May 29, 2018

Disappointment all round

Readers might have surmised by now from my continued silence in respect of my planned UK flight in F-JHHP that all didn’t go as planned. And they’d be right. Not that conditions weren’t perfect for it and the aircraft wasn’t immaculate and perfectly prepared for it, as the following pictures show.

ICP Savannah MXP740, Dordogne, France

ICP Savannah MXP740, Dordogne, France

So everything was perfect and with the glorious weather conditions on the day, Sunday 20 May, I was looking forward to an epic flight. However, an unfortunate sequence of events succeeded in putting paid to it, for now anyway, as I’ll go on to explain.

My good friends, Wim and Victor had turned up to see me off, Wim arriving in his Weedhopper and Victor by car. The first task was to get the Savannah out of the hangar, and while I released the internal retainers, Wim offered to raise the doors from the front. The doors are opened using cords on a pulley system which I’ve found over the months that I’ve been doing it require a bit of a knack rather than just brute strength and as he heaved on the cord of the first door it snapped.

This was a bit of a setback as there’s no simple other way to get the doors raised and propped high enough to extricate the aircraft from the hangar and it took us a good ten minutes or more to do the job with the clock all the while ticking away past my planned departure time. But in the end the Savannah was out on the top of the runway where I had to face it nose uphill to prevent fuel from the topped-up tanks from syphoning out onto a low wing as I’ve had happen on a couple of occasions in the past.

It then took several more minutes for me to load all my baggage and equipment into the aircraft after which I was ready to start the engine, let it run for five or so minutes to warm up and turn it around to face down the runway ready for take off. It was then that I made my fatal mistake.

Wim had left his aircraft to one side in the area where I would be turning and to give me as much room as possible, he moved it back a bit. Then I began to taxy slowly up towards the top of the runway and began my turn to get into position for take off and it became clear almost immediately to both of us as I did so that there was still insufficient space to make the turn.

But by then as the Savannah began to move downhill it was already too late. Even with the engine running at not much more than tickover, the momentum of the aircraft on the downslope was too much for the Savannah’s somewhat puny disc brakes to overcome and as I tried to pull the aircraft round as tightly as possible I was treated to the sickening sight of its right wing tip striking the engine of Wim’s aircraft.

So the flight came to an abrupt end even before it had started. I was furious with myself for not taking more time and trouble to turn the Savannah around in a safer way, but it shows how one’s judgement can be impaired when under pressure. We checked out both aircraft and luckily, apart from knocking Wim’s Weedhopper’s air filter askew, which was replaced back in position merely by loosening and re-tightening a retaining screw, there was no damage to his aircraft.

But the same couldn’t be said for the Savannah. Inspection revealed that luckily the wing itself was not affected and only the end of the wing slat had suffered any damage. I wasn’t keen, but Wim and Victor were quite sure that it could be patched up enough for the aircraft to be safely flown, and after several minutes spent reshaping the end of the slat and making it sufficiently stream-lined with duck tape, they proved their point.

However, I still wasn’t keen and they suggested leaving things until the next day before deciding, which I did. In the meantime, I’d left the Savannah outside because we’d been expecting a German visitor to fly in to whom in my absence we’d promised the hangar. In fact he didn’t arrive due to bad weather in Basel, I think he said, so I went back later to put the Savannah back inside.

Almost unbelievably, in doing so I managed to strike the hangar door with its rudder. It didn’t cause much more than cosmetic damage which was still really annoying even so, but for me this was the last straw and I decided that after so many disasters, it was time to call the flight off, for now anyway.

This was further reinforced by the fact that flying the next day, which was a bank holiday in France, meant that picking up fuel at my chosen airfields would be uncertain at the very least. To be sure of obtaining enough to get me to Calais, I’d need to completely replan my flight to go via Saumur, where fuel is available 24/24 by bank debit card, rather than via Blois, which would more than likely be closed, so that clinched it for me.

So what now? Well, luckily the damage to the Savannah’s wing tip is confined just to the slat so repairing it will be no problem. The reason is that there’s a factory kit to convert the wing design from slatted to vortex generator that involves removing the slats and replacing the leading edges of each wing with new ones with a larger profile and vortex generator tabs.

The upside is that the aircraft retains its trademark STOL characteristics but gains a higher cruise speed together with slightly lower fuel consumption. So gains all round then, for only 20 hours of work. However, the kit’s not that cheap at 2000€ TTC (including VAT) and although I had an idea of doing the job some time in the future, I really wanted to upgrade my radio and buy a transponder first to give myself greater flexibility on longer flights.

