A Trip to Greece and
(by lightplane, in 1974)
by Nina Galen
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The biggest no-no in international flying is to set off on a long journey to exotic lands without first inquiring whether you will be welcome. This in mind, and having decided to fly to Istanbul, I wrote to the Turkish Embassy in Paris from my home in Southern France, expecting some reply in the fullness of time. A few days later, a Friday evening at six thirty, my phone rang. It was a call from the Turkish Embassy.
We had a long talk, less because we had a lot to say than that the French telephone is a hollow tube through which one has to shout. The gist was that I had to write to a certain Ankara address for VFR flight permission. Not knowing the pilots' alphabet, my caller made do with Turkish girls' and boys' names to spell out T.C. Ulastirma Bakanligi, Sivil Havacilik Dairesi, Ankara, Turkey.
I wrote to them. Meanwhile, my passenger-to-be happened to drop by his local Turkish Embassy. The next day a note came from him telling me to write off directly to T.C. Ulastirma Bakanligi in Ankara. I thought this was very sweet of my passenger. I'd also mentioned the trip to my elderly Cousin Sadie in Brooklyn and by return post learned that even in Brooklyn they are aware that Turkish postmen cannot always read English, but do rather well with words like Talatpasa Bulvair. "'Get clearance," wrote Cousin Sadie, who has never seen a flight plan, much less an airplane smaller than a Boeing, "by writing to Sivil Havacilik Dairesi ... etc."
So many persons could not be wrong, and indeed, exactly two weeks after making the request, I received a letter postmarked Ankara from Gunduz S. Güngen, the Genel Müdürlügu himself: permission granted.
Since our holiday would be brief, leaving Fayence on June 3rd and arriving back on June 15th, we were not going to see much of Turkey even if I flew like a humming bird. To isolate the essential with an eye to the greatest economy of motion and funds, I plunged into my maps and charts and the tourist literature sent me by my passenger and Cousin Sadie.
About a week before departure it seemed a good idea to check out the life jackets, my passenger having just informed me that he didn't know how to swim. The jacket with the SARBE beacon, which I'd been saving in a damp cupboard for just such a trip, was alas useless, its battery green, fuzzy, swollen and (in Southern France) irreplaceable at short notice. I didn't like the inspection dates on the other vests either, and was about to rent a couple when some Lear Jet pilot friends arrived in a brand new Lear Jet which had come equipped with several brand new life jackets. We made a temporary switch and that was that.
Besides the vests, my survival equipment included a tent and sleeping bags, flares both good and dubious, and cooking equipment though with nothing to cook, not even canned water for tea. Well, one can't think of everything. While preparing the plane I found a fresh spare spark plug left over from some other long journey's preparation. Good good. The tiedown ropes and sturdy chocks were aboard as well as a plastic pail and chamois cloth for windscreen washing.
I hoped to press through to Corfu the first day, rather than stop overnight in Italy, which is hectic and normally on strike. Italy is anyway often a drag to cross in light aircraft, not only because of its weather and mountains but because most of the southern Italian airports are dreary MIL-CIVs and inefficient regarding small planes. Albenga (super fast if you don't need MET information and can land and take off in crosswinds gusting to 40 knots) and Bari are two exceptions.
Departure day dawned with enigmatic meteorological conditions. We made the ten minute hop to Cannes where I filed a VFR flight plan to Naples, listing Rome-Urbe as alternate. In spite of anti-cyclonic mist, within minutes of leaving the French mainland we could see Corsica. The northern half of the island was shrouded in cloud and by the time we had crossed the FIR we were above 8/8 of stratus. To my dismay (Cannes met had said the weather would be good) Italy and the sea were largely covered by stratus at different levels, the highest being above us, the lowest clinging to the land. There were many dim areas of heavy mist and rain as well.
I reported passing Elba and was told to descend to 2,500 feet crossing Giglio. This was impossible without entering cloud. My alternatives were few: either I was simply going to fly where I wanted at whatever altitude I wanted and say to hell with Italian VFR routes, or I was going to have to file IFR. This I didn't want to do since my artificial horizon was droopy, but flying IFR on a basic instrument panel seemed a better choice than trying to find my way around Italy with so much stratus, or turning back. So I requested an I FR flight plan for Naples.
