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Category: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 3)

Closing time

It finally happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saanetschpass – roughly 8,400′.

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

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

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

Zermatt, with the Matterhorn behind.

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

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

Snuggling with the Triftgletscher on the way out.

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

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

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

One can understand lingering here.

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

Seems to have worked. Delightful forced landing locations.

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

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

Crossing Grosse Scheidegg. GPS says I will be late.

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

This is a cloud deck worth getting above.

…Which I did. Life at 10,000 feet.

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

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

Steghorn (10,321′).

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

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

Emotional Distance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climbing out from Gstaad Airport.

Over the pass between Lenk and Adelboden.

The Gasterntal, just before crossing Gemmipass to my right.

Brig and the Obergoms.

Simplon Pass.

The friendly little Rossbodegletscher.

Approaching Italy.

Italy, near Varzo. 

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

About to leave the foothills of the Alps.

Lago Maggiore!

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

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

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

Working my way up the valley.

Looking back from where I came.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back. Note the glacier on the bottom right.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s wrong with this picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finsteraarhorn (14,022′) from the south. 

Finsteraarhorn from the north.

 

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

Flying in the Alps is That Dangerous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climbing out approaching Lenk. A tad of wind.

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


Thunersee to the north. No wind.


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

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


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


Tail between the legs, heading north to Brünigpass.


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


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


Lauerzersee. One minute after getting jackhammered.


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


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


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


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

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

Five years of Europe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some photographs from recent escapades in the air….

Rime ice.

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

An “alp chalet” surrounded by avalanches.


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


Vineyards with snow.

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


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

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

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

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

A rare swarm of paragliders in winter. 

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


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

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

Ten years of Cub ownership

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

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

10 Years of Hourly Operating Costs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some pretty pictures from recent flights:

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

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

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

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

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

Super Cubs on the Wildhorngletscher, Switzerland.

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

 

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

Is Flying in the Alps that Dangerous?

Before I delve into my thesis, I must preface that I find narrow proclamations in aviation to be quite dangerous. I recall in 2015 saying to myself that I “hadn’t found a crosswind I couldn’t handle yet.” A few weeks later featured nearly flying into a fence….during a crosswind that I couldn’t handle. Such binary conclusions about one’s skill are unlikely to be true across the board; thus, I preface this concept of alpine flying lacking serious danger or difficulty as a relativistic proposition versus aviation dogma.

I have considered this subject before, in a lighter sense, as years of mountain flying have ticked by. It has grown to seem so, dare I say it, easy. When I say “easy,” I mean that pulling off a tranquil and pleasant flight, whether above 15,000 feet in terrain or down lower, on a windy day or not, does not require operating the controls of the aircraft like it is an F-16 in battle. The actual inputs to the controls on a typical mountain flight, inclusive of those that are of technical complexity, are relatively similar to a flight along the coast or over farm country. The only issue that complicates the matter is the presence of large vertical rocks in the way.

I approached the Alps as though they were the cream of the crop of danger and difficulty, at least with regard to the type of mountain flying that I do. I haven’t ventured to Alaska, Patagonia, or the Himalayas, so we’re talking about mountains that max out at just shy of 16,000 feet. While not the tallest, there are not too many ranges that exceed that height, so my determination is at least reasonable.

At any rate, drama around the “Föhn,” Europe’s equivalent to chinook winds, along with glaciers, sizable terrain, and a seemingly regular stream of fatal aircraft accidents cemented my view that the Alps were superior to the Rockies in Pyrenees in difficulty, danger, and height. The problem with my view surfaced from another pilot, a Czech individual who has been all over the world. While he wasn’t as enthused about mountain flying as I am, I asked how he was going to “handle” the Alps getting from Spain back to Eastern Europe. He replied, “It is not a big deal. There are two passes and I can go pretty low and it doesn’t take long to cross.” That reminded me of the only German that I spoke to in 2016 that openly dismissed the apparent doom flying into the Alps: “You can cross the Alps flying as low as 6,500 feet.” Considering that I had been based at 9,927’ MSL in the USA, that seemed to make a mockery of my presumptions.

It didn’t prevent an appropriate amount of dramatic and sometimes neurotic fear, until one day I asked myself where the fear went. Now, many readers will likely proclaim: “See! He is getting overconfident. The idiot is going to crash!” No sooner than I posited the question to myself did I decide to go flying on a nice sunny day. I wanted to get to the vineyards of the Rhône Valley in the Valais of Switzerland, to fly relatively low at 3,000’ MSL to see them in autumn color. At 5,500’, still in the Pre Alps, I managed to encounter 40 knot winds. Knowing that the funnel at Evionnaz and the turn at Martigny would be like the spin cycle of a washing machine, I gave up on the idea.

