Today we would reach Tartu – our furthest destination after which it would be ‘downhill’ all the way home. It would also add a new country for me, Estonia, which borders Russia. I had researched landing at Tallinn airport, which although a capital city, isn’t particularly busy. Sadly there is a mandatory 500 Euro handling fee which ruled that out. A popular alternative is Parnu to the south west, which takes about 1h45 on the bus to the capital, but does have IFR instrument approaches and welcomes GA. Rapla, a grass airfield directly south of Tallinn, advertises a range of aviation activities including gliding and paradropping alongside fixed wing. An email clarified that there are two runways, one for gliders and the other for fixed wing, and confirmed that I would be welcome to land and park there. However transport connections are more limited and the field may not be manned during weekdays.
Tartu, one of the few university cities of Estonia, has a commercial airport with relatively little traffic – up to 98% of flights are for training. Some research uncovered that daylight VFR movements may be permitted even when the tower is closed, landing fees are reasonable, AVGAS and instrument approaches are available. The FISO service is remotely provided from Tallinn, but only during hours published by NOTAM. I made contact with a local GA pilot based there who was very helpful in explaining what to expect.
There was so much to see in Tartu and Tallinn that we planned to stay a total of three nights in Estonia, and I checked the longer range forecast ahead to ensure we wouldn’t be ‘boxed in’ to the Baltic countries by weather and Swedish military restrictions. We would have to fly through the narrow gap between Belarus and Kaliningrad (an isolated coastal enclave of Russia) to return via Poland.
Turku to Tartu
At Turku, I visited the airport information desk on the departures floor where I filled in a form to request an invoice for my landing fee. This can only be sent by post (a method popular in many of the airports I had visited on this trip). There is a small area set aside for GA self-briefing including a computer terminal. Then it’s back down to the GA exit, (marked with a small C), press the buzzer and walk out to the apron. With a commercial WizzAir flight being boarded, I was escorted outside and the staff kept a close eye on us as we walked back to our plane to ensure we remained clear. But thankfully there was no security scanner requirement since we didn’t mix or go anywhere near the commercial activity.
The Wizz Air flight was cleared to depart just as we were ready to taxi, and after lining up they asked for bird scaring action at the far end of the runway. Perhaps they’d read the recent report of an incident of bird ingestion into one engine of a departing aircraft (Sully into the Hudson was very rare because it disabled both engines). The WizzAir had taken off before we reached the hold and a DA42 was performing touch and goes. Our departure clearance was initially via a departure point that I couldn’t quickly pronounce to readback. So I asked and was recleared via EVEKE to the southeast which suited me fine, but not above 1,200 feet and was allocated a squawk.
The wind was again highly variable but not nearly as strong or turbulent as the two day earlier. It was good to be able to climb once clear of the controlled airspace. Turku tower informed me when I was outside controlled airspace and said goodbye. I asked for a suggestion on who to contact next but there was no reply. I climbed to 2,200 feet (the TMA begins at 2,500) and this kept me below some lurking rain clouds. Helsinki Radar seemed like a good idea to talk to, and they confirmed that there was no traffic to affect and pointed out a couple of restricted areas off to the side that I needed to avoid but already knew about.
I decided to remain at 2,200 for the crossing although it wouldn’t have been a problem asking for a climb. The time over the water was only about 10-15 minutes – a strong tailwind increased our groundspeed to 160 knots at times. We were handed over to Tallinn approach in good time, who confirmed that our route would take us close to a couple of restricted airspace areas and asked what our plan to avoid was – vertical or horizontal. Once satisfied, a clearance came quickly. I later asked to descend so we could orbit over the Jägala Waterfalls – a popular tourist attraction to the east of the capital. The tourist brochures make this look like Niagara Falls, but let’s just say it would be considered a very diminutive cousin. It is about 50 metres wide.
The countryside here is again quite flat, not quite as wooded as Sweden or Finland, with isolated spots of highly cultivated lush green grass interspersed between larger areas of what looked like marshland. Few farm animals were visible in the fields.
