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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 2)

Amber Waves of Grain….in Spain

There are times when I reflect upon first coming to the Pyrenees where I can’t seem to remember the reasons why I felt apprehensive about going very far from home, and then I recall some of the intriguing realities about being sequestered in a high mountain valley with passes all over 6,000 feet, international borders, multiple languages, control zones, airport landing restrictions, the intersection of six climate zones, world famous mountain waves, and infamously unpredictable weather changes over the ridge. It makes sense in retrospect and, as I progressively knocked down each barrier, there was one I still couldn’t find a way to get around, resulting in the aborted attempt at Morocco: airports and avgas, or the lack thereof.

I finally solved the problem by devising some rather unconventional ways of moving avgas around, availing myself of agricultural airstrips and legal ultralight fields as staging points. That decision coincided with a sudden shift in the seasonality of the weather, and it is as though I am in Wyoming again.

Calaf, Spain “airport.” Sign is in Catalan: “Airfield, Prohibited.” It appears to be used as a drag strip.

Coscojuelas, Spain – Gyrocopter Airport

Castejon de los Monegros. Strong wind and the smell of crushed herbs under the tires.

An older experienced pilot had made it very clear that a strong west wind is the only hope for the open Spanish plains to clear of their persistent haze and inversions. Unfortunately, a strong west wind seemed to evade the northeastern Iberian Peninsula ever since I got that advice. Roughly in late April, the weather systems began to change, and strong winds started blowing. Having been educated in Wyoming about the seasonality of color and moisture, I knew that mid to late spring is the finest time to see farmland in semi-arid regions. It was now or next year, and if there is any lesson life teaches, there is no need to wait.

Spring creeping up the hills – Santa Magdalena del Mont Chapel on the first image.

I finally found the feeling I had back in Wyoming: wide-open freedom and stunning farmland from above. The experience of flying a Cub in these environments is a personal favorite, and I found it here, in the areas around Lleida, Spain and the lower farmlands of Catalunya. I set off with a rough idea of where I was going, and flew wherever I wanted until I got there, flying so much that, needless to say, I’d rather not open my bank statement to see the carnage.

This area sat in fog for a month straight, and will turn to dust in the summer.

Aragón, some distance from home. 

Much like the rangelands of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, one can expect silent winds in the morning, roaring winds in the afternoon, only to see them decouple and turn off around sunset. Forecasts are to be taken with a grain of salt, as winds easily push 30 knots with an unabated west wind. Fuel transfers were undertaken in grass strip airports with absolutely no facilities, only tall uncut weeds with smells of Spanish herbs under the wheels of the airplane, set against ripe wheat fields swaying strongly in the wind. I take my time at these stops, eating lunch while sitting on one of the airplane tires, contemplating the magnitude of the scenery and experience. The PA-11 started its service in Upstate South Carolina in 1949 as a crop duster, and as I eat my snack while taking in scenery in Spain that looks like Nebraska, it feels very full circle, in a hard to explain kind of way. It just feels right. This airplane has been places.

Too many waves in the grain – what 30kt surface winds look like over mature fields.

In the short course of the month of May, temperatures in lowland Catalunya have begun to rise, wheat fields have gotten tired with harvests beginning, and the advent of Mediterranean summer is approaching. Time will tell what happens down there to the farmland, if anything at all. Some areas are extensively irrigated, sourced from the Pyrenees, whereas others will likely fade into a beige color, only to begin planting later in the fall for the winter wet season. What flights I have taken recently at lower altitudes involve shorts and a t-shirt with the door open, though spring is advancing rapidly at high altitude.

Approaching harvest, lower Catalunya.

6,700 feet, climbing over one of the many passes out of La Cerdanya. Mid-May snowfall on upper right peak.

France (left), Andorra (right) – 10,000 feet – “spring.”

Wildflowers – La Cerdanya

Crop of Poppies – La Cerdanya

French Pyrenees – June

Part of the transition from frustration to satisfaction with flying here has to do with altering expectations. It is common in America to wish to travel far and wide, to go to as many exotic places as possible, from the national parks out west to the notorious pilgrimage to Alaska, whether in an airplane, RV, or car. North America is a continent of wild and uninhabited expanses, and the nature of land, wildlife, and the American spirit demands a persistent eye to the philosophical direction of the west, to the unexplored that remains to be seen. Lyndon Johnson is quoted as saying “For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground.”

That is not what Europe is all about.

A scene in America could be one of many National Forests, yet another mountain, another uninhabited valley… in Europe it would have a profound history lasting thousands of years. Every 5 to 10 miles, there is a village tucked somewhere incredible, ruins of a castle of centuries ago, roads, and cathedrals which defy the imagination in their beauty and profoundness. On one hand, there is no need to measure the magnitude of achievement by crossing 500 miles by air in one flight as what is available within 100 miles is mind blowing. On another, to fly 500 miles in Europe is roughly as complex (and expensive) as 1,500 miles in America. As a Spanish approach controller said to me, “You can’t compare flying in America to flying in Spain. They are totally separate things.”

To complement mountain flying in a trilingual border area in a separatist region, I have also decided to undertake infrared photography as part of my continued need to understand the vagaries of the world around me. I will explain more about this adventure in the future, as well as the blood-boiling process of obtaining my European pilot’s license, an anachronism so severe it is hard to put into words.

Monegros Desert, near Zaragoza. I was wondering if this was still planet Earth.





Some infrared images. Note that this is a separate IR camera, not an effect.

French Pyrenees – Andorra at the end of the valley.

Montserrat, Spain – near Barcelona.

La Cerdanya – in takeoff path.

La Cerdanya – airport just left of center.

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.

Moroccus Interruptus

The plan was to fly to southern Spain near the Strait of Gibraltar, meet up with a local pilot, a few planes would fly over to Morocco, eventually ending up somewhere in the Sahara, and then reverse the whole thing.

It didn’t happen.

It was one of those fatalistically attractive ideas that even my wife knew would not be successful, yet with the prospect of having local compatriots to go along coupled with the fact that April is the finest weather for a trip to Africa, it made sense to at least give it a try.

The whole thing got off on the wrong foot due to a long-standing custom with aviation in Europe: precise planning months away. In the USA, any planned trips with friends or a group would revolve around a rough framework of plans, and materialize depending on the weather. In Europe, the trip is planned on a specific day six months away, vacation time from work secured, club aircraft reserved, hotel reservations made, and then when the weather invariably goes to pot, the whole thing is called off and nobody seems to notice the futility of the concept. Enter the American cowboy who suggests flexibility, and I get dirty looks like I came from the Stone Age.

Be that as it may, I accepted a rigid plan where I would meet up in southern Spain on a specific day and we would do an elaborate dance of flight plans, customs, ambitious flying, all in an Arab country in Africa (full disclosure: I am American, and we are afraid of things like that), sandwiched between a marathon of client visits back in the USA and a hard limit at the end of the weekend for the group in Trebujena.

The weather forecast a few days out called for nice tailwinds nearly the entire way across Spain, with sun and pleasant springtime conditions, which was a relief as the flight would take all day – covering 547 nautical miles – in a Cub. Although the plan looked like it would work, I was bathing in self-induced angst and preoccupation over schedules and other senseless rigidity. It was not until a Spaniard mentioned that “the most important thing is that it’s safe and everyone enjoys themselves” that I questioned my predisposition to the matter. My first reaction was “enjoy themselves? The most important thing is that everything happens as efficiently as possible!” I then had a chance to step back and realize my German heritage was not helping, and to give myself permission to roll with the realities of such a plan. If I got even to Gibraltar and flew around a bit, it would be worth it.

The forecast for the day of departure was perfect: blue skies and tailwinds, with a nice buffer of an extra fuel stop and enough time to get where I needed to go. I plotted a course to Teruel, Spain (162NM) for the first fuel stop, thinking it would be plenty as 200NM is a reasonable average on a 3 hour tank and a slight headwind.

The process of finding an airport with avgas that did not charge handling fees north of €100 and was actually open during the day was a complex one, requiring hours of research and hand written notes of which airports would work and which ones would not. It was an unsettling feeling realizing the limits of my fuel tank and speed when set against the Spanish airport system (or lack thereof), though I was hell bent and took off.

