Alternates in Europe

In May’06 our group decided to be adventurous and plan a trip to Berlin (to see Templehof before it closes) and then on into the Czech Replublic, Hungary, Italy (Venice) and France (Toulouse) before a final stopover in Le Mans to watch the practice session for the 24hr race.

Well, as ever in flying, we had to be ready for changes to the plan and in the end we flew in France and Spain but none of the other countries!LaRoch (wd)

As the adventure grew near, our close study of the weather web-sites did not fill us with hope and it was clear that huge amounts of cloud and rain were streaming in from the Atlantic across the south of the UK and channel before piling into Germany and finally sitting over the Czech Republic. Despite the months of preparing for flying our planned route, it was time to change… A telephone call between the three participating aircrews and we agreed to try and get south of the weather to meet in the Rennes and then move on to the Pyrenees with the hope of possibly picking up our planned route in reverse, should the weather break for the better…

Friday dawned and the skies were grey. Forms 215 and 415 told us to stay in bed but by lunchtime we braved the journey to the clubhouse to see if the internet there would tell us a different story. But no, internet packets are indeed the same everywhere and Derick added his words of finality so we headed home, only to see blue skies appear overhead! Yet more scrabbling on the keyboard showed the channel to still be very poor, however, our colleagues based in Old Sarum decided to go and “have a look” over the channel. In the event, they made it across to Rennes but we were stuck fast and the weekend forecast showed no improvement.

On Sunday morning a gap opened up in the forecasts that suggested we should be able to get to France, well Le Touquet at least! So off we went and all was clear until the last kilometre. Indeed, we could see the end of the runway poking out of the overcast but how low was the cloudbase? Other aircraft were clearly making it in and we ventured down to see. Luckily there was good visibility under the cloud layer and we soon had SVFR clearance and made it onto foreign land, the trip had started…

I will leave the story telling to my colleague Vic, but give here some comments from the flight planning side.

  • We had the complete Bottlang set for Europe with us and a good selection of charts. This gave us a lot of flexibility in changing our routes. Well worth the outlay, the Jepp charts provide a consistent presentation as you travel around and the simple paper versions are fine for such trips. Next year you will need a fresh set anyhow!
  • Access to the internet is getting easier all the time so a laptop is a great asset. At Le Touquet, the WiFi hotspot is free but we found that some hotels were either free or had local hotspots visible that we could log on to. In other cases an Orange subscription of €10 gave us 2hrs access within a 30 day period, again ideal for such a trip.
  • Having Navbox (or similar) loaded on the laptop made investigation of possible new routes very easy to try out. We took a small portable printer so we could print out plogs. This is useful but often we could not bother carrying it to the hotels.
  • From Fowlmere we need to tell customs and Special Branch when we are leaving and returning to the field. Equally, on the other side of the channel we need to use a customs airfield or one that can arrange customs clearance given enough notice. This is quite a restriction when the weather is playing up. Hence our dash to Le Touquet to open up options to other airfields at short notice.
  • In France the Olivia system is really good if you can get to it. We noticed that several of the Olivia terminals at the airfields were inoperative. It is accessible via the internet and it is well worth registering before making a trip. Make sure that you set the default language to English. Then planning a route finding the weather and Notams for the route and filing a flight plan (necessary if leaving France) become a breeze. We noticed that Notams appeared from Olivia that did not if searched from the UK ais web-site.
  • Flying high is good and seems to command more respect from the air traffic controllers. They usually hand you over to the next FIS and you usually retain the same squawk for a complete flight, or large portions of it. When in touch with the FISs, making a call to check that you are cleared into and across controlled spaces and restricted areas often brings a simple reply, surprised that you have asked, but we prefer to keep making the calls!
  • Note that transition level along north Spanish coast is usually 7000ft and in France it is generally 5000ft.
  • Flight plans are necessary for every flight in Spain. Here they don’t have a Spanish Olivia but they do often have an old DOS program running in the airport offices from which you can file plans. (First, press F3 several times to get to the option to switch into English). If all else fails they have supplies of flight plan forms!
  • Leave yourself plenty of time, it evaporates on airfields! Thinking you can get through flight planning, fee payment, security, into your aircraft and off into the sky within an hour is very optimistic. Much better to leave plenty of time, be relaxed and keep calm.
  • Hotel chains worth considering include Accor (all sorts of prices), Best Western and Tryp (for Spain) as these all have useful cancellation policies. Usually 4 or 6pm on the night of arrival. These hotels can also be booked on-line at good prices.

Some thoughts on places to visit:

Le Touquet – well sometimes you have to, if it is the only place not covered by cloud. Note that there is a requirement for 2hrs notice for flights from UK – again can be done on the web.

Tarbes/Lourdes – we did not get here but our friends did and will not be returning to stay. Scenery nice apparently but shops are not.LaRochelle(sm)03

La Rochelle – very nice old town and harbour. Good to hire a car and get out on to Ile de Re t visit St Martin and the lighthouse. Can easily spend a day or two in this area.



Bilbao – recommend staying in Sondika (has a refurbished Tryp hotel) which is between airport and downtown. There is a new walk open along the river, past the Guggenheim museum into the old town, well worth it.

Guggenheim (sm)03

Asturias – can be a challenging airport due to the winds but the runway size means you can have several goes if necessary without a go around! Local area is not really a place to stay, rather industrial. Gijon has a Tryp hotel near the beach but it is not a pretty place.

Perigueux – Now this is pretty, in the old town and has a Ibis (Accor) hotel right between the cathedral and river. Go soon as there are rumours that the airfield may be closing.

Pit Exit (sm)03

Le Mans – Well, go for the racing if it takes your fancy. Otherwise head for the compact old town which is nice, just close your eyes until you get there. Again, there is an Ibis near the old town centre on the riverbank which is very convenient.