Balkan Tour 2024 – Part 1 – Karlovy Vary

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After our successful Baltic tour last year, I booked our TB20 aircraft share for a similar two week holiday with my wife again this year. Various directions were possible – Europe has so much to offer – and I sketched out a rough route through the Balkans including Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, North Macedonia, Montegro and Croatia. These were all new countries for CORB, and me as a pilot, although I had been to around half of them before for business or pleasure.

The route we flew

The European Union Schengen area has recently expanded to include Bulgaria and Romania from March 2024, making both more easily accessible.

General factors involved in a European Tour

There are many factors to consider when planning a longer tour like this:

Accessible airports: The TB20 can operate from shorter tarmac runways, but I prefer to have at least 600m and preferably 800m. The limited prop clearance means that rough grass strips are to be avoided. Instrument approaches increase flexibility in case of bad weather. Longer opening times, as found in larger commercial airports, can also be useful but generally we would choose to schedule our flights during the morning and normal daytime working hours. You also want to stop overnight at interesting towns and cities, with easy transport to/from the airport.

Extra equipment: We have lifejackets and a life-raft available for water crossings, plus portable oxygen for when operating above 10,000 feet. The aircraft is fitted with a certified ADS-B out transponder, so I could continue to use my SkyEcho in receive mode, as legally it shouldn’t be used to transmit outside the UK.

Aircraft maintenance/repairs: Only UK licensed engineers are permitted to sign off maintenance and repairs. It may be possible to arrange for EASA qualified maintenance staff to work under supervision of your UK engineer, but clearly this could be awkward to arrange. Recent relaxation of some regulations (known as CS-STAN) permit the owner/pilot to sign off simpler work, such as tyre or oil changes, spark plugs etc. Our aircraft seemed to be in good shape and still had over 20 hours left before the next oil change, although I did take an oil filter with me just in case.

Pilot illness or incapacitation: My wife is not a qualified pilot, so if I wasn’t able to fly for any reason then the aircraft wouldn’t be moving. I would either have to return at a later date after recovery or ask one of my co-owners to fly it back.

Weather: The general area forecasts seem to be reasonably accurate for up to 10 days ahead, but you need t expect to be flexible, and to include some shortcuts/alternate routing if and when needed.

Immigration/Customs: The EU Schengen agreement has made life considerably easier when travelling around multiple countries and has recently been expanded to include Romania and Bulgaria. You need to choose suitable entry/exit points when arriving from/departing to the UK, some of which require 48 hours or more prior notice. Once inside the Schengen zone, only flight plans are required for international flights. Passports need to be valid for 3 months after arrival, so 9 years 9 months after issue rather than any stated expiry date.

AVGAS: It’s easy to take fuel availability for granted, but it’s generally not used for commercial aviation and so not found in many larger airports or in areas with less GA activity. It can also be much more expensive in some areas. A few airports don’t accept credit cards and instead require fuel cards (BP or TOTAL). Fortunately our fuel tanks have enough capacity for 1,000 miles, but it still needs consideration.

Currency: Many EU countries have adopted the Euro, but not all. You can usually bypass that by paying with a credit card, typically through your mobile phone, but in some countries cash remains popular. I only found I needed local currency in Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

Public Holidays: Just a couple of days before departure, my wife recalled how we had been slightly caught out by a couple of unexpected May bank holidays during our trip the previous year. This time, after checking, we found that our dates also coincided with the Orthodox Easter holidays, and it seemed that as each day passed and we travelled further afield, there were more and more public holidays to factor in. I emailed a couple of airports to check they were open on May 1st and got a very clear positive response. In general, airports do remain open on bank holidays so I thought this would apply everywhere. Later, I discovered this isn’t universally the case.

Planning for the first day – entry into the Schengen zone

With so much to see in Eastern Europe, we thought we’d plan for a longer journey on the first day, then shorter flights of typically only an hour or two. Our first destination would be Karlovy Vary, a delightful spa town on the western edge of the Czech Republic. I considered various potential lunch stops to clear Schengen immigration. Mönchengladbach EDLN (close to Dusseldorf) looked like an attractive and sensibly priced GA airfield with EU immigration on request but currently seems to offer only vending machine snacks for lunch. Ostend or Antwerp in Belgium have reputedly become more pricey or more awkward to use. Other Belgian airports, such as Kortrijk, look promising but it’s easy to be put off by concerns about how difficult it might be to transit all the controlled airspace to the west. In retrospect, perhaps that isn’t insurmountable.

