The plan was to fly to southern Spain near the Strait of Gibraltar, meet up with a local pilot, a few planes would fly over to Morocco, eventually ending up somewhere in the Sahara, and then reverse the whole thing.
It didn’t happen.
It was one of those fatalistically attractive ideas that even my wife knew would not be successful, yet with the prospect of having local compatriots to go along coupled with the fact that April is the finest weather for a trip to Africa, it made sense to at least give it a try.
The whole thing got off on the wrong foot due to a long-standing custom with aviation in Europe: precise planning months away. In the USA, any planned trips with friends or a group would revolve around a rough framework of plans, and materialize depending on the weather. In Europe, the trip is planned on a specific day six months away, vacation time from work secured, club aircraft reserved, hotel reservations made, and then when the weather invariably goes to pot, the whole thing is called off and nobody seems to notice the futility of the concept. Enter the American cowboy who suggests flexibility, and I get dirty looks like I came from the Stone Age.
Be that as it may, I accepted a rigid plan where I would meet up in southern Spain on a specific day and we would do an elaborate dance of flight plans, customs, ambitious flying, all in an Arab country in Africa (full disclosure: I am American, and we are afraid of things like that), sandwiched between a marathon of client visits back in the USA and a hard limit at the end of the weekend for the group in Trebujena.
The weather forecast a few days out called for nice tailwinds nearly the entire way across Spain, with sun and pleasant springtime conditions, which was a relief as the flight would take all day – covering 547 nautical miles – in a Cub. Although the plan looked like it would work, I was bathing in self-induced angst and preoccupation over schedules and other senseless rigidity. It was not until a Spaniard mentioned that “the most important thing is that it’s safe and everyone enjoys themselves” that I questioned my predisposition to the matter. My first reaction was “enjoy themselves? The most important thing is that everything happens as efficiently as possible!” I then had a chance to step back and realize my German heritage was not helping, and to give myself permission to roll with the realities of such a plan. If I got even to Gibraltar and flew around a bit, it would be worth it.
The forecast for the day of departure was perfect: blue skies and tailwinds, with a nice buffer of an extra fuel stop and enough time to get where I needed to go. I plotted a course to Teruel, Spain (162NM) for the first fuel stop, thinking it would be plenty as 200NM is a reasonable average on a 3 hour tank and a slight headwind.
The process of finding an airport with avgas that did not charge handling fees north of €100 and was actually open during the day was a complex one, requiring hours of research and hand written notes of which airports would work and which ones would not. It was an unsettling feeling realizing the limits of my fuel tank and speed when set against the Spanish airport system (or lack thereof), though I was hell bent and took off.
The tailwinds lasted for 45 minutes, and quickly turned to a headwind. And then the headwinds got stronger and stronger, until I finally quit the dead reckoning business and pulled out the GPS: groundspeed 48 knots. What on earth is this? Recalculating arrival time put me at flight time of 3:05, 5 minutes into reserve, which meant I would have to endure the fact that the tank reports between empty and 40% fuel for 60 seconds at each point, knowing consciously I have enough, yet staring at a squirrely gauge designed before my grandparents got married. For that reason, I do not go into the reserve, though I considered bending the rules this one time. As I scanned the sectional, it was evident there were absolutely no alternates if I continued for an additional hour, meaning that I would be committed, without the option of a private or ultralight field in about 40nm, meaning a forced landing if the winds got worse. Doing some inflight recalculation, it became evident I could take a tailwind and fly to the coast, arriving at Castellon de la Plana with a reasonable reserve, also knowing that airport had a modest landing fee and avgas.
The flight along the Mediterranean was beautiful and the landing uneventful. Castellon de la Plana has one end of the field that terminates almost on the beach, which meant salt air, palm trees, and a light breeze with pleasant temperatures. As I attempted to get fuel and figure out the next step, I found out it was effectively the siesta (Spaniards get indignant in this part of the country, call it the “commercial pause,” and proclaim that siestas only happen in Andalusia – the region that is apparently the source of all Spanish problems).
Reviewing my flight options, I realized the daisy chain of viable airports with avgas was fully hosed up, meaning that I would need to make three stops. The clock was also ticking as the siesta continued, so I called the pilot in Trebujena to express my concern with the situation. While on one hand he wasn’t bothered by rearranging the entire weekend (Spanish people are not bothered by much), he did note that the forecast for the next afternoon was calling for wind gusts to 45 knots, and that we’d have to delay a full day. He encouraged getting as far as I could and completing the trip to Morocco two days later. I said I’d think about it.
