The plan for Portugal was 3 always months, so the time came to go back to Spain. If there is anything I have learned about moving a Cub across time zones and continents, it is to depart in advance of the plan to move locations, returning via public transit, as opposed to taking public transit first and flying the Cub to the new place the next day. The rationale is rather simple: go/no go decisions are made same day, and changes in weather or circumstances are offloaded to trains, taxis, and airlines. To do things in reverse separates the go/no go decision by 24 to 48 hours, which when flying time is added on top of it, things get nutty.
I was able to leave one week before our anticipated drive out of Portugal. Weather has been remarkably foul across the Iberian Peninsula, commencing roughly when I flew to Portugal in February, and continuing for months. Recall that when we left Spain, we had recently received almost three feet of snow, following months long drought. A massive reservoir south of Cerdanya was disturbingly low. Within 40 days, it was full. The entirety of Spain has been receiving such cold and excess precipitation.
That meant that the elusive idea of a pleasant sunny day was out the door. Week after week and I could not find a day with a stretch of 600 miles of dirt with the sun shining. Finally, I realized that I was stressed out about the trip and I really wanted to enjoy myself, so I broke it into two pieces. The first step would be the Portuguese Coast to Casarrubios near Madrid, and then I would return to get the plane after arriving in Cerdanya. That also alleviated weather concerns, as it was possible to find better weather for part of Iberia as opposed to the whole thing.
I finally decided to make a go of it on a partly cloudy day. The forecast had been innocuous, until the morning of departure. Squalid coastal air had been getting stuck between the coastal hills and the Atlantic with surprising amounts of fog in previous days. This particular morning, it had lifted to a point and partially burned off, with a satellite map that indicated I could get the heck out and escape before the afternoon went to pot. I flew through the soup and over the hills, while under the cloud deck, only to have it get lower and lower. Flying at 700 feet above sea level and approaching 500’ AGL, I was getting near the Tagus River plain, which is nearly at sea level. It’s also rather wet. About 20% of the sky was clear, so I popped over the cloud deck to 1,400’, greeted by a sea of clouds. Intuition said I’d be fine. Eventually, the Tagus River overcast below gave way to the Alentejo, where clouds rose to 2,500’. I ducked in a wide gap and underneath had spectacular visibility, giving way to a pleasant Spring day.
By the time I got near the border, I had fallen out of radio contact with Lisboa Mil (Portuguese military flight following service). On the other side was a giant Class D airspace for Badajoz, Spain, measuring over 40 miles wide. I couldn’t raise any approach, radar, or tower frequencies, so I decided to climb from 1,300’ to 2,500’ to get cleared to cross it, en route to my first fuel stop. After tons of back and forth due to not showing up on radar, despite the transponder being on, I got cleared through and spent almost a half an hour until I popped out the other side, enjoying the Extremadura countryside.
My first stop was Aeródromo El Moral, near Ribera del Fresno. It is virtually in the middle of nowhere and enjoys the distinction of having officially opened in the last two months. A friend of mine got a notification online of the grand opening and sent it to me in April, and I decided to tag the place as it filled in a massive gap of places to refuel in western Spain. The people were incredibly friendly. A local hotel owner decided to make some room amongst vineyards so pilots could land and stay at the hotel. Investing obviously significant time, energy, and money, they built hangars, created an official runway, and dove in with their new business venture. As they do not have a fuel pump installation, they were waiting with 40 liters of mogas in jerry cans, which they filled just so I could refuel. There were no landing fees, either! I was rather amazed at their ingenuity and entrepreneurship as well as their friendliness.
The flight to Madrid from there was pleasant and uneventful, with a tiny tailwind. Extremadura looks a bit like the US West, with agriculture in decent color given springtime, all of which will give way to beige tones as the heat of summer approaches and wears on.
Casarrubios is another fantastic airport, just outside of Madrid. The people are incredibly helpful, stowing the Cub for €10/night in a hangar, and dropping me off 25 minutes away at the metro station (it was on his way home, but still). I repeatedly offered money, and was repeatedly rebuffed. This is starting to feel like aviation in America! The routine home involved 3 metro stops and the last flight of the day to Lisbon, arriving at 11:20PM, where my wife was waiting, and we got back to the house after midnight, having taken off 14 hours earlier in the Cub.
