HALTON AEROPLANE CLUB EX CAMPAGNE 12 POST-TOUR REPORT NARRATIVE
While the main Halton Aeroplane Club (HAC) contingent were undertaking potential re-planning due to the changing weather forecasts in the Halton Aeroplane Club ops room and different methods of preparation being compared, WO Olivant and his co-pilot Paul (their Grumman aircraft is based at Bournemouth) departed for Quiberon via Dinard a day early to get ahead of the weather. WO Olivant leading Team Grumman takes up the story:
I had been keeping a weather eye on the seemingly persistent fronts moving across the country this summer during the days leading up to our departure. The forecasts were indicating that Saturday would provide favourable conditions for the 70 mile Channel crossing routing Bournemouth to Cherbourg but that Sunday would be difficult with several fronts moving through the Channel throughout the day. It perhaps needs to be explained to the non aviators reading this that most “Club Flyers” need to operate under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) which means they cannot enter cloud and they must be able to see and avoid other aircraft. This is particularly pertinent when flying across large expanses of water in poor weather as the low cloud and sea can merge into one and it can be difficult to determine what is the horizon and what is the sea and thus the pilot can easily become disorientated. With the above in mind myself and my crewmate Paul decided we would take advantage of the fact that we were both free on the Saturday and we departed Bournemouth with Paul flying for Quiberon on the Saturday. The conditions across the channel were beautiful and after 30 minutes we coasted in just west of Cherbourg and routed down the peninsula to land at Dinard to clear customs. We had to land at Dinard as it is a requirement to clear customs at a Customs designated airfield when landing in France and Quiberon our destination for the day, is not a notified customs airfield. So after a quick chat with the Customs officer and a refuel, we were airborne again with me at the controls for Quiberon. The airfield at Quiberon is situated at the end of a thin peninsula approximately 2 miles across and is surrounded by danger areas so careful navigation is required to remain outside the danger areas. We landed at 1820 in glorious sunshine and the airfield bustling with parachutists and other pilots enjoying the fantastic flying conditions. We secured our aircraft for the night and strolled the 400m to our accommodation.
With the rest of the team now configured at RAF Halton, all the aircraft refuelled and all crews having re-planned their routes due to the weather front and storms moving across Northern Europe, we set off at 5 – 10 minute intervals for Le Touquet routing around the east of London. 5 of the 6 aircraft departing Halton had two pilots on each crew, except for G-HACS our latest acquisition as the second pilot received a phone call 30 mins before departure that his wife’s illness had taken a turn for the worse. The remaining pilot, David, would start and continue throughout the week flying alone and a sterling job was done by him throughout.
Our departure from Halton was limited only by the low cloud (1500ft) weather system rolling in from the west. But as we advanced east around the northern and eastern edge of the Heathrow Terminal Manoeuvring Area the cloud base raised to approximately 2500ft. Flying easterly faster than the weather was moving saw us coast out in clear air enabling us to climb to FL 50 (5000ft) for a calm 25 min flight across the Channel. On approaching the French coast it was obvious that the weather front was approaching rapidly with 6/8 cloud coverage we coasted in above the cloud but still in sight of the ground. Speaking to the French controllers and listening to our fellow pilots we could hear that they were routing down the coast to Le Touquet over the sea unlike our inland approach. Flying a more equipped aircraft (a Scottish Aviation Bulldog, hence Team Bulldog) we were routing to the airfield to intercept the runway as if flying an instrument approach, rather than reposition above the airfield. With the cloud thickening beneath us we descended visually to approximately 700ft above ground level enabling us to remain beneath the cloud and flew into Le Touquet without incident. With very little local aviating taking place they were very welcoming, our aircraft were refuelled and we cleared customs. With no further possibility to fly that day due to the weather the airport staff helped us in obtaining hotel accommodation for the night. (we had booked all our planned accommodation well in advance and included late cancellation exemptions – this facility was well used and is guidance for any flying tour.)
Meanwhile on the far western edge of France the weather system had firmly taken hold, WO Olivant stood on the ground looking skyward.
