Getting used to flying in Spain

Faced with the task of yet again having to get acclimated with general aviation in a new country, I find that the process this time is 70% less painful than the move from the United States to Germany. Those from the outside (or, for that matter, from the inside) of the European Union might be inclined to summarize the difference as being inside the EU, as somehow the process is markedly easier. While there are a handful of conveniences for recreational flight inside the Schengen zone, it really is a clash of two different styles of flying that isn’t happening this time. As I reflect on the transitions taking place, I find that I was in a bubble, of sorts, while flying in the United States.

My grandfather did not and still does not believe in burdening a taildragger with any sort of “excess weight.” Under his definition, that means any equipment, systems, or avionics that was not installed on the J-3 he flew in during flight training in 1947. Therefore, he restored my current aircraft in 1996 without a starter, radio, transponder, or electrical system, leaving an aircraft with nothing but minimum VFR day instrumentation.

Minimum VFR Instruments – purely stick and rudder
PA-11 Instruments

I would fly that airplane, in that configuration, until June of 2015, crossing the United States three times, flying every single peak over 14,000 feet in Colorado, and the highest terrain in the southern Appalachians, among a list of other poorly thought out adventures.

Who needs a radio? Wetterhorn Peak (14,015′), San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Mt Wetterhorn

To make matters more, well, ruggedly individualistic, my grandfather repeatedly told me while I was young that talking on the radio was a waste of time, and to just avoid all controlled airspace. Again, I followed that mantra until the summer of 2015, managing to pull off a brand of flying that is a delightful cocktail of vintage, adventurous, inconvenient, marginally safe, insane, and an absolute pleasure.

The thing is, I could not fly that airplane outside the United States, whether it was to Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas. I gazed over the Canadian border from the PA-11 both near my grandfather’s airstrip in upstate New York, and in Glacier National Park at the convergence of Alberta, Montana, and British Columbia, never able to cross the line due to the abundance of equipment I didn’t have. Sure, there were waivers, though would one really make a regularity out of crossing the border without both a radio and transponder? For that matter forget the ADIZ over water, or Mexico, not that I really would be inclined to make a 50 mile water crossing without the ability to call for help.

Canada is the opposing side of the lake (taken from Glacier National Park, Montana). Not allowed to cross without an equipment upgrade.

Mode C requirements were never an issue, under the cake, due to the lack of an engine-driven electrical system. ADS-B also was and is not a compliance issue for this kind of flying. However, to join the modern world of aviation, cross borders, and fly into anything other than a simple Class D field in the US, the barriers kept growing between my airplane and an increasingly complex national airspace system.

Moving to Germany was at least 70% the pain of upgrading the airplane to the modern era and 30% the shock of new customs and regulations. The electrical system, starter, and transponder were a sizable affair to get installed and operational, as was getting accustomed to using it. Prior to the German move, I made a total of 25 landings at a controlled field, despite having had a pilot certificate for 18 years and a commercial certificate for 2. The idea of modern airspace was a bucket of cold water in the face.

Having gotten used to a rather difficult German regime coupled with modern aviation, and having also lived through a flight from Germany to Spain that felt like Thelma and Louise in the air, it has become time to make some sense out of the differences between Spain and Germany, and also Spain and America.

I must say, it’s a work in progress. Spain is a complex mix of cultural norms: a pervasive disregard for regulations, with a vicious enforcement mechanism from a frustrated government. On one hand, Spaniards view laws as suggestions, and on another, I haven’t seen so many police officers on patrol since I lived in South America during a revolution. The same maxim holds true in aviation: generally speaking, there is a network of small fields used only by light aircraft, where flight is essentially just like the US: radio suggested though optional, air traffic control and related equipment not needed, American-style pattern callouts, and flying truly by sight without much in the way of airspace to contend with. Landing fees are reasonable, information service is non-existent, and airports are completely laid back, like how one may find a small field in Kansas.

