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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 3)

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.

A New Normal

I suppose it was an eventuality living overseas that I would finally start accepting how things are done here and slowly forget the ever-present reality that “this would have been easier in America.” At this point, my immersion has gone to a new level, where it has steam rolled whatever resistance remained.

For those that read last month’s post, it was about the Catalonian independence referendum and my utilization of general aviation as a way to make sense of all of the upheaval here in Catalonia, by flying on a daily basis. As the days continued past the suspended declaration of independence early in October, my sense of angst did not reduce, as I kept thinking about the fact that all of my assets here in Spain are not insured against civil unrest and war. For that matter, nobody has coverage for that sort of thing. Being so close to the French border, logic said that we should have a plan, and we did devise one early on: first our safety if stuck at home, second our ability to sneak out, and third the financial effects of it all. As I took stock of the continuously tense situation, I decided that my escape plan with the airplane had some holes in it.

I joked that I would hop in the plane and make a James Bond escape across the border, declaring an emergency if I had to and requesting political asylum. If lives are at stake, that is how it would go down, and I’d endure unhappy French gendarmes if I had to. Then, as I thought more about the reality that we may wish to reposition assets for prevention, then my WWII escape from behind enemy lines would not get the sympathy I had hoped, especially at St. Leocadie, an airport merely 8 miles from La Cerdanya aerodrome, yet over the border in France. If it was a foul weather day, I would need to land there, and it is both an “altiport,” which is a restricted use airport in France requiring a signoff before being permitted to land, and a hybrid military installation where advance registration is also required. I decided it was time to get the site licenses and registration taken care of.

Of course, I could not use my airplane, as I would need the site license to land there to take the lesson in the first place, so I rented from the local flying club and went up with the Chief Pilot. It was a 1959 Super Cub with a 150-horsepower engine, the same model my grandfather informally taught me how to fly in at age 8. I initially expected the whole affair to be a nonevent, though I had a nagging suspicion I was in for a lot of work, which turned out to be correct. I hadn’t flown a Super Cub in 20 years, and never from the front seat. The lesson would be in Spanish, a common second language for both of us. As anticipated, the checklist was in French, and as I noted this fact, I was told by the instructor that “when [he goes] to America, the checklist will not be in French.” Right. Airspeed was in kilometers, which is about as awkward as driving a car in the UK. That all aside, the lesson was pleasant, though left me sweating like I was a student again, and confirmed a longstanding suspicion: while I am becoming a better aviator flying the PA-11 so much, I do not fly many models, and I wonder if over specializing is not the smartest thing to do. It was good to fly another machine.

Le Super Cub – St. Leocadie, France

After the lesson, I now had two site licenses, as we visited La Llagonne, a glider field at 5,600’ elevation. A few days later, I flew up to La Llagonne before the season entombed the place in snow and mud, taking some food and enjoying a bit of a meal surrounded by scenery that looked like Colorado and Wyoming. In this moment of quiet reflection, I began to realize that the magnitude of aviation experiences to be had is cumulatively becoming almost overwhelming. In my initial indignation at bureaucratic nonsense, a subtler enjoyment of the depth of culture and experience was not being noticed. Despite the seemingly anachronistic requirement to have this site license, it creates a situation where not many get to land there, so it is kind of special to be able to. That, and yet again I am nibbling on some food staring at this airplane, amazed how many places it has been. Besides, why would I expect the French, Spanish, or anyone else to care about what an American pilot thinks about their rules?

La Llagonne, France – 5600′ MSL

After getting the site licenses taken care of, any angst about independence evaporated. I made a plan, took care of all paperwork and other affairs that I could, and decided to stop caring. Shortly thereafter, I decided to enjoy a Friday afternoon and putz around the hangar on what was a hazy day unsuitable for photography. The warmth of the late October summery weather beckoned a flight around the pattern, so I decided to leave the cameras in the car and head up with the door open. During climbout, someone asked me “What do you think of the Republic?” “Republic? Did they declare independence?” “Yes, just now.” Figures, I have a moment of peace and a country is born beneath me.

Independence declared. I grabbed the camera and went flying, Urus, Catalonia.

For those that follow the news, the independence saga continues, a political drama that is by and large entirely unpredictable. That being said, I quit trying to predict it, and keep flying. Recently, a raging Tramontane wind coupled with a strong low between Corsica and Rome, creating furious winds that finally cleaned out all Catalonian haze, high and low. Once the winds calmed down, I decided to swallow my angst and conquer a flight I have not been able to do since I got here.

