Friday 12th August
Leg 1 – Saumur to Abbeville
I’d slept well my first night in the hotel but my second was a far more restless affair. Whether this was because of my flight the next day to the UK or not I don’t know, but in any case I was up early finalising my flight planning and fuel calculations using the latest wind data and filling out my knee board with headings and timings for the various legs of the flight. I also checked one final time that the international flight plan that I’d need to file at Abbeville was correct so I knew that I’d be able to get away for the water crossing without any hitch.
Then it was time for breakfast. For me it was a fairly meagre affair as I love to have a bowl of cereal with milk, a glass of fruit juice and several cups of tea but as I’d be flying for well over 2 hours from Saumur to Abbeville in one hop, I wanted to avoid the mid-air crisis that inevitably happens if you take on too much fluid beforehand. And there was no cereal anyway, which I found very disappointing for an international 4-star hotel, but that’s another story.
No such problem for Linda though. She enjoyed a more hearty meal and even had the foresight to make a sandwich to take with her on her drive back to Normandie, but we were both ready in good time to settle up with the hotel and get away for my planned take off time of 10.00 am.
But that didn’t take into account what invariably occurs when you want to get away quickly, which is that someone shows up and engages you in conversation. In this case it was the manager at Saumur airfield who started off just wanting to know my details for the airfield log and in case anyone wanted to send me a bill for landing and parking (unlikely) but it soon extended itself to other ULM and more social matters, as usually happens.
As I’d refuelled 77ASY immediately on arrival two days before, I only needed to untie it, load my baggage, give it a walk-round check and get away, so this delay was slightly inconvenient. However, it’s my philosophy that you should never be rude or cut someone short, especially if you’re coming back that way, as you never know when you might need their help which is bound to be less readily forthcoming if you didn’t make a good impression previously.
But there was still time enough for me to more or less make my planned departure deadline and in fact I got away at 10.05 am with weather and visibility both good but with just a hint of scattered, broken low level cloud.
The indications from up ahead were, however, that cloud would become more of an issue as the flight progressed, as indeed proved to be the case.
Within a few minutes of taking off, the signs were that the cloud was becoming a bit more dense and less broken but this in itself didn’t pose too much of a problem as above it the air was completely clear with no ceiling whatsoever.
Initially the cloud was 1/8 broken allowing for good sight of the ground below.
But gradually it became 4/8 broken.
This progressed to 6/8 cover.
And eventually the cloud layer became 8/8 unbroken allowing no sight of the ground at all.
This meant that for a time I was flying ‘VFR on top’ and just maintaining course by following the line on my GPS, which is what I’d been doing all along anyway as it’s a waste of time trying to navigate by eye using ground features on long flights. And in any case, I could see the boundary of the cloud layer some way ahead which meant that I’d soon be back in sight of the surface.
And so it proved as the cloud returned to being scattered, allowing sight of the ground once more.
Shortly afterwards I crossed the cloud boundary which once again allowed a good view of the surface passing below.
And all of this was before I’d even reached the tall TV mast (Émetteur Le Mans-Mayet) to the south-east of Le Mans, which was only just about 65 kms and half an hour from take off at Saumur.
On long flights it’s difficult keeping track of the names of the places that you pass over, the more so because I use charts and a GPS that omit place names to avoid unnecessary clutter. However, it’s almost always possible to load your track into Google Earth afterwards and find the places that correspond to photographs that you took at the time, and here are a few.
Two shots of La Ferté Bernard
The distinctive road pattern of Nogent-le-Rotrou
A fantastic mosaic of fields baked dry by the sun with a tiny tractor kicking up a plume of dust behind it.
Some shots of the now-closed and almost completely dismantled former NATO airfield of Senonches near La Franconnière, just about mid-way between Saumur and my destination of Abbeville. The airfield’s heyday was in the Cold War days of the 1950’s and 60’s when it housed ‘Flying Boxcar’ troop carrying aircraft and probably had a role as a rapid staging point for troops coming into Europe in the event of Eastern European hostilities.
But those days are now long gone, and although the main runway and the outlines of the taxiways and parking places are still to be seen, all of the hangars and buildings have disappeared and what remains of the airfield is now used as a giant solar panel farm.
From then on, although the cloud below remained broken, it became more dense and up ahead a new layer of low-level cloud began to reveal itself.
So when I approached and flew over the town of Vernon on the banks of the river Seine in Normandie, the town could only just be seen below the layer of broken cloud.
From then on the cloud layer passing below became thicker and thicker until once again I found myself flying ‘VFR on top’ with no ceiling and nothing but bright blue sky above me but with no sight of the ground whatsoever, not even through any passing holes or gaps. And this lasted for the whole of the last 1/3 of the flight right up until I reached Abbeville.
