The English Pilot Abroad
Fiddlers over the roof?


Does Britannia waive the rules? Maybe; but not even a French pilot could cross France VFR and obey all the rules and regs.

by Nina Galen


"The English private pilot's habit is to get round regulations as much as possible." (AVIATION 2000 No. 11, April 1973).

On the whole, private pilots everywhere are regarded by professional pilots, controllers, and other private pilots with all the affection and respect usually lavished on Sunday drivers by regular road users and traffic cops. When British Sunday drivers decide to spend their holidays driving on the Continent, or vice versa, tragedy sometimes results. In the air, too, dangerous situations arise when pilots of one country cross into another country with whose rules, regulations and charts they are relatively unfamiliar.

Although neither French nor English, I feel somewhat qualified to comment on this delicate issue. I learned to fly in France and have a French private pilot's license. I took my American CPL training at Cranfield Airfield in England, and the American IFR rating in Santa Monica, California. My approximately 600 hours of cross country have taken me all over France and to London, Frankfurt, Tunisia, Beirut, Istanbul and many points between.

During the hundreds of hours I've spent in French skies with my trilingual ears plugged into various Information and Control frequencies, I've heard some strange goings-on. While filing flight plans in airports from one end of Europe to the other I've witnessed strange scenes. (I'm occasionally a strange scene to witness myself when filing a flight plan, and as for radio work have been horrified to hear myself on an IFR descent saying to Geneva Tower – with whom I’d been speaking VFR French – in IFR franglish: "Out of neuf for sept".)

Since it's often impossible to tell by ear whether the pilot you hear speaking is a professional or a private pilot, I will assume for this article that any foreigner flying VFR in France is a non-professional. (Or crazy.)

We first hear the English VFR pilot as he is crossing the French coast. His radio work is impeccable. He gives Paris Information everything they would ever want to know about his provenance, destination, route and flight level. He can only now be sitting back waiting for an accolade. But this is not to be. "Say again your flight level!" cries Paris Info. "Seven zero, sir," replies the Englishman. "Seven zero is not a VFR flight level!" exclaims Paris Info, scandalizé. And so the day begins.

A little while later we hear our intrepid English pilot a bit further south. He now reports his position, etc, and requests a change of flight level, presumably to avoid entering cloud. Paris Info understands not a word he is saying, but to cover its confusion asks for the pilot's next "point of rhapor". Several minutes pass while this one is sorted out. Then the English pilot renews his request, which is again not understood. By now the pilot, being forced by the weather to descend, is harder to understand than ever. Suddenly someone whispers something in the controller's ear. Now he understands the request. "Take any level you want," he tells the pilot gruffly. "You are VFR. You don't have to inform me." The reply is a weak, scratchy little noise from the plane which is now at about 1,000 feet QNH.

The hours pass. Somehow our English pilot manages to squeeze through the hills into the Rhône valley. The weather is awful but he's afraid to open his mouth and ask what Met conditions to expect en route and at destination. The Alps to his left and the Massif Central to his right are both deep in black rain clouds, and it is raining and horrid as far as he can see down the Rhône valley, which isn't very far. He decides to follow that reassuring ribbon of silver as it meanders southwards. He notices the airport of St Rambert d'Albon and happily jots down the exact time. He sets Montelimar on his VOR, and refolds his map of France and his convenient if ancient instrument chart. Aside from navaid information, this latter also shows a lot of unobtrusive green lines, but since he’s not on an IFR flight he feels he can ignore them. At some point in his life he has come across a chart called France Vol a Vue et Radionavigation, but after looking at it a few minutes decided that they had to be kidding and stuck it into his flight case for use as a status-symbol on some future occasion.

About now our pilot decides that, all the same, he'd like to know the weather at destination. He tries to raise Marseille Info, but it doesn't reply; he is too low. He overflies Montelimar but no radio frequency is listed for it in his DOD supplement, and so he doesn't try to contact it, although Montelimar does have a good met-man in residence.

He flies on. Suddenly he notices two Mirage fighters screaming past his nose. Quickly he reaches back into his flight-bag and takes out that French chart. He finds Montelimar and looks at what lies ahead. "They have to be kidding", he mutters to himself as he sticks the chart back in the bag and again tries to raise Marseille, with no result.

Another Mirage flashes past. He decides to contact the biggest airport anywhere near him and hits upon Orange-Caritat. He raises them immediately and they are delighted to hear his voice since they have been watching him on their radar screen ever since he entered their military zone some minutes ago. They tell him to remain at 2,000 feet and report leaving their zone.

Now the pilot is joyful because he is legal. He takes out the French chart again, figures out roughly where he is and, upon leaving the zone, informs Orange of that fact. They say he can leave their frequency and bid him good day and bonne route. The pilot is beginning to feel warmer toward this French chart. It seems that if he just stays as far to the left as possible and follows the river around he'll soon be home free.

So it is rather a shock when six small V-tailed jets sweep past his nose. He looks at the chart again but it is now such a mass of overlapped circles and cross-hatchings, with everything written in French and meters, that he cannot make heads or tails of it. He manages to raise Marseille Info and asks them the frequency of Salon, which is the nearest airfield. Marseille gives him a frequency, but he cannot raise Salon, though he hears Nimes traffic.

