Getting home

Monday 16 May – This should have been the easy bit. Just 2 ½ hours from home; plane was fuelled, skies were blue. The hotel owner drove us back to the airport. But there were forecasts of low cloud in the Ile de France.

Flying the route that we’d arrived in Troyes a year ago, routing over deserted airfields, a massive menhir-type monument (later identified as a WW1 monument), and just to the east of Reims. But the cloud base of 3000’ slowly fell and we steered into rain south of Lille. Turned 180° towards Beauvais (where we’d been stuck on a previous trick); Ryanair were successfully landing there.

Keeping out of Paris airspace we turned back to Amiens with its large and obvious runway; albeit French-speaking. We perhaps should have stopped there, but instead pressed on east to a deserted (no radio) Abbeville, hoping that the weather was going east. Decided to divert the 20 miles north to Le Touquet. By then the cloud had taken us down to 1,000’ and we clearly wouldn’t get across the channel.

Cross-wind landing ,though not as spectacularly frightening as the one we had here a few years ago. No activity at the airport though we heard a plane on the radio returning to the UK.

The man at the desk sent us to the airport restaurant; smartly refurbished since to were last delayed here. Good lunch.

The problem was the lack of weather information on this side of the channel. Lydd, Gatwick and Biggin Hill were all looking fine so we decided to risk flying direct to Lydd hoping for clear skies. As we left the terminal the weather had begun to clear from the west so we easily reached 6,000’ and made Biggin within 50 mins.

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Across France

Sunday 15 May – Blue skies over Avignon but a strong, cold wind was blowing too. At the airport the Mistral was blowing due south, gusting at 40nmph. Fortunately it was coming straight down the runway so we took off (take off speed is 65) within what seemed to be 20 metres, and reached a staggering low ground speed of 24nmph at one point on the climb.

ATC let us fly direct to Montelimar, so we didn’t get a chance to overfly the city. However, just 15 mins later we realised that radio contact was lost as we reached Orange. Neither of the radios seemed to be working and the hand-held only gave us the recorded from the Orange military.

Kim switched the transponder to squawk 7600; the number indicates radio failure. (7700 indicates an emergency, 7500 a hi-jack.) We considered going on to Lyon Bron, but we would have caused chaos in air traffic control. Fortunately the long runway of Valence was coming up and was suitably placed for the Mistral.

Dramatic clouds over Lyon

Blind calling and seeing no obvious activity we landed there and found a closed, deserted airfield. A phone call back to the UK gave us some options to fix the problem. (Kim had accidently pressed a mysterious button when checking radio beacons just out of Avignon.) We also learnt how to use the hand-held radio properly. Kim phoned Avignon control who had been monitoring us on the radar and knew we were at Valence.

An hour after landing we were back in the air following the Rhone, routing round the west of Lyon to avoid controlled airspace and a massive storm.

Heading north past Macon to the Burgundy vineyards at Meursault before switch west to avoid more rain and over a very unpopulated part of France west and north-west of Dijon.

The destination was Troyes. We’d previously planned to land at Beaune (French radio only), Dijon (closed that day) or Lyon (too far south). Landing was dramatic with rain and gusting winds as we came down. Nice landing.

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Palais des Papes, AvignonSaturday 14 May – While the others set off back home (via cheap fuel in Jersey) we stayed in Avignon. The Palais des Papes is empty but contains some of the largest rooms I’ve ever seen and the living quarters for the Popes over 100 years.

Bussed over the river to Villeneuve les Avignon

Flight planning in AvignonThe Cessna 182 didn’t make it. We met up with Terry and Stephen who had been trapped by the thunderstorms further north. Again it suggests that having an instrument rating doesn’t solve everything.

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To France

Beach umbrellas at Choggia

Friday 13 May – This is the big one. Getting decent weather across the entire route was always going to be difficult and there were some indications of problems around the French Riviera with thunderstorms.

Crossing the Adriatic was straightforward having done the same route the day before. Weather was much brighter and views across the lagoon were great. Handling at the Lido was friendly; we joked about the police yesterday and we could get a coffee and go to the loo. But “don’t leave the terminal or we will arrest you!” A small amount of expensive fuel was uploaded.

Looking down at Genoa airport from 6,000'

One aim to come here was to avoid passing through customs. Coming from outside Schengen we would normally have to pass through customs. France wouldn’t know that we hadn’t cleared customs here; seeing only that we had come from Italy.

Departure was along the lagoon coast to Choggia and then almost directly west, passing just north of Mantua and south of Verona. The flat plain of the Po valley was fairly boring but it was bright and ATC were friendly. Italy is notorious for forcing you to fly low, below the class A control zones that cover vast areas of the country around Milan and Rome. This didn’t cause us any problems and I suspect they would have let us fly a bit higher if needed.