Tartu ATIS confirmed the expected runway 26 in use, wind again quite variable and gusty. Tower operates as a FISO rather than full ATC, so just confirmed the ATIS runway and QNH but didn’t give any instructions on how I should approach or UK-style “land at your discretion”. I announced inbound via reporting point LALVI for a downwind right hand join for 26 and flew this, being given a wind status on final, then parking instructions on the ground.
I asked for the fuel pump, and several ground crew came out because the credit card machine was out of service.
A friendly English speaking member of staff took down my details (you guessed it, I will be sent an invoice in the post for the landing fee), but did take card payment for the fuel which was quite pricey.
Ivar, a local GA pilot, met us and explained how everything works here. The airport is secure, but accessible for GA with a sensible and practical approach. Pilots based there have their own security passes so can gain access 24/7, while visitors need to be buzzed in and out, and escorted if there are commercial movements. Hangarage is available on request. Ivar was very helpful and welcoming, both before and during our visit, and I am very grateful for his assistance and local knowledge/insight.
A few GA aircraft were parked out on the apron. Training is available locally, but much requires a visit to Tallinn (two hours away by road). For example, even PPL theory exams can only be taken at the test centre there. Ivar explained how he had trained for a TMG, then later PPL licence, subsequently flying to countries nearby; one expedition reached the north coast of Norway and another as far as Italy. There aren’t a huge number of private pilots in the country, perhaps fewer than 100, so everybody knows each other and they are all supportive.
We stayed one night in Tartu and briefly explored the town centre. As a University town, it’s quite lively and modern.
Next day we explored Tartu a little more, then took a train to the capital. There’s a choice between buses (which run every 30 minutes) and trains (every hour or two), with a similar ticket price of 10-15 Euros. Car hire or taxi are also options. We travelled through a lot of forested countryside; many birch trees were interspersed with conifers. The train was modern, electric and all the stations looked in good condition. There were no ticket barriers; tickets can be bought at the station, online/via an app (with discount), or on the train itself. A ticket collector checked our bar codes on the train.
Tallinn is a popular tourist destination. Our first experience was the large market next to the railway station, which was lively and had a wide range of products on offer. We had lunch in a small cafe owned by a South African – Cape Town Cafe – which was quite an unexpected and enjoyable find. The bobotie pies were outstanding!
The city has many tourist attractions and museums, souvenir shops and restaurants. English is widely spoken. We used BOLT (the local version of Uber) and would recommend it for very low cost taxis; they also offer scooter hire and even delivery take-aways. Our hotel was close to Freedom Square, where the so-called Singing Revolution had secured independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
We walked all around the upper and lower town, outside the parliament building (they have just 100 MPs here, all voted in by proportional representation). Dinner was a slightly quirky medieval experience at the Olde Hansa; reading the lengthy descriptions on the menu was hard work by candlelight, but the food was satisfyingly good.
The next morning we walked around the harbour and along the seafront, then visited the Kadriorg Palace, originally built in 1715 by Peter the Great as a summer palace for his wife; it later became the residence of the head of state. It is now an art museum with an eclectic range of art works, including a copy of the Venus de Milo and some outstanding local paintings. We then used BOLT (the local version of Uber) and would recommend it, for low cost, (almost) instant taxis; they also offer scooter hire and even deliver take-aways.
I spent an hour or two at the seaplane museum, and was surprised there was only one to view. Although housed inside the large concrete domes originally constructed as a seaplane hangar, the museum itself is mainly nautical and includes one of Estonia’s two original submarines as its prime exhibit. The First-World-War seaplane, a replica of a Short’s 184, was the first aircraft to sink a ship using a torpedo.
There are many more museums in the city – possibly a few too many – and I draw the line at one dedicated to marzipan.
We took the train back to Tartu and stayed overnight to prepare for our next flight to Latvia. Our hotel had the very relaxing bonus of a sauna complex, which we enjoyed the following morning before departure.
PIC today: 1:40
Total PIC: 2032:50
Total time: 2246:00