Here’s the route of the first leg from Stoke across the Channel via Dover to St Inglevert on the Cap Gris Nez and then on to Abbeville, routing around the Class D airspace around Le Touquet. The route images I’ve used in my posts here are taken from screen captures of SkyDemon (30 day trial version). I fully acknowledge their copyright in them and they clearly show the excellence of the software.
The crossing was scheduled to take 21 minutes, which it did, and I was in radio contact with Farnborough East until the FIR boundary (the dark blue line) at which point I changed over to Lille. The first Lille controller I had was male and later I was switched over to a lady. Both were polite and spoke good English albeit with a bit of an accent and I had to request that they ‘say again’ on a few occasions. They were very helpful and didn’t seem to mind, so there’s no reason for anyone doing their first crossing of ‘La Manche’ to worry in the slightest about their radio procedures.
Here’s probably the last ever picture that will be taken from MYRO in UK airspace, which shows me coasting out overhead Dover and banking to turn onto heading for the leg to Cap Gris Nez.
Abbeville came up out of the murk dead on as expected on the GPS so that gave me a lot of confidence, and the vis hadn’t been that bad despite my growing reservations. I called blind on Abbeville Traffic (123.50) and after joining overhead for runway 02 left hand, landed on the grass next to the hard runway. The airfield was almost deserted and as there was no indication of where or how to park I taxied across to the grass in front of the buildings and shut down. I got out and noticed a hand-written sign ‘Affaires’ on the door of the aero club and assumed that that was where I’d be able to sort out closing my flight plan and everything else to do with customs and the police. However, I’d forgotten that I’d left the UK and was now in France where life is somewhat different 🙂
Inside the building there was nobody around, let alone someone who looked at all official, but luckily I climbed a small flight of stairs up into the ubiquitous small cafe area and found a gent with a cap with a bobble on it reading the notice boards. He assumed that I wanted to close my flight plan and directed me to a grubby cordless phone across the room, one of those old fashioned ones with a retractable antenna that frankly I haven’t seen for about 20 years! There was a phone number biroed on the wall above it so I dialled it. A voice answered almost immediately at the other end and after I had given MYRO’s registration, he replied ‘Your flight plan is closed. Au revoir’ and that was about it.
My friend in the cap with a bobble on it had been waiting and then said to me, ‘Now you pay taxe in front of flag’. I then noticed another building through the window on the other side of the fuel pump where there was a French flag on a white pole, so I thanked him, in French of course 😉 and walked over there. I climbed the steps and entered yet another cafe/bar area where there were various chaps sitting and standing around drinking coffee and smoking. They all looked up as I walked in and seemed friendly enough so I said, ‘Bonjour’ and they all answered in the same way. There was a marvellous French lounge lizard type amongst them with greased down hair and the typically French longish slightly pointed nose and he said ‘Ello, did you ave a nice flight?’ in the most wonderfully French accented English. I said that yes, I had and was just starting on the vis when a small plump chap came scuttling across the room into a side office and I was directed to join him in the ‘bureau’. I noticed that he had the fax on the desk in front of him that I’d sent the previous day to the police/douane number, with a copy to Abbeville. He checked (in French) to make sure I’d closed my flight plan and when I said that I had, he got busy writing what appeared to be a bill. In fact it was the invoice for the landing fee, the princely sum of €3 🙂
Then he pushed a large movements sheet in front of me that showed I was the only incoming aircraft so far that day, presumably on account of the weather. I duly filled it in with my details, arrival time and expected departure time. I’d forgotten that French time moved forward one hour when our clocks did – I was assuming that our times were now the same – so I filled the times in incorrectly, but he was far too polite to point this out and left them as I’d written them. When I’d finished and paid my €3, I asked if there was anything else I had to do with regard to the ‘douane’ and the police. He looked at me, smiled in a knowing kind of way and said, ‘Non monsieur’. So that was it, the sum total of all the formalities to do with entering France from the UK. A piece of cake. I think our problem as Brits is that sometimes we are our own worst enemy and look for problems and issues where there are none. The French are much more pragmatic, shrug their shoulders and just do things. I love that attitude and think that we have a lot to learn from them, but we won’t, ever 😐
It was now time to top up my tanks and get moving again. I’d like to have stayed longer and had a cup of coffee but I had a long way to go before my flying day was over and there just wasn’t the time. In the whole time since I’d arrived at Abbeville there was only one other movement, a French registered Robin, and I suppose that was a clue to what was to come. I started up, taxied round, called blind and took off on the grass. As I climbed and turned on track, it was pretty clear that the vis was getting worse than before. Here’s a pic I’ve again captured from the camcorder, which I’d started up again, that shows what I’m talking about.