The Mediterranean is 54 nautical miles as the crow flies, yet is inexplicably one of the most complex routes, and that has nothing to do with airspace. Taking off at 3,609’ MSL, I have to climb to 7,200’ to get over terrain, then commence a step descent over terrain that looks like severe Appalachian hills: densely forested countryside with West Virginia-style curvy roads and few fields. These gnarly hills twist and snake, changing their form and working their way toward the Mediterranean plains, a cruise initially at 5,000’, which gives way to 3,000’ and then roughly 1,500’, as Barcelona’s airspace is overhead. Turning to cruise down the coast, terrain starts to act a bit like Big Sur, which cliffs adjacent to the ocean and terrain up to 1,200’ here and there close to the water, giving way to valleys that drop to sea level, containing developed areas. There is a lot of think about with regard to an engine failure, though the scenery is exquisite. All of these areas are absolutely filled with microclimates.

Climbing to 7,200′ MSL to leave La Cerdanya

Cruising at 5,000′ MSL

Descending to 3,000′ MSL

Mediterranean Coastal Plain. 1,500′ MSL cruising altitude.

Costa Brava, with Montseny in the background.

Not a good place for an engine to quit.

Tossa de Mar

Palafolls

Fueling was at a ULM field, Palafolls, a short field at sea level wedged amongst 10-foot swamp grass, which was an entertaining approach with unmarked high-tension lines, an elevated highway on short final, and a factory complex so large that the roof would have made a suitable emergency landing location. Taking off from there, I finally had a chance to fly around Massís del Monsteny, a 5,000’ hill east of Barcelona that frequently taunts me from a distance. Being so close to the Mediterranean, the hill almost always has sea haze or clouds making imagery unsuitable, except today.

After Monsteny, it was a descent down to 3,000’ to photograph the ridges west of Vic, which were uncharacteristically free of persistent fog and inversions. That gave way to cruise climb over West Virginia terrain, clearing a ridge at 5,200’ before giving full throttle for the climb through a downdraft to 7,200’ to clear Puigllançada, then descending alongside ski resorts in stiff wind, for a long final back to La Cerdanya at 3,609’.

Massis del Montseny near Barcelona. Note Mediterranean in far left background.

Cliffs west of Vic, 3,000′ MSL cruising altitude.

5,500′ en route to 7,200′, encountering light rotors off the hills.

Puigllançada to the left, at 7,200′ before descending into the valley to La Cerdanya.

It has been a historical enigma why I was averse to taking the flight in the first place, and yet that aversion was confirmed by how tired I was after 4.5 hours of flying over this route. It is easier to fly above timberline, in the Pyrenees or the Rockies, in the middle of winter, than this kind of flight. It is certainly the opposite of low and slow over farm country, and after some reflection, the level of complexity, terrain variation, microclimates, development, remote areas, and mix of coastal and mountainous terrain over a short distance makes it unusual, challenging, and rewarding. I would also suppose that while aviation is aviation, the sheer immersion of inputs and visuals in an exotic nation places more processing burden on the mind, as there is so much density of things to see and process, especially while flying over new surroundings in a place where sovereignty is, well, up in the air.

Speaking of flying above timberline, book #13 has been published: “Around the Summit: Flying Grand Teton.” It is an aerial photography manifesto of every nook and cranny of Grand Teton National Park, featuring my most technical mountain flying to date in 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.

General Aviation During a Revolution

There is a familiar conversation that has been happening with friends and family that goes something like this: “Yeah, we’re in Catalonia, but we’ve got a plan in case things go downhill.” “I thought you were in Spain.” “Yes, we’re in Spain, and in we’re in the breakaway region of Catalonia that had the independence referendum.” “You’re in Catalonia?” “Yes.” “Holy ****! You need to get out of there!”

Fortunately for us, we are in a rather rural, mountainous area, only 8 miles from France. As is true in most places of the world, civil unrest and its ill effects tends to concentrate in populated areas. We have made a contingency plan, stocking some extra cash, food, water, diesel, and supplies, have confirmed that our cell phones can roam to French towers from the house, and decided to wait it out, as nobody really knows what will happen. While Iberian culture can tend to drama and overreaction, they also use inertia and laziness as a tool of achievement. It could go either way at any time.

