My turn for the TB20 at Gloucester this weekend, and I was considering a weekend overnight expedition to France. My daughters were both keen to come, but since my wife was booked at another event we agreed to take one boyfriend in the spare seat.
Flight planning to France seems to be less about what route to take – Autorouter.eu works that out in seconds – and more about researching destination Immigration and Handling formalities. Tours is a medium-sized city (population 135,000 and capital of the Loire region) and served by several low cost airlines (Ryanair, FlyBe, HOP). The airport serves both military and civilian traffic. The AIP confirmed it’s AFIS in the tower only but does have an ILS approach. A phone number is given for Douanes (Customs) but I much prefer some written evidence, so sent an email instead and got no reply.
Our clearance on the ground at Gloucester was better than usual – London cleared me to enter controlled airspace in the climb to FL80 on-track MALBY. I’ve often gotten a clearance for level entry (which is difficult to climb to before 5 miles north where controlled airspace begins) or even a “remain outside”.
We were at max weight with four onboard and almost full tanks, but well within balance limits which are arguably more important. I find fuller tanks helps bring the balance forward and reduce the need for max forward trim after take-off.
As is often the case, I was switched immediately to radar headings once in the airways, tactically being directed around many other aircraft which remained unseen.
A while after a “turn right 10 degrees” replacing a “Direct Goodwood”, we did see one EasyJet descending across our bow (about 1300 to 1500 feet above when directly ahead). This was picked up by our PilotAware box and displayed on SkyDemon below.
Once past Goodwood, we got some good “direct-to” waypoints and crossed the channel at FL100 to Le Havre. I had to prompt ATC a couple of times to confirm onward clearance as we approached the next cleared waypoint.
As you can see, our standard flight plan had a strange routing when just north of the airfield. This would have added some 30 miles and 15 minutes to our flight. I was hoping for a shortcut. Once it became clear that this was the case, I asked for an initial descent. The regional controller warned me that Radar Control Service would terminate below about FL70 and handed me over to AFIS in Tours Tower (a strange sounding name when you pronounce it) with about 20 miles to go and no other traffic reported.
“Are you looking for a straight in ILS for 20?”. Yes please. With great visibility we could see the runway many miles ahead and picked up the ILS signal early. It warned me I was well above the glideslope and required an enthusiastic descent (say up to 1000 feet per minute) to acquire. With perhaps 10 miles still to run, I was advised “Number One”. I find that AFIS in France often don’t say “Land at your discretion” as I’m used to in the UK, but instead use other terms that imply the same thing.
Airborne time was around 2:20.
After a straightforward approach and landing, we taxied directly to the fuel pumps on the main apron. Someone quickly appeared and provided fuel using our TOTAL card (but I think we could equally have paid by credit card) and directed to park in the corner. There was certainly plenty of space. We were then driven to the commercial arrival gate and presented our passports for inspection, and walked straight outside.
I’ve compressed the flight into a short video of 1:30 below
There’s a car hire desk outside the airport, ideal if you wanted to tour the area for a few days. Taxis are also visible, although it is said they are more likely to be there only when commercial flights are due. Instead we walked about 5-10 mins and crossed a roundabout to a park-and-ride which had a spanking new tram service. Every 10 mins into town for €1.60. Very pleasant.
We stayed in the city centre next the main railway station. There are three Accor group hotels – Mercure, Ibis and Ibis Budget – and you can any choose to suit your budget. One great feature for all of them is the ability to cancel free of charge up to 6pm on the day of arrival – ideal for pilots where weather, technical and other issues can disrupt plans.
It was much warmer and sunnier than the UK – some 30 degrees regularly most days in the past few weeks. The river level was quite low, so boat trips weren’t running. There’s even a beach.
We walked around the Old Quarter – lots of historic buildings of various shapes and sizes – plenty to grab your interest. We enjoyed a crepe at the Place Plumereau, a very lively square with pleasant live jazz, coffee shops and bars.
By chance, we had chosen to stay during their annual street festival/market, called a Braderie, which closed off much of the main streets and was extremely popular. It livened up the atmosphere and added to the attraction.
Tours to Gloucester
Departing from a foreign airport is often full of surprises. We had been told to report by a door with a buzzer under the tower when we were due to depart. It wasn’t marked in any way and was our third choice, but our button press was quickly responded to by it being remotely unlocked. We walked into a small reception area where two Douanes were waiting to check our passporrts. I paid the reasonable landing fee, we all took our last toilet break and walked out to the apron.
I called for start although I suspect AFIS wasn’t that interested until we were ready to taxi. That’s when they’d request our departure clearance. The wind was about 8 knots from the south and I was initially given “runway at your discretion”, with a strong hint that a northbound departure would be a sensible idea. There was certainly no shortage of runway here. My departure clearance was direct to KOVAK FL80.
There is a slight right turn for noise abatement, then by 2000 feet I was talking to the regional controller. I confess to a slight distraction during the latter stages of the climb which caused me to exceed FL80 by a small margin, quickly corrected and fortunately when outside controlled airspace.
The Paris sector next, which was quite busy. The controller sent me heading north west towards CAN (Caen), probably to get me out of the way. Although outside controlled airspace for a time, there was no fuss or clearance to re-enter. Once talking to Deauville, I got a direct SITET on the UK/French border. Nothing much for some time, then as I got closer to SITET I planned to request further clearance but the radio was busy. I guess I was probably overlooked and with me nearing UK airspace, given a left turn to ANGLO for a few minutes while co-ordinating with London Control.
Once handed over to the team at Swanwick, I was turned 90 degrees right to DRAKE, then Goodwood (GWC) and climbed to FL90. The next sector cleared me to Compton (CPT), and a further sector negotiated with Brize for my exit and return to Gloucester. I was kept on a radar heading for about 5-10 minutes, then cleared direct to Gloucester and could start my descent. Brize Zone gave me a traffic service (there wasn’t much about) and asked me what type of approach I required. Since I hadn’t heard the ATIS I couldn’t say, so they helpfully relayed that to me. VFR conditions all round, so I planned for a direct join. I was handed over with the field in sight.
My initial descent was late, so I was still a bit hot and high (I think about 3000 feet at 5 miles). Adjusting from a 10,000 feet cruise into the VFR circuit is quite a change and its easy to overcook it. A bit like leaving a fast motorway into suburban traffic. In retrospect I should have just asked for a standard overhead VFR join. Let’s say my descent rate and airspeed were quite enthusiastic. Often it’s quiet at that time of the evening (6pm) but as luck had it, there were three aircraft all wanting to land at the same time.
ATC did their best to fit me in ahead of the landing commercial traffic but sensibly had me orbit when on right base for sequencing. That worked out well and gave me a bit more time for a stable final approach and landing.
Return airborne flight time was around 2:40 due to strong (20-30 knot) headwinds.
It was nice to escape the grotty weather in the UK, enjoy some French culture and cuisine and share the weekend away with the youngsters. They might not have been that interested in the flying itself, but appreciated the benefits of a direct personal flight. There is no other viable means of making a short weekend trip to a smaller city abroad.
PIC time this weekend: 5:25
Total PIC: 421:35
Total Time: 560:00