Balkan Tour 2024 – Part 9 – Aosta, Italy

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This would be our longest single flight, crossing the entire coastline of Croatia, then the width of Italy and finally descending into an Alpine valley to land close by the major ski areas. Flight planning a VFR flight through the morass of Danger Areas, Restricted Areas and controlled airspace would have been difficult. So instead, I filed IFR and let the professionals do the hard work. We didn’t fly through any cloud at all, although we did get pretty close a couple of times.

Flying an IFR flight plan has become fairly straightforward these days due to excellent software tools such as Autorouter. It quickly analysed and came up with a good route close to the Adriatic coast at FL120 and then almost directly west to our destination, passing directly over Venice, Milan and several of the Italian lakes.

Magenta line is our filed route; black stars are radar tracking when IFR; green dashed line is the route to our alternate which was Venice Lido LIPV. We flew directly overhead that about half-way through the flight. The old saying goes that the route you file is almost never the one you actually fly, so it was interesting to see just how little deviation was involved.

One concern related to the weather. The GRAMET forecast below changed significantly during the day before and showed just one area with clouds that we might have to fly through. The forecast improved from earlier, and I anticipated that I could request a deviation if required.

GRAMET weather forecast, which is included in the standard Autorouter briefing pack

There was also a small surprise when planning this flight from the US NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), which issued a Severe (G4) Geomagnetic Storm Watch that could disrupt GPS due to high levels of solar activity – the sun was ejecting corona that would impact our atmosphere. We heard later that Aurora was seen in the UK as far south as the Midlands. I did suffer some brief GPS outages on my iPad while crossing North Italy but I tracked this down to the Wi-Fi link from my iPad to the SkyDemon receiver that had failed, rather than the SkyDemon GPS receiver (which indicated green at all times). The panel Garmin GPS (which has a much larger external antenna) did not lose integrity at any time. As a precaution, I tuned into nearby VORs during the flight as a backup.

Departure from BRAC was similar to landing, self-announcing on the airport frequency and then quickly switching to Split Radar for IFR pickup and clearance. You aren’t allowed to climb above 1,000 feet without their permission, so really need to be quick about that at a fairly busy time. The frequency wasn’t busy and I was quickly given a VFR clearance to VRP waypoint Victor 2 climbing 8,000 feet on their QNH. This kept me out of the way of other IFR traffic, both for Split main airport and for Brac. I heard my movements being called out to other IFR traffic inbound to Brac.

Soon after, I was given my IFR clearance. This was direct to ROTAR, on the Italian border about 200 miles north, climbing to FL120 and assigned a squawk code. On readback, my IFR status was confirmed.

Zadar

The cruise was stable, calm with good views of the Croatian coastal islands. There was a very slight headwind, so my indicated airspeed of 119 knots converted to a true airspeed of 138 (accounting for the thinner air higher up) and a groundspeed of 130 knots (accounting for the headwind). I used portable oxygen and was consistently getting readings of 95% on my finger analyser. I believe anything above 90% should be OK. Each person is affected differently by lower levels. The problem is that you might not realise how much the hypoxia has affected your decision-making.

Split Radar ATC was working hard, directing many airliners at various levels (mostly very high above us), and the frequency was busy. But there wasn’t anything for us until we were handed over to Pula.

We could make out the island of Mali Losinj below, another Croatian airfield on my bucket list.

Pula Airport

Video of Brac departure

Italy

As we crossed into Italian airspace, we were handed over to Padova who were extremely busy. My first call got a standby, and some minutes later after the hub-bub had died down, I tried again but also got a standby. So I just flew my filed route as cleared until told otherwise. A shortcut was given to IDREK which cut a corner, and we proceeded on.

Venice Lagoon and Venice Lido with its grass airfield
Italian Lake Garda
Bergamo airport

ATC almost handed me off to the next frequency, but then again said standby, so I said nothing.

After another ten minutes or so, I was thinking it really must be time for a handoff. I requested a radio check but got no reply (three times). I could hear other conversations on the channel, but no response to me. So I called up Milan Information who provided a new frequency and was quickly back in the system. At this point I was given a new squawk code and we carried on.

There was some towering cumulus ahead which initially did not look threatening, but grew surprisingly quickly. We were lucky to be able to remain outside them with only very minor deviations to our track that did not require ATC approval.

The clouds thinned out as we progressed further west

As we started to approach the Alps, I asked for a descent and was initially cleared down to FL100 but held there due to traffic below. My routing was revised to SRN then IBCUC which were both clearly spelt out. I was changed to another frequency and cleared down to 5,000 feet at my own discretion, and cancelled IFR.

I switched to Aosta Information just as we entered the valley, thinking I would likely lose contact with Milan soon anyway. They had asked for my estimated landing time, so it was good to know there was somebody monitoring our progress.

Entrance to the Aosta valley

Despite being prepared for it, descending into an Alpine valley can be quite daunting, even in good weather. The motorway below was quite clear and easy to follow. I still had some 6,000 feet to lose at this point (Aosta airport having an elevation of 1,800 feet), so we were whizzing along at 150 knots with about 500fpm descent rate and about 20 miles still to run.

We raised Aosta tower soon after that, got the airfield information and reported our position. Runway 09 was in use and we would be arriving from the east, so a downwind join was appropriate. There was just one other aircraft on frequency, so my focus was on avoiding the terrain. This was assisted by our Garmin Aero going bananas, given out constant warnings and insisting that we pull up RIGHT NOW. Fortunately my wife has got used to that, so I left it running despite becoming a little distracting.

Joining downwind – we’ll fly past the airport and turn back to land
Final for runway 09

I think I judged the descent profile reasonably well, so we were down at circuit altitude with the speed under control just as we joined downwind in time for gear and flap deployment. It still seems you are quite low above ground when turning base. It was good to hear the “runway clear” response to my final call. After landing, the marshallers were waving at us from the fixed fuel station at the far east end of the apron. Fuel is normally very expensive in Italy so it was a relief to discover the price was similar to the UK. We topped off, then parked up and took a taxi into town to explore the city.

Video of arrival through the valley and landing, speeded up 8x, no ATC.

VFR approach along the valley and landing at Aosta

Aosta City

The weather was perfect for sightseeing, around 23oC with a slight breeze. Although I must have driven through here on a bus several times on ski holidays, I hadn’t actually stopped to see the place. I’ve never visited the area outside ski season before either.

University building
A working water wheel
Outside the Music Institute

PIC: 3:25 (the longest flight of the trip)

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