Stu Strachan and others from Kemble-based Freedom Aviation set off on an hour-building tour of Europe, not intentionally seeking out bad weather but, hey, it found them…
3 March 2023
Kemble – Kirkbride – Easter – Tingwall – Bergen
We all arrived bright and early on Monday morning, full of enthusiasm and ready for adventure. The weather leading up to the trip had been mixed, with forecasts differing greatly in their predictions for Norway over the coming days. While a five-day tour of Norway was the initial aim of the trip, it was looking like that may not be suitable in its entirety. The plan was to get to Bergen that evening, with a view to then reassess the weather and make a decision whether to remain in Norway or head south.
We got to work preparing the three aircraft and loading our kit. On a trip where mass & balance was going to be tight at the best of times, we had strictly limited ourselves to a small 5kg bag each for the five days. Someone, however, having evidently missed the memo, announced his arrival with the unmistakable sound of not one, but two rolling suitcases…
The first leg was a good indicator of things to come, with a band of rain forecast to be stationary over the middle of England for most of the day. After departing Kemble, the trio split, with our aircraft opting to take the longer, but clearer, Manchester low level corridor, while the other two took a more direct routing IFR through Liverpool’s airspace.
Will S, who had just recently passed his IR(R) and, having spent the majority of his training on gin-clear days under the foggles, finally got to experience the thrill of sitting in a cloud for two hours. As we popped out of the northern end of the corridor it was clear that we wouldn’t be getting the scenic tour of the Lake District this time around, so instead we also climbed into the cloud and proceeded IFR over the lakes. We cleared the band of poorer weather and began our descent into a rather grey Kirkbride for a quick refuel.
Having put the worst of the rain behind us, the leg from Kirkbride to Easter was considerably sunnier, and we made an almost direct track for Easter – a small friendly grass strip just north of Inverness. Refuelling at Easter was the usual slick and efficient service from the dream team, David Eades and Dave Munro, and from there, we departed northward toward Shetland – an hour-and-a-half leg consisting of sea… and not much else.
The rolling blue waves were only broken momentarily by Fair Isle – a small island of only 65 people known for its knitwear and rather spicy runway.
Shetland often has some of the worst weather in Scotland, so we felt as if we had hit the jackpot arriving to blue skies and sunshine.
On approach to Tingwall we were treated to views of lush green fields, small coastal fishing villages, and turquoise blue waters that wouldn’t look out of place in the Caribbean. Maybe our fortunes were looking up!
Our good fortunes continued for the crossing of the North Sea.
It’s safe to say spending two hours in a single-engine aircraft over a chilly North Sea doesn’t exactly evoke feelings of comfort, but we were well prepared – lifejackets donned, life rafts on standby and a 20kt tailwind all helped to bring a bit of ‘warm and fuzzy’ to our sea crossing.
As we descended towards the coast of Norway, we were efficiently handed over to Bergen Approach and cleared for a VFR arrival via the standard reporting points.
Unfortunately for us, we must’ve used up all of our good fortune on the sea crossing, as we were informed we would have to hold prior to joining, which is not uncommon and something you would expect at a busy international airport such as Bergen.
However, as number eight to land, it turned out we were going to be holding for a considerable amount of time.
After no less than 30 minutes circling round the town of Telavog, dizziness setting in, we were finally cleared to join downwind. We left our reporting point and made our way down the valley, with high mountains either side, we had our first taste of Norway. We approached to a very impressive full display of runway lights and touched down at a drizzly Bergen.
After the usual faff getting to grips with foreign fuel systems, and a healthy dose of Brexit-based banter with the cheery Norwegian customs officials, we headed into town for some food and a drink.
Will C, despite his persistent claims that he doesn’t drink, treated himself to a beer (after all, it had been a long day). First impressions of Norway were all very positive – so far, so good!
Bergen – Haugesund – Thisted – Wangerooges – Padderborn Haxterberg
We rose early on Tuesday morning to have another updated look at the weather. Unfortunately an area of low pressure was hanging over the north of Norway and bringing with it persistent low cloud and rain. So, the decision was made to head south to Denmark, and then Germany, where the forecast was for better weather.
We departed Bergen and stayed low in the VFR lanes following the fjords, to a small town called Odda – recognisable to the Netflix enthusiasts as the filming location for Ragnarok.
Unfortunately, hanging low cloud over the mountains meant that there was no option to simply fly over and go direct, so we had to resort instead to following the fjords to wind our way round to the town. Mind you, this was no bad thing, as the scenery around the fjords was incredible.
