Having received my PPL earlier in the year, and strongly suspecting that I didn’t want to use it just for local trips (although there’s nothing wrong with that), I was looking for an excuse to do some travelling. With excellent weather forecast over NW Europe for several days in a row, the EuroGA fly-in to Andorra seemed to provide the ideal excuse.
I have a share in a minimally-IFR-equipped late 70s Reims C172N (with the Air Plains 180hp/O-360 STC), based at EGTR Elstree. Availability is excellent, and booking the aircraft for 4 days, Thursday-Sunday was no problem at all. I had a family commitment on Monday, which constrained my timings, and in fact I left before the “main event” on Saturday to make sure I would be back in London on Sunday evening.
I did an absolute ton of preparation in advance, which included everything from buying a life-jacket to learning how to file a flight-plan, and far-too-long reading the French AIP. Reading EuroGA it seemed that a Total card would be very helpful, and this arrived the day before I left. This did turn out to be very helpful for the return trip on Sunday as it massively increases your choices for fuel stops.
My previous longest flights in the 172 had all been less than two hours, so I planned conservatively in terms of range. 152l useable fuel at 35lph (75% power) yields 3 hour legs with fuel for a diversion and reserve. I knew that 75% power setting yields 105KIAS, although after the trip I am suspecting that the tacho may under-read as fuel burn and IAS were both a little lower than I expected.
Outbound from London I needed a first stop with customs/immigration and fuel. LFAT Le Touquet is the obvious choice, but I felt it was a bit “close”, and I was worried about the coastal weather. I also concluded that making it all the way to LESU La Seu in one day would be challenging in terms of daylight and my own tiredness, especially as I’d be doing the mountain flying bit at the end. I therefore decided to overnight in southern France. This decision was influenced by others going to the fly-in suggesting LFMU Beziers, but in the end I decided to go to LFMT Montpellier as (1) they were helpful via email, (2) the approach over the water looked cool, and (3) there was a decent hotel on the airport for the return trip.
It’s a long way at 105 knots, so I drew a straight line from EGTR to LFMT, dragged it shorten the Channel crossing, and also around Paris. LFQB Troyes then dropped out as the best first stop – customs/immigration by 1600 the day before, automated fuel with a bank-card (my Total card hadn’t arrived at this point), and Reims/Auxerre not too far away as alternates. I made cancellable hotel bookings at both Troyes (the Golden Tulip) and Montpellier (in the centre of town) to reduce any get-there-itis.
After that it was really just a matter of flying it (the easy bit in many ways). It was foggy on the morning of the departure, so I ended up leaving later than I expected at around 0920z, pleased to have the hotel booking at Troyes in case it looked like I was going to run out of daylight and/or willpower!
Crossing the Thames east of London:
Coasting out into the expected “it’s VMC but actually you’ll be looking at the instruments”
Managed to fly myself into IMC crossing the Channel, which was something new. No horizon = no seeing a lowering cloudbase. Looked down and couldn’t see the sea any more, so descended down. A bad photo (I was rather busy), but you get the idea of what it was like as as I coasted in:
Cloudbase kept lowering so I did considering heading off to LFAT, but I could see it was much nicer ahead, and I’d looked at the satellite and radar photos before I left:
And after another 10 minutes, it was like this for the rest of the flight:
Refuelling at LFQB was easy, although the ladder was chained up so I had to do a little bit of juggling with the fuel hose while I pulled myself up onto the strut. I don’t know what you’d do without the little “steps”. Customs came out to meet me while I was fuelling – passport away, and back again with a stamp a few minutes later. No hassle, and very friendly and tolerant of my terrible French.
Nice! One of those moments of truth approaching the coastline but am really happy you sorted it out wisely. It is however one of those situations where pilots make stupid decisions like diverting to the wrong airport or getting too close to terrain or obstacles. Having done a lot of preparation clearly paid off and you knew in advance that wx slightly ahead was much better than most other possible decisions at that time. Well done.
Will you be posting the rest of the trip too?
Lovely first leg, where the is the rest?
Nothing beat getting most of the juice out of a C172 in a well executed long trip !
