A day cut short but ending in fun and festivities

After all the setbacks and distractions of the day before, we were pleased to wake up to a beautiful morning in Carcans with a clear blue sky and good vis. I’d found an outside tap the night before that I’d treated with some caution as I doubted that it was drinking water but it was still OK to rinse our faces with. Here’s a shot I took of my tent before we started to get our breakfast ready.

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I’d purposely chosen a spot to pitch it on with thick, long grass because I knew that during the night, my old air bed would deflate again and I hoped that the ground would feel a bit softer when it did. It was a good plan because although it did go down, I ended up with not a bad night’s sleep. It was still quite early and Wim and I enjoyed a leisurely breakfast after which we loaded everything we could into the aircraft, but the problem was that we needed fuel and at even getting on for 9.00 am, there was no sign of anyone arriving to open up the ULM school even though it was a beautiful Saturday morning.

We were getting a bit worried by this time and even considered making our way up to the nearby road going into Carcans to see if we could get a lift to the petrol station, when at that moment a battered VW Caravanette hove into view. The driver was Phillippe, the school’s chief (only?) instructor and when we introduced ourselves we found that he could speak pretty good English from having spent some time in Canada. We explained what our problem was and he suggested that if we waited until he’d unloaded, we could take his VW into town and fill up our jerry cans.

So that’s what we did, at the local Carrefour Contact. Wim drove the VW there and had problems finding anything other than third gear which made it a bit difficult getting to the main road even along the rutted track between it and the airfield but not so bad once we were on it. But turning right at the roundabout did involve a bit of clutch slipping though. However, he handed over to me when he couldn’t find reverse to get out of the Carrefour car park and kept leaping forward every time he tried and nearly driving over the grass in front of the adjacent building. However, I then distinguished myself when I turned left out of the car park by mistaking the splendidly wide grass verge on the other side of the road for the centre of a dual carriageway and only narrowly avoided driving onto the pedestrian footway opposite when Wim shouted out in alarm!

While we were in Carcans I was also able to drop into a little general store and buy a new air bed. It was a bit pricey at 20€ but at that moment I’d have paid almost anything for the guarantee of a good night’s sleep! When we got back we added the fuel we’d bought to our aircraft’s tanks but after the long flights we’d done the day before, we decided that ideally we needed to get some more. By this time the airfield was bustling and Phillippe suggested that if we’d like to wait until he’d finished with his next student, to save us going all the way into town again, he’d be happy to sell us as much as we needed from the bowser that he kept in the hangar. You can see it in the next pic.

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Our original plan for the day was to head for a fuel stop at a small ULM school at Le Thou to the south-east of La Rochelle in the Charente Maritime and than to continue on to another similar one opposite St Nazaire on the south bank of the River Loire, at St Brevin les Pins. In the event for very good reasons that I’ll go onto, we only made it as far as Le Thou, and here’s a shot showing the route that we took.

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So then we were ready to go and as usual, Wim went off first with me following a few minutes later. This was to be one of our ‘show’ days including as it did a flight across the majestic Embouchure de la Gironde (mouth of the River Gironde) and also a flight past the wonderful Île d’Oleron. The flight over the Gironde involved a water crossing of 12 or 13 kms and neither of us had brought life jackets with us and therefore depended on our engines not knowing where they were. In fact much of the flight, especially as we passed the Île d’Oleron, was over either water or marshes, so it was far too late to be concerned about such matters.

Our route up the coast took us north-west along the eastern bank of the Étang d’Hourtin, one of the many inland lakes that border the sea up France’s west coast. Here’s the first shot that I took of it shortly after leaving Carcans.

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By now it was obvious from the air that the terrain was quite different from that in les Landes, the main feature being an almost total lack of pine trees.

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The soil is still extremely sandy, however, as evidenced by the considerable run-off of silt into the lakes (and the sea) that is clearly visible from the air.

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There are two small tourist resorts at the nothern-most end of the lake. On the eastern bank is Hourtin Port

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Over on the western bank is Piqueyrot.

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Myself, having seen it from the air, I’m not totally convinced about the cleanliness of the water in the lake, but I guess for those who have holiday homes at the resorts and keep their boats in the marinas there, it’s a case of ‘what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over’.

Soon after I reached the coast proper and began what I hoped would be a memorably epic flight north. And I wasn’t disappointed. Here are a few shots of the small seaside town that’s popular with tourists called Montalivet les Bains. I don’t think that I could have had a better view of it than the one from 56NE that day.