In the end, I decided on Middelburg EHMZ, a well kept and long VFR grass strip in Zeeland on the south eastern corner of the Netherlands. I had visited before and found it to be a good entry point for the Schengen zone. The border officials only require one hour prior notice of arrival and this can be co-ordinated by the airfield staff on request.

Middel-Zeeland airfield responded quickly to my email. I filed a flight plan using SkyDemon. I submitted both a UK GAR form and Dutch GENDEC form using the free GENDECEU website. This already had our details from the previous year and is unique in providing a special code for your flight plan that links it to the GENDEC.

Planning for the first day – IFR transit through Belgium and Germany

The second leg of the first day initially involved quite a lot of controlled airspace. I thought it would be more straightforward if I filed IFR, and tried various options. This would be a Z flight plan because it would depart VFR and then switch to IFR at the Belgian border.

Autorouter does not support VFR to IFR flight plans in the Netherlands (or to be more precise, the Dutch flight planning system is not compatible with the same ICAO international standards that every other country has adopted).

The Dutch ATC organisation LVNL provides a free flight plan submission service called Home Briefing, but this is only open to EU residents. Brexit has put an end to that option for me.

In the past, I have used the excellent German DFS service which is free of charge. I still had a login to that and tried to submit the draft flight plan route that Autorouter had suggested, but it wouldn’t accept it. I called DFS directly and was helpfully told just to submit a simpler route but with the highest flight level I could manage. I did this and a few minutes later received confirmation of an even simpler and more direct route.

I was reminded prior to departure by one of the flight training organisations I work for that I do have a login to RocketRoute which might have been the simplest method. Their service includes a call centre which can resolve troublesome issues like this.

Karlovy Vary is highly recommended on the pilot forum websites. The airport is effectively a small regional airport similar to many in France, fully equipped but with no scheduled flights. They are geared up to service all levels of GA activity and offer a Fly and Stay package, which includes landing, parking (up to 48 hours) and handling fees plus a taxi to and from your hotel. You just have to request the package a day or more before arrival.

With all the paperwork done, flight plans, GAR and GENDEC filed and airfields notified, we were ready to go.

Gloucester to Middel-Zeeland, Netherlands

This was a fairly straightforward VFR flight, routing north to remain clear of controlled airspace.

Screenshot

After departing Gloucester on runway 22, I climbed out crossing the instrument approach, and when clear switched to Brize for traffic service, climbing to 5,500 feet. I was dodging around the cloud tops and had to climb further but remain below the FL65 floor of controlled airspace. The QNH of 1012 (close to standard pressure setting of 1013) made this easier to manage.

Departing Gloucester
More detail of my route circumventing controlled airspace, which is quite complex in the UK

I switched to London Information after Brize, who helpfully reminded me after coasting out that Amsterdam would accept me at FL55 or lower. I was aware of that and had planned to descend mid-channel by which time there was no cloud around. There’s a balance between safety in terms of glide range and visibility outside cloud vs strict adherence to the rule of flying VFR at odd thousand plus 500 feet.

Amsterdam Information had all my details, did not require a special squawk code, and seemed remarkably efficient and effective. We heard a prompt for someone to check their altimeter as they were registering a little high under the 1,500ft Schipol TMA; a situation quickly resolved without the need for regulatory follow-up. Middel-Zeeland radio confirmed runway 09 (which I wasn’t expecting), reminded me of their 700ft circuit altitude and reported that gliding was also active. I heard a couple of radio calls downwind and positioned for a downwind join to land.

Two Dutch immigration officers walked up to our aircraft as we shut down, quickly checked and stamped our passports and we were free to go. Lunch for me was a tasty uitsmeijter (the Dutch dish that basically means leftovers) in the excellent airfield restaurant. I paid our landing fee, checked that the airfield would open my flight plan, and departed.