But before then, I had another problem to contend with. I’d been flying at an altitude of somewhere around 3000 feet but ahead of me was a dog-leg between Rouen and Beauvais followed by an area of controlled airspace that I needed to get under at 2400 feet in order to avoid infringing it. It’s highlighted in the image below.
There was no possibility that I’d be able to do that without descending into the cloud layer which would have been extremely dangerous and which I had no intention of doing. I therefore had two choices – I could either call up Beauvais and ask for clearance to fly through their airspace at 3000 feet without a transponder, or I could simply change my course using my GPS and route around it. I decided on the latter for reasons of time and simplicity and because doing so would only add a few minutes to my total flight time anyway. The route I took is shown as the purple diversion with arrows, also in the above image, eventually intersecting my planned routing to Abbeville a few kilometres beyond the airspace’s northern boundary.
Strictly speaking, ‘VFR on top’ isn’t really legal because the rules for visual flight stipulate that pilots must remain clear of cloud and in sight of the surface, and VFROT clearly fails to meet the second condition. However, there’s nothing really ‘wrong’ or ‘unsafe’ about doing it, just so long as you are careful to ensure that another layer of cloud isn’t descending from above you until you are trapped in the jaws of it and the one you are flying above or that something nasty isn’t hiding below the one you are flying over, like snow-covered rising ground or some other kind of obstacle, that can appear in front of you after being hidden from sight so you collide with it and end up ruining your whole day.
The other problem that can arise is that you arrive over your destination without there being a hole to descend through, which is precisely what happened to me on this occasion a few kilometres short of Abbeville.
When that happens, it’s worth having a ‘Plan B’, which I did have. I knew that by filling up my tanks at Saumur, I had enough fuel on board when overhead Abbeville to continue on over the Channel to Headcorn if I had to, so there was no need to panic (not that I’m that kind of a person anyway). The problem with that was that even though I’d filed a GAR form for my re-entry into the UK, I still needed to file my international flight plan for my crossing of the international border between France and Britain, which is a legal requirement.
But there are ways and means. If I called up the relevant air traffic service on the radio, I could give them the details and they could file an airborne flight plan for me, so that’s what I decided to do next. To start with, even though I was in France, I dialled up Farnborough Radar and gave them a call, two actually, but although I could hear them, they not unsurprisingly, couldn’t hear me.
After the second attempt, I was just about to call Lille when I spotted the hint of a hole in the cloud with a glimpse of the ground below, so I made an instant decision. I closed 77ASY’s throttle, threw the left wing down and put the aircraft into a spiral dive aiming for the hole. The main things that you MUST do in such circumstances are to ensure that by the time you reach the cloud you have the wings level and that you have not too quick a rate of descent as almost inevitably you will end up clipping the edge of the cloud and flying into zero visibility for a short while. If you don’t, there’s a very real danger, as I know only too well from my IMC rating training from many years ago, that you will lose control and may not be able to regain it even after popping out of the bottom of the cloud, before hitting the ground.
The other thing that you need to watch is your airspeed. 77ASY’s Vne (maximum allowable airspeed) is 190 kmh, so I had to make sure that I kept well within that limit.
The transition from above to below the cloud only lasted a few seconds but it’s always a relief when you pop out of the bottom of the layer and can see the ground still some way below you. On this occasion, it was even more marked because above the cloud the sky was blue, the cloud was a brilliant white and the sunshine was dazzling, whereas below it was gloomy and a world plunged in shadow. And not only that but I was also heading in totally the wrong direction after making the turning descent.
It was then a relatively simple matter to get things back into some kind of shape before calling up Abbeville for a landing. As there was no other traffic, I even just called a long final for a straight in approach to runway 10 and not long after that, 77ASY was parked and I was standing serenely on the apron ready to prepare the aircraft and myself for my hop over the Channel to Headcorn.
And I was pleased to see that I only took on just over 40 litres of fuel, meaning that I still had the best part of 30 litres in the tanks, or more than enough to complete the flight to Headcorn if I’d had to. So my judgement (and calculations) had been correct and my ‘Plan B’ would have been viable if I’d had to implement it.
Here are some shots taken at Abbeville.
Flight time Saumur – Abbeville 2 hours 55 minutes.
Leg 2 – Abbeville to Headcorn
While I was at Abbeville, the cloud cover began to break up a bit but it was evident that it would remain a factor during my continuing flight north up to the Channel coast. I dealt with all the formalities, including using the toilet, refuelling 77ASY and paying for the fuel and my landing fee quite quickly and smoothly before then proceeding to don my life jacket for the flight over the water.
