It finally happened.
After 817.9 flying hours and 627 landings in Europe, the closing time snake has bitten.
For those unfamiliar with my previous rantings, “closing time” is uniquely something one finds common outside the United States. Airports of all kinds, from the smallest grass strips to full fledge airline hubs, generally have a closing time, where landings are forbidden until specified opening times the next morning. While I am generalizing, it is important to note that each country in Europe has differing flexibility around the schedule and significantly different enthusiasm for, and penalties resulting from, enforcement of violations.
I was initially greeted in Germany with this reality, along with the fact that closing time is not to be messed with. Fines run into the thousands of euros. France has a typically middle of the road attitude about it and Spain, as usual, is either too disorganized to do anything about it or wildly overreacts in narrow situations. For all the flights in the Pyrenees, I am fairly certain that I could have landed at midnight, and nobody would have cared.
Switzerland’s reaction to violations is airport dependent. If it is a safety-of-flight issue, then they are remarkably considerate. If the local commune is particularly sensitive and it is a home base airport, one may find his or her hangar tenancy at risk for repeat offenses. I have been told that an after-hours landing in Sion would come with a $550 invoice in the mail. I get the impression that such negative attention is something that one would not want here.
There is also the matter of insurance. My policy has this “feature” that is sold as a benefit: after hours landings are covered, provided the airfield operator approves them in advance. That, in effect, means there is also no insurance coverage for after-hours landings that are legal violations.
Naturally, that leaves closing time as a loudly prominent reality in the mind of a general aviation pilot. As I prefer late afternoon to sunset flights, I am usually staring at the bullseye of a to-the-minute reality of when the tires must be on the ground. For most airports, it is 30 minutes plus or minus “HRH,” which is published evening civil twilight. There is usually a maximum time, despite the HRH connotation. In the case of Saanen, it is 8:00PM, which translates into an “easy” 8PM closing time from early April until late September. In the winter, it is a sliding scale based on when the sun goes down, which means checking the published time as it differs slightly day by day.
On this flight, I wanted to land at Münster, an airport high up in the Obergoms, smack in the middle of the Alps. It is only open June 1 to August 31 of the year, so it was time to enjoy it while I could. Since it is less than 50 miles as the crow flies, the concept of landing and paying $32 for it was something of an anachronism, so I decided to tote a jerry can in the backseat to transfer upon landing. That would allow an extension to my normal one fuel tank limit to local flights. The result was a rather splendid jaunt up the valley to Zermatt, around the glaciers at the base of the Matterhorn, and then a tepid meandering to the Obergoms.
The airport is particularly delightful on the ground. The views are world class, and the Rhône River, a few miles from its glaciated source, rushes by right next to the field. In prior visits, I find myself standing in quiet repose, taking it all in, wishing the airport was open year-round, as I would buy a house in that valley and live there. Alas, it is not to be, so I gaze at the rushing water, wooden bridge, and wonderful Alps.
Then I look at the time and scurry to the airplane to get going, realizing that 8:00PM is staring me in the face.
The Bernese Alps are a complex mountain range weather wise, particularly in the summer. There are often towering cumulus, induced by terrain and the heat of the day, with sometimes unpredictable realities. A “10% chance of a shower” at the airport might mean mist all afternoon five miles away at the ridge, which then means finding an ideal location to make the crossing, find a hole, and get under the soup, all of which will evaporate at sunset anyway.
The clouds were in full force on the north side on this fine afternoon. My instinct said to go over the Grimselpass, a few miles to the northeast of Münster. I could partially see that I could sneak over at a lower altitude, instead of having to climb to 14,000 feet and wedge between clouds, which would surely put the nail in the coffin regarding closing time.
The first problem was that I couldn’t climb for about four minutes at 5,400’ MSL (1,000’ AGL). Heading east bound at full throttle, the winds were coming down the pass, arcing down the Obergoms valley, descending as they went. That lost some minutes until I found where they were going up, which was a 3,000’ FPM hair-raising ride from 5,400’ to 8,500’, where I found a gap between orographic clouds below over the pass and a solid cloud deck above. I dove between the hole and aimed for the Brienzersee, hoping to fly over Interlaken and then westbound.
One look at GPS groundspeed said everything: 51kt. That meant a 20-25kt headwind, which was not forecast. Winds at 10,000 feet were supposed to be 10kt; however, they were funneling over the pass, which meant a nice long flight down a veritable tube. As I came around the bend at Innertkirchen, Grosse Scheidegg had a meager opening, so I aimed for it, hoping to shave a few minutes off the flight by snaking down some tight valleys (in light of the overcast at 7,900 feet). Since I know the mountains very well, it didn’t bother me. Had I been new to the area, it would have been unnerving.
I had the subtle inclination I would be late. I formally entered the destination into my software: ETA: 20:04. Phooey. I applied maximum cruise power and aimed, with the cleanest, straightest, riskiest passing over the tightest little passes that I knew very well. 20:04, 20:05, 20:06, yet only 29 minutes away. Fiddlesticks.
As I passed over Grindelwald, under a solid cloud deck, something unexpected happened: the Jungfrau exploded into view, as there was an orographic gap in the clouds. In that moment, I decided “forget it,” applied full power, and aimed to climb above the clouds.
In one of my rainy-day musings on my iPad, I had discovered that, during the summer, a nearby airport at Zweisimmen is open to HRH + 30, maximum 22:00, which meant that I could land there without being past closing time. It had a Prior Permission Required aspect, though private/PPR airports are listed for safety purposes, and one is allowed to divert without permission. I checked NOTAMs in flight (none) and said to myself: “A lack of PPR must be less of a problem than late” and, with that, decided to enjoy sunset light that I never get to see at this time of year.
It was resplendent to cruise above the 10,000-foot cloud deck, southwest along the face of the Bernese Alps, partially illuminated by the warm colors of a summer evening in the Alps. As I checked train schedules and what not in the air, I realized the whole affair would result in getting home two hours late with 30 minutes of walking. With the views that I had out the windshield, it didn’t bother me one bit.
The next day, I returned to get the airplane, and the chief of the aerodrome introduced himself and asked casually what happened to lead to a landing without a PPR. I explained the headwind and closing time, and he was very reassuring that I made the right decision. I mentioned that I might sometime wish to take a sunset flight to get some good summer light, intentionally leaving the airplane for the night. He said, “No problem. Call me and you’re welcome anytime.”
When considering rules in Europe in isolation of everything else, it can cause quite a headache, if not some snarling and ranting. One flight in the Alps in the right conditions is enough to calm all that down and make it not matter.