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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 3)

Getting Used to the Alps

The Alps. What can I say? It had been relegated to the realm of dreams, and now that it is in hand for the time being, it’s hard to put into words. I’ll start with a few of the aeronautical details.

Switzerland has relatively free airspace in the Alps, other than some military activities which require a quick check on a national map issued by the Swiss authorities. Those restrictions come and go and are a lot like TFRs in the US. Flight service is run by private companies, for which the subscription is $50 per year. My navigation software offered the “official” VFR aerodrome charts and documentation for about $45 per year, and I gladly took them up on that offer. Avgas is $10/gallon, depending on exchange rates, a bit cheaper than Spain.

When it comes to landing fees, Sion charges roughly $18 for my aircraft, a combined fee for ATC and landing. That fee will increase by $7 if I land and have to clear customs, as Switzerland is not in the European Union for goods, though they are for Schengen. That means, in an odd arrangement, that customs is only for the airplane and contents, not the pilot or passenger in the event of entering the country from a departure point within Europe.

Noise fees rear their ugly head again, a throwback to my days getting smacked around in Germany. Switzerland has a national classification of make/model/engine configuration, with grades of A through D, and each airport has a matrix of weight and letter grade for applicable landing fees. My model is not listed, so the airport intended to charge $2 more per landing, and I was able to whip out my “noise certificate” and negotiate that the cowling and engine are exactly the same as some PA-18 models (labeled as classification A). The airport quickly assigned my file a grade of A, and I got a credit of $6!

Sion is a Class D towered airport, due to heavy traffic, occasional airliners, and lots of heavy metal coming in with paying passengers. They have a unique requirement where all flights must have a flight plan or avis de vol (flight announcement). The rationale is due to the severity of the Alps and the desire to have an indication of where a pilot was heading in the event of no return. While I like my ideological freedom, I have managed to work all of these requirements into my workflow and stay ahead of them. One thing about the Swiss is that they are very orderly with a relatively common-sense approach to processes. Things flow pretty well.

Other than my stint in Germany based in airspace with mandatory information service, this is the first time I am based for a period at a towered airport. Recall that I got a radio 3 years go for this airplane, so there was a bit of caution as it’s a new environment. In short order, I am pretty sharp with the process. I cannot find any distinguishable differences with Swiss ATC and controllers in the USA. It’s pretty common sense, GA friendly, and everybody works well together to be accommodating on all fronts, considering that there are usually gliders, business jets, helicopters, and general aviation aircraft swirling around most of the time.

When it comes to flying, I have almost exclusively been going to 14,000 feet or more on each flight. There was one where I wandered along Lake Geneva before seeing Mont Blanc in France gleaming in the sun, so up I went to 14,000’ to make a crack at the summit. The rest have been focused on a project of mine: the 82 peaks over 4000 meters (13,120’) in the Alps. It’s an official list published by a well-regarded mountaineering organization. As of today, I have completed 78 of the 82, so it has been some hard work figuring out massive mountains in a brand new area. Once I get the last 4 done, I might go cruising over some Swiss farms and do something easy.

A very strange thing about the Alps is the fact that they tower so high, have a timberline at 7,500’, and yet valleys plummet extremely low. The only place in America such a thing happens is where the Sierra Nevada in California plummets to Death Valley, or some of the massive ranges in Alaska. Otherwise, the Rockies tend to have high elevation valleys, which means someone is truly “in” the Rockies when visiting. My wife noted that “you don’t go in the Alps, you go through them.” To cross from one peak at 14,000’ to another across the valley may require dropping to the valley floor at 5,000’ or less over a very narrow valley. In the case of Sion, I am taking off at 1,582’ while looking at 10,000’ peaks in the Bernese Alps to the north and 7,000’ foothills to the Pennine Alps to the south, which then tower over 15,000’. Every 2,500’ of climbing, the climate zone distinctly changes.

It is a bit Mediterranean in Sion due to a microclimate. Reaching 4,000’, thick deciduous forests cling to the mountainsides. By 6,000’, that has transitioned to towering evergreen and larch, which are deciduous pines. 7,500’ is timberline, which is followed by grassy terrain until roughly 9,000’. Glaciers can begin at 9,500’, with soil noticeably disappearing at this level. On the north faces of mountains at 11,000’ it can be full “ice cap” terrain, which is more than just a glacier – it’s a massive pile of ice hundreds of feet thick that tumbles down in the summer, creating glaciers beneath. When one is flying in the Alps, the question is not only the specific location, it is the altitude and what world one is in.

I am still figuring it out, as the first time around the Matterhorn, I didn’t bring gloves and had such wicked pain holding the camera with bare hands, while also absolutely freezing cold in the cockpit. Then again, why would I bring winter gear in August, when it was 80F at takeoff, 30 miles to the north? Lesson learned….

Competition on the taxiway at Sion.

Airliner ready to takeoff. Makes sense my downwind turn was requested to be completed early.

East end of the runway, looking east down the Rhone River Valley with the Bernese Alps as a backdrop.

Struggling to gain altitude beneath L’Epaule. It would be ideal to have more than 100hp. Altitude: 11,000 feet.

Getting knocked around by wind, trying to corkscrew up in a lee side rotor. On the Italian side at 13,100 feet, looking up at Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′).

Looking eye to eye at the Matterhorn, from Italy toward Switzerland (14,672′).

Bernese Alps, 10,000 feet with Pennine Alps on the horizon and the Rhone River Valley (with Sion Airport) in between.

August snow, south of Interlaken, with the Jungfrau on the far left.

Classic image of the glacier line. 12,200′ altitude, west of Zermatt, Switzerland, looking east.

The Matterhorn playing hard to get in the clouds, south of Zermatt, Switzerland.

Looking up at the terminus of the Hohwänggletscher.

Ice cap, north slope of Dufourspitze (15,203′), the highest peak in Switzerland.

Dufourspitze and a few other peaks from Italy.


North side of Mt. Blanc, France, the highest peak in Alps and in Europe (15,774′)

 

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.

The Alps: From the Pyrenees to Switzerland

Switzerland is a funny thing. On one hand, it has been a dream for longer than I can remember. On another, I have done my best to avoid actually going there or taking the Cub on its maiden voyage in the Alps, despite having installed a Class 1 transponder in 2015 specifically for such things. My bizarre motivation aside, it took a pilot friend who lives near the Alps to see the dream flickering inside and invite (convince) me to finally come up here. With plans arranged, it came time to make the flight from the Pyrenees to the Alps.

I have mastered planning transit flights in advance of ground movements, so I can make go/no-go decisions on the same day. I set a Friday target a week prior based on weather forecasts, and it held up as the best day to go. A heat wave had begun to set in with lots of thunderstorms in Spain day in and day out, with a day appearing to open up. I expected to hit afternoon weather, which is common, in the Alps and wait it out.

The day in question turned out to be better than I had hoped in that bad weather chances were very low, though it would be quite hot and haze would be less than pleasant. I opted for an inland route over the Massif Central of France, an area somewhere between the Adirondacks and Appalachians of North Carolina in height, noteworthy for its effect on weather though forgotten as its sandwiched by bigger things. I had previously taken the Mediterranean route on clearer days. While the famous Tramontane and Mistral would not be blowing, a sea breeze was coming inland, which made haze particularly displeasing.

As the day approached, I got more and more neurotic, to the point that my wife asked why it was such a big deal. “Didn’t you just fly 6 hours the other day across the Pyrenees and back, slightly longer than this flight?” She was right, I flew the highest terrain of the Pyrenees with some weather to dodge, and it was relaxing and no big deal. This flight, equal in length to the Madrid to Cerdanya run, shouldn’t amount to much, yet my stress level was oddly high.

Western Pyrenees on a flight 10 days prior – no stress here, yet a basic cross country is reason for angst?

The flight out of the Pyrenees was uneventful. Haze was oozing in from the Mediterranean, so I stayed high overflying Carcassonne, entering the first terrain of the Massif Central, which turned out to be interesting. Haze gave way to clearer air in about 30 miles, with rich forest scents coming up from the hills below.

Once getting through French military zones, Information Service went quiet and the flight turned into typical Cub flying about 1000 feet above the ground. Terrain started to get more interesting – generally not severe, with a touch of rolling hills of New York and Utah vegetation and rocks. Landing at Mende was a trip sitting a thousand feet above the nearby town on a mesa with pines typical of the Rockies.

Massif Central of France – west of Millau.


Landed at Mende, France for fuel and found a Super Cub parked there. The PA-11 is behind it. I spent my youth flying with my grandfather in PA-18 just like this one.

Taking off to the northeast, I realized I could avoid Information Service as the web of restricted zones allowed a corridor out. There was a reception issue in that neck of the woods, so that problem was averted. I expected to hop on again over the Rhône River to cross a control zone, though I had some time to enjoy myself until then.

The Massif Central remained interesting, with this combination of bucolic farmland and vegetation that reminded me of Mediterranean Spain (or Utah, depending on one’s perspective). I was puzzled until it occurred to me that terrain on the plateau below is the same height as La Cerdanya, elevation being a very significant factor with weather in the Mediterranean region.

As I approached the exit of the Massif Central, some towering cumulus clouds were developing, which is a nice spice to keep flights interesting. Why have completely clear blue sky for the first time into the Alps, when more unknowns can be mixed in? At any rate, the Rhône was clear (though infernally hot), and I had another fuel stop planned at Chambéry, France, with plenty of alternates. I was also happy to discover that I could avoid flight following if I changed course a bit to avoid Grenoble’s control zone.

In so doing, I overflew some vertical rock that I had fantasized about flying near when we first drove from Germany to Spain in 2016. The highway system makes a jog north of Grenoble, presenting the first view of the “Pre Alps,” which like the Pre-Pyrenees are not quite foothills, but rather stark terrain that doesn’t qualify as the actual mountain range itself.

What is a pilot to do if some towering cumulus doesn’t show up? Turns out the weather cooperated.


First sight of the Pre-Alps with rock formations below that I saw from the highway two years prior. North of Grenoble, France.

From there, I turned northeast, requiring a bit to sort out radio reception with a giant piece of rock between me and Chambéry Airport, set inside of a Class D control zone. Cleared to enter via Sierra Whiskey, it was interesting to come over a rather sizeable mountain ridge and descend a few thousand feet down to the airport, with temperatures getting quite hot at 35 C / 96 F on the ground.

There were a number of machinations on the ground typical of the mixed bag of European airports. While Mende featured a self-serve pump that worked, no landing fees, and a snarling waitress who denied access to the only bathroom unless I ate lunch there, Chambéry featured an angry wasp nest on the fuel grounding line, a self-serve pump that needed some love taps from staff, a nearly mile walk to the office to pay fees, 20 minutes of paperwork to calculate and pay a €5.47 fee, air conditioned bathrooms, and a menacing security guard who demanded to see my pilot’s license after urinating, convinced that it was illegitimate. Upon my return to the aircraft, a tow pilot walked over and furnished a lecture that my aircraft was 18 inches from its ideal parking location, and despite an enormous tarmac devoid of any other aircraft, it made taxiing the Pilatus “difficult.” When faced with absurdness, I put on an aura of obsequiousness, which seemed to irritate the guy even more, which made me happier.

