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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 7)

The Halfway Point

For many of the five and a half years of flying in Europe, I have had a complex sensation of extreme foreignness, as though I was pinching myself and waking up from a dream repeatedly. While that makes sense in the beginning, and in particular when seeing something new for the first time, the feeling continued to present itself with a ferocity, all the way into the late winter of 2021. Sometimes it would arrive after a long flight in the Pyrenees or Alps, where I was nearing an airport where I might have landed over 100 times already. In the last 20-30 minutes of a waning part of a three-hour flight, I would have this profound sense of comparing my American pilot years to what I saw outside the windshield, and it was hard for it to feel real.

Some of it was indeed pure exoticism. Another part was that the airplane I first rode around in at age 15 with my late grandfather, in the late 90s, landing over a washed-out culvert and under power lines in hillbilly country, is now the same plane I am riding in after viewing something like the Jungfrau. While flying in a foreign country is one thing; flying the family Cub in a foreign country is a dimension all on its own.

It did not end there. I felt a sense of exhilaration, awe, a tad bit of dread, some fear, and a brimming sensation that the whole thing was held together by a shoestring. That was an extrapolation of the dependencies for which I was basing epic jaunts into large, foreign mountain ranges: rugged airports, rugged terrain everywhere, few alternates, precise fuel realities, minimum day VFR aircraft, an old plane, variable maintenance infrastructure, foreign languages, and a mountain of challenges to face. It would only be natural for it to feel a bit like it could end at any moment. On the other hand, I could easily face those feelings right in flight, while I was having them: of all the challenges that truthfully exist, I have bulldozed many of them and they pose little risk. In fact, should the engine fail over the Alps and I have to land in some rough terrain, well, I’d rather it be in Switzerland than deep in the Rockies, as a helicopter would have it flown to the hangar by end of day.

Suddenly in winter to spring of 2021, those feelings went away. I thought it was odd, as nothing had really changed in my circumstances, other than a decision to cease paying attention to the mountain of worries and aggravations that could ruin one’s day in the future. I hopped in the plane, went flying, and that was that.

It raised a question: when have I or will I hit the point where the majority of my flying experience is in Europe instead of America? I pulled out the electronic logbook and went at it, splicing away, only to find out that the halfway point was yet well off. I calculated at that time that I would likely reach it sometime in 2022.

So, what lead to the sudden evaporation of worry and the strange foreign feeling? In late winter of 2021, I discovered a Swiss tradition of sorts, where the national aero club creates a “Flugparcours,” where pilots fly to 10 designated airports over the course of 6 months, have each landing stamped at the airport, submit the form, and get published in a list of pilots that have done it. For reasons I still do not understand, I decided that this activity was a good idea, and began it in earnest.

One thing led to another, and I was soon halfway done with the list, while also having visited several airports not on the Flugparcours list. That exposed that I had, until this point, not really gotten over a reality for GA fields in Europe: they are complicated. When I say “complicated,” I mean that one must do quite a bit of research to understand a seemingly endless list of vagaries, rules, approvals, and other considerations. One cannot glance at the sectional, note fuel marks around the airport icon, check NOTAMs, and hop on one’s merry way. It is wise to a) read multiple page AIPs written by the national aviation authority of the country in question b) check the website of the airport c) check reviews in iPad software d) check whatever ad hoc Wikipedia style repository might be in use by pilots in that country e) call ahead to make sure someone will actually be there for fuel and f) get approval if necessary (often in Switzerland).

What does all of this mean? The reality is quite succinct: Garrett avoided landing at other airports to the extent possible. If I got exuberant, I would usually have the beginnings of a brain aneurysm partway into the research process, give up, and take a long local flight in terrain that one has no reason to dislike. It did, however, explain why things felt so brittle, risky, and “foreign.” Once I got the hang of it, which is admittedly a fair amount of work, the process got easier, and things felt normal again.

Part of the work in pushing a personal boundary is learning the reality of the field in question, while building a bit of a personal relationship with the people involved. That helps for next time. Another part of the reality is attenuating one’s skills to reconfiguring the approach to VFR general aviation which, with practice, becomes a bit easier. I no longer have an aneurysm reading AIPs and working out the web of things to concern oneself with. It also helps to gain a comfort level that anything from Switzerland east likely runs smoother and stricter, while anything west and south of Switzerland is less likely to run smoothly while also rolling with things as they occur. The fuel attendant in France or Italy might have absconded during working hours, though somebody lurking at the airport will usually work an alternative. Just add a few hours…

What is interesting is that the halfway point snuck up on me faster than I expected. Suffice it to say that I have been flying a bit lately. Tuesday morning September 7th, somewhere over the Alps near the border between Switzerland and Italy, the clock rolled over without any fanfare. I had 895.3 hours when I left the United States. Now I had 895.4 in Europe. By the end of the day, it was 902.2 European hours, for a total just shy of 1800.

I am now officially more European of a pilot than an American one, even though it still feels a bit strange. It took 18 years to complete the first half in America, and less than 6 to do the same in Europe. It wasn’t the time or conquering airspace, licensure, maintenance, hangarage, schedules, fees, borders, languages, and cultures that made the place feel normal, but the total immersion into landing at foreign airports. If I could do it all over again, I would have forced myself to dive into the airport reality in the beginning.

Roughly the halfway point: Grand Goliat, Switzerland (10,623′), with Italy on the other side of the ridge and France on the right horizon. 

 

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.

Rotors on Takeoff

“Rotors on takeoff” is something of a nefarious phrase. Pilots are warned against it in particular airports where it is prone to occur, though nobody really talks about what happens if one finds him or herself attempting to take off in one. The general idea is to avoid it, and nothing in the conventional spectrum is said about how to manage the problem once in the rotor.

Less than 20 hours into my initial self-taught mountain flying experience based out of Leadville, Colorado in 2013-2014, I encountered my first rotors on takeoff. It was a, needless to say, “breezy” day, and I found myself at 200’, at full power, descending, with the airspeed indicator reading 40mph, 2mph above stall speed. Since it was a long runway, I had plenty of length left. Mildly alarmed, I said to myself, “well, it looks like I am preconfigured for landing again.” Within about 10 seconds, the reverse occurred. I was climbing and climbing faster than normal. About 20 seconds later, I was descending, so upon the next ascent, I decided to make a hasty exit in the opposite direction, for which I had the joy of watching pine trees scream by a little too close than I would have liked as I went back into the rotor briefly. The rest of the flight featured a first-time jaunt into mountain waves over the Rockies, where I rode the roller coaster from 12,000 to 15,000 feet and back, whether I liked it or not, no matter if it was idle or full power, or what direction I yanked the stick toward. The flight home later that day was uneventful in Leadville.

The next time something similar occurred was in Spain, at La Cerdanya. Unusually strong winds were blowing locally (and unknown to me) over the ridge to the south, and I was abruptly startled by a 200’ AGL descent at full power, this time at 3800’ MSL instead of 10,200’ MSL (with the same airplane, of all things). The descending air went away, and I carried on like nothing had happened.

The latest occurrence was an interesting one. It started with an unusual itch to go flying, though as I drove to the airport in Saanen, Switzerland, I had this nervous energy I couldn’t dispel. I thought the situation through, asking myself if I was in a good frame of mind to fly, if it was a bad day weather-wise, and I concluded that the weather was fine, and I had some lingering perseveration upon some business matters that just needed to be ignored.

Before I go any further, I should note that the same thing would happen in the Pyrenees. The weather would clear, the winds would be relatively calm, forecasts would indicate nothing that couldn’t be handled, and I would gleefully drive to the airport with this strange nervous overload. As I got slammed around by angry, snaking, localized winds in flight shortly thereafter, I came to understand that I have some peculiar ability to emotionally express the representation of my weather observations by getting anxious, while convincing myself everything was fine. Eventually, I learned to listen to that internal nervous energy and avoid certain parts of the Pyrenees if I felt that way.