If you’ve ever had the fortune of flying in the Scottish Highlands, imagine that, scaled up ten-fold. The mountains are higher, the lakes are larger and everything is just that bit more imposing.
En route, Ant, full-time flying instructor and part-time nature guide, proved that there is indeed more to a geography degree than just colouring in, as he gave us the expert guided tour pointing out the various glaciers and rock forms that lined the mountains.
As we climbed higher for a better look it became clear that the glaciers were all connected, and that we were in fact looking at the edge of the Folgefonna National Park, the third largest glacier in Norway!
On climbing to the glacier, we also found a handy gap in the cloud which allowed us to cross the ridge and head down into the next valley to continue southwards.
Unfortunately (as was to be the theme for the trip!) the weather deteriorated quite significantly down the valley, leading us to a point where our option to continue south over land was all but gone – a situation we were somewhat expecting from the forecast, but hoping might not be the case. Instead, our only safe option now was to wind our way out to the coast, and follow it southwards to Denmark.
While this did involve a fair amount of airspace and danger area crossing, traffic was unsurprisingly minimal given the weather, and Norwegian Air Traffic Control was more than helpful in accommodating our requests to cross airspace.
Having got to the coast, there was no real sign of the weather improving, and, having been somewhat worn down by the weather plus the added time for detours, we decided to divert into Haugesund for a quick regroup and leg stretch.
From here we had a relatively uneventful sea crossing down to Thisted in Denmark, before continuing on to Germany via Heligoland – a former British colony and now tourist attraction that was the site of Operation Big Bang – one of the largest disposals of post-war munitions where the island was almost blown up entirely.
Eventually we touched down in Germany at Wangerooge Airfield – a stop we had definitely not chosen just for the name – where we got some updated weather for Germany and devised a plan for going forward.
Our final stop for the night was to be Paderborn Haxterberg, a smaller airfield just to the east of the larger Paderborn Lippstadt, in what turned out to be an uncharacteristically uneventful leg. The late evening air was smooth with a setting sun, the radios were quiet and for the first time on the trip we were able to simply enjoy the views!
Cam, a former army colonel who had spent more than his fair share of time with BAOR (British Army Of the Rhine) in Germany, was the perfect candidate to make the first call and lead us in… if only he could locate the airfield!
After an initial call in textbook Deutsch, the controller – perhaps having seen Cam heading straight for the aerial minefield of wind turbines which shrouded the airfield – very kindly suggested turning on the runway lights, and Cam swiftly reorientated himself, and adjusted course to the safer direction of the field itself.
We landed at Haxterberg and were greeted by Dennis, the very friendly owner/operator of the airfield, who helped us get sorted and arrange a taxi into town for some well-deserved steak – and then bed.
Will C, ever the teetotaller, had a beer (after all, in the home of beer, it would be rude not to…!).
Paderborn Haxterberg – Hoexter-Holzminden – Genderkingen – Pula – Medulin
We had been warned by Dennis the previous evening that the weather wasn’t looking suitable for our departure in the morning, so we awoke relieved to see that the German Met forecasters are just as reliable as the British…
Thankfully, the weather at Paderborn wasn’t as bad as expected, and our new friend Dennis was happy to let us depart. Unfortunately for us, the weather had moved slightly southward and was lingering over our intended course in southern Germany.
Our initial plan of remaining VMC for the leg was becoming increasingly doubtful, and it was when ATC advised us that we were the only VFR traffic in the area and to ‘inform immediately of your plan B’, that we realised we probably wouldn’t be staying VMC for much longer.
Unfortunately, it was not simple for us to simply request an IFR service while airborne, so as a result, we decided to pre-emptively divert so that we could replan and file for an IFR flight plan (ironically ending up further north than we had started).
Thanks to Matt and Ant’s prior experience and computer wizardry, filing an IFR route through the airways ended up being a fairly swift and straightforward affair, and we were soon airborne again, climbing our way up into the airways.
The rain was indeed worse than forecast, and as we flew through it we were thankful to have taken the decision to divert, as we almost certainly wouldn’t have made it through VFR. The twin paired Garmin 650 and G5 setup in Freedom’s PA28s made instrument flying a dream, and we got a nice taste of the airliner world (minus the Champagne and peanuts) as we cruised along the airways down to south Germany.
We made a quick stop off at Genderkingen for a bite to eat and some fuel, and then took off again and headed towards the Alps.