As the referendum approached, I decided that I would go flying on that day. If history was being made, there was a chance to be in the air and take some photographs of Catalonia while it was happening, though my expectations were not high of a new republic forming, given the cat and mouse game that preceded October 1. On that Sunday morning, I drove over to the airport, and noticed a few things: it was eerily silent, and then I saw two staff members glued to the television, watching the Spanish police use rather heavy handed methods against people waiting in line to vote. There was a palpable shock, sadness, and tension in the room that reverberated around the region that day.

I still went flying, even though things appeared to be going downhill. Airspace was only closed over Barcelona (not that there was much of a systemic way to find out, other than watching the news), and nobody said I couldn’t go up. If a revolution was unfolding, why not go flying? These situations do not come frequently in life.

October 1 – The Referendum

As the tension heated up, it was evident the “resolution,” if there was going to be one, would not be overnight. If history is being made, it is over the course of some days, and like everything else on the Iberian Peninsula, things are not finite, orderly, or predictable. Thus, I decided to keep flying daily during the “revolution” (if that is what it is), simply because I can, and to sort of make personal sense out of the upheaval going on around me. On one hand, culture here is quicker to take to the streets in protest, while on the other, people do not think it is as big of a deal as it is in America.

The flights continued daily as the vote was finalized, while the Catalan general strike took place and exits of La Cerdanya were blocked by protests, on the day of the King’s first speech since the terror attacks of 2004 and coup attempt in 1981, the day of the President of Catalonia’s speech in response, the day Catalan Parliament was called to convene in the future to discuss independence, the day the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the session, and now while we wait for the President of Catalonia’s speech at 6PM Central European Time on Tuesday. Will he declare independence, or step back from the brink? Time will tell.

Many Catalans think I am a bit nutty for getting our pets’ paperwork updated (in case of a border crossing), buying supplies, and generally taking stock of our preparation. They all insist nothing will happen, that the “Catalans are a peaceful people.” They also admit they never expected the Spanish police response, nor did they think Europe would stand by idly, yet they still assure me that nothing so severe will happen. “And if it does? Isn’t it a bit late to prepare?” At that moment, they finally admit that I would be screwed if there was a mad rush for supplies in the face of conflict.

These realities were cemented as I spoke this weekend to a neighbor, whose grandfather fought in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. He asked him “didn’t you see the war coming?” His reply: “No, we went to work the day before, thinking everything was normal. Then the war started.” This echoes conversations I have had with a number of older folks, some of whom have since passed on, that left Europe after WWII and settled in the area where I grew up in Upstate New York. Their lesson was always quite clear: things can change in a heartbeat, and they can descend into a level of madness that nobody expects. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Pearl Harbor, 9/11….need I say more?

The events in Catalonia, labeled “Europe’s most troubled region” by the press, touch on subjects that affect the entire developed world. Where does human rights end and the duty of unity of a state begin? How does the right to self-determination mix with national sovereignty? What role do larger institutions, treaties, and other countries play in the defense of a disenfranchised group of people? While the developed world has made progress on these fronts, we haven’t solved them all. They are questions worth pondering, and Catalonia will most certainly make an attempt at answering them in the coming days.

Over the last weekend, the region seemed to take some bit of a breather, despite continued protests in Barcelona for and against unity with Spain. A turbine-powered remote control aircraft festival was held at La Cerdanya aerodrome, attracting hordes of people from France, Italy, Catalonia, and the rest of Spain, bringing a welcome respite from the weightier matters affecting everyone. Clearly, for these people that came, aviation trumps the prospect of civil unrest, such that they would drive to a separatist region in a political crisis. For me, my disposition is unchanged: I am going to keep flying until someone tells me I can’t, and then I will find a way to do it anyway.

October 2 – The vote is counted. Flight over Moixeró ridge (~7,000′ ground elevation) with a strong north wind.

October 3 – The King’s speech. Flight to the French side, Val du Capcir. No political crisis here….

October 4 – Carles Puigdemont’s speech. The inversion returns now that fall is here. 5,400′ altitude.

October 5 – Spanish Constitutional Court suspends Catalan session of Parliament. First time this close to the rocks beneath Tosa d’Alp.

