You might expect lots of sunshine mid-June, when I’d booked the aircraft for a long anticipated weekend away in France with a couple of old friends. They liked the idea of spending time indulging in French culture, away from the bustle of daily life. Living in south west London, I thought the best idea was to fly down from Gloucester to Fairoaks on Friday afternoon and depart from there early on Saturday morning.
On my bucket list of potential destinations has been Troyes, to the south east of Paris. The airfield is a custom/immigration Port of Entry so we could fly direct with a flight time of around 2 hours. I thought this made it worthwhile filing IFR Airways, although it was perhaps marginal given the constraints of airways co-ordination in the London area.
Short flight to Fairoaks through the London TMA
My short VFR flight into Fairoaks, a new destination for me, was highlighted by getting a short transit through the London TMA. Farnborough had an inbound IFR which would conflict, so (after asking me) spoke to Heathrow and allocated me a squawk with clearance to transit VFR directly to Fairoaks not above 1400 feet. I was almost at the (very distinctive) Bagshot mast by then and simply proceeded straight ahead with Fairoaks coming quickly into sight. You then cross the numbers crosswind to join, and squawk 7010 when in the circuit. It’s important not to fly higher than 1400 feet nor leave the ATZ to avoid infringement.
The airport looked quite busy, quite a few executive aircraft, helicopters and school/clubs visible. The tower found me a parking spot for overnight without needing to park on the grass (which was wet). I learnt the airfield permits out of hours arrivals and departures (VFR) with prior notice, so a late return wouldn’t be a problem if needed. The cafe was open for snacks. There’s no public transport, but a taxi into Woking took about 15 minutes for a fixed £10 fee, with fast trains into London four times a hour. You can apparently request the tower to call a taxi for you as you approach the airfield, so it’s ready and waiting for you after you land.
I chatted with a friendly executive aircraft pilot who clearly loved his job, flying his employer around the world in an immaculate PC12. It’s very versatile combining the benefit of pressurisation for airways with the performance to land in extremely tight grass airstrips (using reverse thrust prop) and a range well in excess of 1000 miles.
Outbound to Troyes
My research had found a reasonably direct route passing north of the Paris region using Autorouter. The Troyes airport website and AIP entries indicated it had instrument approaches (ILS, VOR, NDB but not RNAV), a tower manned by AFIS (although French language only during their lunch hour). Out of hours they even have pilot controlled lighting. For non-Schengen arrivals, the Douanes now require lots of notice (at least 24 hours, and also before 16:00 Friday for any weekend movements). For ATC when departing from Fairoaks, the helpful AFIS tower staff advised me to expect a seamless handover on departure to Farnborough who would provide a traffic service and co-ordinate my IFR airways join.
My route filed was the most efficient Autorouter could come up with, being VFR to near Dover where I’d join airways. The departure was indeed straightforward, but the Farnborough controller seemed confused with my request. A long dialogue, made worse by radio interference/tones, distracted me and I almost climbed into the TMA. I squeezed through the gap between Biggin Hill and Gatwick Zone (later finding out that negotiating an overhead transit with Biggin is both common and a far better idea). The Farnborough East controller was much more straightforward to deal with, negotiating my airways clearance within a few minutes so I could climb into more relative safety. Next time, I’ll remain VFR until east of Biggin and then ask for airways clearance.
As an aside, Fairoaks now has two “official” IFR departure routes – one via Goodwood (great if heading directly south or south west) and one via Compton for the north west. The Goodwood route is also used for northbound departures where they direct a climb then turn you north above Gatwick high enough to simplify conflicts with airliners. Eastbound traffic is best managed VFR until east of Gatwick, as I did.
Much of the flight was in haze, above the clouds or in IMC, so relatively little worth taking photos of. There was the usual hectic R/T in the London area, which then calmed down enormously after crossing into France. I captured a screenshot indicating we were never out of glide range when crossing the channel.
Rennes Approach was talking to an aircraft a few miles in front, also heading into Troyes. They requested vectors for the ILS and were told this was not available at weekends, despite the tower being manned by AFIS. At the same time, they were advised of ILS training activity although that had finished before they were in range. Our descent was controlled in stages and we proceeded through scattered clouds down to about 1000 feet AGL before visually picking up the runway. There is a warning not to confuse this with a four lane highway off to the west, although that seemed quite distinctive to me. Troyes tower had advised me that I was the only known traffic, and when on final instructed “report speed under control”. It took me a few seconds to realise they don’t tell you to “land at your discretion”, but report only after the landing has been completed successfully.