Montserrat


Central Catalonian Depression

The tailwinds lasted for 45 minutes, and quickly turned to a headwind. And then the headwinds got stronger and stronger, until I finally quit the dead reckoning business and pulled out the GPS: groundspeed 48 knots. What on earth is this? Recalculating arrival time put me at flight time of 3:05, 5 minutes into reserve, which meant I would have to endure the fact that the tank reports between empty and 40% fuel for 60 seconds at each point, knowing consciously I have enough, yet staring at a squirrely gauge designed before my grandparents got married. For that reason, I do not go into the reserve, though I considered bending the rules this one time. As I scanned the sectional, it was evident there were absolutely no alternates if I continued for an additional hour, meaning that I would be committed, without the option of a private or ultralight field in about 40nm, meaning a forced landing if the winds got worse. Doing some inflight recalculation, it became evident I could take a tailwind and fly to the coast, arriving at Castellon de la Plana with a reasonable reserve, also knowing that airport had a modest landing fee and avgas.

Orchards en route to the Mediterranean


Vinaròs

Faro de Peñiscola

The flight along the Mediterranean was beautiful and the landing uneventful. Castellon de la Plana has one end of the field that terminates almost on the beach, which meant salt air, palm trees, and a light breeze with pleasant temperatures. As I attempted to get fuel and figure out the next step, I found out it was effectively the siesta (Spaniards get indignant in this part of the country, call it the “commercial pause,” and proclaim that siestas only happen in Andalusia – the region that is apparently the source of all Spanish problems).

Reviewing my flight options, I realized the daisy chain of viable airports with avgas was fully hosed up, meaning that I would need to make three stops. The clock was also ticking as the siesta continued, so I called the pilot in Trebujena to express my concern with the situation. While on one hand he wasn’t bothered by rearranging the entire weekend (Spanish people are not bothered by much), he did note that the forecast for the next afternoon was calling for wind gusts to 45 knots, and that we’d have to delay a full day. He encouraged getting as far as I could and completing the trip to Morocco two days later. I said I’d think about it.

As refueling took its sweet old time, and as I consulted with my wife, who advised that it was raging like a hurricane back at home (which was anticipated by forecast that afternoon), I undertook an internal cultural transformation, taking one step closer to becoming Spanish. I was at a beautiful airport, on a sunny afternoon right next to the Mediterranean. I saw a sign that said “Hotel,” while noting the presence of the beach. I could continue toward Africa, which would be pointless, because it would not work with group schedule restrictions. I could squeeze an ambitious flight home in high wind in the Pyrenees, for which I had about 2% desire, or I could go to the beach.

I went to the beach.

I spent the night in a seaside hotel, working on my novel by the ocean, checked some emails, and decided I don’t give a hoot about anything. While part of the choice is related to the Mediterranean attitude, the rest of it was a bit of aeronautical decision making. I simply was burning the fuse at too many ends personally, and flying to Africa in a Cub requires a full mental fuel tank, which I certainly did not have. Besides, who cares? I’m in Spain anyway, which is fun enough.

Salt flats, Delta de l’Ebre


Terminus of the Ebre River

The flight home was pleasant, as the winds calmed down the next day, and I made a point of going home a different way than I came. I went northeast along the coast to the Delta de l’Ebre, which is a fascinating river delta that protrudes miles out to sea, set against a rocky coastline. It was quite a moment to fly over sections that looked just like the Outer Banks near Cape Hatteras (for which I have flown for an entire winter in the Cub), yet here I am in another continent seeing a similar scene. Even more interesting were the salt ponds, which reminded me of the salt ponds west of Ogden, Utah, also seen from the Cub in 2015.

I stubbornly went around Reus’ control zone, as I wasn’t in the mood to file a flight plan, which means I couldn’t call the tower to cross the oversized Class D airspace. As I approached Igualada for a stop, I checked both my Jeppesen (supposedly official) and SkyDemon (not exactly official but everyone says its fine) apps and both indicated “no frequency available.” I landed with no radio call and woke up someone taking a nap in a chair, who acted indignant when I asked about the radio frequency and advised 123.175 before going back to sleep. I commonly hear “nobody cares” as an explanation to how things work in Spain, and it is remarkably correct. Truly, nobody cares.

Terraces north of Reus


Approaching Igualada

With a proper radio frequency in hand (and a stubborn question of why it’s not on the map unanswered), I announced intentions to takeoff at the departure runway and heard a response in Spanish that a Piper was inbound for…..something. “I didn’t hear that. Are you coming into the circuit?” “Yeah, we’re left hand for X.” “I’m sorry, I really don’t understand what you’re doing. Where are you?” “We’re going to X, runway 17.” “Uhhhh…. How long do I have before takeoff?” “We’re doing X.” Intuition said to wait. Five seconds later, a Piper Cherokee comes screaming in at a steep bank angle at full power, buzzes the field at full speed (in the wrong direction), does a steep climb, and positions for landing on the downwind. I decided to get the heck out while I could. What can I say? Nobody cares.

Montserrat


Spring in Catalunya, approaching the Pre-Pyrenees

El Pedraforca – just over the ridge from La Cerdanya

A few weeks after getting home safely, I tallied up the log book for some much overdue pilot accounting, and came to realize that I reached 1,000 hours while attempting to fly to Africa. What an incredible 1,000 hours this has been! I have almost lost track of the states, countries, glaciers, 14,000’ peaks, wilderness mountain ranges, continental crossings, and the like, most of it flown in the same airplane I soloed in at 16 years of age, back in sleepy Upstate New York.

Just before the attempted trip to Morocco, I was sitting in New York with my 86-year-old grandfather, the source of all of this maniacal inspiration (and the restorer of the PA-11), and he said to me “I thought I’ve done a lot over the years. Boy, you’ve got me beat.” I must say it was quite the words to hear from an octogenarian, who is still restoring airplanes, who has thousands of hours of flying time, and hasn’t let fear or obstacles get in the way of much of anything. I have never set out to meet any certain expectation, outdo anyone, or really achieve a particular goal, as those expectations were not placed upon me. My grandfather took the approach that his private field and airplanes were available, though I needed to get off my rear end if I wanted to fly, just like he did in the 1940s, taking lessons in a J-3. As far as I have always been concerned, this is just flying around the patch in the Cub. If the airplane can do it and I want to, why shouldn’t I take the flight?

Ask me what I think of that question if I end up in a Moroccan prison.

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.

O Controller, Where Art Thou?

In some respects, having Germany be the third country I have flown in gave me a very inaccurate picture of international general aviation (Canada was #2). Many foundational items of German aviation, albeit senselessly and absurdly strict, follow a similar framework to American flying. The main difference between America and the Fatherland was the intensity of reporting and enforcement, whereas phases of flight weren’t particularly earth shattering in their differences.

There is a phrase here on the Iberian Peninsula that applies to daily life: “Spain is different.”

It most certainly applies to aviation, as I have previously disclosed when attempting flights to different airports. As I jubilantly declared in my last post, I considered the problem “conquered,” and thought I could joyously move on as though everything was normal, flying to whatever destination I wish without any unpleasant nervousness or anxiety.

Thus, I decided to take a flight to the Central Catalonian Depression, which is an area that looks somewhat like the Midwest, filled with relatively flat and open farmland. In one section of this area near Aitona, there are vast orchards of peach trees, and they all bloom at once for a two week period in March. In order to pull off the flight, I would need to refuel, and the only place to do so was at Lleida, a [gasp] towered airport. In Spain, passage through any controlled airspace requires the filing of a flight plan, so I would have to do the familiar routine of dancing with the Cadí ridge and hoping I could raise Barcelona Approach in time to activate, while also dealing with one of my favorite things in the world: busy, towered airports.

Central Catalonian Depression – On a different day when the haze was less.

As I surfaced the ridge, visibility was miserably foul for photography purposes, though still VFR, which is a reality I have to contend with here in Catalonia. This section of Spain is nothing but an amalgam of microclimates, with a density I did not think imaginable. As in the USA, a forecast for VFR is not necessarily equal to good photography weather. Dismayed, I considered turning back, though I thought of the reality of my upcoming travels to the United States for work, meaning that if I did not get the peach trees on that day, I would not get them until the following year. If there is anything I have learned bumbling around the world in a Piper Cub, it is to do something now because no two days in the air are exactly alike.

No haze – Pedraforca.

Haze, five minutes later in the Pre-Pyrenees.