Whereas French traffic controllers tend to get very upset by a sudden change to instrument flight rules, Rome was extremely helpful and in a very few minutes I was given level 90 and we were on our way south along the coast. Best of all, except for patches of dense rain, we were out of cloud and in good vertical visibility the whole way.
All went well until we were handed off to Naples approach. Suddenly there was a new problem, as impenetrable and terrifying as a giant Cb: language. I simply couldn't understand what they were saying. I was obliged to ask them to say again, then say again again. They spoke faster, impatient with me. Dimly I understood the words "Sorrento" and "further clearance". They were telling me to hold over Sorrento for an indeterminate period of time. Fair enough. Traffic is traffic. I'd been in the air now for over 3.5 hours and was rather tired; it was raining and very hazy, but there was good vertical visibility and I felt I could circle over the island below for as long as necessary. Halfway through my first holding pattern, however, I was given new instructions. Again I couldn't understand their English. Napolese tempers are short, which doesn't help tired pilots. I simply didn't know what they wished me to do. Eventually they turned us over to radar and a calm voice vectored us onto final. Ignominy.
Napoli/Capodichino airport is a large, dingy, crowded airport and inefficient regarding small planes. Unless you have been there before, and even so, you may be utterly confused about where to go and in what order things must be done. Airport formalities completed, the plane must be taxied some distance for fuel and the delay getting it can be endless. Watch the NOTAMS. In the summer season there seems to be a rule not to give Avgas after 1600A. And bear in mind that in the summer 1600A is 1400Z.
Landing fees at Italian airports are 480 lira for one ton or less, 960 lira for less than two tons, etc. Passengers are taxed about 1,000 lira apiece. Occasionally one passenger can be counted as co-pilot, but this is not often allowed on single-engine planes and depends on the geniality of the official with whom you're dealing.
The weather was hot, hazy and rainy. I had no real idea before take-off whether I'd get over the Apennines without a long detour, but after leaving the Naples control zone at 1,000 feet I started my climb at the Sorrento VOR and crossed the mountains at FL 75 with little forward visilibility but with lots to see behind and below.
Although the ceiling lowered near Brindisi and there were more patches of rain, the worst was now past. As we headed out over the water on a radial from the Brindisi VOR, we could see the mountains of Albania lurking in the haze on our left and the boot of Italy shining on our right. In a very short time we were able to identify the two little islands off Corfu's shore.
I was amazed to see how Kerkiera Airport had changed since my last visit. It is now a modern and very attractive airport with lots of tarmac, some tiedowns, and is very convenient and hospitable for light aircraft and their pilots. With one exception: the new control tower has not been completed, so one is obliged to go for flight plans and met information to the old airport a few hundred yards away. Actually I was happy to climb once again the steep metal stairway up the outside of the control tower where in the past I'd spent happy hours drinking strong Greek coffee and chatting with the controllers while waiting for the winter rains to cease.
And speaking of rain, in Corfu it rains frogs on the airport. The acres of wet asphalt are covered with miniscule green frogs which look up at you in wide-eyed astonishment as if wondering what on earth human beings are doing on the tarmac.
Besides frogs, Corfu gave us two other surprises, one good, one bad. The good : there is no landing fee for privately-owned aircraft at Greek airports. The bad: fuel is no longer de-taxed between the Greek islands, just as it is no longer de-taxed between mainland France and Corsica.
Two days later we took off again, heading toward Athens. Fortunately, we didnt encounter the severe low-level turbulence and wind shear common in this region, which Id experienced in the past. The shaking, which can only be compared to a dog viciously shaking a rag, makes you think your wings and even your arms will break off, all while exerting so many Gs on your face that your jaws will open wide and snap shut without any instructions from you.
Its best to have a VFR chart for the long, exacting, Athens approach which begins above the spectacular Corinthian Canal. I didn't have one, but had arrived via Corinth once before, so had a general idea of what is required. The extremely helpful Athens controllers supplied me with the necessary headings and distances, and eventually radar vectored us through the haze onto final. (Be prepared that a "calm" wind at Athens Airport may mean a wind sock pointing down your tailpipe on final.)
Despite its size, Athens airport is very convenient for light aircraft. One is parked directly in front of the terminal, right behind the 707s and 747s (tie your plane down immediately!) and then you just follow your instincts past the various officials and out the door or down to the basement briefing and met office.