A week later, we made the 12-and-a-half-hour drive across Iberia to the Pyrenees. The weather, as one could imagine, was foul upon arrival and would be foul for most of the upcoming week. There was a one-day window on Monday, so two days after arrival in Catalunya, I rode a 3-hour regional train to Barcelona, a high-speed train at 185mph to Madrid, a regional train to Móstoles, and a 30-minute taxi ride to Casarrubios. With two hours of daylight to spare and stunning blue skies, I took off to photograph the ancient part of Toledo 22nm to the south, returning to put the plane in the hangar, sleeping onsite in one of the airport’s four hotel rooms for pilots. Staff kindly helped organize my order for dinner with the onsite restaurant to be left in the room when I got back from my run to Toledo, as the restaurant was closing while I’d be in the air. Again, I can’t emphasize how out of the way these people go to help pilots. It really is a different feel than what day to day life is like in Spain.
The next morning, final weather checks seemed pretty good for most of the run to Cerdanya. There would be afternoon thunderstorms of varying coverage, though limited to the Pyrenees and expected earlier in the afternoon. I fully expected to dance around them, though had things choreographed as storms would be incoming to Madrid and Teruel behind me. Better to get on the move and make it to the Monegros Desert, where I could wait things out or head to one of two alternates: La Seu d’Urgell (35 minutes by car from home) or Lleida (2 hours by car). Worst case, I would overnight in Lleida, and enjoy the next morning’s clear forecast before it rained again.
Madrid featured a light breeze and temps in the 50s, which felt like late September in New York, which is odd given that its June and the place is usually an inferno. As I was in flight, stratus began moving in from the south, which posed an existential question about crossing 6,000’ mountains between me and Teruel. Intuition said to proceed, as I had an alternate at Sotos. Squeezing over each ridge with about 1000’ total space between peaks and clouds, I finally was able to literally see light at the end of the tunnel, coming over the ridge and landing in Teruel, a large airport in a valley above 3,000 feet in Aragon. If I made it this far, I can definitely make the desert, which was good enough.
Teruel is a strange place. Pattern calls are in English. There are no tower facilities or flight plan requirements. The runway is enormous, a French company uses it as an airliner graveyard, and a British company operates a flight academy. Despite all of the facilities, it is required that 24-hour notice be given, or fuel will not be provided. After powering down next to an enormous Airbus, I was greeted by what appeared to be a fuel attendant:
“Do you have documentation?”
“What do you mean documentation? I have all sorts. What exactly do you want?”
“Documentation to refuel.”
“What kind of document do I need to refuel? It’s a plane and it needs fuel.”
“What about your reservation?”
“I have an email.” Silent glare from the anti-fuel guy. “Do you need to see it?”
I pull up the email along with confirmation of receipt. He reads it awhile, glares, snorts, and then says “Fine. Wait here. I’ll get started to refuel.” In all seriousness, I swear he would have made me spend the night and wait 24 hours, all the while not caring if I got a taxi to get me car gas with jerry cans as a work around. Eye roll. Spain. What can I say?
What then commenced was about 30 minutes of phone calls, avgas installation logs, documents, and measurements, suiting up, and then an astronaut filled my tank with avgas. Right after, a flight school aircraft pulled up after doing some training, and he began refueling them, though I didn’t see a request for a reservation….
Security then came to drive me to pay the landing fee. She asked if I had a fluorescent safety jacket, which I did but wasn’t in the mood to wear. “Oh, you have to put it on because of the Guardia Civil.” “Under what scenario would federal police forces be wandering around this strange place?” I thought to myself, donning the jacket and hopping in the vehicle for the ride. I went to put my seat belt on and was told not to bother.
Upon entering the building, two Guardia Civil officers are standing there, glaring. They ask for identification. Thinking it’s a bit strange, I furnish it. They then ask about my airplane, where I am coming from, where I am going. “Is there a problem?” “No, we just have to note all this down for each flight.”
Now that the interrogation is over, I proceed upstairs to pay the landing fee. There, I am also asked an absurd amount of information. Mind you, I have already provided name, registration, persons on board, MTOW, origin, destination, and address for the advance reservation, to the fuel guy, and to the Spanish police force. Now, I have to provide it a fourth time, sign a contract, and then fork over €10 for the landing fee. Apparently, the regulatory infrastructure contemplates that the airport is a passenger terminal, even though there are no airline flights. Everyone shows up, does what is asked of them, and the world keeps turning in Teruel. I have learned to laugh and quit caring. At least the people were nice, even the fuel guy, once he realized he couldn’t send me away without avgas (capitalism anyone??? What planet am I on???).
