The first day of our two week European tour in my TB20, circumnavigating the Alps via Vienna and Venice.
This holiday trip evolved from discussion with my wife who wanted to visit friends in Vienna and was also keen to fit in some beach time. I wanted to fly to our destinations by plane and include some more unusual places to stopover.
So I spent some time researching the current requirements for international travel around Europe and came up with a fairly ambitious plan to circumnavigate the Alps. Once within the Schengen zone, there are now few restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated. Flight plans are generally required between countries, but there are almost no passport control or immigration checks. A few countries retain PLFs (Passenger Locator Forms) but this is diminishing. The key requirement for British travellers is to enter and exit the Schengen zone via an official port of entry and have your passport stamped (although there are workarounds if that hasn’t been done).
Flexibility would be key, especially for the weather, and this was fully appreciated both by the crew and our hosts. I didn’t book any hotels in advance apart from today’s, which I could cancel for free up to 6pm.
Today’s final destination is the beautiful city of Bamberg in south east Germany and involved one of the longest daily flight times of the trip. The weather forecast looked pretty good, albeit some low cloud in the early morning due to clear around 9am local plus some smattering of rain clouds towards the end of our second leg.
Gloucester to Middelburg
I considered several Belgian airports en-route for a lunchstop to clear Schengen immigration, including Antwerp (airport cafe closed) and Ostend (been there a few times recently) and Kortrijk. The good weather forecast allowed me to choose Middelburg, a grass airfield in the very far south-eastern corner of the Netherlands. Immigrations/customs is available with just 1 hour notice – staff are based at the nearby Vlissingen ferry port. Dutch COVID travel regulations had been relaxed on 20 April, with no forms to fill in for those fully vaccinated. A flight plan and GAR form was required for our international departure from the UK side, and a GAR form also submitted in advance to the Dutch authorities.
I had considered making this an IFR airways flight, but given that our initial destination was VFR only I thought it more efficient to route almost direct at around 5000 feet VFR, remaining below controlled airspace at 5,500 and providing the flexibility to route around any weather. The lower altitude reduced our glide range and thus extended our time outside glide range over the North Sea.
I had flown the aircraft a couple of days before on a short trip to Tatenhill with John, a co-owner. We had recently had both main gear tyres replaced, and also wanted to double check the engine performance after the magnetos had been serviced, repaired and recalibrated. The aircraft was refuelled, cleaned and prepared beforehand.
Having prepped the aircraft a couple of days earlier, it was quick to pre-flight and make an early start. Some low cloud early morning was starting to dissipate, reported as few at 1200 feet and overcast at 4,300. As we taxied out, the controller asked if I wanted to depart IFR or VFR. I initially opted for VFR, explaining that I expected to switch to IFR fairly quickly thereafter to penetrate the cloud. I later changed my mind and asked to depart IFR.
In the UK, this makes really very little difference when outside controlled airspace without a radar service. The pilot can decide to switch between VFR and IFR on a whim without telling anybody. It is expected that IFR flights would squawk 2000 (rather than 7000) and fly at an appropriate IFR altitude (odd or even thousands or Flight Levels). Departing IFR from Gloucester (non-Radar ATC) I was given a procedural service, a track to fly (not a heading) and an altitude to climb to. Separation is provided from other known IFR traffic being given a procedural service from the same controller. There was little other traffic around.
An advantage of departing VFR or even IFR under a Basic Service is that it would be entirely up to me what altitude and heading I flew. It’s hard to know what to expect in terms of cloud tops, especially if there are cloud layers. I think I probably would have levelled off between 3,000 and 4,000 VFR on top if I had not been under the procedural service. Instead I climbed up to 5000 and we flew in and out of cloud. We were positively handed over to Oxford Radar which was nice, and given a traffic service – a few aircraft were called out but we didn’t see them.
Thereafter, we were on our own. I freecalled Cranfield in case they had other traffic in the area, then listening squawks for Luton and Stansted. As I switched to Stansted, I heard the controller explaining to an airliner that their routing or descent would be slightly modified because of traffic at 5,000 feet (i.e. me) but there was no need to speak to me directly. It would seem that even traffic outside controlled airspace is taken into account when separating traffic inside.
We were VFR for most of the journey although visibility was reduced in a murky haze for much of the time.
London Information took note of our routing and expected time for the FIR zone boundary, prompting us to switch to Amsterdam Info before XAMAN on the FIR boundary. It was still fairly murky over the channel, so we couldn’t see the Dutch coastline until less than 10 miles out by which time I had started my descent. I remained with Amsterdam Info until within glide range, then switched to Middelburg Radio. Runway 09, little wind, no other traffic. A straight in approach beckoned, but I kept it fairly high with a steeper final approach to reduce noise impact. The 1000 metre+ grass strip is very level and in excellent condition, flattering my landing. The sun was out and we felt jubilant at successfully completing the first leg of our journey.
