Flying Adventure

First IFR flight to Spain – get in!

Robbie Garrett was determined to achieve a long IFR flight in its entirety, and despite landing almost five hours later than planned, experiencing severe convection, and a night IFR landing, he succeeded. Here’s Robbie’s own story of the eventful flight.

This time last year, with most of Europe fully open after Covid restrictions, I felt it was time to take a really long IFR flight. My original destination was San Sebastian or Bilbao in April, but with weather issues, it turned out to be May and a return to Barcelona.

I had a passenger for the trip, my friend Ryan, and so he concentrated on the location of our stay for the weekend, while I put all my efforts into the flying – and the determination to fly it wholly IFR.

I’d never flown to Spain and was very keen to do this trip before making the big journey to Ibiza in August, when the party season would be in full flow.

There are four airports within the Barcelona area that would be doable. One is Barcelona El Prat, the other is Sabadell, which is VFR only. North of the city are Girona and Reus, but they are at least an hour away by train.

Barcelona El Prat is the second busiest airport in Spain and the sixth busiest in Europe. It’s located 9.3 miles south-west of the centre of Barcelona. While planning this trip, the airport was a choice but the cost was prohibitive and anyway, on 24 March it was announced that aircraft less than 2,000kg max weight would be allowed to fly in or out.

I was keen to fly this whole trip IFR for the purposes of experience as well as to gain confidence, so I looked at Girona. Girona Airport is used as an alternative airport for Barcelona, even though it is 46 miles north.

The airport has good alternatives on the other side of the Pyrenees and a selection of airports that could be used in emergencies.  The selection had more to do with my comfort rather than just flying IFR – I wanted to do the journey direct – so having a fully capable airport within the range of the aircraft was ideal.

IFR to Spain
Loading the DA40 at Stapleford – look at the weather!

I contacted all the handlers at Girona and most responded, except Iberia, and they all wanted almost €300 for any contact.

So, we rang Iberia, with a Spanish translation on hand, and eventually were given a budget of €24.41 x2 for ramp handling and transport of €7.74 x2 + an additional €20 x2 for the security pass. This was a lot more than the expected cost set by AENA, the Spanish aviation authority. However, it was a lot cheaper than the other handling agents.

Iberia needed details of the fuel handler and requested, as per the AIP, that we sought permission from AENA to operate to, and fly from, Girona. I contacted AENA and received its response of approval, which had been cc’d to Iberia in an email. Although no slot is required from the coordination office in Madrid for a visit to Girona, this process was still required locally by the airport.

The refuel company was a little more difficult, as there was no response to any emails. However, when ringing them with a Spanish translation at hand (again), they thought we were at the airfield ‘there and then’.  Consequently, we didn’t bother too much with the refueller as we felt sure that Iberia would ‘handle it’.

We also had to fill in a GenDec, kindly provided by a user on the EuroGA website. We sent this as soon as possible to Iberia which forwarded it to the relevant authorities.

Now we knew the destination airport, this left just the accommodation which neede to have reasonable options in case of a cancellation of the GA flight – that can still happen even if you have an Instrument Rating.

After a little deliberation on whether we would stay in Barcelona itself or treat ourselves to a more luxurious, yet cheaper, hotel with a pool in the Costa Brava, Ryan quickly found two Aqua hotels located in Santa Susanna.

We stayed at the Aqua Hotel Onabrava & Spa for three nights at a total cost of £419.37 for the two of us – £69.90 per night, per person. Within the vicinity of the hotel are the beach, many restaurants and a railway with a decent service even on a Sunday to Barcelona city centre.

On this flight, we used a Mountain High System AL-647 oxygen system. This is the first time I had ever used supplementary oxygen, and received a full briefing from the owner along with some additional self-learning of all the functions. The bottle is 3.8kg or roughly 4kg with its padded cylinder carry-on.

I also invested in an MH-3 Flowmeter which is calibrated for use with the Oxymizer™ cannula. With the MH3, you can set the flight level/altitude to the desired level to save oxygen consumption.

According to the cylinder duration chart, at 10,000ft one individual bottle will last 26.9 hours, and at 15,000ft – 14.8 hours. For any other figures, it’s important to interpolate to get a rough figure for the set attitude.