The problems started us we turned south to Genoa. We had to fly over the lowest part of the Appennines (up to 3,000’) to get to the sea. But cloud over these hills and Genoa ATC instructions forced us up to 6,000’, above the cloud. We could occasionally see the ground (maintaining visual flying) but it was questionably legal.

Genoa claimed cloud was at 2,500’ at Genoa and we had a clear view of the runway as we coasted out. But diving into the cloud we didn’t glimpse the sea until about 1,500’ and ended up at around 1,000’ before we were properly clear. That was a bit of a shock.

Round the Italian Riviera

We went on only because we would have to pass Nice and Cannes at 500-1,000’ anyway. There were also hints of sunlight above the cloud and occasional brightness as we followed the Italian coast round. We had a reassuringly good view of Albegna airport which could have been a bolt-hole had we got stuck.

Despite promising to clear the visibility worsened around Monaco and Nice. Kim clung close to the coastline at 500’, too close as Nice subsequently said we had infringed Monaco at one point. Presumably that was the point as I was staring into the windows at the royal palace. Much apologising.

Getting too close to the Royal Palace at Monaco

Rounding the headland to Nice we couldn’t see the other side of the bay so headed straight towards an active Nice airport before we realised where we were going. Inevitably ATC asked us to report at all reporting points that I had not managed to enter into the GPS. They begged us not to overfly the Cap d’Antibes; presumably the poshest part of the coast.

As we reached St Tropez the visibility began to improve. We even passed a plane flying in the opposite direction. We dodged the various prohibited missile testing zones off the Ile du Levant and the naval base at Toulon finally flying along the dramatic rocky coast that suddenly turns into the bay at Marseilles.

Marseilles ATC asked whether we would be requesting the transit over the airport there, but given that the storm scope was showing thunderstorms due north we continued west.

Safe in Avignon

We passed the refineries at the mouth of the Rhone, and crossed – at 700’ under blue skies – the pink salt marshes and wide sandy bay of the Carmargue. We turned north-east at the fortified town of Aigues-Mortes and followed the canals to Nimes and the happy sight of Avignon.

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Turning onto finals at Venice

Thursday 12 May – A day trip to Venice meant that we had to get through customs both sides. Losinj airport normally shuts at 4pm. The staff were happy to work later but a NOTAM on the aerodrome opening hours had to be issued; and wasn’t. This left us with a rather rapid visit.

Normally we would cautiously fly round the edge of the sea rather than take the 1 hour flight directly across. But given that the others would fly direct and emboldened by the flight round Montenegro we would go direct.

This would be a VFR flight and the IFR planes consulted with Kim for advice on unfamiliar procedures. Though, in truth, this was pretty straightforward with all of us being passed from Losinj to Pula to Padua to Venice controls.

The weather got a bit murkier towards Italy; the lagoon only visible from about 15 miles and the grass strip on the Lido was a little hard to spot though it was obvious as to where it should be.

The approach crossing the Lido above the Hotel des Bains (‘Death in Venice’ fame) and turning sharply round an island of ancient warehouses and a monastery, before the decent to the grass.

View across Venice

Like Shoreham, this is a deco airport from the golden age of travel. The terminal is full of photos from the 20s and 30s and some futurist-type murals.

We hit Italian bureaucracy. Firstly a pair from the police sporting all the peaked caps, gold braid, guns and sunglasses that the stereotype of Italian officialdom offers. They spent 30 mins taking down our passports; the older officer calling out details syllable by syllable to the younger one writing it all down. They were followed by a pair from the Guardia di Finanza (different shade of uniforms) who performed a similar process plus a cursory inspection of the planes.

This left us with about 2 ½ hours in Venice. This was spent on a fast taxi boat, speeding first to Burano and then Torcello. The weather brightened as we walked round the coloured houses of Burano and caught a quick lunch. Then a peek at the mosaics in the church at Torcello.

Back at the airport the police turned up again to run through the paper work and let us out. This time out of uniform; black t-shirts with their guns stuck down the waist band of their jeans.

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Corfu to Losinj

Wednesday 11 May – It would take four hours from Corfu to Losinj. Leaving Corfu was straightforward; we found the reporting point and flew towards the Albanian coast. Immediately up from Corfu this was a barren, mountainous peninsula, devoid of roads or hills. It was also suitably grey and murky.

Island shapes in CroatiaTirana control kept us offshore and tried to palm us off to Brindisi (in Italy). Brindisi sent us back to Tirana. We had a borrowed MOD map of Albania dating from the 1990s; the Jeppesen maps don’t cover Albania or Montenegro, leaving us with a big gap.