It was precisely then that a keen young Dutch chap decided to engage me in conversation and tell me about his hopes to start learning to fly, which was somewhat inconvenient at the time to say the least! When I was ready I filed my flight plan on the EuroFPL.eu web site using my mobile phone, started up F-JHHP as it’d now become, taxied out and took off for England.
To the north of Abbeville, the low-level cloud persisted but was much more broken than to the south and the conditions were much brighter. Here are a few shots that I took as I tracked north.
Here’s a shot of the village (or commune) of Vron taken through the cloud.
The view from above of the Nord Pas de Calais countryside was magnificent.
This shot shows the commune of Nampont with it’s very nice looking golf course.
Approaching Boulogne, the cloud layer below once again became thicker.
Here’s a shot of St Léonard, one of Boulogne’s south-western suburbs.
At the height that I was flying, somewhere around 4500 feet, the English coast and the white cliffs of Dover could be clearly seen in the far distance.
Below, the town of Boulogne was, however, almost totally obscured by the cloud cover.
Here’s a shot that I took coasting out at Cap Gris Nez with Calais visible in the distance.
This is a shot of Dover taken from roughly mid-Channel.
Here’s Folkestone taken just before I coasted in to the west of the town.
And finally, a shot taken on the ground at Headcorn after I’d paid my landing fee just before I went off for a welcome cup of tea and a snack in the airfield cafe. Lovely!
Headcorn was very busy and the approach very active. This was not only because of local traffic returning and other aircraft doing circuits, but the controller also wanted to clear the circuit while I was approaching to allow a Catalina to land.
The Catalina is a very historic aircraft having been heavily deployed as a submarine hunter during WWII. There are very few still flying and one, together with a beautiful De-Havilland Dove, was parked at Headcorn by the time I’d landed. And I forgot to take a picture of either!
Flying time Abbeville – Headcorn 1 hour 40 minutes.
Leg 3 – Headcorn to Bowerswain Farm
So after a brief stop at Headcorn to stretch my legs and take on a bit of food and drink, it was time to embark on the final leg of my flight, to Bowerswain Farm, a short 200 metre grass strip in a lovely setting on a beautiful privately owned property in Dorset. I’d never landed there before but it held no fear for me after my experiences flying into and out of the short grass trips of the Dordogne. What was more of a challenge was getting there.
By now the westerly wind had picked up, meaning that my flying time at the end of an already long day, would be longer than I’d planned for and also I’d be flying into the sun with quite a strong haze affecting visibility.
It was slightly weird to be flying in southern England again after a break of 4½ years and I’ve put together a string of pictures to document the flight, which took me south-west from Headcorn past Crowborough, Burgess Hill, Chichester and Portsmouth, around the Solent Collaborative Airspace Trial area (which in the UK means that it will inevitably be grabbed at the end of the ‘trial’ and made into controlled airspace) via Beaulieu and Stoney Cross to my final destination.
As usual, comments and captions refer to the images that follow them. First a patchwork of tiny fields in Kent – great for keeping a few horses and ponies in, but not much good for anything else, I’d have thought.
A couple of shots of the reservoir called Bewl Water near Wadhurst. I used to fly past it a lot in MYRO when it was based at Linton.
Sparrows Green, Wadhurst.
Jarvis Brook, Crowborough.
English housing packed in together side-by-side and on top of each other. I prefer rural France 😉
The A23 southbound near Hurstpierpoint.
Two shots of Portsmouth. Pity about cutting the Spinnaker in the second one, but there was a second chance on the return journey.
And finally, at my destination, Bowerswain Farm.
If I’d had any worries about finding it, a small grass strip in a sea of green, they were soon dispelled when I spotted the freshly mown runway in the distance and an orange windsock. So yet again my trusty GPS running MemoryMap hadn’t let me down. But it had been a long day and it was nice to land knowing that I’d finally arrived. As I was preparing to tie F-JHHP down, the property’s owner and his wife arrived after walking their dogs over the fields and after greeting each other and a brief exchange of conversation, we decided that the best thing to do would be tuck the aircraft behind the wall of the swimming pool where it couldn’t be seen from the road.
And there F-JHHP stayed until I returned to refuel it and take off for home several days later. But what a flight it had been, one I’d not have missed for anything. And how gratifying too, as being able to fly back to the UK was one of the reasons why I’d decided to buy a Savannah. Decision totally vindicated!
Flying time Headcorn – Bowerswain Farm 2 hours 5 minutes.
Total flying time for the day from Saumur – Bowerswain Farm 6 hours 40 minutes
Total flying time over two days from Malbec (Dordogne) – Bowerswain Farm (Dorset) 9 hours 15 minutes