The flight took me over 5,000’ terrain, which was clouded in with adequate clearance and then rapidly gave way to the Monegros Desert, where I descended down to 2,000’. I left Madrid in cool weather, was freezing in the cockpit over high terrain despite a sweatshirt and pants, and now tore the sweatshirt off as temps soared into the 80s. The sun was out in full force, with distant thunderheads visible 50 miles away over the Pyrenees.
I had intended to land at Alfes, a nice aerodrome according to my navigation software. I decided to check a site before leaving called aterriza.org, a Spanish language user-contributed website where pilots leave comments about airports and conditions. It is a self-avowed “wikipistas” (‘wiki runways’) and on it, I found an official notice that it had been closed in 2015, the case taken to the Spanish Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court having ruled that the closure was final. Why is it in on my map? I overflew it anyway, noting runway numbers with no Xs. Such is Spain, where the AIP, maps, and official sources are not always accurate.
I instead landed at Mollerussa, a ULM field requiring a good old short field brake screeching landing to transfer 5 gallons from the backseat, check radar, text the wife to get a weather report, and make the final 60nm leg into the Pyrenees and home. Of all ironies, it was sunny the whole way as the storms moved off to my right.
It felt good to be home. Since then, I have enjoyed the last week checking out an incredible residual snowpack in the Pyrenees, stunning wildflowers, and explosive green vegetation. The rains and cold continues, so much that it snowed above 9,000 feet, interior temps in the house dropped to 57 and I had to start a fire, in June, in Spain, to heat the place up. One year ago, it was 90 degrees for a high with no snow left.
From the flight planning stage outbound to Portugal in February until after arriving back in June, I kept struggling to understand why it was such a difficult task. If this was America, I should have had no problem picking a good weather day and nailing the entire flight in one stop. Both times, I intended to do that, and couldn’t pull it off. I then undertook an analysis, and found the following data points:
Pyrenees to Portugal: 665sm
Longest single day flight in USA with the Cub: 1075sm
Longest single day European flight with the Cub: 434sm
Longest single day leg this round: 365sm
The longest I have historically pulled off outside of America was from Frankfurt, Germany to Valence, France, at 434sm. It would have been longer had the weather not turned and required three hours of waiting. The thing is, that was in two countries that were not Spain. On both legs crossing Iberia, I had to phone ahead to coordinate fuel, deal with foul weather, deal with Spanish police, land at rugged little fields, and do fuel transfers with jerry cans. The struggle against the system adds up, and single day mileage goes down. What can I say? It’s how it is, though I can certainly attest that its incredibly interesting.
VFR on top, 1400′ MSL, Tagus River Plain, Portugal
Twenty miles further along, in the Portuguese outback.
Wildflowers, approaching the Spanish border.
Crossing the 40+nm wide Class D control zone of Badajoz.
Don Benito, Spain.
30nm west of Madrid.
Just before arriving at Casarrubios to leave the Cub for a week.
Old section of Toledo, the evening before the second leg.
Somewhere southwest of Valdaracete.
Crossing into La Mancha – poppy fields in bloom. They *always* are brilliant on an angle and turn dull when overhead. It can drive someone mad seeing it for hours.
At 6,000′ west of Teruel, squeezing over relatively uninhabited scrublands while freezing cold.
Airliner graveyard in Teruel.
Highlands between Teruel and Monegros desert, cruising at about 5,300′.
Mequinenza Reservoir, Monegros Desert. Temps in the 80s and down at 2,000′.
Alfes. The only indication it is closed is the evidence of cars having made use of the runway.
Showers off to my right, approaching the foothills of the Pyrenees.
Back in La Cerdanya, cruising at 5,700′, looking at 8,600′ terrain. Note the steam from a recent storm.
A few days later: cumulogranite over the hill beneath Tosa d’Alp.
Penyes Altes in 590nm infrared, roughly 7,000′ elevation at the peak.
June Pyrenees snowpack, just over the border into France. Altitude 9,300′.