From Derby to Elba, Corsica – and back – in 10 days. Danny Cunningham breaks out of his comfort zone with a group of aviation pals
15 February 2023
It was that time of the year. The holiday that I had booked 12 months in advance where I planned to fly somewhere outside of my comfort zone with a ‘gang’ of Derby-based flyers was upon us.
The ‘gang’ I refer to includes Glynn Wright (aka Captain Fish) – an experienced pilot with more than 1,200 hours, who has flown all over Europe. His nickname comes from a previous profession selling eels all over the world – and often flying them to their destinations in a Cessna Caravan.
His aircraft, notably the first British-registered Cessna 177RG Cardinal in Europe to have a PowerFlow exhaust fitted and certified, was to be my chariot for this planned trip.
With GAMI injectors, an S-Tec autopilot and a selection of Garmin instruments, G-OSFS is a pleasure to fly. Also joining us from Derby was Gordon Moir. He is also an experienced pilot and recently qualified instructor who took his 260hp Piper Comanche G-AVGA solo to Oshkosh and back in 2017.
Our trip started with a routine customs stop at Cherbourg, with Glynn at the controls. A visit to the restaurant for a croque monsieur and a cup of tea went down a treat. We then continued to Quiberon for an overnight stop, which involved me landing the Cardinal, which had a blocked pitot tube.
I can assure you that this made for an interesting approach without an airspeed indicator. However, after the three of us finished poking around the pitot tube and pulling out the dashboard, it turned out to be a blocked vent hole which was easily resolved – a bit of locking wire from the toolbox in the back of the aircraft soon dislodged the blockage. By the time that was finished and the partially stripped dash was put back together, there was just time for a beer in Quiberon’s clubhouse before closing time.
The FISO kindly offered us a lift into town, which meant we didn’t have to struggle to find a taxi, which on a Sunday evening in France can be difficult.
The following day we continued down to Lezignan-Corbieres. This is a familiar airfield for us, and we teamed up with our fellow (ex-pat) flyer David Vale.
He is a retired businessman who emigrated to France and (somehow) ended up living close to an airfield where he hangars a Sequoia Falco G-OCAD – a 150kt/25lph aircraft with a self-installed glass cockpit. His partner Sheila also joined us.
After topping up with avgas and the food and wine essentials, we were more than prepared to depart the following day to Marina di Campo on the Isle of Elba.
France’s VFR flying on the south coast can be overwhelming looking at the maps, with all sorts of zones involved – danger, restricted, prohibited, bird sanctuaries… you name it, it was there.
In fact, it’s enough to put the novice flyer off. It certainly worried me when I first flew in France. After a quick group get together to plan a route on SkyDemon, it became pretty clear that following the VFR ‘green’ route along the coast to St Tropez at about 1,000ft would be feasible. Most of the danger zones and restricted zones are only active a few hours per day, as indicated by the AZBA charts on SIA France’s website.
What had appeared to be a network of no-fly zones were deemed to be perfectly flyable, which is often the case with VFR in France. Flight plans were submitted, and as Italy is part of the Schengen area, no customs notification was necessary. We packed our cases and drove to the airfield. Glynn and I were the first to depart, closely followed by Gordon in G-AVGA and David and Sheila in G-OCAD.
Kudos to the French air traffic controllers who were very accommodating to our aircraft in convoy and, as always, guided us waypoint-by-waypoint through the VFR areas and advised us regarding any problems. It made their life easier when the aircraft in front gave all the details of the departure airfield, destination and intended routing, and the aircraft following would just say ‘same routing as G-OSFS’. In other words, any mistakes we made on the radio were not made by the following aircraft!
Needless to say flying along France’s southern coastline at 1,000ft is a spectacular sight. At times we were instructed to descend to 500ft, it’s an incredible feeling to be that low, and travel that fast. From white sandy beaches and salt flats, to Marseille’s harbour and built-up, high-rise hotels – everything was catered for.
Once we reached the St Tropez VOR, we were cleared direct to Marina di Campo at 5,500ft. A right turn to an easterly heading put us on a direct track across the water.
There was a fairly long sea crossing, but the aircraft climbed impeccably well, and we were soon sitting at our new cruising altitude watching the world go by in the sunshine. It was one of those moments where you could quite happily sit in silence for hours, just taking everything in. In the distance we could see cumulus clouds on the north coast of Corsica. However, as we neared they had become towering cumulus and there were CBs about 20 miles south of our position.
Gordon and David climbed to 8,000ft and turned north to avoid the TCUs. Glynn and I saw a gap and managed to plough through, and despite the blue sky temporarily disappearing and the rough air, we came out the other side and continued to do a bit of cloud dodging. It will be noted in the future to avoid TCUs as they can be quite daunting, and in hindsight turning north and climbing to 8,000ft would have been the better option!
The descent into Marina di Campo all happened rather quickly – losing 4,500ft in the space of 30nm with a tailwind involved an orbit to avoid reaching VNE. (It’s worth noting the C177RG is very streamlined – it did not want to slow down and spoilers aren’t an option!)
We were sure to make our radio call while we still had our altitude – and passing the north-easterly side of Corsica is a good place to make it as the aerials at Elba’s only airport aren’t very good.
