Private pilots George Gruber and Dick Beath fly their Piper Cherokee 6 ‘packed to the rafters’ with supplies for the Ukraine Appeal from their West Country base to Poland…
Words & Photos Georg Gruber
20 April 2022
On Sunday evening 20 March my WhatsApp became a stream of messages, many offering medical supplies. Our plan to fly urgently needed materials to Poland, close to the Ukraine border, had featured on BBC Points West, the daily regional news programme for the West Country, and sparked the generosity of people wanting to help. However, an over-committed work diary and having to make space for two days’ leave at short notice, together with the requisite travel admin, is not an ideal mix for ‘feeling ready and excited to go’. And further exasperation ensued when, on Monday morning, Magdeburg customs in Germany emailed saying I needed to go elsewhere…
Later that day, we had plenty of supplies, 20 or more boxes, together with a healthy pile of cash donated. So… the flight plan was filed and the online GAR customs forms completed. Our departure farm strip Wadswick is an approved international departure – if you fill in the right forms! My wife Belinda was away, but I still need to apologise to our daughter Mia for being so antisocial during the prep. She has been brilliant in helping with the coordination. After a quick overnight bag and snack pack, I set off to bed about 11pm on Monday.
Tuesday morning at 0425 I woke, had a decent breakfast and a proper weather check for the full route, then joined my pilot friend, Dick Beath, at Wadswick airstrip at dawn to pre-flight and pack our aircraft ‘to the rafters’. BBC Radio Wiltshire’s Kelly Morgan was present, who is curious about why we are doing this. My sister, Gigi, also arrives to add further elbow grease to sorting the last boxes and loading up. Doors close on our capacious 1969 Cherokee 6, the 300hp engine starts and once the oil is comfortably warm, a 0655 short-field style take-off, into the rising sun, albeit already 10 minutes later than planned.
It was time to catch our breath. So far so good, with our weight & balance still, only just, inside the safety envelope. It feels real now – and good to be on our way. It was early morning about 1,600ft over the Wiltshire countryside, heading towards Reading, turning onto the quiet airwaves of London Information 124.750 to activate our first VFR flight plan.
Next, we turn north on the autopilot towards High Wycombe to avoid Heathrow airspace. This is my first time flying this route around London over the beautiful Chilterns and some palatial gaffs. East again past Watford and avoiding Elstree Airfield, staying below the 2,500ft CTA and into Stapleford in Essex to top up the fast-emptying fuel tanks with 214 litres of avgas. I’d already spoken with Oli at Stapleford the day before, who assured me he’ll be there early to have the self-service fuel pumps ready from 0800. With no landing fee charged, after a quick good luck greeting, life jackets on, and we climb out in a straight line towards Clacton VOR through Southend airspace under its radar control.
Over the Clacton beacon we veer due-east heading 093 over the Channel to see the morning calm glare off the water, the highway-like shipping channel interspersed with huge static windfarms. After 43 minutes cruising at flight level 55 with a ground speed of about 127kt, we crossed the FIR boundary, arriving overhead the Dutch shoreline just south of Rotterdam at waypoint ODVIL, to stay above the Rotterdam CTA and below the TMA at FL65. We’re now speaking to Rotterdam Approach before it hands us over to Dutch Mil Info at Dordrecht to see us over the German border near Nijmegen. Blink and you miss the Netherlands.
We’re enjoying the benefit of a two-axis autopilot holding us on course to a GPS point or, with the push of a button, following the heading bug to follow precise radar instructions routing us around restricted airspace, which we have prior permission to fly through. Inside the cockpit, regular scans of the panel from left to right, checking oil and engine temperatures in the green, oil and fuel pressures OK, electrics charging and fuses all good, no ice building on the wings, setting the next radio frequencies and sense checking our navigation. The aircraft has recently been fitted with a new three-blade propeller, and once trimmed, flies smoothly free of any hands or feet on the controls. This frees up time to enjoy the views, study the ‘knobology’ of the GNS530 GPS, or learn a bucket load of more detail about the brilliant SkyDemon flight planning and navigation app.
