And it was too, much longer than I expected as I’ll go on to explain. Ever since I’d missed my last weather window on 23 June I’d been watching the weather constantly, just as I did last autumn when I was last in the UK and hoping to get 24ZN over to France. But just as then, to no avail because the wind just kept blowing and blowing. Then there were signs of a change and at one time it looked as though the whole of the week commencing 6 July would be suitable for the flight with a good chance even of tail winds.

But as the time approached, the window began to shrink until finally only a tiny window of a single day, Tuesday 7 July, remained and in the light of experience that seemed to me to be highly improbable. What were the chances that the weather forecast could be so spot-on that it would correctly identify the days either side of 7 July as being unsuitable and that just that one day would be good for the flight?

As it happened, the forecasters on this occasion were dead right, much to my amazement I have to say. There were Doubting Thomases at Clipgate who said that I wouldn’t get away at all as the weather was going to deteriorate day-by-day for the whole week, but I kept saying that I trusted what the forecasters were saying and that I would have a window and in the end I was proved right to do so.

Having replaced 24ZN’s ignition stator, I’d been unable to do an air check but I managed to get one in in very windy conditions the day before which showed that its ignition problems had been cured, so that evening I got as much ready as I could and packed it in 24ZN’s cabin ready to go. I also filed my flight plan, GAR form and Schengen entry form so I could make an early start the next day and that I managed to achieve for once, getting away at 7.20 am on a beautiful calm morning. Here’s a shot of the take off.

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I hadn’t prepared myself to take any still pictures, luckily so given what was to come later on in the flight, but I’d set up a GoPro on 24ZN’s wing that recorded the whole flight from Clipgate to Calais, from take off to landing. Here are some shots that I’ve lifted from the video showing my climb out as I approached Dover, and when I say ‘climb out’, actually I was slowly climbing from take off the whole way to mid-Channel by which time I was just under the cloud base at between 4500 and 5000 feet.

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Here’s a nice shot of the port of Dover and its harbour.

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The next shot was taken just as I was coasting out at Dover and with the visibility being so good, the French coast is clearly visible. The usual crossing point that most pilots aim for to coast in at is Cap Gris Nez which is the coastline that juts out on the right of centre. That is the shortest route but I was aiming for a point a bit further to the east, closer to Calais. It would mean being over the water for a few minutes longer but I decided that having reached that far, the chance of anything going wrong was very small and the risk therefore only slight.

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Here’s a shot taken somewhere around mid-Channel. If you click on the image and enlarge it you will see in the bottom left hand corner what I think is a UK Border Force boat standing off from and observing a small vessel with a tiny wake, presumably a rubber dinghy containing illegal migrants.

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The next shot was taken some way further on by which time I had reduced engine revs and was beginning to slowly descend. I’d tried several time to raise London Information without success and I had the same result with Lille Approach so I’d been out of radio contact for the whole of the crossing. I think though, that if I’d had an emergency, I’d have got through on 121.5, but by now I was so content that the engine was running faultlessly that I wasn’t really very concerned.

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Here are a couple of shots taken as I tracked the French coastline flying towards Calais.

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Here’s a shot of the port of Calais and its harbour and in the distance you can just make out the port of Dunkerque.

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Approaching Calais with the airfield on the starboard beam. I’d tried to raise them several times on their published frequency but without success so just continued broadcasting my position as I joined the circuit downwind for runway 24.

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Turning final for 24.

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About to land on runway 24 at Calais.

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Taxying in to parking.

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Parked in front of the terminal buildings which are so quaint and so very French ‘ancien régime’.

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Yours truly removing my life jacket worn for the crossing.

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I went to enter the terminal building only to find that it was locked, nobody was there and that they clearly didn’t expect to be doing much business because on the door was a notice saying to call the number shown to close your flight plan. I rang it a couple of times, it turned out to be in Mérignac, Bordeaux, but there was no reply. This left me with a problem because flight plans have to be closed. I solved it by calling NATS, D & D actually, in the UK who said that they would pass on the information and do it for me.

I then bumped into a couple of people on what was almost a ghost airport. One turned out to be the person I’d spoken to a few weeks before when I enquired about going into Calais and we chewed the fat for a few minutes. Then it was time for me to take off and head off to Abbeville where I had to pick up fuel in order to top up my tanks and the two 20 litre jerricans that I was carrying next to me on the passenger seat in the cabin.

I expected from the weather forecast that there would be a bit of wind on this leg but I was surprised by just how turbulent it was and how much I was buffeted by it. Little did I know that not only would this be the story for most of the flight but that it would also get worse as I proceeded further south. Here’s a shot that I took of 24ZN at Abbeville.

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I was rather annoyed by the service that I received on this occasion at Abbeville. After transferring fuel from my jerricans to top up my tanks, I needed to buy fuel to refill them and get on as soon as I could. But the airfield office was closed and locked and I couldn’t locate anyone to operate the pump. I eventually found the person responsible chatting with a mate and drinking coffee in a hangar some distance away but it took two attempts to instil some kind of urgency in him. By the time I was able to leave I’d lost well over an hour when I’d planned to be there for only 20 or 30 minutes at most.

The next stop was at Dreux where I’d planned to land in order to top up my tanks from the fuel in my jerricans that I’d purchased earlier at Abbeville. Here’s a shot that I took afterwards.

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The process had gone very smoothly and I was all set to get away in double-quick time. Until I came to start 24ZN’s engine, that is, and the battery was too flat to turn the engine over. The airfield at Dreux was deserted and I thought it unlikely that I’d be able to get any help, but I decided to look anyway. And my luck was in, because the ULM hangar door was open and I found someone who had a set of jump leads. He drove his car up to 24ZN and we got the engine started with me in the cabin. He gave me a thumbs-up and I was off and away for my next stop at Blois.