I was pleased with the light and smooth touchdown and we parked up right outside the tower/terminal. A friendly airport manager directed us to a special door for Non-Schengen arrrivals where the Douanes wanted to inspect our papers. There are now strict rules about pre-notification of arrivals (more than 24 hours in advance, and before 4pm Friday for any weekend activities). Fortunately, I was able to show them the email I had sent on Friday morning, although they didn’t seem to have been forwarded a copy. I was then able to unload, refuel at the self-service pump and pay directly by credit card.
There is a nice looking, modern cafe/restaurant onsite which seemed quite popular. In retrospect, we should have had our lunch there but instead called for a taxi into town. It took about 20 minutes to arrive and another 10-15 minutes to get to our hotel. We were too late for many of the restaurants which close for lunch at 2pm, but there were a number of alternatives.
We enjoyed a nice weekend despite it raining much of Saturday. There’s quite a lot to see, from the historic timber buildings, churches, abbey, museums and places to eat (from Michelin star to Subway). It’s also in the Champagne region, which featured highly on the restaurant menus and bars. A local delicacy is Prunelle, which tastes like something between Drambuie and Cognac.
Inbound back to Fairoaks
I’d been keeping a very close eye on the weather which looked difficult, with several fronts coming through. TAFs included reasonable cloudbase (for a VFR arrival) with some probability of thunderstorms at times. I decided to stick with my original plan to depart at 3pm local time and this proved a good decision, with the main front passing just ahead of us leaving clear skies behind. I was able to pre-flight and load the aircraft up before clearing passport control.
The tower was fully aware of my IFR flight plan and asked me to advise them 2 minutes prior to take-off for a departure clearance. I should have asked this immediately prior to power checks rather than after, so was instructed to backtrack and line-up during which advised my clearance was ready. Being single pilot, I can’t do both simultaneously, but no problem delaying that until checks complete. The clearance was for an omni-directional (VFR) departure then climbing northwards ontrack ARSIL to 4000 feet, expect to change to approach frequency at 2000 feet and squawk code. I tried not to rush my final “vital” checks, but despite writing down the clearance didn’t set the transponder until we were airborne.
It was very straightforward transfer over to Rennes Approach, with rapid consecutive climb clearances issued up to FL100. Above the clouds, nice sunshine, it all looked good, except there was some darker stuff directly ahead. I was given a clearance directly north to REM (Rennes) and we entered the soup. Although not bumpy, I requested an early shortcut/left turn. This would be permitted for short term weather avoidance but not granted for my main routing due to military zones to the west.
I was routed through a similar set of airways points as outbound, BILGO, then a long direct to LYD. A one point, we got a surprise right turn north 360 degrees for about 10 minutes then back to LYD. We were well inside UK airspace before Lille handed us over the London. I had doubted we would actually get our direct filed routing LYD to Farnborough, and indeed was quickly sent west.
It transpired that there was a hole in the runway at Gatwick, causing the airport to shut temporarily giving ATC a high workload re-routing airliners which were low on fuel. Our frequency was relatively quiet but you could tell there was a lot of pressure on the system. We were given headings to fly against the headwind down the English Channel and finally turned north west towards Goodwood at Seaford, still at FL100. Once at Goodwood things got much better, with a staged descent followed by handover to Farnborough and an almost direct track into Fairoaks. At 2400 feet, we were back in uncontrolled airspace and told to make our own navigation into the airfield. With only one other aircraft inbound, we made a straightforward arrival and circuit to land.
My initial 2 hour flight plan turned into about 2:45 airborne, but we had plenty of fuel onboard for contingency.
Fairoaks to Gloucester – After the thunderstorm
The last stage of my weekend was the short flight back to base at Gloucester. Thinking this would be the simplest, I briefly checked the rain radar and METARs/TAFs/NOTAMs. There was some nasty activity north of my route which looked as though it would clear by the time of my arrival.
I flew VFR down low at 2000 feet throughout, arriving to find the thunderstorm and nasty looking dark clouds just clearing to the east. Approaching from the south, I was initially given a direct join to 27 which I couldn’t sensibly self-position for (without penetrating the black stuff). After a little negotiation (with both me and a commercial flight inbound), the runway was changed to 09 and I made a simple right base join to land. The far end of the runway was like a swimming pool (so a nice wash for the underwings there), the re-fuelling area was submerged and even our hangar proved it wasn’t thunderstorm proof. I could have used some Wellington boots to park the aircraft.
All in all, a great weekend, despite the rainy weather. The IR made this possible but is still very much an ongoing learning experience. There is something about this flying activity that makes it like a treasure hunt, trying to find out the hidden rules and procedures you are supposed to comply with, the ones that actually work and the ones most relevant to your objective. But we had some happy passengers who enjoyed themselves and would come again, and that counts for a lot.
PIC this weekend: 6:45
Total PIC: 383:55
Total time: 522:20