By now the air around him is filled with aerobatic Fouga Magisters, La Patrouille de France in person. He can raise no one who seems to care who or where he is, and his curses fill the cockpit. He decides he'll just fly on without talking to anyone any more. He has already overflown one forbidden area on the Rhône without having noticed it. Now he overflies some sort of atomic plant south of Vinon which is also forbidden airspace from the earth up to God's heaven. He finishes his voyage by flying with clenched teeth through a whole slew of reserved and dangerous airspaces, rain and turbulence, and lands at his destination feeling like a bloody hero.

The scene changes. I am in the Bureau de Piste at Toussus-le-Noble airport filing a flight plan for Geneva. At the same counter are two Frenchmen filing a flight plan for Gatwick. I have never landed at Gatwick and am rather impressed that they are going there, given the poor and worsening weather and the fact that neither of them knows how to fill out a flight plan form. The day before I had crossed the Channel from Ashford and it had not been comfy. Today would be even worse.

As I listen in I think that perhaps I should ask a few pertinent questions and offer a bit of advice. They are delighted to learn from me that there exists a Light Aircraft Corridor, a Cap Griz Nez, and a convenient airfield on the English coast called Ashford. If they weren't aware of these things before, it is only because they own no VFR map of England or France and are using only an extremely old Jeppesen. The pilot has had 150 hours of flying time, the plane is a small Jodel, and there will be four persons on board, including the elderly parents of the pilot. The pilot is obviously being pushed into this adventure by an older companion who says he himself knows how to use a VOR.

After agreeing that Ashford might be more convenient than nothing, they ask me whether French is spoken by English controllers. I tell them I deeply doubt this. It turns out then that none of them speak English. Gulping, I jot down a few useful and obligatory French frequencies for Channel crossings, but they tell me they don't intend contacting anyone until arrival. I wish them bonne chance and a few minutes later watch them taxi to the wrong holding point and eventually fly away.

Some minutes later, heading toward Geneva, I kick myself for not having done something to discourage their flight. I figure they'll be too stupid to turn around when the weather gets too bad (it was a day in 1972 when Wimbledon was rained out). I wonder whether Toussus Tower shouldn't have done something to stop the flight, but I suppose they were legal. The only thing is that the pilot probably didn't possess an international radio operator's license. I tell myself that if they don't turn back they will get themselves killed, and I already feel myself responsible for four deaths.

A few weeks later I'm again at Toussus and inquire about the plane. The controller recalls the case. "They turned back," he informs me with a sigh. Thank goodness.

Are English private pilots worse than French or American or German ones? Can you have respect for German pilots who repeatedly do things like run out of fuel ten minutes before reaching Cannes, then justify their landing in the trees by saying that the plane's owner said it had six hours' range, but had been incorrect? Or who crash into the sea after having their fuel tanks filled with kerosene instead of avgas because they made the mistake of asking a French refueler for "petrol", which in France means kerosene? [As certain of that model aircraft do take kerosene, it wasn’t the supplier’s fault.] Or who decide after flying from Corsica not to bother informing anyone that instead of landing at their flight plan destination, Cannes, they will just gewander on up to the Fatherland, thus launching a massive land and sea search?

Very occasionally, when I hear a potentially dangerous misunderstanding occurring between a French controller and a foreign pilot I intercede to do a bit of translating. Occasionally towers who know I'm on their frequency request my help out of despair. But while some situations are serious, others are only amusing. Perhaps the funniest language thing I've ever heard on the radio occurred near Paris. A pilot had been talking in French with Paris Info, and now the latter asked : "You speak very good French. What is your nationality?" There was no reply, only a dead silence on the radio waves while perhaps hundreds of intrigued pilots strained to hear. Then again Paris: "Lima Zulu, I repeat, you speak excellent French. What is your nationality?" More seconds of silence, then the pilot's unhappy voice reached our ears: "I'm French but I work as head waiter in an Italian pizza parlour." At this the radio went absolutely silent while pilots in aeroplanes everywhere must have doubled up with unheard laughter.

But to get back to the French-English problem. As far as I can tell, very few French private pilots ever do any cross-country flying. When they do they seldom make radio contact with anyone, seldom are equipped with proper and up-to-date charts or maps, carry no navaids (radio equipment is horrendously expensive in France, as is IFR training which is only taught in multiengine aircraft and there is no IMC rating available to them, so they sometimes get into trouble for reasons beyond their control.

In fact, there is little to help the VFR pilot in France. When the weather is poor and you are low you can usually receive no VOR or ADF, no Information or Control frequency, and often no tower. When things are at their worst you are usually absolutely on your own in France, and even if you manage to contact someone, often they have no way to help you, no radar, no DF. What a difference for a pilot coming from the US or England where radar aid is usually available at the flick of a radio button.