Therein lies what makes the Alps easy versus what makes them difficult. The ability to look out the window, see the sunshine, glance at the clouds, and have an intuition that “today will be a good flying day” means that a good read on weather and the sum total of alpine characteristics has been learned. After a confirmatory flight briefing, the question beckons: what is so dangerous about flying around on a sunny day with almost no wind, even if it is in the mountains?

Below I will break down some of the characteristics of mountain flying as some of them are very real, some are hyped, and some are contingent on the pilot and aircraft in question. Mountain flying is not unilaterally equally as dangerous in all circumstances; I would venture that, in certain circumstances, risk could be quite similar to flatland flying.

Dangers of Calm, Sunny Day Mountain Flying

  • Emergency landing locations. Either locations are poor, there are less of them, or they are far from civilization. It depends on the situation whether this factor is worse than other types of flying (certain hilly and populated coastal locations are worse than mountains).
  • Terrain Height. If the terrain exceeds the service ceiling of the aircraft, then terrain becomes a literal obstacle, which can introduce loads of complications. If an aircraft can fly above the range in question, dangers differ.
  • “Calm, sunny day flying” can turn into something else, such as clouds, wind, and thunderstorms. While that is a risk anywhere, the problem is worsened if a pilot is thrust into a situation above his or her skill level in high terrain.
  • Distance from Airports. Most mountain ranges of significance mean a greater distance from airports, which means less in the way of alternates.
  • If down in terrain, flight service is often out of radio range, and flight paths can become curvy and more complex.

Showstoppers

  • Some pilots do not perform well physically in high altitude. Others may perform entirely normal, though not have much in the way of experience to understand what those thresholds are and if they are a problem. If the altitude in question requires expensive oxygen that the pilot does not have, then the point is moot.
  • Aircraft Limitations. I was flying a Cessna 152 once in Virginia and decided to head above the clouds. When the airplane wouldn’t climb anymore at 9,200 feet, I thought there was a problem, so I emailed the flight school upon my return. “That’s as high as she’ll go.” If the airplane in question won’t climb or climbs terribly, then that might put an end to ambitions for some mountain ranges.
  • Density Altitude. DA is the most pernicious when it comes to takeoff performance. Many airports in the US West are found at 4,000’ to 8,000’ (or higher), coupled with hot summers whereas the highest flat airport in Europe is at 5,600’, with average cooler summer temps than the US West. A spam can aircraft that needs 6,000 feet of runway to get off the ground is a serious problem. DA shows up when trying to climb at high altitude and unable to do so, though it is only problematic if coupled with another problem (inability to escape (below) or wind).

Situational Differences

  • Aside from skill and aircraft limitation, this is one of the biggest points that is missed. A spam can at 12,000’ entering a mountain bowl too low and too slow may end in death (I watched a video on just such a fatal accident outside of Telluride). A PA-11 or Super Cub in the same bowl can turn on a dime and leave. The difference between end-of-life and exploring another mountain feature (even if having miscalculated) boils down to the airplane. A fast cruising airplane near surface ceiling with no climb ability left is terribly dangerous if approaching terrain from below without enough room to do a 180. Sadly, this kind of accident repeats itself all too much.
  • Wind energy in the mountains is about 10 times as complicated as flatland wind energy. It creates rotors, waves, and also different wind directions. A prevailing westerly wind will snake through terrain, locally changing direction as much as 90 degrees either way, before rejoining the prevailing flow on the other side. These winds over passes and down valleys can be stronger than at higher altitude (or not). Wind also tends to be associated with orographic lift and localized precipitation.

If there isn’t a situational or structural factor that categorizes a proposed flight as dangerous or impossible, then the difference between aviation in a large mountain range being easy and safe or difficult and dangerous boils down to one factor: knowledge. When I speak of knowledge, I am talking about it in the sense that, if a pilot knows what is happening in the mountains and knows how he and his airplane will respond, then a dangerous flight can be made safe and easy. The problem, however, is that only so much can be taught in a classroom setting. Most mountain knowledge is acquired through experience, as it is a complex art.

The ability to have a mountain flight take place with minimal turbulence and normal control inputs, including around the summit of the highest mountain in Europe with 50 kt winds, boils down to knowledge. There are places on that day where the airplane would likely be shredded by the wind or hurled into something inanimate. There are places on that same day, where the strong wind has no turbulence, and the flight is like touching heaven. The barrier between the two isn’t separated by much, which means knowledge is the difference between life and death, serenity and terror, general aviation and a crash statistic.

