I suppose it was an eventuality living overseas that I would finally start accepting how things are done here and slowly forget the ever-present reality that “this would have been easier in America.” At this point, my immersion has gone to a new level, where it has steam rolled whatever resistance remained.
For those that read last month’s post, it was about the Catalonian independence referendum and my utilization of general aviation as a way to make sense of all of the upheaval here in Catalonia, by flying on a daily basis. As the days continued past the suspended declaration of independence early in October, my sense of angst did not reduce, as I kept thinking about the fact that all of my assets here in Spain are not insured against civil unrest and war. For that matter, nobody has coverage for that sort of thing. Being so close to the French border, logic said that we should have a plan, and we did devise one early on: first our safety if stuck at home, second our ability to sneak out, and third the financial effects of it all. As I took stock of the continuously tense situation, I decided that my escape plan with the airplane had some holes in it.
I joked that I would hop in the plane and make a James Bond escape across the border, declaring an emergency if I had to and requesting political asylum. If lives are at stake, that is how it would go down, and I’d endure unhappy French gendarmes if I had to. Then, as I thought more about the reality that we may wish to reposition assets for prevention, then my WWII escape from behind enemy lines would not get the sympathy I had hoped, especially at St. Leocadie, an airport merely 8 miles from La Cerdanya aerodrome, yet over the border in France. If it was a foul weather day, I would need to land there, and it is both an “altiport,” which is a restricted use airport in France requiring a signoff before being permitted to land, and a hybrid military installation where advance registration is also required. I decided it was time to get the site licenses and registration taken care of.
Of course, I could not use my airplane, as I would need the site license to land there to take the lesson in the first place, so I rented from the local flying club and went up with the Chief Pilot. It was a 1959 Super Cub with a 150-horsepower engine, the same model my grandfather informally taught me how to fly in at age 8. I initially expected the whole affair to be a nonevent, though I had a nagging suspicion I was in for a lot of work, which turned out to be correct. I hadn’t flown a Super Cub in 20 years, and never from the front seat. The lesson would be in Spanish, a common second language for both of us. As anticipated, the checklist was in French, and as I noted this fact, I was told by the instructor that “when [he goes] to America, the checklist will not be in French.” Right. Airspeed was in kilometers, which is about as awkward as driving a car in the UK. That all aside, the lesson was pleasant, though left me sweating like I was a student again, and confirmed a longstanding suspicion: while I am becoming a better aviator flying the PA-11 so much, I do not fly many models, and I wonder if over specializing is not the smartest thing to do. It was good to fly another machine.
After the lesson, I now had two site licenses, as we visited La Llagonne, a glider field at 5,600’ elevation. A few days later, I flew up to La Llagonne before the season entombed the place in snow and mud, taking some food and enjoying a bit of a meal surrounded by scenery that looked like Colorado and Wyoming. In this moment of quiet reflection, I began to realize that the magnitude of aviation experiences to be had is cumulatively becoming almost overwhelming. In my initial indignation at bureaucratic nonsense, a subtler enjoyment of the depth of culture and experience was not being noticed. Despite the seemingly anachronistic requirement to have this site license, it creates a situation where not many get to land there, so it is kind of special to be able to. That, and yet again I am nibbling on some food staring at this airplane, amazed how many places it has been. Besides, why would I expect the French, Spanish, or anyone else to care about what an American pilot thinks about their rules?
After getting the site licenses taken care of, any angst about independence evaporated. I made a plan, took care of all paperwork and other affairs that I could, and decided to stop caring. Shortly thereafter, I decided to enjoy a Friday afternoon and putz around the hangar on what was a hazy day unsuitable for photography. The warmth of the late October summery weather beckoned a flight around the pattern, so I decided to leave the cameras in the car and head up with the door open. During climbout, someone asked me “What do you think of the Republic?” “Republic? Did they declare independence?” “Yes, just now.” Figures, I have a moment of peace and a country is born beneath me.
For those that follow the news, the independence saga continues, a political drama that is by and large entirely unpredictable. That being said, I quit trying to predict it, and keep flying. Recently, a raging Tramontane wind coupled with a strong low between Corsica and Rome, creating furious winds that finally cleaned out all Catalonian haze, high and low. Once the winds calmed down, I decided to swallow my angst and conquer a flight I have not been able to do since I got here.
The Mediterranean is 54 nautical miles as the crow flies, yet is inexplicably one of the most complex routes, and that has nothing to do with airspace. Taking off at 3,609’ MSL, I have to climb to 7,200’ to get over terrain, then commence a step descent over terrain that looks like severe Appalachian hills: densely forested countryside with West Virginia-style curvy roads and few fields. These gnarly hills twist and snake, changing their form and working their way toward the Mediterranean plains, a cruise initially at 5,000’, which gives way to 3,000’ and then roughly 1,500’, as Barcelona’s airspace is overhead. Turning to cruise down the coast, terrain starts to act a bit like Big Sur, which cliffs adjacent to the ocean and terrain up to 1,200’ here and there close to the water, giving way to valleys that drop to sea level, containing developed areas. There is a lot of think about with regard to an engine failure, though the scenery is exquisite. All of these areas are absolutely filled with microclimates.
Fueling was at a ULM field, Palafolls, a short field at sea level wedged amongst 10-foot swamp grass, which was an entertaining approach with unmarked high-tension lines, an elevated highway on short final, and a factory complex so large that the roof would have made a suitable emergency landing location. Taking off from there, I finally had a chance to fly around Massís del Monsteny, a 5,000’ hill east of Barcelona that frequently taunts me from a distance. Being so close to the Mediterranean, the hill almost always has sea haze or clouds making imagery unsuitable, except today.
After Monsteny, it was a descent down to 3,000’ to photograph the ridges west of Vic, which were uncharacteristically free of persistent fog and inversions. That gave way to cruise climb over West Virginia terrain, clearing a ridge at 5,200’ before giving full throttle for the climb through a downdraft to 7,200’ to clear Puigllançada, then descending alongside ski resorts in stiff wind, for a long final back to La Cerdanya at 3,609’.
It has been a historical enigma why I was averse to taking the flight in the first place, and yet that aversion was confirmed by how tired I was after 4.5 hours of flying over this route. It is easier to fly above timberline, in the Pyrenees or the Rockies, in the middle of winter, than this kind of flight. It is certainly the opposite of low and slow over farm country, and after some reflection, the level of complexity, terrain variation, microclimates, development, remote areas, and mix of coastal and mountainous terrain over a short distance makes it unusual, challenging, and rewarding. I would also suppose that while aviation is aviation, the sheer immersion of inputs and visuals in an exotic nation places more processing burden on the mind, as there is so much density of things to see and process, especially while flying over new surroundings in a place where sovereignty is, well, up in the air.
Speaking of flying above timberline, book #13 has been published: “Around the Summit: Flying Grand Teton.” It is an aerial photography manifesto of every nook and cranny of Grand Teton National Park, featuring my most technical mountain flying to date in the Cub.