October 6 – Carles Puigdemont says he is speaking to Parliament on Oct 10 anyway. El Pedraforca (8,219′) – long a symbol of Catalonia.

Pedraforca from the car, infrared image.

October 7 – Things calm down a bit, other than ongoing and large protests in Barcelona. Local flight over a town where I spoke to locals on 10-1 and got an understanding of how the vote actually took place and the steps the Spanish Police took to try to stop it. I was mistaken for an undercover police officer briefly….

October 8 – Pretending nothing is happening. Posets-Maladeta park, 75 miles west of La Cerdanya, crossing into Aragon from Catalonia.

Found a small glacier hiding on the French side at 10,500 feet.

Landing at Castejon de Sos, Aragon, Spain. The field is extremely short, surrounded by mountains, and at roughly 3,000 feet elevation, making it my most technically complex landing yet. A shepherd holding two dead rabbits walked by, along with this herd of sheep. A Great Pyrenean sheep dog (not that ironic, given that I am in the Pyrenees) took to liking me and tried to herd me along with the rest of the sheep. This airport and experience will be one I will remember for a long time.

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.

Ratio of Work to Reward in Aviation

The last number of months have featured some form of long flight to highlight differences in international flying, whether it is something silly or the occasional time things work out well. With the coming of August, heat was relatively ongoing and oppressive, which also meant that haze levels were very high. Couple bad air with brown (“golden”) hues in most places due to our hot and dry summer, and the ingredients were not present for any useful distance flying. I did, however, fly a tremendous amount of times in August, staying local each time, enjoying some basic Cub flying.

That lends to an interesting idea, one that fuses the idea of low and slow Cub flying together with our anathema to user fees. The general concept in America is that there are user fees for every single action for a flight overseas; click the microphone and an itemized bill comes. While that can be the case in some places and some kinds of flying, there is a more insidious theory that comes in to play, and it does a great job of killing off pleasure flying: rigmarole and senseless requirements for basic flights.

I was going to use the word “bureaucracy,” as it implies unneeded steps to accomplish something, though it has an indelible relationship to paperwork. In the case of flying, not a lot of paper is changing hands in flight, though the concept of arbitrary and duplicitous steps to achieve something, which reality does not, in theory, require any of those steps, is conceptually equivalent. Europe adds nonsense into flight procedures, and that arbitrariness has a way of killing off the desire to go flying – whether or not those procedures involve paying a fee.

Most European airports have a landing fee. That means that every flight involves a visit to the office to pay said fee. In most cases, there is more than one thing going on, so a wait may be involved. Some airports need to have absurd amounts of detailed information about the flight, for which a full invoice must be prepared to comply with European tax rules. After that, payment with a credit card is another complex step, for which some airports will charge an additional fee (stopping now to recalculate the invoice due to the added fee). This extra 10 to 15 minutes is wasted, and is an anachronism separate from the financial impact of the fee itself.

Fortunately, my home field allows for unlimited takeoffs and landings for a monthly fee of €20, so I found a way to sidestep the flamenco dance of paperwork involved with going flying. However, Spain adds a new wrinkle that many other European nations do not: all flights to, from, or through controlled airspace require a flight plan. In that case, as I have previously mentioned, I have to firm up where I am going, which is directly opposite of the idea of Cub flying. I often set out with one thing in mind, keeping multiple alternates available, as visibility is localized, and despite the best of webcams and weather forecasts, reality means that laying eyes on the flight path is often the best indicator. Toss in filing from the Mac at home, activating by phone due to terrain obstructions, and having to contact control authorities–  by now I am tired talking about it. If one wishes to avoid towered fields, then calling in advance, on the day of the flight, is wise to ensure someone will show up to fuel the airplane, which is just as fatiguing. Even if they do bother to show up, it is often a long wait to get fueled. These machinations are opposite of the idea of flying with the door open at 60mph, which I why I stayed in La Cerdanya in August, out of controlled airspace. What is the point of the freedom of flying if it is suffocated with stupidity?

While Europe does a fantastic job of adding unnecessary requirements to simple flights, the concept there being a ratio of extra steps to misery holds true in America as well. There is a reason that those who fly a twin, a business jet, or an airliner smile when they see a Cub, and usually say something like: “That is real flying.” The sheer size and complexity of a panel on modern aircraft, with elaborate checklists, and a multitude of things that must be managed would mean that a pilot wouldn’t be looking out with the door open if he or she could in such an airplane, because there is too much to do (and all of those checklists would blow away). I recall from my complex aircraft training days: “BCGUMPFS” as a mnemonic for the final checklist. In the Cub, it is only “C,” carb heat.