Raising Barcelona Approach went rather well given terrain, though radar contact took a while. One of my primary issues with being pushed by regulation into complex airspace and flight following configurations is that is doesn’t jive well with classic low and slow Cub flying, and tends to present more aggravations than it is worth. Nonetheless, apparently I chose the busiest part of the day, as Barcelona Approach was getting slammed with an overload of airline traffic. It took 15 minutes to iron out the activation and get a squawk code, which showed me that the 30-minute activation rule for flight plans does not seem apply here. I should know better, as very little that is time sensitive in Spain actually matters.

Peach Trees Near Aitona







I again tried to explain that I wanted to activate the flight plan and leave the frequency, and was again rebuffed as though I hadn’t spoken in the first place. I received a few traffic notifications, then a full hour went by with no communication as I snaked around the orchards, flying at 500 feet and taking pictures. Upon deciding to head to Lleida, which was not far away, I had to add power to climb to pattern altitude. In the process, I called Barcelona Approach for the ok to switch to Lleida Tower. “We don’t have you on radar,” was the reply. “I am climbing.” “Ah, there you are. Ok proceed to Sierra Whiskey and call Lleida Tower.” It seemed that we developed a mutual unspoken accord to ignore each other.

I then attempted to raise Lleida Tower, calling 4 times. Each time, there was nothing on the frequency. I checked volume and the frequency. Nothing. I swapped radio battery. Nothing. Circling over Sierra Whiskey entry point, I called back to Barcelona Approach, who told me to stand by. Five minutes later, I received a reply: “There is no one in the tower. Just announce on the frequency and monitor.”

Agricultural lands in the short distance from Aitona to Lleida.


Approach and landing at Lleida was post-apocalyptic. The runway is very wide and long, suitable for airline service, with a grand and flamboyant tower and terminal. This is all set in the middle of nowhere. There is not a single building around the airport unrelated to aviation, instead surrounded by wide open agriculture. After power down, I stood there, taking in the silence while before an Orwellian monolithic control tower which was, oddly, devoid of a controller, on a Saturday afternoon. The place was dull and quiet, and what little activity was taking place seemed like it was happening without any sound, owing to the grand and out-of-place nature of the airport.

Orwellian, monolithic, and empty control tower.

During refueling, the attendant asked if the airplane took avgas or jet fuel. In Spanish, I noted avgas, and he pointed out that there was no identifying sticker.

“Actually, there is one. It’s in English.”
“No, there isn’t. I cannot refuel without a proper sticker.”
“It says ‘aviation fuel only,’ which has worked in the United States, where the airplane is registered. Aviation fuel is avgas.”
“Well, it doesn’t have a sticker, and I have to put one on if I am going to put fuel in.”
“I was able to fuel in Germany for months without this sticker.”
“Do you want fuel, or not?”
“Fine, stick it on!”

Totalitarian sticker, next to the existing sticker. 

Our conversation then drifted to the lack of a controller, and he shrugged while mentioning something to the effect of no airline service today, so the guy “must have decided not to show up.” The point was missed that controlled airspace is seemingly left to chance, while totalitarianism rules when it comes to stickers.

I received the same story when paying the landing fee, that the controller “must have decided not to show up,” also met with a shrug and nonchalance that seemed unbefitting of an airport with airline service. Nonetheless, I decided to make it work for me and asked if I still needed a flight plan, since the airport was uncontrolled. “Well, you actually don’t.” “Then I am not filing one.” “Are you sure you really want to do that?” “Yes.”

While taxiing out, another airplane called the tower, also puzzled at the lack of reply. I replied back that I am “just another airplane” and there is “no one in the tower right now.” After a pause and repeating myself, the other aircraft fell into line and figured out they needed to do traffic announcements like an uncontrolled field. The flight home was uneventful and quite pleasant, as the first real springtime weather was upon us, and I could fly with the door open and chill out on the way back to La Cerdanya.

Cathedral in Catalonia. One of the many unique elements of European aviation.

Back in La Cerdanya….no haze.

After this whole affair, I had an online exchange with an air traffic controller that I met in person at an airport, and he made it very clear that I am a moron because I didn’t read the AIP, which clearly states that the control tower has varying hours. His ham-fisted Basque nature met up with my American self-righteousness, where I pointed out the “official” nature of the Jeppesen subscription that I purchased at a rather high price (see my post from last summer), specifically to avoid situations like this. In Europe, each country has different symbols, colors, and layout for their sectional maps, and so far, each iPad navigation app uses its own proprietary vector format, which is so far entirely different from each national standard. I opted for Jeppesen for flying in the Fatherland, where being 300 feet off a pattern line can cost €500 in fines. Jeppesen’s approach plates, at least in Germany, are official and overlay nicely on the navigation app in flight. I had checked Jeppesen’s airport information page on the app for Lleida, which looks very similar to the German AIP and the American AF/D, and thought that it was sufficient as it did not list the schedule.

It wasn’t. I pulled up all 11 pages of the AIP for Lleida, and it is the most precise encyclopedia I have ever seen for an airport. One could land a reusable SpaceX rocket based on the extent of information provided. Buried within this lovely document was the hours for ATC: 13:00 to 16:00, Fridays and Mondays. For only six hours per week (3.57% of the time), the monolithic control tower is in use, and yet the entire airspace is marked as though it is Class D 24/7. Unlike the USA, there is nothing on the map indicating that there are Class E hours. Unlike France, there is not an automated reply when one calls an out-of-use frequency, playing a recording in French and English advising which alternate service to use. And further unlike the USA, there is no ATIS to call to get a recording advising of obvious anomalies. One would have thought that such limited hours would be somewhere prominent?

The most amusing part of the whole thing was the pernicious attitude, from Barcelona Approach to every staff member at the airport, that “the guy must not have shown up.” Those words imply a lax disregard for one of the pillars of aviation, yet the reality was that the tower was being run in compliance with Spanish procedures. Even if a controller simply decided not to show up that day, I can only wonder if anyone would care. Though, after living in Spain for this long and reflecting on the reality that not a single person mentioned tower operating hours, I have come to understand that nobody probably would. Spaniards are masters at navigating around surprise deficiencies, and simply express no emotion that things should have been another way, nor think it’s a big deal (unlike my very American level of drama in this post). Time, commitments, contracts, and obligations are subjective (with the exception of driving), though in a strange twist of affairs, Spanish people seem to be incredibly happy and friendly.

What can I say? Spain is different, though in the interests of full disclosure, I am enjoying myself tremendously.

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.

Overcoming Spanish Airports

It took some introspection to understand my reticence to land at another airport in Spain, until I realized that I was still a bit unnerved by a forced landing in the USA not too long before the intercontinental move, and then flying in Germany’s oppressive environment after that. It was one trauma after another, and flying across Europe as part of the intercontinental move actually made it worse, as opposed to curing the problem. For months, I stayed in a radius of La Cerdanya that could be flown without refueling, progressively introducing more adventure, including the French coast and the highest point in the Pyrenees, yet I couldn’t shake the utter lack of desire to land anywhere else.

I finally realized that, if my spring and summer European flying ventures are going to happen, I am going to have to get over myself and fly more than 75 NM from home. In a moment of indignant fury, akin to a Scottish Highland war cry (albeit with an iPad, behind a desk), I decided enough was enough and I was going to figure it out. Thus, I set out to methodically call airports one by one until I found a suitable candidate.

That started an interesting adventure, as I began to realize the magnitude of reasons why I don’t land anywhere else. Perhaps it has less to do with my own nervousness and more to do with an utterly inconvenient, disjointed, and aggravating network of airports. Should I start with the two fields up the valley in France? Nope. Licence du site francais required, at the cost of €500 each and an afternoon of training. Ok, maybe I’ll go to La Seu. Well, it’s 20 miles away, and a flight plan is required, which is silly. Other airports within reasonable range had no avgas, only mogas, for which nobody seemed to know or care if it was ethanol free. As my STC (and the desire to not crash) requires no ethanol, I crossed those airports off my list. Others had silly landing fees (€80+), or were hiding under the record-breaking inversion that fogged in the Catalonian Central Depression for months on end. France? I was not in the mood to go to France, as I live in Spain, though my analysis does show that France has a far more robust airport network, albeit coupled with an epileptically disorganized airspace system. Even more so, flying in any of the following directions is an entirely different climate zone with at times completely different weather on the same day: SE & S (Spanish Mediterranean), SW (Catalonian Central Depression), W (Pyrenees), N (French Midi-Pyrenees), NE (South of France).

