Switzerland is a funny thing. On one hand, it has been a dream for longer than I can remember. On another, I have done my best to avoid actually going there or taking the Cub on its maiden voyage in the Alps, despite having installed a Class 1 transponder in 2015 specifically for such things. My bizarre motivation aside, it took a pilot friend who lives near the Alps to see the dream flickering inside and invite (convince) me to finally come up here. With plans arranged, it came time to make the flight from the Pyrenees to the Alps.
I have mastered planning transit flights in advance of ground movements, so I can make go/no-go decisions on the same day. I set a Friday target a week prior based on weather forecasts, and it held up as the best day to go. A heat wave had begun to set in with lots of thunderstorms in Spain day in and day out, with a day appearing to open up. I expected to hit afternoon weather, which is common, in the Alps and wait it out.
The day in question turned out to be better than I had hoped in that bad weather chances were very low, though it would be quite hot and haze would be less than pleasant. I opted for an inland route over the Massif Central of France, an area somewhere between the Adirondacks and Appalachians of North Carolina in height, noteworthy for its effect on weather though forgotten as its sandwiched by bigger things. I had previously taken the Mediterranean route on clearer days. While the famous Tramontane and Mistral would not be blowing, a sea breeze was coming inland, which made haze particularly displeasing.
As the day approached, I got more and more neurotic, to the point that my wife asked why it was such a big deal. “Didn’t you just fly 6 hours the other day across the Pyrenees and back, slightly longer than this flight?” She was right, I flew the highest terrain of the Pyrenees with some weather to dodge, and it was relaxing and no big deal. This flight, equal in length to the Madrid to Cerdanya run, shouldn’t amount to much, yet my stress level was oddly high.
The flight out of the Pyrenees was uneventful. Haze was oozing in from the Mediterranean, so I stayed high overflying Carcassonne, entering the first terrain of the Massif Central, which turned out to be interesting. Haze gave way to clearer air in about 30 miles, with rich forest scents coming up from the hills below.
Once getting through French military zones, Information Service went quiet and the flight turned into typical Cub flying about 1000 feet above the ground. Terrain started to get more interesting – generally not severe, with a touch of rolling hills of New York and Utah vegetation and rocks. Landing at Mende was a trip sitting a thousand feet above the nearby town on a mesa with pines typical of the Rockies.
Massif Central of France – west of Millau.
Landed at Mende, France for fuel and found a Super Cub parked there. The PA-11 is behind it. I spent my youth flying with my grandfather in PA-18 just like this one.
Taking off to the northeast, I realized I could avoid Information Service as the web of restricted zones allowed a corridor out. There was a reception issue in that neck of the woods, so that problem was averted. I expected to hop on again over the Rhône River to cross a control zone, though I had some time to enjoy myself until then.
The Massif Central remained interesting, with this combination of bucolic farmland and vegetation that reminded me of Mediterranean Spain (or Utah, depending on one’s perspective). I was puzzled until it occurred to me that terrain on the plateau below is the same height as La Cerdanya, elevation being a very significant factor with weather in the Mediterranean region.
As I approached the exit of the Massif Central, some towering cumulus clouds were developing, which is a nice spice to keep flights interesting. Why have completely clear blue sky for the first time into the Alps, when more unknowns can be mixed in? At any rate, the Rhône was clear (though infernally hot), and I had another fuel stop planned at Chambéry, France, with plenty of alternates. I was also happy to discover that I could avoid flight following if I changed course a bit to avoid Grenoble’s control zone.
In so doing, I overflew some vertical rock that I had fantasized about flying near when we first drove from Germany to Spain in 2016. The highway system makes a jog north of Grenoble, presenting the first view of the “Pre Alps,” which like the Pre-Pyrenees are not quite foothills, but rather stark terrain that doesn’t qualify as the actual mountain range itself.
What is a pilot to do if some towering cumulus doesn’t show up? Turns out the weather cooperated.
First sight of the Pre-Alps with rock formations below that I saw from the highway two years prior. North of Grenoble, France.
From there, I turned northeast, requiring a bit to sort out radio reception with a giant piece of rock between me and Chambéry Airport, set inside of a Class D control zone. Cleared to enter via Sierra Whiskey, it was interesting to come over a rather sizeable mountain ridge and descend a few thousand feet down to the airport, with temperatures getting quite hot at 35 C / 96 F on the ground.
There were a number of machinations on the ground typical of the mixed bag of European airports. While Mende featured a self-serve pump that worked, no landing fees, and a snarling waitress who denied access to the only bathroom unless I ate lunch there, Chambéry featured an angry wasp nest on the fuel grounding line, a self-serve pump that needed some love taps from staff, a nearly mile walk to the office to pay fees, 20 minutes of paperwork to calculate and pay a €5.47 fee, air conditioned bathrooms, and a menacing security guard who demanded to see my pilot’s license after urinating, convinced that it was illegitimate. Upon my return to the aircraft, a tow pilot walked over and furnished a lecture that my aircraft was 18 inches from its ideal parking location, and despite an enormous tarmac devoid of any other aircraft, it made taxiing the Pilatus “difficult.” When faced with absurdness, I put on an aura of obsequiousness, which seemed to irritate the guy even more, which made me happier.
I filed a flight plan into Switzerland, took off to the northeast, and climbed to 5,000’ to cross some impressive Pre-Alps. After the engine cooled down to cruise temps from the hot climb, I gave it full power to climb in some ascending air near Megève, getting to 11,000’ without much trouble. From there, the Massif du Mont Blanc was in front of me.
My typical routine in new mountain areas is to nibble progressively at new things, getting closer and closer to some sort of forbidden fruit like Grand Teton, or in this case, Mt. Blanc, which is the highest peak in the Alps at 15,774’. I made up my mind to skip the melodrama this time and go for it. While I wouldn’t do something silly the first time, I wanted to close the gap from the periphery to the subject, and the weather was cooperating, so I got as close as I could despite a combination of airspace restrictions, cloud bases in places at 12,000’ and terrain. Satisfied with my endeavors, I made a long descent into Sion, Switzerland, my intended destination for a while.
Since arriving now on the ground, I have had a chance to fly once more in the Alps, beginning my process of understanding the vagaries of weather and terrain. The Alps may as well take my adventures to date and multiply them in just about every factor: weather, terrain, altitude, complexity…..There are years of things to do in an airplane, so this extended trip ought to be filled with some intrigue.
Mt. Blanc, from 2,000′ beneath. The summit (15,774′) still remains obscured, and my measly 100hp struggles this high when its 90F on the ground. Still working on this one.
Glacier du Trient, Switzerland. It is quite steep, which the photo shows poorly.