While an extreme factor, most mountain flying dangers are localized issues that lurk in specific, predictable places, with consequences from light turbulence all the way to catastrophe. Those things change day in and day out, as wind direction and weather systems come and go. One evening might present a physical impossibility for flight, whereas the next morning might be serene, where later that day news of a plane crash in the same area could be heard. I have personally been in the air in each of the Alps, Pyrenees, and the Rockies while someone has crashed within 10 miles of my flying location, which unfortunately is the most extreme manifestation of the localized nature of mountain flight danger. All of those days were partly to mostly sunny with light wind.

For me, the most salient takeaway some years into my mountain flying endeavors is the lack of an underlying neurotic terror. While I love flying in the mountains more than anywhere else, I have done it for years with a hyper tuned sensitivity to the dangers that lurk a few miles or less from where I am flying. Certainly, additional flying experience helps, as does reading more and more weather forecasts (to compare to reality), as well as hiking to many of these locations. Many valleys, ridges, and summits are no longer new to me, including the village, open area, or other emergency landing location below that I previously flagged mentally. Despite the passage of time, I am resistant to the idea that flying in the Alps is somehow deprived of danger. Perhaps it is less work for me to pull it off now, though that won’t be the reason I nearly fly into my next metaphorical fence.

Les Diablerets (ridge in front), Mt. Blanc (center horizon). What could go wrong?

This is actually one of my fears: an inversion socking in while in flight. This image taken while hiking.

Book #24 has been published, “Alps in Monochrome.” It is a compendium of aerial photographs taken in the style of Ansel Adams, landscapes in vivid black and white.

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 racket about noise

For a few months, I have had a line of thought brewing in my mind, which is a superlative form of the majesty of flight, applying it to the magnificence of the Alps and other mountain regions. As I would get close enough to make the concept emotionally tangible, something ridiculous would happen, such as my diatribes from the last two months about maintenance nonsense. While the airplane is flying and I have had some transcendent moments, I find that grasping and sharing that concept is still a bit out of reach.

It starts with that pesky reality called noise in Switzerland. I recently have had the unbridled joy of forgetting what sleep is like, as sociological changes brought on by the pandemic have created a sudden flood of people looking to squeeze themselves into flats next to ours, which has resulted in a raucous construction boom. As I laid there most certainly not asleep, snarling about the noise, I thought to myself how noise has reared its ugly head a number of times with Swiss flying.

I must first point out that patterns in Switzerland are not standard. They are unique to each airfield, necessitating looking at the Visual Approach Chart, to follow it within a moderate latitude under the risk of a fine from the Swiss authorities. The reason is due to noise, as these patterns snake around villages and other physical obstacles. To some extent, it makes sense, and it can also be very interesting, such as the approach into Saanen, which features rather sizable terrain just to the south of the field that has to be avoided.

In 2019, when I was flying for a while out of a different airfield, I got an email from someone I did not recognize. He attached a map and a photo of me flying over his house, noting that I have been “repeatedly” climbing over his house, and he is “kindly” asking me to stop doing it as he doesn’t like the noise. I thought the request was rather intrusive, as I was 1,500’ to 2,000’ above his property, choosing the path to avoid two other villages, though I couldn’t help but wonder if I was missing something. After all, it is a different country with different customs, and the guy was a pilot, noting that he “didn’t make a report to the police” and instead contacted me. I forwarded it off to another pilot friend, who said that it was incredibly considerate, as the custom is to report people and let the police handle it. At any rate, it was rather curious how the guy found me and got my email address, though I digress.

My next flirtation with noise was from a lesson taken in a PA-18-95 from an aeroclub about 35 minutes away. I decided to have a backup and be ready to go in case my aircraft goes down for maintenance again. The cost wasn’t as bad as I thought ($200/hr wet, fully insured with today’s exchange rate) and it is an aircraft rather similar to mine. I must confess that I was thrilled that this “perfect” airplane, maintained under EASA standards, smelled like exhaust like every other rag and tube Cub and had oil streaking down the belly…

Anyhow, during the course of the one-hour checkout, roughly 20% of the content of the lesson was about exactly where to point the noise coming into and out of that airfield due to very specific properties where the owner will call the police in the event of overflight. It was literally down to various houses, where the traffic pattern involved snaking this way and that, sometimes counterintuitively over a populated village to avoid a private school where an immortal hell is raised if it is flown over. The funny thing is that flying 200-500 feet laterally from the houses in question (while still rather high) is enough to sate these noise totalitarians. I am rather convinced that slant distance variation (and therefore noise reduction) is very minor from having done so. If it quiets these terrestrial dwellers, then best not to poke the hornet’s nest.

My third flirtation with noise is associated with my inherent passive aggressive reaction to fastidious and exacting rules. At all Swiss airports, like most of Europe, there is a closing time. Like Germany, it is important, so when dealing with the formula of “sunset plus 30 minutes or 8:00PM, whichever is earlier,” I start to ask my nitpicking questions. “Is it wheels down at 20:00, or pulled to a stop at the hangar with the engine shut off?” The reply was “Wheels down at 19:59, not 20:00.” Ok, so 19:59:59 it is which lead to a philosophical dilemma during a sunset flight.