The approach into Marina di Campo was fantastic – not below 1,200ft – flying over the village of Guardiola if using Runway 16, just as the YouTube video and visual approach chart clearly demonstrates. Following the hills, keeping inside of the power cables, then turning short final whilst slowing the aircraft down kept me busy.
Glynn and I landed first, followed by David and Gordon.
Once we had put the covers on the aircraft and walked through the arrivals section, we found the Mach 1 restaurant and decided it would be a good idea to sink a few bottles of Birra Moretti. It’s frequently said the best plans are made over a beer, so we arranged a hire car for the day and we were kindly dropped off by the hire car company at our hotel, the Allegro Italia Golf Club.
Located in the hills with a distant sea view, 15 minutes drive from Porto Azzurro, it was a good choice, and I was duly congratulated by my friends. I have been in charge of arranging accommodation for some time now – apparently my track record with choosing good hotels for cheap prices is something to contend with – no pressure on me then, eh? Perhaps I was ‘forced’ into the role – these ‘old’ guys and technology, no offence…
For aspiring flyers, a quick search on booking.com or hotels.com is all you need. There are plenty of places available last minute at very reasonable prices. However, be careful not to get into the trap of booking hotels days before you fly, especially if the weather isn’t great.
We had some time to explore Marina di Campo the next morning before flying to Corsica. A browse around the local stalls for some pasta and beer from the island went down well. By the time the weight and balance for the aircraft was re-calculated following our purchases, we were good to go after having a salad for lunch by the picturesque harbour.
Once we paid our overnight parking and handling fees, we were driven by the airport bus to the aircraft, shook hands with the handler and completed the A-checks.
The flight to Corsica was approximately one hour. After taking off from runway 16 we decided to climb to 6,000ft to clear the mountains and stay above the Pianosa danger area, monitored by Roma Information. It just so happened the danger area was closed.
We retained our squawk given to us from Marina di Campo and continued westbound. We were once again blessed with stunning views of 5,000ft mountains, crystal clear turquoise waters and white sandy beaches.
Listening to Calvi’s ATIS, we prepared for an approach on runway 36, which involved flying towards 8,000ft mountains on the downwind leg, which was exciting to say the least. We were welcomed by Calvi’s handling team and waited around in the sunshine for our aircraft to be refuelled.
A taxi was arranged into town and, I must say, I think I did pretty well accommodation-wise this time, too. We stayed at the Grand Hotel in the centre of town, and we didn’t realise until the next morning what fantastic views we had from the breakfast room.
For roughly €40 each for a night plus breakfast, the view was something else – some may even call it paradise. We loved Corsica so much that we decided to stay an extra night and explored the island. We made good use of our time by driving to L’Île-Rousse, a pleasant seaside town. It’s also accessible by train from Calvi for those that don’t have a hire car.
There are ample restaurants to choose from in the narrow streets and around the main square. We each enjoyed an ice-cream and coffee, before Glynn went in search of a pharmacy to get some super-strong insect bite cream to sooth his mosquito bites.
We followed the same route back via St Tropez along the coast, reliving the experience of flying France’s southern coastline, once again below 1,000ft. It was noticeably more turbulent, this time due to the strong winds. Landing at Lezignan after a rough ride was somewhat of a relief, but considering what we had seen and done in the preceding days, a little turbulence didn’t bother us.
A short car journey back to David’s and we were soon sipping beer from his ‘dedicated beer fridge’, reflecting on the recent trip and eagerly awaiting the arrival of our friends Jonathan and Matt who had flown down in a Cessna 182 Turbo RG from Derby that day. From there we went on to La Rochelle.
It’s pretty difficult to put into words how amazing it feels flying in a light aircraft to all the places mentioned in this article. Little did I know when I passed my skills test at the age of 17 that I would be flying around Europe years later with some of the most generous people I’ve met. On top of that, being told I was colour blind at the age of 16 felt like the world had ended, but ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ – and I don’t think you can beat flying like this.
A PPL pretty much allows you to go, within reason, where and when you want without being monitored on various parameters in a commercial environment.
I’m not lucky enough to own an aircraft (yet!) but the guys from Derby each took me under their respective wings and encouraged me to expand my envelope.
Gone are the days of 30-minute flights to nearby airfields for coffee. It all started with a three-hour flight to Wick in 2013 with the same people. Since then there have been trips to Gibraltar, Ireland, Shetland and the Channel Islands.
For those who have just passed their skills test, or those struggling to see the light at the end of the tunnel during training or wondering what to do after you pass your test, I can assure you that there are people out there who will always be willing to offer you a seat in their aircraft and be willing to help you out. I really hope discovering the places that your PPL can take you to will inspire you to do the same.
If you show you’re enthusiastic and willing to learn more, it will work massively in your favour. You will also have to accept that you never stop learning; even if you think you’ve done it all or seen it all.
Life is far too short to miss out on these opportunities, and some of the things you will get to see you cannot put a price on. Keep pushing the boundaries to improve your flying – you will soon begin to realise how different things are outside of the flying school. Grasp every opportunity with both hands and remember that life begins outside of your comfort zone.