I called for taxi for a VFR departure to Lannion. The tower checked that I had no flight plan (none is required for local French flights) and cleared me to taxi to either end of the apron (at my choice) for power checks. On reporting, I was told to backtrack as required, line up and squawk a local code. Once lined up, I was given the wind and cleared for take-off, and told to report leaving the area.
The short flight across to Lannion was a little turbulent due to thermals from the ground below – I kept it fairly low below 2500 feet and routed south to maintain glide range of the coast since we’d taken our lifejackets off. The area information services passed us along, and when talking to Lannion Tower we were asked for our departure airport and (with wind 200/8) what our intentions were. I replied “Straight in for 29” and was told to report short final, number one. This must have been an AFIS on duty because the response was to “report vacated” rather than a landing clearance or “land at your discretion” heard in the UK. The landing was a little extended due to a gust just as we were about to touch down but all under control.
A pompier refuelled us and took payment (using our AirBP card) and the landing fee (11 Euros including overnight stay). The airport was fairly deserted since there were no commercial flights at that time, but another TB20 lined up behind us at the pumps.
An English speaking air traffic controller just coming off duty very helpfully took us into town – the staff at these small regional airports often do go out of their way to assist. Although when we asked for a restaurant recommendation, he did suggest we might do better in Bordeaux 😉 I guess he didn’t want to be partial, and didn’t live in the town himself.
We walked around the town and visited the Information Centre, where a very helpful tourist guide with good English explained the delights on offer. We didn’t really fancy a three hour boat trip around the Sept Isles sanctuary (where you can’t get off). Low cost bike hire is available, but not on Sundays. There are many restaurants and bars (although most close on Sundays). You can walk alongside the tidal river to the coast.
We enjoyed our dinner at a typical French Bistro. In the morning, we walked extensively for over three hours – all the way down and back up the river – before stopping for crepes at the Moulin Vert. A taxi took us quickly back to the airport, deserted but manned in the tower and fire station.
We prepped the aircraft in what seemed like quite a stiff breeze, directly across the runway. I would estimate about 15 knots and it seemed fairly consistent (i.e. not gusty) to me. I doubled checked the rain radar for the latest animation sequence, having previously checked METARs/TAFs en-route. There were some dark rain clouds in the channel but not intensive and I expected to be able to route around or above them.
I had filed the previous afternoon using SkyDemon for 1400Z (1600 local) and after starting up, called for taxi at 13:23. Perhaps I should have called for start (you typically don’t need to do this at AFIS airports, but its always a good idea if you are on a flight plan). The tower queried my flight time and I requested to depart at 13:30 which was granted. The standard tolerance on VFR flight plans is +/- 30 minutes but I’ve found in the past that many towers are very flexible about that. The tower was also able to check and confirm that the French Danger area immediately to the north was inactive, as I had expected. The take-off wasn’t eventful, despite a reported crosswind of 7 gusting 17 knots (some more forward trim helped a lot). Departing VFR to the north, I was told to contact Iroise Information (pronounced Ear-Wazz) who provided a radar service. Seeing some dark clouds to the north east, I flew north and even slightly north-north-west for a time to maintain VMC and keep well away. I had planned to route via SKERY, to the west of the Jersey Zone but ended up routing slightly west of SALCO. This probably explains why I was switched to Brest Info, who didn’t have my details, before being told to Freecall London Information.
There weren’t many on frequency given that it wasn’t a sunny summer’s day, and we heard the AFIS struggling to maintain contact with a German aircraft that had very poor radio transmission approaching Dover. As normal, I was asked to give my coasting in point and estimated time – a bit difficult given that I was ducking and weaving around the darker clouds. When coasting in near Salcombe, we were efficiently handed over to Exeter who provided a full traffic service. There was hardly any radio activity and I can’t recall being warned of any other traffic at all – the threat of low cloudbase and rain must have put a lot of pilots off flying today.
Routing via Yeovil to remain VMC, I initially switched to Bristol with a listening squawk but seeing some more clouds ahead then asked them for a transit through the north east corner of their zone. This was granted as a “transit if required not above FL60”, but in the end I didn’t need it. Bristol warned us of activity to the west of Kemble, and we did see a couple of PA28s (but not close enough to recognise the registrations).
I had expected to need an instrument approach back in to Gloucester, but found I could maintain VMC in the descent. We were given a direct downwind join, initially not below 1500 feet, for runway 18. As we passed abeam crosswind, I could see another aircraft in the circuit just having taking off and turning towards us. They confirmed they had us in sight and followed us around, landing behind. We also saw a couple of helicopters, positioned off to our side. These and the couple from Kemble were the sum total of all other aircraft that we’d seen throughout the entire journey.
This had been quite a fast return trip. The initial direct route planned had indicated a flight time of around 1:10, but with the deviations for bad weather avoidance increased to about 1:25. We peaked at 182 knots groundspeed from the benefit of the strong southerly wind.
All in all, a good weekend away. The return flight was a little challenging due to the tactical routing for weather avoidance. I had expected to climb above the cloud (remaining below airways), but found that FL55 was as high as was needed. It was harder work without the autopilot and I hope that can be fixed prior to my next longer flight.
We’ll save the Scillies for another weekend, perhaps later in the summer when the weather should be much better.
PIC this trip: 4:05
Total PIC: 350:25
Total Time: 488:50