Well, this wasn’t the Pyrenees, I hadn’t felt like that in ages, and I was going flying. It might have been a tad breezier than I normally would have liked, though it was down the runway, and everything would be fine. The wind situation was a rare summer “Bise,” which is a mildly humid, cold, and persistent northeast wind that funnels between the north side of the Alps and the Jura Mountains. It blows quite angrily through Lausanne to Lake Geneva, where things are open, though usually gets quite obstructed in the Oberland. I figured it would be just like other events and decided to head above the clouds as upper-level winds with the Bise usually are not turbulent, even if strong. Full disclosure: I went flying the day before, above the clouds, and upper-level winds per GPS were a smooth 40kts while the forecast said 20kt. The forecast for this day said 20kt at 10,000 feet.

Within 5 seconds of taking off, that nervous energy was proven correct. I hit the upward side of the rotor at 50’ AGL and went up like a rocket. I instantly knew what was happening and yanked the stick to milk the ride for everything I could get, which lasted a short period before cresting and descending rather startlingly for 3500’ MSL and full throttle on a cool day. With a smirk, I rode it until the next wave up, thinking I would progressively end up higher on the crest of each wave. When I started descending the second time and upward motion delayed longer than before coupled with the end of the runway approaching and a general slight increase in terrain ahead, I briefly contemplated attempting a rejected takeoff and doing a wild aggressive slip and brake screeching landing. Opting against that risk, I pressed forward, turning toward the path of least resistance, as the rotors started to even out.

That presented a progressive change in wind direction, where a headwind became a strong tailwind as the winds had to go around a massive mountain to my right. I was concerned about lethargic climb performance as that worked itself out, which was an accurate reality though not as risky. As the airplane picked up speed, I eventually began a normal climb out, proceeded above the clouds, and frolicked around towering cumulus to FL20 and mountains that reached 12,000’ to almost 16,000’, all with little turbulence and much less energy. Curiously, winds were 25kt below the 7,500’ cloud deck and 10kt at high altitudes.

The return trip was something of a question. How would these rotors work out on final approach and landing? Terrain is quite tight and interesting in this neck of the woods, with an issue that the Cub ends up too high. On final, I was alternating rapidly between idle power and 2200 RPM, with enough headwind that I had no trouble bringing it down before the numbers without a slip. That was a first in my flying career, to hop between cruise and idle power repeatedly on final.

Afterward, I blamed the scare on my underpowered airplane coupled with my intransigent insistence upon operating this inadequate aircraft from 1949 in prodigious terrain. Perhaps I ought to get a “real” airplane so stupid things like this do not happen? A charter PC-12 landed just ahead of me, so I chatted with the first officer, assuming that the PC-12, with all its power, certainly would not have had the interesting ride that I did. He confirmed that they had a similar experience initially as I did, with the rotors stopping their climb performance where they “had no choice but to ride it out.” What about final? “We were alternating between the stall warning and high amounts of power.” 100 hp vs 1200 hp. 1949 vs 2021. VFR vs IFR. EASA regulated charter operation versus vagabond foreigner in a taildragger. It makes no difference. Rotors are rotors on takeoff.

I decided to publish the video as, while actual hazards are a problem in aviation, the other half is poor decisions made when reacting to them. I have never read any sort of official, conventional, or generally accepted advice about rotors on takeoff, other than that they are bad. In my case, I have never experienced them at this airport. Why did they come out in full force on that day? When will I get surprised again?

As for what a reader might do when encountering the same problem in their aircraft, well, watch the video and decide for yourself. I am not willing to state that one should simply ride them out or do a rejected takeoff. It depends on the pilot, the airplane, the situation, and the airport. It is probably best to avoid them though.

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.

Closing time

It finally happened.

After 817.9 flying hours and 627 landings in Europe, the closing time snake has bitten.

For those unfamiliar with my previous rantings, “closing time” is uniquely something one finds common outside the United States. Airports of all kinds, from the smallest grass strips to full fledge airline hubs, generally have a closing time, where landings are forbidden until specified opening times the next morning. While I am generalizing, it is important to note that each country in Europe has differing flexibility around the schedule and significantly different enthusiasm for, and penalties resulting from, enforcement of violations.

I was initially greeted in Germany with this reality, along with the fact that closing time is not to be messed with. Fines run into the thousands of euros. France has a typically middle of the road attitude about it and Spain, as usual, is either too disorganized to do anything about it or wildly overreacts in narrow situations. For all the flights in the Pyrenees, I am fairly certain that I could have landed at midnight, and nobody would have cared.

Switzerland’s reaction to violations is airport dependent. If it is a safety-of-flight issue, then they are remarkably considerate. If the local commune is particularly sensitive and it is a home base airport, one may find his or her hangar tenancy at risk for repeat offenses. I have been told that an after-hours landing in Sion would come with a $550 invoice in the mail. I get the impression that such negative attention is something that one would not want here.

There is also the matter of insurance. My policy has this “feature” that is sold as a benefit: after hours landings are covered, provided the airfield operator approves them in advance. That, in effect, means there is also no insurance coverage for after-hours landings that are legal violations.

Naturally, that leaves closing time as a loudly prominent reality in the mind of a general aviation pilot. As I prefer late afternoon to sunset flights, I am usually staring at the bullseye of a to-the-minute reality of when the tires must be on the ground. For most airports, it is 30 minutes plus or minus “HRH,” which is published evening civil twilight. There is usually a maximum time, despite the HRH connotation. In the case of Saanen, it is 8:00PM, which translates into an “easy” 8PM closing time from early April until late September. In the winter, it is a sliding scale based on when the sun goes down, which means checking the published time as it differs slightly day by day.

On this flight, I wanted to land at Münster, an airport high up in the Obergoms, smack in the middle of the Alps. It is only open June 1 to August 31 of the year, so it was time to enjoy it while I could. Since it is less than 50 miles as the crow flies, the concept of landing and paying $32 for it was something of an anachronism, so I decided to tote a jerry can in the backseat to transfer upon landing. That would allow an extension to my normal one fuel tank limit to local flights. The result was a rather splendid jaunt up the valley to Zermatt, around the glaciers at the base of the Matterhorn, and then a tepid meandering to the Obergoms.

The airport is particularly delightful on the ground. The views are world class, and the Rhône River, a few miles from its glaciated source, rushes by right next to the field. In prior visits, I find myself standing in quiet repose, taking it all in, wishing the airport was open year-round, as I would buy a house in that valley and live there. Alas, it is not to be, so I gaze at the rushing water, wooden bridge, and wonderful Alps.

Then I look at the time and scurry to the airplane to get going, realizing that 8:00PM is staring me in the face.

The Bernese Alps are a complex mountain range weather wise, particularly in the summer. There are often towering cumulus, induced by terrain and the heat of the day, with sometimes unpredictable realities. A “10% chance of a shower” at the airport might mean mist all afternoon five miles away at the ridge, which then means finding an ideal location to make the crossing, find a hole, and get under the soup, all of which will evaporate at sunset anyway.

The clouds were in full force on the north side on this fine afternoon. My instinct said to go over the Grimselpass, a few miles to the northeast of Münster. I could partially see that I could sneak over at a lower altitude, instead of having to climb to 14,000 feet and wedge between clouds, which would surely put the nail in the coffin regarding closing time.

The first problem was that I couldn’t climb for about four minutes at 5,400’ MSL (1,000’ AGL). Heading east bound at full throttle, the winds were coming down the pass, arcing down the Obergoms valley, descending as they went. That lost some minutes until I found where they were going up, which was a 3,000’ FPM hair-raising ride from 5,400’ to 8,500’, where I found a gap between orographic clouds below over the pass and a solid cloud deck above. I dove between the hole and aimed for the Brienzersee, hoping to fly over Interlaken and then westbound.

One look at GPS groundspeed said everything: 51kt. That meant a 20-25kt headwind, which was not forecast. Winds at 10,000 feet were supposed to be 10kt; however, they were funneling over the pass, which meant a nice long flight down a veritable tube. As I came around the bend at Innertkirchen, Grosse Scheidegg had a meager opening, so I aimed for it, hoping to shave a few minutes off the flight by snaking down some tight valleys (in light of the overcast at 7,900 feet). Since I know the mountains very well, it didn’t bother me. Had I been new to the area, it would have been unnerving.

I had the subtle inclination I would be late. I formally entered the destination into my software: ETA: 20:04. Phooey. I applied maximum cruise power and aimed, with the cleanest, straightest, riskiest passing over the tightest little passes that I knew very well. 20:04, 20:05, 20:06, yet only 29 minutes away. Fiddlesticks.

