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A Different Kind of Limitation

Here we go again. Another year, another attempt at flying to Africa.

This time, I had months to plot and scheme against an adverse Iberian airport network, having researched until I was blue in the face, developing comfort mostly due to the fact that I purchased some gas cans for the back seat and had extra handles welded on for better straps. To make things even more convenient, I was already in Portugal, meaning that distance was reduced by about 60%. With April finally here, a good month to go for weather, it was time to take a crack at it again.

I had the support of a fellow pilot in Trebujena, Spain – Alfonso de Orleans-Borbón – who had originally planted this idea in my mind in 2016. He generously offered a place to stay, arranged for a free hangar, and helped with driving to a local gas station over and over to refuel, and pretty much laid out the welcome mat. Trebujena was in fuel range of Tangier, Morocco, and is a small general aviation airport that is typical of what one would see in America: hangars, a runway, and farm fields. No landing fees, aggravations, control towers or other nonsense.

Finally, toward the end of April, a window opened to fly to Andalusia. A raging Saharan sandstorm had previously blown in to southern Spain, followed by some unusual Texas-style humidity, which meant weeks of squalid haze, sometimes creating IFR conditions. I am told this is quite odd, as air is usually extremely clear. On a Thursday with the worst of the dust storm gone, I headed down in some hazy weather, crossing Portugal through the Alentejo, fueling at Évora, where I broke my avgas cost record: $17.85 per gallon. I tried my delusional consolation of “its only money,” though couldn’t help but to analyze the flamboyant pile of paperwork that accompanies a basic avgas purchase, noting a nefarious €18.75 fixed fee (plus 23% sales tax = $27.68) plus normally expensive per liter avgas charges. On a rampage at being taken for a ride, I was ready to contact Air BP and let them have it, which was not necessary, as on a return flight from Spain, I was told that it’s a “customs fee” charged by the Portuguese government on refueling stops that involve crossing the Portuguese border. Despite being against the European Union treaty on the free movement of goods, a customs fee is charged on intra-Europe aviation activities.

Arrival at Trebujena was uneventful, other than rather complex airspace in southern Andalusia. Haze was pretty awful, though it did clear the next day. Due to scheduling concerns, I flew locally for two days, heading in all directions checking out coastline, ancient fortifications, amazing water colors on the Atlantic, modern solar installations, interesting farm country, and resplendent wildflowers, wheat fields, and spring vegetation. I had been told that Andalusia is the epicenter of fraud, laziness, and most things negative about Spain (the Spanish apparently have strong regional rivalries, aside from the ever present independence bid), though I found Andalusia to have incredibly nice, relaxed, and generous people, with very beautiful scenery.

The day finally was approaching on Sunday to head over to Morocco. My original plan, which turned out to be a fantasy, was to fly some great amount of distance, though it kept getting whittled to smaller and smaller ambitions as I continued to do research. Both Alfonso and I had delved into all sorts of materials over the course of time, reading the Moroccan equivalent to the Aeronautical Information Manual, checking charts, reading up on other pilot’s stories, confirming the presence of fuel, and researching other restrictions. It turned out that VFR pilots for the most part must follow precise routings. There are point to point lines drawn all over the country, and they must be adhered to strictly, with all flights under ATC. While general aviation is possible, it is not really free.

I had heard from a Moroccan pilot that the lines aren’t mandatory. I heard from another pilot about having a Moroccan F-16 scrambled on him for not following the lines. I heard the lines could be avoided with a bribe. “So I’ll offer a 50 euro note and get it done.” “Oh no! Don’t do that!” was the advice I got. While bribes are required, they are illegal. One has to offer them but cannot, so unless a whirling dervish transnational social interaction can take place where a bribe is offered that really isn’t offered and is accepted when it didn’t really happen, those lines are the way they are. Perhaps a Moroccan can pull it off with ease, as it is their home country, though I was confused. I have a hard enough time picking up on obvious social clues in English (just ask my wife); how would I navigate the good old clandestine bribe in Africa?

The lines posed a logistics problem. Obviously, as a photographer that would rather be left alone, I was dismayed. However, if winds weren’t cooperating, routing could make things perilous with fuel range, without an alternate. Do I want to be landing on a road, in Africa? I can’t imagine that ending well.

The plan got hacked even further down when I couldn’t make headway if certain airports had avgas or not. I got conflicting information, and realized I had little choice but to go until I couldn’t go anymore, and turn around when an obstacle was severe enough. I speak neither French nor Arabic, the languages of Morocco, so a quick phone call wasn’t exactly easy. Fair enough…perhaps it shall be Tangier and then back?

