VFR around Europe with precisely zilch experience, all while being barely current. Annabel Cook gives it her best shot when she hops into the left seat
12 December 2022
In April this year I had no medical and hadn’t flown since 2019. On 18 September, with just five hours of P1 time in 2022, I left the UK behind – and 5,000ft below me for the first time ever in the left seat.
This wasn’t a solo adventure. My partner, Graham, joined me in our club aircraft ‘KX’. Graham had also barely flown in two years, but got current, so we had a ‘get out of jail’ card if I needed it.
Other than that, he was firmly briefed to ‘let me get on with it unless I’m about to do something dangerous or illegal’.
During the next week I would land at 12 new airfields in three new countries, covering over 2,000nm.
Departing from Farnborough, my first leg took us to Le Touquet. I had been told this would be the hard part of the trip. But, honestly, it was pretty easy. Having meticulously planned and noted all the positions and names of the VRPs, as I reported at Boulogne-sur-Mer, I was told to simply ‘follow the coast and join downwind’.
There was some low cloud to weave around, as both myself and KX are VMC only, but the runway was easy to spot and my landing was, thankfully, a good one.
There was no time for celebration, just an excellent (and massive) baguette from the restaurant next to the terminal building.
The second leg was a longer one, to take us to Troyes overnight, but it would be simple in terms of radio and route, with just a couple of doglegs to avoid airspace.
Unfortunately, the R/T didn’t turn out to be as simple as planned. The first problem was getting my ear in. After Le Touquet, the French accents were fairly strong.
Although I knew what I was expecting to hear, I didn’t always understand what was said. The other surprise was that the air traffic services that I’d been told to call next weren’t those I’d planned for.
Confused and tired, I was relieved to land at Troyes. I can’t recommend this beautiful town enough. At the hotel we picked up a map of a self-guided heritage walking tour, which included hidden alleyways, impressive buildings and fun sculptures.
A perfect unwind from a big day of flying.
The first airfield was Chateauroux, with a 3,500m concrete runway, full ATC and an apron full of big jets. KX felt very small! We then flew on to Saint Laurent, with 900m of ‘grass’ (dust, after a prolonged drought) and my first experience of French air to air radio. Having practised in advance, it was straightforward, but I was still glad the circuit was quiet!
We were there at the invitation of Rob Young and his partner, Susan, who we had met at the FLYER Raduno in June.
Although it wasn’t in our general planned direction of ‘Italy’, our detour turned out to be a great decision for several reasons. The first was that, although Rob was away, he called to say hello, and gave us invaluable advice about our next leg.
To get to Italy, our most direct route would be via Cannes, over the southern end of the Massif Central and through a cluster of Danger and Restricted Areas, and CTAs. Rob let us know that he had flown the route several times and had never had any problems being let through.
With reassurance that we didn’t need to fly ‘the long way’ to Cannes, and Susan looking at the clear blue sky and announcing the weather ‘was too bad to fly’, we took the hint and opted for a much-needed ‘rest day’.
The morning was spent checking the Notams and French AIPs for information on the airspace we would be tackling, and in the afternoon we were treated to a guided tour of the region. Definitely much needed R&R!
Bad news: the TAF for Cannes was showing strong gusty winds. Worse news: the bigger weather picture was low cloud and rain moving into northern Italy over the next few days. Decision time. Did I want to push on to get to the airfields I’d planned for the Raduno and risk getting stuck? Or play it safe and head north instead? There was still weather coming in, but more ‘escape routes’ in that direction. Either way, east towards Cannes was still good, so I opted for a short hop to Millau Larzac before reassessing.
It was slightly strange to land at an unfamiliar airfield and find the place deserted other than military vehicles and uniformed men with big guns. What was even stranger was that they were completely ignoring us.
But another learning experience for me, as, at 2,600ft ASL, it was the highest airfield at which I’d landed. And, more importantly, taken off from… although not that high by many standards!
