March 18, 2019

Amazing experience

It was last Saturday, 16 March. It happened at the end of my last flight in 56NE, my X-Air, which I delivered to its new owner in the Vendée on that day. It was also a bit scary really, although I can’t say that I felt scared at the time.

After having several weeks of fine, settled weather we’re now going through a very unsettled period of high winds and rain showers. My X-Air’s new owner naturally wanted to get his hands on it as soon as possible and if anything, was even more keen to have it in his hangar than I was to see it out of the barn at Malbec and receive the rest of the agreed purchase amount.

But it wasn’t that easy to find a weather window good enough for me to safely make the flight, and not only that, I wasn’t keen on doing it anyway while it was very cold in an open aircraft without any doors. I’m NOT a flexwing jockey who all seem to thrive on having their extremities frozen until they turn blue and are almost ready to drop off 😉

So after having looked at and rejected the weather forecasts over several days prior, it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I decided that Saturday might be a go-er and made the appropriate plans. One plus factor was that after having had winds from the north over quite some time, the direction in which I would be headed, on Saturday we could look forward to an airflow from the south. This meant that with a bit of luck I’d be able to make the flight in a single hop without having to land along the way to top up the tanks.

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My destination was St Aubin-la-Plaine which is a small but very flat and open airfield with a grass runway on 11/29 of declared dimensions 1000×50 metres. The indications were that I’d take off in relatively modest south-easterly winds but that they would gain in strength as I proceeded further north. In fact the TAF for La Rochelle, some 39km to the south-west of my destination, gave a wind of 260/10 (260 degrees 18kmh) for about the time I’d be landing and although it also gave a gust warning, this was for much later at the end of the afternoon when I would be safely back on the ground.

The X-Air has a crosswind limit of 15mph, so the La Rochelle TAF (260 degrees, 16mph) would mean that there would be a crosswind component of less than that, so on that basis I decided to go. The numbers came out like this.

Distance 233km
IAS 90kmh
Estimated flight time 2 hours 29 minutes
Estimated GS 94kmh

I expected the winds to be light south-easterly at the outset moving to moderate to strong from the south-west at my destination, so I used wind numbers of 145/09(kmh) for my first planned leg (186km, 315°T) and 240/22(kmh) for my second leg (52kmm 318°T). The reason for the slight change in heading was to take me overhead the X-Air’s new owner’s club airfield where I could land should I need to take on fuel, but in the event it wasn’t necessary because the numbers came out quite a lot differently to how I’d expected them to be.

As I flew north, it became more and more evident that the southerly wind was quite a bit stronger than had been forecast. It wasn’t that easy for me to keep track bundled up in an open cabin with no doors because as soon as I picked up my chart it got blown around by the wind and one of the staples holding it together tore itself away. Even so, I knew that I was making much better progress than I’d anticipated but I was amazed when I saw St Aubin coming up on my nose in only around 2 hours after taking off.

But that was the good news. The bad news was that the wind over the airfield was not from 240° at all but was instead from 200°, an exact 90° crosswind and its speed was way above what had been forecast. I could see the windsock, which was standing out horizontal and rigid, and I estimated after landing that it was blowing at 25+ kmh, possibly as high as 30 kmh, but at that moment that wasn’t my main consideration. My first concern was how to get down and get down safely without bending either the aircraft or myself.

St Aubin’s circuit is always to the south, so the approach to runway 29 involved left-hand turns. As soon as I turned left downwind I felt the full force of the wind and found myself flying 56NE with its stick hard over to the right with some right rudder to maintain a course on the correct heading. But this wasn’t right, of course, because having lost sight of the field while I was on the downwind heading, when I turned tight left-hand to look for the runway, it was way over to my left and far too far away for me to regain a heading that would allow me an approach to land.

Luckily we’d agree that my friend on the ground would bring his hand-held Icom and when his voice came into my headset he asked if I could see his car, which I could. While I was struggling to bring the X-Air back around towards the airfield, on full power against the wind, he told me to keep watching as he drove it from his hangar to just beyond the middle on the right-hand side of the runway and turned it into wind. Then he told me to land following his car.

By now I’d been struggling to bring the X-Air into the wind and was overhead the runway at 90° to it and I therefore had to start to descend and do a complete 360° turn to position myself correctly for a landing in the way that he’d described ie into the wind across the runway running off into a clear area of flat, open grass. The struggle continued as I lined myself up to land and then, as if by magic, all the drama promptly ceased.

It did so when I was dead into the wind on a good final descent path to touch down just beyond the nearmost edge of the runway and the reason was that although the wind was still blowing as fiercely as before, it wasn’t gusting. This allowed me to set my approach up in the usual way with a steady approach speed and a well defined landing spot. All I had to do was make sure that I did hit the runway as the field in front of it was in crop and really muddy, so what a disaster that would have been if I’d touched down in it and ended up turning the poor old X-Air over!

But nothing like that happened. In fact I was very pleased with my landing and with the groundspeed at which I’d touched down, I could easily have pulled up within the width of the runway. But I didn’t. After slowing down, I added power, turned left with right aileron against the wind, taxied to the new owner’s hangar and switched off.

So that was it. An exciting end to my final flight in 56NE. She’s now gone to a new home and I know that her new owner will be a good one. All that was left for me was to get out, unpack and warm up.

My actual flight time was 2 hours 15 minutes, but that involved at least 8 or 9 minutes fighting against the wind over St Aubin getting the landing sorted out. That means that my actual average groundspeed over the whole flight was around 109kmh and the figure for the last leg was undoubtedly a bit higher. So who said that you can’t get anywhere fast in an X-Air?

Mind you, getting back home again the next day was a nightmare in comparison. I had to get up at 5.30am to catch a train leaving La Rochelle for Bordeaux at 7.44am. We made it just in time after driving through heavy rain under dark skies and it was a relief to finally be sitting on the train. We arrived at Bordeaux at around 1030 am, so not a very fast service that stopped at all the stations along the way. But that wasn’t the worst bit.

I enquired at the Information desk at Bordeaux which ‘voie’ was the next one for Périgueux, where we’d arranged for my friend Victor to pick me up. She told me which one and that the next Périguex train would be at 1630 pm that afternoon! Bloody Sunday service!!

I then spotted that there was a service leaving for Sarlat at 1111 am and asked if that was going to go direct. The lady smiled wanly and said that as it was Sunday it would terminate at Libourne in the Gironde where I would catch a SNCF bus for Bergerac which would be stopping at all of the stations in between. At Bergerac I’d change buses for one going to Sarlat, which would also be stopping at all of the stations along the way.

So after having taken just 2¼ hours to fly from Malbec to the Vendée, I eventually arrived home at 415pm, a total travelling time from La Rochelle of 9½ hours. Such are the pleasures of living and travelling by public transport in France… rural France anyway 🙂