By Rallye From Southern France To Denmark
(The story as far as Frankfurt)


by Nina Galen



The mountains weren’t looking good that day. From the Côte d’Azur (where I live) one could see the Cbs towering over the Alps. Beautiful weather tomorrow, promised Nice MTO: mistral. Beautiful if you were planning to do some wave soaring, or were traveling southeast. But for a lightplane pilot in Fayence planning to leave on the morrow for Denmark, the news was anything but encouraging. In fact, I’d sworn never again to fly northward during a mistral, unless someone else was along to hold my hand and pay for the fuel.

No fun. I’d done it a few weeks earlier. Not only were there strong headwinds, but also a lot of cloud started forming above the mountains. As I advanced, the clouds grew taller. I tried going beneath them, only to feel the aircraft shaken mercilessly in the turbulence. So I tried going over them, and soon found myself at 1 1,500 feet, throttle and prop control to the wall, sinking downwards toward the white fluff. The aircraft had met its match.

It was time to treat it not as an airplane, but a glider, for even with full power it was completely at the mercy of the air currents. Obeying the rules of gliding, when I came to a downdraft I put the stick forward to dive through it as fast as possible; when I saw the vertical climb indicator needle spin around the other way, I moved the stick back, to slow down and stay in the updraft as long as I could. Beneath the clouds the pointy Alpine peaks grinned up at me menacingly.

After what seemed a zillion years – actually two hours – I saw an airport below. It was Grenoble-St. Geoirs, a airfield that usually takes me only an hour and a quarter to reach.

So no wonder on that July day when Nice MTO forecast mistral for the morrow I opted to leave that very minute, even though it was stormy and the middle of the afternoon. Getting off this late meant I’d have to sleep somewhere en route. No matter. At the worst, storms can only kill you, and I preferred death to another bout with the mistral. Anyway, the storms were said to be isolated, and since I knew every inch and airfield along the way, I reasoned I could always turn tail or land if the way became impassable.

In fact, I was fortunate enough to meet the first storm only at Gap. My regular route blocked, I followed a convenient railroad track north of Aspres-sur-Buech to avoid getting lost in the mountains. One must look out for gliders in the Aspres area; glider pilots love the instability that stormy weather provides. Looking around, I saw two or three far below, flying happily around the grey column of rain which looked like the leg of an elephant sticking out from the bottom of the Cb.

It was four o’clock when I landed at Grenoble. Other aircraft were coming down too, owing to a wall of Cbs – a squall line – in the direction of Lyon. I fueled the plane and was frantically tying it down when one storm struck. Although I leapt for shelter into the fuel truck cab, I was nicely drenched.

Generally the extremely pleasant customs inspector at Grenoble signs your fuel receipt for international flights so your avgas will be de-taxed, but after a long wait and several inquiries I discovered it was his day off. They told me it didn’t matter, that I could fly to Germany anyway and there would be no tax, but by this time the weather and hour indicated I’d better spend the night at Grenoble. The hotel serving the airport was closed, but the helpful chaps in the bureau de piste telephoned around and found me a room in a nearby village, costing only 25 francs. They said they would drive me over there, a distance of about three kilometers, but I thought first I’d wander around the airport a bit.

Which gave the magic time to happen. One cannot, I knew, be bogged down by weather on a French airfield and spend a miserable evening alone. No sooner had the local airclub people heard a pilot was stuck there, than I was whisked off by car (driven by a handsome pilot) to Grenoble city, first to see the town, then up to a grassy plateau beneath the mountain fortress. With the sun setting behind the next row of Cbs, I looked down the sheer cliffs rising up from a city nearly always covered in thick haze, but that day in perfect viz. For the first time I could contemplate at my leisure those familiar ridges and valleys I’d so often overflown, usually while being shaken by considerable turbulence.

And then, since no day in France ends on an empty stomach, we visited a restaurant for a thick charcoal-grilled steak and delicious red wine.

My hotel room, when I finally got there, was over the village bar. The room seemed newly restored and was very clean, as was the gleaming hall bath. The next morning at 6am, 25 francs in hand, I startled the landlord, who in baggy trousers and undershirt, Gauloise stuck to his lip, was sweeping up last night’s cigarette butts in his bar.