I filed a flight plan into Switzerland, took off to the northeast, and climbed to 5,000’ to cross some impressive Pre-Alps. After the engine cooled down to cruise temps from the hot climb, I gave it full power to climb in some ascending air near Megève, getting to 11,000’ without much trouble. From there, the Massif du Mont Blanc was in front of me.

Pre-Alps after Chambéry, France fuel stop. View from 5,300 feet…


And the view from 6,000’….

My typical routine in new mountain areas is to nibble progressively at new things, getting closer and closer to some sort of forbidden fruit like Grand Teton, or in this case, Mt. Blanc, which is the highest peak in the Alps at 15,774’. I made up my mind to skip the melodrama this time and go for it. While I wouldn’t do something silly the first time, I wanted to close the gap from the periphery to the subject, and the weather was cooperating, so I got as close as I could despite a combination of airspace restrictions, cloud bases in places at 12,000’ and terrain. Satisfied with my endeavors, I made a long descent into Sion, Switzerland, my intended destination for a while.

Since arriving now on the ground, I have had a chance to fly once more in the Alps, beginning my process of understanding the vagaries of weather and terrain. The Alps may as well take my adventures to date and multiply them in just about every factor: weather, terrain, altitude, complexity…..There are years of things to do in an airplane, so this extended trip ought to be filled with some intrigue.

Glacier d’Argentière, France




Glacier du Tour

Aiguille du Dru foreground (12,316′), Aiguille de Rochefort (13,127′) background. Mt. Blanc was obscured in clouds and would be off the image to the right.


Why not have a paraglider at 11,000 feet?

Rhône River, Switzerland, just before landing in Sion.

And from my next flight…. Massif du Chablais, Switzerland.

Mt. Blanc, from 2,000′ beneath. The summit (15,774′) still remains obscured, and my measly 100hp struggles this high when its 90F on the ground. Still working on this one.


Glacier du Trient, Switzerland. It is quite steep, which the photo shows poorly.

 

 

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.

Glaciers of the Rockies

For a while I have wanted to reminisce in writing about the “good old days” flying back in America, and a subject has surfaced that affords an opportunity to compare the two modes of flying. Perhaps European readers will find some of the details about flying in the West educational, and for everyone else, it might be interesting to note how the differences between both continents are made large by very small changes.

The project at hand is the publication of my magnum opus, “Glaciers of the Rockies.” Just before moving to Europe, I undertook an ambition to fly to every remaining glacier in the United States Rockies, during annual snowmelt, with the intention of photographing them before they disappear. Scientists estimate that could be as soon as 2030 for storied Glacier National Park, with varying results for other ranges. Given the time frame of a decade and a half and a looming move to the other side of the world, this project took front and center stage in the final summer before leaving, as it was logical to wonder if I’d be back again in that part of the world, with the PA-11, in sufficient time.

The project was undertaken while living at Alpine Airpark in Alpine, WY, roughly in the middle of the glaciers I intended to see. They were strewn along mountain ranges from northwest of Boulder, Colorado to Glacier National Park at the convergence of Montana, Alberta, and British Columbia, a linear distance of nearly 800 miles. For facts’ sake, what few glaciers in other Rockies states that existed have melted in the past few decades, so it was down to a list of ranges in those states. California, Oregon, and Washington have glaciers in the Sierras and Cascades.

Locations of the glaciers spanning 800 miles.

From the remaining glaciers in Colorado….

To the Wind River Range of Wyoming….

To Glacier National Park, Montana.

I had a short window to fly them all, and got it done between roughly August 10thand September 23rd, having flown about 50 hours just for the project, hitting the highest peaks of 11 mountain ranges, which was no small feat in a 100-horsepower airplane. In the middle of this 43-day period, I lost about 20 days to thick smoke, and had to get the rest done in small windows where air was clear and winds slack enough to fly close to such high terrain. As far as mountain flying goes, the primary enemy was wind, as many of the glaciated ranges are near the Great Plains, which makes them windier than interior mountains. Five of the eleven ranges featured more wind that I would have preferred, and they all were part of a continued learning experience.

Late season smoke didn’t help. Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana. On one of two active flight plans for the project as there is not one single shred of civilization in this image.


Neither did early season snows obscuring the glacier beneath. Absaroka Range, Montana, with Great Plains to the left. It was rather windy.

Longs Peak, Colorado (14,259′) while in pursuit of remaining Colorado glaciers. At this altitude so close to the Plains, there is always unwanted wind.

As the project was done in America, the biggest issue was time, distance, weather, and wilderness, and not rules or regulations. I had recently installed a radio in the Cub, so I had that added resource; however, I did not have a starter or transponder. During the course of the adventure, not one single area of airspace that I needed had a restriction. I landed at three towered Class D airports, two of which were chosen due to convenience; the rest were uncontrolled. I filed two flight plans: one for the flight over Glacier National Park, given its harshness, and another over the Bob Marshall Wilderness, equally as much given its remoteness. I was able to maintain flight service position reports in Glacier, whereas the Bob Marshall Wilderness was in a radio shadow. Both flight service professionals accurately predicted in advance where I’d be able to talk to them. In all other wilderness terrain flying, I basically expected to be on my own should the worst happen. I paid one landing fee at Jackson Hole. The entire project required one flight service resource (online and by phone), and my iPad software was flawless and accurate.

If this same project were being done in Europe, 70% of it would be possible whereas 30% simply would be excluded. Of the remaining 70%, 30% would be an enormous aggravation due to small changes, and the rest would be similar to America.

Let’s for a moment draw the same line I had from Glacier National Park to Alpine, WY, then down to Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, except here in Europe. 800 miles with the home airport roughly in the middle. If that were the case here, we’d go from the mountains west of Madrid, here to La Cerdanya, and northeast to the center of the Swiss Alps, equally 800 miles. While there are not glaciers in every mountain range, the presence of various ranges is somewhat similar, so let’s pretend for a minute that I am chasing figurative glaciers in the highest parts of all mountain ranges in this line.

West of Madrid would be fine, including fuel. As the mountains head north of Madrid, it would be almost impossible due to restricted airspace and would require flight plans for the portions that would be doable. The high country south of Zaragoza would be possible, though a massive aggravation due to lack of airports and fuel, requiring carrying jerry cans in the back seat and 24-hour fuel reservations at Teruel. Here in the Pyrenees, fuel tends to work for the most part and airspace is rather open, with the exception of two Spanish national parks where overflight requirements are about 2,500’. On the French side, the location where the actual glaciers of the Pyrenees exist (there are a few in reality!) is all restricted, requiring 3,300’ AGL overflight. Remember that the Pyrenees comprise the border of two countries, so that is a healthy dose of complication. Also, three airports on the French side require the old French Mountain License, which has now been superseded by the EASA Mountain Rating. Those that do not are quite low, so descent to fuel and climb again is lengthy.

Yes, there are actual glaciers in the Pyrenees, and not all of them are restricted (like the below beneath Pico Aneto, Spain 11,168′).

Though some places are. Monte Perdido, Spain (straight ahead) is quite restricted. The French border is to the right, and small glaciers hiding there are also restricted airspace.

Continuing on, the Massif Central of France is a complete hodgepodge of continuous and chaotic military zones, requiring either flight plans or flight following. Many airports are restricted to members of certain flying clubs. A few others, despite being pretty low, are angled and therefore require the Mountain Rating. There are a few park areas, meaning that crossing the Massif Central requires heading to 3,300’ AGL in a few places. This results in few fuel options. From there, the next stop is the foothills of the Alps and then the highest part of the Alps, before terminating in the middle of Switzerland. All airports in the French Alps that are not down at the bottom of valleys (at 2000’ or less) are altiports, meaning that the Mountain Rating is required. That means a new license or the choice of descending 11,000’+ feet for fuel and climbing back up. The biggest glaciers of the French Alps have a combination of park areas, with a variety of restrictions ranging from 1,000’ AGL to 3,300’ AGL. The highest peak in the Alps is restricted, which it is possible to get permission. Crossing into Switzerland requires the clearing of customs on the ground. There are also a few noise restrictions, though far less than on the French side.

Three foreign languages would be encountered in this hypothetical project. iPad navigation software and national charts could not be relied upon as final information; advanced phone calls and coordination to airports would be required in Spain to make sure airports actually exist. Schedules for fuel would need to be checked. Some airports would only take fuel cards or cash. All of them would charge landing fees. For each country, entirely different preflight services would have to be sorted out to navigate NOTAMs and weather. A radio and transponder would be absolutely required for a good portion of the exercise. Many flights would depend on clearance through restricted zones, which may or may not happen on that day.

I ask myself what it would take to pull off something similar if it were here in Europe, spread out so far, and I get nauseated thinking about it. It would take years. There is no way, in the same airplane, that I could do such a thing in one summer! In fact, I haven’t considered doing the glaciers of the Pyrenees due to restricted areas over them. My primary concern with the American airspace system was the availability of fuel, which was splendid. A secondary concern was services in the event of a forced landing. Absent a happenstance ability to radio an overflying aircraft, I was entirely dependent on the ELT in the USA. There was next to nothing owing to remoteness, whereas Europe has far more radar coverage, radio coverage, and other services available due to population differences.

In both countries, the airplane needs to be airworthy, the pilot licensed, and the weather suitable for the intended flight. Pattern operations and actual flying is relatively similar. Europe differs from America in having less airports and imposing small requirements that on their own are not that big of a deal. When those small requirements are added against other factors, then the amount of flights that one could or would want to take drops quickly.

A bigger difference is the feeling of flying in each place. There is something incredible about the openness of America that is hard to put to words. Once leaving the “density” of the East Coast and crossing the Mississippi, it is an almost poetic experience to cross the Midwest, wander the Rockies, explore the deserts, and yes, chase glaciers. Whatever the spirit of America is, if one could reduce it to something simple, I could feelit when flying such great expanses in a Cub. Ever since coming to Europe, I have been working on a number of books that resulted from ambitions while flying in the USA, and each time I dive into my photo archive, it is an immersive experience, not just in the specificity of American landscape, but a zest I can’t seem to put my finger on. While Europe from a Cub is hard to put to words also, they are two completely distinct personal experiences in the air and I often find myself longing to have them both.

Why does this (Sawatch Range of Colorado, September)……

….feel so different in the air from this (October in Central Pyrenees, Spain)?


Or does this (Hungry Horse Reservoir, Montana with 10,000′ peaks in Glacier National Park)…..


….feel so different from this (La Cerdanya, Spain with 8,600′ Cadí-Moixeró)?

