Balkan Tour 2024 – Part 10 – Alpine valleys, Chateauroux, France and home

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Today started off with the most amazing views of the whole trip, as we climbed up through the Alpine valleys past Mont Blanc. It would be a full day of travelling, landing in France to clear immigration/customs and then back home to Gloucester.

I looked at various options including making two stops including one nearer the French north coast, and another landing in the Channel Islands for cheap fuel. The most straightforward was to land in Chateauroux, not quite half way, but a reputedly easy and accessible airport that met our purposes.

Chateauroux – just below the “r” in France, was a good half way point to stop for lunch

I filed two VFR flight plans, emailed PPR including for the Douane (French Immigration and Customs) at Chateauroux and submitted a UK GAR form on the government website. This last flashed up “pending authorisation” immediately after submission and then a few seconds later, granted permission to travel. This is a new feature since April 2024: pilots are required to obtain approval before departing for the UK, and can include a requirement for the pilot to verify that non-UK citizens have visas where appropriate. Threats of very large fines (up to £10,000) have been made for non-compliance. I have read about warnings being given by Border Force staff inspecting arriving aircraft where pilots haven’t included all the forenames of their passengers.

Aosta apron, GA offices (brown) and tower (yellow)
Looking north west up the valley where we would head up towards the snow-topped mountains

Departure into the Alps

Climbing out from Aosta through the Alpine valleys was very exciting. The weather was ideal, almost nil wind and no cloud, making it ideal for my first experience of this valley. With only one other aircraft reported in the general area, we departed and climbed to 4,500 feet altitude overhead the airport (2,700 feet above the ground) before setting off northwest. The FISO asked me almost immediately after take-off for my estimated time at the border between Italy and France. I was far too busy keeping well clear of the terrain and dealing with the initial climb to answer, so a simple “standby” avoided further distraction until I was established in the climb.

The photos below don’t give a full impression of the real experience flying in an Alpine valley, with mountains towering high above you and the relatively narrow corridors which don’t have an obvious way out. You just have to trust that there is another valley to turn into when you get to the end of the current one. Flying higher considerably reduces risk.

SkyDemon log of our departure through the Alps
We followed the motorway from Aosta to Courmayer and turned south west at Entreves just before Mont Blanc
It would be easy to make a mistake and fly down towards La Thuile and Bourg St Maurice, but it’s the next left

We continued the climb with high snow-covered mountains on both sides and a rather large 15,000 ft high snow-covered mountain dead ahead. It’s tempting to turn left a few miles before the high ridge ahead, but instead you need to continue on to Courmayeur and turn left there. The Col de Seigne valley opens up ahead of you and you realise that you still need to climb further to get over it. We were at 8,000 feet by Courmayeur so it wasn’t too hard to achieve the 10,000 feet required to comfortably clear the terrain before we could descend. Controlled airspace here starts at FL115 or 3,000 feet above ground level, whichever is higher. This can be FL175 in some places!

8,000 feet above Courmayer heading towards Mont Blanc
Courmayeur and Entrève below – Dent de Géants mountain peak top, slightly right of middle
Turning south west while continuing to climb
Looking behind us back at Courmayeur and the valley we would have flown if we had turned right
Mountains still surrounding us at 9,500 feet
Almost at 10,000 feet
The view behind us
Finally, out of the valley and above nearby terrain on both sides
Looking back, the mountains continue to tower above us
Albertville ahead
Annecy Lake, with the city at the far end.

Aosta information told me to contact Geneva Information after crossing the border but it took a few miles before I was within radio coverage. They didn’t have my flight plan but when I explained that I was simply looking for a VFR clearance to fly west via the CBY VOR, they told me to report when approaching Annecy lake. I did and my transit was quickly approved.

Video departing Aosta and through the Alps

Video from take-off to clearing the Alps including ATC communication and Garmin Aero warnings
Skip to 13:00 for approaching Courmayeur at 8,000 feet, Mont Blanc ahead, terrain warnings galore
Looking south towards Chambery – you can just make out the airport at the far end of the lake
It’s quite busy airspace with lots of airliners in and out of Lyon, but we just kept a steady track at FL85
Lyon Saint Exupery (the main airport) visible just behind the wingtip

Once clear of airspace, it was fairly straightforward and direct to our destination. The main consideration was ensuring I remained clear of (or had permission to transit) any active Danger Areas, which was easy to do with a Flight Information Service from en-route air traffic services.