Two immigration officers were already walking out to the aircraft as we shut down, quickly and politely inspecting our passports and pleased that I could give them a printed copy of their GENDEC form. A quick check of other date stamps confirmed we hadn’t been in Europe recently for more than the permitted three months. One thoughtfully checked his stamp worked on his bare arm first, then apologised that it was a ship stamp rather than an airport one – I really hadn’t noticed there was a difference before.
Lunch in the airfield diner was excellent, sitting outside in the wind protected area with great views of the runway. Airport staff were friendly and helpful, confirming they would open our flight plan on departure. Facilities were all modern, clean and efficient.
Middelburg to Bamburg
Our second leg was to Bamburg in south west Germany. This had required PPR to arrange for someone to come and man the radio in the tower for a small fee. It is legally not permitted to land at a German airfield without a “flugleiter” present – some responsible person who could call for assistance in case of an accident. The airfield is very active at weekends, but operates only on-request during the week. My request was made a week in advance and confirmed a couple of days before departure.
Planning our departure from Middelburg into a wall of controlled airspace and danger areas in the east of Belgium made me want to file IFR and make getting clearance to transit someone else’s problem. That had incurred much greater difficulty than I expected. A few days prior, I had used the popular and excellent Autorouter tool to suggest a valid IFR route from a range of possibilities. When filing it, the tool warned me that LVLV (the Netherlands ATC provider) doesn’t support “Z” flight plans filed through ICAO standard methods, so another way of filing the plan was required. Forums suggested that either telephoning LVL directly or using the German DFS should work. I opted for the German DFS, signing up for a free account, filling in my aircraft profile and then trying to copy across the Autorouter flight plan. I made a mistake with the IFR entry point which wasn’t part of the route but the result was a phone call from a nice lady in the German ARO who clarified what I needed and resubmitted a corrected plan.
As we know to expect, the flight plan you file and the route that ATC deliver are two quite different things. There will be some helpful shortcuts, but perhaps one or two longer diversions.
In this case, the results were really quite radically different as you can see below:
What I still find quite hard is to figure out the likely vertical extent of the cloud layer. Tools like GRAMET and Skew-T help visualise that, but since you aren’t sure what route you might take this adds uncertainty to what is already a bit of a black art.
Departure was pretty straightforward and I quickly made contact with Amsterdam control, having been given a squawk code and frequency by Middelburg while on the ground. I was told to climb to 5,000 towards NIK and expect higher once in Belgian controlled airspace.
Subsequent waypoints were given which I had a little trouble understanding and had to ask for spelling. BRUNO is actually BUN (a VOR, not the waypoint in South America). LNO was obvious. Reenix (as spoken) turned out to be RINEX. Once I had the right spelling, these were all found quite easily on the Garmin GTN but I was surprised that SkyDemon struggled to find one or two. I discovered that the search function is case sensitive, so you need to enter airways waypoints in capital letters. I like to do a gross error check on screen with both before committing and risk heading off somewhere into the unknown. Where they are co-located with VORs, I like to dial that in also on NAV/COM 2 and confirm that the track matches up.
I was asked what altitude/flight level I wanted and reqeuested FL90, but was given FL70 initially. After some minutes outside cloud at that level, I indicated that FL70 would suffice and the controller confirmed this would also be convenient for them. By this time we were approaching the busy Brussels airport area before being turned east.
Once in Germany we were given the longer RINEX leg by Langen Radar and proceeded further south west. The cloud became more frequent and a little darker, resulting in some turbulence. Sometimes this lasted only briefly and at other times for a few minutes. Outside air temperature was close to zero. The cloud top level was hard to determine. The ground below was clear and we thought that descending one or two thousand feet should improve matters greatly.
I asked for 5,000 feet for weather and was given FL60 immediately with the implication that lower would follow later. We found that FL60 was quite comfortable and said so to the controller, whose life was probably made easier by that decision.
I waited until just past the Frankfurt-Hahn controlled airspace before asking to cancel IFR. This was confirmed, squawk 7000 and call Langen Information. There was no active handover, so I needed to explain myself anew, and was given another squawk. There was little other traffic on frequency, so we proceeded quite calmly around controlled airspace avoiding any clouds as required.
A call to Bamberg Info confirmed the 03 runway in use as expected and that a left base join for noise abatement would be appropriate. No other traffic. While flying directly over the city is discouraged, it is necessary to fly the base leg and the initial final over a built-up industrial area before the large grass area opens ahead.
We parked up on the grass just off the taxiway. A quick visit to the tower confirmed our plan to stay overnight, and the ability to present our ICAO noise certificate qualified for a reduced landing fee. A taxi was called and in a few minutes we had checked in at our city centre hotel, with time to look around in the sunshine before dinner.
Some tourist snaps from our walking tour of Bamberg…
Flight time: Gloucester to Middelburg: 2:00
Flight time: Middelburg to Bamberg: 2:35