It would be about an hour’s VFR flight from Tartu (Estonia) to Riga (Latvia) – a little longer than a direct flight due to military restricted zones. I looked into which airport to use there. Riga international has a poor reputation from GA pilot reports: it is considered expensive with poor service, long delays and no AVGAS. Spilve is the GA-only airport close to the city centre, but requires careful preparation and prompt PPR. I filled in the Google form and received a positive reply fairly quickly, asking that I read the AIP thoroughly. My local contact at Tartu had warned there was no AVGAS currently available there, but I had refuelled at Tartu so didn’t need any. I filed a VFR flight plan the night before, including the PPR number in the remark section as instructed. Fairly quickly, I received a call from Tallinn flight planning office, asking me on behalf of Riga ATC if I was OK with adding a waypoint of CLUB into the flight plan. This is the entry point into the Spilve ATZ. I had thought about doing so when filing, but since this isn’t officially an ICAO waypoint had left it out. The flight planner added it in for me – I would have no way of doing that myself without cancelling and refiling – and it was good to know it had been accepted by Riga ATC.
After a relaxing morning in Tartu, we took a Bolt taxi to the airport – very similar to Uber, but quite a bit cheaper here – less than 10 Euros for a 15-minute drive. The security guard checked our ID and let us out to the apron, where just one other GA aircraft was moving around.
I called the FISO for taxi and departure, and it worked just like anywhere else, including assigning a squawk and opening my flight plan. What isn’t obvious is that the service is provided remotely from Tallinn. There are no warnings or announcements to say so, and frankly no need for them. One could imagine a whole host of caveats and warnings if this was done in the UK.
After leaving the Tartu airspace, I switched to Tallinn, who were fairly quiet and handling the airliner traffic inbound and outbound from the country. There was little to say until near the border when I switched to Riga information. They seemed a little brusque, stating the QNH and instructing me to remain outside controlled airspace. I didn’t say anything else to them until switching to Spilve.
Avoiding controlled airspace here needs careful concentration; initially remaining above 3,000 feet above a restricted area then descending and remaining below 3,000, and subsequently 1,500 ft underneath the Riga TMA, but above the 1,000 feet ATZ of Adazi. This involves being a little low over the water just north of Riga, but the air was much smoother there than over the land so it was not a problem. All seemed to go to plan, and I suspect it must have been a lot more difficult to get this right in the days before SkyDemon.
On switching to Spilve and making traffic announcements, I heard nobody else. I did double check I was on the correct frequency, which had changed fairly recently. We spotted a Cessna a little way off and took slight avoiding action – I was surprised not to hear it on frequency – and on reflection think it might have been based at Adazi.
We flew the Bridge arrival for Spilve which was quite exciting to say the least. You need to remain within the lateral and vertical limits of the Spilve ATZ while avoiding terrain and keeping a close eye out for other aircraft. There are several fairly high towers – the radio and TV tower is about 1,300 ft tall – as well as shipyard cranes. The airfield itself wasn’t immediately obvious until on base leg. I had setup the GTN and HSI to give visual approach guidance which helped, and also chose to make a slightly steeper approach for terrain clearance. As it happened, after the Cessna had followed us briefly it routed away from Spilve and I saw no other airborne aircraft during the approach and landing.
Our Garmin voice was constantly warning about terrain and obstacles ahead – Pull Up, Pull Up!
Speeded up 3 minute video of approach and landing….
The touchdown was fine and we found the taxiways didn’t have the potholes or loose chippings that had been reported in the past. However there was quite a bit of grass and dandelions growing through the runway and taxiways – this airfield just doesn’t appear to have the income to fund more maintenance. A car was waiting towards the end of the taxiway and showed us the route to our parking spot. The marshaller asked us to pay the landing and parking fee in cash which we did; he then drove off but returned a few minutes later with a printed receipt; he showed us where to exit by foot, and left us to it.
We took another Bolt taxi to our hotel on the edge of the city centre. It wouldn’t have been worth taking one much closer into town because of the heavy traffic. At this time of year, hotel prices here are remarkably cheap and I felt we got a very reasonable deal.
Riga has quite a different feel compared with Tallinn. I felt that Tallinn had many more attractions for tourists and that more of the population spoke English. For example, the main museum was displayed mostly in Latvian with an English guidebook as an alternative. This wasn’t quite what I had expected, thinking that Riga would have a more clearly defined old centre, though there are a few interesting landmarks, such as the national library.
The next day my wife organised a walking tour of the city which took most of the day, including everything from the market to various churches, various squares, monuments and the city museum. We went up the tower of St Peter’s church, 65m high, to get a great view of the city and some of the more prominent buildings.
I took a quick trip by bus to the airport to buy some oil from the maintenance organisation based there – I had found the wrong type onboard when I went to use it the previous day. I would thoroughly recommend Aero Restoration which is an EASA Part 145 organisation. Entering their hangar was a bit like Dr Who’s tardis – quite a contrast with the unkempt buildings outside – and clearly a well-run, highly organised, clean and efficient workshop.
PIC today: 1:15
Total PIC: 2034:05
Total Time: 2247:15
Brilliant! You’re the only other G-reg I’ve come across whose been to Spilve, or to S. Darius for that matter. Once, on the ground at Kaunus, an airline crew strolled over while I was refuelling and the captain said to the FO: “Look – this chap got here all by himself!”
I had trouble getting my head through the terminal door after that!
This trip pushed the boundaries for me, but it was satisfying when all that training and research makes this possible.