After a, say, two-hour flight in the mountains, it is logical to return early enough to not trigger the collapse of the European order by landing after 8PM. Arriving over town at 7:47, I could dive in and land at 7:52 or…. I could circle and land at 7:59. Flying a really slow pattern at 45mph, nose up, behind the curve, the tires chirp at 7:58:30, leaving me quite proud of the situation. This was not the first time, though it was the closest to the appointed time.

After putting the airplane away, I was walking to the car and noticed an airplane careening into the circuit, obviously doing a full speed descent and then rapidly slowing down on short final and landing at….8:10 PM. Since it is not Germany, perhaps there is some grace and the situation isn’t the end of the world? Three minutes later, as I am loading things into my car, a Land Rover comes screeching into the parking lot, where the deputy CEO comes running over asking which airplane it was. As he lives under the approach path, it was evident to him what had occurred. He explained to me “the trouble we can get from the commune” and, before racing to address the problem, noted “I saw you come over at 7:57. Nice job.”

I explained the situation to my wife, and she asked, “Why didn’t you land at 7:50?” “Out of principle” I replied. “This silly rule drives me crazy and, since I am paying a landing fee, I am going to get every last minute I can.” “You need to stop torturing him and land at 7:50,” so said the woman who last got in my airplane in December 2014. I have to admit, she has quite a point, so I quit antagonizing the establishment. Are a few minutes worth annoying the people that own the place where I station my aircraft?

That brings me back to this duplicitous and hypocritical noise regime, where I find myself paying to not be able to sleep. “Go back to America,” the builder told me in so many words, for which I contacted the owner, a Super Cub pilot, and, well, I am sleeping again. The whole situation is one of many variables that has me in one of my cyclical states of misery (they happen every 8-20 months), where I get fed up and am ready to move back to America. So far, I haven’t done it but who knows, maybe someday I will. The mere thought of American aviation freedom is so utterly salacious at this point…..

Escaping the heat on the Italian side of the Matterhorn. They don’t care much about noise over here.

At 15,000 feet looking down on Chamonix, France. There were climbers on the ice that stopped their hike to presumably glare at the airplane making noise.

Solving the noise problem….fly above the clouds so nobody can tell who is making such an “obscene racket.”

 

 

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.

Recurrent Lockdown Without a Pandemic

Before I get into the thesis of my post, I owe an update to the inglorious rant from last month. For those that got through my little post of horrors to the fourth section about my quest for the [Heli Coil] Holy Grail, I ended it on a positive note, as though the problem was solved. Well, it wasn’t. Within two hours of submitting the post, the distributor cancelled the order, even though we had spoken on the phone about it. Apparently, the package intermediary that they asked for was a problem and they washed their hands of it. I went back to the first distributor, who actually shipped it next day to the intermediary (should have used them in the first place!). Between overnight shipping to the intermediary, COVID delays, and FedEx Express to Europe, it took two additional weeks to arrive.

As is apparently customary with Swiss maintenance technicians, initial enthusiasm from the mobile Swiss A&P was replaced with a sudden reticence to schedule the job on his part now that the parts arrived. At this point, I remembered an American instructor I used in Germany in 2016, who equally had the daft idea to import and fly an airplane from America on this continent of misery. He had mentioned solving his mechanical woes not long after I left Germany, so I thought “why not see who he uses?”

I found a real solution for the long haul. A younger German mechanic, licensed under EASA and as an A&P/IA, he was billed to me as a “non-German German.” I.e., he will actually fix things instead of robotically demanding a major overhaul as a solution to all woes. The instructor said, “We’ll solve it. I’ll fly him down. That’s what pilot friends are for.” I was in such disbelief that I might have been dreaming, so I called the A&P, expecting some sort of catch. I slowly revealed my woes, progressively giving every last detail, and he said “It is no problem to do the heli-coil by hand. It will take one hour.”

Before he came, I did some more analysis, sent some photos, and we determined that the studs themselves were shot, so we pushed off another week to order them from the USA (which he did, adding to a larger order he had coming). Then the day finally came, where I could barely sleep the night before, expecting doom and misery. After all, if a mistake was made, the case would have had to go to the USA, effectively resulting in the major overhaul I was trying to avoid.

I had the jig on the cylinder, ready to go per the Swiss recommendation. The German arrived, looked at it, and said, “We must remove this as we cannot do the job with it in the way.” Ironic. Then he pulled out a bag and said “I brought some heli-coils in case we needed a different size.” He had them at his shop, rendering my month of misery acquiring them pointless. I do not have enough emotional impartiality to distinguish between my indignation at a wasted month of strife from the glee I should have that this guy already has what I need on hand for future repairs.