It had taken 2.5 hours to get to LFQB from EGTR and I was feeling fine. Over a good lunch I checked the weather for the leg down to LFMT and saw that I should make it comfortably with an hour before sunset, so I filed another flightplan and cancelled my hotel in Troyes.
On this leg the plan was again to fly a straight line as much as possible, this time at 5500ft. I was expecting two places to be an exception, the Lyon TMA and the military areas approaching Montpellier, although I was hoping to get a transit at Lyon and ask FIS which R areas were actually active.
Everything was absolutely fine, and frankly a bit boring (good!) until the LFLN Saint Yan TMA. This was to be my first TMA crossing and in typical UK fashion I wanted to hear the words “cleared to enter” at some point. You’ll see the kink in my trace below while I waited for this. On subsequent crossings I usually got something like “radar contract, cleared transit” so it was obvious on those occasions, and I became more relaxed about this on the way back.
Exiting Saint Yan TMA I called up Lyon Approach with the intent of a transit. They obviously knew something of me because they sent me straight over to Lyon Info “for VFR”. Lyon Info was very busy (for France!), and as the TMA base along the Rhone is at 4500, I just descended and followed the river at 3500ft. After Valence I then turned towards LFHO Aubenas, thinking I could go under R55D on that route if needed, but FIS confirmed it wasn’t active so back up to 4500ft for me, over to Montpellier Approach and Tower for the well documented VFR route via NE and NC into 30R and a short taxi to apron F. I didn’t fill up that evening as I knew I had plenty of time the next morning, and frankly I was pretty tired.
London to the Med in a day!
Skydemon plan and route flown:
The first hints of any terrain perhaps an hour south of Troyes:
Not much by French standards (maybe 3500ft?) but this is a serious mountain by UK standards :-) :
LFHV Villefranche Tarare (my first enroute “I’m knackered” alternate):
Crossing the Rhone:
Having gone around one nuclear power station, here’s another in the distance:
LFHO Aubenas (my second enroute alternate). Went this way to remain within range of landable terrain. In the Ardeche there are miles-and-miles of solid woods. We spend a lot of time talking about landing on water, but I’d prefer that to mountainous forest!
LFMT Montpellier before putting away the phone!
Parked up at LFMT. The Brompton has an electic motor and took me into the centre of Montpellier in about 25 minutes:
You’re obviously taking small steps after the PPL
Seriously, this is good stuff. Looking forward to reading the rest.
By the way, your too-knackered-alternate (I might start using this term) of Villefranche Tarare has one of the best airport restaurants in France
Overnighted in the Privilege Appart-Hotel in Montpellier. On the Telegram group it was clear that a few people were going to use LFMU Beziers as a customs/immigration/fuel point on the Friday prior to LESU, which had a limiting window of arrival between (I think) 1400-1600z. This is because Spanish central ATC want them to keep the FIZ empty of all other traffic while commercial flights arrive and leave, for an hour! In reality they just want the flightplans to have an acceptable arrival time and there’s no problem, but it did cause a bit of a planning constraint.
After a lazy morning in Montpellier, I fuelled up with my shiny new Total card (very easy – just press the UK flag for English and do what it says), and flew down the coast to LFMU at 1000ft. Very easy – no activated R zones to affect, which was confirmed with ATC. They clearly have radar as I was told to “keep the coast on your left” at one point. Beautiful scenery.
Arriving at LFMU there was a Ryanair flight inbound, so I orbited a couple of times on the downwind before he was told by ATC to “expedite vacating the runway; several aircraft are waiting for you”. I landed just a few minutes before Peter, but after Emir.
Had a bit of a chat with Peter and his son, into the terminal with them for a rest break and for them to clear immigration/customs. A few minutes’ wait to get back into the GA office to pay fees and we were off again. There was some IFR nonsense going on about clearances but I just queue-jumped in typical VFR fashion and set off for LESU (in the next post). :-)
Already at this point a 30 minute flight felt like a little bimble while 6 months before it was a big deal!