We all make our choices of aircraft based on what we intend to get out of them. The point remains that a Cub represents a simplicity that translates into pure fun, whether in Europe or America. The thing about choosing an aircraft, and therefore an associated level of complexity, is that it is up to the pilot to choose the work/reward ratio. When it comes to certain international flying environments that are filled with superfluous requirements, that freedom is taken away from the pilot to choose, and imposed on everyone, and has the effect to dampen the desire to hop in the plane for a quick flight. What is a matter of aircraft design in America can morph into a more complex political and regulatory matter here. My caution is to be aware that complex flight requirements can be just as obstructionist to general aviation as a new fee.

August was a month filled with tons of flying, though all of it was local. I practiced the art of enjoying myself, as flying in Cerdanya is just like flying in America: open radio calls, a basic traffic pattern, and nothing else. Hop in and go, look out the window for airplanes, and look down below with the door open at cows grazing. Regardless of what it costs to get the plane in the air, I think the essence of general aviation requires the raw freedom of hopping in, taking off, and picking the path as one flies.

As my reminiscing for American aviation continues, I have released my 12th book “American Texture: Canvas from the Sky,” my first work covering a national subject. It contains images from all over the country of textures and patterns as taken from the Cub over a number of years.

All images below taken within 30nm of my home field in La Cerdanya, Spain.

Here I am ranting about a dry and hot August, and we did get snow at 9,000 feet during a brief and sharp cold snap….

Base leg runway 25. This is a motorcycle race, temporarily created between the wheat harvest and subsequent tilling a week later.

When the haze abated, the clouds rolled in.

Cumulo-granite. Tosa d’Alp (8,488 feet) – hill behind the house.

Somewhat clear – though haze is evident. Airfield in center right.

While it looks clear, note the haze below. This is during a strong Tramontane event, which creates serious mountain waves (with clear mountain air), and draws in the marine layer to lower elevations.

Tosa d’Alp again – with the infrared camera. I took up this medium of photography as it sees through haze.

Another mountain wave event – hazy below, dangerous above, ok in La Cerdanya.

Crosswind leg, runway 25, infrared.

Puigpedros – Andorra, France, and Spain in this image. Mountain peaks were clear, though haze was in all quadrants lower down.

Thunderstorm on the French side, infrared.

 

 

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.

Europe: The Case Against ATC Privatization

The mail here in Spain is a bit slow; thus, I get my AOPA Pilot magazine much later than in the United States, allowing for matters of aviation public discourse to blow over before I can offer my expatriate perspective. In the case of ATC privatization in the United States, I figured the proposal would evaporate, and ignored it, except for one sentence written by Congressman Bill Shuster (R-PA, Chairman of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee), who is pushing an ATC privatization effort: “While separating air traffic services from the safety regulator is commonplace and a best practice worldwide…” The words “best practice” have been ringing in my head for a few months, and I can’t forget them as I continue to experience some of the most ridiculous aviation shenanigans flying in Europe.

While separation of ATC from aviation authorities happens with some frequency, it is not unilateral here in Europe. Eurocontrol’s list of air traffic service providers indicates that the list is mixed where ATC is split off from regulatory agencies in Europe. As for the statement that this is somehow best practice, I will share a recent experience dealing with privatized ATC and privatized airport management in Spain, and allow the facts to speak for themselves.

Before I begin, I will note that Spain’s privatization structure is unique in that it represents the purity of a private for-profit entity mixed with a publicly owned hybrid corporation that purportedly represents the public’s interest over shareholders. This is the model that is being promoted in the United States: a non-governmental, hybrid, semi-profit interest entity split off from the FAA. ENAIRE is owned by the Spanish government, and is a separate corporation that is charged with all Spanish ATC services. ENAIRE, in turn, owns a 51% stake in AENA, which is an airport management firm that handles just about everything in passenger terminals and all towered airports in Spain, as well as performing similar services in many other countries. The rest of AENA ownership is publicly traded, which in theory makes this structure the absolute golden child of the privatization model: public interest mixed with the beauty and efficiency of free market capitalism.

