The weather plays an ominous hand, but all ends well

So, how did our first night under canvas go? Well, quite honestly, it was a bit of a disaster, for me especially, because my old air bed that I thought I’d thoroughly checked before bringing it along had gone down during the night. It seemed that it could hold its air in without any weight being put on it but as soon as a weight was applied eg by a somewhat flabby body like mine, then the air was forced out of it. Not immediately, but fast enough for you to feel the ground coming up to meet you as you lay there frantically trying to get to sleep before you ended up lying more or less flat out on the grass. I woke up a couple of times and pumped it up, not that I was sleeping particularly deeply, the second time making it as hard as I could to give myself as much time as possible to get to sleep before it deflated again, and luckily did manage to get in a few hours shut-eye.

But there was something else that disturbed both of us even more than my air bed did me, namely the French air force. At around midnight there was a huge roar and a couple of low-flying jets from the nearby Mont-de-Marsan air force base commenced high speed night training right over our tents. They were performing manoeuvres over an enormous area and just as you thought that they were disappearing off into the distance you could hear them turn around and come back overhead again. It was impossible to get any sleep at all while they were doing it and the din went on for over an hour until there was eventually peace. We asked M. Dufourq about it in the morning and he said that it happens quite regularly, but that they try to rotate the sectors that they disturb. That would be it for me I’m afraid, and I could never live in an area that was blighted in such a way. We get low flying jets, during the daytime only, in the Dordogne and that I can live with, but not having a din like we experienced disturbing my slumbers every few nights.

M. Dufourq came over to our tents quite early the next morning and kindly invited us over to their house for breakfast. However, Wim and I had already been up long enough to have our breakfast with what we’d brought with us and also rinse our faces and clean our teeth under the outside tap next to the hangar. We asked M. Dufourq about the weather because the forecast from the previous day had said that we should expect some light rain during this morning. He said that it was likely given the experience of the past few days but that it wouldn’t amount to much and would be clear for us to depart by about midday. We raised the question of picking up some fuel in Amou and M. Dufourq suggested that we should get ourselves packed and ready to go, then join him and his wife for coffee on their verandah and then go off to the local Intermarché with our cans to buy fuel.

So that’s what we did. While enjoying our coffee Mme. Dufourq suggested that if we wanted to we could use their shower and toilet facilities, which Wim and I thought was exceedingly kind. However, although not wanting to be churlish, we turned the offer down because we felt that time was beginning to become a bit pressing. Then we went off with M. Dufourq to Intermarché and filled up our two 20 litre jerry cans and on our return, topped up our tanks and were all set and ready to go.

M. Dufourq asked us about our planned route and we said that we intended to fly more or less due west to the coast, avoiding any controlled airspace along the way, and then planned to start heading north until eventually heading inland to our final destination at a small ULM airfield and school at Coutin Carcans in the Gironde. This was our longest non-stop flight that we’d planned for the whole trip and our main concern was whether we’d be able to make Carcans in a single hop without having to land at an airfield somewhere along the way to top up or tanks.

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M. Dufourq was mortified but for a completely different reason. He asked us if we’d contacted the military controllers at Dax and of course, we hadn’t. He said that they used the area we wanted to cross for low level helicopter training and as far as they were concerned, it was controlled airspace that could only be entered with a transponder and radio. We said that this was absurd as the VFR chart indicated that we could transit the area at low level below the clearly designated controlled airspace, but he was still adamant that before taking off, we should call up Dax.

By that time there had been a few showers, but Wim did anyway even though we could only provide a proposed take off time. The controller he spoke to was indeed adamant that we could not proceed without a radio and transponder and although this quite clearly contradicted the current VFR chart, we were hardly in a position to argue. We just had to accept that the military had grabbed the airspace and that we had to look for an alternative. He suggested that it was up to us, but that in our place he would retrace our steps back a few kilometres to the military low level corridor to the west of Mont-de-Marsan that was not active, and then turn to head north west to Mimizan and rejoin our planned route just beyond it at the coast. As we had little choice, that’s what we therefore decided to do.

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The revised route is shown in blue in the above shot, and one of the advantages of changing the route would be that by cutting out quite a large chunk of our original planned track we would be able to make enough of a fuel saving to allow us to reach Carcans with a safe reserve in our tanks. However, there were reservations. By this time the rain had become quite hard and almost continuous and as well as there being no chance that we’d be able to take off before, or even much after, midday, we had little idea of what conditions we might encounter en route. Here’s a shot that I took between the cloudbursts in the direction that we had originally planned to take that shows how in many ways, not being able to head west was something of a blessing.