Sunday morning brought the weather we were concerned about. Looking out of the window, we had about a 600 foot cloudbase with light drizzle and once the Ipad was fired up, the Met online confirmed that the weather was looking grim for the rest of the day. After a quick call back to the crews at Halton, it was beginning to look very unlikely that they would be able to make Quiberon due to the weather now covering the UK, the Channel and NW France. They were now working on a plan that the weather may clear sufficiently enough for them to attempt the short crossing of Dover to Le Touquet late in the day… weather permitting. With no prospect of any local flying for us for the day, Paul and I settled into seeing the sights and sounds of Quiberon.
Monday morning brought the 11 pilots to Le Touquet early and raring to progress towards our original route. While our planning kit (iPads in the main) worked well in the hotel and at the airport our connectivity with the aircraft at Quiberon failed so were unaware of how far down-route they would get but we planned to try to meet at the provisional lunch / fuel stop. In order to get there from our now very westerly position, we routed to Le Mans – a location I was very keen to visit as my grandfather had fought in the Battle of France from there in his Hurricane Mk1 of No 17 Sqn. With low cloud (1100 ft) still over Le Touquet we took off towards the sea where the cloud was intermittent. The advantage of having a relatively powerful ex-military aircraft with outstanding visibility enabled us to loiter in an inlet and wait for the Halton Piper PA28 to catch up, my co-pilot Iain directing me for the best up-sun position resulted in some very good photos as we loosely formated while making our way down the coast towards better weather.
Turning inland we knew we all had roughly the same direct route to Le Mans since we were now flying for endurance rather than some of the latter routes that would be touristier so took the advantage of extra speed to say hello to one of the Cessna 152s after leaving the PA28.
Arriving at Le Mans we rapidly refuelled and with bright weather around us grabbed a quick lunch from the petrol station outside the airport (fresh baguettes, no damp UK service station sandwich here!). With the North Western area of France weathered out we now found that WO Olivant had again been forced to stay on the ground:
Monday brought more of the same weather, low cloud and poor visibility with drizzle and no chance of being able to fly under VFR. We had learnt the evening before that the guys had made it as far as Le Touquet but had been unable to proceed further because of the weather. We spoke to the crews mid morning and they were hoping to route to Le Mans and then proceed south from there perhaps onto Biarritz to make the planned night stop. Meanwhile Paul and I continued to assess the weather in the hope that we might be able to head south ourselves to Biarritz later in the day. The problem was that there was a very slow moving low pressure system centred to the north of us and we were sitting in the weather associated with it. Frustratingly the weather 50 miles south of us was glorious but we were completely weathered in and stayed so for the rest of the day. So as the sun slipped from the sky (metaphorically speaking as we couldn’t see it at all!) on Monday evening we had most of the exped aircraft stuck at Le Mans and us weathered in at Quiberon! Looking at the forecast for Tuesday we were reasonably confident that we would be able to depart at some point in the day as the front slowly moved north….fingers crossed.
Meanwhile, discussions debated the most efficient route for fuel vs range, incorporating fuel stops for some of the aircraft, continued at Le Mans in order to get to Biarritz on the south west coast of France. With the weather front seeping southerly Team Bulldog planned a direct route to Biarritz south from Le Mans (we had no need to stop for fuel) while the rest of the team would route to the west to pick up the coast and refuel at the original refuel airfield of La Rochelle. Immediately after takeoff we flew around a heavy rainstorm, warning the rest of the team behind us we could hear over the radio that they had all got airborne and were heading west towards bad weather. Not that the weather around us was any better but the route south towards the area of Saumur was relatively flat and our situational awareness was firing on all 8 cylinders as we skirted rainfall and low cloud at 7-800ft.
Just before leaving Le Mans frequency we could hear that the rest of the team had only made it about 20 miles away to the West before having to turn back because of the weather. (it should be noted here that while a few of us are UK instrument rated, that rating is not formally recognised in Europe so we had no other choice than to remain VFR beneath the cloud) we soldiered on remaining legal with the cloud base slowly lessening until about 50 miles south of Le Mans the rain and cloud could be seen to be touching the forests ahead. At which point we turned around, thanked the area controller we’d been speaking to and returned to Le Mans to find a hotel and stay the night. A slightly longer view of Le Mans from the air this time to see the circuit brought recollections of my grandfather describing racing abandoned Army motorbikes around it with 17 Sqn in the closing days of the Battle of France.