Identifier Airport Distance (nm) Dealing with the French Flight Plan Site License No Fuel Prior Notice for Fuel Absurd Landing Fee Overhead Restricted Airspace Control Tower Winter Inversion No S or N Wind
LFYS La Llagonne, France  8.73 X X X
LFNG Saint Leocadie, France  16.16 X X X
LESU La Seu d’Urgell, Spain  19.58 X
LEMS Manresa, Spain  35.70 X X
LECF Calaf, Spain  39.22 X X
LFDJ Pamiers – Les Pujols, France  44.43 X X
LEIG Igualada, Spain  47.28 X
LEGE Girona, Spain  48.92 X X X
LFMP Perpignan, France  50.52 X X X X
LFCG Saint Girons, France  51.19 X X
LELL Sabadell, Spain  51.63 X X
LEAP Ampuriabrava, Spain  56.21 X
LFCB Bagneres de Luchon, France  61.55 X X X
LENA Benabarre, Spain  64.46 X X
LEDA Lleida, Spain  70.33 X X X
LEHC Huesca, Spain  98.53 X X X
LECI Santa Cilia, Spain  115.39 X

Finally, I settled on one option: Ampuriabrava on the Mediterranean coast. While fuel was $12.16 per gallon and the landing fee was €25, I decided to swallow any sense of fiscal rationale and hop in to at least get one flight over with. The first obstacle was fighting with my flight planning software, which uses the ICAO format and has strict validation rules. I have not yet found an equivalent to phone-based Flight Service. With that out of the way, I needed to get to the airport, find someone to refuel, preflight, take off, and clear the 7,000’ ridge to contact Barcelona Approach to activate the flight plan, all before the allotted time when the flight plan evaporates. The entire time climbing up to the Cadí-Moixeró ridge, I was conversing with myself how silly the whole process was, as the last time I talked to Barcelona Approach, it took eight minutes to respond to my request (yes, eight!), and by then, they handed me off to another frequency, which lost reception “down” at 8,500 feet due to terrain, requiring me to abandon controlled airspace and forget my intentions. Fortunately, the flight plan was activated quickly, and I settled into a cruise configuration over the foothills of the Pre-Pyrenees.

Geologic terminus of Pyrenees meeting the Mediterranean.

I asked Barcelona Approach if I could activate and go VFR, and they did not seem to understand what I was asking. I was handed an altitude and heading clearance and that was that. Since then, I have come to understand that if a flight plan is involved, it is normal to expect flight following and traffic advisories. Each time I have tried to get around it, including in France, controllers don’t seem to understand and continue to offer radar service. In conversing with Spaniards on the matter, it seems there are two camps: flight plans are required for all VFR flights or “shut the transponder off.” The reality, as far as I have researched, is that flight plans are required for flying in controlled airspace, though optional for uncontrolled; however, activating in the air triggers an assumption that flight following is desired.

After handoff to Girona Tower (even though I was far from their Class D airspace), I was told, if not lectured, three times that I must contact Ampuriabrava Information if I lose Girona Tower, as there are “actually” parachute operations today, which I agreed to do each time. My protocol was to call Information anyway, as it is required and noted on the map, and in a moment of American-centric selfishness, I thought pilots obeyed controlled airspace. Perhaps they do not in Spain?

Flying along the coast.

After a flight along the coast and around the cape where the Pyrenees geologically meet the Mediterranean, I made an uneventful landing, with an Information controller that seemed like he couldn’t be bothered to say much, at least in the pattern. When on the ground, he became insistent that I taxi to the Jet A-1 area, despite 100LL signs elsewhere. After power down, the fuel attendant, who doubles as an Information controller, told me I had to push the plane over to the 100LL area as I was in the wrong spot.

After paying an emasculating fee to refuel and land, I asked if a flight plan is really required. “Oh, yes it is.” “Do you file one for every single flight, including local ones?” “Oh no, for local flights, we don’t need one.” Nobody has really explained that one to me, and other pilots have told me that Information Service airports truly do not legally require a flight plan, though they think highly of themselves and reprimand pilots that fail to file. Between this and other antics of the day, I came to realize that Spanish aviation is as confused and disorganized as every other aspect of daily life here, and nobody cares except foreigners.

A bit hazy.

Haze near the coast, with Pic d’Canigou, France on the horizon on the left.

Haze on this particular day was awful in areas, which turned out was a precursor to an apocalyptic Saharan dust storm that blew in the next day (all the way to the Pyrenees), so I opted to climb above the layer and straight to Pic d’Canigou, a tall snow-covered prominence over the border in France, and then head back via the mountain ridge. Girona Tower didn’t believe my original intentions and asked a few times as I flew to the border, and then gladly deposited me with Montpellier Approach in France, who couldn’t understand why I was not flying in a straight line to my destination. I was asked multiple times when I was going to fly to the Spanish border, and after explaining twice that I was going to take photos of Pic d’Canigou, I was told to “advise when you’re done with your little tour and heading to the Spanish border.” Montpellier Approach was more than happy to hand me back to Barcelona Approach well before the border who, in turn, could not understand why I was asking to close the flight plan with La Cerdanya in sight, though agreed to do so after asking twice, even though he sounded like my chances of crashing and dying in the final 6 minutes of flight without an active flight plan were akin to jumping off a bridge. Remember that all of this is happening in VFR uncontrolled airspace.

My “little tour” around Pic d’Canigou, France (9,137′). It is amazing to go from palm trees to this in 40 minutes.

After a successful flight, I decided three days later to conquer Santa Cilia and the length of the Pyrenees. I called the airport asking three questions: do you have avgas, how late are you open, and do I need a flight plan? The answer was satisfactory on all fronts, including that a flight plan was not needed (even though there was Information Service). Five hours and thousands of photographs later, I had one of the most amazing and memorable flights in my life, and I did it American-style: I hopped in the plane, announced upon arrival, refueled without a reservation, and returned how I wanted and when I wanted, and it felt great.

Pre-Pyrenees

Western Pyrenees – I have about 95% less concern flying here than in controlled airspace.

Saharan dust on Pyrenees snowpack at 10,000′.

On a separate note, I have finally completed another book from the good old days of flying in Wyoming, wild and free of bureaucratic nonsense. Flying Jackson Hole is a compendium of aerial imagery taken from the Cub – including Grand Teton, Jackson, and wilderness areas and mountain ranges around town, taken without worrying about flight plans, national borders, radar service coverage, site licenses, $12 avgas, or any other silliness. (Available on Amazon.com or at the author’s site)

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.

Playing in the Snow

There is a certain irony that the ability to physically taxi, takeoff, and land in sufficiently deep snow with the Cub is something I can only do in places where it snows very little. Locations that regularly receive snowfall tend to have an analogous condition that runways are plowed and cleared; hence, testing soft field skills really doesn’t get to happen. Here in Spain, I finally had the chance to do it, as we got a hefty amount of snow in La Cerdanya.

This idea of flying in the snow originated at my grandfather’s private field in upstate New York, outside of Buffalo, in prime lake effect snow regions. He would disappear to Florida for the winter, entombing aircraft in his hangar, only to return the next spring, when things started turning green. Meanwhile, I was stuck staring at an unused and snow covered runway for months at a time, driven to the point of insanity as a kid knowing there were multiple aircraft in perfectly good order sitting in a barn 300 feet away. A pilot that lived five miles away flying his Super Cub with skis all winter only made it worse.

Thus, when I obtained my student pilot permit at age 16, I would alleviate the insanity by taxiing the PA-11 around in the middle of winter, anytime the snow was shallow enough to allow it to move in the first place. First, I had to get my father’s permission, as he owned the airplane. He didn’t fly (an odd juxtaposition of concepts, I know) and had reached his prime years of middle-aged malaise, so his perpetual boredom with life had to choose between an overly-enthused miscreant teenager being in the house, or tranquility knowing that same said miscreant teenager was playing in the snow with his freshly-restored airplane. I usually got the green light after citing maintenance directives not to leave an O-200 idle for more than a month at a time, lest rust develop on the rings.

I learned very quickly how much snow the Cub can handle, and how much it cannot. Fluffy snow has no reasonable limit, if the moisture content is extremely low. Wet snow can be quite favorable, up to eight inches of the stuff, if it’s wet enough to allow the tires to roll on top of it. While the Cub doesn’t have bush tires, my grandfather did put oversized tires on the airplane, for which I am grateful. Snow drifts are pretty much a non-starter, as they are relatively compact due to wind breaking up snow crystals. By all means, if in the thick stuff, do not stop. The moment the airplane stops moving in thick snow, it is not going to resume, no matter how much power is applied. It will become necessary to pull it in reverse and ram through the blockage with some momentum.

