There was a quiet moment last May, where I heard of yet another uncannily strict rule about pattern movements in noise-sensitive areas where I made an immediate and concrete decision: Germany is not working out as anticipated, and nothing is going to change it. My wife was in agreement, and we started the research process to come up with something else. The first rule was that it must be good for aviation: scenic, low air pollution, and a good airport, preferably an airpark. We expected the process to take awhile.
In short order, I had a verbal on a house rental on an airpark in western France, near the Atlantic. While France was not on my radar screen, an airpark certainly was. Next came a strange call from our landlord, who informed us that, due to family circumstances, they’re moving back in, and we need to be out in three months. Just then, the airpark homeowner decided to sell in lieu of renting, and there we were, scrambling to figure something out, and to do so quickly.
I was, under no circumstances, bending my rule about aviation. Many might ask why another location in Germany was not selected, and the answer is multi-faceted. German rules, which hark back to the Third Reich, require attended information service on the airport for it to be open. Absent such service in force, it is considered “out of hours” to use the airport, resulting in a massive fine. While it sounds disingenuous, Germans will freely admit that the practice originated in the Nazi era, and that its original utility is no longer warranted, though that’s how it is. That created a situation where scenic areas away from cities had information service during limited hours, whereas full-time runway availability would be reserved for more populated areas. With just that in mind, it kicked Germany out of the picture. I also have received many emails from various Americans who have flown in Germany, and all but one have given up entirely, citing the very thing I grew to be afraid of: rules stacking up so high that one ends up not flying. Much of the past summer was spent not flying for similar reasons, and it was time to flee to greener pastures.
What then commenced was an epic search, availing myself of Google, aviation associations, and swarms of emails, trying to find airparks all over Europe from Norway to Portugal. I considered moving back to the US, though why take the plane apart when I just put it together? Why install an expensive Class 1 transponder to fly around Mt. Blanc (15,674’), be within 4 hours, and then not do it? I would regret leaving for the rest of my life, so I decided to make it work, even though I didn’t know how.
I found a private airport with a house for rent on an island in Denmark… “sorry, we just rented it someone else.” A house for rent on an airstrip in Portugal…too small for a home office. A castle with a cottage in the French Alps, with a private airstrip… “sorry, it is impossible to heat in the winter” (we would have only rented the cottage). Then I expanded the search to pretty places with airports nearby. I started with French islands on the Atlantic, and every single one of them had no hangar space. Courchevel, France, an 1,800 foot strip at an astonishing 18.6% grade, located around 7,000 feet had space, except my wife took one look at the photo and said no (understandably so, it was above timberline in the Alps). Then I found a place in the Benasque Valley of the Spanish Pyrenees, which is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and my wife asked, “You actually think I am going to live there?” Spaniards have since confirmed she was right with her observation.
Out of randomness, I googled Andorra, a sovereign micro-nation in between Spain and France, and found an airport in Spain, outside of Andorra. The area looked pretty, and I called about hangar space. There was not any at present, though it seemed that I could alter the laws of physics if I showed up with enough unmarked banknotes. I started looking at house listings and found a very nice area 35 minutes to the east, so compelling that I thought I would be okay living there and yet again driving some silly distance to the airport. As I browsed house listings and associated satellite maps, I discovered an airport that was not on ICAO maps, “Aerodromo de la Cerdanya.” Hmm… I called and voila! They had hangar space! “I’ll take it! Send me the paperwork.” “Um, don’t you want to see it?” “Yeah, sure, I’ll drive down from Germany next week. Meanwhile, I want it!”
After a merry go round looking for housing, we found something, moved our things to Spain, and recently, I flew the airplane from Germany to Spain, requiring two days of epic flying that stretched the limits of my abilities on all levels, more so than crossing three time zones in the USA with the same airplane. Details about the trip are on these two posts.
It was not until I left Germany with the airplane that I could make sense of what rubbed me the wrong way so much. Like any place, there were extremely kind and helpful people in the pilot community and a few prickly ones. It was not a single person or group of people that made the experience difficult, it was the collective animal of German culture that espoused strict rules, above all else. The rules around driving in Germany are strict: you have one second after a light turns red to vacate the intersection, otherwise your license is gone for one month on the first offense. Out of gas on the autobahn? Steep fine. Pass on the right? Serious consequences. Rear end someone? Good luck getting insurance to buy you a new car. Yet, the result is one of the safest highway systems in the world, and the only place with no speed limit. I regularly drove 130 miles per hour, without fear for my life.
In a well-placed setting, German rules can make things actually freer: safer cars, better engineering, faster roads, gasoline combustion engines, diesel engines, the jet engine (uh oh, I am starting to sound like my grandfather!). Nothing about German driving felt like 1984 or restrictive. In fact, I felt that high-density areas flowed better and I felt safer, calmer, and freer than ever driving at Mach 0.178.
When it comes to aviation, Germany makes the mistake of assuming that general aviation is the Autobahn. If there were 10,000 airplanes in the air at once, that approach would be an absolute necessity. There are not. VFR skies are wild and free, a product of how expensive and difficult aviation is, swatting planes out of the sky through bureaucracy and crushing financial burden. I saw other traffic, outside the pattern, twice in the entirety of my time in Germany. The density was less than when I lived in Charlotte, N.C., and even less than the Front Range of Colorado, both places where I flew without a radio. My personal view is that the quantity of rules was unjustified in light of actual conditions in the air.
I did, though, realize some things while flying through France. Where Germany is kind enough to leave vast areas of uncontrolled airspace, France does not. It is a massive jigsaw puzzle of restricted areas, requiring an elaborate juggling act to navigate around, under, or over all of these spaces. On the other hand, French controllers were incredibly kind and forgiving, and French flight service extremely helpful. I was cleared direct to and from every controlled field I landed with no pattern adherence, and the French were very helpful as my destination airports kept changing with the weather. English was spoken through the entire country, enough that I kind of feel like a schmuck for blasting through their entire country not knowing the language.
Passing through Grenoble-Chambery’s control zone, I was finally able to accept that Europe will never have the simplicity and ease that rural areas of America have. Europe is as beautiful as it is because of a depth and density of culture that differs vastly from North America. While it theoretically could be had both ways, right now, it isn’t. It wasn’t until I felt that I was dealing with an air traffic system that was there to help as opposed to catching infractions that I could take that personal step and roll with how things are on this side of the pond.
There is more to come about aviation in Spain, and also France, as the pattern nearly touches the French border. Initial highlights include unlimited landings for €20 per month, totally uncontrolled airspace with American-style open callouts, stunning terrain, and an adventuresome culture of pilots that has a touch of bush flying to it. I also failed to mention that I speak Spanish fluently, so I have the added benefit of not having to wander around like a linguistically inept fool.