Some enroute photos – quickly shot out the window while watching for traffic:
And now, the “big flight” – over the Pyrenees to LESU. In the interests of full disclosure, although I had about 70 hours TT when I set off on this trip, I did have a couple of hundred hours glidiing, including some (dual) time in the Alps. It was also nil wind, with no cloud for most of the route. Given these conditions even an idiot would have made it safely provided they didn’t get lost.
The plan was to follow the French coast past Perpignan according to the transit routes on the VACs, then route as our friendly locals had suggested south of the mountains (approximately VEVUT OLOTI BERGA SINDO) and then into LESU from the south. Alternate was to return to LFMP along the same route; I had just enough fuel for this with an hour’s reserve.
This worked perfectly, the only complications being the (expected) need to circle to climb south of LFMP, and the (unexpected) presence of some cloud at around 6-7000ft MSL between BERGA and SINDO. I also had a couple of moments where I needed to have a careful think about which valley to stay above.
After following the coast at 1000ft, most of the flight was done at 6000ft under the Barcelona TMA, although Girona did offer to coordinate higher. As in the main thread, I lost contact with Barcelona while enroute, and couldn’t raise LESU until I could see it. I guess granite is a good attenuator. Climb rate was 700ft/min south of Perpignan in a lazy circle at 85kts up to 4500ft, and then 400ft/min in a cruise climb to 6000.
Approaching LFMP from the north
Climbing in the class D south of LFMP – cleared to climb after a reminder once I had traffic in sight. Quite impressed with my “little 172” as 700ft/min was very easy to achieve well above Vy:
Crossing into Spain near VEVUT at 4500ft
A few hard bumps from “blue” (cloudless) thermals and I asked for a climb to 6000ft:
My second weather “moment” as it wasn’t clear to me it didn’t get worse further on, so I started a gradual descent towards a valley to the north
I’m sure this has a name, but at this point I was focussing on the cloud cover
Near BERGA it was clear again:
Approaching LESU from the south. Hard to believe this is taken from 6000ft:
And LESU itself, where I asked for a clearance to land from the AFIS (d’oh):
Return legs to follow later today.
I had a hire car arranged at LESU thanks to Antonio’s hard work, so I drove Peter and his son into Andorra. We were staying at the Mercure. We had a nice dinner that evening, but I’d chosen to leave on the Saturday.
My rule was “don’t try and go further in a day inbound than you managed outbound”, and so that meant I needed to make it at least as far as Montpellier. I toyed with the idea of departing to the NW and overnighting at La Rochelle, but in the end I was tired and I decided to play it safe and come back the way I’d planned: overnight at LFMT, refuel at LFLA Auxerre, clear customs at LFAT (for the 2h notice). I’d considered Lyon Bron for the overnight as it was manageable, but I was concerned about fog/mist in the morning, which turned out to be a valid concern.
Again there was a departure “window” to be met, so I ended up leaving LESU late morning (local). Given the excellent weather, I did choose to depart to the ENE via LECD and LFYS, which honestly was easier than the previous day’s route via the coast.
I did a racetrack to the NE from LESU up to 7000ft AGL at about 650fpm, before cruise climbing up to 9500. Crossing into France I descended down and Montpellier Approach gave me 3500-4500ft along the coast until I dropped down to 1000ft at my own discretion for the circuit into LFMP, where I landed 30L for a change.
Very straightforward (to me, now!) and hugely fun. I stayed in the Ibis at Montpellier airport and would have been in my room an hour after touchdown, including fuelling, had I not had an accident with the errr… comfort arrangements. This cost me about an hour of cleaning but I do know a lot more about how the carpets are fitted to a 172 now!
Queueing to get out of Andorra:
Climbing out of LESU – took off runway 03 and turned right towards point E:
2nm leg back towards LESU brought me up to 6500 so I turned back on track:
Back towards point E:
This one got a few laughs on my owners’ WhatsApp group as I casually cruise at 9500’:
This is the highest point on the pass:
Not much in the way of forced landing options, and thermals up to 3000AGL kept me higher:
Along the coast in the class D:
View back towards Perpignan and the Pyrenees:
Approaching LFMT from the west:
This is the Cathedrale de Maguelone, also known as LFMT VFR point SW!