Europe has a way of making aviation feel elitist, under constant threat, and somehow wrong. It’s somewhat of an illusion, as the rules on the books and the economics of the situation allow the flying I do, just as the rules and economics in America allow flying that is pretty similar. Both places have something worth seeing. In the US, it tends to be expansive beauty whereas in Europe, it tends to be a mix of the old and new, natural beauty mixed with centuries of deep cultural impact and caretaking. The air molecules and how the airplane flies are the same.

I think I am venturing into the philosophies of growth as a pilot as well as what flying has meant to humankind from the time we yearn to soar like birds, to the moment we can use iPads for navigation. Inside of this existential personal exploration of the ruggedness of the West versus the complex magic of Europe, there is my growth from a low time pilot to a more experienced one. When I arrived in Colorado in 2013, I had 371 hours as a private pilot. I arrived back East in 2014 with 466 as a commercial pilot, and then arrived in Wyoming for the “real” western stint in 2015 with 568 hours. By the time I left later that year for Germany, I had 871, and I now have 1263 total time, which means that my flying career can be broken into even thirds: East Coast, Mountain West, and Europe, with similar totals in each.

Despite the challenges Europe offers, there is still more growth on the horizon. When I was installing a list of expensive equipment in late 2015 in the Cub for its operation in Europe, I had a decision to make about which transponder to install: Class 2 (up to 15,000 feet) or Class 1 (up to 50,000 feet), which cost a few hundred dollars more. With my dreams set on Mt. Blanc in France, the highest peak in Western Europe at 15,774’, I installed the Class 1 transponder. The Alps were an instinct even as I was wrapping up the glaciers of the Rockies, and it remains a more tangible goal. Stay tuned for some glacier exploration in Switzerland that will make the biggest glaciers in the US Rockies look small.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Portugal to the Pyrenees, With Minimal Police Involvement

The plan for Portugal was 3 always months, so the time came to go back to Spain. If there is anything I have learned about moving a Cub across time zones and continents, it is to depart in advance of the plan to move locations, returning via public transit, as opposed to taking public transit first and flying the Cub to the new place the next day. The rationale is rather simple: go/no go decisions are made same day, and changes in weather or circumstances are offloaded to trains, taxis, and airlines. To do things in reverse separates the go/no go decision by 24 to 48 hours, which when flying time is added on top of it, things get nutty.

I was able to leave one week before our anticipated drive out of Portugal. Weather has been remarkably foul across the Iberian Peninsula, commencing roughly when I flew to Portugal in February, and continuing for months. Recall that when we left Spain, we had recently received almost three feet of snow, following months long drought. A massive reservoir south of Cerdanya was disturbingly low. Within 40 days, it was full. The entirety of Spain has been receiving such cold and excess precipitation.

That meant that the elusive idea of a pleasant sunny day was out the door. Week after week and I could not find a day with a stretch of 600 miles of dirt with the sun shining. Finally, I realized that I was stressed out about the trip and I really wanted to enjoy myself, so I broke it into two pieces. The first step would be the Portuguese Coast to Casarrubios near Madrid, and then I would return to get the plane after arriving in Cerdanya. That also alleviated weather concerns, as it was possible to find better weather for part of Iberia as opposed to the whole thing.

I finally decided to make a go of it on a partly cloudy day. The forecast had been innocuous, until the morning of departure. Squalid coastal air had been getting stuck between the coastal hills and the Atlantic with surprising amounts of fog in previous days. This particular morning, it had lifted to a point and partially burned off, with a satellite map that indicated I could get the heck out and escape before the afternoon went to pot. I flew through the soup and over the hills, while under the cloud deck, only to have it get lower and lower. Flying at 700 feet above sea level and approaching 500’ AGL, I was getting near the Tagus River plain, which is nearly at sea level. It’s also rather wet. About 20% of the sky was clear, so I popped over the cloud deck to 1,400’, greeted by a sea of clouds. Intuition said I’d be fine. Eventually, the Tagus River overcast below gave way to the Alentejo, where clouds rose to 2,500’. I ducked in a wide gap and underneath had spectacular visibility, giving way to a pleasant Spring day.

By the time I got near the border, I had fallen out of radio contact with Lisboa Mil (Portuguese military flight following service). On the other side was a giant Class D airspace for Badajoz, Spain, measuring over 40 miles wide. I couldn’t raise any approach, radar, or tower frequencies, so I decided to climb from 1,300’ to 2,500’ to get cleared to cross it, en route to my first fuel stop. After tons of back and forth due to not showing up on radar, despite the transponder being on, I got cleared through and spent almost a half an hour until I popped out the other side, enjoying the Extremadura countryside.

My first stop was Aeródromo El Moral, near Ribera del Fresno. It is virtually in the middle of nowhere and enjoys the distinction of having officially opened in the last two months. A friend of mine got a notification online of the grand opening and sent it to me in April, and I decided to tag the place as it filled in a massive gap of places to refuel in western Spain. The people were incredibly friendly. A local hotel owner decided to make some room amongst vineyards so pilots could land and stay at the hotel. Investing obviously significant time, energy, and money, they built hangars, created an official runway, and dove in with their new business venture. As they do not have a fuel pump installation, they were waiting with 40 liters of mogas in jerry cans, which they filled just so I could refuel. There were no landing fees, either! I was rather amazed at their ingenuity and entrepreneurship as well as their friendliness.

The flight to Madrid from there was pleasant and uneventful, with a tiny tailwind. Extremadura looks a bit like the US West, with agriculture in decent color given springtime, all of which will give way to beige tones as the heat of summer approaches and wears on.

Casarrubios is another fantastic airport, just outside of Madrid. The people are incredibly helpful, stowing the Cub for €10/night in a hangar, and dropping me off 25 minutes away at the metro station (it was on his way home, but still). I repeatedly offered money, and was repeatedly rebuffed. This is starting to feel like aviation in America! The routine home involved 3 metro stops and the last flight of the day to Lisbon, arriving at 11:20PM, where my wife was waiting, and we got back to the house after midnight, having taken off 14 hours earlier in the Cub.

A week later, we made the 12-and-a-half-hour drive across Iberia to the Pyrenees. The weather, as one could imagine, was foul upon arrival and would be foul for most of the upcoming week. There was a one-day window on Monday, so two days after arrival in Catalunya, I rode a 3-hour regional train to Barcelona, a high-speed train at 185mph to Madrid, a regional train to Móstoles, and a 30-minute taxi ride to Casarrubios. With two hours of daylight to spare and stunning blue skies, I took off to photograph the ancient part of Toledo 22nm to the south, returning to put the plane in the hangar, sleeping onsite in one of the airport’s four hotel rooms for pilots. Staff kindly helped organize my order for dinner with the onsite restaurant to be left in the room when I got back from my run to Toledo, as the restaurant was closing while I’d be in the air. Again, I can’t emphasize how out of the way these people go to help pilots. It really is a different feel than what day to day life is like in Spain.

The next morning, final weather checks seemed pretty good for most of the run to Cerdanya. There would be afternoon thunderstorms of varying coverage, though limited to the Pyrenees and expected earlier in the afternoon. I fully expected to dance around them, though had things choreographed as storms would be incoming to Madrid and Teruel behind me. Better to get on the move and make it to the Monegros Desert, where I could wait things out or head to one of two alternates: La Seu d’Urgell (35 minutes by car from home) or Lleida (2 hours by car). Worst case, I would overnight in Lleida, and enjoy the next morning’s clear forecast before it rained again.

Madrid featured a light breeze and temps in the 50s, which felt like late September in New York, which is odd given that its June and the place is usually an inferno. As I was in flight, stratus began moving in from the south, which posed an existential question about crossing 6,000’ mountains between me and Teruel. Intuition said to proceed, as I had an alternate at Sotos. Squeezing over each ridge with about 1000’ total space between peaks and clouds, I finally was able to literally see light at the end of the tunnel, coming over the ridge and landing in Teruel, a large airport in a valley above 3,000 feet in Aragon. If I made it this far, I can definitely make the desert, which was good enough.

Teruel is a strange place. Pattern calls are in English. There are no tower facilities or flight plan requirements. The runway is enormous, a French company uses it as an airliner graveyard, and a British company operates a flight academy. Despite all of the facilities, it is required that 24-hour notice be given, or fuel will not be provided. After powering down next to an enormous Airbus, I was greeted by what appeared to be a fuel attendant:

“Do you have documentation?”
“What do you mean documentation? I have all sorts. What exactly do you want?”
“Documentation to refuel.”
“What kind of document do I need to refuel? It’s a plane and it needs fuel.”
“What about your reservation?”
“I have an email.” Silent glare from the anti-fuel guy. “Do you need to see it?”
“Yes.”

I pull up the email along with confirmation of receipt. He reads it awhile, glares, snorts, and then says “Fine. Wait here. I’ll get started to refuel.” In all seriousness, I swear he would have made me spend the night and wait 24 hours, all the while not caring if I got a taxi to get me car gas with jerry cans as a work around. Eye roll. Spain. What can I say?

What then commenced was about 30 minutes of phone calls, avgas installation logs, documents, and measurements, suiting up, and then an astronaut filled my tank with avgas. Right after, a flight school aircraft pulled up after doing some training, and he began refueling them, though I didn’t see a request for a reservation….

Security then came to drive me to pay the landing fee. She asked if I had a fluorescent safety jacket, which I did but wasn’t in the mood to wear. “Oh, you have to put it on because of the Guardia Civil.” “Under what scenario would federal police forces be wandering around this strange place?” I thought to myself, donning the jacket and hopping in the vehicle for the ride. I went to put my seat belt on and was told not to bother.

Upon entering the building, two Guardia Civil officers are standing there, glaring. They ask for identification. Thinking it’s a bit strange, I furnish it. They then ask about my airplane, where I am coming from, where I am going. “Is there a problem?” “No, we just have to note all this down for each flight.”

Now that the interrogation is over, I proceed upstairs to pay the landing fee. There, I am also asked an absurd amount of information. Mind you, I have already provided name, registration, persons on board, MTOW, origin, destination, and address for the advance reservation, to the fuel guy, and to the Spanish police force. Now, I have to provide it a fourth time, sign a contract, and then fork over €10 for the landing fee. Apparently, the regulatory infrastructure contemplates that the airport is a passenger terminal, even though there are no airline flights. Everyone shows up, does what is asked of them, and the world keeps turning in Teruel. I have learned to laugh and quit caring. At least the people were nice, even the fuel guy, once he realized he couldn’t send me away without avgas (capitalism anyone??? What planet am I on???).

The flight took me over 5,000’ terrain, which was clouded in with adequate clearance and then rapidly gave way to the Monegros Desert, where I descended down to 2,000’. I left Madrid in cool weather, was freezing in the cockpit over high terrain despite a sweatshirt and pants, and now tore the sweatshirt off as temps soared into the 80s. The sun was out in full force, with distant thunderheads visible 50 miles away over the Pyrenees.

