In some respects, having Germany be the third country I have flown in gave me a very inaccurate picture of international general aviation (Canada was #2). Many foundational items of German aviation, albeit senselessly and absurdly strict, follow a similar framework to American flying. The main difference between America and the Fatherland was the intensity of reporting and enforcement, whereas phases of flight weren’t particularly earth shattering in their differences.
There is a phrase here on the Iberian Peninsula that applies to daily life: “Spain is different.”
It most certainly applies to aviation, as I have previously disclosed when attempting flights to different airports. As I jubilantly declared in my last post, I considered the problem “conquered,” and thought I could joyously move on as though everything was normal, flying to whatever destination I wish without any unpleasant nervousness or anxiety.
Thus, I decided to take a flight to the Central Catalonian Depression, which is an area that looks somewhat like the Midwest, filled with relatively flat and open farmland. In one section of this area near Aitona, there are vast orchards of peach trees, and they all bloom at once for a two week period in March. In order to pull off the flight, I would need to refuel, and the only place to do so was at Lleida, a [gasp] towered airport. In Spain, passage through any controlled airspace requires the filing of a flight plan, so I would have to do the familiar routine of dancing with the Cadí ridge and hoping I could raise Barcelona Approach in time to activate, while also dealing with one of my favorite things in the world: busy, towered airports.
As I surfaced the ridge, visibility was miserably foul for photography purposes, though still VFR, which is a reality I have to contend with here in Catalonia. This section of Spain is nothing but an amalgam of microclimates, with a density I did not think imaginable. As in the USA, a forecast for VFR is not necessarily equal to good photography weather. Dismayed, I considered turning back, though I thought of the reality of my upcoming travels to the United States for work, meaning that if I did not get the peach trees on that day, I would not get them until the following year. If there is anything I have learned bumbling around the world in a Piper Cub, it is to do something now because no two days in the air are exactly alike.
Raising Barcelona Approach went rather well given terrain, though radar contact took a while. One of my primary issues with being pushed by regulation into complex airspace and flight following configurations is that is doesn’t jive well with classic low and slow Cub flying, and tends to present more aggravations than it is worth. Nonetheless, apparently I chose the busiest part of the day, as Barcelona Approach was getting slammed with an overload of airline traffic. It took 15 minutes to iron out the activation and get a squawk code, which showed me that the 30-minute activation rule for flight plans does not seem apply here. I should know better, as very little that is time sensitive in Spain actually matters.
I again tried to explain that I wanted to activate the flight plan and leave the frequency, and was again rebuffed as though I hadn’t spoken in the first place. I received a few traffic notifications, then a full hour went by with no communication as I snaked around the orchards, flying at 500 feet and taking pictures. Upon deciding to head to Lleida, which was not far away, I had to add power to climb to pattern altitude. In the process, I called Barcelona Approach for the ok to switch to Lleida Tower. “We don’t have you on radar,” was the reply. “I am climbing.” “Ah, there you are. Ok proceed to Sierra Whiskey and call Lleida Tower.” It seemed that we developed a mutual unspoken accord to ignore each other.
I then attempted to raise Lleida Tower, calling 4 times. Each time, there was nothing on the frequency. I checked volume and the frequency. Nothing. I swapped radio battery. Nothing. Circling over Sierra Whiskey entry point, I called back to Barcelona Approach, who told me to stand by. Five minutes later, I received a reply: “There is no one in the tower. Just announce on the frequency and monitor.”
Approach and landing at Lleida was post-apocalyptic. The runway is very wide and long, suitable for airline service, with a grand and flamboyant tower and terminal. This is all set in the middle of nowhere. There is not a single building around the airport unrelated to aviation, instead surrounded by wide open agriculture. After power down, I stood there, taking in the silence while before an Orwellian monolithic control tower which was, oddly, devoid of a controller, on a Saturday afternoon. The place was dull and quiet, and what little activity was taking place seemed like it was happening without any sound, owing to the grand and out-of-place nature of the airport.
Orwellian, monolithic, and empty control tower.