The morning broke with continued poor weather but all reports were of it improving, so we set off to the airfield to prepare the aircraft for immediate departure. While the other 6 aircraft would be aiming to reach Monpellier on the Mediterranean coast and regain the original plan, Iain and I planned to land on a mountain strip a little further inland and stay with his distant family and experience the true delights of provincial France. All aircraft however were due to overfly the famous MilauBridge and since there was no fuel available at our overnight stop we planned to refuel at Milau airfield prior to the short hop to Bedarieux. Once airborne out of Le Mans and heading south the weather improved immensely, the temperatures increased exponentially and suddenly we were flying in the true ultra-blue sky of southern France. Routing into Milau from the south we observed hundreds of para-gliders flying in towers of rising warm air off the sides of the valleys and made sure to stay well clear of them (although there was no formal notification published to warn us, we found out later that it was the World Championships and that there were 400-500 participants!).
MilauBridge stood out wonderfully (an English architect) and we routed northerly to Milau airfield. Having left a telephone message for them we naively expected them to answer when we contacted them on the radio but no answer and as we approached an airfield of military size but one completely devoid of activity appeared. Checking the windsock we alighted upon the into wind runway and taxied to the fuel pumps. Almost all aviation fuel in France is dispensed by Total Fuels and they have very effective card based self-service fuel pumps. Unfortunately you can only pump fuel from them with a Total Aviation Fuel card and you can only get one of those with a French bank account! Shutting down we were met with total silence, only the heat-sink ticking of our cooling engine interrupted our concerns about not getting any fuel – even the ATC Tower appeared deserted. Thankfully a representative of the local flying club came out to meet us and ‘paid’ for our fuel. We then retreated from the 37 degree C heat into the cool of their club house and paid the club for our fuel. It transpired that when the military left their airfield they gave it to the equivalent of the Milau parish council, who then decided that they couldn’t afford to employ an ATC controller so gifted the airfield and responsibility for its upkeep to the local flying club!
They were fascinated to see a Scottish Aviation Bulldog, especially one black and yellow and more so because it has its original RAF markings (we had special permission to fly in French airspace in RAF markings). Watered and slightly cooler we thanked them for the hospitality and set of towards the hills and the mountain strip of Bedarieux. On arrival, knowing we were allowed to land and that there was no radio, we announced our intentions and opened the throttle to fly through the airfield to see the wind direction.
Having phoned ahead to advise our arrival time we were unsurprised to see a few people waiting for us, since it was ‘our airfield’ for a few minutes we descended to 200ft at approximately 155 kts for a run and break to land. Pulling up over the airfield we executed a smooth curving constant aspect approach to land. As can be seen the mixed stone surface has been cut into the forest on the top of the hills and that final approach is akin to that of an aircraft carrier. Safely down with the aircraft covered for the night we departed to fantastic local fare and a family welcome befitting someone that had flown themselves from the UK to visit for the night! Just over 3 hours flying for team Bulldog and back on route, how were Team Grumman doing bearing in mind they had been grounded by weather in NW France and we were now in the SE of the country? WO Olivant reports a rather longer day, fully stepping up to the changing challenges:
Tuesday duly arrived and Paul and I poured over the forecasts for the airfields we would be transiting on our way south to Biarritz. The weather out the window still looked grim with a 500 – 600 foot cloudbase but a midday improvement was expected. We spoke to the guys at Le Mans and they were also waiting for a weather improvement and had decided that as we were a day behind schedule to miss out Biarritz and fly down the centre of France to Montpellier and night stop there as per the original plan. Paul & I decided that although it would mean effectively doing what had been programmed over two days in one day, to fly to Biarritz to refuel and then press on to Montpellier and rejoin the rest of the crews. After mulling around waiting for the weather to improve, the weather at the airfield just inland from us improved sufficiently for us to consider getting airborne. At Quiberon itself, there is no weather station so it was a look at the skies to determine if the cloudbase was high enough. We went up to the control tower and from what we could see from there it looked like the cloudbase was high enough that we should be able to make our way up the peninsula and then head south. 15 minutes later we were airborne and as we transited along the peninsula the weather took a turn for the worse, the cloudbase was lowering and with no gaps to climb up through we were being forced down to 400 feet. We quickly decided that our only option was to return for a low level circuit and land back at Quiberon, 10 minutes later we were back on the ground at Quiberon.