I also had the chance to learn about carb ice the hard way, having the engine literally quit on me while taxiing around in snowy, foggy weather, having to hand prop it and get it started again.

All of these teenage boredom-driven shenanigans have come in handy in a number of places. We received over 10 inches of snow in one storm here in Spain, and another 5 inches a few days later. I was out of town, and came back to fly as soon as the weather cleared. As the flying club does not plow the runway, nor are there taxi lights due to extensive glider operations, I was greeted with a massive sea of white, as I was flying on a snowy, overcast day. To get to the takeoff point, I had to triangulate between trees, the windsock, and a chair left sitting in the field for glider operations, remembering where the runway is supposed to be.

Spain….in the snow.

Runway and taxiways below. La Cerdanya, Spain.

Many have expressed concerned that snow would flip an airplane on landing. My rationale, which has worked for many years, is that if the airplane cannot taxi, it isn’t going to takeoff, so flipping on landing is an unnecessary concern. If the airplane can taxi without excessive resistance, much less takeoff without flipping over, landing will more than likely be ok, presuming that tire conditions remain the same. I am sure wet snow freezing on the ground during the course of the flight, landing angle, change in speeds, and the effect of idle power versus takeoff power could have some definite impacts. So far, conservative decisions have saved me any trouble.

My larger concern at the time was the incredibly flat and diffuse light. Making out the ground was quite difficult (even while taxiing on it), and I was aware of warnings given to pilots after installing skis, that flat light can be dangerous. I decided that my landing would consist of methods used at night with a defective landing light: configured to land, making note of features on both sides to judge vertical descent. Thankfully, the tires made imprints into the snow during takeoff, providing for a short three-dimensional feature to use when landing. A video of the entire flight is below.

Aside from this particular flight frolicking in the snow, there is much about winter in the Pyrenees that is new and different. Unlike North America, weather here is bizarrely consistent. We went 3 weeks in December with full sunshine, uninterrupted, and 4 solid weeks where peaks approaching 10,000 feet did not receive a shred of additional snowfall in the middle of winter. However, when snow events do come, whether a northerly flow from France (which affects only one side of the valley), or a Levante event from the Mediterranean out of the south, it lasts for days on end,  angry rain, snow, wind, or whatever atmospheric mechanism is in place. Temperatures are extremely consistent, with a daily variation that is typical of high altitude, yet relative lack of reasonable change between high and low pressure systems. I can best liken our weather to what is experienced in high altitude coastal mountains of California (which are coincidentally largely protected and therefore no one lives there).

From an aviation standpoint, air is incredibly stable vertically from late October onward, with scarcely a bump at all. Occasionally, I run into orographically-induced turbulence (rotors), though it is quite rare that it is bumpy. Even downdrafts are pleasant and tranquil, albeit still a strong warning to change course. From the lowlands of Catalonia to ridges at 9,000 feet, the air is extremely placid, similar to what I experienced when I was based in Leadville, Colorado and flew on pleasant, sunny winter days in oxygen-starved high altitude terrain.

All images below: not a single bump during these flights.

Sunset, Andorra-Spain border.

Pedraforca (8,223′, 2.506m)

La Masella (8,488′, 2.587m)

Coll de Pal, with Montserrat on the horizon.

Overcast layer on south side of Cadí ridge, clear in La Cerdanya. Its VFR on top…..

To revisit an old subject, I still haven’t landed anywhere else. Part of the problem is a record-breaking inversion present in the Catalonian lowlands (above image as an example), where Lleida saw one hour of sunshine in the month of December. That region, the easiest as far as terrain is concerned (flat like the Midwest), happens to now be the most unexplored, where the highest and craziest areas are getting greater coverage due to better weather and conditions for photography. I have thought about landing somewhere for the sake of the blog, and opted to avoid letting the tail wag the dog for the time being, as there is plenty to see in a three-hour tank of avgas. Stay tuned; I am planning a few ambitious adventures.

See if you can pick out the traffic. I didn’t see the aircraft or hear it on the radio until I sat in front of my computer for post processing.

Snowshoes are part of my standard emergency gear in the event of an emergency over terrain with deep snow (along with a tent and three days of food stored in the baggage area). See next image for an example. 

Terrain roughly 20 minutes northeast of the airport.

 

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.

Why do we fly?

Community discussion among pilots takes the broad assumption that more flying is better, and predominate reasons pilots do not fly more is a limitation of money or medical conditions. Further, it is passively assumed that the mere act of being in an airplane is sufficient, and that we pretty much all do it for the same reasons.

It then occurred to me that, even though I grew up next to my grandfather’s airstrip and aircraft restoration shop, the standard dynamic was that I nagged him to fly, and he opted not to for sometimes weeks at a time. With an aircraft and runway next door, and from my perspective, the cost of avgas not an issue, the reality was that he wasn’t motivated to exert the effort; it only interested him in limited circumstances. Eventually, he confessed to the syndrome at age 75, when he bought a Bell 47 and earned his helicopter certificate, to cure the fact that fixed wing aviation lacked sufficient intrigue to bother.

It is assumed that we all love the $100 hamburger, and would engage in the practice more if schedules, money, or weather permitted such. Having lived for a period in the vaunted mecca of aviation, Alpine Airpark, there was a predictable phenomenon: new arrivals flew all the time, whereas longer-term owners would fly once or twice a week. The fantasy of daily formation flights among friends happened when it was new and exciting. When it became the new normal, people flew less, save for those who used aviation as a mode of transportation, or had some economic basis for flying.

All of these unspoken realities beckon the question: why do we fly?

I had that question smack me in the face in early December. We received a heavy snowfall in the mountains, with snow levels that came down relatively close to the valley. Of course I went flying, and captured some initial scenery that I intended. As I kept flying, I opted to head over Andorra, out of a sense of obligation with regard to a book project I had in mind. While it was pretty, it wasn’t, in the core sense of the word, something I was all that interested in. As I traversed extremely severe terrain in the Pyrenees, the thought crossed my mind that I wasn’t really enjoying myself. I immediately pushed it out as nonsense, and continued along.

Cadí-Moixeró after heavy snowfall – the part I was happy with.
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Severe terrain over the Pyrenees. Andorra before the ridge, France on the other side. Nagging suspicion I am pushing myself too hard.
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The next flight was a few days later, as I saw some clouds encircling Puigmal, a peak just shy of 10,000 feet on the France-Spain border. As I climbed above the clouds, I was greeted with stunning scenery of snow-covered peaks and sunshine, mystically set against a backdrop of clouds. Air was still, and the experience should have been magical. Instead, I had a profound and visceral realization: “What the hell am I doing up here?”

Puigmal – What the hell am I doing up here?
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Consistent with a strange sense of determination that I have, I obtained the photographs I had in mind for that flight and flew back to the airport, knowing that something was different inside. For the next three weeks, I had zero interest in flying, period. There was no desire, and the thought didn’t cross my mind at all. I made some headway after a text conversation with an acquaintance back in Wyoming, who made the comment: “You’re the most intrepid Cub pilot I know.” His observation opened up some very interesting introspection, as I started to make sense out of that profound personal moment circling Puigmal above the clouds.

Puigmal – finishing the job in a motivational haze.
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The tail had begun to wag the dog with the airplane. My personal goals are to explore terrain unknown to me; I photograph as a complementary activity. As my work enters the public sphere among readers, it gets noticed for the happenstance adventuresome elements required to undertake such exploration and photography, and that circled back to create a chase seeking more adventure for the sake of adventure. In a strange recursion cycle, I had the rare chance to be part of the public conversation about myself, and then started thinking I was personally motivated by the very things that others enjoyed about what I was doing.

That leads to the broader question that affects the entire pilot community: how often are we affected by the tail wagging the dog? Public conversation implies a binary and reductionist motivation to flying, and to what extent do we tell ourselves we are motivated by the very things others think applies to all? For that matter, are we doing ourselves a disservice by portraying a fantasy that many have to learn the hard way? For those that came to Alpine, Wyoming as new residents, brimming with joy about finally living the dream, there was someone else putting the property for sale, and still many others where the property sat dormant and remained unused. How many decades did some of these people fantasize about living a life centered around aviation, only to achieve it, become demotivated, and end up giving up on the dream altogether? Wouldn’t it be wiser to sort these issues out in advance, as opposed to making a massive purchase later in life, only to become disillusioned?

