Soggy Flying Trip to France


Wednesday May 8, Rain is pouring as we looked out the hotel window. However, we could see the light house about two miles from the hotel as well as some boats off the coast. The visibility was not too bad and the cloud base was about 2000 ft MSL, good enough to fly north along the coast. The weather reports indicated an improvement on the way to Bordeaux. So, let�s go! The airport was almost empty and the weatherman, who was tucked snugly in his office, was happy for our visit. His service consisted of providing us with several pages of weather interpretations in a folder covered with abbreviations and explanations to decipher the weather charts. We were greatly impressed. 


After departure we followed the coast, cruising at about 1500 ft. Fishing villages and beach resorts alternated. Some surfers enjoyed the wind and surf. The Bordeaux Controller kept a watchful eye on our slow advance north to guide us around restricted areas. The sun had come out and there was a lot to see. There were small airstrips, the Basin of Arcechon with its enormous sand dune, large oyster hatcheries and swish  resorts planted in lush rolling coastal forests. At the Lac d� Hourtin, sailing was in full swing. A smaller group looked as if a sailing class was being conducted.  We flew a 360� turn overhead to watch. Possibly, this could have been a distraction to the instructor in his little motor boat. We watched him turn and ram one of the little sailboats.  Unfortunately we had no floats on this plane so we could not stop to investigate and help if needed.  


Initially we had planned to make a stop somewhere halfway to Poitiers. However, nothing really was too inviting. So we soon turned away from the coast and took the direct heading to our destination. Coastal forests changed to pastures and occasional vineyards. Dotted in between were charming villages connected by winding roads and small streams. Soon we picked up the Autoroute Paris � Bordeau. We were glad to be in the air and have unrestricted freedom of travel while on the freeway we could observe standing traffic for several miles.   


Poitiers (LFBI) was easy to spot, a tightly packed old town on an outcrop of limestone. Our enthusiasm still ran high despite having escaped all the rain in Biarritz. From far out we tried to call Poitiers airport. No response - even when we reached the entry check point. Should we land on runway 21 as one should in low wind or was the wind strong enough to land on 03? We overflew the tower, made our calls and felt that runway 03 was the right choice. Pulling off the runway we noticed a C-152 getting ready to start up. Asking over the radio, he very kindly gave us directions in a most understandable English to park in front of the Aero Club. There was no tie down possibility, so we secured our bird with only some small wooden branches out of the Aero Club garden. Unloading our possessions for the night slowly became routine. Luckily we found someone at the Club who could help us get a taxi. Joan, in trying to find a way to haul our luggage curbside solicited the help of the fuel man and the fire fighter of the airport. They brought a tow tractor around to ease the job and also provide a ride.  

We enjoyed the visit to the old town of Poitiers, especially the beautiful old chapel and the cathedral with its old excavations nearby, all newly renovated. The town made a clean and comfortably provincial impression favoring visitors on foot.



Thursday May 9, The frontal system we had been outracing and dodging the days before caught up with us. Low clouds and rain were the only items on the weather menu of the day. On the weather radar and satellite maps we could see how all of France slowly disappeared under a white blanket of cloud and fog along the coastal area. There was no chance to fly low as the countryside was not a calm sea but a green carpet of rolling hills. � Decision time. � First we checked with the hotel to secure the room. Actually we changed to a slightly larger room with an improved bed construction. Then we canceled the hotel reservation for the coming two nights in St. Malo and then, finally got a rental car. France was celebrating a holiday - the day of liberation from the German occupation in WW II.  

The Loire Valley was an hour to the north and the Michelin showed an impressive number of castles in the area. The first stop was Tours. The town was deserted, as all the businesses were closed. In a cute little Bistro we enjoyed a well prepared lunch which, with its quantity, served us as dinner as well. Then, driving down along the River Loire to the west, the Castle of Langeais came into sight. It really was worth a visit. Up and down the many narrow stairways from one exquisitely furnished room to the next we were introduced to life, culture and history of the medieval French aristocracy. Returning to present day we could not resist the chocolate and coffee shop near the old castle draw bridge.