In the end Tirana directed us first to Podgorica and then (passed over to the Montenegrins) to Dubrovnik. This kept us offshore and away from any coastal views. But given the weather I don’t think we missed much.

Talking to Dubrovnik we asked to take the recommended VFR route around the Croatian islands. Initially this was offshore but ADRIA1 would take us along the islands of Mjet, then to Korcula and across to Hvar. From Hvar the sun appeared and the rest of the day was blue skies and bright views as we moved from reporting point to reporting point.

We routed off the mainland along offshore islands set in tropical blue seas. The creamy coral-coloured islands were barren but for terracotta towns and yachting flotillas.

Kim’s landing onto Losinj won the daily award.

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Super yacht

Tuesday 10 May was the day of the super yacht. After a day in the car scaling the highest peak on the island and a lunch in a distant village we joined the yachting set.

In one of the marinas north of Corfu town was bearthed the biggest yacht I’ve ever been on. The joint owner was a northern property developer. He (generously) entertained us with champagne, canapés and Thai food. The Montenegrin captain showed us his cruising plans while the four members of the crew refilled glasses and plates. A different world.

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Flying to Corfu

Slightly eventful trip. It had stopped raining by the time we got escorted through the terminal and marched 300m metres down muddy tracks towards the militry airfield until the GA apron.

Instrument flight plan filed (Stephen was flying) so we rose to 8,000 ‘above the Podgorica plain and Lake Skardu on the Albanian border. (Apparently a hippo from Belgrade zoo lives there somewhere in the wet lands.)

From then on we were in cloud and saw nothing as we flew to reporting points, visible only in the GPS. Albanian air traffic control kept an eye on our spacing by adjusting our height and speed, taking us up to 11,000′, our operational limit. I began to get altitude headaches and one of the other planes began to pick up ice in the cloud.

The ice was a bit of a mystery since the rest of the planes avoided more than some thin layers. The affected Cesna should be slightly faster than us but lost speed to about 95nmph from 125nmph. The routed further out to sea to try to find clear sky and were even refused a request to drop altitude by ATC when they reported heavy icing. (It was about -10C outside. Things were only resolved when we came down to 8,000 on approach to Corfu.

Corfu was only visible from about 5,000’ with multiple layers of cloud. ATC vectored us around the south of the island before a long visual approach onto runway 35, swooping over the pretty little monasteries at the runway threshold.

Runway 35 threshold, Corfu

These two pretty monasteries lie at the runway threshold at Corfu

Inbound over the monasteries

Inbound over the monasteries


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Briefing for Corfu

We’re due to fly to Corfu tomorrow so we had the first flight briefing this evening.

Thunderstorms are predicted for Podgorica in the morning, and we’ve had some already tonight. Seems to be some concern. Plan seems to be to check the weather in the morning and send an aircraft up to report back to the rest of us.

We’ve just been joined by a ferry pilot delivering a new jet to a rich client in South Africa. He’s flown it from Iceland today. Beautiful conditions all route except for the last 10 mins landing here.

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Montenegro in depth

Sveti Stephan islandThe group conducted a pretty thorough tour of the main sites of the country today.

First back into the mountains to see the the ‘seas of stone’; the limestone pavements that fill the remote and high valleys.

High karst valleyThis led us to Cetinje, the old mountain capital where the rulers fled when the Ottomans threw them off the habitable parts. It’s now a small and quiet mountain village but the streets are lined with 19th century embassies of Britain, Russia, France and Austro-Hungary and the houses of the short-lived Montenegro monarchy.

There are oddities like an icon supposedly painted by St Luke, a tennis court-sized 3D model of the entire country presented by one of the neighbouring empires and a relic-strewn monastery where crowds of devout locals kissed pretty well anything they could reach: icons, door lintels, picture frames, sarcophagi… It’s clearly a moving place for Montenegrans with historic and religious resonances.

After that a visit to a ham smoker and some tastings before dropping down the mother of all hairpin roads for a view over the fjord.

Panorama over Kotor This took us to Kotor,  a walled lakeside town that could have been in northern Italy. Numerous piazzas, renaissance palazzos, churches and narrow streets.  And a wall that climbed halfway up the hill.Walls of Kotor

Then on to the beach resort of Budva; a centre for Russian investment in holiday accommodation. If you ignore the cranes and new build there’s an old town that resembles a little Dubrovnik. Brash and lively, the town felt like somewhere on the Italian riviera.

Finally we had a view of Sveti Stefan, the poster shot for the country. It’s a cute little island connected by a causeway and being converted into a £800pn hotel.

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