As refueling took its sweet old time, and as I consulted with my wife, who advised that it was raging like a hurricane back at home (which was anticipated by forecast that afternoon), I undertook an internal cultural transformation, taking one step closer to becoming Spanish. I was at a beautiful airport, on a sunny afternoon right next to the Mediterranean. I saw a sign that said “Hotel,” while noting the presence of the beach. I could continue toward Africa, which would be pointless, because it would not work with group schedule restrictions. I could squeeze an ambitious flight home in high wind in the Pyrenees, for which I had about 2% desire, or I could go to the beach.
I went to the beach.
I spent the night in a seaside hotel, working on my novel by the ocean, checked some emails, and decided I don’t give a hoot about anything. While part of the choice is related to the Mediterranean attitude, the rest of it was a bit of aeronautical decision making. I simply was burning the fuse at too many ends personally, and flying to Africa in a Cub requires a full mental fuel tank, which I certainly did not have. Besides, who cares? I’m in Spain anyway, which is fun enough.
The flight home was pleasant, as the winds calmed down the next day, and I made a point of going home a different way than I came. I went northeast along the coast to the Delta de l’Ebre, which is a fascinating river delta that protrudes miles out to sea, set against a rocky coastline. It was quite a moment to fly over sections that looked just like the Outer Banks near Cape Hatteras (for which I have flown for an entire winter in the Cub), yet here I am in another continent seeing a similar scene. Even more interesting were the salt ponds, which reminded me of the salt ponds west of Ogden, Utah, also seen from the Cub in 2015.
I stubbornly went around Reus’ control zone, as I wasn’t in the mood to file a flight plan, which means I couldn’t call the tower to cross the oversized Class D airspace. As I approached Igualada for a stop, I checked both my Jeppesen (supposedly official) and SkyDemon (not exactly official but everyone says its fine) apps and both indicated “no frequency available.” I landed with no radio call and woke up someone taking a nap in a chair, who acted indignant when I asked about the radio frequency and advised 123.175 before going back to sleep. I commonly hear “nobody cares” as an explanation to how things work in Spain, and it is remarkably correct. Truly, nobody cares.
With a proper radio frequency in hand (and a stubborn question of why it’s not on the map unanswered), I announced intentions to takeoff at the departure runway and heard a response in Spanish that a Piper was inbound for…..something. “I didn’t hear that. Are you coming into the circuit?” “Yeah, we’re left hand for X.” “I’m sorry, I really don’t understand what you’re doing. Where are you?” “We’re going to X, runway 17.” “Uhhhh…. How long do I have before takeoff?” “We’re doing X.” Intuition said to wait. Five seconds later, a Piper Cherokee comes screaming in at a steep bank angle at full power, buzzes the field at full speed (in the wrong direction), does a steep climb, and positions for landing on the downwind. I decided to get the heck out while I could. What can I say? Nobody cares.
A few weeks after getting home safely, I tallied up the log book for some much overdue pilot accounting, and came to realize that I reached 1,000 hours while attempting to fly to Africa. What an incredible 1,000 hours this has been! I have almost lost track of the states, countries, glaciers, 14,000’ peaks, wilderness mountain ranges, continental crossings, and the like, most of it flown in the same airplane I soloed in at 16 years of age, back in sleepy Upstate New York.
Just before the attempted trip to Morocco, I was sitting in New York with my 86-year-old grandfather, the source of all of this maniacal inspiration (and the restorer of the PA-11), and he said to me “I thought I’ve done a lot over the years. Boy, you’ve got me beat.” I must say it was quite the words to hear from an octogenarian, who is still restoring airplanes, who has thousands of hours of flying time, and hasn’t let fear or obstacles get in the way of much of anything. I have never set out to meet any certain expectation, outdo anyone, or really achieve a particular goal, as those expectations were not placed upon me. My grandfather took the approach that his private field and airplanes were available, though I needed to get off my rear end if I wanted to fly, just like he did in the 1940s, taking lessons in a J-3. As far as I have always been concerned, this is just flying around the patch in the Cub. If the airplane can do it and I want to, why shouldn’t I take the flight?
Ask me what I think of that question if I end up in a Moroccan prison.