When it came time for actual drilling, like a parent watching a doctor perform surgery on a young child, I couldn’t watch. I paced on the other side of the hangar, and 20 minutes later: “This one is done. Now we do the other one.” What? It was that easy? 20 minutes later. “Ok, the heli-coils are in. Now we must put the cylinder on.”

While I was naturally quite pleased, it was an almost insulting crescendo. How many weeks of strife, misery, and struggle did I endure, and in the end, it was a one-hour affair? Why is it that every single maintenance technician in Europe (except this one) that I spoke to would not do it? While the German A&P did explain that EASA mechanics basically are not allowed to do such a repair on a European registered aircraft, he pointed out that it is “on the N register therefore it is allowed.” I shall mention that the last 5 mechanics I spoke to in Europe were also FAA A&Ps, who basically were repairing N registered aircraft while looking at the EASA book.

The saga with repair has continued and is mostly complete with a successful initial cylinder break in test flight completed. The whole affair took 9 weeks, most of which was spent on the phone, waiting for parts, or being told “no” by someone after previously having been told “yes.” In the end, when I add up the $6500 repair bill (many things were replaced in the troubleshooting process, and the jug was one of a few contributing factors), it cost roughly 40% more than if I was in the USA (VAT, middlemen, freight from America, nonsense). It took 6 weeks longer than if the airplane was in the States, with 85% of that delay due to Europe and 15% due to the pandemic. The single hardest problem was a lack of qualified mechanical assistance.

If any other owners of N registered aircraft in Europe are equally as frustrated, please contact me and I will arrange an introduction to this A&P. I highly recommend him. I believe that this recent misery is an investment in smoothing out future issues, as I have a fantastic resource vetted now. I also owe a huge “thanks” to my instructor friend who flew him down. One has to love the pilot community.

Now this brings us to my thesis, which is about how aviation has inflicted three “lockdowns” since 2014 with this airplane, lasting two, three, and four months. This one was the shortest, believe it or not. The longest was Germany in 2016, and the middle struggle was while in Colorado in 2014.

I traced the common thread to all of them, and it was a fusion to two issues: a very complicated, sprawling repair and a lack of a nearby qualified A&P. I.e., either a nearby A&P wouldn’t do it, or a maintenance technician simply did not exist in the area. In each of these instances, I would rely upon a complex web of removing what parts a pilot is allowed to (quite a bit) and shipping them for inspection, rework, repair, or overhaul to a willing A&P in another state, sending photos of the remaining situation, consulting extensively by phone, staging new parts, and bringing the whole thing to a finale by bringing someone in to help get it all done. In all three cases, one symptom on this old engine resulted in the revelation of other problems, or vagaries of the troubleshooting process (where the parts being replaced weren’t the problem). Untold hours are spent going to and from the airport, sourcing parts, shipping things, staring at delayed packages on tracking and the like.

In instances where major problems were resolved in a short period of time (not part of these long downtimes), professionals were close by. Two of these disastrous affairs were in Europe, which made it much worse, whereas one was in the rural Rockies. What is the lesson? If one relocates with an airplane to a new area, especially if it is extremely rural as I seem to choose, immediately begin the search for an available mechanic for an ongoing professional relationship, even if nothing is wrong with the airplane. It is one thing to fly in an existing resource, though that assumes that the airplane only breaks at annual inspection, that deferred maintenance can be caught up at that time, or that the airplane can be flown a long distance to the site of an annual. As 9 months of downtime over the last six years has taught me, it doesn’t always work that way. While most pilots in America live in a reasonable range of a metropolitan area where this problem largely doesn’t exist, a move to a rural or foreign location should treat this search with urgency as though the airplane is broken. While the Cub has gone hundreds of flying hours with minimal issues, it goes through occasional brutal maintenance and repair cycles and I cannot seem to predict when they will strike.

Many times I have wondered why I am living the life I am, and it took an hour and a half circling two miles above the airport during the test flight, gazing at the Alps, to remind me why I am willing to put up with this misery when it does happen. A great way to forget a hellacious downtime is to go flying again.

Château-d’Oex. Wandering around at 11,000 feet, in glide range of the airport during cylinder break in.

Gstaad Airport from 8,000 feet. 

 

 

 

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.

