For many of the five and a half years of flying in Europe, I have had a complex sensation of extreme foreignness, as though I was pinching myself and waking up from a dream repeatedly. While that makes sense in the beginning, and in particular when seeing something new for the first time, the feeling continued to present itself with a ferocity, all the way into the late winter of 2021. Sometimes it would arrive after a long flight in the Pyrenees or Alps, where I was nearing an airport where I might have landed over 100 times already. In the last 20-30 minutes of a waning part of a three-hour flight, I would have this profound sense of comparing my American pilot years to what I saw outside the windshield, and it was hard for it to feel real.
Some of it was indeed pure exoticism. Another part was that the airplane I first rode around in at age 15 with my late grandfather, in the late 90s, landing over a washed-out culvert and under power lines in hillbilly country, is now the same plane I am riding in after viewing something like the Jungfrau. While flying in a foreign country is one thing; flying the family Cub in a foreign country is a dimension all on its own.
It did not end there. I felt a sense of exhilaration, awe, a tad bit of dread, some fear, and a brimming sensation that the whole thing was held together by a shoestring. That was an extrapolation of the dependencies for which I was basing epic jaunts into large, foreign mountain ranges: rugged airports, rugged terrain everywhere, few alternates, precise fuel realities, minimum day VFR aircraft, an old plane, variable maintenance infrastructure, foreign languages, and a mountain of challenges to face. It would only be natural for it to feel a bit like it could end at any moment. On the other hand, I could easily face those feelings right in flight, while I was having them: of all the challenges that truthfully exist, I have bulldozed many of them and they pose little risk. In fact, should the engine fail over the Alps and I have to land in some rough terrain, well, I’d rather it be in Switzerland than deep in the Rockies, as a helicopter would have it flown to the hangar by end of day.
Suddenly in winter to spring of 2021, those feelings went away. I thought it was odd, as nothing had really changed in my circumstances, other than a decision to cease paying attention to the mountain of worries and aggravations that could ruin one’s day in the future. I hopped in the plane, went flying, and that was that.
It raised a question: when have I or will I hit the point where the majority of my flying experience is in Europe instead of America? I pulled out the electronic logbook and went at it, splicing away, only to find out that the halfway point was yet well off. I calculated at that time that I would likely reach it sometime in 2022.
So, what lead to the sudden evaporation of worry and the strange foreign feeling? In late winter of 2021, I discovered a Swiss tradition of sorts, where the national aero club creates a “Flugparcours,” where pilots fly to 10 designated airports over the course of 6 months, have each landing stamped at the airport, submit the form, and get published in a list of pilots that have done it. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided that this activity was a good idea, and began it in earnest.
One thing led to another, and I was soon halfway done with the list, while also having visited several airports not on the Flugparcours list. That exposed that I had, until this point, not really gotten over a reality for GA fields in Europe: they are complicated. When I say “complicated,” I mean that one must do quite a bit of research to understand a seemingly endless list of vagaries, rules, approvals, and other considerations. One cannot glance at the sectional, note fuel marks around the airport icon, check NOTAMs, and hop on one’s merry way. It is wise to a) read multiple page AIPs written by the national aviation authority of the country in question b) check the website of the airport c) check reviews in iPad software d) check whatever ad hoc Wikipedia style repository might be in use by pilots in that country e) call ahead to make sure someone will actually be there for fuel and f) get approval if necessary (often in Switzerland).
What does all of this mean? The reality is quite succinct: Garrett avoided landing at other airports to the extent possible. If I got exuberant, I would usually have the beginnings of a brain aneurysm partway into the research process, give up, and take a long local flight in terrain that one has no reason to dislike. It did, however, explain why things felt so brittle, risky, and “foreign.” Once I got the hang of it, which is admittedly a fair amount of work, the process got easier, and things felt normal again.
Part of the work in pushing a personal boundary is learning the reality of the field in question, while building a bit of a personal relationship with the people involved. That helps for next time. Another part of the reality is attenuating one’s skills to reconfiguring the approach to VFR general aviation which, with practice, becomes a bit easier. I no longer have an aneurysm reading AIPs and working out the web of things to concern oneself with. It also helps to gain a comfort level that anything from Switzerland east likely runs smoother and stricter, while anything west and south of Switzerland is less likely to run smoothly while also rolling with things as they occur. The fuel attendant in France or Italy might have absconded during working hours, though somebody lurking at the airport will usually work an alternative. Just add a few hours…
What is interesting is that the halfway point snuck up on me faster than I expected. Suffice it to say that I have been flying a bit lately. Tuesday morning September 7th, somewhere over the Alps near the border between Switzerland and Italy, the clock rolled over without any fanfare. I had 895.3 hours when I left the United States. Now I had 895.4 in Europe. By the end of the day, it was 902.2 European hours, for a total just shy of 1800.
I am now officially more European of a pilot than an American one, even though it still feels a bit strange. It took 18 years to complete the first half in America, and less than 6 to do the same in Europe. It wasn’t the time or conquering airspace, licensure, maintenance, hangarage, schedules, fees, borders, languages, and cultures that made the place feel normal, but the total immersion into landing at foreign airports. If I could do it all over again, I would have forced myself to dive into the airport reality in the beginning.