The airport confirmed that my flight plan had been closed.

MIDDEL-ZEELAND TO KARLOVY VARY

I had expected this sector to be one of the trickiest parts of our tour. The airspace chart looks really complex, with danger areas, lots of controlled airspace and Brussels international airport close by.

Screenshot

After departure, Middel-Zeeland radio confirmed my flight plan was opened and I switched to Dutch Mil. They provide a flight information service in areas not covered by Amsterdam Info. I have found that the service level received is quite a contrast between the two. In the past, I’ve not found them particularly helpful and my experience this time didn’t change that view. I asked if Dutch Mil could co-ordinate a clearance from Belgium but the best on offer was an early frequency change to Brussels Departure. Brussels couldn’t provide a clearance until I had crossed the border.

We continued at low level, just over 1,000 feet, heading towards an industrial complex with large wind turbines in slightly turbulent conditions. The border is clearly marked by the switch from agricultural to industrial landscape.

From that point, life got a lot easier. I was asked for my requested routing and flight level – LNO FL120 – which was quickly granted. It was a relief to be in the climb to a distant waypoint. We punched through a few cumulus clouds which bounced us around a little bit, but once on top it became quite calm.

There were a number of freqency changes as we progressed: Brussels Departure, Brussels Radar, Langen Radar (3 sectors), Muchen (Munich) Radar, Praha (Prague) Radar, Karlovy Tower. Langen required us to climb to FL130 then FL140 as we transitted overhead Frankfurt. We had a good tailwind much of the time. I asked for an initial descent with still some 50 miles to go. Karlovy Vary has almost 2,000 feet elevation but that still left some 12,000 feet to descend. At 500fpm thats 24 minutes, and at 2.5 miles per minute you can see it takes some distance. This wouldn’t be a factor for pressurised aircraft and may sometimes catch out ATC.

FL140. Indicated airspeed 110 knots, but due to the thinner air, the true airspeed was more like 140. Groundspeed 150.

Descents were granted, sometimes after a short delay and I suspect sometimes due to airspace constraints. First down to FL110, then FL90 and FL70. Munchen would not permit lower and Praha could not approve further descent until fully in their airspace – we swapped in and out between both countries multiple times.

Runway 11 was in use and I was given a shortcut to route via ROTVA, the initial approach fix for the RNP which is based at 4,500 feet. Both Munchen and Praha insisted I maintain best speed, which I subsequently think related to a large executive jet that landed about 10 minutes after us. On handover to the tower, I was told to report my (air)speed. Tower asked me at what speed I would fly the final approach, and when I said 110 (as normal) I was instructed to maintain that until at least a 4 mile final.

Final approach track, Karlovy Vary runway 11. The city is off to the left, runway the small green splodge on the hilltop
View out of the left window during the approach

The Runway 11 approach into Karlovy Vary in good weather is stunning. The town sits in the valley off to your left while the airport perches on the clifftop ahead. It has a long runway and I think it is quite sensible to remain a little high on short final in case of any unexpected downdrafts.

GA parking for smaller aircraft is on hardstanding areas which are really quite small. I had to turn around inside one to face upwind and it was tight.

The airport handling agent quickly arrived in a van, asked how long we would need before being ready to depart, and called our taxi. It’s walkable, but we had a short van ride to the terminal, were quickly escorted to the front door and were told where to report on our return the next day.

Karlovy Vary

The short taxi ride down the hill into town just emphasised how beautiful this spa town is.

Our hotel was one of many with a swimming pool and sauna to relax in; we walked around the town and found all five of the colonnades with (free) hot spa water – beware it is really, really hot and can scald your hand. Mugs are available to buy which are strangely squashed-flat shaped, perhaps because this cools the water more quickly.

Czech beer and hearty fare was very enjoyable in one of the many outdoor restaurants/bars in the traffic free central area by the river.

It was well worth spending all of the following morning exploring the town, before moving on to the next leg of the trip.

Very realistic mural
There seemed to be large numbers of Italian bag shops everywhere

PIC today: 4:45
PIC total: 2,443:25
Total time: 2,658:10

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