A quick weather check confirmed that forecast conditions at Cannes had deteriorated, so north it would be. I opted for Saint Etienne and, although it wasn’t needed, called them for PPR. It’s lucky I did, as they said they would be closing in a few hours.
We managed to get there with about 15 minutes to spare, but almost everyone had gone home.
Massive thanks to the local aero club, which was incredibly helpful in trying to find us a taxi. When that wasn’t possible, one of the instructors insisted on driving us to our hotel himself. Merci, Sylvan!
I felt in need of an easier day and some time to regroup, so made a short hop up to Dijon.
First heading due east to get a better view of the Swiss Alps. A few hours spent exploring the streets of the city refreshed us before we headed back to the hotel for some serious replanning.
One of my aims had been to fly to more than one country. I was reluctant to head for home so soon and the weather looked better in Germany, so Friedrichshafen became our next destination.
I routed via the overhead of Luxeuil Saint-Sauveur and was excited to hear them say, ‘G-KX, traffic is two Mirages’ (yes, I got a photo). I also flew through a corner of Swiss airspace. So another country ticked … sort of.
From here we flew to Bayreuth. I hadn’t been able to find a German crib sheet, so had selected airfields which the AIP said provided ATS in English. You can imagine my surprise, and other emotions, as I made my first call and received a reply in German.
More thanks needed, to the anonymous pilot on the radio who translated for me! I’m sure he could hear the relief in my voice.
On the ground, we were greeted by a very friendly ops person. His English was as sparse as my German, but we managed well on a combination of hand signals and smiles.
Now the weather was really starting to close in. We headed west, via Erfurt-Weimar, a larger airport that luckily really DID have English ATS – and seemed slightly surprised that I wanted to visit.
Bonn Hangelar was my second landing of the day, chosen to be as far west as possible and somewhere with good facilities, should we get stuck. The cloud was building and visibility dropping all the time.
The approach to the airport was stunning, coming in low over the Rhine. There was little opportunity to enjoy it though, as the high ground, low visibility and rain showers were taking all my attention.
In our rush to beat the weather we hadn’t had time to eat, so arranged to meet up with one of my colleagues who is based in Bonn. The beer and pizza were both very welcome!
Crunch time. We woke up to drizzle and a forecast full of ‘PROB’ and ‘TEMPO’ between Bonn and the Channel. Luck was with us though and, as we travelled to the airfield, more and more patches of blue appeared.
But, as we flew towards Oostende, the amount of towering cumulus increased, the cloud base got lower and showers started appearing.
It wasn’t changing quickly though, and we had several alternates planned. With Oostende in sight, we could see it would be a race to the runway between me and a heavy shower. I won, obviously, but not by much.
The next race was paperwork vs time. There was a flight plan to file, a GAR to send to the UK and a Belgium police GenDec for leaving the Schengen area. It was getting late, but the weather was improving slightly. We could also see that the weather in the UK was lovely!
We got airborne shortly after 1600 and coasted out uncomfortably low. Thankfully, Oostende Approach was very easy going, asking me what height I wanted to cross the Channel and not being at all bothered when a few minutes later I asked for a new one… about 2,000ft lower!
But, as we crossed to the London FIR, it was like crossing a line in the sky and the British side was a lovely shade of blue.
The double reassurance of gaining some extra height and hearing an English voice on the radio was such a relief.
The beautiful evening weather made the low-level flight around Gatwick back to Farnborough busy, with both of us constantly scanning for traffic.
This trip was destined to be a challenge right to the very end.
A look at just what the trip entailed.
|New airfields / countries||12 / France, Germany, Belgium|
|Time / distance||22 hours and 35 minutes logged / ca 2,123nm flown|
|Longest runway||Chateaureux 3,500 m|
|Shortest runway||Bonn Hangelar 800 m|
|Highest runway||Millau Larzac 2,606ft|
|Lowest runway||Oostende 7ft|
And, as a first timer, I’d add the following tips: