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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 2)

Before and After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Using the inversion to my advantage…


La Cerdanya can have its own inversions, too.

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

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

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

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

Mountain waves make interesting sunset tones. Masella.

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

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

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


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

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

A New Normal

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

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

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

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

Le Super Cub – St. Leocadie, France

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

La Llagonne, France – 5600′ MSL

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

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

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

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

Climbing to 7,200′ MSL to leave La Cerdanya

Cruising at 5,000′ MSL

Descending to 3,000′ MSL

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

Costa Brava, with Montseny in the background.

Not a good place for an engine to quit.

Tossa de Mar

Palafolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

General Aviation During a Revolution

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

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

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

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

October 1 – The Referendum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pedraforca from the car, infrared image.

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

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

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

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

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Ratio of Work to Reward in Aviation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the haze abated, the clouds rolled in.

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

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

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

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

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

Crosswind leg, runway 25, infrared.

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

Thunderstorm on the French side, infrared.

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Europe: The Case Against ATC Privatization

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

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

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

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

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

La Cerdanya, with strong mountain waves over the Pyrenees.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Heading out to sea to avoid nuclear power plant. 

Approaching the Delta.

Mussel harvesting.

Rice paddies.

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

Salt evaporation ponds.

Delta, again.

Apparently a sod farm.

Terminus of Ebro River, in infrared.

Terminus of Ebro River, visible spectrum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Provence: a Monet of Control Zones

Like most ideas about flying in Europe (or anywhere, for that matter), I sit on my throne of ignorance on a cold, rainy night, fantasizing about a flight to some matter of interest, as though the airplane will fly itself with no real effort required. This plan was hatched back in Germany, at the behest of my wife, when I thought that any destination in Europe was easy to get to…largely because I happened to merely be in Europe. Oh, how little I knew!

After the move to Spain, the idea of lavender in Provence got infinitely easier, because it was “only” 160 miles away as the crow flies. Oddly, though, I didn’t land in France again until 9 months after the move, even though I had made multiple landings in the country on the flight down from Germany. Consistently, I opted for the laid-back and disorganized nature of Spain, meaning that an airport may or may not be attended, that fuel may or may not be there, and well, “no pasa nada.” Nothing is going to happen. France is much more wired than Spain, and as previously mentioned, has nothing short of barbarically complicated airspace.

A few weeks prior to this trip, I took a 5-hour flight over the heart of the Pyrenees, making that first landing in France in 9 months to refuel, and I felt less anxiety flying above timberline than in controlled airspace. The terrain that I was flying over was plain silly, with massive mountains as far as the eye could see, yet I was relaxed and at ease in that environment. If the engine quits, I’d land in a meadow and pitch my tent. If the radio, transponder, iPad, or anything else fails that connects me to the outside world, I’ll fly home by memory. No pasa nada. Complex airspace is another animal, as one system is dependent on another, and each deviation from the original plan requires a lot of work to coordinate relevant parts. Failures, problems, and incursions have the benefit of additional services, with the drawback of aviation authorities with a list of questions if the problem is severe enough.

This is easier than dealing with ATC.

Be that as it may, there were lavender fields waiting, and I was going to photograph them. I finally sat down to do some flight planning, and of course, the Mediterranean Coast beckoned also, meaning a glorious Monet of French control zones. At the end of the coastal binge was the Camargue river delta, an amazing area where the Rhone River empties into the Mediterranean Sea. It was as complicated as it could possibly get, though I was inspired.

The weather check called for infamous Tramontane and La Mistral winds, something I had experienced before, though as of the prior night, the total amounts were manageable. The next morning, however, the TAF for Avignon called for gusts to 52 knots, and Marseille had issued a SIGMET for severe turbulence for most of the flight path. I postponed the trip tentatively for a day, and then noticed that conditions were ideal on the Spanish side of the border. I took off for a five-hour odyssey into the Monegros Desert to photograph some scenery on my list, coming back tired enough to wonder if I had the stamina to make Provence the next day.

Monegros Desert, Spain

The next morning, the forecast was windy, though acceptable, and even better for day two of my travels. I filed my flight plan at home, drove to the airport, activated via phone, climbed out over La Perche Pass, France, and began my relatively quick descent out of the Pyrenees and into the South of France, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. As I contacted Perpignan Tower for clearance through a control zone, the Tramontane was beginning to pick up. On the other side of the CTR, it was blowing. As my flight path merged with the beach, staying at 800 feet AGL to avoid overhead military airspace, the wind was positively howling as I flew with a 40-degree left crab and kept power between 1800 and 2000 RPM, due to a strange uplifting convergence right over the beach. Shooting conveniently out the side window while biting raging headwinds, I was barely able to pass a windsurfer.

Departing Perpignan’s CTR as wind begins to pick up.

Howling offshore wind, with 40 degree crab. Note drifted sand.

As I entered Beziers Tower’s CTR, the winds started to relax quickly, meaning that the Tramontane fury was about 50 miles wide, also enabling me to relax as my ETA shortened rapidly due to normalizing groundspeeds. That meant I could follow the precise contour of the coast, enjoying old and new French towns and villages set against turquoise waters.

Beziers gave way relatively quickly to Montpellier Approach, a three frequency juggle to get cleared to follow the coast around an elaborate dance of dense air traffic. I departed Montpellier’s frequency while on final for Candillargues, a small general aviation field with an approach path over the Etang de l’Or, a golden salty lake that would mean certain total loss to any unfortunate airplanes that lose their engines coming into this airport.

