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UK to Istria and Venice

With our two lads, Max and Henry, still free agents Jennie and I try to do one family holiday a year, albeit often planned very late because of fluid schedules.

This September Croatia beckoned us and our Robin DR401 155CDI, taking in Venice on the way back, a visit to which had previously been thwarted by bad weather.

The plan was to overnight at Bale-Mulhouse, LFSB, partly because it was a good jumping-off point for several routes through the alps and partly because it hosted an aero club that had shown interest in the DR401 CDI.

Next day would see us flying one of five pre-planned routes through the alps to Croatia or one, if weather dictated, via the Rhone Valley and Cannes. By pre-planned, I mean not only plotting the course through the mountains on a map, but also flying the route in both directions on X-Plane with the simultaneous aid of an aeronautical map on an iPad and Google Earth on a computer. Flying through the alps is not easy—every mountain looks pretty much the same, and every valley, too; until you fly the wrong side of the mountain and up the wrong valley. With the ground rising faster than the aircraft can climb. And the overcast enveloping the surrounding terrain. And with no lateral space to turn around. And with nowhere to land. And with no VHF coverage.

Maybe routine for experienced alpine pilots, but scrupulous preparation is needed for those, like us, with relatively few hours of flying in the mountains!

Our lads would join and leave in Croatia according to their own schedules. At the end of the week in Rovinj, Jennie and I intended to pop over the Adriatic to fly the flag in Venice, then across the Alps to France for a business meeting at the Robin Aircraft workshops in Darois, before returning to Elstree.

After stopping off at Le Touquet for lunch (hooray) and immigration (ho-hum but the French immigration officers were relaxed and pleasant as usual) we joined mid-downwind at Bale-Mulhouse with a steady stream of A320s pouring in from the west. The unfazed ATC simply slotted us in between two of them leaving separation to us, so forget the threshold and the PAPI and just concentrate on where the last Airbus landed, aim just beyond it and fly along the runway until the last possible moment to touch down and turn off before the next Airbus is snapping at your tail.

There was then a bit of fuel wars as two competing Jet A suppliers in giant tankers vied for our business (94 litres for 3·73 flight hours, sorry) but with our Robin fed and bedded down for the night we walked around the perimeter (on the advice of the fuel guy—don’t do this; more later) to exit the terminal (you have a choice of Germany and Switzerland, although the airport is in France) and spent a very pleasant evening in the very atmospheric town on the Swiss side.

Next day we made our way through the aircrew entrance to be ticked off by a Gendarme for walking around the marked perimeter path the previous evening (perhaps the punishment for which was confused by the triple nationality of the place and he let us off with a gallic shrug and a smile) piled into our trusty Robin and joined the stream of A320s taxiing to leave. Instructed to turn off at holding point G, about halfway along the 3·9 km runway we then had one Airbus after the next rotating just beyond our holding point. ATC, realising that this wasn’t going to work for us, then asked if we were happy to take off in the opposite direction, to which we readily agreed. It must have been a little disconcerting for the crew of the next Airbus in line, waiting at the 15 threshold, to see us barrelling down the runway towards it but it was the pragmatic solution and just goes to show how GA can work with CAT at a very busy international airport. Equivalent UK airports might take note. The final bill was €134·77 for landing, parking, transport and ‘Noise charge’ (€3·64—the CDI does not make much noise).

The weather was bad, rain, low cloud and all the alpine VFR routes closed, so it was down the Rhone valley to Cannes for us. Parking at Cannes is limited and ‘as available’; that is, if there are no spaces then you have to buzz off somewhere else. Being early September, there were several spaces so no problem and another pleasant evening sampling French cuisine.

Final to Cannes, LFMD

Paid the bill next day (€58·25) and departed. Curiously, not through the GA gate through which we had arrived but via a more official gate a few yards away guarded by uniformed officers. Apparently this was because our destination was outside the EU, even though it was within the Schengen area. Furthermore, having walked from the aircraft to the gate on arrival, we had to be transported in a golf trolley on departure. “Pourquoi?”; “Parce-que.”