Friday May 10, The improvement in weather we had hoped for was only minimal. In fact we sometimes had the feeling it was worse. The hotel was happy to keep us another day and the car stayed with us as well. For this day we targeted Saumur. Driving in the direction of our intended flight routing we could observe that the weather was really BAD  over the whole area. We had made a good decision to stay on the ground! The Castle of Saumur was more a historical site than a display of style from life. Imagine the wild Vikings in control of the beautiful river valley. Only when the French King started to divert the waters of the river, putting the Viking boats on dry ground, the invaders decided to go home. After a stroll through the old town we selected a road passing a number of charming Chateaux and lonely, sleepy villages. The closer we got to Poitiers the more it rained, then it poured. 



Saturday May 11, Still overcast and in the area of our destination, the Channel Island of Aldernay, there was FOG. One more day to stay put. We decided that it was a day for maintenance (for us). Near the hotel was a convenient coin laundry (Lavage). Joan volunteered to go to Printemps, a department store, to get some change coins for the laundry machines. Besides using her French to get newly minted Euro coins she found some washable pants. Not unbelievable to Ueli, there was a jacket with matching jeans. Still yet she spotted another pair of pants in exactly the color she had been looking for.  Ueli in the meantime kept the machines at the Laundromat cranking using the few pieces of silver he had. To kill time he recorded the operating procedures of this French equipment on video and caught up with the local news on the streets. How exciting!

Was it imagination or did the clouds really start to lift? At least small patches of blue became visible occasionally. There was hope for the next day.



Sunday May 12, The �wash-house� over France was about to drain. Clouds were still around and an occasional �spritz� reminded us of the past days. It was time to go. Return the car, pack all the laundry and new acquisitions and then head off to the airport. � But stop! Out west, over the coast of Ireland was a tremendous weather system sailing towards central Europe. In a day or two we would be trapped again. This time, at Aldernay near the ocean, we had to expect fog. In addition we would be even further away from home than now.  Reviewing the situation without the desire �to get there�, we decided to fly east and check out some castles from the air which we had not been able to visit the previous days. 

Flying northeast, skirting the airspace of Tours, we picked up the Loire River again. Heading towards Orl�ans there was one castle after another overlooking the river often surrounded by a neat conglomeration of houses or a small town. Occasionally we flew circles while trying to get a shot with the camera, low clouds permitting. Finally we found the Castle of Chambord that Joan had marked with a prominent red circle on the map. The dozens of spires, towers and turrets were unusual and an architectural sight to behold. The numerous visitors strolling around the neatly trimmed gardens were miniscule compared to the magnitude of this monument.  Certainly we had to get this object into the electronic box. While Joan tried to get all the buttons, settings and the frame composition on the camera correct, Ueli tried to fly one gentle 360 after another overhead - first for the video and then the still camera. Ueli wished that there was an autopilot for such a maneuver. No such luck. He is still dizzy! At the end, the aging directional gyro in the little plane was completely off. Well, it was only useful for five minutes after alignment. Remember, stay VFR.   

After this beautiful creation of our culture we continued further east and passed the next symbol of our society, a smoke and steam producing industrial plant. Surprisingly, we did not see any visitors! Approaching Auxerre (LFLA) the clouds became thicker and dropped lower and lower towards the ground. In our planning with destination Basel, we had selected Auxerre as an intermediate stop. Now we felt that there was no need to delay our trip with a stop. We proceeded east across the rolling hills and noticed how the visibility suddenly deteriorated. On the radio we heard the controller from Orleans instructing VFR traffic near us, trapped between the clouds, to descend immediately as he was in Charles De Gaule air space. We had apparently caught up with the frontal system that had harassed us the previous days. We had never been in Auxerre. Why not stop here and check it out? Another new adventure! We like that. 

The airfield was almost deserted. At the Aero Club office we met a nice flight instructor waiting for an examiner to check out his student. With his help we got a cab and made a reservation at the Maxim on the shores of the Yonne River. The clouds moved east clearing the sky. This gave us a chance to explore this charming little town and visit the pier with all the house boats.  Few guests were in town at this time of the year which let us enjoy a formidable dinner and service at the elegant restaurant of Maxim.