As I passed over Grindelwald, under a solid cloud deck, something unexpected happened: the Jungfrau exploded into view, as there was an orographic gap in the clouds. In that moment, I decided “forget it,” applied full power, and aimed to climb above the clouds.

In one of my rainy-day musings on my iPad, I had discovered that, during the summer, a nearby airport at Zweisimmen is open to HRH + 30, maximum 22:00, which meant that I could land there without being past closing time. It had a Prior Permission Required aspect, though private/PPR airports are listed for safety purposes, and one is allowed to divert without permission. I checked NOTAMs in flight (none) and said to myself: “A lack of PPR must be less of a problem than late” and, with that, decided to enjoy sunset light that I never get to see at this time of year.

It was resplendent to cruise above the 10,000-foot cloud deck, southwest along the face of the Bernese Alps, partially illuminated by the warm colors of a summer evening in the Alps. As I checked train schedules and what not in the air, I realized the whole affair would result in getting home two hours late with 30 minutes of walking. With the views that I had out the windshield, it didn’t bother me one bit.

The next day, I returned to get the airplane, and the chief of the aerodrome introduced himself and asked casually what happened to lead to a landing without a PPR. I explained the headwind and closing time, and he was very reassuring that I made the right decision. I mentioned that I might sometime wish to take a sunset flight to get some good summer light, intentionally leaving the airplane for the night. He said, “No problem. Call me and you’re welcome anytime.”

When considering rules in Europe in isolation of everything else, it can cause quite a headache, if not some snarling and ranting. One flight in the Alps in the right conditions is enough to calm all that down and make it not matter.

Saanetschpass – roughly 8,400′.

Raron Airport below in the Rhône River valley. Obergoms turns to the distant left.

I went right instead. Zermatt Valley. Riedgletscher in the upper left.

Some tight flying, even for a Cub. One must be on the lookout for helicopters, gondola cables, and paragliders whilst not flying into any mountains.

Zermatt, with the Matterhorn behind.

North slope of the Matterhorn, from roughly 8,900 feet. Effectively a box canyon down here, with what proved to be persistent downdrafts.

Zmuttgletscher, after doing a 180, getting some altitude, and coming back in. Still ran into more downdrafts.

Snuggling with the Triftgletscher on the way out.

Festigletscher, when I probably should be thinking about closing time.

Bottom end of the Obergoms. Fietscherletscher is in the distant left. I wanted to go in there but opted not to for closing time reasons.

Münster Airport, center right (not the distant field, which is decommissioned). 

One can understand lingering here.

Attempting Grimselpass. Need to get over the clouds below but under the ones forward/above. The pass goes to the right.

Seems to have worked. Delightful forced landing locations.

“A nice long flight down a veritable tube.” 20-25kt headwind.

Coming around the bend. Grosse Scheidegg in the bright area to the right.

Crossing Grosse Scheidegg. GPS says I will be late.

As ETA ticked upward and the clouds cleared, I decided a) to divert and b) to enjoy myself in the process. Mönch and Jungfrau bursting into view. Life is good.

This is a cloud deck worth getting above.

…Which I did. Life at 10,000 feet.

Gemmipass, with the Matterhorn peaking above the clouds on the horizon.

The soup I had originally intended to go under, squeezing between cloud bases and mountains. More fun up here.

Steghorn (10,321′).

All things come to an end, in particular one’s quantity of fuel. Zweisimmen, with the train station on the left.

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.

Emotional Distance

While we tend to measure distance literally in the space between two points, the concept of “emotional distance” is something that has come to the forefront since I began flying in foreign countries. The concept is rather simple: long flights tend to involve more work, skill, risk, and complexity. Accordingly, if we have not done something ambitious before or are younger pilots, then those flights seem riskier and potentially difficult. Add such things as major metropolitan airspace, large mountains, wilderness areas, and large bodies of water and one gets the idea. Our emotional response to the distance involved is proportional to the actual distance.

The first time the reality hit home for me that emotional distance does not always equate to actual distance was in the US while flying over Yellowstone. Something about an entirely forested, bear inhabited plateau with few good emergency options, elevation of over 8,000 feet, large lakes, sulfuric boiling ponds of liquid, strong winds on the north and east outlet points, and some distance to airports stacked up to make me tense before I would take a flight over the place. Other than that, many ambitious flights in the US were correlated to how long they took.

Europe is self-evidently more complicated from an airspace standpoint, though that is only the beginning. Terrain and climate zones change much faster in areas bordering the Mediterranean than the Continental US. Add in obvious national borders, lower airport density, a very complex airport network, and now one can understand why a flight of a similar distance feels infinitely more complicated, almost as though it is literally much farther away.

Those factors one can desensitize to over time, as I have partially done. There are still some flights, generally involving major mountain ranges, where it seems entire worlds change in a short period of time. While the element of national borders, climate zone changes, and airspace are real, there is something almost intangible about it. The first time I experienced it was flying from Pic Canigou, France to the Mediterranean coast. In the space of 20 minutes, I went from snow in the Pyrenees to palm trees adorning the beach. It is hard to grasp such a massive change so quickly.

Before coming to the Alps, I noted on the map how interesting things seemed down on the Italian side of the range. It is technically not that far, though one must go up and over the Alps, transitioning from Central European weather to mountains and then straight into the Mediterranean. While it can be done if the forecast is right, there was still something seemingly “distant” about it, to the point that, I had not done it. Many times, I had flown along the southern ridge of the Alps, given pause not by the glaciers I was above, but by looking down into Italy, trying to get my head around the complexity of going from one side of the range to another.

I decided to knock the item off my list, saving the aggravations of customs by flying from the northern side of Switzerland to the Italian-speaking section of the country. On the south side of the Alps, it is a section of the country that protrudes into Italy. Geographically and linguistically, it’s the same. Politically, maybe not so much.

The intended flight path was only 77 nautical miles direct, with a refueling point in Locarno, before returning a slightly different way. I planned to fly along Lake Maggiore in Italy and take a different pass coming back, so the actual flights would end up roughly 130 miles each, by no means very long. Then again, I grew up about the same distance from Lock Haven and we never did fly there. My grandfather bemoaned that it was “too far away” and “there is nowhere to land in those forests in Northern Pennsylvania.”

Climbing out from Gstaad Airport.

Over the pass between Lenk and Adelboden.

The Gasterntal, just before crossing Gemmipass to my right.

Brig and the Obergoms.

Simplon Pass.

The friendly little Rossbodegletscher.

Approaching Italy.

Italy, near Varzo. 

Toce River south of Domodossola. I went from cold with my winter coat to flaming hot. Flying at 2,500′ MSL.

About to leave the foothills of the Alps.

Lago Maggiore!

I have resigned myself to getting wet if the engine quits. Not like the shorelines of this body of water are inviting…..

Locarno Airport. Note that there are three runways. I was cleared to land runway 26 center. It has come to my attention that this is my first landing at an airport with more than one parallel runway.

Maggia river on climb out. My flight path was to follow the Maggia and hang a left at the Bavona River, then over the ridge toward Grimselpass.

Working my way up the valley.

Looking back from where I came.

Approaching the ridge and, uh-oh, some showers and small thunderstorms on the other side. Perhaps this “emotional distance” business is rather real.

Annual snowpack with the Ghiacchiaio del Basodino glacier at the top.

Obergoms again. My outbound path was right to left almost to the horizon. Note Ulrichen closed airport bottom left, and Munster Airport a little off center in the valley. That would be an alternate if need be.

Oberaargletscher. The holy trinity: thunderhead, glacier, and deep snow.

The Grimselpass, relatively low at 7,099′, was blocked by the towering clouds to the right. I had to climb to 12,500′ to sneak over the Bernese Alps ridge.

While it looks pretty awful, radar and other observations indicated it should be ok just on the other side.

Looking back. Note the glacier on the bottom right.

Well past the ridge, looking back. Grindelwald is hiding in the black on the right. 

Diverted around Interlaken due to a growing shower. Aiming for the sunny Swiss Plateau and take it from there.

After some lovely lightning bolts, the storm began to move to the south. Thunersee. Alternate airport just out of sight to the right, bathed in sun.

Approaching the circuit. While some 10,000 foot peaks are clouded in to the left, Saanetschpass in the center was open apparently. Clearly there is some reality behind the complexity of crossing the Alps and landing. Total flying time: 4.5 hours. Arrive-at-the-hangar to leave-the-hangar time of 7 hours.

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.

What’s wrong with this picture?

An excellent artifice to take stock of the status of one’s situation as a pilot is to focus on what one is excited about. We all know what it was like to tell war stories as a student pilot about light to moderate crosswinds, which was at the time the most exciting thing to happen in an airplane. It would be natural to assume that a regularly active pilot would have more and more adventures under his or her belt, so the level to which something becomes exciting or novel would elevate.

I would expect that proposition to be linearly true if I stayed in the United States. I would have likely dragged the Cub well into Canada and possibly Alaska by this point, ratcheting up the adventure component, not-so-ironically flying in mountains that look quite like the Alps, and then some. As that did not happen, it exposes some additional dimensions which, as I have alluded to, do not always open the mind.

The first thing that caused me to wonder if I need some sort of psychological assistance is the practice of getting excited about my monthly invoice for my home-based airport. I have various photography and logging methods that keep track of flying, which means that every one to three months, I go back and update the official logbook. Thus, I don’t precisely recall where and when I went flying; I just go and let the chips fall, which they do in this case in the form of a monthly bill. The absolute perversion is that I have gotten to the point where I am excited if the bill is higher! For the month of April, it was “only” $192.31, which meant I went flying “only” seven times. My record is $274.73, which is ten times in a month, which I seem, again, perversely determined to break.

The second thing that raised an eyebrow is how I have convinced myself that I am now Indiana Jones with my landings at non-home-based airports. As I have ranted about before, European airports as a whole, country notwithstanding, tend to have a wide variety of categories, with a cornucopia of unique rules, charges, operating hours, and aggravations. The bottom line is that one cannot do what I used to do in the US: a flight briefing checking weather and TFRs for the whole area, NOTAMs for the intended refueling point, and then change my mind in flight (checking the AF/D and NOTAMs in the air). Here, much more research is involved and, in the case of Switzerland, PPRs (Prior Permission Required) are generally the norm, except for towered airports. That means picking something and sticking to it, with its attendant planning steps.

Since the last post, I landed at three other airports. Emotionally, it feels like I am some sort of ace pilot maverick though, much like my glee at how high I can ratchet a landing fee invoice, it has a certain perversion of logic to it. I recall days in the US where I landed at more than three different new airports in a single day. For that matter, I landed at four in one day in France on the escape from Germany in 2016, and at three each day for two days in a row while crossing from the Pyrenees to the Portuguese Coast in 2018.

I did recently experience the dreaded nightmare that caused this inertia. One of the things I am afraid of is either landing at a field and realizing that I broke some rule, or down to reserve and finding some reason why I cannot get fuel. There is another reality that prevents trying in the first place: PPRs. The first PPR I ever obtained required filling out a form on the web and waiting for email permission to land. Fortunately, it came within the hour, before the intended maintenance flight later that day. Somehow, I thought they all were like this, and I thought to myself: “How on earth am I ever going to go anywhere if I must get permission the day before, or if I don’t know if and when they will reply?” In my insistence to conquer this problem in the last two months, I forced myself to deal with it and found that each airport is different. Most are a quick phone call where they jot down the tail number and are rather flexible, which resulted in getting comfortable.

Not so fast! The day in question was after a long period of bad weather, in advance of a raging windstorm due the next day. There was going to be some “south Föhn,” which is problematic where I wanted to go. I wasn’t sure how much of this Föhn was going to blow, though the intended airport of Bad Ragaz is known as the worst in Switzerland for when south Föhn is blowing. Sure enough, it was a bit frisky that morning, so I devised an alternate. That resulted in a bunch of phone tag the morning of the flight to arrange a PPR. As I thought about it, every flying club aircraft in Switzerland was in the air at that moment. A perfect summerlike day in Spring, with impeccable visibility, no wind, and good glider lift? The PPR guy would obviously be out fueling and running around managing a litany of airplanes (that got their PPR the day before). I eventually chose candidate number three, for which the same thing happened, so I found number four, that had a phone recording PPR and the AIP said avgas was available for visitors on weekends. Just in time, airport number three called back, and I visited there some hours later.

While I can be descriptive as to the logistical vagaries belying my disproportionate excitement over landing at three other airports, it really is a reminder that something is wrong with this picture that I am excited with only three in a month. Since there is nothing one can do about the airport network, I am going to have to ratchet up the determination to untangle the situation and, at times, get the motivation up to snuff to keep at it.

The third reaction this month to my flying that I found interesting relates to two separate flights: one to above the summit of Mont Blanc (summit: 15,771’ flight: 16,200’) and a second flying in and out of the upper glacial valleys of the major glacier basins in and around the Aletschgletscher. Both of those were incredibly calming and pleasant, “how flying is supposed to be.” I recently had a way to drive this point home when chatting with the airport attendant at Reichenbach. I mentioned how “flying in this very south Föhn wind at the summits does not bother me. It is the airports, ATC, traffic, and turbulence down low that is a problem.” It’s funny how having to explain it to someone else coalesces the whole thing.

Much like how normal pilots find dread from the landing fee invoice while regularly flying outside of the wilderness conveniently and safely enjoying airspace and airport services, they tend to find flying over glaciers and wind shorn summits to be mildly disconcerting. I suppose it took reviewing what I find exciting and noteworthy to take stock of the whole thing. Despite my oft stated rationale behind it, I am not an Indiana Jones pilot for landing at three new airports in a month.

One of the rare opportunities to run errands using the Cub and have it be worth the time.

Thunderbolt Display successfully delivered to the Apple repair shop. Now don’t lose an engine climbing out from Lausanne. So far, Lausanne Airport is the closest to general aviation procedurally to the USA, as it is uncontrolled and public (no PPR).

Vierwaldstättersee, the site of getting beaten by south Föhn winds in February. I flew down the lake and into the valley this time.

Tight quarters however not an issue when the wind is out of the north.

Fuel. The only thing that gives away that its not in Wyoming is the ‘propeller whacking a head’ warning sign in German. Triengen.

Why Bad Ragaz was out of the picture. A breeze over Eiger and Mönch, which was translating into south Föhn in places.

And now the relaxing stuff. Mont Blanc (15,771′) from below.

From 16,200′ with Aosta Valley in the background.

Finsteraarhorn (14,022′) from the south. 

Finsteraarhorn from the north.

 

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.

An Irrational Fear of Airports

The issue with airports in Europe has been a cumulative problem since my arrival. While I had an initial burst of enthusiasm (delusion) in Germany, the situation calcified in Spain with a near phobia of airport chaos, such that I didn’t land outside of my base airport for over six months. Eventually, I snapped out of it and settled into a middle ground.

As previously described, the problem resurfaced in Switzerland. Ironically in this case, my first forays here were met with a similar enthusiasm, where I landed at a few technically challenging locales. I was so starstruck with the Alps that I was willing to dive in and figure things out as I went. That lasted for a while, until a combination of COVID and calcification of the mind caused the problem to come back.

Sure, a slow plane with one tank coupled with legitimate extra steps for airport visits in Europe does contribute to the problem. The other is a sort of mindset that creeps in imperceptibly, where it becomes simply easier not to. While there are plenty of places to visit in a reasonably short range, over and over a line of reasoning developed: why go to these places, put up with complicated and unique procedures, and pay a bunch of fees, when I don’t really need the fuel where they are located, and I can fly in the Alps instead? Who would have thought that stunning beauty would be an excuse for lazy closemindedness?

Like Spain, where it was the month of March where a complex web of seasonality and biology likely interacted to cause an exit from “airport hibernation,” it was this month of March where I equally and suddenly snapped out it. Sure, I had visited Wangen-Lachen (LSPV) near Zürich in February (terrifying myself with south Föhn winds), though that really in my mind was an errant dose of exuberance that changed little. I had terrain I badly wanted to see and forced myself to test out the place as a fuel stop.