This shot was taken just after I’d taken off from Abbeville and set course for Le Gault St Denis and at times during the leg, it was considerably worse than the picture shows. Here’s a pic showing the route I’d planned from Abbeville to Le Gault St Dennis.
I don’t have my papers now because they are all still in MYRO in France, but the flight time was something over 2 hours, the time from Stoke to Abbeville being a little under 2 hours.
I can say quite honestly that I never had a proper horizon the whole of the flight down through France and at times the vis was down to what I would estimate was about 3000 metres. This being France, after calling up when approaching and joining overhead at Abbeville, so long as I avoided Class D airspace or above there was no need for me to make any further radio calls, and that was exactly what I planned to do. And because of the limited vis, I doubt that I heard more than a couple of other aircraft on 123.50 the whole way down on the first day which even so I still found quite surprising.
A few words about flying in limited vsibility. Everyone has to to be responsible for making their own decisions about when and when not to fly. It has a lot to do with ‘comfort zone’ and the more experienced you are the more comfortable you are likely to be flying in conditions of limited vis. It’s never possible to make general statements that will apply to all individuals. Having held an IMC rating in a previous life as a Group A pilot, I have very strong views about how suitable or otherwise microlights are as stable instrument platforms so I would never go beyond what I would perceive as being my personal limits and those of the aircraft. But on the other hand because of my previous training and experience, I am more comfortable than many others about flying in conditions which they might find unacceptable for themselves.
On this occasion I always had a good view of the terrain below my aircraft and there were always adequate visual cues to allow me to fly the aircraft accurately, on track and in a safe attitude. And this, being France, there were almost always more fields below than you could shake a stick at that would be suitable to land in should the need arise.
I say ‘almost always’. My Channel crossing had taken about 21 minutes which at a height of about 5000ft I didn’t regard as being much of a risk because with an engine failure after about a third of the way over, I could more or less have glided to France with the tail wind that I had. However, there were many occasions when I was flying through the murk at low level (around 1400ft) for almost the same amount of time over thick forests or hilly, rocky terrain with little or no road access, where there was absolutely no chance of making a safe forced landing and nothing could therefore be done to mitigate the risk involved. And there were also many occasions when, with the sink and turbulence associated with the broken low cloud I was flying under, I found myself at climb power and speed and still sinking before usually suddenly being whisked up again.
Another thing I experienced which others who had never done so might have found a bit disconcerting was that when there was nothing ahead and around the aircraft but green fields, the land and sky merged ahead into a kind of soup that transitioned from green below through into grey above with absolutely no sign of a horizon. It didn’t worry me too much because I had seen it many times before when flying IMC in Group A and on this occasion I still had good close ground contact that gave me all the visual cues I needed to continue flying the aircraft accurately and safely. And my GPS gave me a line to track just as I used to do before when tracking a VOR, so in many ways it was all very familiar.
My flight leg from Abbeville to Le Gault St Denis went just as planned and my main disappointment was that not only was I unable to take photographs of the beautiful landscape and features that I was flying over but I also couldn’t even see much of it either! In fact, just before arriving at Le Gault, my route took me around the west side of Chartres and even though I had occasional glimpses of the twin towers of the cathedral in the mist, I couldn’t make out any discernible features at all. Such a shame!
Another thing I found and filed away as a mental note for the route ahead, was that as I was flying along, I kept encountering quite a few of the many thousands of wind turbines that now blight the French landscape. Most of them are not very high and so were some way below the aircraft even if I passed right over them. However, there are many in France including the area I was flying over that are absolute monsters and although none came up to the height I was flying at, the ones of those that I did encounter, I had to skirt around to maintain a safe and legal separation from.
As I was approaching Le Gault and searching over MYRO’s nose for the little airstrip that I had ‘visited’ in Google Street View, so knew exactly what I was looking for, another group of wind turbines appeared out of the gloom to my left. In fact they were a help rather than a hazard because then I knew exactly where to look for the tiny ‘piste’, which I immediately spotted from a right hand downwind position and landed at safely.
— Continued in Part 3 —