At the German border we switch to Langen Information with a QNH of 1032 – a real high pressure is sitting over central Europe giving excellent flying conditions – and continue east through the northern fringes of Düsseldorf, Dortmund and Paderborn airspaces. I double check with Dutch Mil for the right frequency to enter German airspace, which is very accommodating to VFR traffic flying direct routes – if we stay high enough. By this time we were climbing to FL75 routing onto waypoint KUMER at the Munich FIR boundary, en route to our fuel stop Leipzig Halle in the former East Germany.
Approaching Leipzig we had to dive abruptly right, then left onto runway heading to stay below the 2,000ft airspace restriction, to land on Runway 08, on this vast, deserted airport, the second biggest in Germany. Still vacant of tourism due the pandemic, this airport is a hive of activity at night acting as the European hub for DHL. Once landed, a sharp right turn onto the taxiways for probably two kilometres around to the General Aviation terminal, then behind the ‘follow me’ van into our parking spot. A small avgas fuel truck comes to fill the thirsty wings, while we tuck into some of our onboard snacks. Then we were whisked off to a loo stop, very friendly customs ‘eye-winking’ that we needed a PCR test and onto a third destination to pay the landing fees. Clearly, I was anxious that the customs clearance hadn’t worked as required, but Herr Steffen assured me on the phone that all would be easy at Leipzig. ‘Everyone is welcome’ post-Brexit.
The weather was hazy up to about 2,000ft, but not a cloud in sight until our final destination in east Poland a 1,000 miles east from Bath in north Somerset. We could see the ground all the way, although the forward visibility was often a good deal less than 10km. The winds were from the south giving us 7-10kt of ‘wind in the sails’ assistance. Ninety-five per cent of the route was glass smooth, with just a few bumps passing over the Rhein valley.
We were able to use the many thermals en route to convert the updraft into additional forward speed, maxing out at 164kt of ground speed on day one. We are still only about 25 hours into a new reconditioned engine, so running at high power settings as part of a good running-in regime, with 2,400rpm and fuel flow a thirsty 16 gallons per hour in cruise. At these altitudes on a non-turbo engine, we run out of max manifold pressure above 6,500ft.
Take-off from Leipzig is a short taxi away on 08 right this time. A straight-out climb east towards the Polish border. Back onto Langen Information with a warning of active military zone R76A shy of the border. Before long we pass Goerlitz, to switch over to Poznan Information for some more straightforward R/T, working hard at keeping the comms short and correct. No word of a lie, but everything to do with longer trips has felt a little rusty… but it is comforting to feel the old knowledge rapidly surfacing. Our one mil Europe map was brilliant at showing the next frequencies to call when crossing borders. SkyDemon is great, but I find it less than clear on the next frequency.
The last time I had crossed borders was more than 10 years ago flying the length and breadth of Southern Africa. This is where flying is brilliant, covering vast distances in a few hours, with a bird’s eye view that helps my inner Asperger build a mental map of the whole route with geographic relief, key cities and major rivers. Some of the places down there I’ve called home or have been meaningful places of work. Amsterdam and Osnabruck just a bit north. Straight over Lippstadt which touches on my family history. Düsseldorf was my first-ever five-star hotel stay in my early career. Köln, just to the south, was home briefly 31 years ago while an accidental journalist. Phew, a rabbit hole of distraction, but let’s get back to flying this trip…
Once into Poland, we route south around active danger zone D31, then zig zag north past Lubin city, before heading east on heading 091 at 139kt ground speed to waypoint Luben 140 miles away. Yes, the difference between ‘Lubin’ and ‘Luben’ needs very clear R/T. Wider open fields, lots of forestry and rectangle farms, the occasional city, rivers and dotted villages along the radial roads. Approaching Luben, two giant open cast mines providing coal to the adjacent power-station puffing white clouds of smoke straight up, before turning onto heading 068 direct to our final destination Piastów, a grass airfield just north of the city of Radom.