With the cloud base at 1,500’ inland, and 4,500’ high ground to clear in southern Italy, we were forced to climb and climb and climb until we were flying between the cloud tops at 14,000 feet. It had taken us a while to contact the Milan controller because of the high ground near the coast but, when we did, he was fine with giving us ever higher flight levels, although he sounded somewhat relieved when, at last, we asked to descend in clear skies 20 nm north of Genova.

Descending north of Genova

We then met what seems to be a practice typical of Italy: the requirement to continuously state self-defined reporting points and our ETA to the next one. Definitely worth planning these in advance!

Near the Croatian coast we were met by an unexpected sea mist (the nearest weather station is Pula, 20 nm away, further inland, and showing VFR at the time). Fortunately, LDPV Vrsar is just over 1 nm inland and was clear, so we got in easily and one of the guys at the airfield kindly gave us a lift to Rovinj (3·8 nm as the crow flies but a 45 minute journey around the fjord).

Left: left base to final at Vrsar, LDPV; Right: marshalling at LDPV

No hangarage is available at Vrsar and because hailstorms were forecast (and occurred) we had taken the precaution of carrying a full set of covers made by Dave Tassart. Amazingly compact and lightweight, these are fully weatherproof and robust enough for regular outdoor use.

Wrapped against hailstones

Rovinj is a very pretty town with some excellent restaurants and lots of activities available. A very good place to spend a week swimming, kayaking, scuba diving, cycling or just relaxing. Not ideal as a jumping off point to explore further south, however, as you have to consider the 45 minute drive to Vrsar or Pula.

Left: Rovinj & the church of St Euphemia; Right: Henry on the 300 year old staircase in the church

Steve Max & Henry at the end of the 18 km kayak trip from Rovinj up the fjord

Immigration controls at Vrsar did not occur. We had sent the required form on the day of arrival, as requested, and there were no officials there to meet us. Departure was different. The police were scheduled to arrive but were, apparently, delayed. There is no wifi or 3/4G at Vrsar, so we could not easily delay our flight plan. With minutes to go, the airfield operator said we had waited long enough and that we could leave anyway, so we did. The bill was €80 (cash) for landing and seven nights parking.

Talking with LDPL Pula on departure, we soon changed to LIPZ Venizia/Tessera. There is no ATC at the Venice Lido on Tuesday, so the Venice controller said goodbye to us between ERSAB and VRP PZSI and it was blind calls on a straight in to 23 at LIPV with almost invisible runway markings.

Hazy short final to the Venice Lido, LIPV

Hangarage was available at the Lido so we took the opportunity to park the aircraft undercover. Immigration was perfunctory but prolonged, led by a guy in a superman shirt and a gun on his hip (presumably in case his super-powers failed him). Then a few hundred yards walk to the hotel and cold beer and Italian cuisine (hooray!).

Jennie with sunbrella; it was very hot, even in mid-September

A couple of days wandering around Venice and we were off to France again. Having paid at the desk we sweltered into the aircraft and relaxed in the cooling breeze generated by the propeller under the part-open sliding canopy. The absence of ground markings created confusion, but we were soon off, climbing into the dense haze, when the tower called us to say that we had not paid. After a perfunctory exchange by radio (“I’ve got a receipt”) the controller explained that the office had forgotten to charge us for hangarage. We agreed that they would email us and we would settle up later, which we did. How much? Well, the landing fee was only €3·28, there was €61 for two night’s hangarage plus 82 litres of jet fuel, making a total of €142·89.

Heading north-west from TZO south of Lugano, it became clear that we were not going to clear the cloud tops and the coverage below did not look good. But, magically, an opening appeared beyond lake Maggiore and we had a clear route (as forecast) over Domodossola, into the Simplon pass and over to the Sion valley. Flying below cloud at near the MSA for the route was still challenging, however, even though we had flown this particular route before.

Left: approaching Domodossola; Right exiting the Simplon pass for the Sion valley

Left: flying the Sion valley; Right: Lake Geneva ahead

After that, it was plain flying out over Lake Geneva and to Darois.

Business at the Robin workshops complete, we plied our usual route from Darois to Le Touquet for lunch and emigration, then back to Elstree to complete a very varied 1926 nm round trip.

© C S Bailey 2019