An hour and several coffees later we could see that as the heat was building, the cloud was lifting and beginning to break slightly… we could even see the odd patch of blue! Once again we made our goodbyes to the friendly staff at Quiberon and departed. This time, the weather played ball and whilst we were stuck at 800 feet to remain VFR for the first 15 minutes or so, the cloud quickly became more broken and we were soon flying in glorious sunshine once more. Our route down to Biarritz looked very complex on the charts with lots of danger areas and Military restricted zones to route around so we planned two routes, one being the worst case scenario of having to route around all the restricted airspace and the other route one that presumed all requests for transit of the restricted airspace were approved. As we were flying in France, it was no surprise that all requests for transit were approved and we simply flew along the beach all the way from La Rochelle to Biarritz. We had planned on a quick refuel at Biarritz and then onwards to Montpellier, however the Gendarmes had other plans for us. Whilst waiting for the refuelers, a Gendarme arrived and checked all our personal and aircraft documentation at great length, this is known as a ramp check and can and often does happen in France. Once the Gendarme had established that all our paperwork was in order we were pleasantly waved on our way and were soon airborne to Montpellier via the Milau Bridge. The Milau Bridge is a fantastic piece of Modern engineering spanning almost 2.5Km over the River Tarn, it was opened in 2004 and it looked absolutely stunning as we circled it before setting course again for Montpellier. We eventually landed at Montpellier at 1930 having flown over 500 miles in 5 hours and eventually made it into town to join the rest of the crews at 2100….boy did that beer taste good.
Started hot and remained hot all day! Beautiful clear skies as can be seen by Team Grumman’s YouTube videos! Arriving at Bedarieux we found that in anticipation of the dry season the runway was closed and being rollered prior to the usual occupants of the airfield arriving – in this case huge twin-engine water bombers who refuel on the strip and pick up water from the valley lake below when called to the local area. Speaking to a local instructor he told us that the roller driver had been told we would be departing and when we taxed out he’d pull off the runway – one thing was more apparent that all else throughout the trip, the French love general aviation! With the aircraft packed and started we taxi’d to the runway. Unlike the UK, due to the temperature and our altitude we leaned the engine mixture on the ground to give better power for takeoff (impressive altitude and pressure calculations had already been done to prove take-off performance, calculations that are relatively simple in the UK with our low lying airfields). Takeoff was uneventful so to say thank you we did a climbing circuit and turned for a fast fly-through. Levelling at 50ft above the runway we flew past the roller, who had returned to his task, before pulling up to a 70 degree climb with ‘wing-waggle’. Looking over our shoulders we could see the roller driving rapidly off the runway – maybe we should have warned him first!
From Bedarieux we set off north to Annecy via Montelimar. While we would meet up with the rest of the team at Annecy none of them had elected to land at the mixed surface airfield of Montelimar due to its surface, French speaking radio and uncertainty of fuel. Of course we didn’t know this and had separately called them with out best aviation French and were booked in. Montelimar turned out to be a beautiful airfield with parallel grass runways for microlights and general aviation. The runways were orientated with the valley and river and as we joined overhead at 2000ft we could see why – the microlight on approach to the smaller pure grass runway was barely moving across the ground, just how much of a headwind was that straight windsock showing?