During refueling, the attendant asked if the airplane took avgas or jet fuel. In Spanish, I noted avgas, and he pointed out that there was no identifying sticker.
“Actually, there is one. It’s in English.”
“No, there isn’t. I cannot refuel without a proper sticker.”
“It says ‘aviation fuel only,’ which has worked in the United States, where the airplane is registered. Aviation fuel is avgas.”
“Well, it doesn’t have a sticker, and I have to put one on if I am going to put fuel in.”
“I was able to fuel in Germany for months without this sticker.”
“Do you want fuel, or not?”
“Fine, stick it on!”
Our conversation then drifted to the lack of a controller, and he shrugged while mentioning something to the effect of no airline service today, so the guy “must have decided not to show up.” The point was missed that controlled airspace is seemingly left to chance, while totalitarianism rules when it comes to stickers.
I received the same story when paying the landing fee, that the controller “must have decided not to show up,” also met with a shrug and nonchalance that seemed unbefitting of an airport with airline service. Nonetheless, I decided to make it work for me and asked if I still needed a flight plan, since the airport was uncontrolled. “Well, you actually don’t.” “Then I am not filing one.” “Are you sure you really want to do that?” “Yes.”
While taxiing out, another airplane called the tower, also puzzled at the lack of reply. I replied back that I am “just another airplane” and there is “no one in the tower right now.” After a pause and repeating myself, the other aircraft fell into line and figured out they needed to do traffic announcements like an uncontrolled field. The flight home was uneventful and quite pleasant, as the first real springtime weather was upon us, and I could fly with the door open and chill out on the way back to La Cerdanya.
After this whole affair, I had an online exchange with an air traffic controller that I met in person at an airport, and he made it very clear that I am a moron because I didn’t read the AIP, which clearly states that the control tower has varying hours. His ham-fisted Basque nature met up with my American self-righteousness, where I pointed out the “official” nature of the Jeppesen subscription that I purchased at a rather high price (see my post from last summer), specifically to avoid situations like this. In Europe, each country has different symbols, colors, and layout for their sectional maps, and so far, each iPad navigation app uses its own proprietary vector format, which is so far entirely different from each national standard. I opted for Jeppesen for flying in the Fatherland, where being 300 feet off a pattern line can cost €500 in fines. Jeppesen’s approach plates, at least in Germany, are official and overlay nicely on the navigation app in flight. I had checked Jeppesen’s airport information page on the app for Lleida, which looks very similar to the German AIP and the American AF/D, and thought that it was sufficient as it did not list the schedule.
It wasn’t. I pulled up all 11 pages of the AIP for Lleida, and it is the most precise encyclopedia I have ever seen for an airport. One could land a reusable SpaceX rocket based on the extent of information provided. Buried within this lovely document was the hours for ATC: 13:00 to 16:00, Fridays and Mondays. For only six hours per week (3.57% of the time), the monolithic control tower is in use, and yet the entire airspace is marked as though it is Class D 24/7. Unlike the USA, there is nothing on the map indicating that there are Class E hours. Unlike France, there is not an automated reply when one calls an out-of-use frequency, playing a recording in French and English advising which alternate service to use. And further unlike the USA, there is no ATIS to call to get a recording advising of obvious anomalies. One would have thought that such limited hours would be somewhere prominent?
The most amusing part of the whole thing was the pernicious attitude, from Barcelona Approach to every staff member at the airport, that “the guy must not have shown up.” Those words imply a lax disregard for one of the pillars of aviation, yet the reality was that the tower was being run in compliance with Spanish procedures. Even if a controller simply decided not to show up that day, I can only wonder if anyone would care. Though, after living in Spain for this long and reflecting on the reality that not a single person mentioned tower operating hours, I have come to understand that nobody probably would. Spaniards are masters at navigating around surprise deficiencies, and simply express no emotion that things should have been another way, nor think it’s a big deal (unlike my very American level of drama in this post). Time, commitments, contracts, and obligations are subjective (with the exception of driving), though in a strange twist of affairs, Spanish people seem to be incredibly happy and friendly.
What can I say? Spain is different, though in the interests of full disclosure, I am enjoying myself tremendously.