Talking to Warsaw Information, we need to stay above the low level military routes and outside of Radom controlled airspace. It’s approaching 1700 local time, the very bright day is turning into an orange sunset glow, the haze thickening again. We are now focused on looking out for any conflicting aircraft, as we descend straight onto finals and happen to overtake a small Cessna on approach. Interestingly we haven’t seen another GA aircraft in the air all day, just a few airliners leaving contrails. Short finals now, but 1,000ft too high, so a quick orbit left to rejoin left base for runway 05 for a smooth touch down on the welcomingly wide 800m grass strip. A car appears to guide us down some muddy taxiways to the fuel bowser for some further PA32 thirst quenching.
We finally meet our host Rafal, a local flying instructor at Piastów, passionate glider pilot and aviation historian, with a day job as safety officer at Warsaw Airport. Thursday last week we had a few options of airfields, but short of any English speaking local contacts. One call to my British Aerobatics Academy instructor Maciej ‘Magic’ Kulaszewski sorted a trusted contact and a ‘thumbs up, all sorted’ for destination airfield, avgas 100LL, accommodation and logistics for all the support to be delivered. Alongside our super host Rafal Siankowski, we meet Oleksandr Balytskyi, a young Ukrainian private pilot based in Radom who speaks great English. He’s an engineer by day and passionate about competitive precision flying, partly sponsored by his employer. Oleksandr filled his car with the medical supplies – all these generous boxes of bandages, plasters, antiseptic, gloves, operating materials, syringes – and was in a hurry to get them delivered across the Ukrainian border into the hands of the civil defence, of which his his dad and brother are part. By midnight we had confirmation that this was done, after a four-hour drive to their destination. His sister-in-law has taken it across the border, so Oleksandr can remain in Poland.
Next Rafal’s estate car is filled with the other half of the load, mainly personal and feminine hygiene, nappies, baby food and fresh underwear, before we put the aircraft in a hangar and head into the centre of Radom. By this time, fatigue is setting in. It’s becoming obvious how long the day has been. Sitting all day with full concentration has left me with a sore neck and throbbing head, which soons disappears after taking a headache tablet.
Not exactly sure what the order of events are now. Rafal’s English is good, but we’re all working hard to make each fully understood. I’m keen to message ‘arrived safely’ home, and to my wife visiting our daughter in Texas, and respond to another torrent of ‘how’s it going’ WhatsApps. A short tour of Radom centre and we come to a stop. Not sure if this is our accommodation for the night, but quickly realise we are entering the very professional sorting centre. Past a skip outside for the cardboard boxes through a regular door into a large hall venue bustling with about 50 volunteers fetching, carrying and sorting the various goods received into neat piles on the pre-marked floor. We spot two girl guides and ask for a photo with Dick to share with the Pucklechurch Girl Guides whose team effort collected a large box of things for us to bring along. Somewhat surprisingly to me, nobody spoke English, but word quickly got round these two English guys (real madmen!) had flown all the way from England to drop this stuff here today. Bemusement and gratitude radiated from their smiles and hand signals.
Then it was onto a centrally located restaurant for a delicious meal of ribs and fowl, traditional food done in a modern way, and a large local Żywiec beer. Rafal would not let us pay or make a contribution. Moreover, our overnight accommodation is ‘chez Rafal’, his wife away on a business trip, on his sofa and study pull-out. Filled and replete with food, solid sleep ensues.
At 0520 the next morning Rafal is in his kitchen prepping a hearty breakfast of cheeses, salami, pickles, cooked sausages, soft scrambled eggs with paprika, bread, tea, coffee and cake. Wow! By 0630 we’re showered and on our way to the airfield. Rafal has a normal working day ahead and is kindly helping us pull our aircraft out of the hangar on this frosty morning, before heading to his day job in Warsaw.
