July 11, 2015

West coast flight – planning

You have to do quite a lot of work to prepare for a flight like the one we wanted to do long before you can even think about climbing into the aircraft and taking off. This includes the route, the fuel stops, the overnights, the flying gear and equipment, the overnight/camping gear and equipment, food and provisions, personal stuff like clothing, toiletries etc and things that will, or might, be needed en route to keep the aircraft airworthy. And that doesn’t include getting the aircraft and any equipment that you might wish to carry on or in it, such as radio and navigation equipment, also prepared and ready to go, not to mention other items too, like cameras and video equipment.

So although if you’re really experienced and your aircraft is always in a fully up-to-date state of maintenance you could do all of the above in a few days, it makes sense to start making lists and doing the preparatory work several weeks before the planned take off date, not the least because you are always bound to encounter a few setbacks along the way. As regards 56NE and its radio, regular readers will know that I completed all of the necessary preparatory work on both back in May. However, I’d not had a chance since to properly test out the radio against a ‘real’ ground station so I still had reservations about using it ‘in anger’ for fear of causing disruption to the air band while doing so, unlikely though that might be. My intentions, therefore, were to keep it ‘in reserve’ for use only in case of a real emergency and to fly essentially non-radio as we usually always do.

This was an easy decision to come to after I suffered an early ‘setback’ in my route planning work. I originally wanted to fly from as far south to as far north as possible remaining clear of controlled airspace that would be closed off to us due to our aircraft not being equipped with transponders. Airspace around all but the largest airfields in France (eg Charles de Gaulle) is designated Class D meaning that even ULMs like ours can enter it with ATC permission so long as they are equipped with transponders. As we do not need transponders in the area in which we usually fly ie the Dordogne, and as transponders cost around £2000 a pop, which is hardly justifiable in ‘low value’ aircraft like ours, our flight up the coast could only start from as far south as the northern boundary of the controlled airspace around Biarritz airport in the south-west corner of France. It’s not unknown, however, for airports to give permission for non-transponder equipped aircraft to enter their airspace so long as they have radio, and it was my hope that one such might allow us to do so with 56NE being so equipped as we planned to arrive on their doorstep, so to speak, on a Sunday when there would be little or no other traffic.

The airport in question was Lorient, but I knew from the outset that there might be difficulties. Airports and airfields in France that are open to general aviation traffic are described as being open to the ‘CAP’ (Circulation Aerienne Publique). Lorient is not, being open only to commercial and military aircraft, the latter because of the adjacent French navy submarine base. Nevertheless, as they operate a light aircraft corridor for fixed and rotary wing aircraft, I thought that there was a chance that they’d let us through, making it possible for us to complete a northern-most leg for our flight from St Brévin les Pins (bottom right hand corner of the following image) to a refuelling stop at Querlarn (top left hand corner). Due to the size of the image, you’ll need to click on it to enlarge it to see the detail.

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The plan would then have been to skirt back around the Lorient airspace to the north rather than return via the LA corridor, to land finally for an overnight and refuelling stop at Quily which, along with St Brévin les Pins and Querlarn is an ULM airfield on the FFPLUM list at which I was confident that the facilities that we would require would be available. But it was not to be. The authorities controlling movements at Lorient came back to say that unfortunately a transponder was ‘obligatoire’ at all times, and as it would not have been worth flying the whole way around their CAS on two occasions, it became necessary to re-think our plans for the northern-most section of our flight. This meant rescheduling both our planned fuel and overnight stops and our final route plan ultimately became as shown below.

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Our departure point for that day would still be St Brévin but now we would fly only as far north as the Golfe du Morbihan before turning north across the Golfe towards the city of Vannes and then turning to head south-east for a fuel stop at a private ULM field called La Bochet. And from there we would continue on for an overnight stop at another private ULM airfield called Mouchamps. So that was it and the above image shows that our final planned route still nevertheless included a good three-quarters of the west coast of France. Not bad for a couple of slow ‘first-generation’ rag-and-tube ULMs like ours, as was pointed out to us on more than one occasion by various people we met along the way.

Defining the route wasn’t quite as simple as that, of course, as many more calculations involving distance, speeds and endurances of our two aircraft and the availability of suitable landing airfields at the right places were needed. Having done this once previously when I flew MYRO down from the UK to the Dordogne I knew what was necessary and this time because of there being two aircraft with different characteristics and because of the considerable number of legs involved, I decided to make some spreadsheets to do the calculating for me. I don’t intend to go into the details of each, but here’s a shot of the ‘general’ sheet that I created for 56NE showing the feasibility of the planned landing airfields taking into account distances and fuel burn, their contact details and the fuel that I’d need to uplift at each one.

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A similar spreadsheet also had to be created for Wim and the Red Baron with its different fuel burn and speed attributes and at the end of the day, the planned landing airfields had to be compatible with both aircraft as otherwise we’d not be able to meet up at each stop! So not only was the route planning not totally straightforward but as the ‘general’ spreadsheets took no account of wind, full flight plan spreadsheets also had to be created for each aircraft ‘at the time’ which did and demonstrated to each of us that we would be able to make each waypoint in the prevailing weather in a timely and safe way. The following image shows a ‘sheet’ for 56NE for one day’s flying.

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In fact, on the day in question, we decided for very good reasons that I’ll go into in my postings about the flight itself, to stay over at Le Thou thus extending the one-day plan over two and the full flight from 5 to 6 days. My intention was to load the spreadsheets into my little Asus tablet that I planned to use for navigation and the only problem with this was that as I do not have a smart internet connection, I would not be able to update them in real time during the flight itself. However, this proved not to be a problem in reality and as I’ll explain later, I couldn’t even use my tablet during the flight anyway. However, that’s for later instalments 😉