There are times when I reflect upon first coming to the Pyrenees where I can’t seem to remember the reasons why I felt apprehensive about going very far from home, and then I recall some of the intriguing realities about being sequestered in a high mountain valley with passes all over 6,000 feet, international borders, multiple languages, control zones, airport landing restrictions, the intersection of six climate zones, world famous mountain waves, and infamously unpredictable weather changes over the ridge. It makes sense in retrospect and, as I progressively knocked down each barrier, there was one I still couldn’t find a way to get around, resulting in the aborted attempt at Morocco: airports and avgas, or the lack thereof.
I finally solved the problem by devising some rather unconventional ways of moving avgas around, availing myself of agricultural airstrips and legal ultralight fields as staging points. That decision coincided with a sudden shift in the seasonality of the weather, and it is as though I am in Wyoming again.
An older experienced pilot had made it very clear that a strong west wind is the only hope for the open Spanish plains to clear of their persistent haze and inversions. Unfortunately, a strong west wind seemed to evade the northeastern Iberian Peninsula ever since I got that advice. Roughly in late April, the weather systems began to change, and strong winds started blowing. Having been educated in Wyoming about the seasonality of color and moisture, I knew that mid to late spring is the finest time to see farmland in semi-arid regions. It was now or next year, and if there is any lesson life teaches, there is no need to wait.
I finally found the feeling I had back in Wyoming: wide-open freedom and stunning farmland from above. The experience of flying a Cub in these environments is a personal favorite, and I found it here, in the areas around Lleida, Spain and the lower farmlands of Catalunya. I set off with a rough idea of where I was going, and flew wherever I wanted until I got there, flying so much that, needless to say, I’d rather not open my bank statement to see the carnage.
Much like the rangelands of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, one can expect silent winds in the morning, roaring winds in the afternoon, only to see them decouple and turn off around sunset. Forecasts are to be taken with a grain of salt, as winds easily push 30 knots with an unabated west wind. Fuel transfers were undertaken in grass strip airports with absolutely no facilities, only tall uncut weeds with smells of Spanish herbs under the wheels of the airplane, set against ripe wheat fields swaying strongly in the wind. I take my time at these stops, eating lunch while sitting on one of the airplane tires, contemplating the magnitude of the scenery and experience. The PA-11 started its service in Upstate South Carolina in 1949 as a crop duster, and as I eat my snack while taking in scenery in Spain that looks like Nebraska, it feels very full circle, in a hard to explain kind of way. It just feels right. This airplane has been places.
In the short course of the month of May, temperatures in lowland Catalunya have begun to rise, wheat fields have gotten tired with harvests beginning, and the advent of Mediterranean summer is approaching. Time will tell what happens down there to the farmland, if anything at all. Some areas are extensively irrigated, sourced from the Pyrenees, whereas others will likely fade into a beige color, only to begin planting later in the fall for the winter wet season. What flights I have taken recently at lower altitudes involve shorts and a t-shirt with the door open, though spring is advancing rapidly at high altitude.
Part of the transition from frustration to satisfaction with flying here has to do with altering expectations. It is common in America to wish to travel far and wide, to go to as many exotic places as possible, from the national parks out west to the notorious pilgrimage to Alaska, whether in an airplane, RV, or car. North America is a continent of wild and uninhabited expanses, and the nature of land, wildlife, and the American spirit demands a persistent eye to the philosophical direction of the west, to the unexplored that remains to be seen. Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying “For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground.”
That is not what Europe is all about.
A scene in America could be one of many National Forests, yet another mountain, another uninhabited valley… in Europe it would have a profound history lasting thousands of years. Every 5 to 10 miles, there is a village tucked somewhere incredible, ruins of a castle of centuries ago, roads, and cathedrals which defy the imagination in their beauty and profoundness. On one hand, there is no need to measure the magnitude of achievement by crossing 500 miles by air in one flight as what is available within 100 miles is mind blowing. On another, to fly 500 miles in Europe is roughly as complex (and expensive) as 1,500 miles in America. As a Spanish approach controller said to me, “You can’t compare flying in America to flying in Spain. They are totally separate things.”
To complement mountain flying in a trilingual border area in a separatist region, I have also decided to undertake infrared photography as part of my continued need to understand the vagaries of the world around me. I will explain more about this adventure in the future, as well as the blood-boiling process of obtaining my European pilot’s license, an anachronism so severe it is hard to put into words.
Some infrared images. Note that this is a separate IR camera, not an effect.