But it seems that the choice has now been taken out of my hands and the transponder will have to wait, together with the radio upgrade that won’t be required here in France in any case, until 2021. And looking on the bright side, as with the other work that I’ve had to do on the Savannah as a result of unfortunate mishaps, I’ll end up with a better (and more valuable?) aircraft afterwards. Sighhhh….. 😕

As a footnote, while I was typing this post it was such a glorious evening here that I decided to take a break and go for a short ride, up and down the road, on my electric bike. And it was well worth it, to feel the rush of the evening air on my face in the warmth of the evening sunshine. But it was only as I arrived back home and went to put my bike away that a little something happened that gave me such enormous extra pleasure.

My neighbour has a large ’tilleuil’ (lime tree) on the edge of his grounds that just overlaps the corner of my garden next to the shed in which I keep my bike. As I stood there in the still of the evening I could perceive the sound of what might easily have been the hum of distant traffic. But it was something that could hardly have been more different.

My neighbour’s tree is the twin of the one I had in front of my house that I had to remove in readiness for the extension that I plan to add at some time in the future. Like mine, it stands at something over 20 metres in height and like mine, at this time of the year it is covered in delicate bell-like flowers before the little lime fruits begin to properly form. And the sound was because the tree was alive with thousands and thousands of bees working away to collect the pollen contained in the little flowers.

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Such an awesome and enthralling sight and sound must surely temper any feeling of disappointment resulting from one’s human activities and mistakes. And it certainly did for me this evening.

Thoughts and memories on this, her birthday, of my Mum who passed away in 2015. You are still greatly loved and missed.

May 13, 2018

UK flight – here we go again

Doesn’t time fly. Last year when I’d not long started on my course of chemotherapy and really had no idea of how things were going to turn out, I agreed with a good friend of mine that when it was all over I’d fly back to the UK again, as I did in 2016, but this time I’d land in a field he owns adjacent to his house in Kent.

Now here we are almost a year on. I’ve been thinking about and making preparations for the flight for several weeks now and suddenly it’s almost time, with my scheduled departure date just a week away.

I pencilled in a 3-day window of 19-21 May on my calendar because with 21 May being a ‘jour férié’ (bank holiday) in France, that would give me three days of not having to bother about things like French ‘armée de l’air’ low level training corridors and the like. Not that you can’t plan around such things but it’s easier if you can just ignore then completely.

So with take-off being just a week away, what are the problems? Well none, really, except the old one of the weather. There’s still a week to go and forecasts are therefore unreliable, but at this stage, things don’t look too encouraging as it appears that there is likely to be a fairly strong northerly airstream in place (ie strong nose winds) with all that that entails. Like a low temperature and risks of low(ish) cloud and showers, but for now we just have to wait and see closer to the day.

So what’s involved in planning for a flight like this that crosses an international boundary? As readers might be interested, I’ll go through the steps involved and the formalities that need to be dealt with.

First, you need to find your route. Let’s start by making one thing crystal clear. There are a lot of pilots around who enjoy navigating just using charts, dead-reckoning and eye, the way it was done 50 or so years ago. Nothing wrong with that, but do not kid yourself that you can do likewise with a flight like this.

Firstly, there is just too much controlled airspace around these days and innocently blundering into it does neither yourself nor other pilots any good at all. Better is expected of pilots nowadays. And secondly, trying to navigate by dead-reckoning and eye over terrain that you are not familiar with is just much too tiring to keep up for 5 or 6 hours at a time and is a recipe for disaster of some kind or another.

You definitely therefore need some kind of GPS-based navaid. There are many available but the best-known one is probably the UK’s Sky Demon, which fits everything that you need into a tablet or smartphone, including route finding, NOTAMs, en route airfield data and radio frequencies, flightplan filing, in-air route plotting etc. But occasional users, even ones like me who only make infrequent international flights don’t need it.

When I originally flew my old AX3 from the UK to the Dordogne back in 2012 I didn’t use Sky Demon. Instead I just used charts that I’d scanned off the internet and loaded into MemoryMap on my PC and a cheap Chinese satnav and did everything else myself and in principle I still do the same. When I purchase the new Cartabossy French aviation charts each year, I also get a link to download them as geotiffs. This for me is the real value because from then on I confess that although I carry the paper charts with me, they remain unopened.

This is because the geotiffs can be directly loaded into MemoryMap that I purchased years ago and still have, but now on an Asus 7″ tablet as well as my PC and it’s this that I use to create routes on my PC and fly with in my aircraft. And it’s from images of my route grabbed off my PC that the following shots were taken.

All that follows from here on is based on my flight from France to the UK and back. However, everything still applies for a flight in the opposite direction except that it would all be done in reverse.