The Alps themselves were postcard perfect. Flying in among the towering peaks was truly incredible, and offered a vastly different landscape to the mountains of the UK (for context, even the smaller peaks were nearly all taller than Ben Nevis). By now the sky was clear and jagged rocky peaks went for as far as the eye could see, broken periodically by deep green alpine valleys. We had initially intended to take a relatively direct route across the Alps, but as it turned out a fully loaded PA28 at 9,000ft and three POB is somewhat lacking in performance (helped in no part by the massive pizza for lunch).
Dave, Cam and Will S in G-CLEA were the front of the pack and first to proceed into the higher ground… Staring down a solid wall of rock and having reached the limits of the aircraft’s performance, they opted to turn back and think about another route.
Having sent CLEA up the literal creek without a metaphorical paddle, and feeling somewhat responsible as it was us who decided the route, Matt, Ged and I figured that perhaps the lack of performance related to the occupants rather than the aircraft (the suggestion of a ‘heavy’ suffix to the callsign wasn’t well received). So we, the younger, fitter and all round higher-performing aeroplane, gave it a crack to see if we could get the climb necessary to clear the ridge.
Needless to say, with the best will in the world, we were also not going to make it with any safe margin, so we came running back, tail between our legs, and taking back any previous sarcastic comments made to CLEA. Instead, we all headed eastwards with an intention of crossing south through Slovenia.
Aside from the minor performance issues, we had been spoiled with two hours of relatively peaceful flying, so we were more than overdue some miserable weather again… And as it happened, that weather came to us as we reached the Slovenian border.
The mountains on the border at the Triglav National Park are all relatively high (7,000ft+). A spine of tall peaks lines the border and a lowering cloud base posed a physical and metaphorical brick wall, not really offering many options to pass. Thankfully we were trailing slightly behind the lead aircraft, and having been passed this information from them in good time, we were able to alter our course slightly and find a suitable gap to cross.
The downside was that while this gap was clear of rain and cloud, it did put us almost directly downwind of Mt Triglav (Slovenia’s highest mountain), and although the winds were relatively light, there was still a fair amount of unexpected rotor turbulence being produced.
After some impromptu, Triglav-induced UP recovery practice, and having learned the importance of not paying lip service to ‘harness – secure’, we managed to push out of the worst of it and arrived at a very scenic Lake Bled.
It seemed that the sky gods had collectively decided that we still hadn’t worked hard enough for this leg, and as we turned at Lake Bled we were greeted with yet more undesirable weather on our intended course.
We had initially planned to track down one of the published VFR routes for Slovenia, but a quick look in that direction soon told us that was again going to be a ‘no go’.
Instead, we headed yet further east over to Ljubljana, where ATC again was more than helpful in providing us a crossing of the main airport. From there we managed to find a suitable route south from there to Croatia – an intended two hour leg becoming four-and-a-half hours, all in all.
From there it was a smooth, and thankfully, hassle-free rest of the journey to Pula, on Croatia’s coast. At Pula we cleared customs and made the short five min hop over to Medulin, where we were greeted by the warmest of welcomes by the three generations of Doric family who run the strip.
The beauty of the Freedom trips is that over the years they have been running, Dave and Co. have built up good relationships with a lot of the local airfields, and the evening was like hanging out with friends you’d known forever.
We were treated to a spread of meats, bread, fruit and wine on the patio, and had a great evening recalling our heroic tales from the Alps, as well as learning about the impressive AN2 that was parked up at the airfield. A taxi into town was arranged and we all enjoyed dinner before heading to bed.
Teetotal Will C had a beer (if only to settle the nerves of a near-death trip through the Alps).
Medulin – Pula – Portoroz – Ozzano – Fayence – Cannes
After a quick stroll around Pula town we made our way back to Medulin airport, where we were kindly given a tour of the AN2 – an aircraft so rugged it doesn’t stall and can land pretty much anywhere!
We made the short hop across to Pula Airport for customs again, and then continued back into the Schengen zone via Portoroz, Slovenia.
From here we headed across the water to Ozzano, Italy – famous for its aeroplane shaped pool that unfortunately was closed – so no refreshing midday dip for us! We then took off and headed west, with the intention of reaching France.
Unfortunately, as seemed to be becoming standard for the trip, a band of rather unfavourable rain and CBs lay across the route.
This was forecast to stay well to the north of us but unfortunately, as per, the forecasts are never entirely accurate. We found ourselves getting toward pretty miserable weather yet again, and our options for getting through to the coast were looking increasingly limited.
After some nibbling and some top drawer CRM, we eventually picked our way through a gap to Pisa, coming out to the coast slightly battered, but safe, and desperately hoping we’d packed a spare pair of trousers!