My flight in question took me to Reus airport in Spain, situated outside of Tarragona. I intended to photograph the rice fields and salt ponds of the Ebro River Delta, as they are in prime season in the middle of summer. The day was fresh and cool in the mountains, with a Chinook (föhn in Europe) wind off the coastal hills, creating hot and dry conditions with a land breeze blowing Saharan dust and Mediterranean humidity out to sea. In other words, it was as good as it was going to get given that the delta is only green in the heat of summer, when haze is usually awful. I had made arrangements to meet up with an Irishman at the flying club in Reus for refueling, where we would fly together around the delta, and then I would refuel again for the flight home to the Pyrenees. While I do not like towered fields, I figured the minor amount of aggravation was worth it.

I had no idea what kind of nonsense I was getting into.

La Cerdanya, with strong mountain waves over the Pyrenees.

Muntanyes de Prades, coastal hills creating Chinook/föhn effect at the coast.

Waiting way too long for fuel. AENA: “We have jets. We don’t need you.”

 

Clearance to land was standard procedure into Reus, a single runway airport with some basic jet service for passengers and a small terminal. The Irishman had arranged “stand 34” for fueling, something I found odd, though I made a point to tell the tower I had a reserved stand for fueling, for which I was directed to follow the marshaller (wondering how much this would cost) to stand….13, one mile from stand 34. What followed was 15 minutes of phone calls and radio calls back and forth between the marshaller, operations, and the fuel truck, alternating between granting the approval for stand 34, back to staying at stand 13, to 34, to 13, and eventually… I waited 30 minutes in the sweltering heat, for which a fuel truck arrived at stand 13. After 15 minutes of filling out paperwork, I received fuel, and then had to wait another 15 minutes to complete payment: $14.26/gallon, and it took 90 minutes in baking heat for this nonsense. I then had to contact the tower for permission to taxi to the flying club, where the Irishman awaited near the gate, as AENA had designated the flying club outside of the security zone, requiring a motorized gate to access the taxiways.

I went in to the aero club to file my flight plan, as Spanish rules require a flight plan for all flights interacting with a control zone. I also filed the flight plan for later in the day for the return home, to make things simpler. Nowhere in this entire process did anyone mention a landing fee, and at this point, I was so annoyed that it was the airport’s problem if they didn’t communicate where to pay one, if it existed.

Departure consisted of taxiing over one mile, as the tower would not approve a takeoff at the B intersection (with half of the enormous runway), resulting in oil temps climbing from 100F to 160F by takeoff. Thankfully I was climbing only to 1000 feet AGL, so overheat would not be a concern, which it often is crossing mountainous terrain in the summer.

The flight itself was easy enough, as it was in uncontrolled airspace for the most part: two and a half hours of flying over the Mediterranean coast, and then back to Reus. Traffic was only mildly busy, with three airplanes at most in the circuit at any point, and a 737 lining up for a long approach. The winds were favoring runway 07, though the tower chose 25 out of convenience for the jets, creating a slight tailwind in a relatively stiff crosswind configuration. It was right on the border of the maximum I was willing to accept, and after the landing, I promised I wouldn’t do one again. There is a reason quartering tailwinds are a bad thing – they are unsafe, though the tower did not seem accommodating, and I was not in the mood to ask and get placed in a holding pattern for 20 minutes.
Costa Dorada, Spain

Heading out to sea to avoid nuclear power plant. 

Approaching the Delta.

Mussel harvesting.

Rice paddies.

Western end of the Delta – very similar to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Salt evaporation ponds.

Delta, again.

Apparently a sod farm.

Terminus of Ebro River, in infrared.

Terminus of Ebro River, visible spectrum.

Tarragona, Spain – old city. Note amphitheater in the coastal center. They are Roman ruins, as Tarragona was a provincial capital in the Roman Empire.

This time, I taxied right to the flying club, where we decided to arrange for fuel from there instead of while baking on the tarmac. As I was introduced to various flying club staff, I was told that the operations desk tried to cancel my flight plan due to nonpayment of a landing fee, and the flying club had stopped it for our prior flight, telling them that a member was onboard and it was a flying club flight. According to the lady behind the desk, this is the first time they had ever heard of such a thing. Basically, they would have cancelled the flight plan and the tower would have told me to taxi back, power down, and go in the office to pay. Excuse me, but where do I pay this fee? It involved a half mile walk, on a busy highway, outside the airport, back in via the passenger terminal, up an elevator, down a maze of corridors, to a room where three people were doing busy work, all in sweltering heat. The bill: $46.49 for two landings. Recall that nowhere was I told that there was a fee – not in the ENAIRE guide for the airport, not by the marshaller, not the fuel attendant, nor the tower. Even worse, the location to pay was simply impossible to find without hand holding by a kind soul, and even then, can we not see the punishment taking place? Obviously general aviation is not wanted.

