It took some introspection to understand my reticence to land at another airport in Spain, until I realized that I was still a bit unnerved by a forced landing in the USA not too long before the intercontinental move, and then flying in Germany’s oppressive environment after that. It was one trauma after another, and flying across Europe as part of the intercontinental move actually made it worse, as opposed to curing the problem. For months, I stayed in a radius of La Cerdanya that could be flown without refueling, progressively introducing more adventure, including the French coast and the highest point in the Pyrenees, yet I couldn’t shake the utter lack of desire to land anywhere else.

I finally realized that, if my spring and summer European flying ventures are going to happen, I am going to have to get over myself and fly more than 75 NM from home. In a moment of indignant fury, akin to a Scottish Highland war cry (albeit with an iPad, behind a desk), I decided enough was enough and I was going to figure it out. Thus, I set out to methodically call airports one by one until I found a suitable candidate.

That started an interesting adventure, as I began to realize the magnitude of reasons why I don’t land anywhere else. Perhaps it has less to do with my own nervousness and more to do with an utterly inconvenient, disjointed, and aggravating network of airports. Should I start with the two fields up the valley in France? Nope. Licence du site francais required, at the cost of €500 each and an afternoon of training. Ok, maybe I’ll go to La Seu. Well, it’s 20 miles away, and a flight plan is required, which is silly. Other airports within reasonable range had no avgas, only mogas, for which nobody seemed to know or care if it was ethanol free. As my STC (and the desire to not crash) requires no ethanol, I crossed those airports off my list. Others had silly landing fees (€80+), or were hiding under the record-breaking inversion that fogged in the Catalonian Central Depression for months on end. France? I was not in the mood to go to France, as I live in Spain, though my analysis does show that France has a far more robust airport network, albeit coupled with an epileptically disorganized airspace system. Even more so, flying in any of the following directions is an entirely different climate zone with at times completely different weather on the same day: SE & S (Spanish Mediterranean), SW (Catalonian Central Depression), W (Pyrenees), N (French Midi-Pyrenees), NE (South of France).

Identifier Airport Distance (nm) Dealing with the French Flight Plan Site License No Fuel Prior Notice for Fuel Absurd Landing Fee Overhead Restricted Airspace Control Tower Winter Inversion No S or N Wind
LFYS La Llagonne, France  8.73 X X X
LFNG Saint Leocadie, France  16.16 X X X
LESU La Seu d’Urgell, Spain  19.58 X
LEMS Manresa, Spain  35.70 X X
LECF Calaf, Spain  39.22 X X
LFDJ Pamiers – Les Pujols, France  44.43 X X
LEIG Igualada, Spain  47.28 X
LEGE Girona, Spain  48.92 X X X
LFMP Perpignan, France  50.52 X X X X
LFCG Saint Girons, France  51.19 X X
LELL Sabadell, Spain  51.63 X X
LEAP Ampuriabrava, Spain  56.21 X
LFCB Bagneres de Luchon, France  61.55 X X X
LENA Benabarre, Spain  64.46 X X
LEDA Lleida, Spain  70.33 X X X
LEHC Huesca, Spain  98.53 X X X
LECI Santa Cilia, Spain  115.39 X

Finally, I settled on one option: Ampuriabrava on the Mediterranean coast. While fuel was $12.16 per gallon and the landing fee was €25, I decided to swallow any sense of fiscal rationale and hop in to at least get one flight over with. The first obstacle was fighting with my flight planning software, which uses the ICAO format and has strict validation rules. I have not yet found an equivalent to phone-based Flight Service. With that out of the way, I needed to get to the airport, find someone to refuel, preflight, take off, and clear the 7,000’ ridge to contact Barcelona Approach to activate the flight plan, all before the allotted time when the flight plan evaporates. The entire time climbing up to the Cadí-Moixeró ridge, I was conversing with myself how silly the whole process was, as the last time I talked to Barcelona Approach, it took eight minutes to respond to my request (yes, eight!), and by then, they handed me off to another frequency, which lost reception “down” at 8,500 feet due to terrain, requiring me to abandon controlled airspace and forget my intentions. Fortunately, the flight plan was activated quickly, and I settled into a cruise configuration over the foothills of the Pre-Pyrenees.

Geologic terminus of Pyrenees meeting the Mediterranean.

