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Five years of Europe

Between last month’s post and this one, the five-year anniversary has passed, both of the PA-11 getting unloaded from the container and touching German soil, and of our disembarking a 747 in Frankfurt with our cat and dog, driving in a jetlagged stupor to our new home in Germany at the time. If there is ever a time to reflect on the original plan versus how it turned out, that would be now.

The Alps figured into the plan from the beginning. The wording was “we expect to find ourselves in the Swiss or Austrian Alps eventually.” My mental idea was that it would take two or three years, as we hoped to do Germany an appropriate justice, which is to say that I wanted to go to university to work on the next degree while integrating into the local culture. It is an understatement to point out that none of the above happened, finding myself later in that year in the Pyrenees, though the plan has worked partially as anticipated, for none of the original reasons.

If one were to take any five-year period in life, there would be an element of personal evolution, independent of the cultural realities of living abroad. That is to say that, if I remained in the United States, we still would have faced a relocation in late 2015 and, in hindsight, would have continued to try to reconcile unsustainable mountain town development, ever increasing costs, and rapid housing turnover with my desire to live near and fly in very large mountains. In effect, I can say that I have exchanged certain aggravations for other ones in pursuit of the same goal in the past half decade.

I expected aviation to be more difficult in Europe than the USA and was aware that many costs would be vastly higher. As those who have read my more vitriolic posts are well aware, many things surprised me on levels I could not have imagined though, once I got the hang of it, I could acclimate and factor about 60% of the nonsense and find a way to press forward. Did I ever think that I wouldn’t care about $27 landing fees? I regularly get presented with landing fee invoices well in excess of $200 per month, and I have gotten to the point that I do not think of them while flying. “You only live once,” so I go flying when I want and that is that.

One thing I that I have not been able to conquer, much to my dismay, is the utter lack of desire to fly great distances like I used to do in the US. I simply do not like landing at other airports apart from the then current home, unless I have gotten to know the place and figure out what the procedures are. I can’t think of many places where one pays the landing fee and fuel both seamlessly and in the same place. It is often a dance of running around the airport to fill out reams of paperwork to pay exorbitant fees, which usually means refueling is about a two-hour process, instead of 38-45 minutes in US airports. Add that to 4 to 6 hours of flying, and the process takes all day, which means that it is rare. I have tried time and again to smack myself into some form of motivation to “get over it,” and it is astonishingly infrequent that I can seem to rouse myself to do.

As a case in point, I have this glaring hole of terrain that I would like to visit in Switzerland, in the Alps from Andermatt east to Liechtenstein. That necessitates about 5 hours in the air plus a fuel stop, so I found a nice little airport not far from Zürich, ideally situated with regard to proximity and microclimates. While the official aerodrome chart indicates that there is avgas and specific operating hours, that is not enough to go by. There is also a “PPR” (prior permission required) requirement, which is common in Switzerland, though muddling through the website in German I found that the PPR requirement can be satisfied by listening to a recording on the phone before visiting, though the recording is in German and my language skills are inadequate to process aeronautical details in such a fashion. I’ll solve that by getting someone to call for me, though the problem that remains is something on the site about how to handle paying the landing fee if the airport is open, but it is unattended. It mentions nothing of the same for fuel, so it is imperative to find out if fuel is automatic or not, and if automatic, how does one pay? Payment in Europe is anything but consistent: some are Total cards only, Air BP cards only, cash only, or all of the above inclusive of major credit cards. In any case, I email in German and English to get the scoop and…two weeks later…no reply, which means back to getting a friend to call and sort it out. One can understand why, when there are pretty mountains and scenery nearby, I land and takeoff from the home base airport and forget the aggravation.

In any case, I’d like to find a way to “get over it.” It likely will involve an expensive installation of a second fuel tank in the PA-11, as my three-hour range, coupled with low airport density in mountains and an incredibly slow airplane, is a significant deterrent. This remains on my personal “to do” list, as there are 27 countries in the EU, with more in Europe as a whole, and the Cub has only been to 9 of them.

Back to reflecting on a half-decade of being outside of America, and I can safely say that most of my expectations and understanding were vastly incorrect, the bulk of which was cultural. I don’t think I am overly unique in my point of view, as many people back home draw certain conclusions about Europe, similar to how I used to think, that are not fully correct, requiring more than some visits to debunk. At the same token, while most everything that I thought was true turns out not to be, many other things turned out to be far better than I expected, in very subtle and cumulative ways.

For starters, there is virtually never an instance where I look at a flight in the Cub and have a chunk of time where I am simply letting it pass by to get somewhere. Countless times in the US, I would have a destination in mind, whether an airport or some scenery, and there were vast sums of repetitive space that needed to be overflown, which meant that I would go into a butt- and mind-numbing “road trip” mode, where I would get lost in my mind, letting the hours pass. Instead of a vivid flight filled with luscious discovery, I saw a day in three-hour flight legs, refueling as fast as humanly possible, and a reward at the end having flown as far as possible while the sun was up. The thought of doing that here is simply ludicrous as I am almost never bored in the air. All one has to do is look down and there is an endless cornucopia of castles, curvy roads, orchards, vineyards, rolling farms, mountain chalets, and the like to entertain oneself.

To that end, after what I consider a “good flight,” which is usually one with resplendent lighting and includes discovery of something new, I spend a moment reflecting after putting the airplane in the hangar, still struggling to believe that I am having these experiences at all, much less with the airplane that I used for my solo flight in 1997. I thought the feeling would go away quite a long time ago and, five years later, it hasn’t. Many have inquired of me privately why I put up with the frustrations of international living, and that is the answer, that the allure of what is around the next bend is greater than the joy of raw aviation freedom in the US. Hopefully I can get over the bad combination of low & slow flying + European bureaucracy and start flying some longer distances.

In any case, I do have a new chapter in life that is soon to unfold, which should, if things go as planned, result in lots of more flying. Stay tuned.

Some photographs from recent escapades in the air….

Rime ice.

There was a sandstorm recently, blown up from the Western Sahara. So what did I do? Go flying! One reason most generally avoid sandstorms is that visibility changes rapidly, which is what happened for the worse. In any case, the below image is de-saturated and accurate to what it looked like in the air. The Cub got a new air filter afterward.

An “alp chalet” surrounded by avalanches.


I flew this valley on flight simulator and then did it in reality. The F-16 climbs better through here than my tired old O-200.


Vineyards with snow.

One way to solve the avalanche problem: build a dike to divert them.


Grand Combin (4314m / 14, 154′) with a tad too much wind. Staying low in the Alps tends to work.

Alp chalets covered in snow to the right, avalanche to the left.

Mt Blanc (center horizon, 15,174′) with mountain wave and wind on the lower ridges. I know how to thread the needle flying through these ranges without getting pummeled, though I have to be in the right mood for it.

The forecast called for more docile winds and, well, here we are. 

A rare swarm of paragliders in winter. 

This is actually a hiking refuge, buried to the roof. The structure to the right of it is completely buried.


Book #27 is here: Abstractions of the Alps, basically containing whatever I found to be particularly beautiful thus far in my alpine flying adventures.

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.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this recap. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog (need to read more of it, frankly). It will be interesting to see how eVTOL flying rolls out across the world and how it affects our “old fashioned” sort of flying.

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