I asked operations to delay my flight plan, as I was now in risk of cancellation, and had not fueled. It was 6:15PM, 45 minutes after landing. Surely 6:45PM should be enough, with an additional 30 minutes before it is cancelled?

From the flying club, stand 31 was reserved (there were no airplanes in any stands), and the Irishman walked out to open the gate so I could taxi and then park, standing in my required safety vest, which only made a hot day hotter. As I taxied by, a Frenchman was waiting near the gate for it to be opened so his friend could eventually taxi through, and he so poignantly stated: “This place sucks.”

I was assured by the flying club and the Irishman that fuel would be quick, as the fuel service promised it. I did not see a fuel truck for 45 minutes. I called the tower to delay my flight plan, again, and the tower told me to talk to operations. I asked the tower handle it, as by this point I was irritated, sunburned, hot, and at risk of not being able to get home by sundown. After calling operations multiple times, the fuel truck finally came, which meant 15 minutes of paperwork. I asked why there was paperwork, as I just did it earlier in that day, and the excuse was that his colleague “had not done it properly and now he has to enter it in the computer.” I asked why he had to enter it in the computer, as I have filled up at two other airports serviced by this company and clearly it was in one of the computers because I was charged on both my MasterCard and German Air BP card on the last fuel stop, even though I did not furnish my Air BP card.  “Yes, I see you filled up at Castellon, as its in here.” “Then why are you entering it again?” “Because I have to.” I expressed my discontent with how long I had been waiting, how long it took for him to show up, and how close I was to missing the flight home, and asked what he was doing for 45 minutes, as he clearly wasn’t filling up other airplanes. He insisted he only got one call and came running over, for which I asked why the tower, operations, and the flying club all confirmed they had relayed the request for fuel. “That’s AENA” was the reply I got.

After round one of the paperwork and my total lack of diplomacy was complete, along with turning the pump on, pulling out the ladder, and suiting up, the attendant looked at the tires and said, “I can’t fuel without wheel chocks!” “Wheel chocks? What are you talking about?” “I can’t fuel this plane without chocks!” “Do you have any?” “No.” “What kind of retarded thing is this? I didn’t need them earlier or at any other airport serviced by this company.” “They all did it wrong. I must have wheel chocks.” At this point, I turned into the ugly American that so stereotypically ruins it for everyone and unleashed a venomous vitriol (in Spanish), dramatically pulled out my portable aluminum wheel chocks, childishly slammed in them into the tires and told him: “There are your [insert uncouth descriptor] wheel chocks! Now fill up this [I won’t repeat it] airplane! This is the most incompetent crap I have ever dealt with, I am paying a personal record for avgas, and I am about to miss my chance to make it home!” Now actually aware there might be consequences for incompetence, the excuses started rolling out as the avgas was transferred into the tank, about how he is only doing his job, and so on, and he got quiet when my searing death glare was pointed at him. I waited another 15 minutes for the payment process, and got the heck out of there, barely making it home before sunset.

$14.26/gallon. 4 hours to fuel twice. $46.49 in fees. It took 9 hours to fly 75 miles, fuel, fly 2.5 hours, fuel, and fly 75 miles home, at a cost of nearly $300…..in a Cub that burns 4.2gph at full cruise. That flight would have cost $100 in America, and would have taken a little over 5 hours instead of 9.

Awaiting takeoff after second fueling. By now, the romance is gone.

Catalunya – on the way home as the sun is beginning to set. Infrared.

I am going to have to clear those clouds somehow with marginal daylight and poor flight service options. This is why I tried to leave hours earlier!

Around the clouds, up over an 8,500′ ridge, and we’re in La Cerdanya, where AENA has no influence.