My compatriot had a complication present itself and could not go. I decided I’d be ok as it was just a hop over the Strait of Gibraltar and back. As I was digging into some final requirements, I filed my flight plan 12 hours in advance as per Moroccan requirements, checking addressing based on a suggestion online. In all the years of flying, I didn’t even realize a thing called “addressing” existed. It is how to identify who gets a copy of the flight plan. SkyDemon had about 8 destinations in there already – departure ATC, destination ATC, Moroccan authorities, customs authorities, Spanish flight service – I added a few more based on someone’s writeup and clicked the button. Still not done, I had not successfully navigated the Spanish Police departure requirements, so I arranged for “handling,” a distinctly Spanish affair. Landing at a big airport, handling is frequently “offered,” which for most VFR pilots is an add-on that doesn’t do a lot. Most try to avoid it as fees are high and the service is something pilots can handle on their own. Nonetheless, I agreed to about $150 in fees to they could handle outbound immigration reporting, filing another flight plan to make the 5-mile hop from Trebujena to a controlled airport in Jerez to make the outbound journey.

By now, it was late Saturday night. I was flying for 3 days straight, was extremely tired, and something didn’t feel right. All of this nonsense kept me up late, and then…..I couldn’t sleep. I knew what the problem was, and finally had to articulate it to myself so I could get some sleep before the next day: I had lost all desire to make the trip. Eventually I dozed off, awoken by lashing hail against the window in the middle of the night, and then finally by my alarm a few hours after that.

Things were clear mentally in the morning. I wasn’t going. I added up the hours it would take to fly Trebujena-Jerez-Outbound Immigration-Tangier-Customs-Hotel. It would be 7:30PM before I arrived in my hotel in Tangier, 100 miles away. I would then hop in the plane the next morning, taking another 8 hours to reverse the whole thing. Then adverse weather would be inbound on Tuesday, and I would be stuck before getting back to Portugal. There was the fact that Spain and Morocco have some unfriendly airspace at the shortest point of the crossing, so I’d be heading out to sea with strong winds on the nose, without a life jacket or raft. I didn’t like it one bit. I may not be troubled wandering around at 15,000 feet in the Rockies in winter with the door open. This, for me, was too much.

It was very clear to cancel, which I did. I am not one to usually change my mind. I realized the whole flight had become a series of individual steps that all were undesirable, and the only takeaway was bragging rights, which interest me very little. It was time for a personal reassessment. I also decided that a trip of this complexity would be best when retired or when I don’t have work obligations staring me down as it is a must to be able to roll with a lot of complications.

Weather was somewhat ok to return to Portugal, and I was ready to get back “home” for the time being to chill out. At the airport, packed and ready to go, ten gyrocopters rolled in one after another, with a bunch of French pilots disembarking. Alfonso, a fluent French speaker, was talking with them and found out that they were heading to….Morocco….for 12 days. After a few months of waiting, they had gotten approval to tour the country on a rally. Just then, a National Police officer showed up to handle their outbound immigration concerns at a little GA airport, so they didn’t have to land in Jerez. Of all things….? By now, I had cancelled the flight plan and needed 12 hours to file another, and I was worn out anyway. It turns out the gyrocopter pilots lived about 120 miles away in Portugal, are all retired, and speak one of the Moroccan languages. The Spanish police officer aptly noted that he thought they were all lunatics for “crossing the Strait in those things.”

With a stiff headwind the entire day, it took six hours, two fuel stops, and dodging some Portuguese Outback downpours, reflecting on my motivations for flying in the first place, something I often do in this blog. Aviation is more than just flying, just like cars are more about the joy of driving. A real question is what we do with the freedom of it, and that can be personal, commercial, practical, or a combination of all things in between. In this case, it was clear I was pushing myself well beyond comfort zones, and practicality of the airplane. I do take my time getting places, taking a fiendish amount of images in the process, and in so doing, my range is somewhat limited. Even though it has taken years to get used to my range limitations due to European complexity, I have grown to accept it and enjoy what I can see inside of rational flight expectations.

Portugal’s Alentejo region in full Spring bloom.



Oddly, this solar death ray is not restricted airspace. Sanlucar de Mayor, Spain.

Andalusian countryside near Trebujena.

Salinas near Cádiz, Spain.

Punta del Boquerón, Spain

Cádiz, Spain, old city. If one wishes to test US Military anti-aircraft capabilities, Rota’s airspace is half a mile on the other side of the city. 

Rio Tinto, Huelva.

Oil tanker, Guadalquivir River, Isla Mayor. 

Castillo de Medina Sidonia.

Cape of Trafalgar. Morocco on the horizon.

Andalusians in Andalusia.

Wheat fields before harvest.


And of course, the wall of precipitation crossing the coastal hills in Portugal, requiring an uphill quartering tailwind landing on a wet, slippery, short runway.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

3 Comments

  1. So blessed to not have to endure this nonsense. I can go to the airport, get in my plane, and fly to San Diego (>2000 miles) without talking to anyone if I want. Is France this wacky? Why or how did Spain get so F*(ked up!?

  2. Michael Coates

    May 17, 2018 at 6:28 pm

    Hello there, I really enjoyed reading your story and struggles you faced. Aviation is nowhere near as easy as it used to be and a real dampener for pure adventure aviation. Great story and in the end a great outcome because by the photographs you still had a fantastic enjoyable trip.

  3. Thank goodness the push by the major airlines to privatize ATC was shot down.

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