This setup proved its worth, allowing flights under the IFR system that would not have happened because of the distances flown above the weather. To further enhance safety and the ability to outclimb and fly further afield, I plan to invest in a Mountain High O2D2 System (incorporating an EDS, Regulator, and Glass-Fibre Filament Cylinder CFF-048). This is a 3,000psi cylinder giving roughly 83.6 hours at 10,000ft or 40.5 hours at 15,000ft with the EDS. The MH EDS provides oxygen only when you inhale, thus reducing oxygen consumption and doubling the duration available.

Planning for the flights I used and roughly seven days before departure gives the ability to see what conditions are forecast. That’s via a GRAMET and an estimated en route flight time which isn’t very accurate, although occasionally can be. Confusing, I know.

The quickest route was 4hr 30min out of Stapleford via Detling (DET) avoiding Gatwick and down via Le Havre, west of Paris and Limoges, Perpignan, before finally crossing into Spain via a waypoint called KANIG.

As the day of the flight got closer, the weather became a little more impractical. We could either depart well ahead of the front early in the morning, or depart after but face the difficulty of stronger than forecast winds which meant a longer flight or a stop for fuel, which in turn would add almost an hour.

I’d been warned that flying in fronts isn’t comfortable and have flown in a fair few weak affairs, especially cold fronts in the autumn and winter. It’s not just turbulence you have to worry about, but icing, even in summer. 

With stronger winds on the routing due west of Paris, I refiled via east of Paris, which meant a delay due to the front and would put us into the mix of the next front, meaning a fair amount of active Cbs.

I initially elected to delay my flight due to not wanting to fly in the front and be in thick IMC for an hour of the flight. 

Top of climb over France

Once I placed a DLA (delay) message in the system, I got an ATC slot. This delay was fairly lengthy due to ATC capacity caused by the weather in the Paris TMA which we would fly through.

I tried my luck by refiling an EOBT (Estimated Off Block Time) earlier than my second EOBT by deleting the flight plan and then filling a CHG (change) message, to try to initiate a better slot, this gave us a worse slot but eventually, it got smaller by almost two hours of delay.

While I made the mistake of refiling, never delete your flight plan from the system, because you’ll get a new ID and thus a worse delay. Lesson learned, but incredibly frustrating for everything to go spectacularly wrong on the day.

When we elected to depart the weather had improved substantially – and everyone from Stapleford Flight Centre also decided to start flying. We taxied the short distance to the runway and awaited our clearance. There was some confusion with our callsign, and ATC couldn’t find our flight plan. 

I opened up CFMU on the laptop and found it. I decided to ring Swanwick myself and eventually, the flight was found, and I got my release details in what was an unforeseen delay to an already delayed departure. I was getting frustrated, but had to now focus on the flight.

We departed towards the south-east and quickly changed over to Thames Radar and climbed up through a band of small, but relatively benign towering cumulus.

We were airborne with a delay of 2hr and 25min from planned.

This was the first time with the oxygen system, so wanted to give us time. We were shortly asked by London ATC to clarify our intentions which were to stop at FL110 to turn the oxygen on before our eventual climb to FL130. We might seem somewhat paranoid because we’d both never used an oxygen cannula system to provide oxygen, but it was fine once we got the hang of breathing through the nose.

With a tailwind of 40kt, we were cruising along in the climb at 120kt ground speed, which was totally unexpected. But as we progressed towards France and enjoyed the views of the cloud below us, we had to make our plans to navigate around some convective weather in the not-too-distant future.

aircraft panel
Stapleford's DA40 is well equipped with Aspen PFD and MFD

Having very limited experience with both high altitude flight and avoiding convective weather while at altitude I chose to play it safe and give the CBs a wide berth.

The frequency was very busy with airliners going into the main Paris airports and avoiding the weather, of which Paris Control had no problems. It’s easy to see why it limits ATC capacity for the sectors involved, with the sheer amount of traffic requesting avoidance.

We continued to get up close and personal with some of the weather, and I noticed the updraughts and downdraughts while on autopilot, which meant that I would lose airspeed or gain it. In one instance I lost 20kt and had to apply full throttle and nose down momentum to recover from the loss of airspeed. This was most likely due to choosing a 60% power setting to conserve fuel.