The flight from Abbeville to Dreux and the approach at Dreux were exceedingly bumpy, so much so that I was working stick and rudder the whole time to keep the aircraft on course and in trim. This was the story for practically the whole flight, all very tiring and taxing of concentration. I couldn’t even look at my charts as I was being thrown about so much, not that I needed to as I know from experience that I can rely totally on my Asus tablet and my course pre-loaded in it in MemoryMap. And the constant turbulence didn’t improve at all as I flew on towards Blois.

I had to land at Blois in order to take on fuel for the final legs of the flight so I knew that afterwards I’d have the same problem restarting the engine. The fireman at Blois works the fuel pumps and he was very helpful finding a clean funnel to use to fill my jerricans as I found that the fuel nozzle was exactly the same diameter as the necks of the jerricans. Afterwards I asked whether he could help with jump leads but he suggested that I should ask at the hangar at the other end of the parking area.

When I entered there was a small team working on an immaculate Twin Otter but when I asked if they could help me they jumped into action immediately. And they also wanted to speak English, which was nice. In the event two guys and their manager came with a jump pack that they hooked up to 24ZN’s battery and with me in the cabin, we soon got the engine started. Then as I taxied out to take off, all three of them and the fireman waved me off, probably thinking that this ageing Englishman must be totally mad to be flying in such an aircraft in such weather on such a long flight. But in any case, I was up and away again with Le Blanc my next stop.

I’d incurred yet more delay at Blois due to my battery problem and by now I was running well behind my planned schedule. The lady controller at Blois was very helpful, providing me with winds on both landing and take off in good English of her own volition. There was gliding on the field but when I asked for a left turn-out (the circuit for the runway in use was right hand) she was very accommodating when I said that I’d keep well clear of the field, and so my bumpy flight leg to Le Blanc was underway and I was resigned to being thrown around for the next 1 1/4 hours until I got there.

Le Blanc came into sight and I tried calling them up on its published frequency with no result. Its frequency is shared with another airfield whose name now escapes me somewhere up closer to Paris and although there was plenty of radio traffic from there, there was nothing from Le Blanc. That was until I called overhead the field and announced my intention to join downwind for a landing, when a voice came up warning me that there was parachuting on the field.

I replied that I’d keep a good lookout then landed and taxied to the apron, past the fuel pumps to where two guys were talking outside the main hangar. I told them of my battery problem and one of them, an elderly gentleman, said he’d sort out help and some jump leads. It turned out that he was the only help and conversation revealed that he was over 90 years old.

After I’d finished the fuel transfer from the jerries to the tanks, he drove his car out of the hangar to hook the jump leads he’d obtained to 24ZN’s battery. Unfortunately they were rather short and we ended up with the front of his car under 24ZN’s prop and the jump leads attached to the starter solenoid (+ve) and an engine earth (-ve). I insisted on being involved outside the aircraft so we had to find some chocks and after we’d got the engine running I removed the jump leads so he didn’t need to get near the moving propeller. Then he moved his car and after I’d got into 24ZN he pulled the chocks away and I was off, destination Malbec.

By now I was hours behind my planned schedule and as I needed to fly around Limoges controlled airspace in two legs each of an hour, I was beginning to worry that I might not arrive at Malbec while it was still light. But I needn’t have worried. Firstly, as it was by now early evening and the air was cooling, there was little or no turbulence to contend with, making the flight so much smoother than it had been up to the time I’d landed at Le Blanc. Also there must have been a change in the wind, because I found as I flew on that I was making up time on both of the planned flight legs.

As a result I arrived at Malbec shortly before 9.00 pm local time while there was still plenty of daylight. With the airfield in sight, I couldn’t wait to get down and sneeked through the narrow corridor between it and Fleurac, pulled a tight turn onto a short final and dropped down for a perfect short field landing. I tried to move 24ZN off the field but was unable to do so due to the slope so decided to leave it in the mowed area at the top of the runway. It was just a pleasure to get out at last knowing that I wouldn’t have to climb back into the cabin because after so long on a barely cushioned Xair seat my backside was aching.

My good friend Victor had previously kindly offered to give me a lift home and he was soon there after I gave him a call. We shifted a couple of the concrete tie-downs that I made a few weeks ago to secure 24ZN overnight but there wasn’t enough time to sort out its outdoor covers. That didn’t matter though, because we knew that the night was going to be calm and clear. And what a relief it was to load my stuff into the back of Victor’s car and finally head off home after a flight that had taken 11 1/2 hours, but only after I’d enjoyed a beer and a meal that Madeleine kindly served up for me.

Finally, here are some shots of 24ZN in its new home, taken today actually.

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I think that it looks pretty good after the flight it’s just made, and all I did was clean its screen with a few squirts of Plexus polycarbonate cleaner. Its battery is now being charged and I’ll obviously need to look into the reason why it wasn’t being charged during the flight. I’m 99% certain that it’s yet another problem with that ruddy multi-connector – in this case one of the yellow power leads emerging from the stator isn’t making a connection. I was unable to check that at Clipgate and unfortunately it went the wrong way for me. If my guess is correct, it won’t take long to put it right.

In my next post I’ll talk about how things worked out time and fuel-wise against my plans and projections. Just one last thing though. I’ve decided that this is definitely the last long flight that I’ll do in a slow ULM. Am I getting to old for it? Maybe…

One thought on “The long flight home

  1. An impressive, inspiring and gripping take, Roger. Huge congratulations. Thank you for taking the time to write it all up.
    Kind regards
    Harry

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