Sunday 29th June saw 16 members of the HAC depart in 8 aircraft on the annual Club exped, this year under the banner of Exercise Crossbow to visit the WW2 Rocket facility at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast.
Day 1 Sunday 29th
With a slow moving trough tracking SE across the Channel and beyond, a late morning departure was planned with aircraft from various departure points meeting at Ostend early afternoon. It had originally been planned that we would meet at Calais, but French ATC were feeling feisty and had been on strike in the days leading up to departure so to avoid a Gaelic “non” we gave Calais a miss on the outbound leg. All crews arrived safely at Ostend and sat down to study the met over a late lunch. With Ostend now basking in glorious sunshine but with the en route TAFs full of thunderstorms and their associated fun, the group waited for a couple of hours to allow the weather to clear through ahead of the route. With flightplans filed, late afternoon saw all crews airborne and with a little dodging around the odd cell en route we were all safely on the ground at our planned destination Monchengladbach by early evening.
Day 2 Monday 30th
Whilst everyone in the UK was breaking out the sunscreen and sunhats, those of us at Monchengladbach woke up to leaden skies and whilst flyable, not very encouraging TAFs. On arrival at the airport we conducted the daily brief and waited for the weather to improve as locally we were experiencing some fairly hefty downpours. The plan for today was to route to the south of the CAS around Dusseldorf and overfly the Dam at Mohne, previously visited by Wg Cdr Guy Gibson and 617 Sqn. Then route north-east to the planned lunch stop at Hildesheim before landing at Neubrandenburg for our night stop. Eventually the weather abated sufficiently and with numerous diversions available en route, aircraft began to depart about mid-day. Once established en route and with about 30nm to run to reach the Dam, the inbound route was very much an open and then closed affair; some crews were able to safely navigate the weather at the time, whilst others were presented with a wall of showers with very limited forward vis. Whether you made it through to the Dam or had to make the decision to divert off track and route around, simply came down to where the fast moving weather was as each aircraft arrived at the run in point. Throughout all of this Langen information were very understanding of our plight and offered excellent support and advice throughout. With the Dusseldorf & Dortmund CAS now behind us all, we all made our way to Hildesheim again dodging the worst of the weather as we routed north east. After a quick refuel, (and an even quicker lunch in order to beat some weather ATC could see on radar with our names on it should we take a leisurely lunch) we headed off to Neubrandenburg. Once again the route was littered with ominous clouds and heavy showers but all aircraft were eventually safely tucked up at the night stop.
Day 3 Tuesday 01 July
Today, the weather looked more promising and although the TAFs were still written by a pessimist, the cloud bases out the window were significantly higher and far more broken than we had flown in thus far…it looked a nice day. With Peenemunde just up the road, it was a short flight before we were calling Peenemunde for airfield information. Jonathan the ATC man, was a nice chap, (we met him later when he was the taxi driver) but wasn’t always the best at answering the radio but between all the aircraft calling we were able to establish that individuals didn’t have a radio failure and what the runway in use was. Once all were safely on the ground we met up with Bronwyn who was holidaying locally and had joined us for the day and we then made our way to the Peenemunde Museum courtesy of Jonathon the ATC man taxi driver. I won’t go into detail here about the museum but it was a very interesting few hours pouring over all the exhibits. Once we were all ready to push on, we met back at the aircraft and studied the skies. Yet again black clouds lurked around the airfield and most weather apps were showing hefty showers pulsing through from the west. After waiting for some particularly dark clouds to pass, once again all the aircraft were airborne. The Grummans and the Bulldog did some formation work whilst the PNF of each crew took photos of the formation. Once complete we split and made individual recoveries at Purkshof. Purkshof is small gliding Club just outside our night stop town of Rostock. On the emails between them and myself I had established three things, they had avgas, the grass runway was in good shape and they would provide an English speaking person on the radio. The reality was yes they had avgas, the runway was indeed grass…..in good shape? Well, it was runway shaped and there was an English speaker on the radio. The English speaker, as lovely as she was and with the best of intentions, was offering two runways at the same time to all arrivals, so some chose the shorter but into wind runway (wind was about 5 kts!) whilst other went for the longer option. Needless to say confusion reigned… 5 minutes and several go arounds later, we had all sorted ourselves out and were all making approaches to the same runway. The Purkshof Club were very hospitable and we sat and had a beer in their crewroom whilst reflecting on a great day and waiting for the taxis into town.