Sête, France

Final approach to Candillargues, over the Etang de l’Or

Fueling was as is typical in small French airports: wandering around to find someone who invariably speaks no English, argue with the automated fuel pump (which would not take my French Total fuel card), find someone eventually that speaks English, and sort it all out. For as much as there are stereotypes about the French, they have always been helpful, even though they look at the americain and his Cub with a skeptical expression, clearly wondering if I have a screw loose.

I continued to the Camargue Delta, which was beyond words. Between the marshes, salty ponds, and salt lakes, the bulk of the area is water, with small viable emergency landing locations. Despite being under Istres Le Tube’s approach control, I was happy with my long clearance through the coast to the Rhone River, and even more at peace that I was away from human population, despite helicopter traffic and extensive water in all directions. I suppose I am wired for wilderness surroundings – there is something incredibly calming and free about it.

My time along the coast terminated with an explosive collection of salt lakes, and then a new personal record of the slowest cruise groundspeed: 37 knots. La Mistral, while not turbulent, was extremely strong, resulting in an agonizingly long period in the CTR with Istres Le Tube, before finally able to navigate through a series of waypoints out to the north and into the loving arms of Avignon Tower, where I got cleared through that CTR, but not the adjoining Orange CTR, requiring a more traditional avoidance path to finally break free of the shackles of controlled airspace, where I made a landing in light wind at Carpentras for refueling.

Camargue Delta

At this point, I expected to spend the night, though it was 4:30, and I found a local pilot to give his recommendation for lavender in the Luberon. I set off and flew for almost three more hours, wandering around the famous town of Sault, even coming in distant view of the Alps, before winding my way back to Carpentras, where I realized I speak enough French to order a taxi by phone to take me to my hotel.

Ascending the Luberon. Mount Ventoux (6,273′) in the background. Due to La Mistral, the peak records 56+mph winds 240 days per year.

Sault, with lavender

Lavender

Apt


The next day, the flight was direct back home with one fuel stop in Lezignan, and only two CTRs to cross. I finally made La Cerdanya by mid-afternoon, gracing the conclusion of my trip with the worst and most graceless landing in 5 years. Tallying up the numbers, I spoke with 10 control towers and 2 information services, flew 17 hours, and took 10,400 photographs in a three-day period. The last time I undertook such a flying bender was photographing every named glacier in the state of Montana in two days in September 2015.

French wine country, en route home.

Pic du Canigou (9,134′) nosing above the marine layer during the climb into the Pyrenees.

La Cerdanya – just need to survive the landing on a sunny day.

In a moment of reflection, I realized a few things during the flying binge. I thought I would re-assemble the airplane in Germany as soon as it got off the container and continue flying that I did like this in America, though here in Europe. It took 18 months to work out the mechanical squawks, airmanship, and most importantly, my newfound fears after the emergency landing in the wilderness of Wyoming in 2015. Despite my reticence of flying into France, I got the hang of the military and controlled airspace regime by the time the trip to Provence was concluded, so there is something to be said about skills and experience. The most profound moment was to lay eyes on both Provence and the Alps, famous and beautiful areas known as exotic and distant tourist destinations, yet here I am in the same airplane I took my instruction in the mid 1990s as a teenager in Upstate New York, seeing places I wasn’t sure I’d ever see on the ground. I still have continuous moments of amazement that such a simple little airplane manufactured back in the 1940s could take a person so many places.


On the subject of colorful and interesting waters, I recently completed “Yellowstone’s Hot Springs: An Aviator’s Perspective,” a book containing close up aerial imagery of hundreds of the hot springs located in Yellowstone, taken during my time wandering around in Wyoming. It is available on Amazon or garrettfisher.me.

 

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.

Amber Waves of Grain….in Spain

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

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

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

Coscojuelas, Spain – Gyrocopter Airport

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

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

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

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

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

Aragón, some distance from home. 

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

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

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

Approaching harvest, lower Catalunya.

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

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

Wildflowers – La Cerdanya

Crop of Poppies – La Cerdanya

French Pyrenees – June

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

That is not what Europe is all about.

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

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

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





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

French Pyrenees – Andorra at the end of the valley.

Montserrat, Spain – near Barcelona.

La Cerdanya – in takeoff path.

La Cerdanya – airport just left of center.

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Moroccus Interruptus

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

It didn’t happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montserrat


Central Catalonian Depression

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

Orchards en route to the Mediterranean


Vinaròs

Faro de Peñiscola

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

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

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

I went to the beach.

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

Salt flats, Delta de l’Ebre


Terminus of the Ebre River

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

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

Terraces north of Reus


Approaching Igualada

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

Montserrat


Spring in Catalunya, approaching the Pre-Pyrenees

El Pedraforca – just over the ridge from La Cerdanya

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

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

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

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

O Controller, Where Art Thou?

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

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

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

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

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

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

No haze – Pedraforca.

Haze, five minutes later in the Pre-Pyrenees.

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

Peach Trees Near Aitona







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

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

Agricultural lands in the short distance from Aitona to Lleida.


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

Orwellian, monolithic, and empty control tower.

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

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

Totalitarian sticker, next to the existing sticker. 

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

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

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

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

Back in La Cerdanya….no haze.

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

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

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

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

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.

Overcoming Spanish Airports

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

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

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

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

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

Geologic terminus of Pyrenees meeting the Mediterranean.

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

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

Flying along the coast.

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

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

A bit hazy.

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

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

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

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

Pre-Pyrenees

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

Saharan dust on Pyrenees snowpack at 10,000′.

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

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.
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