When I shared certain realities about my globally nomadic lifestyle with a friend, honestly cautioning him against falling into the same traps that I did, he wrote back and said: “You’re ruining the dream.” At first, I felt kind of bad, as though I was the Grim Reaper, here to tell people that their dreams are nothing but vain fantasies, until I did some deeper analysis of the matter. It is then that I realized that this friend of mine was feeding on the same zeitgeist about the romanticism of travel, that the mere act of doing it implied a deep sense of satisfaction, as others are portrayed as happy for doing so. My warnings to him were to understand his own motivation for wandering and to ignore popular reasoning, as things are not always as they are presented.

It is easier to accept a dream held out to us by others than to build our own, as many times our own is much more complex. Do we all wish to fly for the airlines, live on an airpark, commute to work in an airplane, restore an old airplane, have a personal jet, or the like? There is no straight answer, as aviation is a wide area of interest with almost limitless possibilities, and we participate for our own reasons. Certainly, the worst possible motivator is to decide to like something merely because everyone else thinks that is what the majority wants.

A logical question is what happened after my three week meditative hiatus from aviation. I figured out why I fly: to explore new things. Once that little switched turned on upstairs, I hopped in the plane and finally conquered Montserrat, the volcanoes of Olot, and a list of some other things. The reality is that, since that moment, I am flying more on average than before, and I distinctly enjoy the freedom I have chosen to give myself. As for the question I left at the end of my last blog post: I have not flown to another airport yet, though I am sure the time is coming soon.

Back in the saddle – Montserrat, on the outskirts of Barcelona.
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Inversion over the plains near Lleida.
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Volcano – Olot, Spain
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Fire season in the Pyrenees: January. 
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Mountain wave cloud over Moixeró ridgeline. Already back at confusing adventure flying.
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Descending mountain wave over La Masella
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First valley snow – La Cerdanya – LECD airport in right center.
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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.

Getting used to flying in Spain

Faced with the task of yet again having to get acclimated with general aviation in a new country, I find that the process this time is 70% less painful than the move from the United States to Germany. Those from the outside (or, for that matter, from the inside) of the European Union might be inclined to summarize the difference as being inside the EU, as somehow the process is markedly easier. While there are a handful of conveniences for recreational flight inside the Schengen zone, it really is a clash of two different styles of flying that isn’t happening this time. As I reflect on the transitions taking place, I find that I was in a bubble, of sorts, while flying in the United States.

My grandfather did not and still does not believe in burdening a taildragger with any sort of “excess weight.” Under his definition, that means any equipment, systems, or avionics that was not installed on the J-3 he flew in during flight training in 1947. Therefore, he restored my current aircraft in 1996 without a starter, radio, transponder, or electrical system, leaving an aircraft with nothing but minimum VFR day instrumentation.

Minimum VFR Instruments – purely stick and rudder
PA-11 Instruments

I would fly that airplane, in that configuration, until June of 2015, crossing the United States three times, flying every single peak over 14,000 feet in Colorado, and the highest terrain in the southern Appalachians, among a list of other poorly thought out adventures.

Who needs a radio? Wetterhorn Peak (14,015′), San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Mt Wetterhorn

To make matters more, well, ruggedly individualistic, my grandfather repeatedly told me while I was young that talking on the radio was a waste of time, and to just avoid all controlled airspace. Again, I followed that mantra until the summer of 2015, managing to pull off a brand of flying that is a delightful cocktail of vintage, adventurous, inconvenient, marginally safe, insane, and an absolute pleasure.

The thing is, I could not fly that airplane outside the United States, whether it was to Canada, Mexico, or the Bahamas. I gazed over the Canadian border from the PA-11 both near my grandfather’s airstrip in upstate New York, and in Glacier National Park at the convergence of Alberta, Montana, and British Columbia, never able to cross the line due to the abundance of equipment I didn’t have. Sure, there were waivers, though would one really make a regularity out of crossing the border without both a radio and transponder? For that matter forget the ADIZ over water, or Mexico, not that I really would be inclined to make a 50 mile water crossing without the ability to call for help.

Canada is the opposing side of the lake (taken from Glacier National Park, Montana). Not allowed to cross without an equipment upgrade.
Canada

Mode C requirements were never an issue, under the cake, due to the lack of an engine-driven electrical system. ADS-B also was and is not a compliance issue for this kind of flying. However, to join the modern world of aviation, cross borders, and fly into anything other than a simple Class D field in the US, the barriers kept growing between my airplane and an increasingly complex national airspace system.

Moving to Germany was at least 70% the pain of upgrading the airplane to the modern era and 30% the shock of new customs and regulations. The electrical system, starter, and transponder were a sizable affair to get installed and operational, as was getting accustomed to using it. Prior to the German move, I made a total of 25 landings at a controlled field, despite having had a pilot certificate for 18 years and a commercial certificate for 2. The idea of modern airspace was a bucket of cold water in the face.

Having gotten used to a rather difficult German regime coupled with modern aviation, and having also lived through a flight from Germany to Spain that felt like Thelma and Louise in the air, it has become time to make some sense out of the differences between Spain and Germany, and also Spain and America.

I must say, it’s a work in progress. Spain is a complex mix of cultural norms: a pervasive disregard for regulations, with a vicious enforcement mechanism from a frustrated government. On one hand, Spaniards view laws as suggestions, and on another, I haven’t seen so many police officers on patrol since I lived in South America during a revolution. The same maxim holds true in aviation: generally speaking, there is a network of small fields used only by light aircraft, where flight is essentially just like the US: radio suggested though optional, air traffic control and related equipment not needed, American-style pattern callouts, and flying truly by sight without much in the way of airspace to contend with. Landing fees are reasonable, information service is non-existent, and airports are completely laid back, like how one may find a small field in Kansas.

On the other hand, all flights to and from controlled airspace require a flight plan. If one were to change his or her destination in the air, a flight plan must be filed over the radio, or an emergency declared in order to land. In some airports, there is security for general aviation, and a paper flight plan must be present to access the tarmac. Landing and handling fees can be extremely high for those airports. If controlled airspace is involved, don’t mess with Spain. If not, you’re free to do as you please.

Flying in La Cerdanya is as simple and pleasant as it looks.
LECD

We’re situated extremely close to France, which is a whole other animal that I will address in a future post. The difference is probably as stark as how different flying is in the US and Mexico: two different worlds with markedly different approaches to general aviation.

Weather in the Spanish Pyrenees has much of the same vagaries as one would expect in any rugged mountain area: severe mountain waves, rotors, and very localized weather. I will dive more in a future post into the complexities of flying in a mountain chain with peaks up to 11,000 feet that is sandwiched by the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, though suffice it to say I am slowly figuring out how to fly in the mountain waves without dying, and how to fly on our many sunny north wind days when mountain waves are a hazard. There is also the matter of persistent inversions in the Catalonian plains, an abundance of microclimates, and the fact that the border of massively different weather systems is usually the hill just to the south of the airport.

The Pyrenees can be a bit rugged.
Pyrenees

Mountain range to the south of the airport. Note inversion to the right, clear air to the left. This is a common weather boundary.
Cordillera

Persistent Catalonian inversion.
Persistent Inversion

Don’t forget the mountain waves on north wind days.
Mountain Waves

Though I finally figured out how to fly in them.
Riding the Waves

It took me two months to get the Spanish aviation weather site to work, and a short time to also figure out the French site. I finally managed to deal with learning how to do ICAO flight plans on the iPad, as opposed to my previous habit of having a guy behind the desk in Germany or France taking pity on me and filling it out on paper on my behalf and faxing it in. Getting flight plans activated is extremely complex, as both in Spain and France, one cannot get radio reception in the mountains until already in controlled airspace.

When summing all of this up together, it is interesting to note that I have been in Spain for a few months, and I have not once landed at another airport other than the home field. I have flown from the plains of Catalonia to the highest peak in the Pyrenees in Aragon to vineyards by the sea in the south of France and most points in between, every time turning back home without stopping for fuel. Despite my apprehension-driven reticence, I have been flying nearly as much as when I was living on an airpark in Wyoming, photographing absolutely tremendous scenery on a regular basis.

I am not afraid to cross into France, deal with French ATC, and fly in another world along the Mediterranean, yet I am reticent to actually land anywhere other than my home airport.
France

Hopefully, by the next post, I will have gotten the nerve to land somewhere else.

 

 

 

 

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.

How many languages can be spoken in one pattern?

