I tried to cross the Iberian Peninsula once before in 2017. The plan went south 100 nautical miles into the flight, and I haven’t since been able to make much headway out of Catalunya owing to a lack of Spanish airports with fuel in key areas. It would be better to have two fuel tanks in this aircraft, though alas, that is not how it is.
For a variety of reasons, we decided to spend three months in Portugal, along the Atlantic Coast. Since I wouldn’t dare leave the Cub behind, that meant figuring the problem out, solving it, and actually pulling it off, crossing the entirety of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, in February.
I spent many weeks staring at Google Maps and sectional maps, trying different things on for size, realizing that it is very hard to finalize a plan, as headwinds are unknown until the day of flight. Eventually, I settled on an astonishing six stops for a 560nm flight. If I removed one, the distance became an issue with winds, fuel, and alternates, whereas executing the plan seemed on the surface absurd. Part of the problem is that I take my time taking photos, and since I did not ever expect to fly this Cub in these countries, I decided to simply take longer and savor the experience. It would take two days due to time of year.
A window of weather opened in mid-February, two weeks before our anticipated drive. I have learned the hard way crossing the USA that one should move an aircraft before leaving terrestrially, as go/no go decisions can be made same day, whereas to return via public transportation and commence a flight separates the go/no go by two days from the flight. Thankfully I went the weekend that I did, as the weather became extremely unsettled right up until now, locals in Portugal noting that it has been a very long time since they have received so much continuous rain.
Part of making this trip possible is the carriage of two gas cans in the back seat, totaling 10 gallons, for which I would use as a backup, to land at abundant ultralight fields and airports that lack fuel, and transfer as necessary. If I did not have this feature, I would have to fly a silly zigzag between airline-serviced airports in Western Spain. For safety, I ordered a seatbelt extension and had handles welded on the front, to prevent them from dislodging in the event of a non-catastrophic airplane crash, whacking me in the back of the head and causing severe injury that otherwise would not have happened. With that in place, plus water, food, first aid, a tent, blankets, tie downs, tools, extra oil, a MacBook, flight bag, cameras, and clothing for the return trip, the whole thing looked like a gypsy caravan, and behaved aeronautically as such given the weight involved. This isn’t my first rodeo with such distance and gear.
The first stop was about 100nm, leaving the Pyrenees, crossing over an inversion, and landing in the middle of the Monegros Desert, replete with desert wind. It was a microlight field of 1,300’, with a runway that had the quality of a farm driveway. Swerving around massive vultures at 20’ AGL on short final, I bounced along stones and ruts, pulling up to the hangar/restaurant, noting mariachi music playing. With desert vegetation, Aragon architecture, and Mexican music filling the air, it felt like I was in the Sonoran Desert.
Tardienta de Monegros was a really funny little airport. The owner runs a microbrewery, hosts a mini Spanish “Burning Man” festival, and regularly has video and still photo shoots at the field, as the place is in the middle of nowhere and nobody cares what happens. He showed me some sample commercial print material done: some neo-Nazi reenactment, Molotov cocktails in full flame, plenty of fashion models, and apparently two full porn movies shot by established enterprises….with European ULM aircraft as backdrops! Fuel consisted of gas cans obtained from a gas station. I had wondered why he asked the day before exactly how much fuel I wanted; he merely drove and got it from the nearest station. Funny as that was, I was proud of myself for precisely calling it: 30 liters of consumption, with a tiny bit of room left over.
The next leg took me just outside of Madrid, another two hours in flight. Winds were a stiff headwind over the desert, quite rocky along the Moncayó ridge, and then a slight tailwind over the central Spanish highlands. Unfortunately, it was cloudy during this stretch, which is no good for photography, though I did enjoy the open stretches. Landing at Robledillo was a bit intriguing with a stiff wind, though it was a pretty field. I had called in advance to ensure that they took credit cards, which they assured they did. Upon arrival, it was all cash, for which I was thankful I had a pile.
