The idea of a flying
trip to France came after we read all of the Fly-out plans of AOPA and the
Flying Clubs in the area. After all, the nasty cold weather of winter should
be about over and May is known to be a spring month with trees and flowers
in bloom. We discovered a sequence of two empty weeks in our planner, which
is a rare occasion, so we started to go through all the possibilities
within the borders of Europe. – It should be more in the south as the spring
storms still have the tendency to brush across the northern quadrant. -
Greece was tempting but a little far away, across the unreliable Italian
airspace (with frequent strikes). – Spain and Portugal great, but not too
much to do there (?) this early in the year. – France, a close neighbor
which we have come to enjoy several car trips. ????
Michelin Guides of France took up such a tremendous space on our travel book
shelf. We decided to give France the chance to present itself from the air.
What should be the routing? Going through the above mentioned books we
started off with Avignon then Biarritz, both not too bad for a stop over.
After all, we had flown the route down the Rhone valley last year with
Andreas (our son) on the way to Aix en Provence. From Biarritz we had to go
north – why not to the Channel Islands -Jersey, Gurnsey or Aldernay? Then,
then …? Probably back home or would there time enough to hop over to England
for a quick visit? We left it open.
With this sketch we
started to go through the hotel list and make phone calls. As it turned out,
we had a problem the first week because of national holiday. The choice of
hotels dwindled but where there is a will, there is a way. The routing was
set. The stops after Biarritz on the way north which we would like to have
included were the “Ile d’Yeu” or “Belle Ile” had to be substituted by the
more landlocked Poitiers in the Loire Valley. To compensate (almost a must)
was a stop at Saint Malo followed by a flight over Mont St. Michel.
Planning was fun and exciting as it served as a mental trip starter and at
the same time gave Ueli the chance to revive his french language skills.
The stack of maps and
airport guides for France arrived in time. Reservations and flight planning
were relatively easy, compared to the weather which proved to be much more
of a challenge. One frontal system after another swept across the European
continent, some more south, others brushed Scotland and the northern part of
Germany. How would the weather be on our day of departure, Monday, May 6th?
How would we pick up a delay in departure or would it be better to leave one
day early? Sunday the 5th brought more rain. Another front was
passing over Switzerland. Would it clear fast enough or get trapped against
the Alps? This happens only too often! We watched the weather on the
satellite pictures and the forecasts created by the experts, both on the
computer screen and television. The car was loaded, ready to go. With
hopeful hearts, we hit the sack!
Monday May 6,
our departure day,
did not look too promising. The clouds were still low, barely covering
the hills surrounding the airfield of Buttwil (LSZU), where our plane
(HB-CLP) was based. A helicopter flying in the area reported that there
should be a chance to squeeze through the gap between the treetops and
the white pillows above. We filed the international flight plan to
Geneva and also for the next leg to Avignon. Loading the Cessna 172
required more careful planning than we were used to with our CT210
sitting in Boulder. We filled just enough Mogas into the tanks to get us
safely to Geneva, as we planned to buy the “Duty-free gas” there.
we were busy loading, the sun pushed through and lifted the cloud base.
Off we went - direction Bern – Fribourg – along the vineyards of La Cote
- to the entry point CERN of Geneva. All went well until after landing
we were directed to check with the “Follow Me” truck. We followed and
followed and followed in circles, loops – left and right. There was
plenty of parking space so we found it humorous that it was hard for the
driver to make a decision. To end this escapade, we pulled into a space
next to a jet and shut down. The driver came over to us and face to face
we decided on a spot that was acceptable to everyone, only 20 meters
further on (after all we were not a jet). By this time our eyes were wet
from laughter and the video camera setting on the instrument panel was
about to run out of tape. All the way walking to customs we repeated
“Follow Me, Follow Me”!
procedures in Geneva (LSGG) are very casual. The customs officer for
Switzerland and France is the same person and he hardly looks up from
his reading when passing by his window. The BP guys had a great time
servicing our plane but were not flexible with accepting our BP aviation
card as it did not show the tail number of the aircraft we rented. We
had the feeling that they were out for the 5% markup with other credit
cards. All in all, we had a good photo session with them and they loved
Fully loaded, we
took off and headed south to the Bellegarde narrows where the Rhone
River squeezes through the barrier created by the Jura mountain range.