I suspect with the strength of the wind coupled with the close proximity to the cells, it caused the aircraft to act in a way I’d never seen before. This was a very steep learning curve!

As we flew further towards the middle of France, the weather became more challenging, and I felt boxed in by the cumuliform below and the mid-level clouds above.

We did not need to climb further or descend, and after a period of avoiding the weather and having a lower-than-anticipated ground speed, we continued to make further tracks for Spain.

ATC was very proactive in allowing weather avoidance, and we weren’t the only aircraft being accommodated. ATC did routinely ask how long we needed the heading for and would also assist where possible with other requests.

Once we got through a band of isolated CBs, some of which we believed were electrical, we could continue with our filed flight plan.

By the time we had passed south-west of Dijon, we were able to descend to FL120 to conserve oxygen. It then became a few hours of monitoring the fuel situation carefully as the predicted ETA was at the lengths of the endurance for the aircraft. 

One problem I created was by adding the alternate route and alternate aerodrome, which then means the ETA at the destination is that of the alternate, not the destination.

Confusing, but makes sense as the Garmin GTN navigator does not include the ability to set alternates and alternate flight plans, although one could simply create the route and save it to the route database for future use.

Once we were north of Clermont, we descended to FL110 where the oxygen supplement was minimal. Due to the delay in our departure, our ETA (once we got the gist of it) was after sunset, which meant I would be gaining an unexpected night landing on this trip. As the wind dropped off slightly, the ETA slowly pulled back but fluctuated randomly. 

Robbie, on left here, and Ryan, enjoying the flight

It really was the final push for Girona, and I carefully estimated my landing fuel so we would land with sufficient reserves. 

With an hour to go, and some visible daylight, we could see the French coast and the Med, a sense that we had flown from one end of France to the other… and the journey wasn’t yet over. In the murky haze we could just make out the mountains, which made me nervous. 

I had the ability and time to enable some additional features on the Aspen Avionics showing the terrain and adjusting the cockpit lighting for the landing. The autopilot comes into its own here, as it is effectively flying blind with the surrounding terrain and the haze making for an interesting approach.

After a very quick handover to Barcelona Radar, we were making our descent towards Girona. It wasn’t long before we were transferred to Girona approach – it was a probable fluke, but a perfect continuous descent approach, and the aircraft glided down towards the ILS.

I still couldn’t see the runway lights in the haze, so ATC turned up the intensity to help, as this was a very different, albeit pulsating, experience of flying into Spain at night. Unfortunately, I didn’t pitch up enough to maintain the glide path and dipped below slightly when passing the decision height.

Sunset somewhere over the Pyrenees

While the lights were pretty impressive to a certain extent and did assist with landing, they became fairly intense very quickly and meant concentration after six hours airborne was a tough undertaking.

I was immensely proud to have made it, this flight trumped all previous flights I’d flown, nothing compares. We landed 4hr and 25min later than planned, but the whole experience was surreal. From bailing out on the weather to experiencing severe convection en route, before making the perfect sunset arrival into the Pyrenees and a first, night IFR landing. 

As we vacated, we were guided by a follow-me vehicle before slowly making our way to our stand. After two minutes to allow cool down, and after some seven hours of the engine running, we shut down.

We were met by a representative from Iberia, who seemed to grow impatient (we were late arriving), as he needed to take us to the terminal for processing by police and customs. This was fairly straightforward and our passports were not stamped as we were ‘crew’. Strange but nevertheless we proceeded to the terminal building and emptied our bladders for the first time in seven hours – zero coffee did the trick.

We proceeded to the coach park, which was massive, and probably on par with that of a much busier airport, but not much was going on. A few coaches departed and ours arrived once we had a bigger gathering of people.

We hadn’t realised at this point why there were loads of drunk Dutch people on our coach*. They were having a great time, but we did wonder how they flew from the Netherlands to here in that ‘state’.

We were finally on our way to the hotel. We sat down at the bar and made the restaurant’s last order with five minutes to spare. What a way to reflect on what had been a momentous and achievable day for myself and my passenger. 

*The Dutch were there to cheer on Max Verstappen – it was the weekend of the Spanish F1 Grand Prix at the nearby Circuit De Catalunya

  • Read Robbie’s full story of the flight here 

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