A funny lineage led to this new reality. I had been invited to join the Fluggruppe Saanenland, a small club of pilots in the local area. After sending in a membership form, I received audited financials, bylaws of the Swiss verein, and a small invoice; the Swiss are, if anything, orderly. After receiving a few newsletters in German, I eventually received a few small magazines from the Aero Club Berner Oberland, which is apparently the regional parent club for the small group that I had joined. Many months after that, I started getting “Flying Revue,” a magazine in German from Aero Club Schweiz, the national aero club, which is apparently higher on the totem pole than the regional club. When the second magazine arrived, I thought to myself “this is not going to be free.” Sure enough, an invoice in German came two weeks later, for which I could not tell if it was an actual bill, or one of those membership solicitations where the invoice is included for “ease of joining.” It dutifully listed my involvement in Fluggruppe Saanenland and Aero Club Berner Oberland, with specific nominal surcharges associated with each. Given the reasonable amount and my disinterest navigating the situation in German, I paid it. That resulted in the next magazine, where there was an article about “Flugparcours 2021.”

Apparently, at the centenary of Swiss aviation in 2010, there was a similar Flugparcours, where pilots would fly to ten airports in Switzerland in honor of the anniversary. It was repeated every two years since. While I am not sure if said Flugparcours is the exact same ten airports or if they vary, there is a form with all the airports, a place to enter details, receive a signoff that a visit was completed, and a deadline to get it done by October 2021. Apparently, if I do complete it successfully, I send the form in and I get added to a list.

For some reason, that did it. I decided to get off my rear and start visiting some other places, for the simple reality that landing at other airports can actually be something other than mind-bendingly complicated. Besides, if there is a national scheme to encourage landings at these places, surely they will not snarl at the idea of visitors?

I knocked two of them off: La Côte (LSGP) and Neuchâtel (LSGN). Ironically, Langen-Wanchen is on the list, so three are done. I also decided to start work on my instrument rating, so I flew to Yverdon-les-Bains (LSGY) to meet with an instructor, although it was not on the Flugparcours list. It is ironic that visiting other airports is a reminder that landing at the same base airport over and over (and nowhere else) is NOT good for making smooth landings….

While meeting with the instructor, I began snarling about PPRs (Prior Permission Required), and he had an excellent explanation, which was accented by having spent many years in the USA, so he is familiar with my American-centric perspective. Basically, all of the PPR airports are private. While they look and act like public airports (maintenance facilities, fuel, flight schools, paved runways, etc.), they are under tremendous regulatory pressure if they were to operate officially as a “public” airport, which comes with insurance, noise, and other complications. It is a form of ducking under onerous rules to operate privately. For some reason, I had deduced that the PPR requirement had something to do with FOCA statistics, and it does not. Most airports I have talked to just want a quick phone call, tail number, and aircraft type (to verify the visit is not ill advised) and that’s the end of the PPR issue.

At any rate, I have set my mind to visit the rest of the list. And, while I am at it, why not visit the ones that aren’t on the list? We’ll see.

I mistakenly pressed the wrong button and got a 10x time lapse video from my Go Pro. Below is a 4 minute rendition of the flight from Gstaad Airport (LSGK) to La Côte (LSGP).

Climbout from La Côte. Unsurprisingly, that means “the coast.”

Right hand downwind for Neuchâtel. The body of water is Lake Neuchâtel.


Climbout from Neuchâtel, with the city of Neuchâtel along the lake. In the event of engine failure, one’s options consisted of impacting a hard object or getting wet.


Climbout Yverdon-les-Bains.


Some exploits in the past month that didn’t necessarily involve other airports….

Jura Mountains from France. Geneva airport is in the center, along with the Large Hadron Collider lurking amongst all this farmland.

Bütlasse. It has been a bit cold this March in the cockpit…

Sunset on the Spitzhorn, with a 35 knot breeze.

Mt. Blanc, France (15,771′) from above Chamonix. Visiting another airport is not necessary to see this. 

Grosses Engelhorn. No airport stop necessary…

Summit of the Matterhorn (14,692′) with Dufourspitze (15,203′) in the background. This does not bother me as much as airport gymnastics.

Doldenhorn with a bit of a breeze from roughly, 12,400 feet. It is almost comical that flying in such a circumstance is rather relaxing whereas I have to reach deep down to find the motivation to overcome my reticence to land elsewhere….

Book #30 is done: Pobles de la Cerdanya. It is a photo journey of unique villages in Spanish and French Cerdanya, viewed over multiple years 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.

Flying in the Alps is That Dangerous

This post is a follow up both to last month’s, where I bemoan the aggravation of landing at other airports, and November 2020, where I posit the idea that flying in the Alps really isn’t that dangerous. I seemed to have turned both ideals on their head in one afternoon of flying.

As noted previously, there is a reality that Swiss airports require a filing either of a flight plan or a “flight notification” indicating details where one is going. Non-towered airports tend to have a PPR (“prior permission required”) requirement, where one has to file similar data in advance and receive a written reply granting permission to fly. Given that I tend to associate freedom with aviation, I find it stressful to determine that I will fly somewhere at precisely a certain time on a certain day, and to decide that sufficiently in advance to get approval. I think it is a ridiculous affront to the very concept of the freedom of private aviation in domestic, uncontrolled airspace. But who am I, but an ignorant foreigner spouting such ideas?

Anyway, Wangen Airport, on the shores of the Zurichsee, solves the PPR problem by requiring visitors to phone in and listen to a recording in German. Done. Incoming and outgoing documentation is solved with a self-service terminal in the C office, which works anytime airport operating hours indicate it is open, whether or not attended. Done. There remains the pesky matter of fuel. Can I fuel and pay, during airport hours, if not attended? An email went unanswered, so I googled and found a flight school on the airport, called, and eventually spoke with a flight instructor. He explained that the airport is always attended on weekends, though hit or miss during the week, and suggested that I text if I plan on coming during the week, to see if he will be there instructing. While I may rail against the “system,” it is often true that pilots in any country are a supportive bunch.

I eventually decided to come on a warm February Sunday afternoon. I was hoping to see the Glarus Alps, a section I had not yet viewed, and then refuel at Wangen, before returning to base. However, I made the boneheaded move to fail to notice in advance that my transponder inspection ran out at the end of January. Checking the Swiss AIP, I found that Mode S is required “in class E above 7,000 feet,” where Class E tends to be 2,000’ AGL and higher in the Alps. While most would think that 2,000 feet is enough, peak-to-valley elevation change can be as much as 12,000 feet, which means that one would have to do a bunch of yo-yoing through the Alps, which is untenable in a poky old Cub.

This is where I hatched the “brilliant” scheme to fly the foothill regions of the north side of the Alps. That changes this post from one about the vagaries of airport rules to one where I have upended my presumption that alpine flying is somehow not dangerous.

While it was a sunny day, there was a curious reality with regard to the weather. Upper-level winds up to 20,000 feet were not screaming. There was more than one high pressure zone firmly parked in Central Europe, with a 10 hPa (0.295 in hg) pressure differential between the southern and northern Alps, with higher pressure over Milan, Italy. For some reason, pressure did not want to relieve itself going up and over the Alps; rather, it was “pressed” down and squeezing through the deep valleys of Evionnaz, Grimselpass, Andermatt/Altdorf, Mollis, and Bad Ragaz. How does one know this? While winds at the Jungfrau were tranquil, they were 30kt gusting 40kt and higher in weather stations at the aforementioned points. While that seems frisky, these are weather stations at passes or valleys, where peaks of the Alps and the general entire area north of the Alps was almost calm. If one doubts the severity of what I am speaking of, the day before, my wife and I drove to Andermatt, where the same winds were blowing. The Obergoms Valley of Ulrichen had no wind. On the other side of the mountain in Andermatt, we saw a woman get blown over while walking. We attempted a “pleasant afternoon stroll in the Alps” and found interference walking on groomed snow-covered paths, got back in the car, descended toward Altdorf, and the wind disappeared.

In my “Is Flying in the Alps that Dangerous” post, I basically posited the notion that weather in the Alps is fairly predictable. If winds are excessive or a storm exists, don’t go flying. If it is docile and pleasant, supposing that the prop keeps spinning and one manages to not fly into the side of a mountain, then it generally works out fine. That all hinges on a fairly basic concept: that a pilot has a full grasp of existential dangers. As long as one is not surprised, then it’s fine.