As we had plenty of fuel to get to Mykonos, I didn't bother to refuel. My passenger had decided only the night before that he wanted to go to Mykonos where, he said, they had lots of windmills. It occurred to neither of us that windmills implied wind, but this delicate synaptic connection was made after Id contacted Mykonos Radio and learned that the runway in use was 34 and the wind was gusting to 30 knots from 20º to 50º. It was also then that I congratulated myself on having traded my Jodel Ambassadeur in on a Rallye Commodore.
As it turned out, the wind was not more than 20 degrees off the centerline and no problem at all. But without a steerable nose wheel it was difficult taxiing, and I hastened to park next to the one other aircraft on that desolate, windswept field with its low, wooden control shack cum terminal. It was only after I'd pulled on the handbrake that I saw the other plane was a wreck a Jodel Sicile that had come all the way from Switzerland to end up thus. (Stupidly, Id parked my Rallye in the wrecked-planes area instead of the parking area, but nothing was going to make me move it again until we were ready to leave.)
After chocking the wheels and attaching the plane to sandbags at four points along its wings and blocking anything else that might wiggle, we took the short taxi ride to town. Mykonos town is a whitewashed shell inhabited mainly by tourists. The wind screams around the corners of the narrow streets. Oddly, when I would ask people whether it was always so windy, the invariable reply was: "Wind? Wind? What wind?" I was advised that if I wanted wind I should return in July or August.
But wind is only one funny surprise offered by Mykonos to the unsuspecting and unprepared pilot tourist. The other side-splitter is that there is no aviation fuel on Mykonos.
No wonder then that I became a wind-watcher, hoping it would calm a bit before takeoff time, the plan being to head north to Mitilini, Lesbos, the direction from whence came the wind. Mitilini has customs and was to have been our jumping-off place for Turkey. I had enough fuel to fly easily back to Athens or eastward to Samos, but had little desire to make these detours. "Samos," I was gleefully told by the Mykonos controller, a man who rides herd on a huge quantity of radio equipment like some mad scientist, "is reporting a direct side wind gusting to 40 knots." He rubbed his hands with satisfaction. "Even the Olympic Airlines planes are having difficulty getting in and out." This news didn't particularly bother me since my Rallye has not failed me under similar conditions, but neither did it make me mad with desire to fly to Samos.
The decision wasn't easy. I don't believe in cutting things too thin fuel-wise, especially with a passenger on board and especially over water. However, there was one other fuel-less airport on an island along the way in case I absolutely had to land. The Mykonos controller urged me to go. "It's only a very short distance to Mitilini," he kept assuring me.
I must have measured the distance and calculated the wind five times before deciding that a half hour's fuel would remain, no matter how spooky the fuel gauges would look at flight's end. The visibility was excellent and Mitilini had a VOR, so there would be no nav problems. As we bid goodbye to the controller he flashed us a wide grin. "May God be with you!" he cried with a roar of laughter.
As we took off, my passenger was full of assurances. He pointed at the fuel needles and told me that I was a worrier because it was obvious that we had plenty of fuel. But when we landed at Mitilini an hour and a half later, he was staring at the gauges quite silent and rather pale. So was I.
It should be said that, while flying over water can be nervewracking, especially for the pilot-owner of a single engine plane which is not insured for loss, the experience is more palatable if one is at least in radio contact at all times with somebody. There are various control and information frequencies in Greece, and all the island airports are on 119.7, so one is seldom out of contact travelling the VFR routes, even at lower altitudes. Airliners flying overhead will also volunteer to relay messages, and once I relayed a message to and from Athenai Control for an aeroplane flying far above my head, owing to the peculiarities of radio communication. I make it a fast rule never to be over water without being in radio contact with someone, and if a newly assigned frequency doesn't reply, I return to the old one until it does.
Another security offered the pilot in Greece besides the powerful VORs and ADFs, is that the visibility is generally good enough for the VFR pilot to have always an island or coastline in view as a navigational and psychic aid. In fact, part of the fun of flying in Greece is watching the journey unfold across one of the large USAF 1,000,000 maps. Passengers are happy as Larry with one of these maps on their knees, identifying the tiniest islands even rocks sticking out of the water by their shapes. Ships are also a reassuring sight when flying over the sea and there are obviously quite a few of these in Greek waters.