One of the delusional fallacies I used to aid in the process of convincing myself that I could live through moving to Europe with the airplane was a fanciful notion that “English is the language of aviation.” That statement is correct if you’re an airline captain flying into national capitals. For general, aviation, it’s a different story.

That was first emphasized as the bulk of traffic pattern activity in Egelsbach, Germany was carried out in German. As there was information service, I was under no obligation to understand anything that was being said, as the info controller could provide traffic advisories to me in English, and my radio callouts were also in English. It didn’t take long to pickup some German in the pattern, as the entry and exit points, along with all pattern movements, was extremely strict, precise, and noted on the map. “Tango, delta, and kilo” denoted common routing, and “Squawk vier vier vier eins,” among other common traffic lingo was heard enough to draw sufficient comparisons and get an idea of what other airplanes were doing. It had the feeling of being brand new with a radio all over again (a reality that dates back only to June of 2015, when I got a radio in the good old USA).

I chose an American instructor for my biennial in Germany, and he advised me that some airports in Germany are approved for English and German, and some for only German, all noted in the official airport directory. I thought that was a grotesque violation of all that is holy, an overzealous need for Teutonic categorization. “They should be speaking English, its aviation,” I thought to myself, bathing in my American-centric view of the world. That, and seriously, it’s just easier if everyone would do things my way and speak my language. What kind of moron thinks Germans speak German while flying, in Germany?

I then read up on flying in France, also talking with Germans on the subject. “You’ll need to learn some phrases in French, they won’t speak English to you. Its how they are.” Aware of these warnings, I pulled up a cheat sheet of aviation terms on my iPad and plunged into France, intent on crossing the entire country, in marginal weather, for my move to Spain, without learning a word of aviation French. Every single flight service, information, and tower controller spoke English, with no reservation or chastisement, although I must confess that the accents were hard to manage on the radio. It turns out that the Franco-German Reconciliation is still a work in progress when it comes to their opinions of each other in aviation.

Arriving in Spain, it did not occur to me to check and find out what language is spoken in the pattern. For that matter, despite speaking Spanish, I had never flown once in a Spanish speaking country; therefore, I found myself realizing, as I crossed the border from France into Spain, that I didn’t know any of the terms for pattern callouts. At first, I did a traffic callout in English, then intuition told me Spanish would be smarter, even though the pattern was empty. I opted for “circuito” for pattern, and instead of downwind, “pasando al oeste al norte del aeropuerto para aterrizarme cero-siete” (passing to the west to the north of the airport en route to land zero-seven). The next time I flew, it became apparent everyone uses Spanish, or so I thought.

I thought I was moving to a Spanish-speaking place. Sure, I knew there was a regional language, Catalan, though I thought of it as a dialect, or something spoken in small, traditional villages by a select few old-as-dirt sheepherders. That would be false. Catalonia is practically its own nation, with road signs and just about everything in Catalan. What gives? I am still a linguistically inept fool, even though I speak the national language. To make matters worse, we’re 12 miles from France.

Spanish is not the only language spoken in the pattern. Catalan is intermixed with abandon, meaning that while two pilots are calling out in Spanish, another is speaking Catalan. Other days, French pilots will toss in French, which universally means “see and avoid” to me, as I don’t understand a word they are saying. To confuse things even further, a group of Brits dropped in for two weeks for some glider binge flying, and they made pattern callouts unapologetically in English. On those days, I made my callouts in both English and Spanish, with a view to self-preservation. The maximum language count I have heard, during one flight, is three, though in total, I have heard four languages spoken in this pattern.

While it sounds like a royal pain in the rear, I have come to find the entire process amusing. Unquestionably, see and avoid is being used more than ever before. At the very least, I am considering taking some Catalan and
French classes.

Left base for 25, France 2 miles behind me. Which language to speak?
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Morning climb out, looking just over the border into France.
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Bottom right little hill is where the border of France, Spain, and Andorra meet. National languages of French, Spanish, and Catalan, respectively. Airport in the valley over the hill.
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Airport in the valley to the right, France is the left half of the valley, Spain the right.
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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.

Moving out of Germany

There was a quiet moment last May, where I heard of yet another uncannily strict rule about pattern movements in noise-sensitive areas where I made an immediate and concrete decision: Germany is not working out as anticipated, and nothing is going to change it. My wife was in agreement, and we started the research process to come up with something else. The first rule was that it must be good for aviation: scenic, low air pollution, and a good airport, preferably an airpark. We expected the process to take awhile.

In short order, I had a verbal on a house rental on an airpark in western France, near the Atlantic. While France was not on my radar screen, an airpark certainly was. Next came a strange call from our landlord, who informed us that, due to family circumstances, they’re moving back in, and we need to be out in three months. Just then, the airpark homeowner decided to sell in lieu of renting, and there we were, scrambling to figure something out, and to do so quickly.

I was, under no circumstances, bending my rule about aviation. Many might ask why another location in Germany was not selected, and the answer is multi-faceted. German rules, which hark back to the Third Reich, require attended information service on the airport for it to be open. Absent such service in force, it is considered “out of hours” to use the airport, resulting in a massive fine. While it sounds disingenuous, Germans will freely admit that the practice originated in the Nazi era, and that its original utility is no longer warranted, though that’s how it is. That created a situation where scenic areas away from cities had information service during limited hours, whereas full-time runway availability would be reserved for more populated areas. With just that in mind, it kicked Germany out of the picture. I also have received many emails from various Americans who have flown in Germany, and all but one have given up entirely, citing the very thing I grew to be afraid of: rules stacking up so high that one ends up not flying. Much of the past summer was spent not flying for similar reasons, and it was time to flee to greener pastures.

Flying in Germany: Verboten!
Germany

What then commenced was an epic search, availing myself of Google, aviation associations, and swarms of emails, trying to find airparks all over Europe from Norway to Portugal. I considered moving back to the US, though why take the plane apart when I just put it together? Why install an expensive Class 1 transponder to fly around Mt. Blanc (15,674’), be within 4 hours, and then not do it? I would regret leaving for the rest of my life, so I decided to make it work, even though I didn’t know how.

I found a private airport with a house for rent on an island in Denmark… “sorry, we just rented it someone else.” A house for rent on an airstrip in Portugal…too small for a home office. A castle with a cottage in the French Alps, with a private airstrip… “sorry, it is impossible to heat in the winter” (we would have only rented the cottage). Then I expanded the search to pretty places with airports nearby. I started with French islands on the Atlantic, and every single one of them had no hangar space. Courchevel, France, an 1,800 foot strip at an astonishing 18.6% grade, located around 7,000 feet had space, except my wife took one look at the photo and said no (understandably so, it was above timberline in the Alps). Then I found a place in the Benasque Valley of the Spanish Pyrenees, which is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and my wife asked, “You actually think I am going to live there?” Spaniards have since confirmed she was right with her observation.

Out of randomness, I googled Andorra, a sovereign micro-nation in between Spain and France, and found an airport in Spain, outside of Andorra. The area looked pretty, and I called about hangar space. There was not any at present, though it seemed that I could alter the laws of physics if I showed up with enough unmarked banknotes. I started looking at house listings and found a very nice area 35 minutes to the east, so compelling that I thought I would be okay living there and yet again driving some silly distance to the airport. As I browsed house listings and associated satellite maps, I discovered an airport that was not on ICAO maps, “Aerodromo de la Cerdanya.” Hmm… I called and voila! They had hangar space! “I’ll take it! Send me the paperwork.” “Um, don’t you want to see it?” “Yeah, sure, I’ll drive down from Germany next week. Meanwhile, I want it!”

Aerodromo de Cerdanya, Spain – new home airport! France is the top third of the image, Spain is the rest.
Cerdanya

After a merry go round looking for housing, we found something, moved our things to Spain, and recently, I flew the airplane from Germany to Spain, requiring two days of epic flying that stretched the limits of my abilities on all levels, more so than crossing three time zones in the USA with the same airplane. Details about the trip are on these two posts.

Frankfurt, Germany to Valence, France – Trip Report
Valence, France to Cerdanya, Spain
 – Trip Report

It was not until I left Germany with the airplane that I could make sense of what rubbed me the wrong way so much. Like any place, there were extremely kind and helpful people in the pilot community and a few prickly ones. It was not a single person or group of people that made the experience difficult, it was the collective animal of German culture that espoused strict rules, above all else. The rules around driving in Germany are strict: you have one second after a light turns red to vacate the intersection, otherwise your license is gone for one month on the first offense. Out of gas on the autobahn? Steep fine. Pass on the right? Serious consequences. Rear end someone? Good luck getting insurance to buy you a new car. Yet, the result is one of the safest highway systems in the world, and the only place with no speed limit. I regularly drove 130 miles per hour, without fear for my life.

