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A tale of many frequencies

The fun of flying in Europe…

Yesterday I did a flight from Dax (LFBY) to Nogaro (LFCN) in south-west France. It’s 46 nm, not even a cross country by FAA standards. The chart looks horrific, with numerous areas of military (red) and Class C/D (blue) airspace, often overlapping, with all sorts of different altitude restrictions. They are under the control of at least 5 separate authorities, each with its own frequency. (Unfortunately I can’t find an easy way to post the chart snippet here).

To make it more fun, this was checkride prep, meaning no iPad, no SDVFR, no GPS. South western France is very pretty but from the air, it all looks the same – cute little stone villages each with its church, woods, crops, lots of wiggly rivers. Impossible to know where you are just by looking, you have to keep track as you go. Even then it’s easy to get confused.

Practically speaking, there are three ways to fly it:

  • stay under 1500 feet. Once out of Dax’s airspace, you don’t actually need to talk to anyone, though Pyrenees Info is there if you want to.
  • fly between 1500 and 3000. That takes you through the “red stuff” which is controlled by Madiran Approach. (That’s an odd name, Madiran is one of the aforesaid pretty villages with no airport or any aviation relevance at all, though excellent local wine. Apparently it’s actually Pau Approach).
  • fly above 3000 which puts you in the “blue stuff” controlled by Mont de Marsan. That’s a major military airport with a huge Class D all around it.

There are tightly prescribed routes for non-mil traffic in and out of Dax, which would have been quite a detour. “No need for that,” said my instructor. “Just tell them you want to go direct Hagetmau [one of the cute villages with unpronouncable names] and they’ll be fine with that.” Which indeed they were, illustrating a common feature of life in France: there are rules, and then there’s what you can actually do.

On the way we chose 2700. Called Madiran. Got an automatic reply saying “we’re not here, call Pyrenees”. We did, and got clearance to do anything we wanted below 3000.

On the way back we chose 3100 – keeping us below 3000 AGL and hence avoiding the need to fly at 4500 for the hemispheric rule. Called Mont de Marsan. They cleared us immediately and were very nice, but pointed out that we were currently in a little triangle of active red stuff and needed to talk to someone else – on a frequency which even my instructor for the flight, who knows the area intimately, wasn’t familiar with. We called them and got no response. We dropped down to 2700 and called Pyrenees again.

Then I needed to figure out when we were close enough to Dax to switch to them, to get clearance into the large restricted area (R34, R40) around Dax. Easy with GPS, challenging without. Plus, we were right at the time when they typically close the tower, though it happened to be open late that day.

All in all a very enjoyable flight, but a good illustration of why VFR flight in France is challenging.

LFMD, France

Well done, excellent experience.
It’s those kind of flights that separate many of us.
Some are bold, go for it and it all works out.
When it doesn’t they don’t get stressed and find a way. Eventually ending up in a bar somewhere, and don’t give it another thought.
Others (more like me) hate the uncertainty and do get a little stressed when unable to clearly get a clearance, or are left airborne, struggling for a usable frequency.
It’s not usually that bad but it does happen.

United Kingdom

johnh wrote:

All in all a very enjoyable flight, but a good illustration of why VFR flight in France is challenging.

Post skill test you’ll just use SkyDemon to find the frequency. And as you have found, when in doubt just call the frequency you think is right and they’ll give you the right one if you’re not.

EHRD, Netherlands

@johnh
Dax is a restricted use half mil/civvy airfield, are you with the club there? If so, can you tell me how easy it is to get permission to fly in? Also what entry/exit to the airside is like? I fancy visiting the helicopter museum there sometime, what better way than to fly in.

Regards, SD..

@skydriller Yes I was flying with the Aeroclub – a very good one by the way. I did look into getting permission to land there. It looks hard, lots and lots of questions and documents needed. I’m told it is possible. There are a handful of based aircraft. It’s also a very challenging field, since there are tall trees just off the approach end of 25, the usual runway. There is just 1500’ feet of usable runway and you get to count the leaves on the trees on short final.

The heli museum is good and definitely worth a visit. If you COULD land there, I think you would have to walk about 1.5 km round the outside of the field to get there.

One problem with this area is that there is really nowhere to fly to. Biarritz is possible but expensive (€40/night I think). Dax is essentially impossible. There’s Rion des Landes but (a) it’s in the middle of nowhere and (b) right now it’s open to based aircraft only, apparently because the grass runway is under constant attack by boars (a huge problem in rural France).

LFMD, France

To make it more fun, this was checkride prep, meaning no iPad, no SDVFR, no GPS.

It doesn’t hurt to be able to find one’s way without an iPad, however I wonder if such rules are really necessary?

always learning
LO__, Austria

johnh wrote:

this was checkride prep, meaning no iPad, no SDVFR, no GPS.

What?

How realistic are checkrides which do not allow every day operation?

LSZH, Switzerland

Mooney_Driver wrote:

What?

How realistic are checkrides which do not allow every day operation?

Totally agree – I could fly in my neighborhood without the ipad, but on a long cross country, I’d just stay at about 900ft and turn off my transponder!

Fly more.
LSGY, Switzerland

How realistic are checkrides which do not allow every day operation?

Not very realistic at all. But both aeroclubs I’ve dealt with here insist on it and won’t allow an iPad in the cockpit for training flights. I don’t care much, as Snoopy says it’s a useful skill and quite fun to do. I’ve loved maps since I was 4 years old, one reason I enjoy flying so much.

As far as actual navigation is concerned, it’s not that big a deal. The problem is figuring out where you are with respect to complex airspace that changes literally every few minutes.

LFMD, France
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