This article gives a (very) small insight into the 5-month planning and preparation cycle for the clubs' expedition to Elba and its expected 7-day execution…

Most RAFFCA sorties tend to be from A to A, generally operating within 20 miles of home-plate. But there’s a big wide world out there, where the terrain, weather, language and challenges all differ from what a high percentage of our members are used to. The HAC has run an annual flying Exped since the RAFFCA Berlin trip in 2006. Destinations have included: Highlands and Islands; Ireland; Peenemunde; Dachau & the Alps; and this year, the island of Elba in the Ligurian sea (off the West Coast of Italy). This article gives a (very) small insight into the 5-month planning and preparation cycle and its expected 7-day execution…

“there’s a big wide world out there, where the terrain, weather, language and challenges all differ from what a high percentage of our members are used to”

Prior planning and preparation prevents persistently poor performance (or something like that). And the requirement to safely conduct an Exped for 16 club pilots with vastly different levels of experience, age and ability, flying aircraft of equally different levels of performance, bears witness to this. Our plan for this Exped actually started in 2005 when I failed to get to Malta in the very first RAFFCA Exped – not listed above, as it was attended by just 2 aircraft (my Grumman AA1 and a C-172 from Wyton) who did not speak to each other before, during or after the event! Not really an Exped, more 2 separate flights… My AA1 had a bigger retrofitted engine, but no increase in fuel capacity, so was desperately limited in endurance. This resulted in us getting stuck at Elba, when the only airfields down-track within range refused entry due to ‘no fuel for visitors’ Despite the ‘Ciao!’ every cloud turned out to have a silver lining, and the day- off nursing my bruised ego whilst sat on the beach sipping local beer got me thinking about a follow-up plan for the future.

“an Exped for 16 club pilots with vastly different levels of experience, age and ability”

Precisely 10 years and 6 months later, we had decided to float the idea of the longest and most ambitious Exped to the HAC membership. Although we had grown the event over the years – it was usually around 5 days and 1800nm – perhaps this 7-day 2200nm extravaganza would be a step too far? The result caught us by surprise and was a total oversubscription. So, in Jan 2017 the real planning phase had started. The only way to make such an event work is to delegate – this also satisfies one of the major requirements of an Exped in that everyone learns something new at all stages – whether through leading on a topic by research or through someone else’s briefings. In all, there were 30 research topics and duties allocated including: FSO; European airspace; airfield liaison; Admin Order; Risk Assessment and daily Emergency of the Day briefings. And of course, all domestics were allocated from sourcing the accommodation to booking of taxis. The 5 planning meetings were roughly monthly an focused upon:

  • 1st Meeting – overview, planning assumptions and crewing/aircraft preferences.
  • 2nd Meeting – duties requirements and allocation, crew list and initial outline of route.
  • 3rd Meeting – European planning considerations, airfields brief, and route study.
  • 4th Meeting – ditching, survival, risk assessment, accident sequence/mitigation, and chart inspection.
  • Pre-departure day – allocation of FLARM/survival eqpt/PLBs, final preparation and ‘take ownership’ of aircraft.

With this cycle of events, the team of 16 were ready to depart around 40 hours of prep, better educated than before and enriched by the experience before even calling ‘Clear Prop!’ on Day One. So, there we were on the morning of departure with everything under control and in place… damn, there is one thing we forgot to book – the weather! From the very beginning we were behind, with nature’s input changing our schedule as follows:

Day 1 Plan – Halton - Jersey - Chateroux. Day 1 Reality – poor weather in the Western Channel resulted in a re-plan to Le Touquet followed by 4 hours on the ground, before attempting to launch to Chateroux. This was aborted due to 800’ cloudbase and drizzle, so night one was spent in Le Touquet!

Day 2 Plan – Chateroux - Valence - Cannes. Day 2 Reality – a good weather day that meant the reality matched the plan with an extra 1hr 50m sortie, launching at 0750hrs (L) from Le Touquet. This was a hugely successful day flying from the North to South coast of France in a day. Morale was high!

Day 3 Plan and Reality – Cannes - Pavullo or Genoa - Elba. Finally the only flying day where everything went to plan. The options for the lunch stop were due to some opting not to land at the mountain airfield of Pavullo, but at the end of the day we were all in the right place and ready for a meal on the beach.