I had intended to land at Alfes, a nice aerodrome according to my navigation software. I decided to check a site before leaving called aterriza.org, a Spanish language user-contributed website where pilots leave comments about airports and conditions. It is a self-avowed “wikipistas” (‘wiki runways’) and on it, I found an official notice that it had been closed in 2015, the case taken to the Spanish Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court having ruled that the closure was final. Why is it in on my map? I overflew it anyway, noting runway numbers with no Xs. Such is Spain, where the AIP, maps, and official sources are not always accurate.

I instead landed at Mollerussa, a ULM field requiring a good old short field brake screeching landing to transfer 5 gallons from the backseat, check radar, text the wife to get a weather report, and make the final 60nm leg into the Pyrenees and home. Of all ironies, it was sunny the whole way as the storms moved off to my right.

It felt good to be home. Since then, I have enjoyed the last week checking out an incredible residual snowpack in the Pyrenees, stunning wildflowers, and explosive green vegetation. The rains and cold continues, so much that it snowed above 9,000 feet, interior temps in the house dropped to 57 and I had to start a fire, in June, in Spain, to heat the place up. One year ago, it was 90 degrees for a high with no snow left.

From the flight planning stage outbound to Portugal in February until after arriving back in June, I kept struggling to understand why it was such a difficult task. If this was America, I should have had no problem picking a good weather day and nailing the entire flight in one stop. Both times, I intended to do that, and couldn’t pull it off. I then undertook an analysis, and found the following data points:

Pyrenees to Portugal: 665sm
Longest single day flight in USA with the Cub: 1075sm
Longest single day European flight with the Cub: 434sm
Longest single day leg this round: 365sm

The longest I have historically pulled off outside of America was from Frankfurt, Germany to Valence, France, at 434sm. It would have been longer had the weather not turned and required three hours of waiting. The thing is, that was in two countries that were not Spain. On both legs crossing Iberia, I had to phone ahead to coordinate fuel, deal with foul weather, deal with Spanish police, land at rugged little fields, and do fuel transfers with jerry cans. The struggle against the system adds up, and single day mileage goes down. What can I say? It’s how it is, though I can certainly attest that its incredibly interesting.

VFR on top, 1400′ MSL, Tagus River Plain, Portugal

Twenty miles further along, in the Portuguese outback.


Wildflowers, approaching the Spanish border.


Crossing the 40+nm wide Class D control zone of Badajoz.


Don Benito, Spain.

30nm west of Madrid.


Just before arriving at Casarrubios to leave the Cub for a week.

Old section of Toledo, the evening before the second leg.


Somewhere southwest of Valdaracete.


Crossing into La Mancha – poppy fields in bloom. They *always* are brilliant on an angle and turn dull when overhead. It can drive someone mad seeing it for hours.

At 6,000′ west of Teruel, squeezing over relatively uninhabited scrublands while freezing cold.

Airliner graveyard in Teruel.

Highlands between Teruel and Monegros desert, cruising at about 5,300′. 

Mequinenza Reservoir, Monegros Desert. Temps in the 80s and down at 2,000′. 

Alfes. The only indication it is closed is the evidence of cars having made use of the runway.  

Showers off to my right, approaching the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Back in La Cerdanya, cruising at 5,700′, looking at 8,600′ terrain. Note the steam from a recent storm.

A few days later: cumulogranite over the hill beneath Tosa d’Alp.

Penyes Altes in 590nm infrared, roughly 7,000′ elevation at the peak.

June Pyrenees snowpack, just over the border into France. Altitude 9,300′.

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.

A Different Kind of Limitation

Here we go again. Another year, another attempt at flying to Africa.

This time, I had months to plot and scheme against an adverse Iberian airport network, having researched until I was blue in the face, developing comfort mostly due to the fact that I purchased some gas cans for the back seat and had extra handles welded on for better straps. To make things even more convenient, I was already in Portugal, meaning that distance was reduced by about 60%. With April finally here, a good month to go for weather, it was time to take a crack at it again.

I had the support of a fellow pilot in Trebujena, Spain – Alfonso de Orleans-Borbón – who had originally planted this idea in my mind in 2016. He generously offered a place to stay, arranged for a free hangar, and helped with driving to a local gas station over and over to refuel, and pretty much laid out the welcome mat. Trebujena was in fuel range of Tangier, Morocco, and is a small general aviation airport that is typical of what one would see in America: hangars, a runway, and farm fields. No landing fees, aggravations, control towers or other nonsense.

Finally, toward the end of April, a window opened to fly to Andalusia. A raging Saharan sandstorm had previously blown in to southern Spain, followed by some unusual Texas-style humidity, which meant weeks of squalid haze, sometimes creating IFR conditions. I am told this is quite odd, as air is usually extremely clear. On a Thursday with the worst of the dust storm gone, I headed down in some hazy weather, crossing Portugal through the Alentejo, fueling at Évora, where I broke my avgas cost record: $17.85 per gallon. I tried my delusional consolation of “its only money,” though couldn’t help but to analyze the flamboyant pile of paperwork that accompanies a basic avgas purchase, noting a nefarious €18.75 fixed fee (plus 23% sales tax = $27.68) plus normally expensive per liter avgas charges. On a rampage at being taken for a ride, I was ready to contact Air BP and let them have it, which was not necessary, as on a return flight from Spain, I was told that it’s a “customs fee” charged by the Portuguese government on refueling stops that involve crossing the Portuguese border. Despite being against the European Union treaty on the free movement of goods, a customs fee is charged on intra-Europe aviation activities.

Arrival at Trebujena was uneventful, other than rather complex airspace in southern Andalusia. Haze was pretty awful, though it did clear the next day. Due to scheduling concerns, I flew locally for two days, heading in all directions checking out coastline, ancient fortifications, amazing water colors on the Atlantic, modern solar installations, interesting farm country, and resplendent wildflowers, wheat fields, and spring vegetation. I had been told that Andalusia is the epicenter of fraud, laziness, and most things negative about Spain (the Spanish apparently have strong regional rivalries, aside from the ever present independence bid), though I found Andalusia to have incredibly nice, relaxed, and generous people, with very beautiful scenery.

The day finally was approaching on Sunday to head over to Morocco. My original plan, which turned out to be a fantasy, was to fly some great amount of distance, though it kept getting whittled to smaller and smaller ambitions as I continued to do research. Both Alfonso and I had delved into all sorts of materials over the course of time, reading the Moroccan equivalent to the Aeronautical Information Manual, checking charts, reading up on other pilot’s stories, confirming the presence of fuel, and researching other restrictions. It turned out that VFR pilots for the most part must follow precise routings. There are point to point lines drawn all over the country, and they must be adhered to strictly, with all flights under ATC. While general aviation is possible, it is not really free.

I had heard from a Moroccan pilot that the lines aren’t mandatory. I heard from another pilot about having a Moroccan F-16 scrambled on him for not following the lines. I heard the lines could be avoided with a bribe. “So I’ll offer a 50 euro note and get it done.” “Oh no! Don’t do that!” was the advice I got. While bribes are required, they are illegal. One has to offer them but cannot, so unless a whirling dervish transnational social interaction can take place where a bribe is offered that really isn’t offered and is accepted when it didn’t really happen, those lines are the way they are. Perhaps a Moroccan can pull it off with ease, as it is their home country, though I was confused. I have a hard enough time picking up on obvious social clues in English (just ask my wife); how would I navigate the good old clandestine bribe in Africa?

The lines posed a logistics problem. Obviously, as a photographer that would rather be left alone, I was dismayed. However, if winds weren’t cooperating, routing could make things perilous with fuel range, without an alternate. Do I want to be landing on a road, in Africa? I can’t imagine that ending well.

The plan got hacked even further down when I couldn’t make headway if certain airports had avgas or not. I got conflicting information, and realized I had little choice but to go until I couldn’t go anymore, and turn around when an obstacle was severe enough. I speak neither French nor Arabic, the languages of Morocco, so a quick phone call wasn’t exactly easy. Fair enough…perhaps it shall be Tangier and then back?

My compatriot had a complication present itself and could not go. I decided I’d be ok as it was just a hop over the Strait of Gibraltar and back. As I was digging into some final requirements, I filed my flight plan 12 hours in advance as per Moroccan requirements, checking addressing based on a suggestion online. In all the years of flying, I didn’t even realize a thing called “addressing” existed. It is how to identify who gets a copy of the flight plan. SkyDemon had about 8 destinations in there already – departure ATC, destination ATC, Moroccan authorities, customs authorities, Spanish flight service – I added a few more based on someone’s writeup and clicked the button. Still not done, I had not successfully navigated the Spanish Police departure requirements, so I arranged for “handling,” a distinctly Spanish affair. Landing at a big airport, handling is frequently “offered,” which for most VFR pilots is an add-on that doesn’t do a lot. Most try to avoid it as fees are high and the service is something pilots can handle on their own. Nonetheless, I agreed to about $150 in fees to they could handle outbound immigration reporting, filing another flight plan to make the 5-mile hop from Trebujena to a controlled airport in Jerez to make the outbound journey.

By now, it was late Saturday night. I was flying for 3 days straight, was extremely tired, and something didn’t feel right. All of this nonsense kept me up late, and then…..I couldn’t sleep. I knew what the problem was, and finally had to articulate it to myself so I could get some sleep before the next day: I had lost all desire to make the trip. Eventually I dozed off, awoken by lashing hail against the window in the middle of the night, and then finally by my alarm a few hours after that.

Things were clear mentally in the morning. I wasn’t going. I added up the hours it would take to fly Trebujena-Jerez-Outbound Immigration-Tangier-Customs-Hotel. It would be 7:30PM before I arrived in my hotel in Tangier, 100 miles away. I would then hop in the plane the next morning, taking another 8 hours to reverse the whole thing. Then adverse weather would be inbound on Tuesday, and I would be stuck before getting back to Portugal. There was the fact that Spain and Morocco have some unfriendly airspace at the shortest point of the crossing, so I’d be heading out to sea with strong winds on the nose, without a life jacket or raft. I didn’t like it one bit. I may not be troubled wandering around at 15,000 feet in the Rockies in winter with the door open. This, for me, was too much.

It was very clear to cancel, which I did. I am not one to usually change my mind. I realized the whole flight had become a series of individual steps that all were undesirable, and the only takeaway was bragging rights, which interest me very little. It was time for a personal reassessment. I also decided that a trip of this complexity would be best when retired or when I don’t have work obligations staring me down as it is a must to be able to roll with a lot of complications.