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By this time, our aircraft had been uncovered and packed ready to go for quite a while. Although they were in the lee of the hangar, they were still receiving the full brunt of the rain and before we were able to go, we thought that it would be a good idea to tilt them and drain off as much of the water on and in them as we could.

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The last shot above shows how much baggage I was carrying in 56NE on the passenger side. By this time. M. and Mme Dufourq had left us alone as they had to puchase a new computer. The rain had stopped but there was still far too much low cloud around in the direction that we wanted to take, so Wim and I decided to walk into Amou to buy something for lunch to save a bit of time. Afterwards, the cloud had cleared enough for us to go and as usual, after warming up the Red Baron’s engine, Wim took off before me.

We had agreed that in the event of bad weather, we’d land and meet up at Mimizan. The weather was flyable but not very good along the way and here are a couple of the best shots that I took as I approached and flew past the town of Tartas on the way to Mimizan.

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Not long after, I flew past the airfield at Mimizan. Not having seen anything whatsoever of Wim, I decided that he must still be ahead of me and had elected to continue flying as conditions by that time were not too bad. A few minutes later I flew past Mimizan itself on my way to the coast.

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And that’s when things began to go pear-shaped. As I approached the coast, it was evident that visibility was beginning to reduce at quite a rate. This was not only due to the low cloud that had been little more than a nuisance, really, the whole way up from Amou, but it was clear that there was also a bank of fog rolling inland off the sea that was potentially a lot more dangerous. The fog can clearly be seen in the second of the next two pics.

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I was quite aware of the danger that the fog represented but decided that I’d keep going for the time being in case it was just a small bank affecting the local area, but it soon turned out that this was not the case. By now I wasn’t taking any pics by hand but I still had my little sports cam running and here’s a still taken from footage it shot at the time just before the fog completely closed in around 56NE.

IMC

I used the footage to make a short video that I posted a short time ago about the dangers of flying in IMC and you can see it by clicking on the above image. As the video shows, as soon as the cloud closed in, I decided to turn around and head for the airfield at Mimizan in order to sit things out and wait for the conditions to improve and the whole flight from Amou to Mimizan is included in the full video that I shot at the time that you can view by clicking on the following image.

West coast day 2

On checking the AIP plate for Mimizan, I have since noticed the following two notes for pilots:

AD reserved for radio equipped aircraft
AD likely to be covered by sea haze in a few minutes

I have also noticed that although Mimizan is open to the CAP (general aviation traffic) ULM’s do not appear to be included, and all of those things go to help explain why I did not receive the warmest of welcomes when I taxied up in front of the control tower and switched off 56NE’s engine. Mimizan is a very active parachuting centre and as I’d approached, I’d watched their Cessna Caravan making a rapid approach and landing and a whole bunch of coloured canopies floating down on their way back to earth. Naturally, as a result, I’d taken the precaution of making a very wide circuit and long approach in order to give them all plenty of time to land and get clear.

But as I approached the tower, in front of me stood an angry jump controller holding aloft and pointing at his radio, and the meaning became quite clear when we eventually entered into conversation. I told him that unfortunately I was ‘non-radio’ and that I had had to make a precautionary landing at Mimizan while en route to Carcans due to IMC on the coast. I also explained that as an experienced pilot, I had noted the parachuting activity and had taken the necessary steps to keep well clear of the field until my approach was clear and would cause no danger to the parachutists.

It turned out that in fact he spoke almost perfect English and was placated by my explanation as he’d been told about the sea fog not long before by his own pilot. So he then told me where to park and shortly afterwards I was joined by a young guy who asked what I was up to and turned out to be from Montignac, just down the road from my house, when I told him that I was from the Dordogne and on a tour of the west coast. I was then asked if I’d like a cold drink and was led by two or three very friendly onlookers who’d by then joined us to the airfield cafe.

I then proceeded to have a hoot of a time and ended up staying there for the next two hours. I told them that I’d lost Wim and after I’d said that if he hadn’t ended up in a field somewhere, he’d probably be either at Biscarrosse or Arcachon, they said that they’d keep phoning around until they found him. Eventually they located him at Arcachon which is very much a ‘radio obligatoire’ airfield, and when he told me the news, the messenger bearing it rolled his eyes and drew his finger across his throat in a highly theatrical gesture as he left the room.