Too bad flying in Germany is not as nice as the Autobahn…
F 5

In a well-placed setting, German rules can make things actually freer: safer cars, better engineering, faster roads, gasoline combustion engines, diesel engines, the jet engine (uh oh, I am starting to sound like my grandfather!). Nothing about German driving felt like 1984 or restrictive. In fact, I felt that high-density areas flowed better and I felt safer, calmer, and freer than ever driving at Mach 0.178.

When it comes to aviation, Germany makes the mistake of assuming that general aviation is the Autobahn. If there were 10,000 airplanes in the air at once, that approach would be an absolute necessity. There are not. VFR skies are wild and free, a product of how expensive and difficult aviation is, swatting planes out of the sky through bureaucracy and crushing financial burden. I saw other traffic, outside the pattern, twice in the entirety of my time in Germany. The density was less than when I lived in Charlotte, N.C., and even less than the Front Range of Colorado, both places where I flew without a radio. My personal view is that the quantity of rules was unjustified in light of actual conditions in the air.

Grenoble-Chambery, France control zone.
Grenoble

I did, though, realize some things while flying through France. Where Germany is kind enough to leave vast areas of uncontrolled airspace, France does not. It is a massive jigsaw puzzle of restricted areas, requiring an elaborate juggling act to navigate around, under, or over all of these spaces. On the other hand, French controllers were incredibly kind and forgiving, and French flight service extremely helpful. I was cleared direct to and from every controlled field I landed with no pattern adherence, and the French were very helpful as my destination airports kept changing with the weather. English was spoken through the entire country, enough that I kind of feel like a schmuck for blasting through their entire country not knowing the language.

Passing through Grenoble-Chambery’s control zone, I was finally able to accept that Europe will never have the simplicity and ease that rural areas of America have. Europe is as beautiful as it is because of a depth and density of culture that differs vastly from North America. While it theoretically could be had both ways, right now, it isn’t. It wasn’t until I felt that I was dealing with an air traffic system that was there to help as opposed to catching infractions that I could take that personal step and roll with how things are on this side of the pond.

South of France (Mediterranean left horizon, Pyrenees right horizon) – one of the many amazing things to see in Europe.
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Castles. There are castles all over Europe.
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There is more to come about aviation in Spain, and also France, as the pattern nearly touches the French border. Initial highlights include unlimited landings for €20 per month, totally uncontrolled airspace with American-style open callouts, stunning terrain, and an adventuresome culture of pilots that has a touch of bush flying to it. I also failed to mention that I speak Spanish fluently, so I have the added benefit of not having to wander around like a linguistically inept fool.

A few photos from within 20 minutes of the airport.
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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.

There is no Union in Europe when it comes to navigation data

I started an unwitting journey to understand the machine of European airspace data with a simple objective: find the “European version of ForeFlight.” For Americans, it’s not that complicated. We use one tablet app for flying; the issue is which one. Pricing, data, and functionality aren’t all that different, and boil down to the last few things that tip a pilot toward one choice or another.

I had no clue what I was in for in Europe.

Like everyone else in the US, I was drinking the Kool-Aid that the European Union had turned Europe into one big borderless flight zone, so things should be easy like in the US, at least when it comes to something so simple as data. They were not. One app only included half of France. Another didn’t include much north of Austria. Another used open source maps. And yet another seemed like it would work, except a la carte pricing quickly got terribly expensive when multiple countries were added. Then there was the “official” versus “un-official” approach plates.

In Germany, some airports are extremely strict about pattern flying. When I mean strict, fines are €500 for the first violation of flying more than 300 feet off of the exact pattern trajectory. To be clear, this is not every airport in the country, it is the ones with noise abatement concerns. Nonetheless, I wasn’t in the mood for knowingly unofficial approach plates. Even more so, I wanted functionality where GPS navigation would overlay on top of the official approach plate and show a lovely little airplane icon flying a precise German pattern.

I eventually settled on Jeppesen’s Mobile FliteDeck VFR app. It costs $387.39 for a year (at today’s exchange rate), is EASA approved, and solves most of the concerns that I had, prepping me with a nice tool chest for what I hope is not an inevitable brush-up with overzealous regulators.

Multiple people in Germany suggested other options, solutions equivalent to electronically taping a bunch of maps together. By the time I flew to four countries, add-on prices would have had me up near the Jeppesen price.

Then, by chance, I ran into Markus Marth of Jeppesen at Egelsbach airport. After ranting about my fusillade of concerns, he educated me on a few things that go into the creation of a European app, and invited me to stop in the office in Neu-Isenburg to understand more of how it works.

I must say, it was quite a learning experience as to how little most of us know when it comes to what goes into the aviation data on our maps. Jeppesen is the supplier for many major airlines for global navigation data, information that is eventually fed into Flight Management System computers. When a corporate jet or airliner shoots an approach anywhere in the world, the ability for the flight computer to pull it off, without data errors or confusion, is the product of hundreds of employees maintaining a global database of continuously changing navigation data.

That master database is the data source for my particular VFR tablet application. For just VFR data affecting the United States, Jeppesen employs one employee to manage FAA data changes. They employ a stunning thirty (30!) employees to manage European data changes. Western and central Europe’s landmass could fit into the continental United States twice. Using that ratio, it would be like having to have a full-time employee to manage chart updates only for each state in the United States.

Each country in the European Union organizes its own data. Charts are in different formats, with different symbols and colors. The equivalent of the Airport Facility Directory is different for each country, as are the terminal procedures and approach charts. All of these changes have to be standardized into one app, from multiple sources, in unique formats. Some countries have privatized this information, for which it must be bought from a company. Others give it away. In the case of the United States, the FAA offers it for free, instead of charging a license fee for each use. There are no known plans or frameworks for European countries to unify aviation data, so as of today, the best option is a software provider and application to make charting look the same. That is an interesting reality, as it causes a bit of a headache glancing at the German sectional, then back to Mobile FliteDeck VFR. Even worse, each app I previewed in Europe has a different “standard” map and symbol presentation.

Jeppesen was kind enough to satisfy my insatiable thirst for esoteric information by showing me how their IFR and global data process works. At first, I thought it was of little relevance to GA, then I thought how the whole airspace system would implode if airline flight computers received erroneous data. Suddenly, a slew of Airbuses would be making wrong turns, and our little bubble of VFR freedom would get invaded with chaos. In many ways, the proper functioning of the entire airspace system makes our brand of personal aviation as free as it is.

In each 28-day chart cycle, Jeppesen finds 120 global discrepancies in aviation data provided from official sources. These discrepancies might be something like the AFD listing runway 31, and the approach plate listing it as 30, as an example. In effect, governments make those mistakes. This is somewhat to be expected, as there are 220 providers furnishing data in 40 languages, though I must admit it was unnerving to entertain the idea that governments screw up navigation data. Aside from standard update cycles, NOTAMs are checked twice per day, and FDC NOTAMs are checked and incorporated into chart updates (you know, that obscure NOTAM type checked only on BFRs and checkrides…).

I asked if governments furnish this information in some form of data format that can be imported. Nope. Most of it is simply a PDF. Therefore, the information on the PDF has to be vectored into a custom language, the vectors visualized using custom software, overlaid to GPS mapping (to make sure that runway coordinates are actually the runway and not off by a margin), and then finally committed to the master database.

Then there is the matter of crosschecking and quality control. Imagine if someone didn’t have their coffee that morning and keyed the wrong location coordinates for an approach fix for a major global airport, and a false update went out to airliners. The chaos would be quite ugly. For critical data, Jeppesen employs varying levels of double-entry and verification, all the way up to a second person having to blindly re-calculate changes and have them match precisely before it is accepted.

The whole process left me stunned as to how well the US system works when compared to Europe. Imagine if our sectional maps changed structure, colors, and symbols for each state in the United States. Further, imagine if there were apps that were only for varying sections of the country, with significant add-on prices for other regions. To make matters worse, imagine having to pay significantly higher prices than we’re used to in order to have the privilege of having all of this non-standardized data. Europe is certainly exotic and interesting, though it can really be confusing. The more time I spend here, the more I am coming to realize that there are some things that we do very, very well back home in America.

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.
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