Turning onto final out GPS groundspeed dropped to 35kts below our airspeed, touching down exceedingly lightly (due to the low groundspeed) we found that the grass on the main runway was cut short to about 4 inches wider than our undercarriage and at exactly the right distance after landing curved towards the parking area! Slightly downwind of a nuclear power station, even that could not be looked at for wind strength unlike our familiar power stations the temperature in this region of France was so great that the smoke given off cooled to the high ambient temperature so quickly that there was barely any movement. Parking up, we spent a very productive couple of hours investigating the on-site EuropeanAviationMuseum (many Mirages and a French T2 Jaguar amongst many ‘foreign’ military aircraft. Again refuelling by proxy our Bulldog was overwhelmed with well wishing French aviators and we restrained ourselves from correcting them as they madly pointed out that it was Renault yellow! Bidding this very friendly airfield farewell we took off back into the strong Mistral winds and headed north for Annecy.
The flight up to Annecy paralleled the Alps of the French / Swiss border and gave some truly spectacular scenery, as well as spotting the occasional enterprising paraglider making their way from one ridgeline to another. Arrival at Annecy timed perfectly with that of Team Grumman and for the first time on the tour, the entire team of 7 aircraft and 13 pilots were together.
Together as a complete team we planned what would be the only day where the weather allowed all aircraft to fly their original planned route in the whole tour! Annecy to Chatearoux for a brief lunch stop, but more importantly fuel before flying onto Saumur where we would be unable to re-fuel. Chatearoux was a huge (3500m) hardened runway with large elements of the Dassault aircraft factories around it. Seven aircraft queuing for fuel caused no problem until the fuel pump failed and they had to call out a technician. Being delayed so long the airport staff drove us all in their minibus to a local road-side cafe for us to have lunch until the fuel pump was replaced.
Now that the Grumman and Bulldog were flying on the same leg it would have been wasteful not to use the opportunity for some photos of these two similar speed aircraft. While WO Olivant hadn’t flown formation before I briefed both crews extensively on the manoeuvres, safety and radio procedures to be used. Airborne, the Grumman slowed to 90 kts in order for the canopy to be opened and a GoPro HD camera was mounted out of the top of the aircraft, in the Bulldog we closed into formation and gave a rolling account of our position whenever they couldn’t see us. The camera can be seen clearly in the pictures below:
What we didn’t know of course was how the pictures were going to turn out. Without a viewfinder it really was pot luck but on viewing them that evening we were truly amazed, not only was it HD quality but the Bulldog was practically shot centre for the entire 12 minutes! It can be seen on YouTube by searching for ‘Bulldog Formation Saumur’.
Arriving at Saumur had to be done by a particular time due to it being NOTAM’d (Notices to Airmen) for parachuting. Much like some of the more provincial airfields its published airfield landing plate also had the now familiar FR Seulement / only, meaning that only French could be spoken. Armed with our French aviation translation matrix we approached the airfield asking about the parachutists to be given a 4 minute warning. 3 minutes later we were both on the runway and as we turned down the taxiway we both opened our canopies to find the sky full of parachutes. As our last evening away we stayed in Saumur opposite the castle and enjoyed a well earned team dinner.
Just as we had left the UK in poor weather, we appeared to be destined to return to the UK in poor weather. Never have you seen so many grown men watch the television weather forecast and pour over as many weather forecasts as their preferred download methods will allow. The team plan had always been to recover to the UK through Jersey or Guernsey and my own plan with the Bulldog was to do it via Le Mans to Jersey, thereby tracing the withdrawal of Sgt Pilot Des Fopp with 17 Sqn in 1939. The UK weather forecast wasn’t looking too favourable with high winds across the south of the country with cloud but the high winds were also sweeping across northern France and the Channel Islands.
Due to the high winds only 3 aircraft went to Jersey, with the rest returning to the UK via Dinard. The Grumman, Bulldog and the CFI with Grahame in the Cirrus all arrived at Jersey at about mid-day. Violent swirling wind effect on approach to Jersey made the landing spirited and gave those in the flying club opposite the threshold something to comment on – the huge amount of control surface moving while flying a semi-smooth approach demonstrated the amount of work the pilot had to do. A quick lunch and as neither Iain nor I had been to Jersey before we walked to the beach, meanwhile the Grumman and Cirrus had already departed for Bournemouth and Oxford respectively. WO Olivant phoned us after his landing to warn of the high winds and low cloud but all the forecasts showed that those would clear if we returned mid-afternoon.