OK, so back to finding the route. My aircraft is not fitted with a transponder as there’s little need for it in France and staying out of Class D and above airspace is relatively simple. However, it’s a slight hindrance when planning a long flight like this one because the route not only has to remain clear of danger and other restricted areas but also has to divert around controlled airspace when having a transponder on board would allow you to fly straight through.

The next consideration is endurance and refuelling. Unlike driving a car, you can’t just fly an aircraft and when the tanks start to get a bit low, land at the next airport and top up. For a start, fuel isn’t that readily available and certainly not at all airfields. Also, it’s often only available during certain hours and even then may not be on an automatic pump with payment by, for example, a bank debit card. Often only cash will be accepted or else if the pump is automatic, only a Total or BP card, so if you don’t already have one, you can’t buy any fuel.

So refuelling en-route is a major consideration. And one more thing – you mustn’t forget to take the wind into consideration. You should never, ever plan in any case to arrive at an airfield for refuelling with ’empty’ tanks, but if your calculations fail to take into account a strong nose wind, you might find that your landing takes place somewhat earlier than expected and some way away from the nearest fuel pump.

The last time I flew to the UK I went both ways via Abbeville, which was cheap and convenient as it was more or less dead on my chosen route. However, it’s not possible to do the same this time because Abbeville has been closed as a customs airfield as a cost-saving measure, and now you have to go via Calais. So the starting point was just to join up Malbec, my starting airfield, with Calais by a straight line on the chart on my PC.

This immediately revealed where diversions would need to be made around controlled airspace etc and the next consideration was where to land to refuel. My initial calculations revealed two prime possibilities – Blois and Chartres – both more or less dead on my intended route. So the next thing was to look at the official airfield charts for each airfield to see what the positions are regarding fuel availabilty.

Both are shown has having Avgas 100LL available, at slightly different times of day but during hours which I could live with. However, only Blois is shown as having an automatic pump that accepts debit cards, and although I’ve contacted Chartres by email and have been told that debit cards are accepted, I still haven’t received confirmation that supply is by automatic pump and think that it has to be arranged via the aero club.

So I’ve decided to fly to the UK and back via Blois and have ended up with a very simple initial sector of just two legs around Limoges Class D airspace, as shown below.

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Getting from Blois to Calais using the same principles is only slightly more complicated as the next image shows. A diversion around Chateaudun Class D airspace needs to be made and consideration must also be given to height restrictions that apply. For that reason I’ve chosen also to make a small diversion around Class D airspace to the north of Evreux even though it’s not strictly necessary.

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Once a final route has been decided upon, then it’s time to start crunching the numbers. I do this even though I’ll be using my GPS-based navaid while flying, mainly because I want to be absolutely sure about leg timings and my refuelling arrangements. I use my own excel spreadsheet for this and the image below shows the plan for the selected route. Some entries at the UK end have been deleted for reasons of privacy as I’ll ultimately be landing at my friend’s private field in Kent, but these do not detract from the sheet’s usefulness.

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So with the final numbers including wind info ready to go onto my kneeboard, that’s the aviation basics dealt with. Now what about the flight formalities and paperwork? Now’s a good time to mention that you MUST carry your aircraft’s registration and insurance documents with you. The likelihood is that you’ll not be asked to produce them but if you can’t then you can expect problems. But what about the flight formalities themselves?

The first thing that you’ll need to arrange is a Schengen exit form covering the leg from Calais to the UK. It’s available on the airfield web site and is easy enough to complete on your PC and email in 24 hours in advance, as shown below.

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So that’s one half of the international leg covered – what about the second? For that you’ll need to complete and submit a GAR form for entry into the UK. Once again, it’s easy enough to fill in directly on your PC and email in to the link shown on its second page, again 24 hours ahead of planned arrival time.

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So that’s it then, you think as you breathe a sigh of relief. Well, no actually. There’s just one more step to take, one that many pilots find a little bit tricky, and that’s creating and filing a flight plan. Users of Sky Demon have this sorted out for them and it’s just a matter of clicking a link (and paying a fee). However, there are other ways of doing it, a NATS based UK system, a French system called Olivia and a web site called EuroFPL to name just three. I like to use EuroFPL because (a) it’s free to GA pilots and (b) it validates your plan at the time of creation so when you file it you know that it’ll be accepted.

Here’s a shot of the (very simple) single leg flightplan for the proposed leg from Calais direct (DCT) to Headcorn.

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Since I first posted the above image I’ve amended it on the advice of my friend Rick in the UK. I quote:

“Where a VFR flight crosses an FIR boundary the flight plan needs to show the crossing point (co-ords or a radial, for Cap GN to Dover I usually show DVR160 from memory) and the EET to that point. A flight plan generated by SkyDemon does this automatically by the way.”