Aviation Strikes Back

The last month has been, suffice it to say, the dark side of aviation. A combination of maintenance misery, coronavirus, European rules, and an airplane turned money pit has tainted the glories and freedoms of aviation with the dark, menacing cloud of a massive thunderstorm. In many instances of ranting to friends, one suggested that I write about my experience, ostensibly to point out how various byzantine Kafkaesque rules could use an overhaul. My only reply was: “It is going to sound like I am whining about the consequences of my own ignorant, ill-fated decision to voluntarily ship an old airplane to Europe and not expect to be driven insane by the rules that were well known to exist beforehand.”

Well, here I am, writing about it anyway.

Putting the Economist Hat On – Mechanics

The situation I have been facing this month devolved into a cesspit of money spending, eventually landing on a situation requiring specialized assistance, which meant finding a specific mechanic willing and able to do the job. It is always an issue to find one that will work on an N-registered aircraft, either if the person is a FAA A&P, or uncomfortable with performing the work, furnishing a work order, and having a separate FAA A&P return it to service.

After getting over those hurdles, which often means far fewer mechanics are available, I find that they are all booked solid, despite the fact that the world is flying less. This seems to be the case most of the time, and I had to ask why that is the case. In a previous post, I wrote about how EASA had changed some rules to loosen up mechanical licensure, stepping closer to the “freelance mechanic,” which otherwise barely exists here.

The problem lies in the quantity of policies, procedures, and paperwork that revolve around flight instruction and maintenance activities. It favors organizations over individual mechanics and instructors, which favors highly active flying clubs instead of private ownership. That means a small fleet of [rented] aircraft, flying quite regularly, with resources onsite in the case of a problem. If a plane is out of service, there are others to rent.

Along comes the American with a Cub, asking for some help from an organization like this, even if the European mechanic is a FAA A&P, and the answer is almost uniformly that these institutions are booked out for weeks. How could this be, that in the land where rules stifle aviation, there are thriving, profitable businesses?

When one combines paperwork and rules eliminating freelancers, pushing activity to busy clubs and repair stations, one can find that they are incentivized to run at full capacity, pushing new bookings out into the future. That is not a problem with clubs and companies with small fleets, as aircraft can be substituted. Some private owners have their airplanes “operated” by clubs, which means they are part of the system, likely getting priority. Add in that some European countries have labor laws that discourage eliminating staff, and one can see that economics + the rules and structures that be = limited organizations keeping their order books full. In the US, another A&P would be hired part-time to pick up the slack, whereas those decisions are made far more conservatively on this side of the pond. Besides, who cares if some immigrant wanders in with a broken plane?

That does contrast with the reality that I have wondered how A&Ps in America earn a good living. Many freelancers are either vintage airplane enthusiasts, work weekends for extra money, are retired, or are poor businessmen. To run a proper repair station, cover fixed costs, bear the risk of liability, and earn more than a low-end wage, fees would need to be structured not too differently than in Europe, with order books as full as possible.

I am not sure what the point of this subsection is, other than exasperation that offering to shower money on maintenance technicians seems to not produce…. maintenance activities.

Coronavirus – Get Out of Jail Free Card

It is apparent that the pandemic’s effect on supply chains is separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to competence. Unfortunately, I had two maintenance nightmares span this situation, and they both are revelatory.

The first was an exhaust stack repair early in March. I phoned an outfit in the USA, who told me they would repair it two weeks after I sent it. Noting how I would be out of service a month, I asked if we could come to an agreement and prioritize it for a fee. After some back and forth, the price was set at $250 for the expedite fee. “We’ll get to it in 3-5 days.” “From now?” “No, after it arrives. Wait….6 days. We can do it in 6 days.” “Six calendar days?” “No, 6 business days.” “Then why I am I paying $250 for it to take the same amount of time.” “We’re not shutting down our shop for you! Good day!” [click]

I called another in the USA, same deal: 2 weeks. I asked about AOG fees and these people kindly told me that “We used to do it. Everyone then pays it, and we can’t keep up.” I would say hire more people, but I digress. Maybe they figured out the European model of profitability…

I got recommendations for an excellent outfit in Germany. I called them and they said the backlog was one week. I packaged loads of customs paperwork, including that the whole aircraft is customs cleared into Germany, and shipped overnight, ok with the week delay as shipping round trip would be overnight instead of a week. After 10 days, nothing had happened, as it was still at customs. DHL said the exhaust shop was ignoring them. The exhaust shop sent signed copies of paperwork submitted to customs. A week later, I was informed that German customs was returning it “for insufficient paperwork” and it would take… a month. I would have driven up there to clear it, except lockdown began and borders were closed. “We’ve had people do that before,” said the shop.

That’s it! I am going top dollar brand new PMA!

I called another shop in the USA, agreed on $1500 for new parts, gave specifications, and they were wonderful to get it done in a few days and hurry up to ship it as lockdown was looming for them. It arrived in Europe, after $250 in express fees….and it didn’t fit. While exhaust systems can be subjective on Cubs, there is nothing subjective about the exhaust port on the cylinder and the location of the adjacent intake elbow. At this point, I found a blacksmith in town who heated and whacked the relevant portion into submission, and that problem was solved.

