This morning I heard an airplane take off. It was a throaty roar of a single engine piston airplane, and though I didn’t see it, I’d swear it was a Cessna 182. It was a wonderful noise. It was a noise I associate with home.
You see, I’ve been traveling on the Iberian Peninsula for a month, and in that time I saw or heard general aviation aircraft less than a half a dozen times. It was the oddest sensation, asking locals if there was an airport in the area for small aircraft, and seeing faces draw a complete blank. The question wasn’t being lost in translation. The small airports are so quiet these days that the people had no real experience with light aircraft.
I’d researched general aviation in Portugal and Spain before I left the U.S., and had high hopes of encountering at least some aeroclub flying, similar to what I had found traveling in South Africa, but it was not to be. Even the flight training going on in the countries seemed anemic in comparison to the activity here in the U.S. Sad, too, because in both countries the GA airports were there. They were just seriously under utilized.
In Spain the complaint is that handling fees, a combination of security restrictions and onerous, unnecessary services (bus rides on the ramp to and from the general aviation terminal) are strangling general aviation pilots. Even though mandated tariffs are relatively inexpensive, the companies providing the services are padding these fees so much that, according to AOPA Spain, they approach the cost of operating the airplane for the cross country flight.
The most aviation I saw over the course of a month traveling the peninsula north to south, was in the little town of Evora, where Skydive Portugal had a Cessna 206 running all day one Saturday, taking neophytes up for tandem jumps. It was great to watch the airplane head off, climbing to 13,00o MSL, and then disgorging its load. There is nothing quite like the snap and swoosh of a chute opening above you, followed by the hoots and laughter of the tandem riders, who seemed unanimously thrilled both by the freefall and by the fact that the chute opened on command. They’d live to jump another day!
But other than the Cessna 206 hauling skydivers there was just one or two general aviation movements on the field over the four days I was there. This, even though Embraer has a large, modern metal and composite factory just off the north end of the runway, where it is making parts for its Legacy 450/500 aircraft, along with parts for military aircraft.
I have to admit that it made me sad to see so few aircraft flying in two countries where the weather and the terrain is perfect for general aviation. It seems that onerous fees, combined with struggling economic trials have put serious challenges to pilots in Portugal and Spain.
My hope is that they can overcome the trials and re-emerge as great countries for general aviation flying in Europe. That way, the next time I visit, I can see the Iberian Peninsula the way I most enjoy, from the air.