Weather was somewhat ok to return to Portugal, and I was ready to get back “home” for the time being to chill out. At the airport, packed and ready to go, ten gyrocopters rolled in one after another, with a bunch of French pilots disembarking. Alfonso, a fluent French speaker, was talking with them and found out that they were heading to….Morocco….for 12 days. After a few months of waiting, they had gotten approval to tour the country on a rally. Just then, a National Police officer showed up to handle their outbound immigration concerns at a little GA airport, so they didn’t have to land in Jerez. Of all things….? By now, I had cancelled the flight plan and needed 12 hours to file another, and I was worn out anyway. It turns out the gyrocopter pilots lived about 120 miles away in Portugal, are all retired, and speak one of the Moroccan languages. The Spanish police officer aptly noted that he thought they were all lunatics for “crossing the Strait in those things.”

With a stiff headwind the entire day, it took six hours, two fuel stops, and dodging some Portuguese Outback downpours, reflecting on my motivations for flying in the first place, something I often do in this blog. Aviation is more than just flying, just like cars are more about the joy of driving. A real question is what we do with the freedom of it, and that can be personal, commercial, practical, or a combination of all things in between. In this case, it was clear I was pushing myself well beyond comfort zones, and practicality of the airplane. I do take my time getting places, taking a fiendish amount of images in the process, and in so doing, my range is somewhat limited. Even though it has taken years to get used to my range limitations due to European complexity, I have grown to accept it and enjoy what I can see inside of rational flight expectations.

Portugal’s Alentejo region in full Spring bloom.



Oddly, this solar death ray is not restricted airspace. Sanlucar de Mayor, Spain.

Andalusian countryside near Trebujena.

Salinas near Cádiz, Spain.

Punta del Boquerón, Spain

Cádiz, Spain, old city. If one wishes to test US Military anti-aircraft capabilities, Rota’s airspace is half a mile on the other side of the city. 

Rio Tinto, Huelva.

Oil tanker, Guadalquivir River, Isla Mayor. 

Castillo de Medina Sidonia.

Cape of Trafalgar. Morocco on the horizon.

Andalusians in Andalusia.

Wheat fields before harvest.


And of course, the wall of precipitation crossing the coastal hills in Portugal, requiring an uphill quartering tailwind landing on a wet, slippery, short runway.

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.

Stormy Atlantic Flying

It was basing at the third new country that led to finally figuring it out: it takes a while to get comfortable flying in a new place. While cross country flying does involve new places and long distances, I find the flight planning process to be manicured, where a suitable day is waited for, weather thoroughly researched, and alternate scenarios planned on paper. Fuel consumption is calculated, among other factors, and it then becomes a matter of executing a single plan, which usually involves simply arriving somewhere in a straight line. When I undertake a cross country flight for the purposes of transportation, I find it easier than declaration of photography war on a region.

I thought this paradigm through, and it applied back to my student pilot days. Taking lessons out of my grandfather’s grass strip was a giant leap from riding in the back of his Super Cub. Upgrading those lessons to Perry-Warsaw Airport in New York was yet another giant leap, as was each step of the student training process. Years later, the airplane would move to North Carolina, a cross country flight of great significance, yet I fell into a comfort zone, taking quite some time before I would attempt coastal or mountain flying in the Carolinas, and this was before I was picking up a camera. A few years later, I crossed the country more than once, and didn’t notice that I still had to adjust to a local area, as I was buried in figuring out high mountain flying. Even crossing the country for the third time, out to Wyoming, featured a two-month period where I preferred local flights until I could get comfortable with weather, this after crossing three quarters of the country in late winter. Only after some time in Wyoming did I bite off adventures of progressively increasing magnitude.

I thought that I would eventually perfect the process of arriving in a new place, leveraging increasing hours and years of experience, along with exposure to more countries, weather, and other variables. It seems to be, after a month in Portugal, that I have not perfected this process. It is a learning experience each time I base in a new area, and upon deep reflection, it has always been a complex experience each time I have done it.

Portugal’s weather shares a lot in common with the California coast: moderated temperatures, a summer dry season, and a winter rainy season. It just so happens to be that March can be the peak of storminess, and this year, it has decided to be so windy that Portugal has been able to power their entire grid from renewable energy for the entire month, the first time that has ever happened. It has rained almost every day, with strong coastal winds, massive waves, and locals that keep advising it is not normal.

Despite that reality, I managed to squeeze in eleven flights in March. Sometimes sandwiched by rain on both sides, a clear window would materialize, and off I’d go, fighting a 1,350’ sloped runway covered in wet grass and sand, and unfavorable—and so I am told incredibly unusual—crosswinds. The tiny little field is a few miles from the Atlantic, which means strong and consistent onshore winds with often orographic clouds a few miles inland. Overhead the entire coastal region is a military control zone at 1,000’ and restricted areas 25 miles north and south which are designated Class D. For flight following, hand off to the military, and clearance through any of these zones, a flight plan must be ground or air filed, which makes things a little complex. Escape routes inland to the east can be executed without involving ATC. Much like Spain and France, once flight following is initiated, it is rather difficult to get rid of it, though I have not yet encountered any user fees for involvement with ATC.

I have found some very pleasant coastal photography, with a wild Atlantic, beautiful ocean colors, spring green vegetation, and compelling sky textures. Waves and human activity provide an almost nonstop amount of activity to enjoy and view along the coast. Coastal terrain varies from being somewhat flat to hills hundreds of feet tall, making for some interesting winds, and very complex attention required, as a forced landing would best be done on top of one of those hills instead of on a rocky beach or in cold water. Couple that with restrictions of 1,000’ altitude, and it can feel a bit crazy flying slightly offshore in places.

After a month of the aerial attack, my wife made an unsolicited and poignant observation: “You were happier flying in Wyoming.” There is something to be said about keeping flying simple, and therefore pure. As the years have ticked by since our airpark time, I feel an evolution of motivation, where things have switched from a lifestyle of aviation to a conquest of beauty. I recall in Wyoming challenging myself to how many places I could go in a Cub, and how frequently I could fly as part of an aviation-centered lifestyle. Here in Europe, I have been subsumed by the crazed need to see and photograph as much European culture and beauty as I can find, driven by the idea that it’s a one-shot deal. I don’t think the prospect is overtly irrational, as few would proclaim Europe as a good place to build a life around an airplane, and few would find a good reason not to hop in the plane and go see a castle from centuries ago if given the chance. It does create an interesting dynamic where I wouldn’t mind American aviation simplicity coupled with European beauty, though I think that debate is something that goes larger than aviation. In the interim, I have some interesting things planned, and will keep up the conquest of the Atlantic Coast, avoiding Portuguese F-16s, profuse carb ice, and keeping the Cub rinsed of salt accumulation.

During the storm…Peniche, Portugal.




Cape north of Figueira da Foz.


Sea spray, north of Lagoa de Óbidos.


Enormous wave, Nazaré.


Wave crashing, Nazaré.

Water draining after the wave crashed.

North of Cabo da Roca. One can see why I would prefer a forced landing above the cliff vs below.

There goes the idea of “if the engine quits, I’ll land on the beach.” South of Cabo da Roca.

As I was saying, a castle. Sintra.


Cabo da Roca, from inland.



Baleal.

Atlantic colors, with roughly 6 foot waves, north of Baleal.

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.

From the Pyrenees to the Portuguese Coast

I tried to cross the Iberian Peninsula once before in 2017. The plan went south 100 nautical miles into the flight, and I haven’t since been able to make much headway out of Catalunya owing to a lack of Spanish airports with fuel in key areas. It would be better to have two fuel tanks in this aircraft, though alas, that is not how it is.

For a variety of reasons, we decided to spend three months in Portugal, along the Atlantic Coast. Since I wouldn’t dare leave the Cub behind, that meant figuring the problem out, solving it, and actually pulling it off, crossing the entirety of the Iberian Peninsula, from the Pyrenees to the Atlantic, in February.

I spent many weeks staring at Google Maps and sectional maps, trying different things on for size, realizing that it is very hard to finalize a plan, as headwinds are unknown until the day of flight. Eventually, I settled on an astonishing six stops for a 560nm flight. If I removed one, the distance became an issue with winds, fuel, and alternates, whereas executing the plan seemed on the surface absurd. Part of the problem is that I take my time taking photos, and since I did not ever expect to fly this Cub in these countries, I decided to simply take longer and savor the experience. It would take two days due to time of year.

A window of weather opened in mid-February, two weeks before our anticipated drive. I have learned the hard way crossing the USA that one should move an aircraft before leaving terrestrially, as go/no go decisions can be made same day, whereas to return via public transportation and commence a flight separates the go/no go by two days from the flight. Thankfully I went the weekend that I did, as the weather became extremely unsettled right up until now, locals in Portugal noting that it has been a very long time since they have received so much continuous rain.

Part of making this trip possible is the carriage of two gas cans in the back seat, totaling 10 gallons, for which I would use as a backup, to land at abundant ultralight fields and airports that lack fuel, and transfer as necessary. If I did not have this feature, I would have to fly a silly zigzag between airline-serviced airports in Western Spain. For safety, I ordered a seatbelt extension and had handles welded on the front, to prevent them from dislodging in the event of a non-catastrophic airplane crash, whacking me in the back of the head and causing severe injury that otherwise would not have happened. With that in place, plus water, food, first aid, a tent, blankets, tie downs, tools, extra oil, a MacBook, flight bag, cameras, and clothing for the return trip, the whole thing looked like a gypsy caravan, and behaved aeronautically as such given the weight involved. This isn’t my first rodeo with such distance and gear.

Gypsy Caravan

The first stop was about 100nm, leaving the Pyrenees, crossing over an inversion, and landing in the middle of the Monegros Desert, replete with desert wind. It was a microlight field of 1,300’, with a runway that had the quality of a farm driveway. Swerving around massive vultures at 20’ AGL on short final, I bounced along stones and ruts, pulling up to the hangar/restaurant, noting mariachi music playing. With desert vegetation, Aragon architecture, and Mexican music filling the air, it felt like I was in the Sonoran Desert.

Exiting the Pyrenees

Tardienta de Monegros was a really funny little airport. The owner runs a microbrewery, hosts a mini Spanish “Burning Man” festival, and regularly has video and still photo shoots at the field, as the place is in the middle of nowhere and nobody cares what happens. He showed me some sample commercial print material done: some neo-Nazi reenactment, Molotov cocktails in full flame, plenty of fashion models, and apparently two full porn movies shot by established enterprises….with European ULM aircraft as backdrops! Fuel consisted of gas cans obtained from a gas station. I had wondered why he asked the day before exactly how much fuel I wanted; he merely drove and got it from the nearest station. Funny as that was, I was proud of myself for precisely calling it: 30 liters of consumption, with a tiny bit of room left over.

The next leg took me just outside of Madrid, another two hours in flight. Winds were a stiff headwind over the desert, quite rocky along the Moncayó ridge, and then a slight tailwind over the central Spanish highlands. Unfortunately, it was cloudy during this stretch, which is no good for photography, though I did enjoy the open stretches. Landing at Robledillo was a bit intriguing with a stiff wind, though it was a pretty field. I had called in advance to ensure that they took credit cards, which they assured they did. Upon arrival, it was all cash, for which I was thankful I had a pile.