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In the above shot of Montalivet you can see the Gironde estuary coming up in the distance.

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But first up after Montalivet was the famous seaside resort of Soulac sur Mer

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And then it was time for the crossing of the Gironde estuary, with Royan visible in the distance on the opposite bank of the river.

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Although the next shot appears to show me heading directly towards Royan, because the town has no beaches or places other than the sea to land on in case of an engine failure, in fact I was making a continuous left turn to end up at the sandy beach that’s visible on the far left of the picture and that’s why the actual water crossing was longer than the direct distance from the south to the north bank.

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As I was approaching the north bank, 56NE was hit by some slightly vicious winds coming in off the sea, which were rather unsettling for a time. However, they lasted for no more than 5 or 10 minutes and I was then able to continue my flight north into the Charente Maritime in more comfort. Here’s a shot of la Pointe de la Courbe on the Charente side of the Gironde that I took as I headed up towards the Île d’Oleron.

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And then one of the sights that I’d been waiting for, my flight past the Île d’Oleron itself. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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By this time I was flying on a northeasterly heading for my planned landing at Le Thou. I had seen no sign of Wim and was still flying over some spectacular maritime scenery.

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Then it was time to keep my eyes peeled for the airfield at Le Thou. What I first thought was it turned out to be a large warehouse on a large open field but then I spotted it and was able to set myself up for my landing. By this time Wim had seen me but I still hadn’t seen him and just did a simple let-down and landing on runway 03. There was a blustery crosswind to contend with but all went well and as I backtracked a guy came running to the end of the runway to wave me in the right direction for parking. Then another a bit further on waved me towards the parking area itself where I taxied to and shut 56NE’s engine down. My planned flight time from Carcans to Le Thou, 1 hour 36 minutes, actual 1 hour 40.

After I’d parked 56NE where they suggested they then wanted to move it up a bit closer to the next aircraft and a couple of guys gave Wim a hand to do so.

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We couldn’t have asked for a more friendly welcome, including from the Club President himself, M. Bourasseau.

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They asked us what our plans were for the day and we said that we just wanted to pick up some fuel and carry on up to St Brévin les Pins. They then told us that that day was their biggest celebration of the whole year and that a big ‘soirée’ was planned for that evening to celebrate ‘La Fête de St Jean le Baptiste’ with four spit-roasted pigs, a dinner with a huge local attendance, barbecued mussels, entertainment, a celebratory bonfire and lots of red wine. And all for only 20€! So we decided to stay and having done so, they led us off to their main hangar and stood us for a slap-up free lunch, which was a very nice surprise.

All of the club and visiting aircraft, the latter of which were few in number because of the strong wind but including the Red Baron and 56NE, were set out as a display on the main grass area in front of the hangars for visitors to inspect if they wanted to. In fact quite a number did and took photographs with smiling friends and family posed in front of them. I took quite a few shots myself, including an amphibian that was based on the design of a giant Weedhopper, a 582 two-seat AX3, an original design Weedhopper with faired-in cabin, the odd gyro and a delightful little home-built single-seater that had the air of a SD1 about it.

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When word got around, Wim and I were amazed by how many people came up and introduced themselves to us and asked us about our flight. This continued right into and through the evening and the meal and pretty soon we became quite adept at telling our story to people. I was astonished to find that for a small ULM club, there were 200 people in attendance at the dinner! A similar microlight club in the UK would have been hard put to scrape together a tenth of that number, I think, starkly highlighting the differences that exist between France and the UK.

During the evening, the President made a speech in memory of Dominique Méreuze, President of FFPLUM who died of cancer on 10 June. After mentioning a few other matters, he then announced that two special guests, two ‘voyageurs de passage’, were at the dinner that evening. He meant Wim and me and we had to stand up to acknowledge the applause of the diners and raise our glasses!

Knowing that we needed to make a fairly early start in the morning, we eventually had to bid our farewells. When I told the President, he was slightly shocked as we hadn’t yet had any cheese, he said. But I told him not to worry about that. However, he made sure that we didn’t leave the event empty-handed and after dashing into the kitchen area, emerged with two large creamy, sticky gateaux for the pair of us as desserts!

And so what was a delightful evening came to an end for us and we crept off to our tents that we’d put up next to the Red Baron. I’d had to move 56NE away because of the danger of a spark from the bonfire landing and it was the sound of the bonfire crackling into life that was the last thing I remember before falling asleep for the first time on my nice new air bed.

As usual, I made a video of the day which can be viewed by clicking on the image below.

France West Coast Flight Day 3