The clouds disappeared leaving behind a haze. We soon discovered that
Marseille Information could not provide us with “Flight Following”
services. The Rhone Valley, however, is lined with one TMA (controlled
airspace) after another. We checked in with those control centers and
were handed off very nicely from one to the next one as we made our way
our left were the towering French Alps disappearing into the clouds. On
the right spread orchards and Gardens that supply Paris. Flying low and
slow (C172 speed with headwind), we enjoyed seeing the little towns and
villages. Most of them were built around a town square with a prominent
church and often the prefecture or town hall nearby.
Landing at Avignon
(LFMV) was a breeze. The controller wanted us to follow a “high speed
procedure”. Was he kidding, with our C172? The tarmac, apron, or ramp
was practically empty. We asked the service person about the possibility
to tie down for the night. We have no wind and no Mistral today, was the
response. Do not worry! From there, the Hotel Paradou was within walking
distance, thus we found ourselves with plenty of time to take a taxi
into town after checking in.
the streets of Avignion we soon realized that two years ago we had been
through this town on a whirlwind drive through the area. Even the
weather did not change since then – a chance of rain! It was good to
walk through the streets and alleys looking at the many little shops,
and at the same time doing something for our fitness. The Castle of the
Pope however, we left for another time (too much of a tourist
attraction). To this day, Joan is still sorry she did not buy the great
red sandals she saw in one of the store windows.
Finally we could not resist having an early dinner at perhaps the only
restaurant that opens before 1930 hours (we are early birds). We treated
ourselves to lobster and an extra large seafood platter, which served as
a photo opportunity for some of the passing tourists. As you can tell
from our other pages, we love fine food!
the weather looked soggy for our next leg. GAFOR,
the flight weather directory, showed that it was not impossible to get to
Biarritz. Calling the weather briefer was not much of a help as she could
only read us the numbers we had downloaded with the computer. The access to
the airport airplane parking area was a little more difficult. A group of
customs officers inside the terminal had just seen off a commercial flight
and delighted demonstrating their authority over us. While most of the
subordinates got the idea, their boss struggled with the situation that we
had gotten the customs clearance to enter France the day before in Geneva.
First he had to be lectured by the airport administrating agent that Geneva
serves both as Swiss and French entry airport. After that, the boss and his
crew did the only right thing - leave the airport and let the manager handle
the door procedures to the tarmac.
While loading our
plane, the parking space around us suddenly became very busy as four
military turboprop trainers parked. Joan felt her heartbeat accelerate and
proceeded to bridge the communication barrier between French and English in
no time. The young French pilots did not hesitate one
moment to give her a chance to test the cockpit seat of one of their planes,
provided that she would not operate the ejection seat handle. Ueli followed
with his trusty camera to document the scene. He never misses an opportunity
to use his toys and record everything. He also became engaged in the
conversation, but in French. In fact, the whole crew came over to speak with
us. A most interesting time was had by all. It was the first highlight of
the day - more fuel to spur us on!
first leg of the day took us directly south of the town of Avignon to Nîmes,
two old cities on the northern border of the Rhone delta. The visibility was
not too bad; however we could see a slow increase of the scattered clouds as
we flew west. After Béziers we tried to follow the Canal du Midi, a popular
boating route with many locks. Reaching Carcassonne (LFMK) in the foothills
of the Pyrenees the sky had become overcast and the
wind had picked up coming directly out of the east. The stop was brief and
we polished off a few croissants we had taken along from the breakfast
buffet. The next leg was across the hilly country south of Toulouse with
many small villages embedded in green pastures. Finally abeam Tarbes we
caught up with the rain front. Trying to do our best with avoiding military
airspace and shower cells we appreciated the assistance of the various
controllers along the route to keep us out of trouble. Approaching Biarritz
(LFBZ) the weather cleared and we got a great view of the town overlooking
the bay of Biscay, the Atlantic Ocean.
order after landing was to top off the tanks. It was a little test of
patience as the fuel man was busy fueling a commercial jet. The local
airport service lady helped us tremendously to get all the many little
pieces of luggage out front, from the security zone. A short fifteen minute
taxi ride took us to the Hotel Café de Paris.
Even as fast as we did
our check-in, the rain front caught up with us only a few minutes later.
Nevertheless, we strolled along the famous Grande Plage, along the never
ending boutiques, hotels and cafés. The season was about to start but had
not unfolded the tourist activity yet. In the back of our mind was the
question about the flight tomorrow. Would the front move out to the sea or
turn north and lock us down? As there was going to be an official holiday,
the hotels in town were all solidly booked, we were with our backs to the