Monegros Desert near Zaragoza – rather breezy.

Spanish highlands.

NE of Madrid – this photo reminds me of the Swan Valley in Idaho.

At this point, I could have headed to the other side of Madrid and called it a night, except I wanted to get a photo of Valley of the Fallen. It is a monument to those who died during the Spanish Civil War, controversially built by Spain’s former dictator Franco. Nonetheless, it features a 500-foot cross that can be seen from twenty miles away. I also received a recommendation to check out El Escorial, a Spanish royal summer residence, which was just over the hill. To pull off the flight, I had to cross a spider web of airspace, which local pilots told me I had to obey. Catalunya has an excess of controlled airspace, and it is popular practice to intentionally have an incursion in areas where “they would never send an airliner.” The odd thing is, Catalunya is one of the more wealthy and orderly sections of Spain, so I was shocked to hear that Madrid treats its airspace like the rest of the world: obey it. Thus, I snaked around and under CTRs to get to the northwest side, take photos, and get to Casarrubios for the night, southwest of the city.

Valley of the Fallen

El Escorial, in infrared.

The next day featured dull wind though overcast, which meant things were uneventful for the crossing of Extremadura. It is a place with low population and few airports. The night before, I discovered an airport that I had missed: El Rinconcillo de Guadalupe. That meant I could make it to the Atlantic Coast with only two stops that day instead of three. Since it was in an extremely rural area, I would be using the gas cans, which was fine with me.

Leaving Casarrubios.

Overflying the field, things looked normal, except there appeared to be a runway marker right in the middle of the field. Hmmm… perhaps the wind blew it there? I landed around it, noting an abundance of cow plops all over the grass runway. Strange…though perhaps they use cows to trim the grass? It wouldn’t be the first time, as my first flight in the PA-11 was in Florida at my grandfather’s winter residence, where a local farmer allowed him to take off from his cow pasture, which meant chasing the cows off and avoiding manure. This wasn’t that big of a deal.

I taxied to the edge of this “airport,” noting that it had nothing in the way of facilities or buildings, just some fencing and wide-open range, an over glorified cow patch with a windsock. I started my process to unpack the gas cans, only to note a Guardia Civil (paramilitary police) car lurking around by the fence, then moving away slowly. “Oh, maybe they’re interested in the airplane” I thought, full well knowing that a problem was brewing. I kept about my business as the nefarious police car moved a few times, eventually hearing one of the officers calling for me to come to him.

I walked over with a look on my face that did not indicate I enjoyed being interrupted to which four burly officers glared back. The entire conversation happens in Spanish.

El Jefe asked, “where is your permission to land?”
“It’s an airport. I don’t need permission.”
“This airport is closed and is private. It is not open to the public!”
“Not according to my map.”
“You need permission to be here.”
“Well, if that was disclosed properly on official aviation maps, I would have gone somewhere else.” I then pull out my iPad, showing him the airport designator, which he finds educational as he clearly has never seen an aviation map before.
“Where is your flight plan?”
“I don’t have one.”
“You don’t have a flight plan?”
“Flight plans are not necessary for flights outside of instrument conditions and outside of controlled airspace.”
At this point he was stumped. “Where did you come from?”
“Casarrubios.”
“Where is that?”
“Southwest of Madrid.”
Stumped a bit more. “Where are you going?”
“Portugal.”
“Why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“What is the nature of this flight? Is it commercial?”
“No. I am flying the plane there because I am going to spend three months at the beach.”
“I need to see some identification.”
At this point, I produce an expired Spanish visa (now resolved) and a brand-new US passport with no stamps in it whatsoever, meaning I don’t have a shred of proof I am in the country legally (even though I was, technically). He looks them over and hands them back. “I need to see the aircraft registration.” It is at this moment that I realize nothing bad is going to come of this exercise. I dismantle the entire gypsy caravan to get the registration, which is “properly displayed” under all of my luggage. I also fetch my stack of European ramp check paperwork, ready to go to war over VAT and importation tariffs if this guy is in the mood. He looks at the registration and asks me where the registration numbers are on the aircraft. I point to the rudder, then to the registration showing that they match. He asks a few questions about fuel range and if these things have an “ITV” (car inspection). I am not asked to produce a pilot’s license.

During this whole affair I am hearing my 87-year-old grandfather’s voice echoing in my head: “I have never been ramp checked by the FAA!” Well, I’m 36 and this is the second interrogation by police.

El Jefe continues, “I need to see the contents in your luggage.”
“You want me to open my suitcase?”
“Yes.”
“To see if I have crack in it?”
“Yes.”
“Well, if the Guardia Civil wants to see my underwear, who am I to stand in the way?”

He does a quick glance at just two of them. I offer my tool chests, flight bag, and the rest. He shakes his head. I ask, “Are you sure?” He is quite sure that his interest is flagging, as I think to myself that if I was going to smuggle anything from Morocco in a Cub, it would not be in the suitcase, but what do I know?

At this point I ask, “Is there an infraction here?”
“No.”
“No fine?”
“Nope, but we need to take a picture of the registration for the file.”
“Ok, have fun.”

The farmer that bought the airport then arrives, commencing an indignant Spanish rant about how I am the third airplane to land since he bought it, and he doesn’t understand why, as he shoved the marker in the middle of the runway. I then furnish an education that de-registering the airport would be the first step, followed by removing the runway numbers, runway markers, and windsock and putting two yellow X’s on each end, that these are the international symbols for a closed runway. They all have a look of both appreciation and realization that they were dramatic idiots. I allowed a bit of face saving and graciously continued my refueling, for which everyone calmed down and had a nice chat, inclusive of the farmer eyeing up the airplane with some curious intrigue, and the Guardia Civil taking selfies in front of the Cub before takeoff.

Courtesy call by Spanish law enforcement. Note the airport marker in the middle of the runway, apparently denoting that it was closed.

The flight into Portugal is nowhere near as eventful as those shenanigans; however, I did have a problem that required resolution. Flight plans can only be activated over the radio to my knowledge here, not via iPad or other device, even though they can be filed, amended, and delayed through electronic means. Madrid Approach would not answer, probably due to altitude, so I could not activate the plan there or anywhere else in the boonies, which is required to cross borders within Europe. I cancelled it via the iPad, as I have learned that European airports still expect arrival if a filed plan is not activated, whereas in America they fall out of the system after 30 minutes.

As Portugal is pretty strict about the border, I finally dismiss thoughts about sneaking in without calling, and make the call to the Portuguese military, advising I had a problem with flight plan activation. They ask where I am going and tell me to stand by, for which eventually they say they cannot find a flight plan and it’s no big deal. My transponder is not on to conserve limited battery power, as I have no alternator and could not locate a plug for the charger during my overnight stay.

We do some back and forth about “negative radar contact,” my explanation being accepted, which was met with “N5547H, squawk 1367” 15 minutes later. I turn it on, using my buffer (reserved for urgent situations and coming controlled airspace), squawk, get verbal radar identification, and no explanation why we just had a conversation that I had low battery and now I am on radar. Iberia…there aren’t words.

I refuel at Ponte de Sôr and am told I must have a flight plan to exit the ATZ. I try to get around it. Not allowed as I must have one to take off, so I fill out a paper form and they scan it off to Lisbon Flight Service. I am cleared to takeoff, head west, and am told I must switch over to the Portuguese military, even though I plan on avoiding military zones. They cannot find my flight plan (so much for “required to take off”), so they send me to Lisbon Approach, who “couldn’t read the form.” I try multiple times to get rid of flight following. Not allowed (even though it is). We spend 5 minutes air filing an ICAO flight plan, get handed back to the military, and eventually he tires of me when I fall off radar and just tells me to let him know when I get to my destination, which I do. I ask to terminate the flight plan. Not allowed in the air! I advise I do not know who to call to terminate via phone, and get no response. I then wander along the Atlantic for a few minutes, taking in the fact that I had the Cub based on the same Atlantic Ocean, 3500 miles to the west in the North Carolina Outer Banks, three years ago. I expected none of this in life and continued to be amazed by the places an old plane can go.

I land, for which the owner of the airport (who speaks only Portuguese) calls Flight Service and has a clear argument with them that yes, he is calling and not me, and yes I landed, and why can’t the stupid flight plan be closed? Iberia. There aren’t words.

And so the Cub is back on the Atlantic for the time being.

 

 

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.

Battle of Mediterranean Winter

I like to believe that I arrive at conclusions based on accurate information. Vegetation, weather data, and conversations with locals implied that Cerdanya gets some snow each winter, though not much, and it “always melts the next day.” As I have heard around the world, the elderly speak of how winters used to be worse and actually had some snowpack, though now…not anymore.

Fair enough. Last winter was supposedly exceptional, as Levante events off the Mediterranean favored the south side of the valley with purportedly a year that is unlikely to be repeated. As I was told, in some recent winters barely any natural snowfall fell on that side, so I was duly impressed and happy with what we received.

Granted, measurable snow fell from early November to late April in the valley, sometimes up to 8 inches at a time, and melted as promised rather quickly, each time being told its “normal,” despite wheat crops getting smashed and lawn sprinklers running while it was snowing. As winter gave way to summer, I was greeted with snowfall on the mountaintops (9,000 feet) in every single calendar month, despite valley temperatures at 4,000 feet reaching almost 100 degrees last summer. This is something that happens once every 10 years in the Rockies, so I thought it was exceptional. The locals told me it was normal.

Then we received 18” of snow on green leaves at 6,000 feet, merely 2,000 feet above the valley….on September 13th. Again…..”normal” according to the locals.

Curiously, September 13th was not a harbinger of things to come. We had a wicked drought where temperatures were summerlike well into the fall, snow didn’t fall on the mountains for months, and reservoirs dropped down to 37% of normal seasonal levels – a story that sounds a lot like California. This continued into December, with no real snow, nice weather, and a nagging presumption that I saw the best that Catalonian winter had to offer in the prior year.

In January, the Battle of Winter began.

It started with a wallop of snow that came while I was driving back from Switzerland, coming over the pass in France greeted by roads that were reminiscent of a war zone. The next available moment, I went flying thinking that was probably the best we’d see for the winter, plowing through the unplowed snow for takeoff.

Jan 8 – La Cerdanya Aerodrome

A few days later, I was surprised that the snow was still there, so I went up again to photograph some remaining river fog, still taking off through somewhat thick snow on the field.

Jan 11 – Riu Segre fog.

I then ventured out to the Pre-Pyrenees, to try to play again with persistent winter inversions, and despite not much snow on the other side, I did encounter some nice tones. Maybe winter is slacking off as expected.

