Saturday was to be a busy day for flying, first a local flight with our hosts followed by a hop across the mountains to the south east to land at the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana. I had been keeping a close eye on the weather and wasn’t definitively able to say whether we’d fit in a local VFR flight or not. I had originally planned to fly in the morning but saw that late afternoon looked best, and did my best to set everyone’s expectations.
The cloudbase seemed to be variable in the general area, but METARs reported better than earlier forecasts, particularly in the local Vienna area. The circuit height of 1,600 feet at Voslau was a particular constraint, since even a simple circuit there requires a significantly higher cloudbase than elsewhere.
Beforehand, our hosts treated us to lunch at a “Heuriger” – an eastern Austrian tavern where local winemakers serve their new wine under a special licence in alternate months during the growing season. There were quite a few in the local area, but they are very popular and are regulated to open only for set number of days. A timetable records which are open on any particular day, and each displays a bush outside (some also with lights) to advertise when they are open. It seemed to me that the focus was more on the food than the wine, which was all of very high quality, and much appreciated.
Local flight from Voslau
I took our hosts and their daughter for a short flight to the north. There were only a couple of aircraft airborne that afternoon, initially making me wonder whether conditions were sufficient for VFR. The contrast with the busy arrival helped make the flight more relaxed and enjoyable for everyone – I even managed to fly over their house although it lies fairly close to controlled airspace. Since I am unfamiliar with the local airspace, I thought it best to contact Wien Info so they could keep an eye on me but little needed to be said. Entering and flying the circuit for runway 31 seemed much easier, with adequate time to descend and fly what is a fairly convoluted track to avoid residential areas below. Although only a 30 minute flight, it was quite an experience and much appreciated.
My next task was to fill up with fuel. I found that the self-service pumps at Voslau limited each credit card transaction to about 40 litres of AVGAS, so it required four cycles to fill up. I now have a bunch of receipts time-stamped about three minutes apart. What’s more, my card limit was hit twice for each transaction but thankfully that wasn’t an issue and it resolved itself in a few days.
A member of airport staff gave me a form to fill in with my details, even though I’d supplied them via email for (international) PPR beforehand. Invoices are not paid in person but sent subsequently. When it was sent from Vienna airport finance department, it was incorrect and had to be challenged. The whole system is really quite inefficient and error-prone.
Departing VFR vs IFR
The GAFOR weather forecast indicated that VFR to Ljubljana would be “difficult” and so I fully expected to have to fly IFR. I had also filed an alternate of Graz, about 30 minutes south and we would have been quite happy to divert there, either VFR or IFR. While there is a published SID for Voslau, it initially appears complicated with a 44-page mandatory briefing, requires two 8.33 radios*, and I wasn’t immediately able to file this as a departure using Autorouter. I checked that the AIP allowed me to upgrade to IFR provided that I had an active (VFR) flight plan, so intended to use that option while in Class E airspace. It’s not ideal, and in retrospect would have been better to have IFR from the outset – both from my perspective as a pilot and for ATC who would now have a surprise IFR pickup sprung on them.
[Update November 2022: After asking Austria’s GA regulator in May whether my single GTN 650 radio would be legal for this departure, I received a reply six months later confirming that it was. This is because it could monitor a second frequency, although strongly recommending that two independent radios are carried in case one fails.]
About 10 minutes after departure, I could see the cloudbase (of about 3,000-4,000 feet) would be closing in to the south, so requested IFR pickup when in Class E airspace. The response from Wien Info was “Roger, Goodbye” which wasn’t quite what I anticipated. I asked for another frequency and was told to contact Wien Radar for IFR. This I did and they had already received my IFR pickup request. Since I was below IFR cruising altitude, I was asked to climb south east VFR to 7,000 feet. Looking outside, I couldn’t physically do that without penetrating clouds – I could have quietly accepted this and turned a blind eye to entering IMC which would have expedited the flight. Instead, I reported “unable” and limited to about 4,000 feet. A revised clearance was to head east and climb 7,000, with a very early turn onto a heading of 170 and then own navigation to my next waypoint.
This was all fairly hard work, hand flown while keeping a close eye on the manifold pressure and engine temps. We were in and out of cloud but there was no turbulence. Icing wasn’t a factor. Once settled en-route, we felt much more comfortable and safe than potentially scud running anywhere close to mountainous terrain, even with the odd bump or two from turbulence.
We were seamlessly handed over to Graz Radar and then Ljubljana Radar. A climb to 8,000 was required to reach minimum sector altitude, then a couple of shortcuts ending with DOL (a VOR to the east of the airport). I don’t recall actually being told to expect vectors for the ILS, but the ATIS did state that was what was in use and it was implicitly obvious. Perhaps surprisingly for the airport of a national capital, there is an ILS only at one runway end – more of that later.
I asked for initial descent from 8,000 feet with about 20 miles to run, and this was a little late even with an airfield elevation of 1700 ft. The Final Approach Fix for the ILS is at 4,000 which gave me something around 12 miles to descend 4,000 feet. I was asked to make best speed, with a Swissair flight being sequenced some minutes behind me. I descended at around 1,000 fpm at 150 knots, aware of the risk that you can capture the ILS glideslope before slowing down to below gear operating speed. The consequence is that you can’t slow down further, can’t get the gear down and end up having to go around. The faster descent rate ensured I did have enough time, and we were stable on the ILS for our usual 110 knot descent with gear down and first stage of flaps. I let the autopilot to make the intercept and it overshot slightly, then recovered in good time. Once established, a quick frequency change to tower resulted in an immediate clearance to land. As he said that, I could hear in the background the familiar click and shuffle of my flight information strip being moved across to the next slot.
At about four miles out, we could see mountainous terrain at our level on both sides, and it was closer to 3 miles out before the main runway and PAPIs emerged. There’s no (safe) way this flight could have been completed VFR, so we were pleased to have been able to make full use of the system. In retrospect, it’s unfortunate that I hadn’t just picked up IFR directly from Voslau on departure. Where procedures become non-standard and/or overly complex, they can become self defeating and even with the best intentions end up reducing safety.
After landing, a Follow-Me vehicle escorted us a short way and then marshalled us to our parking spot on the GA apron. A minibus arrived immediately and waited patiently while we decanted our luggage and put the cover on. The short ride to the GA office then passes through the secure area, so we had a full security check before walking outside to the taxi rank.
It’s about 30 minutes by taxi to central Ljubljana, and the taxi driver was very helpful in explaining (and promoting) the attractions of this capital city. It’s safe to walk around (low crime rate), yet seems to have quite a lively nightlife around the main riverbank, plenty of tourist attractions, and is relatively low cost for those from western Europe. Once part of Yugoslavia, it became independent in the 1990s and is now a full EU member, inside Schengen and uses Euro currency. For example, a large glass of wine and medium beer in our 4 star city centre hotel bar cost €6.
After checking in at our hotel, we strolled around the city centre, recalling that only a few hours earlier we had been having lunch in Vienna. There’s a noticeable Italian flavour, given that the city lies half way between Venice and Vienna. I took advantage of that by indulging in a very authentic Italian ice cream – the proper stuff they serve from metal tins.
Flight Time (Local Flight): 0:30
Flight Time Voslau to Ljubljana: 1:20