Day 4 Plan and Reality – FD Day. A trip into Portoferraio to visit the Napoleonic sites and enjoy a wine tasting at a local vineyard. But something wasn’t quite right… During the night the pine trees throughout our hotel complex had shed tonnes of needles which covered the resort like brown snow. The Scirocco had arrived unannounced from the Sahara and the wind was gusting to 40kts! The day went ahead as planned, but started with a trip to the Airfield to check the aircraft and their tie-downs – all was well.

Day 5 Plan – Elba - Cannes - Grenoble Le Versoud. Day 5 Reality – The Scirocco had not dissipated and following an 0830 meeting the decision was made to cancel and sit it out for a day. Whilst the wind was due to abate later in the period, with 16 people already in hotel rooms, accommodating this herd of cats had to be considered in all decisions to ‘remain’, ‘press’ or ‘wait and see’. Whilst erring on the side of caution for our bed-down and scepticism for the weather forecast, a day on the beach was enjoyed by all.

Day 6 Plan – Genoble - Troyes - Le Touquet. Day 6 Reality – Elba-Cannes - Grenoble Le Versoud. It was now inevitable that we were not going to be home by the morning of Day 7 as the forecast through Central France looked poor. As we launched on the Northerly Elba runway, it become evident that the strong Scirocco Southerly had disappeared and what a great departure toward the 700’ AAL peak it was. The rest of the sorties were typified by extreme turbulence at Cannes and glorious weather through the Alps, but we were now (at least) a day behind.

Day 7 Plan – Le Touquet - Halton. Day 7 Reality – Grenoble Le Versoud-Lyon. The weather was as poor as the forecast suggested, with some low cloud stubbornly remaining in the beautiful valley that the airfield sat in. The decision to reposition to Lyon (just 60nm away) was based upon getting out of the Alps for weather and the knowledge that Lyon is a large city with plenty of accommodation. There might just be a later clearance… ok, it never materialised! And we lost our C-182 due to a ceased flap motor, leaving the aircraft in the unflyable configuration of Flaps Fully Down – luckily, Lyon is the Easyjet hub for central France. It was eventually fixed and retrieved 2 weeks later.

“There might just be a later clearance… ok, it never materialised!”

Day 8 Plan – Cut the lawn and return to domestic reality. Day 8 Reality – Lyon - weather divert into Vichy… This was the day where the plan to get as far North as possible resulted in a 60nm backtrack to the South mid-sortie. All aircraft were headed from Lyon to Troyes when the weather become completely impassable. However, through adversity comes great performance and I was pleased that everyone marked the last good weather diversion and acted upon it – this was also ably assisted by Clermont Radar who allowed me to relay the weather call to ‘all Golf-registered, Halton- based aircraft’. So we arrived at Vichy and within an hour, the weather began to worsen necessitating another night stop and hotel. And expensive taxis…

Day 9 Plan – Back to work. Day 9 Reality – Vichy-Deauville - Halton. The morning brief started with the same line as the rest of the week ‘there is no pressure to get any further today than the ramp where our aircraft are parked’. But a forecast 1300(L) clearance somehow felt more realistic and indeed it arrived on time. Thereafter, aside from being poorly served at Deauville which resulted in a 3 hour wait for fuel, all went smooth. A cold beer awaited the weary Airmen’s return at Halton and our 9-day marathon was at an end.

“A cold beer awaited the weary Airmen’s return”

Over the years, we have always waxed lyrical about the Expeds, but it my observation that the marginal weather, emergencies and challenges are destined to become the elements that are often the topic of conversation. I believe that the frustrations of planning and re-planning; sitting on the ground for hours on end waiting for mythical weather clearances; and the general uncertainties that this adventure brought will consign it to the book of great memories.

I am proud of everyone that worked hard over the first 5 months of 2017 to make this trip a huge success. I am extremely proud of the youngsters (with as little as 20hrs post-PPL) who matured during this extremely challenging trip and the more experienced crew members that nurtured them. And finally, I am delighted to see how those who are used to flying from A to A, coped with planning to negotiate A to L, but despite adversity successfully navigated A to O (missing out B, C and M) and worked as a team throughout.

Destination Norway in 2018…