At this point, I could have headed to the other side of Madrid and called it a night, except I wanted to get a photo of Valley of the Fallen. It is a monument to those who died during the Spanish Civil War, controversially built by Spain’s former dictator Franco. Nonetheless, it features a 500-foot cross that can be seen from twenty miles away. I also received a recommendation to check out El Escorial, a Spanish royal summer residence, which was just over the hill. To pull off the flight, I had to cross a spider web of airspace, which local pilots told me I had to obey. Catalunya has an excess of controlled airspace, and it is popular practice to intentionally have an incursion in areas where “they would never send an airliner.” The odd thing is, Catalunya is one of the more wealthy and orderly sections of Spain, so I was shocked to hear that Madrid treats its airspace like the rest of the world: obey it. Thus, I snaked around and under CTRs to get to the northwest side, take photos, and get to Casarrubios for the night, southwest of the city.
The next day featured dull wind though overcast, which meant things were uneventful for the crossing of Extremadura. It is a place with low population and few airports. The night before, I discovered an airport that I had missed: El Rinconcillo de Guadalupe. That meant I could make it to the Atlantic Coast with only two stops that day instead of three. Since it was in an extremely rural area, I would be using the gas cans, which was fine with me.
Overflying the field, things looked normal, except there appeared to be a runway marker right in the middle of the field. Hmmm… perhaps the wind blew it there? I landed around it, noting an abundance of cow plops all over the grass runway. Strange…though perhaps they use cows to trim the grass? It wouldn’t be the first time, as my first flight in the PA-11 was in Florida at my grandfather’s winter residence, where a local farmer allowed him to take off from his cow pasture, which meant chasing the cows off and avoiding manure. This wasn’t that big of a deal.
I taxied to the edge of this “airport,” noting that it had nothing in the way of facilities or buildings, just some fencing and wide-open range, an over glorified cow patch with a windsock. I started my process to unpack the gas cans, only to note a Guardia Civil (paramilitary police) car lurking around by the fence, then moving away slowly. “Oh, maybe they’re interested in the airplane” I thought, full well knowing that a problem was brewing. I kept about my business as the nefarious police car moved a few times, eventually hearing one of the officers calling for me to come to him.
I walked over with a look on my face that did not indicate I enjoyed being interrupted to which four burly officers glared back. The entire conversation happens in Spanish.
El Jefe asked, “where is your permission to land?”
“It’s an airport. I don’t need permission.”
“This airport is closed and is private. It is not open to the public!”
“Not according to my map.”
“You need permission to be here.”
“Well, if that was disclosed properly on official aviation maps, I would have gone somewhere else.” I then pull out my iPad, showing him the airport designator, which he finds educational as he clearly has never seen an aviation map before.
“Where is your flight plan?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have a flight plan?”
“Flight plans are not necessary for flights outside of instrument conditions and outside of controlled airspace.”
At this point he was stumped. “Where did you come from?”
“Where is that?”
“Southwest of Madrid.”
Stumped a bit more. “Where are you going?”
“What do you mean why?”
“What is the nature of this flight? Is it commercial?”
“No. I am flying the plane there because I am going to spend three months at the beach.”
“I need to see some identification.”
At this point, I produce an expired Spanish visa (now resolved) and a brand-new US passport with no stamps in it whatsoever, meaning I don’t have a shred of proof I am in the country legally (even though I was, technically). He looks them over and hands them back. “I need to see the aircraft registration.” It is at this moment that I realize nothing bad is going to come of this exercise. I dismantle the entire gypsy caravan to get the registration, which is “properly displayed” under all of my luggage. I also fetch my stack of European ramp check paperwork, ready to go to war over VAT and importation tariffs if this guy is in the mood. He looks at the registration and asks me where the registration numbers are on the aircraft. I point to the rudder, then to the registration showing that they match. He asks a few questions about fuel range and if these things have an “ITV” (car inspection). I am not asked to produce a pilot’s license.
