July 12, 2015

West coast flight – Day 1

A far from smooth start but a more than satisfying ending

So we’d completed all of our route and flight planning and were ready to go as scheduled on Thursday 18 June. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a bit, as it happens, but I’ll come back to that in a moment. For me, the excitement began the day before. My original planning had assumed that on day 1, Wim would take off from his airstrip at Plazac and that I’d take off shortly after from Galinat. However, that would have meant leaving my car parked at Galinat for the duration of the flight, 5 days or more, which I wasn’t too keen on even though this is France, as Galinat is totally public and it would have been in full view for the whole of that time.

So we decided that if I flew 56NE across to Wim’s airfield the day before, he’d be waiting there to drive me back to Galinat to pick up my car and then we could both take off from his strip the following day. Good plan, but the problem was that when the day dawned, there was a howling tailwind for the landing on Wim’s strip, so much so that when he arrived there, Wim left for home again thinking that I wouldn’t be coming. Nevertheless, I thought that I’d give it a go. The flight there only took the usual 10 minutes but landing on Wim’s short 160 metre runway, especially with the extra weight that I was carrying, proved to be a nightmare. After going around 4 times I decided that I’d give it one more try and in the event I landed, albeit a bit heavily, on the fifth attempt with a total flight time of 20 minutes!

But anyway, that was that and no harm done, and we were therefore all ready, loaded up and set to go as planned the next morning. Right? Well, yes and no, because in the event the start was less than auspicious. Wim had loaded the various waypoints that he needed into a very simple and basic Garmin eTrex GPS of the type usually only used by hikers and after the huge amount of planning work that I’d done, I had all of the routes for the various days loaded into my Asus tablet for use in my MemoryMap navigation system. Or so I thought. When I came to fire it up, I actually found that it was … empty! How could that possibly be? I had been meticulous about copying the routes over from my PC to the tablet, so how could it possibly be empty? After all, I’d even copied over a backup just in case into my trusty little 5″ car satnav that had brought me down through France from the UK in MYRO, so how could I possibly not have copies of the ‘master set’ in my Asus tablet?

I have no idea. The only conclusion that I can come to is that when I modified the northernmost section of the flight because of our being refused access to Lorient airspace, I’d somehow deleted the whole route and never replaced it with the revised version. But there was nothing that I could do about that standing on Wim’s airstrip and all I could say was, ‘Thank goodness!’ that I’d taken the precaution of having my 5″ satnav as a backup that I could use in its place. The only knock-on was that the satnav only runs for 3 hours and needs a car cigar lighter socket to keep going whereas the tablet runs for 11 hours and charges from a USB and as I’d specially purchased a double USB adaptor, I could have run the tablet and charged up my phone, camera or camcorder at the same time. Now I’d just have to make the best of it and charge up the latter as and when I got the chance, so not a disaster, but just inconvenient and something that I’d taken steps to try to avoid.

But that was not to be all. Usually Wim’s Weedhopper, the Red Baron, starts with a couple of pulls of the starter cord, but not that morning. After pull after pull, its engine still resolutely refused to start. Eventually it did splutter into life and Wim left it to warm up as he usually does, only for it to gradually slow down and come to a halt. Wim is not usually a person to use bad language, but the air was as blue as his face was grim. He told me that he’d even started the engine up the day before to ensure that everything would be OK on the day and I asked him how long he’d let it run for. As soon as he told me that it was for less than a minute, I guessed that in doing so, he’d probably oiled-up the plugs and that we should remove, check and clean them. When we did so, we found them to be drenched in oil. After we’d spun the engine to clear the oil out, Wim dropped in a replacement set and this time the engine started as usual, but to be sure, Wim did a few fast taxies up and down the runway to make certain all was well. He was happy, so at last after a good hour’s delay, we really were ready to go.

In some ways, the flights that ensued were a bit of an anticlimax, but nonetheless enjoyable for all that. Maybe that was a good thing as it allowed us both to get over the tensions caused by our pre-start traumas and concentrate on our flying and the landings to come. Wim took off first as the Red Baron flies 10-15 kmh more slowly than 56NE and although I said that I’d try to fly slower to try to match our speeds, I suspected that with the weight that I was carrying it would be difficult if not impossible to do so. And that’s what I found as within a few minutes of taking off myself, I came up to, overtook and left Wim behind.

The weather and flying conditions were spectacular albeit a little bumpy as a result of the low cumulus cloud and the thermals created by the sun on the ground below. Our route for the day is shown below, with our first stop being at Montpezat in the Lot et Garonne and our second at Amou in the Landes where we planned to overnight.