While it was a frustrating charade that ropes in the pandemic, it is a microcosm of everything that is miserable about attempting to keep a 1940s airplane in the air. I am beginning to lose the romance of the idea, that’s for sure.

Coronavirus woes are not over. The latest round has resulted in ordering no less than six installments of parts from the UK and USA, and each order begins with “carriers are not guaranteeing delivery times.” That actually means two things: the carrier is released from doing the job, and the parts seller now has no obligation to be dutiful in getting “overnight” orders out, communicating about it, or getting anything right. I could go on about the miseries endured, down to full on incompetence and outright fraud (charging for overnight, sending economy, refusing to credit the difference). Some carriers are delivering as promised, and some distributors get things out as promised. Some distributors indicate their fulfillment backlog clearly, others take the order and payment and ship it a week later with not a shred of understanding why that is a problem, pointing to the pandemic as a blanket excuse for blatantly failing to live up to promises. It has been, needless to say, challenging.

It would be helpful if distributors would post clearer notice as to their current situation (as some do), though I would imagine there is an incentive to hide deleterious backlogs so as to ensnare customers into making a sale that they wouldn’t otherwise make. It is interesting to watch how some keep the parts flowing as if nothing has changed, and others seem to have fallen apart.

The End of General Aviation

I woke up this morning with a headline in Swiss news. The Upper House of Parliament voted for a package to impose taxes on each passenger for commercial airline flights, for environmental reasons. I also noted that it includes “private flights where fees will be from $500 to $5000 per flight.” Come again? That caused a panicked Google search, which revealed little as to what a “private flight” meant. Stewing over breakfast, I didn’t even need to articulate the ramifications if this were true. My wife was the one to suggest living in another country if that was correct.

I didn’t think it would apply to light aviation, as it would immediately end all non-luxury general aviation in the entire country. None of these mechanics I am spending so much time talking about mentioned it, nor did it appear anywhere else, so I sent some emails, and response was that the proposed legislation apparently is limited to private flights in “jet aircraft.” I don’t know if that means jet a-1 powered flights (including diesel engines), includes turboprops, or is for turbofan engines only.

While those in the US would cringe at these fees, I must point out that they are fractional compared to the total fees paid in Swiss aviation for larger aircraft. The type of individuals that come and go in Switzerland in private jets are of the highest wealth tier globally and will likely pay the fees, with some modest decrease in utilization. The issue, however, lies with how, if that law were written poorly or incorrectly, it could, in one fell swoop, end all general aviation in the name of environmental reasons.

We talk frequently about “user fees” and other such things “creeping” into aviation in America, slowly squeezing it. We do not talk about an Armageddon where one law ends the entire thing overnight. While it is unlikely to happen, this morning’s news headline was at the very least educational. It also cemented that the battle keeping an old plane flying is losing its romantic appeal, though I can’t imagine choosing to have a life without aviation.

I suppose, much like flying a Cub low and slow in a thunderstorm (hmmm…that has never happened), the clouds eventually clear and one flies again on a sunny evening over bucolic farmland. My prefrontal cortex can intellectualize the concept, though the emotional reality of my sentience is so immersed in this misery that I can’t seem to get my head around the idea of flying before I am no longer middle aged. This too shall pass…

Addendum: The Quest for the [Heli Coil] Holy Grail

I wrote the above portion of the post roughly one week ago. While I was duly rattled and frustrated, I thought I had a solution lined up, as a friend found another Swiss A&P/IA to try, one who had lived and worked in the USA for over a decade. After we spoke, he was amenable to coming up to install a heli-coil on a stud, a problem which had derailed my entire enterprise and for which one shop after another told me that I must basically bring the engine to them for the case to be split. Interfacing with A&Ps in the USA told me a field repair was possible, although I couldn’t find anyone to do it.

Anyhow, he was “always looking for new customers” and “just needed to check if he had the tool.” Excellent! The problem will likely be solved and, to make matters better, I like the guy. The next day, I got a call and it was explained, after consulting with other staff, that it is a risky job due to the hardened aluminum of the case, where free drilling could be the wrong angle or create a crack. It would help if there was a jig, though they did not know where to find it.

So, I was back to the drawing board. I double checked with a few A&Ps in the USA to confirm if a field repair is a shop school myth, and they said it is not preferable, though it can be done. Forum hunting online pointed me to Divco in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I called them to ask if a jig exists and if I could buy it. “Not really, but if you have one, and most people don’t, you can cut a junk cylinder and use the base as a jig.” Miracle of miracles, I have a junk cylinder and I was just about to throw it out! Problem solved!