Monday May 13, The night was quiet and the next day brought a sunny awakening. The lady of the house, surprisingly of American descent, served a very diversified breakfast, then a twenty minute taxi ride to the airport. It was a pleasure to climb the ladder to the tower to pay the airport fee and get the latest weather for our first leg to Basel (LFSB). It recorded some fog en-route and low clouds breaking up over our destination. We were soon bid farewell by the tower controller and off we went across the beautiful countryside. Pastures with many vineyards on the south facing slopes glided past. This was the northern end of the Burgundy region. Then the pastures turned yellow at the height of bloom. On the lightly curved tracks, the high-speed train to Paris (TGV) wound its way like a silver snake through forests and pastures, around towns and off to the horizon. The country under us was completely different than experienced in the murky weather we had the day before and we were glad that we had to wait a night. 

About half way we caught up with the tail end of the front, at that time only consisting of a low cloud layer with tops around 2000 ft. It was in the process of breaking up giving an occasional glimpse of the green country or a little town below. Guided by the VOR navigation aids and our GPS we soon got in contact with Basel Approach who gave us the transponder code and from then on watched every turn and delay. The clouds broke up but visibility diminished in the haze. We had studied the approach chart carefully and could identify the required touch down points and pulled off the runway to the nearby General Aviation parking. Soon a �Follow Me� vehicle arrived and assigned one of the dozens of parking places and then disappeared.  

We had been warned that Basel was a complicated customs airport, so we took it easy, collected our papers and walked to the nearby office with the sign �General Aviation� over the entrance. It was a stark room. A few tables with utensils scattered around. At the other end were some toilet stalls with no locks. Better yet than none, when you are in dire need! Nobody was there to assist or direct us. So we decided to do something for our fitness and started in the direction of the large terminal building. Somehow we had the feeling that this was not a pedestrian area and soon enough a yellow car pulled up next to us curious about where we wanted to go. A short explanation and he was on the radio to get the �Follow Me� vehicle back to pick us up and take us to the Gate E, a door on the side of the building that needed much yanking to open, obviously a newly built and seldom used French construction. Back on our feet we followed the direction to the immigration and had the choice to stay in France or pass the Swiss Customs Officers. If you are not sure, you ask. We wanted to enter Switzerland, get the weather, file a flight plan and then get back out to our aircraft and fly on to Buttwil. The Swiss customs officers sent us to the Information/Lost & Found booth as they were not informed what to do. There we declared ourselves LOST and Found ourselves being directed �just to walk past the Swiss Customs to the �Information� on the other side�. No problem. At the other �Information� things proceeded fast. From a nearby telephone we made a call to the weather chief and then, still another call to the Air Traffic Controller to file a flight plan, only to end the exercise by paying a few Euro at the desk. Next sneak through a small corridor back to the French side (do not look left or right) and go back to Gate E. A �Follow Me� vehicle should be waiting for us there. (Sounds like a CIA plot.) It worked. Soon we were back on the parking field reunited with our HB-CLP. 

As forecast, the weather slowly improved under the heat of the sun. Meanwhile we got our cockpit organized, maps ready, and frequencies set. The airport did not seem to be too busy and we were given take off clearance without delay. Our urge to get home was taking control and we forgot to turn north after take off to the proper exit points, instead like in good old times we flew across the city with all the Pharmaceuticals lined up along the Rhine river. A scolding by the controller came a little late. Nevertheless we apologized and thanked him for the information. Our focus was already in a gap gazing at the bank of clouds over the Jura mountain range. Soon a familiar landmark leading to  a successful crossing came into view - the cooling towers of the atomic power plant of G�sgen. In Switzerland there is no restriction on over flying the atomic power stations as there is in the USA. Probably they are a little more solidly built! 

The clouds were also slowly breaking up as Hallwiler Lake came into view. Beyond the next ridge was our home base, Buttwil (LSZU). The frequency was busy and gave us an indication that the normal runway 34 was in use. The approach was no problem. However, our side slip after crossing the last trees of the bordering forest was cause for fright for some members of a glider crew readying their plane, expecting us to land short. We had them in sight, no worries! Touch down on home turf 13.5 flying hours after departure a week ago!


Tuesday May 1

The rain started again convincing us that we had made the right decision.





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