Jan 12 – Montserrat

A complicated story in itself, the focus of my next day’s flight was a checkride for my European pilot certificate, which took us out of the Pyrenees as part of a test of cross country dead-reckoning skills. There, we were able to test the diversion requirement without the examiner making something up; rather, we encountered localized clouds blocking our path, and in so diverting discovered a pocket of winter. Perhaps things are starting to remind me of last year after all, even though I have been taking off through slush and snow for days on end?

Jan 13 – Pre-Pyrenees

The next day, it was a bit windy, as the infamous “north side” of the Pyrenees had gotten some snow, which seems to be the focus this year. Despite the continuing upper level winds, a raw, guttural desire to attack came from within, and I weaseled around some cloud layers to sneak up to 10,000 feet around sunset.

Jan 14 – Puigpedrós (9,554′ / 2.912m)

Pyrenees at sunset from 10,000 feet.

For some reason that I cannot remember, I felt the need to fly yet again, and this time found Tosa d’Alp with some snow, but really not that much compared to the prior year. Alas, we had our shot of winter and I guess that is that?

Jan 15 – Tosa d’Alp ( 8,488′ / 2.587m), believing there is no real winter.

The three essential ingredients of Pyrenees winter are: waves, snow, and inversions. This image features all three, followed by my new fixation: a dual band 590nm infrared camera, which shows foliage in a separate color tone than sky. I still am perplexed why I viewed the inversion last year as such a negative…

Jan 22 – Waves, Snow and Inversion.

And the new infrared camera…

The following flight proved my hypothesis. Despite lingering snow pack now for two weeks at the house, winter is localized this year and is basically a joke. Heading halfway to the Mediterranean, I was able to view alpine tundra lacking any serious snow…in late January. Last year, this part was completely covered and had avalanches. Alas, my new toy did handle haze well in lower elevations, and life goes on without real winter.

Jan 24 – Eastern Pyrenees with low snowfall. Proof that, as my wife says, “winter here is a farce.”

Lower altitude infrared.

So it snowed again. Curious.

Jan 26 – Plowing through snow again to take off…

And then it started to blow. 20 knots at field level, 40 knots at 9,000 feet, and 60 knots at 12,500. I had a strong intuition, with a northeast instead of north wind, that I could sneak around Cadí-Moixeró with blowing snow and 40 knot winds, and this I did without encountering downdrafts or turbulence.

Jan 27 – Who doesn’t like horses?


A tad breezy…

In the wave at 10,000 feet…

And the blowing snow at 8,600 feet beneath…

It was finally time to head over to the “north side” to see what all the fuss was about. Whatever snow we were not getting on the Spanish side was falling on the French. I am told this is normal, as many years its good on either side of the valley, and not both. Apparently, this year belongs to the French, so I might as well check it out.

Jan 28 – Catalans doing donuts in a field.

French backcountry skiers.

The “north side,” progenitor of our famous mountain waves, and recipient of lots of snow.

The mountain waves strike again, though I still am operating on the delusion we are not experiencing winter, despite three weeks of snowpack.

Feb 3 – Mountain waves again from 8,500 feet.

A storm was predicted, 12 inches, so I snuck up in the beginning of it to enjoy some good old flying in the snowflakes (you can see them whizzing by). This is an age-old pastime that I take very cautiously, having never experienced ice, though almost always merely dabbling on the edge of a snow shower. If someone decides to fly into an ice storm without a FIKI system because of this image, he or she should consider some instruction.

Feb 4 – Flying in the snow.

And the coup de grace: attack of the Mediterranean! 3 feet of snow. Flying took a break until I could a) find the car b) get it out and c) get to the airport to find out how much fell and who to bribe to get enough removed to do some STOL activity and go flying. Thankfully, capitalism won and the flying club paid some heavy machinery to clear the field.

Feb 5 – So much for 12″ of snow….

Feb 8 – Infamous hair dryer engine heater.

La Cerdanya (including aerodrome) with 3 feet of snow.

A trip to the “north side” on the tail end of a north wind snow event. I finally decided to see what is going on over there during these events. It was absurdly cold at 9,500 feet.

Unfortunately, temperatures dropped to -9F / -22,8C and that caused the foundation to heave, requiring a tractor to open the hangar, a Barcelona TV crew to block what limited taxi space was available, three airplanes, a tractor, and two cars to get parked in the way, and an insulting shovel stuck in a snowbank that I had to power off to remove for wing clearance. After 2 hours of removing obstacles at a rate slightly faster than they were presenting themselves, I was able to see some of the Pre-Pyrenees with snow uncharacteristically low. Ironically, the flying club went through three tow planes, unable to start any of them. As I taxied up to them in my significantly older and carbureted engine, I offered my hairdryer, and they indignantly declined, looking at me like some kind of hobo.

Feb 9th – Minus 9F / Minus 22,8C in the morning, coldest in 18 years. Pre-Pyrenees unusually covered in snow.


North side of El Pedraforca (8,223′ / 2.506m)

I would go up today as I write this, except winds are gusting to 50mph. While I absolutely in all seriousness would relish the chance to see a ground blizzard from the Cub, there are some things that are just not possible.

Feb 10 – Winter wins this round. 

In a nutshell, winter is quite pretty and enjoyable, though I may suggest altering suppositions about Spain’s purportedly temperate meteorology.

 

In a decidedly less wintry theme, I have published “Field of Dreams: American Agriculture from the Sky,” my second work covering a national subject as seen from the Cub.

 

 

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.

Rage Against the Machine

While maintaining a 1940s aircraft powered by an ancient engine can be packaged into a marketable experience, most of the time the truth is that it is a real aggravation. Some recent experiences are educational, and more than likely confirm why I am one of a handful of Americans that come to Europe to fly. While I tend to like going against the crowd, perhaps this time the crowd had some wisdom…

The first thing one notices in Europe is that few own their own aircraft. The vast bulk use flying clubs and rent per hour, which I thought was silly and inane, and then explained it away with the fact that most things in Europe are costly, and it’s simply cheaper to rent per hour for the average general aviation pilot. Only real diehards who exceed a critical threshold can push average hourly operating costs below flying club rates by overcoming high fixed costs. While that is true, it is not the whole story.

Apparently, there is this thing called a “CAMO,” which is something I only recently found out about. I believe it stands for “Certified Aviation Maintenance Organization,” and is required for standard category aircraft. I am not sure of the specific vagaries of each country, though the idea is that instead of an A&P and IA handling required maintenance and inspection duties, these are relegated to membership in an organization with defined compliance roles and some level of type certification on the part of the A&P that touches the aircraft. Costs and aggravations, as one could imagine, increase. The same principle exists with instruction; there is no such thing as a freelance CFI. All instructors are part of an “Approved Training Organization,” which operates in a similar way. I have a lot to learn about both philosophies, so I will not purport to offer a journalistically vetted overview.

However, the existence of the ATO and CAMO structures logically points toward flying clubs, as they can take on required expertise and certification roles in aircraft specific to the club, and therefore handle required instruction. Many that do own aircraft have them “operated” in one fashion or another by a club, and therefore the CAMO umbrella applies to them. This also explains why my next problem is made more annoying, as the European supply chain is geared toward a different structure.

The problem I have been facing today dates back to a slew of part installations that took place before moving to Europe. I was told that a starter was required at certain airports in Germany, and that transponder mandatory zones abounded. That resulted in the need to install a ground charge battery, basic electrical system, and starter, which was done in America. Normally, I take “owner assisted” to the maximum level I can, and in this case I opted to pay an A&P to do the entire job. I didn’t want the emotional burden of figuring it out, and it was too sensitive of an installation.

Well, some problems from the installation presented in 2015, and I thought they were solved (recall the irony of disavowing the “owner assisted” part). With warm weather operations resuming in Spring 2016 in Germany, it became apparent that the problem was not fully solved, for which I needed to order some parts. In Europe, the price was $850 versus $500 in the USA, and the wait time in Germany indicated they were merely shipping it from America. An A&P friend of mine suggested shipping it to him in America, where he packaged it in ghetto packaging, labeled it “Metal Parts $0” on the customs form, and a month later, it deposited itself back in his mailbox, rejected by German customs, with my plane out of service the whole time. We then did the FedEx route for a bunch more money, and managed to sneak it through for a $50 brokerage fee. That was not enough, so another expensive part had to come over, which we were able to sneak through my “household goods” initial moving exemption, saving $250 in tax. Meanwhile, the plane was out of service for 4 months.

In this 2016 saga, the engine had to be dismounted to be moved forward a few inches for the replacement of a part. After all was said and done, there was this strange but very slight “wobble” as I described it. All engine indications were acceptable, including runup results. The wobble triggered the mental reflex that the engine had an issue, though it clearly didn’t by all other measurements. After 10 test flights around the pattern, nobody, including my A&P could source it, and eventually I was given advice that Lord engine mounts can take 15-20 hours to settle into place, and to give it some time. There was no question that multiple A&Ps thought I was making it up as it performed “just fine” for them.

Alas, it was given time, and two things happened: the wobble continued, and the engine and all oil samples were completely fine. It still drove me nuts, and I was convinced it had something to do with the dismount and remount process. I also hold a disposition that, if the airplane didn’t do something before, and its doing it now, we have a problem. Most A&Ps tell me in response that it’s an old airplane, it’s in tolerance, and to quit being neurotic.

There were a few pieces of mount hardware that looked suspicious, so I assumed these had to be contributing to the overall equilibrium equation of mount tension, and set about to find some replacement parts. The problem was, nobody really seemed to understand where to find these small pieces as they seemed unusual, so after a conversation with the Lord engineer, my grandfather who restored the airplane, and Univair, and after taking a bunch of measurements as reality seemed to not match blueprints from 1957, it came to my attention that the airplane has a unique mount conversion kit and is therefore not standard (the engine is a field approved installation). I ordered the parts from Univair, plus a slew of other things I thought I would need in the future to be safe – $350 in parts, $120 in shipping, $150 in Spanish VAT and tariffs, despite a regulation that aviation parts not manufactured in the EU do not get tariffed. Sigh.

Those little hardware parts got changed, and, well, no change. Perhaps the “wobble” is ignition related, despite no clear misfiring, and no mag test problems? It was worsened at certain RPMs in descent (indicating mount), though improved slightly on the right mag only in cruise (indicating ignition). I decided it must be coming from somewhere left magneto ignition system, and therefore had a decision to make, as the Bendix mags were coming up for 500-hour inspection. Do I do the mags first, or go for plugs and wires, even though all three were done in 2014?

I decided to go for plugs. They needed to be removed and cleaned, and under Part 43, I can swap them. I took them off, and drove over to France to a flying club to have the plugs tested on their fancy and expensive machine. At that point, the French CFI apologized for misunderstanding our conversation in Spanish and advised he has no “autonomy.” I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, so he walked me to some dank and miserable shed, for which a V-8 car engine was bolted to the floor with an exhaust pipe to the roof, connected to a generator. Despite a robust French electrical grid, the flying club was operating off of a car engine, and it was broken and no one knew when it would work; therefore, the expensive test rig was out of commission.

