Today was our last day and the weather again was still favourable for our trip home from Lübeck to Gloucester. I planned a stop in Groningen, Netherlands to clear border control and have our passports stamped. This is quite a friendly regional airport that has a permanent immigration and customs presence. We’d stop there for lunch in the café, which I checked was open until 1300 local, but did not plan not to travel into the city to explore.
Lübeck to Groningen
With both VFR flight plans filed and GAR forms submitted through GenDec.eu, we took the bus to Lübeck airport and stopped for a coffee before entering the GA office. After a thorough and efficient security check, we paid our landing fees, then walked out to our aircraft. Occasionally ATC ask if this will be an IFR or VFR departure (despite the flight plan being VFR), and it does feel good when they think it worthwhile to give you the option. I had decided to keep this simple, take advantage of the good weather and remain VFR.
I routed north of the Hamburg CTR which wasn’t a significant detour, staying below the Class D CTA, then flew direct to Groningen. We remained with Langen Information while in Germany and switched directly to Eelde Approach (the callsign for Groningen), operating on a combined tower/approach frequency, after crossing the border. With little or no traffic, we were simply told to report entering the control zone and position for a downwind join. It was very straightforward.
Groningen to Gloucester
A quick weather check of the rain radar showed nothing of concern, but the METARs and TAFs indicated a low broken cloudbase. I thought it likely I would have to make an instrument approach into Gloucester, the first of the trip.
Before departure, we had to get our passports inspected and stamped. We walked to the GA entrance alongside two officials who looked like they would be doing this. Only after chatting for a minute, and having explained how extensively we had travelled, did it transpire these were customs officers. This was my first customs inspection when flying GA in Europe. They had a thorough look inside the aircraft and our baggage, including opening my suitcase to have a good rummage around. We had no drugs or cigarettes and only one bottle of wine, but it’s always a relief when such an inspection is complete. A second pair of officers appeared, this time immigration, who compared our passports with the online form I had filled in at GenDec.eu, stamped them and declared us ready to depart.
There is far less controlled airspace at weekends in the north of the Netherlands. Strangely, while the lower limit is FL65 over land, this reduces to FL55 over the North Sea. Only when in the UK FIR can you climb almost as high as you like. After crossing the FIR boundary, I climbed and continued at FL65 then only descended after coasting in just south of Great Yarmouth.
By then, there was a thick cloud layer below us. We remained in calm air with good visibility and nobody else around us, enjoying a peaceful and relaxing final leg to our trip.
The Gloucester METAR indicated that an instrument approach into runway 09 would be likely, as I had expected. Once crossing the ridge, we heard local traffic arriving VFR and it might well have been possible to drop down for a quick and dirty join. I thought it safer simply to proceed as planned and flew the full RNP approach, just beating one of our club aircraft in on final to land. It’s always a relief to be back on home ground, and we were very fortunate with weather and absence of technical issues or other constraints.
Reflections on the trip
It is a great privilege to be able to fly a tour in this way. Although there are numerous constraints (weather, airspace restrictions, handling fees, opening times), there is a tremendous sense of success in overcoming them. We determined when and how far we would travel for each leg, and took time to explore and enjoy each destination. Most of the flying was remarkably straightforward, apart from one or two approaches were quite challenging with strong gusty crosswinds.
We were very fortunate with the weather throughout the trip. It could be argued that it had been favourable because we had actively chosen to fly where it would be good, and avoided Norway where it wasn’t. Nonetheless, it is hard to predict the weather two weeks ahead with much accuracy, and we could have got boxed in to the Baltics or had to endure some more challenging conditions. At least my Instrument Rating allowed us more options.
We had also been fortunate by not suffering any major technical problems. The couple of days when the autopilot refused to work were inconvenient, but not a serious constraint. I was current, having instructed regularly, including some IFR instruction, although I had not flown G-CORB extensively in recent months. My Instrument Rating had just been revalidated, and I considered myself instrument current.
My wife has been on many trips with me now, including our Vienna tour the previous year, and knows what to expect. She has been very supportive and understanding when plans change, often at short notice. But then we find ourselves in different countries and interesting places that we wouldn’t otherwise have visited, without the inconvenience of long road trips.
Shout outs for the trip would include:
- SkyDemon. I didn’t carry any paper charts except for the UK. The App includes updated charts for all European countries, including the full AIP and instrument approach plates. I downloaded these to both my iPad (and iPhone as back-up). The chart format is the same everywhere and has very useful detail level that increases as you zoom in. Pilot reports are often fairly recent and helpful. I used it to file all and manage all my VFR flight plans, using up almost all of my flight plan credits.
- Gendec.eu. Free website to file GAR forms for UK and Netherlands which includes a tracker ID to add to your flight plan that helps immigration by linking them together.
- Bolt taxi app. Uber might be very popular in the US and many other countries, but Bolt provided many cheap, convenient and good quality taxis with an easy to use interface. It also offers e-scooter and bike hire, and food delivery (which we didn’t use).
- Plusnet UK. One of the few mobile network providers that continue to include free roaming throughout Europe as part of their standard tariff. I didn’t incur any extra charges for my phone or tablet. Sadly, this provider has closed their services to new subscribers and migrating to EE.
- Bohema hotel in Bydgoszcz. We stayed in a variety of hotels but this was simply the best all round.
- Ivar, a friendly private pilot in Tartu, Estonia, who went out of his way to assist us and provide local knowledge.
- My aircraft group co-owners, who had ensured that the aircraft was fully fit and ready to fly, and didn’t object to my plans.
- All of the various aviation professionals who keep the wheels turning – including in no particular order: ATC, operations, fuellers, security, border control, flight planning etc. Apologies to those I might have overlooked.
- My wife who was tolerant of the frequent changes to plan and great company throughout.
Would I do anything differently next time? Probably nothing significant. It pays to do as much research beforehand as you can – everything from checking out potential airfields to identifying local hotels and attractions. I even flew some of the approaches on my simulator to get a feel of what to expect.
PIC Today: 2:55
Total PIC: 2042:35
Total Time: 2255:45