I explained that when I eventually left Mimizan, I’d be heading directly back to the coast and then north. However, the assembled throng, mainly in the form of Richard who was either the manager or owner of the airfield, I couldn’t really establish which, disagreed. They said that did I know that the local danger areas mainly consisted of a gunnery range and a missile testing facility and that the spotters who controlled those activities were so sick of light aircraft infringing their areas that they were going to let the next one be shot down? I took this to be a joke, but nevertheless decided to listen to their proposals, even though at that time on a Friday afternoon everyone testing guns and/or firing off missiles would be heading off home for the weekend anyway. They suggested that I should cut the corner off, thread my way around Biscarrosse through the designated light aircraft corridor and then head north after hitting the coast shortly thereafter. It meant another change of route, but I agreed and the new revised track is shown in pink below.

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So that’s what I did. By now it was late afternoon, the skies were clear and the views were spectacular. Richard agreed to test my radio for me and reported that it was totally clear both on the ground and in the air, so that was good news. I bade my farewell to him as I departed his zone and shortly after flew by the now apparently deserted airfield at Biscarrosse.

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Not long after threading my way through the light aircraft corridor, I hit the coast and the sight awaiting me was stunning, as the following pics, which were taken just on the border between les Landes and la Gironde, show.

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The region is noted for its pine forests and due to the need to stabilise the soil, which is very light and sandy, many more acres of them have been planted than were originally put there by Mother Nature. Therefore as you fly up the coast with the sea and the sand dunes on one side, all that is visible on the other as far as the eye can see are pine trees, as shown below.

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Shortly after entering la Gironde, I found myself flying over the open end of the Bay of Arcachon. This is where the world-famous magnificent Dune du Pilat is located and although it was on the ‘wrong’ side of 56NE, I managed to grab a few pictures of it.

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The next two shots were taken just as I crossed the open end of the bay.

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The next picture shows the northern-most edge of the coastal town of Cap Ferret with the sea on the left and the Bay of Arcachon to its right.

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The next shot is one that I love and is just one that I took of the sea and beach directly below 56NE as I headed north.

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After a while it was time to head inland for my landing at Carcans. The turn waypoint was the small tourist resort of Lacadau-Océan which is shown in the shot below.

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Pretty soon after in the late evening, the ULM field at Coutin Carcans came up on 56NE’s nose. After sorting out the heading I needed for the best runway to use I then found myself on a rather nasty cross-wind approach with limited visibility through the dirty screen that I’d omitted to clean before leaving Amou all those hours before. However, I landed safely with a bit of a bump and found Wim sitting in his camping chair waiting for me. He told me that he’d had to land at Arcachon to check his dwindling fuel level. It turned out that he hadn’t had quite as good a time as me and his account of what happened is hilarious.

Luckily Wim hadn’t disgraced himself by jumping out of the Red Baron and having a pee in the grass next to the runway as was often necessary following a long flight, but after he’d landed at Arcachon, the airfield controller had gone apoplectic. Not only was ‘radio obligatoire’ but also ULMs were strictly excluded and Wim had committed the cardinal sin of crossing the active runway after landing on the grass without clearance. The controller said that they were so busy with so much traffic at Arcachon that this just wasn’t allowed, but Wim said that he had taken great care to look that there was none and that is was safe to do so before crossing. The controller said that the next day (Saturday) it would be extremely dangerous to do so, but Wim pointed out that today was Friday and that there was no traffic whatsoever moving on the whole of the aerodrome except for his aircraft.

And so it went on. Eventually Wim was allowed to leave again after checking that he did indeed still have enough fuel on board, but not without a ‘follow-me’ vehicle to give him a thumbs up when the control tower had given clearance for him to enter the active and take off. This was good news even so, because at one point the controller had been saying that he wouldn’t be permitted to and that he’d have to dismantle the Red Baron and take it away on a trailer!

Here’s a final shot showing our two aircraft parked at Carcans at the end of the day with 56NE covered up for the night. Wim and I turned in after enjoying a bottle of red wine with our evening meal and thinking that we deserved it after the adventures that we’d gone through during the preceding hours both before and since leaving Amou. My planned flight time Amou-Carcans, 2 hours 45 minutes, actual time including precautionary landing at Mimizan, 3 hours 05.

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