Even after almost two hours in the air, the TB20 still had an impressive range.
We had enough fuel to have flown directly home and back to Aosta again.
This morning’s route from Aosta to Chateauroux. Long zone transit through Annecy and Lyon airspace
Arrival and landing at Chateauroux, speeded up 4x

Chateauroux

Flight information informed me that the Danger Areas to the south west of Chateauroux were inactive. The AIP indicates that runway 21 is strongly preferred for arrivals and 03 for departures, presumably for noise abatement. In my case, 03 was in use for arrivals today and the FISO asked me to report on right base. With no other traffic, the FISO states that “the runway is clear” (not “land at your discretion” as we are told in the UK). A marshaller was awaiting us on the tower apron, but when I asked for fuel, he pointed at the TOTAL fuel station and the FISO approved my taxi request. The FISO had very good English and provided an excellent service throughout.

At the TOTAL fuel station. The airport office is a short walk towards the tower.

The airport operations manager walked out and welcomed us, explaining where the Douanes could be found and how to get into the main terminal building. I had read on the forums of an excellent local “just off the motorway” restaurant about 15 minutes walk away – we were even offered a free lift there, but preferred to enjoy the short walk in the sunshine to stretch our legs between the flights.

Airside view of the airport terminal building
No onsite cafe – just a vending machine
Model of the airport including the research and development buildings bottom right
Landside view of the terminal building
R&D Buildings
L’Escale restaurant
View of the short walk from the restaurant (on the left) to the airport (on the brow of the hill in the distance)
Don de Sang = Blood donation

Chateauroux to Gloucester

The Douane officer had a somewhat quizzical look on his face as he inspected our passports, which had seven new stamps in the past couple of weeks; he then added a final one to signify our exit from the EU.

The departure was fairly uneventful, departing from the midpoint of runway 03. The danger areas nearby were inactive and I flew my planned, almost direct route.

Chateauroux to Gloucester – you can see where we had to dip down below the airway mid-channel

As we coasted out from France, we were told to contact London Information who were quite busy. I was still up at FL85 and we got the usual “remain outside controlled airspace” and squawk 1177 with mode Charlie. I think this was the only time on this trip that I was explicitly told to remain outside controlled airspace or to squawk with altitude. I did wonder about trying to ask for a transit through the Class A corridor between the Channel Islands and Southampton. But I thought it would be highly unlikely to be granted and would be much more difficult than anywhere else in Europe. So instead we reduced our margin of safety and dropped down to pass below at 4,500 feet, with just one commercial aircraft in the corridor visible on my screen – I would have had 1,000 feet separation if I could have remained at FL85, and much wider glide range too if there had been any problems to deal with.

Coasting out from France at FL85
Coasting in just west of Poole Harbour/Bournemouth at 4,500 feet

I preferred to remain higher up and clear of much of the regular GA traffic, descending to get below Bristol airspace, then passing overhead the Badminton horse trials which were in full flow. Gloucester approach quickly responded to my call and gave me a direct VFR arrival without being asked, which expedited our arrival.

The welcome sight of Gloucester airport, after a right base join for runway 09

We felt privileged to have enjoyed such an amazing holiday, with such good weather and no technical faults. We had achieved almost all of our ambitious plans for the past two weeks – far more than we had expected.

Our trip had started off well with our first stop in Karlovy Vary, and continued to provide variety and interest in each new destination. We had an unexpected bonus of a weekend spent exploring Cluj-Napoca. Researching and planning our flights through Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro was not entirely straightforward (and thanks go to other pilots who helped out with local information). Both of the arrivals and time spent in Ohrid and Tivat were challenging and rewarding. The most exciting flight was through the Alps with the snow-covered mountains towering above and around us even at 10,000 feet.

I hope this write-up might encourage other pilots to venture further, whether within their own countries or further afield.

PIC Aosta to Chateauroux: 2:00
PIC Chateauroux to Gloucester: 2:35

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