Alas, in the time it had taken us to pass the gap it had subsequently closed up and the two other aircraft were unable to follow our route. As ‘character building’ as it was, scratching around the mountains with CBs on the way is an accident report waiting to happen, and so the other two aircraft made the sensible decision to divert back to Ozzano and wait for the weather to pass.
Once we were clear of the weather the French Riviera was visible in all its glory.
The skies were blue and the sea was even bluer as we flew along the South French coast, passing Monaco, Nice and Cannes, as well as a thousand superyachts!
We landed in Fayence, a small grass gliding strip north of Frejus, and waited for the others who were now a couple of hours behind.
The other two aircraft soon arrived. However, the diversion had meant they were low on fuel so we’d have to fly on somewhere to fuel up. To compound the problem we had just been informed that there was to be a French air traffic control strike the following day. That meant that if we landed at a controlled airport that evening, we were unlikely to be able to get out again in the morning!
We didn’t have too much time to come up with a solution as the sun was also beginning to set – so we got together and planned some options.
Fuel was our biggest priority, and Cannes was just a short hop away, so we decided to head over for a refuel, where, on arrival we were told that it would be possible to leave in the morning. With the sun now almost set we decided to call it a day in Cannes.
Ged, film producer extraordinaire, and no stranger to Cannes, gave us a personal tour of the famous red carpet and marina, and then it was dinner, a beer for Will C, and bed after another big day.
Cannes – Aurillac – La Rochelle – Jersey – Kemble
As it turned out, the French air traffic control strike only affected the area controllers, meaning that our worries of being stuck for an extra day were soon dismissed and we were able to continue, essentially as planned, on our intended route.
Having fully had our mettle tested over the last couple of days, we woke up to a lovely blue sky day, with great weather being forecast for the duration. We were looking forward to a nice straightforward run home.
Regrettably, those aspirations lasted all of 10 minutes, as we departed Cannes and reached the first set of mountains to be crossed! On reaching the mountains we encountered a fair amount of sink associated with the winds of the day.
When full power was giving us, at times, no more than 50ft/min rate of climb, it became evident that crossing these mountains wouldn’t be straightforward and instead we’d be having to resort to some fundamental mountain flying techniques.
A good reminder of why an understanding and appreciation of mountain weather, and experience within that, is crucial. Thankfully, having an instructor in each aircraft meant that mountain experience was plentiful and our situation was no more than an inconvenience, rather than a danger.
We ended up running the ridge and using its associated lift to give us a far more appropriate rate of climb, and after about 15 minutes we were high enough to cross and continue our leg onto Aurillac.
From Aurillac we continued on to La Rochelle, our designated customs point on returning to the UK. Since Brexit it has become essential to have your passport stamped before leaving the Schengen zone, and sadly, despite our prior notice, there were no customs officials readily available at the airport on our arrival.
After some searching we were finally able to find someone at the airport who could assist, and told us the customs officials would be here in ‘an hour or two’…
Bearing this timeframe in mind, Ged very kindly offered to pop to a local bakery and get some lunch for everyone.
Unable to contact any of the 11 listed airport taxis he instead opted to hop on the bus (with no knowledge of where it was going). And, as luck would have it, about three minutes into his mystery bus tour, the customs officials arrived at the airport – significantly earlier than expected…
Very aware that we were now a man down, we went through the passport stamping process as slowly as possible, while others hastily tried to get in contact with Ged. Dave did manage to get through, only to find out that Ged was now in the next town!
With no hope of a quick return, our number one goal was to try and stall the officials for as long as was humanly possible. Aware that Ged was not nearby, and fully fed up of hearing about our crossing of the Alps for the 10th time, the officials eventually decided that they had had enough and were leaving, explaining that Ged would have to come back tomorrow and make his own way home.
I still to this day don’t know what he said, but just as the officials were leaving, Ant – recalling his best GCSE French and channelling his inner Derren Brown – somehow had the two men transfixed, and was managing to stall them further still.
Every second counted. Eventually they broke and finally committed to leaving, opening the gate just as a taxi came screeching round the corner. Ged, having seemingly just broken the land speed record, stepped out, cradling bags of baguettes, as you would a newborn child.
Having waited this long, the officials decided to allow Ged through, and he promptly handed over his Irish passport. That’s right, his EU, Irish passport… After all that, he didn’t even need a stamp!
Massively relieved and seeing the funny side, which the French didn’t, we got back into the aircraft – clear to continue onwards to Jersey, and then home to Kemble.
After five days, 40 hours flying, and remarkably not a single tech snag, we touched down on home ground, just as the sun was setting…