I got surprised. Part of the problem was my self-imposed altitude limitation of 7,000 feet. I went west to east between Interlaken and the Jungfrau, over Grosse Scheidegg above Grindelwald, with no wind. As I flew along the massive rock face of the Grosses Engelhorn, I had a thought cross my mind: “You’re about to come out where this rock face ends abruptly into a wind funnel coming from Grimsel Hospiz.” I turned north toward Meiringen, just in enough time to get tossed around like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

Assuming Sustenpass would be fine, I intended to continue eastward in the same geographic trench that I was already in. As I got to the other side of the wind funnel, airplane crabbing into the angry wind, I was tossed around much worse, even though I was on the windward side of Sätteli. Even perpendicular to the Triftgletscher, with the sizable Winterberg Massif supposedly blocking winds, I was riding an angry bronco, so I turned north and aborted where I took Brünigpass to Stans, crossing over a saddle south of Stanserhorn, to avoid Class D airspace (due to my transponder silliness). Did I mention that the frequency south of Meiringen, where I was getting the snot beaten out of me, was filled with airplanes at all sorts of altitudes, having a grand old time?

As I hugged terrain heading northeast, wind was tranquil again. It was fine crossing a saddle south of Buochserhorn, playing my game with 7,000-foot limitations. It was upon attempting to fly east along the southern shore of the Vierwaldstättersee, north of a small hill called the Zingelberg where I started riding the bronco again. I crossed the lake north, at 4,500 feet, now hugging the south slopes of Rigi Hochflue, getting beaten even worse. Now at maneuvering speed, sweating (might have something to do with OATs of almost 70F due to Chinook winds), and confused why I am riding this angry bronco, a low wing fabric airplane passes me on the right slowly, not experiencing an ounce of the misery I was. The stick flying in all directions, wings rocking left and right, and bouncing around, this other airplane sails on by without a care in the world!

“I’ll follow him,” I thought to myself, now going east over the lake. He climbed slowly, disappearing into the sky without a problem, so I thought I could do the same toward Mollis and the canton of Glarus. Wrong. South of Grosser Mythen, the turbulence began with a jackhammer like intensity. I brought the power back to 1500 RPM and slowed down, and things were not improving. Getting whacked by some errant air movement so hard I had to question “how well a 72-year-old airframe is going to put up with this,” I began a gentle turn to abort. Forget the Alps. I am escaping to the lowlands to the north.

Normally, turbulence is easier going with the wind. At 1500 RPM, gently proceeding north, 3,000 feet above rolling, gentle farmland, the inverse of the jackhammer occurred, where I suddenly found myself pointed nose virtually straight down and the airplane about 70 degrees to the side. The action was so violent that I pulled power to idle, went trim up, and rode the misery for another five minutes before it quit.

And then it was done. A beautiful day in Switzerland without any bumps. One can almost sense the cows chewing on grass peacefully below. Moo.

The strange thing is, while I can source a very limited wind funnel in various valleys of the Alps, I was 26.6 statute miles north of the worst of it (where the lady got blown over). Recall that the entirety of the alpine region had virtually calm wind readings, from summits to cities of the plateau to the north, with a few valleys with high wind readings. Other airplanes were filling the skies, enjoying a “wonderful” Sunday. Another airplane passed me, upwind of my misery, without any hint of distress. And yet, somehow, almost 27 miles from the wind funnel, I find myself in the tumble dry setting…

At this point, I was flustered. My mind began the taunts: “See. This is what happens when you land at other airports!” to which the other part of my mind replied with: “Knock it off! You’re 13nm from your destination. Just land there so you can get this neurosis out of your system!” One would think that a nearby airport in such circumstances would provide comfort, and yet I was still more traumatized by unknowns around paperwork then some very real and unpleasant wind. Literally, I prefer to fly at 16,000 feet above Mont Blanc in 50 knot winds, if I can land back at my base airport, than to try new airport procedures!

The landing at Wangen went fine, with roughly three knot winds. The airport attendant explained the source of my woes: “FOCA (Federal Office of Civil Aviation) wants their statistics.” I would imagine that Swiss pilots would be more than happy to dispense with the paperwork if they could, to which I wonder why nobody has either a) engaged FOCA to discuss this ridiculous overload of paperwork and intrusion of privacy or b) sued them under Swiss’ constitutional presumptions of privacy and freedom. Maybe they have and failed. Alas, that is for another day. One has to live through the infamous Föhn wind in order to then complain about the paperwork necessary for the flight.

So there, I have landed somewhere else, while experiencing the fourth most terrifying incident in the PA-11. Getting turned upside down in Virginia still takes the cake for number one, which is curious, as both of them were in mountains at very low altitudes on sunny days….

Climbing out approaching Lenk. A tad of wind.

East of Frutigen, playing the “7000 foot game.” No wind.


Thunersee to the north. No wind.


Mönch & Eiger in the distance. Shall I belabor the point that there was no wind?

About to slink over Grosse Scheidegg at 7,000 feet or so.


As this ridge sloped to the left, it occurred to me that the wind funnel from Grimsel Hospiz would be an abrupt problem.


Tail between the legs, heading north to Brünigpass.


Vierwaldstättersee. Pilatus Mountain to the left. I was riding the bronco here. 


26 miles north of Andermatt, riding the bronco, after getting passed by an airplane that was in a bubble of tranquility.


Lauerzersee. One minute after getting jackhammered.


Entering the circuit at Wangen. Zürich on the far end of the lake.


Swiss Appalachia. On the way back, well out of the Alps. No wind.


Thunersee. I went west to east beneath the largest peaks on the left without a problem, yet was in a similar scene as this over the Vierwaldstättersee and got trounced. The Föhn is clearly fickle.


Book #29 is done: Cadí-Moixeró & El Pedraforca. These were favorites to fly over in the Pyrenees and have been monumentalized in print.

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.

Five years of Europe

Between last month’s post and this one, the five-year anniversary has passed, both of the PA-11 getting unloaded from the container and touching German soil, and of our disembarking a 747 in Frankfurt with our cat and dog, driving in a jetlagged stupor to our new home in Germany at the time. If there is ever a time to reflect on the original plan versus how it turned out, that would be now.

The Alps figured into the plan from the beginning. The wording was “we expect to find ourselves in the Swiss or Austrian Alps eventually.” My mental idea was that it would take two or three years, as we hoped to do Germany an appropriate justice, which is to say that I wanted to go to university to work on the next degree while integrating into the local culture. It is an understatement to point out that none of the above happened, finding myself later in that year in the Pyrenees, though the plan has worked partially as anticipated, for none of the original reasons.

If one were to take any five-year period in life, there would be an element of personal evolution, independent of the cultural realities of living abroad. That is to say that, if I remained in the United States, we still would have faced a relocation in late 2015 and, in hindsight, would have continued to try to reconcile unsustainable mountain town development, ever increasing costs, and rapid housing turnover with my desire to live near and fly in very large mountains. In effect, I can say that I have exchanged certain aggravations for other ones in pursuit of the same goal in the past half decade.

I expected aviation to be more difficult in Europe than the USA and was aware that many costs would be vastly higher. As those who have read my more vitriolic posts are well aware, many things surprised me on levels I could not have imagined though, once I got the hang of it, I could acclimate and factor about 60% of the nonsense and find a way to press forward. Did I ever think that I wouldn’t care about $27 landing fees? I regularly get presented with landing fee invoices well in excess of $200 per month, and I have gotten to the point that I do not think of them while flying. “You only live once,” so I go flying when I want and that is that.

One thing I that I have not been able to conquer, much to my dismay, is the utter lack of desire to fly great distances like I used to do in the US. I simply do not like landing at other airports apart from the then current home, unless I have gotten to know the place and figure out what the procedures are. I can’t think of many places where one pays the landing fee and fuel both seamlessly and in the same place. It is often a dance of running around the airport to fill out reams of paperwork to pay exorbitant fees, which usually means refueling is about a two-hour process, instead of 38-45 minutes in US airports. Add that to 4 to 6 hours of flying, and the process takes all day, which means that it is rare. I have tried time and again to smack myself into some form of motivation to “get over it,” and it is astonishingly infrequent that I can seem to rouse myself to do.

As a case in point, I have this glaring hole of terrain that I would like to visit in Switzerland, in the Alps from Andermatt east to Liechtenstein. That necessitates about 5 hours in the air plus a fuel stop, so I found a nice little airport not far from Zürich, ideally situated with regard to proximity and microclimates. While the official aerodrome chart indicates that there is avgas and specific operating hours, that is not enough to go by. There is also a “PPR” (prior permission required) requirement, which is common in Switzerland, though muddling through the website in German I found that the PPR requirement can be satisfied by listening to a recording on the phone before visiting, though the recording is in German and my language skills are inadequate to process aeronautical details in such a fashion. I’ll solve that by getting someone to call for me, though the problem that remains is something on the site about how to handle paying the landing fee if the airport is open, but it is unattended. It mentions nothing of the same for fuel, so it is imperative to find out if fuel is automatic or not, and if automatic, how does one pay? Payment in Europe is anything but consistent: some are Total cards only, Air BP cards only, cash only, or all of the above inclusive of major credit cards. In any case, I email in German and English to get the scoop and…two weeks later…no reply, which means back to getting a friend to call and sort it out. One can understand why, when there are pretty mountains and scenery nearby, I land and takeoff from the home base airport and forget the aggravation.

In any case, I’d like to find a way to “get over it.” It likely will involve an expensive installation of a second fuel tank in the PA-11, as my three-hour range, coupled with low airport density in mountains and an incredibly slow airplane, is a significant deterrent. This remains on my personal “to do” list, as there are 27 countries in the EU, with more in Europe as a whole, and the Cub has only been to 9 of them.

Back to reflecting on a half-decade of being outside of America, and I can safely say that most of my expectations and understanding were vastly incorrect, the bulk of which was cultural. I don’t think I am overly unique in my point of view, as many people back home draw certain conclusions about Europe, similar to how I used to think, that are not fully correct, requiring more than some visits to debunk. At the same token, while most everything that I thought was true turns out not to be, many other things turned out to be far better than I expected, in very subtle and cumulative ways.

For starters, there is virtually never an instance where I look at a flight in the Cub and have a chunk of time where I am simply letting it pass by to get somewhere. Countless times in the US, I would have a destination in mind, whether an airport or some scenery, and there were vast sums of repetitive space that needed to be overflown, which meant that I would go into a butt- and mind-numbing “road trip” mode, where I would get lost in my mind, letting the hours pass. Instead of a vivid flight filled with luscious discovery, I saw a day in three-hour flight legs, refueling as fast as humanly possible, and a reward at the end having flown as far as possible while the sun was up. The thought of doing that here is simply ludicrous as I am almost never bored in the air. All one has to do is look down and there is an endless cornucopia of castles, curvy roads, orchards, vineyards, rolling farms, mountain chalets, and the like to entertain oneself.

To that end, after what I consider a “good flight,” which is usually one with resplendent lighting and includes discovery of something new, I spend a moment reflecting after putting the airplane in the hangar, still struggling to believe that I am having these experiences at all, much less with the airplane that I used for my solo flight in 1997. I thought the feeling would go away quite a long time ago and, five years later, it hasn’t. Many have inquired of me privately why I put up with the frustrations of international living, and that is the answer, that the allure of what is around the next bend is greater than the joy of raw aviation freedom in the US. Hopefully I can get over the bad combination of low & slow flying + European bureaucracy and start flying some longer distances.

In any case, I do have a new chapter in life that is soon to unfold, which should, if things go as planned, result in lots of more flying. Stay tuned.

Some photographs from recent escapades in the air….

Rime ice.

There was a sandstorm recently, blown up from the Western Sahara. So what did I do? Go flying! One reason most generally avoid sandstorms is that visibility changes rapidly, which is what happened for the worse. In any case, the below image is de-saturated and accurate to what it looked like in the air. The Cub got a new air filter afterward.

An “alp chalet” surrounded by avalanches.


I flew this valley on flight simulator and then did it in reality. The F-16 climbs better through here than my tired old O-200.


Vineyards with snow.

One way to solve the avalanche problem: build a dike to divert them.


Grand Combin (4314m / 14, 154′) with a tad too much wind. Staying low in the Alps tends to work.

Alp chalets covered in snow to the right, avalanche to the left.

Mt Blanc (center horizon, 15,174′) with mountain wave and wind on the lower ridges. I know how to thread the needle flying through these ranges without getting pummeled, though I have to be in the right mood for it.

The forecast called for more docile winds and, well, here we are. 

A rare swarm of paragliders in winter. 

This is actually a hiking refuge, buried to the roof. The structure to the right of it is completely buried.


Book #27 is here: Abstractions of the Alps, basically containing whatever I found to be particularly beautiful thus far in my alpine flying adventures.

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.

Ten years of Cub ownership

As the new year approached, it occurred to me that I have owned the Cub for now just over 10 years. There is nothing like the passage of time measured in a base 10 number for a tad bit of reflection. Instead of rambling on endlessly about many of the stories that I have already told, I realized that I have most of the expenses for the airplane readily available. What better way to summarize a decade of flying than to reduce it to some numbers to tell the story?

It turns out that I only have these records collated for calendar years 2013 to 2020, so we will go with that. I compiled a chart below of my effective hourly operating cost, as measured in US dollars. For the cost accountants among us, I decided to not include my commercial pilot certificate training costs, installation of new equipment, the move to Europe, nor the costs of my European pilot’s license (which, as I have ranted, were intemperate). Since 2020 for me was an utter bloodbath cash wise, spending record sums to keep the prop spinning, there had to be a better representation of maintenance costs. Can I really believe that the $500 I spent on maintenance in 2013 is fair compared to $12,500 in 2020 (it’s a Cub!!)? In effect, the restoration costs incurred by my grandfather made the early years fairly cheap. During the following years where I flew it like crazy, I was effectively racking up a bill for something so unfortunate as 2020. Thus, I took 8 years of maintenance costs, pooled them, and applied them based on hours flown. The result is below:

10 Years of Hourly Operating Costs

Now, I expected it to look something like this. The technical components are pretty simple: in 2015 I flew over 300 hours. 2017 and 2018 featured lots of flying, particularly in cheaper places like the Iberian Peninsula. 2019 and 2020 is the result of finding the most expensive country in Europe, flying in it, and then watching the Swiss franc appreciate in value rather strongly, making the problem worse.

So, what can be done about this problem? I shall reflect on a conversation I had when negotiating hangar space at a certain airport in Switzerland. The quote for rent was astonishing, to which I replied: “You’re quoting me 1/3rd of the value of the airplane, paid every year in rental costs.” Without as much as a shred of humor, the person replied: “Get a more expensive airplane.”

What is the solution? Fly more! I probably could get the rate down to about $140 if I reasonably increased flying hours, though that is about it, unless I go bonkers and repeat 2015. I did have to ask myself if owning my own aircraft is the most financially sensible option, for which I have a good cost comparison available. I am a member of the flying club in Gruyères, for which a PA-18-95 is available wet for 182 CHF/hr ($206), it being substantially the same airplane as mine. That includes everything but landing fees, which in my case, my effective [bloodbath] wet rate without landing fees is $175/hr. The advantage of the Super Cub is that everything is maintained without me having to lift a finger. The disadvantage is that the distance is difficult, and the plane is regularly booked by other members. Despite approaching equivalent rental costs, owning is still a better option for how I like to fly.

This exercise had a surprise emotional reality. I expected it to be little more than numbers, with an effective comparison of Europe vs America, with results that we all could predict. What I did not expect was to have the following reality smack me in the face: “Nothing has not been as good as 2015.” That was the year of living on Alpine Airpark in Wyoming and flying the wings off the airplane.

The truth is that 2015 was false in many ways. I flew probably 100 hours more than I would have normally, due to the impending move to Europe, which began in August 2015; such motivation would have been less if I did not have projects to finish. Housing availability on the airpark turns out to have been for us a very limited window where we were lucky and could not have reasonably expected it to continue past spring of 2016. Further, the alignment of factors that made Europe possible were many and all came together precisely when the housing situation in Wyoming went south. If we were faced with the same circumstances again, there is little doubt we would make the same decision again. It was opportunistic to have been in Wyoming in such a fashion and equally to come to Europe at that time.

That doesn’t change the fact that the best year for aviation was 2015 by a wide margin. Europe has thus far been astonishing on many levels, though this exercise woke me up to the fact that, despite world class scenery, I am staying too close to home and I would like to change that paradigm. While I won’t be able to recreate the raw freedom and introspective expanse of the American West, I have some ideas that I am considering.

Some pretty pictures from recent flights:

Chablais Alps on the French side of Lake Geneva. Accidentally flew into a light snow shower that I didn’t see and got a splatter of icing, for the first time ever.

Islands in the sky, on the NW side of the Alps in France. It seems this is rather common in winter.

Mont Blanc (15,774′) with some blowing snow. Chamonix, France is beneath the inversion.

Mosquetaire aircraft on skis taking off from Wildhorn, Switzerland. The smooth area is a glacier.

Outrunning a snow shower – Château-d’Oex, Switzerland.

Super Cubs on the Wildhorngletscher, Switzerland.

Book #26 has hit the shelves: “Flight of a Lifetime: A Monument to an Epic Flight in the Alps.

 

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.

Weather flight

When I first visit a mountain range, particularly one that I intend to do some flying in, I gaze from the car, train, or walkway up into terrain, wondering what it would be like to fly in such areas. Then my mind wanders to what kind of bad weather the place experiences. The natural evolution of this process is to imagine what kind of marginal days might exist which would be splendid to view from the air though questionable to pull off.

When in a new area, the obvious choice is to restrict flying to nice weather days. For me, that is often not only VFR but usually sunny as well. As we know, mountain winds are something that I do not mind surfing, though I don’t see the point in doing so if it is hazy or otherwise uncompelling, as I like to take impactful photographs. Too much in the way of clouds or other standard stormy weather usually isn’t worth it on either level.

When it comes to icing, dangerous wind, thunderstorms, and IMC, it is obvious that those days are ones where the Cub stands in the hangar. Most other airplanes do as well, as it is hard to pull off IFR flying deep in the mountains, unless one is landing at a long runway with a good ILS or RNAV approach, which is not usually the case in tight terrain. In any case, on those stormy “obvious” bad weather days, I am frequently looking out the window, assessing what is going on.

What interests me is to catalogue a basis for understanding if I were to get caught in unexpectedly bad weather. Does moderate rain tend to have low ceilings? Is it legal VFR, or if technical IFR, is it survivable in the Cub? Could I get fooled in such a situation, fly down a dead-end valley, and get boxed in behind me? If that happens, does it fog in below, or can I land in a field? These questions are going through my mind whether I am at home, in the car, or doing anything else on the worst of days; I’d like to know what I would do in that situation in the Cub, in that weather, in the mountains.

That lends to the number of times where the forecast is an “obvious” bad weather day, and it turned out to be anything but. Sure, it may have lower ceilings, some valley fog here and there, with precipitation coming and going, but did it ever become IFR at any point? Would I have been truly stuck if I went up? If I went up and things changed, could I make it back to the airport? Could I make to an escape route out of the mountains to another airport? I then login to webcams to examine my suppositions.

When I started mountain flying in Colorado, I can only count one marginal day that I flew. Nothing bad happened, though I filed in my mind that I “only flew on sunny days.” Forgetting my summer flying around the Appalachians (half the time in MVFR weather), I started flirting more actively with marginal days in Wyoming. It helped to live on the runway, so I could hop in the plane, circle around the valley, and dive back to the airport if things went south. Ultimately, I took next to no risks in that regard, only progressively beginning to chase beautiful cloud phenomena associated with weather after about 200 hours of Wyoming flying.

The Pyrenees opened up the floodgates of that kind of behavior, aided by time, the fact that the valley tended to stay VFR, and the reality that weather often parked itself over one of two ridges. I slowly nibbled at the question, until it became something regular to take a local flight on days that would be unacceptable to traverse a longer distance.

That still left the Alps as a wildcard. None of the aforementioned ranges had the notoriety, vertical relief, or precipitation count as high as the Alps. Treating it with appropriate respect, I reset my understanding when it came to what was acceptable and what was not.

It did not mean that I avoided looking out the window and asking myself how I’d handle being in the air, no matter what I was looking at. That led to some marginal days that I flew, where a cross country flight was out of the question, though a local one was not. It was a reality that has repeated itself enough times that the itch that demanded to be scratched was facing a bona fide stormy day.

In this instance, there was a stalled low driving a strong front into the southern Alps. As I would be taking off from the north side, it was evident that clouds bunching up against the Pennine Alps ridge would not be a problem on the north side, though Mediterranean moisture was so extreme, dumping over 3 feet of snow on the south side, that it was breaking containment on the north side, dropping some inches all the way into southern Germany. That front was parked to my east, with a variety of swirling clouds and other features in western Switzerland.

After extensive browsing of an official flight briefing, unofficial weather sources, micro models, 360 degree webcams all over the Alps, and my good old intuition, I decided that I wanted to do something new: I would leave the local area, cross the Bernese Alps into the Rhône Valley near Sion, and come back. I left myself the right to completely change my mind, and I had three alternate airports if the plan went south. The only way to truly gain some experience in this area would be to actually go up in the air and experience things firsthand. My goal was to compare how I feel on the ground in my personal throne where I suppose upon how I’d handle bad weather in the mountains, to how it felt in the cockpit.

I offer a narrated photo tour below of the flight in question.

Takeoff from Gstaad Airport, runway 26, 300′ AGL.

Between Leysin and Montreux, looking west toward France. Fairly clouded in below, but some surprise sun to the west.

Looking south, where I intend to go. Roc du Champion to the left, Dents du Midi (10,686′) to the right, occluded in some light snow. Bex Aerodrome available in the open valley before the stratus deck.

The Rhône River emptying into Lake Geneva. This kind of cloud deck is fairly common and shouldn’t move too much.

Some action in the Vaud Alps, though note Les Diablerets (10,000 feet or so) in the back, with the summits open. My intention is to get to the other side.

Martigny at the bend, with the intended flight to the left. Snow shower has abated and the stratus deck appears to not want to close. Alternate airport one mile below and 3 miles behind me.

Dents du Midi to my right. Snow shower showing no signs of snowflakes down here.

Rounding the bend, looking into the heart of the Alps in the Rhône Valley. Sion Airport in the gap in the clouds, most of the way down.

Had to call Sion Tower to get cleared through the CTR, due to terrain. No traffic was active other than rescue helicopters.

Approaching Sion. Believe it or not, I am in glide range of the airport and can do so VFR. It is just under the gap to the right. Darker clouds ahead are the big snowstorm pummeling other parts of the Alps.

Still in VFR glide range, though I have proven my point. Raron Airport is down the valley, though I am not sure it is open, and I am really extending myself if I plunge into the precipitation, try to get back, and find that things have changed. Time to head over the pass to my left.

Looking back from where I came, as I start climbing north. It looks worse than it is. A sliver remained open for Sion (for which I kept a leery eye). I also could have gone down to Martigny and flown under the cloud deck if need be.

Climbing toward Sanetschpass. Summits look clear, though some clouds I am unsure about ahead.

Sanetschpass on the right. Clouds seem inconsequential.

Crossing the pass. Clouds were there, actually – just hard to see.

On the north side, reassuring that things haven’t worsened to the west, as I had some concern clouds would grow from the NW. They were to my right from this point, as expected.

Virtually in glide range to Gstaad Airport. Massif du Vanil Noir on the right. Those low clouds were not there when I took off, so they were actually beginning to ooze up the valley. That phenomenon is extremely hard to forecast on some days.

North side of Vanil Noir.

Now heading toward the airport. Some days this cloud deck stays here…. all day. Other days, it moves up another 2 miles, and parks there. And other days, its devilish tentacles creep further up, cover the airport, and that is that.

Left hand downwind for runway 26.

Left base, runway 26, per the procedure. It is a “box” circuit around Gstaad.


All in all, it was uneventful, though one can see how, if I was wrong in my assumptions, it could have been quite eventful. There were always backups and options in mind, with clear weather to the west, though it is worth noting that nobody else was up during this flight, either in Gstaad or Sion.

Book #25 has been released, “Glaciers of the Bernese Alps.” It is something I am rather proud of, an aerial compendium of nearly every glacier in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland, which contain the largest glaciers in Continental Europe.

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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