Rick then found the following in the VFR Flight Planning Guide, which he kindly brought to my attention.

7.3.1 Additionally, for flights to/from France, the French Authorities require the frontier crossing point (the UK/France FIR boundary position) to be included in Item 15 (Route) of the FPL. To assist pilots, the UK now includes the ATS route reporting points on the Southern England and Wales 1:500 000 chart. These can be used as a frontier crossing point. A position may also be shown as LAT/LONG, or as a bearing and distance from a route reporting point or navigation aid. Example: Cap Gris Nez – RINTI Cap Gris Nez – 51N00130E Cap Gris Nez – RINTI23005 Cap Gris Nez – DVR16010
7.3.2 The EET for this position should be shown in Item 18 of the FPL (Other information) in the format EET/LFFF(elapsed time) or EET/EGTT (elapsed time), depending on flight direction. Example: EET/LFFF0145 (UK/France) or EET/EGTT0020 (France/UK).

So now the IFR boundary crossing point is shown in the ‘Route’ box (rather than just DCT for Direct) and the EET (elapsed time) to reach it in box 18.

The plan needs to be filed 24 hours (or less if you want) ahead of time just by clicking on the EuroFPL link, as simple as that.

I think that the section of the form that pilots find the most tricky and that causes the most rejections is the ‘Route’ box. There’s really no need to fear it if you keep it simple and stick to points defined by latitude and longitude pairs.

You can use decimal degrees or degrees and minutes. I find the latter simpler because you can then use ‘N’ to designate our northern latitudes and ‘E’ and ‘W’ for longitudes. All you need to remember is to insert 4 figures describing latitude in degrees and tens and units of minutes followed by ‘N’ (North) followed by 5 figures describing longitude in degrees and tens and units of minutes, followed by ‘E’ (East) or ‘W’ (West) and to make up the correct number of figures, where necessary, by insertion of zeros. Also, not to include spaces. However, if you need to describe a route by defining several lat/long points you just add each one in the same format in the ‘Route’ box with a space between them eg 5101N00132E 5101N00027W (the latter is the Billingshurst VRP to the SW of the Gatwick Class D). Then apart from only ticking boxes on the flight plan form that are relevant (ie no ‘X’s or ‘0’s for items that do not apply) you should never have another flightplan rejected and have to start pulling your hair out wondering why.

And that really is that. With all of the above tasks completed, all that’s left is to fly safely and enjoy the flight 😉

May 2, 2018

X-Air’s turn now

We had a mixed bag of weather over the past week or so – more rain, over several days in fact, but some good days thrown in too. The highlight was spending an afternoon taking Wim’s son and his children for local pleasure flights. In the past I’ve used the X-Air, which meant that we couldn’t go very far afield, but this time in the Savannah, we were able to do a route as far as around Montignac and back.

They all enjoyed the experience and whereas the others only had a take off and landing back at Galinat, the last passenger, one of Wim’s grandsons who’d never flown before, got a special treat.

Because I’d left the Savannah at Galinat the night before, my car was with me and Wim was to drive it back to Malbec, which was to be the last landing of the day. But because if we had flown direct, we’d have got there ages before him, I decided to drop into Condat first before heading back to Malbec. My passenger was delighted.

Unfortunately, when they left they took the sunshine with them and it only returned today, too late to take up another eager young member of Wim’s family with aspirations of becoming a pilot who wanted to fly yesterday. But for me today was the start of getting the X-Air ready to advertise and sell.

When I cleaned it the other day, I found that the special ‘vernis’ that the previous owners had applied to the fabric was massively flaking off the yellow upper surfaces, the wings especially. If I leave it, although the fabric itself is in good condition, I’m sure that the selling price of the aircraft will be drastically reduced, so I need to do something to improve its appearance.

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The flaking is almost certainly due to the effect of UV light and the upside is that the coating has suffered rather than the fabric itself, but that still leaves me with the cosmetic problem. Today I took a stiff brush to the surfaces affected and something like 80% or so of the yellow coating came off leaving a small residue, the edges of which are not that pronounced. The solution will therefore be to clean as much more off as I can with suitable thinners and then apply a new coating.

This should restore a good finish, possibly as good as when I bought the X-Air nearly six years ago. I know what the material was that was used so now I’ve just got to see if I can source some more, mainly the yellow but a small quantity of the blue as well to touch in a few areas where there has been some wear.

I’m not expecting to sell the X-Air for a huge amount so I hope that when I’ve finished, there will be someone whose eye it will catch, just as it did mine.

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