A good pre-flight checking fuel and oil levels, control surfaces and undercarriage free of defects and draining a fuel sample for contamination. We fire up the engine at 0732 (0632 UK time or Zulu flight planning time), carefully taxi back to Runway 23 and take off at 0743. Now we climb to FL085 and broadly retrace our route back home. It’s prep time for the arrival of US President Joe Biden tomorrow, so today Warsaw information routes us further south, then Łask approach gives us a direct route through Wrocław airspace, as we head to waypoint NAROX on the German border. Over the border we’re back talking to Langen Information which guides us north around Dresden airspace for a direct approach into Leipzig. Here we quickly refuel again at the mighty price of £2.58/litre, jump in the friendly service van for customs, and stamp for the British passport holder among us, pay the landing fee, pop to the loo and we’re off again. I did laugh at the local ‘weather centre’ outside the customs office. A sizeable rock suspended above the ground on a cable, with accompanying key indicating ‘dry, rain, wind, snow, ice’.
Start up clearance provided by Leipzig Ground via our handheld radio. Closing the doors and donning life-jackets again, we have a 10 minute threshold wait for 26L, while two Boeing heavy metals ahead of us, depart, and arrive respectively. Next we’re rolling for a straight-out climb, staying VFR outside of controlled airspace until we can climb to FL85. I request a direct route to waypoint DEPAD, but I am encouraged to remain outside controlled airspace. Switching to ‘ein bisschen Deutsch’ (‘a little bit of German’), we are granted direct routing.
For most of the journey, the outside air temperature is about two degrees at altitude, and inside our cabin heating is working well. Cabin air is warmed off the exhausts, so we also carry a carbon monoxide monitor to ensure that all remains safe throughout. Fortunately, we’ve also filed flight plans for each sector, so no need to repeat all the details as you do when asked to ‘pass your message’ in VFR flight.
From DEPAD near the Dutch border, we switch to Dutch mil which requests us to descend to 5,500ft. Moments later we’re talking to Amsterdam, coasting out at ODVIL and playing radio ping-pong, until they encourage us to call London Information before we cross the FIR. Our transponder has occasionally been playing up, sometimes indicating us at FL105 which rings alarm bells for air traffic control, or not giving any altitude information, requiring us to confirm our altitude from time to time. Sometimes switching it off to ‘recycle’ helped, mostly not. Clearly something for us to get checked out properly, as we spent most of this trip travelling through transponder mandatory space.
Although we have sufficient fuel to get us all the way home to Wadswick, we decide to call into Stapleford again to fill up. The service is great and fuel here is cheaper than anywhere else we have recently refuelled. We’ve made excellent time, so no harm in a good English cuppa, a hearty bowl of soup with bread, and a leg stretch in the fresh air. A quick message ‘nearly home’ and we’re off again after some waiting at the busy Stapleford threshold. This looks like a very well run training airfield, with many younger male and female student pilots about.
Another hot engine start accomplished, now onto the final leg. Low level back around Heathrow, past the only few clouds we see on the whole trip and due west from Reading. By this time we can relax and take in more of the surroundings. I am really surprised at the beautiful countryside and some ‘obscenely’ large properties as we route back avoiding a microlight field and Camilla’s home near Lacock to arrive back on the ground at Wadswick by 1640. We hangar the aircraft, replace the seats, thank each other for a safe flight and great adventure, before heading home with a glow of satisfaction at a ‘job well done’.
Why did we do this? To help people in need and provide some tangible support in getting goods to where they are needed. We have also made some new connections with people on the frontline who are able to share the daily needs of those affected.
Our Polish and Ukrainian contacts are very grateful for this, to write: ‘Thank you very much. Medical aid already in Ukraine. People are in awe of what gesture you have made’. This has been yet another lesson in life to step out of your comfort zone, leverage your knowledge and networks, trust that people generally want to help, and appreciate specific guidance on how they can help. It feels much easier having done the trip… maybe I worry too much about the details, but then that’s me.