Soggy Flying Trip to France

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. ????

The 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!


Weather on May 6

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.  

While 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�! 

Customs and 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 it. 

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 to Avignon. On 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.

Walking 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!




Weather on May 7Tuesday May 7,

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!

The first leg of the day took us directly south of the town of Avignon to N�mes, 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 B�ziers 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. 

First 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 Caf� 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 caf�s. 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 wall.




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