Like most ideas about flying in Europe (or anywhere, for that matter), I sit on my throne of ignorance on a cold, rainy night, fantasizing about a flight to some matter of interest, as though the airplane will fly itself with no real effort required. This plan was hatched back in Germany, at the behest of my wife, when I thought that any destination in Europe was easy to get to…largely because I happened to merely be in Europe. Oh, how little I knew!
After the move to Spain, the idea of lavender in Provence got infinitely easier, because it was “only” 160 miles away as the crow flies. Oddly, though, I didn’t land in France again until 9 months after the move, even though I had made multiple landings in the country on the flight down from Germany. Consistently, I opted for the laid-back and disorganized nature of Spain, meaning that an airport may or may not be attended, that fuel may or may not be there, and well, “no pasa nada.” Nothing is going to happen. France is much more wired than Spain, and as previously mentioned, has nothing short of barbarically complicated airspace.
A few weeks prior to this trip, I took a 5-hour flight over the heart of the Pyrenees, making that first landing in France in 9 months to refuel, and I felt less anxiety flying above timberline than in controlled airspace. The terrain that I was flying over was plain silly, with massive mountains as far as the eye could see, yet I was relaxed and at ease in that environment. If the engine quits, I’d land in a meadow and pitch my tent. If the radio, transponder, iPad, or anything else fails that connects me to the outside world, I’ll fly home by memory. No pasa nada. Complex airspace is another animal, as one system is dependent on another, and each deviation from the original plan requires a lot of work to coordinate relevant parts. Failures, problems, and incursions have the benefit of additional services, with the drawback of aviation authorities with a list of questions if the problem is severe enough.
Be that as it may, there were lavender fields waiting, and I was going to photograph them. I finally sat down to do some flight planning, and of course, the Mediterranean Coast beckoned also, meaning a glorious Monet of French control zones. At the end of the coastal binge was the Camargue river delta, an amazing area where the Rhone River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It was as complicated as it could possibly get, though I was inspired.
The weather check called for infamous Tramontane and La Mistral winds, something I had experienced before, though as of the prior night, the total amounts were manageable. The next morning, however, the TAF for Avignon called for gusts to 52 knots, and Marseille had issued a SIGMET for severe turbulence for most of the flight path. I postponed the trip tentatively for a day, and then noticed that conditions were ideal on the Spanish side of the border. I took off for a five-hour odyssey into the Monegros Desert to photograph some scenery on my list, coming back tired enough to wonder if I had the stamina to make Provence the next day.
The next morning, the forecast was windy, though acceptable, and even better for day two of my travels. I filed my flight plan at home, drove to the airport, activated via phone, climbed out over La Perche Pass, France, and began my relatively quick descent out of the Pyrenees and into the South of France, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. As I contacted Perpignan Tower for clearance through a control zone, the Tramontane was beginning to pick up. On the other side of the CTR, it was blowing. As my flight path merged with the beach, staying at 800 feet AGL to avoid overhead military airspace, the wind was positively howling as I flew with a 40-degree left crab and kept power between 1800 and 2000 RPM, due to a strange uplifting convergence right over the beach. Shooting conveniently out the side window while biting raging headwinds, I was barely able to pass a windsurfer.
As I entered Beziers Tower’s CTR, the winds started to relax quickly, meaning that the Tramontane fury was about 50 miles wide, also enabling me to relax as my ETA shortened rapidly due to normalizing groundspeeds. That meant I could follow the precise contour of the coast, enjoying old and new French towns and villages set against turquoise waters.
Beziers gave way relatively quickly to Montpellier Approach, a three frequency juggle to get cleared to follow the coast around an elaborate dance of dense air traffic. I departed Montpellier’s frequency while on final for Candillargues, a small general aviation field with an approach path over the Etang de l’Or, a golden salty lake that would mean certain total loss to any unfortunate airplanes that lose their engines coming into this airport.
Fueling was as is typical in small French airports: wandering around to find someone who invariably speaks no English, argue with the automated fuel pump (which would not take my French Total fuel card), find someone eventually that speaks English, and sort it all out. For as much as there are stereotypes about the French, they have always been helpful, even though they look at the americain and his Cub with a skeptical expression, clearly wondering if I have a screw loose.
I continued to the Camargue Delta, which was beyond words. Between the marshes, salty ponds, and salt lakes, the bulk of the area is water, with small viable emergency landing locations. Despite being under Istres Le Tube’s approach control, I was happy with my long clearance through the coast to the Rhone River, and even more at peace that I was away from human population, despite helicopter traffic and extensive water in all directions. I suppose I am wired for wilderness surroundings – there is something incredibly calming and free about it.
My time along the coast terminated with an explosive collection of salt lakes, and then a new personal record of the slowest cruise groundspeed: 37 knots. La Mistral, while not turbulent, was extremely strong, resulting in an agonizingly long period in the CTR with Istres Le Tube, before finally able to navigate through a series of waypoints out to the north and into the loving arms of Avignon Tower, where I got cleared through that CTR, but not the adjoining Orange CTR, requiring a more traditional avoidance path to finally break free of the shackles of controlled airspace, where I made a landing in light wind at Carpentras for refueling.
At this point, I expected to spend the night, though it was 4:30, and I found a local pilot to give his recommendation for lavender in the Luberon. I set off and flew for almost three more hours, wandering around the famous town of Sault, even coming in distant view of the Alps, before winding my way back to Carpentras, where I realized I speak enough French to order a taxi by phone to take me to my hotel.
The next day, the flight was direct back home with one fuel stop in Lezignan, and only two CTRs to cross. I finally made La Cerdanya by mid-afternoon, gracing the conclusion of my trip with the worst and most graceless landing in 5 years. Tallying up the numbers, I spoke with 10 control towers and 2 information services, flew 17 hours, and took 10,400 photographs in a three-day period. The last time I undertook such a flying bender was photographing every named glacier in the state of Montana in two days in September 2015.
In a moment of reflection, I realized a few things during the flying binge. I thought I would re-assemble the airplane in Germany as soon as it got off the container and continue flying that I did like this in America, though here in Europe. It took 18 months to work out the mechanical squawks, airmanship, and most importantly, my newfound fears after the emergency landing in the wilderness of Wyoming in 2015. Despite my reticence of flying into France, I got the hang of the military and controlled airspace regime by the time the trip to Provence was concluded, so there is something to be said about skills and experience. The most profound moment was to lay eyes on both Provence and the Alps, famous and beautiful areas known as exotic and distant tourist destinations, yet here I am in the same airplane I took my instruction in the mid 1990s as a teenager in Upstate New York, seeing places I wasn’t sure I’d ever see on the ground. I still have continuous moments of amazement that such a simple little airplane manufactured back in the 1940s could take a person so many places.
On the subject of colorful and interesting waters, I recently completed “Yellowstone’s Hot Springs: An Aviator’s Perspective,” a book containing close up aerial imagery of hundreds of the hot springs located in Yellowstone, taken during my time wandering around in Wyoming. It is available on Amazon or garrettfisher.me.