Taking off from Jersey at 1510 we had a very pleasant flight across to the Cherbourg peninsular climbing to FL75 (7500ft) in clear blue sky with outstanding visibility. Transferring from the French ATC controllers to Plymouth Military we were cleared direct through the Channel’s military danger areas on the published VFR route to St Catherine’s Point on the Isle of Wight. As we crossed the Channel we could see we were overhauling one of the club Cessna 152s that had gone to Dinard, they were much lower than us and as it transcribed later were speaking to the Solent controller. Approaching the Isle of Wight we could see that much of the UK was covered in cloud and with it towering above us it was time to descend. Calling up Plymouth Military resulted in no response so transmitting blind our intentions to descend (we were north of the Danger Area) we transferred to the Solent controller and began a hasty spiralling decent 5 miles south of St Catherine’s Point. Tuning into the Solent frequency we could now hear the Cessna 152 crew were no longer enjoying their flight and that the likely base of the clouds was low and full of rain. The Cessna was given a discrete squawk and was being given bearings to fly in order to remain in the channel to the west of the Isle of Wight, hearing them being told that another aircraft was in the vicinity (us) I elected to break into their conversation to advise that it was us and that we had already overtaken them. The controller acknowledged us and told us to wait out! (A radio message designating that he would get back to us.) All very well but we could see beneath the weather and although it looked sporting it was eminently possible to route across the Isle of Wight legally so we continued in at low level (6 -700 ft) across the Isle of Wight. We could also hear that the controller was telling the Cessna that Halton was closed and we would have to divert to Brize Norton. Interspersed within the constant conversation between the controller and the Cessna (low level in bad weather in a Cessna is not a pleasant place to be) the controller eventually came back to us to ask us who we were and our intentions. The conversation went something like:
G-CBCB, Solent, pass your message.
G-CBCB is a Bulldog, 2 POB (persons on board) out of Jersey, squawking 7000 inbound to RAF Halton although I believe I may have to divert to Brize Norton. Currently 6 miles north of St Catherine’s Point 700ft, I intend to remain clear of the cloud, controlled airspace and the ground (!) and route via Odiham, Benson to Halton.
G-CBCB squawk 7000 (the VFR code) continue en-route.
And so on we went, listening in to the Cessna being directed to the west of Southampton with 100% of the controllers attention, we would later find out that they were diverted into Old Sarum near Salisbury as the weather met the ground and they would recover to Halton the following day. We routed relatively uneventfully up the channel to the east of Portsmouth, transferred to the Farnborough Military controller who cleared us through Odiham’s western zone, utilised a couple of motorway cuttings to keep under the weather, flew up past the west of Basingstoke and on towards Benson. Approaching Benson we cleared the northern edge of the weather front and we able to eventually climb to 1800ft. Benson had nothing operating so cleared us direct across their zone and reported that surface winds were dropping. On to Halton and we managed to contact a number of the other team aircraft that were refuelling after landing an hour before. Checking on the surface winds they reopened the airfield for us and we landed without incident.
Six days of flying for 12 of the aircraft (5 for the Grumman although they were away for 7 days) and for us in the Bulldog, a total flight time of 16 hrs compared to the planned 12.5.
Despite some very long days and some extremes of weather, the overseas tour conducted by the RAF Halton Flying Club was a complete success, it was a continuation of a steady build of flying challenges (airborne and in planning) building upon the previous 3 tours steady increases in design. It exceeded all its objectives and requirements, mainly due to the group dynamics and the willingness of everyone to participate and learn through the advanced challenges the weather brought, not withstanding the weather the altitude and temperatures flown in would have been challenge enough. The requirement to reroute whether prior to flight or during, meant that crews had to truly work as a team and often had to scrutinise their routes and airfields to ensure sufficient fuel, something which rarely has to be done in the UK due to the plethora of GA airfields. These challenges brought the team closer together as different individual strengths were identified and all learnt new skills and honed established ones, cockpit resource management was tested and proven to a very high standard.
C M Fopp