IFR pilots, both French and foreign, complain about the incredible lack of helpfulness and simple courtesy on the Paris, Marseille and Bordeaux Control frequencies. I could tell of personal experiences flying IFR in France which would be hard for English or American pilots to believe, coming as they do from countries where VORs are plentiful and IFR traffic controllers are cool, calm and helpful whether you are flying an airliner or a two-seater. In France your best bet as last resort is the military who are equipped, helpful, and concerned for your safety. But they are not everywhere, not always operating, and do not always speak English very well if at all.

It has been written: "The English private pilot's habit is to get round regulations as much as possible." An English private pilot friend of mine who was waiting for his PPL to arrive in the post, used to put it this way: "But darling, you've got to fiddle. They'd never let you do anything if you didn't." As soon as his license arrived he was off to Amsterdam, at night. It was, he assured me, perfectly legal. [Learn more about this fellow in my article "Strange Foreign Customs." He’s the one whose pants split.]

Legal perhaps, but I was very skeptical as to whether it was wise or even moral (he was planning to carry passengers). He pooh-poohed my idea that the weather might turn sour (the French might give inaccurate weather reports, but the Anglo-Saxons didn't), or that traffic problems might foul him up. He was ready for anything short of a holding pattern. In any case, he explained, it was not a matter of flying, but of radio work. Then he went on to explain how in any given situation there was a fiddle available to make an unsuspecting traffic controller believe the inexperienced pilot was legal, IFR-rated, 747-rated, anything he pleased. I pointed out that even controllers, as cloudy-brained as they might possibly be, would understand when that blip disappeared from their radar screen, no matter how convincing the radio work had been.

"You'll be dead within the year," I told him, feeling that I was being generous. He looked at me strangely, sensing I meant it.

On my next trip to England I was amazed to find he was still alive. We were to have met at Le Touquet but there a message awaited me that he would pick me up at an airport near London. When I later asked him about his change in plans he said he'd heard the Channel weather wasn't very good that day. I looked at him in surprise. Was this the same boy who two weeks earlier had told me that absolutely no weather could prevent him from getting to Le Touquet and back whenever he wanted? Furthermore, since the Channel weather that day had not been particularly poor, his forbearance amazed me.

But this wasn't all that struck me as different. In his car, instead of the usual piles of aviation magazines, monster-size metallic wind computers, etc, there was a sober volume on airmanship. Tiens tiens I marvelled silently.

As we drove into London the story came out. After receiving his PPL he had gone off for a flight with his two best friends. A wind that had not been forecast had come up, a landing had to be made, and he did so poorly that only by a miracle did he avoid wrecking the plane. His passengers and he were all scared out of their wits, and he was obliged to have two pilots come and fly the plane and them back to base. I don't think the fellow has flown since. [In fact it’s possible his license was taken away.]

It may of course be true that fiddling might facilitate things for an experienced VFR/IMC pilot in England, but French rules are different. IMC ratings do not exist in France. No pilot on a VFR flight is allowed to go into cloud, the only exception being when making a controlled letdown in emergency conditions. However, the French feel such situations should be avoided unless the pilot is IFR rated and equipped. In France night-flying is also reserved for IFR flights only, and no VFR landings or takeoffs are allowed after sunset at airports with control zones. VFR flights in France can follow airways, but only at special VFR flight levels: from 0° to 179° at odd thousands plus 500 feet (FL 35, 55, 75, etc); and from 180° to 359° at even thousands plus 500 feet (FL 45, 65, 85, etc).

But even while obeying as many French regulations as possible I sometimes get depressed by my own inability to fly across France – or anywhere [see "Flying to Czechoslovakia"] – remaining legal at all times, in spite of all my efforts and experience. So the other day I asked a very experienced French pilot friend, who has flown thousands of hours in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for the French military, whether he thought he could make a VFR flight across France and remain legal at all times. He burst out laughing. "Impossible!" he cried. "I tried making a couple of VFR flights, was scared out of my wits, and from then on only flew IFR. No one can hear you when you're low." He agreed with me that France is such a mess of zones, military and otherwise, that given anything but perfect weather, and even then, nobody could possibly fly any distance without doing many illegal things, even while trying his best to be legal.

Et voila. This is not to say I'm defending English private pilots or any country's private pilots. Some are as good as professionals; some are sloppy and arrogant. But any pilot coming to France (or Italy for that matter, or Spain) is up against lots of problems that he has perhaps never faced before: lousy weather of all kinds; mountains; lack of navaids, radar, and communications; language difficulties; maps and charts done in the local languages. All these join with the private pilot's lack of experience in other areas to make his journeys difficult. But at least the English make voyages, and a few of them try to fly as "professionally" as possible.

In fact, I would like to challenge any pilot of any country, private or professional, speaking English or French or both, to fly non-stop across France from Le Bourget to Cannes at under 2,000 feet QNH (simulating difficult weather in case there isn't any – yeah, sure) on a weekday morning of any month except August without violating a single rule or airspace. If he can show me how he did it, and swear it actually happened as he says it did, then I will buy him lunch at the renowned Fayence aeroclub canteen. If he goofs the attempt, he will buy me lunch at the local restaurant of my choice. (This offer expires the day anyone succeeds.) C'mon, y'all. J'ai faim!