During this whole affair I am hearing my 87-year-old grandfather’s voice echoing in my head: “I have never been ramp checked by the FAA!” Well, I’m 36 and this is the second interrogation by police.
El Jefe continues, “I need to see the contents in your luggage.”
“You want me to open my suitcase?”
“To see if I have crack in it?”
“Well, if the Guardia Civil wants to see my underwear, who am I to stand in the way?”
He does a quick glance at just two of them. I offer my tool chests, flight bag, and the rest. He shakes his head. I ask, “Are you sure?” He is quite sure that his interest is flagging, as I think to myself that if I was going to smuggle anything from Morocco in a Cub, it would not be in the suitcase, but what do I know?
At this point I ask, “Is there an infraction here?”
“Nope, but we need to take a picture of the registration for the file.”
“Ok, have fun.”
The farmer that bought the airport then arrives, commencing an indignant Spanish rant about how I am the third airplane to land since he bought it, and he doesn’t understand why, as he shoved the marker in the middle of the runway. I then furnish an education that de-registering the airport would be the first step, followed by removing the runway numbers, runway markers, and windsock and putting two yellow X’s on each end, that these are the international symbols for a closed runway. They all have a look of both appreciation and realization that they were dramatic idiots. I allowed a bit of face saving and graciously continued my refueling, for which everyone calmed down and had a nice chat, inclusive of the farmer eyeing up the airplane with some curious intrigue, and the Guardia Civil taking selfies in front of the Cub before takeoff.
The flight into Portugal is nowhere near as eventful as those shenanigans; however, I did have a problem that required resolution. Flight plans can only be activated over the radio to my knowledge here, not via iPad or other device, even though they can be filed, amended, and delayed through electronic means. Madrid Approach would not answer, probably due to altitude, so I could not activate the plan there or anywhere else in the boonies, which is required to cross borders within Europe. I cancelled it via the iPad, as I have learned that European airports still expect arrival if a filed plan is not activated, whereas in America they fall out of the system after 30 minutes.
As Portugal is pretty strict about the border, I finally dismiss thoughts about sneaking in without calling, and make the call to the Portuguese military, advising I had a problem with flight plan activation. They ask where I am going and tell me to stand by, for which eventually they say they cannot find a flight plan and it’s no big deal. My transponder is not on to conserve limited battery power, as I have no alternator and could not locate a plug for the charger during my overnight stay.
We do some back and forth about “negative radar contact,” my explanation being accepted, which was met with “N5547H, squawk 1367” 15 minutes later. I turn it on, using my buffer (reserved for urgent situations and coming controlled airspace), squawk, get verbal radar identification, and no explanation why we just had a conversation that I had low battery and now I am on radar. Iberia…there aren’t words.
I refuel at Ponte de Sôr and am told I must have a flight plan to exit the ATZ. I try to get around it. Not allowed as I must have one to take off, so I fill out a paper form and they scan it off to Lisbon Flight Service. I am cleared to takeoff, head west, and am told I must switch over to the Portuguese military, even though I plan on avoiding military zones. They cannot find my flight plan (so much for “required to take off”), so they send me to Lisbon Approach, who “couldn’t read the form.” I try multiple times to get rid of flight following. Not allowed (even though it is). We spend 5 minutes air filing an ICAO flight plan, get handed back to the military, and eventually he tires of me when I fall off radar and just tells me to let him know when I get to my destination, which I do. I ask to terminate the flight plan. Not allowed in the air! I advise I do not know who to call to terminate via phone, and get no response. I then wander along the Atlantic for a few minutes, taking in the fact that I had the Cub based on the same Atlantic Ocean, 3500 miles to the west in the North Carolina Outer Banks, three years ago. I expected none of this in life and continued to be amazed by the places an old plane can go.
I land, for which the owner of the airport (who speaks only Portuguese) calls Flight Service and has a clear argument with them that yes, he is calling and not me, and yes I landed, and why can’t the stupid flight plan be closed? Iberia. There aren’t words.
And so the Cub is back on the Atlantic for the time being.