Balkan Tour 2024 – Part 5 – Plovdiv, Bulgaria

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Today’s flight was from Cluj-Napoca, Romania south to Plovdiv, Bulgaria. I had not realised before just how much larger Romania is than many of its neighbouring countries. Nor had I been aware of the high mountain ranges we needed to cross heading south.

Planned route which was very close to our actual route flown

Bad weather in Bulgaria prevented us from spending as much time as originally planned there, but I think we made the right decision to enjoy the sunshine and explore Cluj for a couple of nights, after which sunshine was forecast for several days ahead on our trip. Bulgaria has relatively few airports with AVGAS suitable for a TB20 which constrained our options. AOPA Bulgaria has negotiated a discounted 30 Euro basic handling fee at Sofia, the capital city, and also at Varne on the coast. Primorsko, a hard runway serving the Forest Beach sunshine resort on the Black Sea officially doesn’t list fuel availability in the AIP, but apparently does stock it during the summer season. My initial outline plans had included stops at Gorna Oryahovitsa and Plovdiv, both small regional airports but neither has AVGAS. Now that Bulgaria is in the Schengen zone, no immigration formalities are required to enter from Romania. However, I would need them to depart to North Macedonia, next on our route, because that’s outside the EU. We had recently seen a TV program which showed some of the Roman mosaics of Plovdiv so we decided to spend just one day in Bulgaria and stay there.

I’d like to thank AOPA Bulgaria for some very prompt and helpful advice both before and during the trip. They appear to be doing some good work ensuring GA remains alive and open to all in that country.

Plovdiv responded to my email asking for confirmation that I could land and clear immigration at the times I wanted. The AIP states long opening hours and full facilities, but at the moment there are only one or two flights per day (to/from London). The initial response said that I would first need permission from the Bulgarian CAA, which was quite a surprise. Fortunately, I got an almost immediate response to my email from the CAA by stating that they had no objection to my private flight. Ground handling at Plovdiv was then confirmed almost immediately. I understand that CAA permission isn’t normally required, so you shouldn’t need to ask. I suspect that private flights in foreign light aircraft like mine are quite rare in these parts.

I filed IFR using Autorouter which gave me a route at FL120 that deviated slightly west once in Bulgaria- the mountain range to the north of Plovdiv goes up to almost 10,000 feet.

Cluj airport staff were courteous and efficient. Like many regional airports throughout Europe, it has very busy peaks especially first thing in the morning, so it’s easier all round if you can plan to avoid those. The security staff were expecting us and after a thorough security scan, an operations staff member was waiting airside. The airport is undergoing extensive expansion at the moment, and their operations office is a portacabin on a distant apron so there was a bit of shuttling around to do.

With calm winds, I was offered either runway end to depart from and chose 07. My IFR clearance was for the IRLOX1K departure climbing to FL120. This climbs straight ahead then turns left back to the airport, proceeding south at or above FL90. There are a couple of danger areas immediately to the south of the airport which were active. The SID clearance is important in case we had lost radio contact after take-off, and would then have a clearly defined route to fly. But as is often the case with light aircraft and SIDs, I was fairly quickly directed away from the SID and put onto a heading of 140 at 3,500 feet and then direct-to TIMUR on passing FL80. We continued our plodding climb up to FL120, carefully monitoring the engine temperatures to avoid overheating while maintaining at least a climb rate of 500 feet per minute. Then it was a case of setting up the engine for efficient cruise, turning on the portable oxygen, sitting back and admiring the view.

Initial departure routing – blue denotes actual route flown
In the cruise at FL120

I had only one traffic notification from ATC throughout the whole flight – an SR22 turbo crossing 2,000 feet below. Airliners were on frequency and on my iPad screen, often 10 or 20,000 feet above, but well out of sight. For the first time, I heard the controller asking an airline pilot very high above me for the spot wind – presumably so he could calculate what heading and spacial separation he could give them.

Those mountains are quite high – over 8,000 feet

As we approached some high clouds ahead, above one of the mountain ranges, I was considering asking for a higher flight level when the controller asked me if I could accept FL130. This suited us both and was just the right amount to keep us clear of cloud. I had the portable oxygen in use, and my oxygen reading was 92% (anything below 90% starts to affect you although you may not realise it).

The GTN utilities page allows fuel planning – we have an impressive range and endurance remaining
Mountain range east of Sofia, Bulgaria which also rises to around 8,000 feet.

After turning west towards Sofia, we got a shortcut to LARAT. If we descend at a comfortable 500 feet per minute (fpm), then from FL130 to 500ft airport elevation needs 25 minutes. At 150 knots groundspeed = 2.5 miles/minute, that works out at over 60 miles. This is much further than pressurised aircraft (including airliners) require and can easily catch both pilots and ATC out. I requested an initial descent, and was given FL120 immediately with further to follow in a few minutes. On changing to Plovdiv Tower, I was given a further descent to 9,000 feet (those mountains nearby mean that the transition altitude is quite high for Europe). I was asked to confirm I could accept the RNP Y 12 approach, and when I did I was told to expect that and report 1 mile before REMUT (the initial approach fix).

The problem for a light aircraft like mine is that I can’t descend at more than 1,000 fpm partly because it hurts your ears and partly because it shock cools the engine which can lead to cylinder cracking. With the TB20, there is also a risk of arriving at the Final Approach Fix (FAF) with an airspeed too fast to get the gear and flaps down, so you can’t then slow down and descend on the glide path. Instead you really want to arrive at the final approach fix flying level and intercept the glidepath from below.

This shows the shortcut and orbit to reduce altitude

I requested a left hand orbit to allow me to descend further and this did the trick, arriving at the IAF at 3,300 feet as per the approach plate. The runway was clearly visible about 20 miles ahead, and I let the autopilot do its job down to 500 feet. With no other traffic around, I had been cleared to land just prior to the final approach fix at PD508, and this also takes the pressure off. We taxied to the waiting marshaller where friendly ground staff were ready for us. Once we had packed up and put the cover on at our own pace, we were outside at the taxi rank without delay. Ground staff even phoned for a taxi for us.

WizzAir and Ryanair to London are the main routes at this time of year

Video of IFR flight Cluj-Napoca to Plovdiv

Plovdiv City

Bulgaria seems to be one of those countries where cash is still predominant. Hotels, shops and restaurants do take cards, but it seems that’s quite rare for taxis and other smaller purchases. Local currency (the Bulgarian lev) is strongly favoured over euros, but at least the rate is quite easy to calculate (1 euro = approx 2 lev). There is an ATM in the passenger terminal. A taxi into the city took about 15-20 minutes and cost around 8 euros. They don’t normally wait at the terminal except when airline flights arrive, so best to let the ground staff order one for you as soon as you land.

Once again for us on this trip, it was a Bank Holiday and the town was buzzing with everybody out to enjoy themselves in the sunshine.

We did get a tourist map from our hotel but it was in Cyrillic characters, and when we tried to use Googlemaps it also reverted to that format.

There are quite a few historic buildings to see in Plovdiv, with many of the older Roman sites open for free access to walk around. Visiting the large open air amphitheatre cost 2.50 euro each. We managed over 19,000 steps plus an ice cream, appetising lunch and a Costa coffee.

Unusually, you can walk through and touch these old Roman ruins.
The amphitheatre isn’t just a museum and is used for live performances

PIC today: 2:25

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