I asked Barcelona Approach if I could activate and go VFR, and they did not seem to understand what I was asking. I was handed an altitude and heading clearance and that was that. Since then, I have come to understand that if a flight plan is involved, it is normal to expect flight following and traffic advisories. Each time I have tried to get around it, including in France, controllers don’t seem to understand and continue to offer radar service. In conversing with Spaniards on the matter, it seems there are two camps: flight plans are required for all VFR flights or “shut the transponder off.” The reality, as far as I have researched, is that flight plans are required for flying in controlled airspace, though optional for uncontrolled; however, activating in the air triggers an assumption that flight following is desired.

After handoff to Girona Tower (even though I was far from their Class D airspace), I was told, if not lectured, three times that I must contact Ampuriabrava Information if I lose Girona Tower, as there are “actually” parachute operations today, which I agreed to do each time. My protocol was to call Information anyway, as it is required and noted on the map, and in a moment of American-centric selfishness, I thought pilots obeyed controlled airspace. Perhaps they do not in Spain?

Flying along the coast.

After a flight along the coast and around the cape where the Pyrenees geologically meet the Mediterranean, I made an uneventful landing, with an Information controller that seemed like he couldn’t be bothered to say much, at least in the pattern. When on the ground, he became insistent that I taxi to the Jet A-1 area, despite 100LL signs elsewhere. After power down, the fuel attendant, who doubles as an Information controller, told me I had to push the plane over to the 100LL area as I was in the wrong spot.

After paying an emasculating fee to refuel and land, I asked if a flight plan is really required. “Oh, yes it is.” “Do you file one for every single flight, including local ones?” “Oh no, for local flights, we don’t need one.” Nobody has really explained that one to me, and other pilots have told me that Information Service airports truly do not legally require a flight plan, though they think highly of themselves and reprimand pilots that fail to file. Between this and other antics of the day, I came to realize that Spanish aviation is as confused and disorganized as every other aspect of daily life here, and nobody cares except foreigners.

A bit hazy.

Haze near the coast, with Pic d’Canigou, France on the horizon on the left.

Haze on this particular day was awful in areas, which turned out was a precursor to an apocalyptic Saharan dust storm that blew in the next day (all the way to the Pyrenees), so I opted to climb above the layer and straight to Pic d’Canigou, a tall snow-covered prominence over the border in France, and then head back via the mountain ridge. Girona Tower didn’t believe my original intentions and asked a few times as I flew to the border, and then gladly deposited me with Montpellier Approach in France, who couldn’t understand why I was not flying in a straight line to my destination. I was asked multiple times when I was going to fly to the Spanish border, and after explaining twice that I was going to take photos of Pic d’Canigou, I was told to “advise when you’re done with your little tour and heading to the Spanish border.” Montpellier Approach was more than happy to hand me back to Barcelona Approach well before the border who, in turn, could not understand why I was asking to close the flight plan with La Cerdanya in sight, though agreed to do so after asking twice, even though he sounded like my chances of crashing and dying in the final 6 minutes of flight without an active flight plan were akin to jumping off a bridge. Remember that all of this is happening in VFR uncontrolled airspace.

My “little tour” around Pic d’Canigou, France (9,137′). It is amazing to go from palm trees to this in 40 minutes.

After a successful flight, I decided three days later to conquer Santa Cilia and the length of the Pyrenees. I called the airport asking three questions: do you have avgas, how late are you open, and do I need a flight plan? The answer was satisfactory on all fronts, including that a flight plan was not needed (even though there was Information Service). Five hours and thousands of photographs later, I had one of the most amazing and memorable flights in my life, and I did it American-style: I hopped in the plane, announced upon arrival, refueled without a reservation, and returned how I wanted and when I wanted, and it felt great.

Pre-Pyrenees

Western Pyrenees – I have about 95% less concern flying here than in controlled airspace.

Saharan dust on Pyrenees snowpack at 10,000′.

On a separate note, I have finally completed another book from the good old days of flying in Wyoming, wild and free of bureaucratic nonsense. Flying Jackson Hole is a compendium of aerial imagery taken from the Cub – including Grand Teton, Jackson, and wilderness areas and mountain ranges around town, taken without worrying about flight plans, national borders, radar service coverage, site licenses, $12 avgas, or any other silliness. (Available on Amazon.com or at the author’s site)

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 www.garrettfisher.me.