This is not the only incident with AENA. Barcelona airport, the second largest airport in Spain, has had a scourge of up to 4 hours of security delays for passenger screening, for months on end, because they haven’t figured out how to schedule enough security staff. After grueling transatlantic crossings, passengers have had to wait up to 3 hours to clear customs, and AENA’s response to not scheduling enough officers is that ENAIRE did not tell them flights were coming into Barcelona. Recall that ENAIRE owns a majority interest in AENA, and AENA is publicly traded with accountability to public shareholder money.

ENAIRE controllers can make north of $200,000 per year in salaries. One group or another of AENA staff is on strike roughly 40% of the time my wife and I use Barcelona airport, including this week, where security staff have decided to strike, making hours long delays worse. This is international “best practice” where a special purpose entity separates ATC and airport management from the safety regulator, and where free market forces keep incompetence in check.

Supporters of ATC privatization would likely point out that this is simply a Spanish aberration. While culture is a factor in all countries, Spain is the most visited country in Europe, and the forces of global and European capitalism, much less publicly traded scrutiny and European heavy handed regulation have not been able to curtail the sheer stupidity. Germany has privatized ATC and flight service, and while they are organized, landing fees are high, iPad navigation services from all providers are expensive due to fees to DFS (German ATC provider) as sectional maps are not in the public domain, and flight service comes with a fee. I suggest reading prior blog posts to understand how Germany restricts freedom in other ways. France manages ATC through their civil aviation authority, and they are the nicest and most accommodating country I have flown in Europe so far. Yes, the French, who supposedly hate Americans, do everything they can, without fees, to accommodate an American barreling through their country in an N-registered airplane without speaking a word of French. The only I time I have been told “no” by French ATC is when my request conflicts with military operations.

Free market economics cannot punish Spanish stupidity, and civil aviation authorities managing ATC in France overcomes a prejudicial disdain for Americans. That should tell you something about the nature of these aviation management structures.

I should also point out that Europeans speak of American aviation as the best in the world, stated as a universally acknowledged fact. The rest of the world is looking to us as the model, and now there is a political movement brewing to copy global incompetence and stamp out American aviation supremacy. I don’t understand it.

There is also the matter, assuming this change would go through, of the economics. Privatizing a vast section of publicly-owned American assets demands the question of what they are worth. If a maximum price is earned during a sale to do the American people justice (as well as pad the federal budget), then the high amount of capital invested by shareholders will demand a competitive rate of return, determined by the marketplace, which will have to be recouped from consumers of the National Airspace System. That can only mean increased fees, which is unlikely to be offset by cost savings of such miraculous quantity necessary to equalize the difference. If, on the other hand, this section of the NAS is auctioned off at below market price, how can that be justified to the American people?

There is a misconception about Europe, particularly in America, that it is a quasi-communist nanny state with extremely high taxes and extreme government control, where basic needs are spoon fed to the masses. What people fail to realize is the privatization model is more prevalent here, especially with roads. In America, most roads are free of tolls. For me to drive to Barcelona and back to take a commercial flight, road tolls are in excess of $50. To cross France in a passenger car from Germany and return home costs over $150. These are free market private concessions, operating on the privatization efficiency model, and the fees are astronomical. Europe is filled with these kinds of structures, and anywhere they creep up in aviation, there is one surefire reality: high user fees and poor service.

Free market efficiencies from private industry require competition and a sufficient liquidity of customer base in order to engage the Corporate Maturity Cycle and push down prices. Concessions for commercial aviation offer no such competition, as we can see with the recent scourge of FBOs charging silly fees, and also with our case study of AENA. There is one AENA, and they simply don’t care. Secondly, general aviation will always have a fractional share of passenger traffic and flight operations relative to airline travel, which means that the volume of GA activities is inadequate to furnish cost savings, much less competition. Prices would only go up, access to GA would be restricted, or both. This is the reality of free market forces on public service in general aviation.

America is a world leader in publicly-owned national resources. National parks, roads, airports, coasts, much of the West, national forests, our airspace, and the like is owned by the public, with no fee for use for much of it, and that’s that. In my opinion, it is the vastness and open access to our national wealth that makes America “free” as we know it. To follow the model of densely populated nations with privatization models would give us the results that these nations have.

What I would suggest instead is that any lawmaker who is a pilot and thinks copying the European model is good thing come over here, rent a plane, and try to fly 500 miles in the land of “best practice” and see if they are still willing to sign their name to such an ill-founded and flawed idea.

 

 

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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