Day 4 Wednesday 02 July
Today was a little bit of an option day, some elected to make the shortish transit to Hamburg and have some R&R in the city whilst others took various routes to go to the same lunch time destination of Sylt, a former RAF base on an island connected to the mainline by a narrow spit of land. Today the weather played ball and by midday almost all aviators were either lunching at Sylt or wandering around Hamburg. I did say almost… Harry & Robert in CZ had a radio issue on start at Purkshorf and despite the best efforts of those still on the ground, could not get comms established in CZ that were robust enough to enable them to proceed into the busy international airport that Hamburg is. That evening would see Harry and Robert at Bremerhaven sipping coco and booked onto a boat trip for the following day. Sadly this was the last we would see of them on the exped until they arrived back at Halton. Once those at Sylt were complete wondering around the town, we set course for Hamburg. Most, if not all flew over the islands to the south of Sylt and marvelled at the beautiful clear waters and golden beaches below…it looked idyllic. Soon though Hamburg’s CAS was appearing on the charts and we all began our recoveries to Hamburg. Through meticulous planning and awareness, we timed our arrival to coincide precisely with the busy early evening arrivals at Hamburg. If I ever consider a career in professional aviation, I have found my niche; I am now well qualified to become a sky sign writer but only for the letter O. A good dozen or so of orbits later, we were on final at RW 23 at Hamburg, the guys did a great job squeezing us in between their arrivals with the inbounds (not us!) being speed restricted to 170 knots. It was such a cool feeling taxiing in such a major international airport, it just doesn’t happen in the UK, as for one the fees would be too expensive and UK international airports don’t embrace GA as our European cousins do. That night a quiet night was had by all and shattered as we were, all crews were tucked up in bed by 2130hrs with a hot chocolate…..ahem
Day 5 Thursday 03 July
With Peenemunde and the arrival at Hamburg now behind us, Thursday was psychologically the beginning of the journey home. Late morning saw us gathering at the airport and with favourable weather we were soon on our way. Mindful of the requirement for glide clear, once airborne our planning out of the CTR remained intact for a minute or two before we were give radar vectors to deconflict with other Hamburg traffic and our glide clear options reduced somewhat to either the airport behind us or the large rivers around the city. However the Controller was very amenable and treated us to an airborne tour of parts of the city and surrounding landmarks. Once outside the CTR, we bade our farewells and made an uneventful flight to Munster for fuel. On arrival with all crews safely inside the GA terminal, the airport staff ushered us into a GA lounge where the airport had plated sandwiches for some visitors perhaps slightly more important than ourselves. They obviously hadn’t come across the Brit Mil Aircrew mentality of “FOOD” and one of our rank began to discretely reduce the pile of sandwiches available to the expected visitors. Unfortunately our German hosts twigged what was going on before the locust got into his stride and we were moved onto another room complete with… well, just walls really. Once we had all flight planned for the next leg to Antwerp, we all began to trickle over to the aircraft and get airborne. Some of us who had been unable to visit the Mohne Dam on the inbound route, took advantage of the glorious but very thermal weather to divert south of a direct routing and overflew the dam before setting course for Antwerp. Belgium airspace on a chart looks like someone has given the HAC Ops Manager a spirograph and red crayon for Christmas…. The leg into Antwerp would our first flight on the exped through Belgian airspace on a weekday whilst the Mil zones would be active. Despite the visual complexity of the airspace, all crews safely arrived at Antwerp and basked in the hot early evening sunshine. After the obligatory quick shower, it was out on the town for our final evening together (don’t worry Rob & Steve, you were still in our thoughts). After a very pleasant meal, an after dinner stroll was in order, Antwerp is a lovely town with much to entertain aviators as they perambulate across the town drinking in the sights; a very enjoyable evening to bow out on.
Day 6 Friday 04th
The final day of the exped saw benign weather conditions but thankfully the heat and turbulence of the previous day had abated. Most crews elected to route via Calais to refuel before heading for home. The trip to Calais was uneventful and again we were easily able to obtain permission to cross the large expanses of restricted Mil airspace in Belgium. Calais was very quiet and after a refuel and lunch it was time to bid farewell as Paul BH and I in PV would be heading to Bournemouth whilst most of the others would be routing back to Halton. This was once again a fantatsic HAC exped, and I am sure we all learnt a lot. Tricky command decisions had to be made throughout, especially during the first few days of the exped with the associated problematical weather. The fact that we all got to where we were meant to be safely at the end of each day was testament to the quality of the decisions made by both the exped leader and by each individual PIC. For me there were three highlights, the informative formation briefing followed by formation flying with GRUMN and GBZXZ – always a blast; the visit to Peenemunde – the history seeps out of those walls and blades of grass; and finally the approach and landing at Hamburg – we were in there at a busy time with the big boys – great fun