Or so I thought… I emailed the new A&P that I had developed a crush on and…crickets. If there is one thing I have learned, is that a mechanic’s confidence and the intelligence of a certain repair method are two different things. The sudden lack of interest meant that, for this repair, he is probably not the guy if he is slinking away after having announced I found the much sought after jig.

So, it was back to the “Swiss guy who travels around in a van doing repairs.” He is also an A&P, albeit quite a distance away. I had spoken before and he said that he was extremely booked out, wasn’t afraid to do it, and he didn’t have the tools for the coil installation, as he “tried to buy them once a few years ago and gave up.” Now that he was going to be the one, I called him to schedule, advising that I would be ordering the parts. His reply was: “Things are crazy with coronavirus, so I am not scheduling anything until you get the parts. Nothing is for certain.” I thought he was being persnickety, though so be it, let me get the tools ordered to get a confirmed delivery date.

And this is where my week went sideways.

I called Divco, who told me most of the details what to get. Divco, by the way, is wonderful. I phoned the distributor in California that they use, and after some back and forth, called Divco again willing to “pay them for this nonsense” and they walked me through the exact heli-coil specs. It is quite a web of what to buy. They didn’t want money (which makes them even more incredible). I got pricing final, which was about $150, and then the distributor said, “We cannot prepay and add shipping. We need a courier account number.”

Strange. Be that as it may, I phoned a client, got their UPS number and…inactive. I called another client, got their UPS number, and upon attempting to ship, that account doesn’t allow that kind of shipping. At this point, I requested some sort of way to ship it, and they said its “against company policy,” for which I raised an immortal hell and was told that they got defrauded once so, sorry, but “we will ship it to someone in the US.” I declined to mention that they should be content next time their Amazon order goes to Indonesia for re-routing instead of their house.

I took their quote and sent it to a company in the UK and Switzerland, both of which promised to get back to me. Nothing. I then looked for more distributors and found a stock function on the Stanley Engineering website and found that one other company in the USA stocks the install tool. I went through their online shop, loaded up the cart, and….requires a courier account number. I called them and asked if it is a manufacturer requirement and they said, “It isn’t. We took a US card once for an order of $40,000 of stuff that went to Africa and it got charged back, so it’s company policy. “But its $150, it’s going to Switzerland, I am a US citizen, and I will send you a copy of my US driver’s license or anything else you want.” “Sorry, company policy.” Someone else called back and recommended three other distributors. I called them all and they stock the coil but not the tool. I mentioned to one about the African fraud story and she eloquently replied, “Everyone knows not to trust when the Ethiopian prince writes you online.”

I started digging through Google searches and found that I could get an equivalent tap from a distributor in the UK. They had no tool nor coil, but I thought I could divvy this up and attack that way. The tap, by the way, is on page 562 of their massive catalog, but alas, they did not have the install tool. Eventually I found another distributor, in Switzerland, and navigated their web shop. The part numbers were not equivalent, so after digging through a mass of them, I found all three parts, although I would have to order 200 heli-coils in a bag instead of two. So be it. At 1-3 working days, I’ll take it. When I went to check out, they will only ship to Germany. I then called the Swiss office, and they said “We don’t ship from Switzerland. You must do it from France.” On to the web shop in French, load up the cart…will only ship to France.

Somehow, in my despair, I found through Google that an industrial supply company in the US had one of the parts…the elusive tool! Maybe I can get the coils from Texas, the tap from the UK, and the tool from the USA! To my surprise, they had all of them! I checked out, adding the Swiss address and my credit card and….it worked. Suspicious, I called the company, told them I placed the order, and confirmed that they would ship. “It is ‘in review,’ but if we need anything, we’ll email you.” Six hours later, just before bed, I got an email, “Thanks for your order. Due to the cost of complying with export regulations, we are cancelling your order.” At this point, I located a parcel forwarder in New Jersey, called the supplier, switched to the NJ address, and will have to swallow probably $100 to $150 in costs to forward via an intermediary, for which the parts should arrive in 10-12 days, for which hopefully this vandwelling Swiss mechanic will be willing to show up before August.

The candidate Swiss A&P did explain that European procedure is to CNC machine the case if a stud pulls. “That’s why you aren’t able to find a European mechanic to do it. It is not standard procedure here. What they do not understand is that it is a November registered airplane and we can do things the November way. It does not have to be precise, as it is an American product.” What they also fail to understand is, based on my research, how probable it is in the life of an O-200 engine that a stud will eventually pull.

So, there you have it…the dark side of exotic international flying. I will either ditch aviation and become a monk or buy a second plane as insurance against mechanical woes. Stay in America…or buy a new plane with a warranty and global service network.

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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