Since the taxis were asleep and anyway it was only a few kilometers to walk, I set off toward the airport on foot. At that early hour only a few dogs and chickens were around to note my passing, and a few minutes later I was out in the countryside, walking between fields of corn, alfalfa and sunflowers. It was a gorgeous day. I’d gone about half the distance when the Grenoble controllers, on their way to work in a small van (and very much against the rules) gave me a lift the rest of the way.

Since my airplane was already fueled and the flight plan to Frankfurt Egelsbach filed the day before, I was ready-to-taxi before 7am. But I never start up my engine at that airport without feeling a strange chill and looking toward the parking lot. It was a few years ago, having just requested taxi clearance, that I saw something long and white plummet through the air into the car parking area. A man who had been standing near the hangars suddenly turned pale and started running in that direction. My clearance came, but I sat there, unable to move.

"Is he all right?" I asked.

"He’s getting to his feet," lied the controller, very convincingly.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I requested clearance to taxi.

There is almost always parachuting going on at Grenoble-St.Geoirs, from quite high altitudes, so never enter their zone unannounced.

Having hoped that this beautiful blue sky would last all the way across Switzerland, I was disappointed to see, after gaining some altitude, that an important mass of cloud was already moving in from the west, threatening to ambush me at the pass. The alternative would have been to go west of the Jura mountains past Lyon and Dole and Strasbourg. But I had a long way to go that day and had other reasons for wanting to hurry, so I decided to take the more direct route.

Now it must be mentioned that at that time I was suffering from an ailment which we in the trade call ‘Delhi belly’ and which the repas the evening before had done nothing to improve. Thus it was that while flying from Grenoble to Frankfurt, I was actually wondering whether it might be necessary to land in Geneva or Berne. Geneva information sounded rather testy that morning, possibly because my intentions seemed vague. When I told them I was going to change to the Geneva TWR frequency they didn’t reply.

Listening to the TWR frequency I found the controllers in top form flirting with a young lady pilot whom you could almost hear blushing. I didn’t wish to interrupt, since lady pilots are most appreciated for their rarity and it was indisputably her moment to be appreciated. Besides, I still hadn’t decided whether I needed to land at Geneva, so what was I to have said to them?

Geneva Cointrin is a major international airport with exact VFR routings in and out of its TMA. Landing fees have lately doubled: it now costs 26 Swiss francs (£5.60) to land a 1,050 kilogram lightplane there –and there is also a seven franc tax on every passenger. As the weather can be treacherous around Geneva, with thunderstorms during spring and summer, freezing fog and stratus in winter, it’s best to take nothing for granted met-wise. One of the most disagreeable local weather phenomena is a thick mist topped with cumulus which fills the French and Swiss Alpine valleys during otherwise fine anti-cyclonic weather. The mist, composed of moisture molecules from various lakes and dirt from the heavy industry in the area – chemical plants, etc. – can get very thick. On one such misty day, four lightplanes were lost in the Geneva area alone.

As plenty of radar help is available for all aircraft, it is folly not to ask for it when necessary, rather than fly blindly into a mountain or blunder unannounced into the heavy trafic around Swiss airports. I have been obliged to make some instrument approaches and departures at Geneva, and as one descends from FL 80 down into the aircraft-permeated stratus between the towering mountains, one is glad to know a radar eye is watching, keeping one separated from those big inbound mamas.

Unless you request to land on the grass, Geneva will ordinarily have you land on the four-kilometer long 23/05 concrete runway. For the grass there is a caravan which will give you the green light when appropriate. When landing on the concrete runway, turn onto base when abeam the runway threshold, then touch down about halfway up the runway. In this manner you get out of the way of faster traffic faster, plus save tire tread if you had any to begin with.

The relatively new general aviation terminal is on the NW side of the runway. It is supposed to be very convenient for lightplanes, but if you arrive at lunchtime you will most likely have a long wait while the customs inspectors have their meal. Also it can seem forever until a car comes to drive you around to the main passenger terminal if you wish to go there. Another long wait comes between the filing of the flight plan and getting permission from the tower to fly away. You may wish to spend this time in line at the fuel pumps.