After leaving the small, hospitable airport of Mitilini where, to my dismay, we were fuelled out of a barrel with a hand pump when the regular method proved too slow (!), we headed Turkey-wards following the airways to avoid the military zones flanking the route. We crossed the Sea of Marmara, and I was impressed with the rather casual approach procedures, which seemed to rely on pilot discretion and pure chance to avoid mid-air collisions between small planes arriving and big ones taking off at Istanbul-Yesilkov airport.
Once on the ground at Yesilkov, the Turkish airport formalities are quick and easy the only hitch in both Greece and Turkey being that no official can believe the woman is the pilot, so she must stand politely aside while they talk to her passenger. That done, one is whisked through passport control and customs, a hotel reservation can be quickly made by phone, and one is besieged by baggage handlers and taxi drivers. Leaving Istanbul through the same airport was not, however, a mirror image of the arrival. For one thing, it wasnt taken well when I tried to listen in and ask pertinent questions as they briefed my passenger on the weather and NOTAMS. In fact, they kicked me out of the airport and there I sat on the sidewalk curb until they realized the plane wasnt going anywhere without me.
Istanbul-Yesilkov has a landing fee which is tallied up for you in dollars and cents and comes to $11.20 (about £5) for landing a one ton or less aircraft (my Rallye immediately lost fifty kilos in order to qualify for this minimum fee women will sometimes lie about their ages and the gross weights of their planes) and $4.28 (£1.90) for two nights without tiedowns.
We now headed for lsmir. You who may think flying in Greece and Turkey differs from flying in countries more to the west, let me assure you that it is very much the same. For pilots used to flying always into head winds, there are always headwinds. I personally know no pilots who fly always with tailwinds, but for them there are, presumably, tailwinds. After taking off southward with a favourable departure wind, we were still on the tower frequency when I heard Yesilkov reversing the runway in use and we arrived at lsmir eyeing the fuel gauges in a hot, 22-knot headwind.
Ismir-Cigli airport is almost too good to be true. There is no time to turn off the engine, much less hook up your bra, before you are surrounded by a dozen helpful souls. Some will refuel you, others will carry your bags, others will inform and escort you, and others will just look on pleasantly. The Turks are on the whole a friendly, humorous and intelligent people, and lsmir is a fine place to arrive by small plane.
Two days later we found that leaving Turkey through the same airport was as quick and easy as the arrival, and although the airport fee was as high as at Istanbul, one felt one was getting one's money's worth. By the way, Turkey has no Avgas 100, only 115-145 and, at least for now, in some places, 80. The 115-145 worked just fine for me.
The trip home to France was about as uneventful as the trip going, except for a piece of rubber stripping that got partly detached and started banging the wing with a most alarming noise shortly before arrival at Athens. From various experiences at Athens, I can recommend it as a convenient and efficient place for getting repairs done.
Leaving Greece, we stopped at Brindisi (to use the loo, having picked up some intestinal bug our last night in Corfu) and Rome-Urbe. Stopping seemed even worse than usual because of the heat. Rome-Urbe would not accept francs, pounds, dollars or drachmas for the landing fee, so we lost about a half hour, a lot of shoe leather, perspiration, and patience getting our money changed informally into lira at the far end of the airport. Italy is anyway bad news for me: like Switzerland and Spain it does not de-tax fuel for American-registered planes on international flights.
And so we took off again for the last flight across water. Approaching the French coast off Cannes, my engine started to run rough. I asked for an immediate and direct approach and really sweated out those last five minutes, watching the gauges all the way. But, disappointingly for the numerous fire trucks and ambulances lining the runway, and the throng standing atop Cannes airport watching for the crash, I landed without mishap.
In fact, nothing serious seemed to be the matter, and after I'd run up the engine on the ground, begged, pleaded, and ate crow by blaming the whole thing on my imagination, Cannes tower reluctantly let us depart for the last ten-minute hop over the hills to Fayence. I'd already flown more than seven hours that day, the last with the setting sun in my eyes, and no shuddery Lycoming was going to keep me from sleeping in my own bed that night. So I promised to telephone Cannes upon arriving at Fayence, and when I did they were delighted to hear of our safe arrival. It was like a welcome home.
NOTE: For more thrills involving flying in France, Italy and Greece, click here to read Monopoly on Terror