On the other hand, all flights to and from controlled airspace require a flight plan. If one were to change his or her destination in the air, a flight plan must be filed over the radio, or an emergency declared in order to land. In some airports, there is security for general aviation, and a paper flight plan must be present to access the tarmac. Landing and handling fees can be extremely high for those airports. If controlled airspace is involved, don’t mess with Spain. If not, you’re free to do as you please.

Flying in La Cerdanya is as simple and pleasant as it looks.

We’re situated extremely close to France, which is a whole other animal that I will address in a future post. The difference is probably as stark as how different flying is in the US and Mexico: two different worlds with markedly different approaches to general aviation.

Weather in the Spanish Pyrenees has much of the same vagaries as one would expect in any rugged mountain area: severe mountain waves, rotors, and very localized weather. I will dive more in a future post into the complexities of flying in a mountain chain with peaks up to 11,000 feet that is sandwiched by the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, though suffice it to say I am slowly figuring out how to fly in the mountain waves without dying, and how to fly on our many sunny north wind days when mountain waves are a hazard. There is also the matter of persistent inversions in the Catalonian plains, an abundance of microclimates, and the fact that the border of massively different weather systems is usually the hill just to the south of the airport.

The Pyrenees can be a bit rugged.

Mountain range to the south of the airport. Note inversion to the right, clear air to the left. This is a common weather boundary.

Persistent Catalonian inversion.
Persistent Inversion

Don’t forget the mountain waves on north wind days.
Mountain Waves

Though I finally figured out how to fly in them.
Riding the Waves

It took me two months to get the Spanish aviation weather site to work, and a short time to also figure out the French site. I finally managed to deal with learning how to do ICAO flight plans on the iPad, as opposed to my previous habit of having a guy behind the desk in Germany or France taking pity on me and filling it out on paper on my behalf and faxing it in. Getting flight plans activated is extremely complex, as both in Spain and France, one cannot get radio reception in the mountains until already in controlled airspace.

When summing all of this up together, it is interesting to note that I have been in Spain for a few months, and I have not once landed at another airport other than the home field. I have flown from the plains of Catalonia to the highest peak in the Pyrenees in Aragon to vineyards by the sea in the south of France and most points in between, every time turning back home without stopping for fuel. Despite my apprehension-driven reticence, I have been flying nearly as much as when I was living on an airpark in Wyoming, photographing absolutely tremendous scenery on a regular basis.

I am not afraid to cross into France, deal with French ATC, and fly in another world along the Mediterranean, yet I am reticent to actually land anywhere other than my home airport.

Hopefully, by the next post, I will have gotten the nerve to land somewhere else.





Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at


  1. In the mid 1990’s I was living in France and got my TT (equivalent to USA Private Pilot with the exception of night flying) in 1996 at Lognes Aerodrome near Paris. From there I did fly to Belgium, Holland and Spain and did not find ATC particularly onerous at the time, alas, I returned to the USA in 1999, got my equivalent version and moved on to commercial, instrument, multi- cfi-i and lots more hours. I found that France was closest of all the European countries to the USA although flying is at least twice as expensive. On a rallye of some twenty plus planes to visit various aeroclubs in Spain, we did land many times, once at a newly demilitarized aeroport, which had a newly paved but as yet unmarked runway and a sort of tower that replied OK to anything we said in either French or English. We also landed at large commercial fields but the paperwork had been handled in advance for the group so it was not too painful. At one field, although we had French licenses (prior to EU rules) we were held off until after sunset and routed through rain close to a thunderstorm in order to give priority to a commercial flight. All in all it was a very interesting experience to one having around 200 hours at the time, yet it was very confidence building and I look back from a perch of a couple thousand more hours with great fondness. I also strongly suggest becoming a member of an aeroclub as they are indispensible sources of information and serious hangar flying which tends to offset the fewer hours flown due to the high costs.

  2. I really enjoy your articles and pictures. It certainly broadens our perspective on flying in other parts of the world. Keep up the good work!

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