Horrified by the Summer of Discontent in Germany, I decided to buy new plugs instead of waiting on the French V-8 generating station. The Germans were the only ones that had them, at the price of $400 for a set, instead of $240 in America. Add express shipping so I don’t have to wait two weeks. Sigh.

New plugs were installed, and no change. By now, a concerted and well-planned maintenance cycle was approaching, so I decided it was time to schedule some personal travel while taking the magnetos off and having them sent to a certified shop in France for the 500-hour inspection. I was told the bill should be “a few hundred euros” and they wouldn’t know the amount until they opened them. A few days later, I got an invoice: $1500! Expressing my surprise, I was corrected when I referred to the $1500 number, as it lacked French 20% VAT and shipping (page 2 hadn’t been scanned). When it was all said and done, nearly $1900 was out of the door, and the rationale was that the “prior guy didn’t do a good job” but “now you only need a 500-hour point inspection for the next 2,000 hours or 12 years.” The irony is that the “prior guy” had noted a few years ago that the guy before him did a crappy job on the mags. When I reviewed the EASA Form 1, issued by the French, it contained a variety of Bendix service bulletins, that the first and second idiot had done according to the logbook. I confess that I did get a “revision generale” (overhaul) as opposed to 500-hour point inspection. And, of course, the French kindly painted the exterior of the mags so they look pretty.

The mags were installed, other work done, and aircraft placed back into service, being out of service for a month and not four. No change in the wobble, and not too much of a discernible difference in magneto-induced combustion. I can, however, recalculate my weight and balance as any cash I had left in my wallet is gone and therefore I am lighter. At this point, I deferred to the German PhD and Irish pilot friend, who both said to get new wires some time back. I reiterate that all engine indications were in tolerance. The only person who had a problem with it was me, though I have been the sole pilot in this airplane since 1996 when it was restored, so that nagging voice has some authority.

Be that as it may, I decided after the little $1900 magneto debacle that ignition leads couldn’t be that pricey. I recall buying them for something like $400 in the USA, so I figured it would be $200 in America and $300 in Europe for one side only. How wrong I was! Shopping around until I was blue in the face, the replacement for the left side only was $550, and had a six-week lead time. I decided to call a distributor in the UK, who asked the American-born English speaker where I was calling from, and transferred me to a lady who spoke Spanish. Indignant that I was calling the UK, I demanded to speak in English (for which she obliged), and she kept asking “who maintains my aircraft” and to get them to call. At this point I was irritated, and finally encountered the CAMO bit, where they couldn’t understand why a pilot-owner would call for parts and not the CAMO, and I made clear N registered airplanes have an A&P, and he only calls if the pilot wants to pay for concierge service. Eventually after convincing her I wasn’t committing fraud, she poked around and found an alternate part number: a kit with both sides in stock: 500 GBP. Sigh. $700 with shipping. Ok, I’ll place the order. Oh no, that didn’t include 20% VAT (prices are supposed to include VAT in Europe by regulation). $900+! Now I was on a rampage and refused.

That resulted in a saga of searching around Europe, settling on some Belgians, who then recommended an alternate part number, which was an education Continental makes wire harnesses and they do so at a lower price. At this point, it wasn’t so much about market analysis as who had the parts in Europe without having to wait until 2019. After a call to the TCM engineer in Alabama to confirm spark plug to cowling clearance (this engine is extremely tight), the invoice came to $640.

After getting them installed, the wobble is gone.

I am not sure what the lesson is here. Perhaps it is the almost spiritual relationship a pilot and mechanic must have with a carbureted engine, petting and serenading it to find out what mood it is in? Is it the warm and nostalgic remembrance of working in the shop with a grandfatherly figure in childhood, the beautiful “simplicity” of old airplanes (while grandpa pays the bills, deals with the FAA, and curses at the machine that won’t work)? Is it the lesson that things in Europe take twice as long and cost twice as much for no seemingly discernible logic? Or is it the progressive beauty of the EU single market, where I can freely spend my money on airplane parts in an alarming array of countries without border tariffs?

While these realities are all true, any remaining rage against the machine subsides when I get in the air. No matter how annoying it is, flying is worth it.

Rainbow over the Val du Carol, France. I suspect it matches the mood of the magneto shop after I paid their exorbitant invoice.


La Cerdanya Aerodrome, under some snow. The PA-11 handles snowpack quite well.

Some basic flying around La Cerdanya after a snowstorm. 


 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Before and After

I admit that I did not expect to change my perspective about flying when I came to Europe. Having lived as an expat over a decade prior, I was well aware that personal growth and changes in viewpoint would occur, though I thought flying is flying and that’s that. It was recently that my wife undertook some research and shared that “hating everything is a sign of culture shock” that caused me to step back and ask myself what was going on. After all, we’re getting close to the two-year point in Europe; one would think culture “shock” would be a thing of the past.

This period of introspection coincided with the most intense moments of the independence movement here in Catalunya. As those who watch the news would note, the fervor and levels of civil angst have dropped dramatically, consumed by an upcoming regional election that will tell us what the next phase holds. In the interim, things are calm, and I decided to ravenously attack some coastal and lowland flying.

As readers of my posts may note, I have railed against the unpredictable, stagnant, and irritating nature of maritime air masses that hang out on the other side of the hill. I have also rampaged about an anemic Spanish airport network, prolifically variable microclimates, and sheer incompetence at what few airports have fuel. One could hear a guttural scream beneath all of it: “Why can’t this just be like America?”

Well, it takes a little reflection on what kind of flying I did in America just before leaving that would influence this disposition. One might assume that I did some basic leisurely flying in the Cub, low and slow over farmland, “merely” shipping it to Europe so I could triple my costs but throw a few castles and European countries beneath. That would be incorrect. 2015 featured a manic explosion of flying, the most I had done in one year since I started hopping in my grandfather’s airplanes at age 2. I flew 346 hours in 2015 in the Cub, mostly in an 8-month period, featuring a flight from the Outer Banks to Idaho, all of the glaciers of the US Rockies, most of the 14ers in Colorado, and a large swath of quite amazing Western wilderness. To add to the mania, I was living on an airpark, and tried where possible to integrate having an airplane as part of daily life, inclusive of justifying a grocery run as equivalent in time and money as the car.

Somehow in my narrow minded, hair-brained nature, I assumed I would do something like that in Europe. No wonder it has been a “process” to accept differences! It appears in retrospect that the independence unrest was enough to break American expectations out of my mind.

It is worth noting that I have met very few people that own an aircraft outright that is not a ULM/LAPL (European equivalent to Light Sport), nor that own one without being part of a club. I will share more in the future, as I discovered an anachronistic misery about owning standard category aircraft on European registries that may explain it. Nonetheless, it is not a normal part of European aviation to use an aircraft as a regular mode of non-recreational transportation. Nonetheless, I continue to do my best to buck the trend and blast forward.

So, what has been accepted about flying in this neck of the woods? A few months ago, I finally solved the puzzle of automobile gas. No one knew if ethanol was present in fuel here, and nobody seemed to care. Eventually a Spanish pilot reminded me that fuel can be tested, and I confirmed it in the STC paperwork for my airplane. I dusted off the tester, bought two liters from the local station, and voila, no ethanol. That is not surprising, as I have seen very few corn fields. Result: I can fly using Spanish mogas at the hourly cost of American avgas, a savings of 50%, though that leaves unsolved a displeased wife when the car interior smells like auto fuel…

There is the matter of that pesky Spanish airport network, or lack thereof. Research proved that Spain can actually be innovative when it comes to regulation, as they made a change allowing regular aircraft to land at ULM fields, for which there is a flourishing abundance. Some carry mogas, which thanks to my recent discovery, is now useful. In other cases, in an elaborate system, I carry some spare in reserve and make a transfer upon arrival. Result: my world just got bigger, and I don’t have to go crazy with flight plans and two hour fueling routines! Note to self: check runway length, as some of these fields are 500 feet or less.

Using the inversion to my advantage…


La Cerdanya can have its own inversions, too.

What about that nasty inversion that drove me nuts last winter? It occurred to me that I had not before flown in a climate zone similar to the Mediterranean. It truly defies my conventional meteorological wisdom, as New York, North Carolina, Colorado, Wyoming, and Germany shared one thing in common: a cold front is a pilot’s best friend. Haze, humidity, usually clouds get blown away and photos are good. Not here! A front can mean anything, so I decided to put my thinking cap on and use every available resource I can get my hands on what is actually going on before getting moody that the weather isn’t cooperative. To take things further, I decided to use soupy weather to my advantage and start making art out of it.

Another fix for the inversion: the infrared camera. Montserrat.

In retrospect, I ended up with a change that I did not expect: a heightened sensitivity to possibility of things going wrong. While living in a state of existential “getthereitis” in Wyoming, there was this sort of bleak acceptance that remote wilderness flying came with a certain possibility of danger. Life in the West has a certain aura like that: avalanches on highways, blizzards, extreme cold, mountain lions and bears in the backyard, distance from emergency services, and a culture of wild outdoorsy behavior. Living there meant accepting those realities, and it was something I was fine with. Here, I don’t necessarily find a culture of safety in Spain; rather, I would say Spanish bravado is the inverse. On the other hand, each flight seems like an accomplishment filled with wonder and amazement, having flown to a new mental frontier. Linguistic, cultural, regulatory, and terrain differences are so stark that I often feel like a grand achievement has been had just because I finished a flight successfully. I suppose that, just because wild animals are not prevalent here, I don’t go crawling into bear caves to stir up the risk. Equally, there is no need to go looking for Wyoming-style wilderness flying and its associated challenges if they don’t exist.

I am not sure why I am so dramatic about getting down to the coast. Elaborate sea wall with calm waters west of Barcelona.

Mountain waves make interesting sunset tones. Masella.

Maybe mountain waves aren’t so bad after all? Just a few bumps.

A final aspect where I am undergoing a European transformation is this strange idea of planning an entire year of my life in advance. In the USA, I would get some crazy idea and hop in the plane a week later and attack something 500 miles away by air. There was no point in waiting, and I wasn’t interested in hypothesizing years away. Here it is common for pilots to plan a trip months in advance to see something, whether towing a glider behind the car, reserving a vacation at a flying club, or taking their own aircraft. Thus, I have finally decided I am going to take the five hour flight to the Alps later this summer, and get it over with. Yes, 5 hours, and I feel like I am crossing a continent, which makes no sense, at all. Then again, I might just be afraid of the Alps and have been hiding behind European bureaucrats. Stay tuned…

I was just saying something about not looking for wilderness. Pyrenees, French side. This is an engine of mountain waves.


I have finally released my first European book: “The First 100 Days: Flying in La Cerdanya.” In a new style for me, the book contains one or two photos from each of the first 100 flights in La Cerdanya, always including one local photo and a photo of wherever I went, no matter how far away it was.

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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