The SE alternative to ‘the convenient side’ of the airport is ‘the labyrinth’. Once you have learned the labyrinth (eight times should do it if done regularly) which takes you on a fantastic walking spree around the entire passenger terminal from bureau de piste through French and Swiss police and customs and back again with a well-stamped flight plan, you are loath to abandon it for any simpler routine. One of the bonuses is holding high your flight plan and being waved to the front of 80-foot queues of Japanese airline passengers (male); this gives them food for thought as can be seen on their indignant faces and heard in their angry whistles and mumblings. Plus there is always the chance, you imagine, that by some freak oversight you will be allowed to purchase some tax-free booze at the tax-free booze counter you pass en route. But alas, such good luck has never befallen this vol privé at Cointrin.

Given the above alternatives, and not even taking into account the landing fee and passenger tax (which are God-knows-what amount at this reading), it would take an extremely urgent call of nature to bring me down out of the skies at Cointrin if I had no other business there. And so, while at my 11 o’clock I could see the huge jet of water which is Geneva city’s most impressive landmark after the lake itself, I decided not to land, feeling I could make it to Berne at least.

Switching back to the Information frequency, I was just in time to hear them shouting my callsign for what must have been the 14th time. When I replied, they accused me of having left their frequency without their permission. Even had this not been true, I had been taught never to argue with controllers, and as I didn’t dare plead the delicate state of my gut over the airwaves, I made do with the painful circumspection that I might possibly decide to eventually land in Berne.

"What is your position?" demanded Geneva Information, sounding very put out at this possible change of plan.

Now it is a fact that radar is available to all in this region, and I’d told them some time ago that I was transponder-equipped, though they hadn’t asked me to squawk. Looking down I saw I was vertical the airport of Annemasse. I told them "Annemasse," and I presume they made note.

There was about a sixty-second peaceful silence and then again: "November 4389er, what is your position?"

"A couple miles past Annemasse," I snapped in their natal tongue, for I’d never been taught not to snap at controllers. This of course brought down their wrath and they informed me that I was about to enter the heavy traffic area of Geneva. I already knew this and was glad they too had finally become aware of the fact. "Well," I replied, "I already told you I’m transponder equipped, si ça vous chante."

There was a terrible silence at the other end during which the controller probably jumped out of the window. Then a deeper voice told me to squawk Alfa such-and-such. I did. Then it asked my intentions.

By this time I was feeling so uptight I suspected I wouldn’t need to visit a loo for at least a month. I thus said that I would be proceeding according to PLN to Egelsbach via G-5.

"Negative," said GI. "There’s firing in the airway between Froideville and Berne.

"In the airway?" I asked incredulously. "Firing?" I didn’t believe him for a second.

"Affirmative. What are your intentions?"

Grinding my teeth I looked at the map, deciding to fly direct from Lausanne to Basel. They accepted this, only cautioning me not to go crashing into the Basel TMA without giving the French five minutes’ warning. So, shortly after, we signed off, to everyone’s infinite relief.

Although the weather had been fine when I’d started off from Grenoble nearly an hour earlier, by the time I’d passed Lausanne the. mountains ahead were becoming lost in cloud. According to the map, the peaks just south of Basel were fairly low. I thought I’d continue onward into den Bergen as far as possible, keeping an escape path open at all times, and indeed was just making a 180º when I saw a valley below that seemed it might lead toward Basel. So I dropped down under the cloud and sure enough, there was a large city up ahead. I raised Basel and a lady controller directed me through the zone at a very low altitude. Before I knew it there was the Rhine leading northward. And some time later I was following an Autobahn to Egelsbach.

Egelsbach airport is sort of the Toussus-le-Noble of Frankfurt. It is a convenient general aviation airport for customs formalities, aircraft repairs, etc. You can eat there, buy charts and, unlike TSU, there is a hotel-restaurant (mind the mosquitos!) within walking distance. A mile’s walk will bring you to a train that will take you into the heart of Frankfurt.

I needed to buy no lunch, having brought one consisting of chocolate-covered cookies. These cookies, which had melted in Fayence and hardened overnight in Grenoble, were now stuck together in a monolithic lump at which I gnawed while filing the flight plan and telephoning the met. The ceiling over Frankfurt was low. Toward the north met conditions were of the wait-and-see variety. To learn what I was to wait and see, tune in next month to Pilot magazine.




NOTE: This was Part I of a three-part series published in Pilot, an English aviation magazine. Parts II and III are not reproduced here, sorry.  But Nina made it to Denmark; see proof in Photo Album.