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Within a fairly short time, we had put the rolling tree-covered hills of the Dordogne behind us and were flying over the flatter terrain of the Lot et Garonne that is very fertile and criss-crossed with small woods and fields. The countryside is very pleasing to the eye as the following pic shows.

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After 45 minutes or so, the River Lot came up on 56NE’s nose and I knew that I was then approaching Montpezat, which is just beyond it next to a lake. Although I’d not been there before, it didn’t take me long to spot the bright white and blue hangars on either side of the airfield and I could then start my descent for runway 33. This is one of the good things about moving-map GPS software – even when you haven’t spotted your landing airfield, you know exactly how far away it is and can start to descend or manoeuvre accordingly. In comparison, I noticed that on this and on other occasions too, subsequently, Wim had to descend over the field from a greater height whereas I could set myself up at the right height and on the right headings quite a bit sooner, all down I think to the navigation software I was using.

My planned flight time Plazac-Montpezat 53 minutes, actual flight time 54. Here are shots of 56NE parked up after landing at Montpezat and Wim coming in several minutes afterwards.

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Montpezat is a splendid little airfield and the home of Rotax’s distributor in France. There are no landing fees there, in common with 99% of all small airfields in France, and superb facilities including a super cafe/bistro, impressive hangarage and full workshop facilities. Here’s a shot showing the control tower (not that anyone ever mans the radio), the general facilities with the restaurant a bit further back and part of the main hangar.

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Wim and I took the opportunity to grab a cup of coffee and talk over the flight so far. Neither of us had experienced any problems so things were now much more relaxed than earlier on before we’d started out! Here’s a shot taken at the bar in the cafe.

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But not everyone was as lucky as us! As usual, we got chatting to various people while we were there, many of whom were interested in our flight when we told them what we were up to. Two such were a retired French couple who were flying a Savannah south to their house in Spain. They’d been grounded at Montpezat for two days due to high winds in the Perpignan area and expected to be so for at least one day more. They were both amused by the amount of baggage that I was carrying in my cabin and the fact that 56NE had no doors! They also congratulated us on not being affected in the same way that they were and gave us both a wave as we took off separately half an hour or so later leaving them behind sitting in the shade on the ground.

The countryside passing by below me hardly changed as I continued to fly south-west and when I passed over the River Garonne I knew that not very long afterwards I’d be moving from the Lot et Garonne into the Landes.

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Here are a couple of shots of the River Garonne itself, which was a thick yellow colour and obviously full of silt as I passed over it.

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The south-western corner of France has much in common with Spain and indeed there’s a strong ‘Basquish’ influence there. One of the signs of this is that even the smallish towns, without commenting on the rights and wrongs of the activity, have a bullfighting ring. I knew therefore that I’d entered the Landes when I flew over the small town of Hagetmau because as I did so, I took a shot that shows both the town’s sports stadium and its small bullring.

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Amou is only a few minutes further on from Hagetmau as the ULM flies and pretty soon after taking the above shot, I was beginning my descent for the small, privately owned ULM field there. I made sure that although my approach was pretty straight in on the heading I was flying I kept well clear of houses and the field’s neighbours, as requested in the FFPLUM airfield card. I also recalled that 07 was the preferred approach and something about a wire across the approach for 25, which was the runway that I’d have to use due to the wind direction. I found as a result of a low pass and a go-around that the line is actually buried just for the width of the runway and after my second approach and landing, I was warmly greeted by M. Dufourq, the airfield’s owner and a bit later on by his wife. We all watched as Wim arrived 10 minutes or so later and here are a couple of shots of our two aircraft with engines off after landing and of M. and Mme Dufourq.

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M. and Mme Dufourq were extremely friendly and hospitable and took us straight away over to their verandah for refreshments. The airfield is actually in their own ‘back garden’ so to speak as it’s on land adjacent to and in walking distance from their house and it’s only a hop and a skip from the garden outside their house to the hangar. There were several aircraft in the hangar as the shot above shows and M. Dufourq is retired from his original main job and now operates a small ULM club from there. We were told that there’s a Rans Coyote for sale inside without an engine as it’s going to be used on a Savannah that three of the club’s members were presently constructing in the club’s clubhouse! We were also surprised and enchanted to be invited for dinner that evening but as Wim and I wanted to test our camping arrangements and also make an early start if possible, we declined what was an extremely kind and thoughtful invitation.

And so afterwards we moved our aircraft to the shelter of the side of the hangar, erected our pop-up tents for the first time and got a meal going on our single gas burner. How did the night go? I’ll tell you in the next posting 😉

My planned flight time Montpezat-Amou 1 hour 29 minutes, actual flight time 1 hour 35, including the low pass and go-around. I shot a video of our flight down to Amou from Plazac and in the meantime, you can watch it if you like by clicking on the following image.

West Coast Day 1