Keeping Legal

Nina Galen, fighting severe turbulence and bureaucracy to keep herself and plane legal and licensed.


There may be another single engine four-seater with an N-number based in France, but I've never seen it. Twins and bizjets can whip back across the Atlantic before the French taxman comes around, or spend half the year plying their trade in other lands. Not so little general aviation aircraft like mine. Then how come I was able to base my plane in France for six years and still have US numbers instead of French letters? It takes a certain set of circumstances, and must be legal, or I certainly wouldn't be writing about it here.

First, you have to be a US citizen or its equivalent. Second, you have to own an aircraft of over 100 hp - which is classified in France as material de guerre - war material. Third, you cannot be a resident of France, which (if you are not) makes you ineligible to own French-registered war material. As a 100-plus hp lightplane is not considered war material by the US FAA (yet), you are able to own said plane with an N-number and base it year-round in France if, fourth, you pay the French taxes on it.

So, having paid the taxes, I was legal with the French, even to the extent of flying IFR with two altimeters (which didn't mean my flying was more accurate – I was just 75 feet off the desired level on two instruments instead of one).

Being completely legal in the country where one's plane is based gives one an airy feeling of fun and well-being, and was worth every centime of the 25% TVA tax I paid upon purchase of my Rallye Commodore. While French aircraft-owning friends and local mechanics sweated out inspections by the steely-eyed representative of Veritas, the authorized French mechanic inspections agency, watching grey-faced as he stabbed a knife through the crisp fabric of their wing to test it for rot (mainly, I think, to impress me), I tickled Monsieur Veritas in the ribs, exhorted him in front of his victims to be less mean, exchanged ribald jokes with him, and stuck out my tongue before flying away. He couldn't touch my plane and we both knew this. It was like taunting a bear in a cage, and I'm sure he dreamed of the day the laws would change and the door swing open.

On the other hand, the fact of my N-number put me in thrall to another government agency whose arms stretch around the world like some mighty King Kong, catching airplanes on the fly. This agency also designates some pretty thorough inspectors and is called the Federal Aviation Administration. Without going into personalities, let me say there are very, very few FAA authorized inspectors in Europe; not one with a shingle up in France; one whom I avoided like the plague; and none I'd ever dream of tickling in the ribs on Inspection Day (except maybe one).

With the background more or less complete, I'll now get on with the story, after a bit more background.

Besides wines and cheeses, France produces a great variety and abundance of weather, situated as it is in the turbulent 40°s of latitude. In these same latitudes can be found the Northern US, some southern Canada, several Communist states, and a good deal of Mongolia. A dumping ground on the Normandy Coast for lows that even the British cannot tolerate, haven for any depression that comes sloughing up its Atlantic beaches wet and horrid after an ocean crossing, victim even of drenching systems that overflow without warning from North Africa, France doesn't know how to leave bad enough alone.

And how could it indeed? France has mountain ranges such as the Alps and Massif Central as well as rivers such as the Rhône and Loire with their respective valleys. Such a rich and varied relief can take a puff of wind, a drop of moisture, and a little temperature change, and whip them into a cataclysm. Try flying down the venturi tube called the Rhône Valley (up it will take you rather longer), or buck a thirty-knot mistral wind across the lower Alps, having already waited a day for the mountain thunderstorms to abate.

Springtime cross-country flying in France can be devastating, summer cruel, and (unless you like gales, freezing fog, sleet and snow), winter is a fine time to stay close to home – particularly if, like mine, your aircraft is based down near the French Riviera.

However, sometimes circumstances do conspire against one, especially if one is trying to remain legal with the FAA. The summer and early autumn of 1976 were marked by a terrible drought in the whole of the north of Europe, caused by an anti-cyclone which just sat there and deflected all oncoming lows away from that area and into southern France, where long-standing records for rainfall fell and floods just about did for the grape harvest and local flying. This dreary weather, along with shoddy and very costly work done on my navcoms, repeated brake problems, and the announcement that the cost of avgas would soon rise 15% thus bringing the cost of fuel to nearly $20 per hour (at only 110 knots of cruise), all conspired to make me decide to sell the Rallye and give up flying for good. It was only when the ad I placed in an international aviation magazine in November began to bring results that I realised I wasn't quite ready to give up my whole way of life. I began making excuses to persons who called, saying I didn't know the price of the plane (true enough since I had never dared inquire), nor the tach time, etc.

"This is rather, um, unusual, is it not?" asked one English caller after feeding a second fistful of ten pences into the callbox slot. I had to admit it was.

But even if I wasn't going to sell the Rallye, this didn't mean I had to fly it. Not me. Not northward in winter. On my next trip to London or Paris I'd leave the plane in the hangar and take the train. With the weather awful all over Europe it would also be quicker and cheaper.

At which point it occurred to me that if I were going to continue in aviation the following spring. I'd need my biennial check ride before the end of January. Knowing of no one in France qualified to check me out, and knowing a person in England who could do it, I realised I'd have to fly the plane to London after all. On the way, in Paris, I'd take my flight instruments for their biennial check at the one lab in France approved by the FAA.

On the morning of my intended departure Cannes met service practically forbade me to fly to Paris, making up in dire predictions what they lacked in authority. But they are always panicky and pessimistic – someone must give them hell every time a little plane is lost – and I felt that if I left mid-morning, by the time I arrived there would be enough ceiling and viz to squeak into Toussus-le-Noble, the main general aviation airport of Paris.

The sky was blue and cloudless when I took off from Fayence airfield; there was even a rare tailwind pushing me over the lower Alps. This good wind kept up across the Rhone Valley, and it wasn't until the Loire that I had to descend because of an approaching cloud cover. It was about this time I began hearing reports of winds of 40 to 60 knots in the north. Also, an apparently hitherto-invisible warm front had just been observed moving into the Paris area with extremely low ceilings. The wind at this time was southwesterly at thirty knots. The barometric pressure was very, very low, and falling.

I now regretted not having gotten off earlier, as the approaching front might keep me from landing at Toussus. At the same time, I was far enough along that even if I had to land and take the train for the last few feet, it wouldn't be the end of the world. Approaching Paris the air was very bumpy, owing partly to the wind over the relief, and also to the instability under the lumpy grey cloud. Toussus reported a 200° wind at thirty knots and the runway in use, 260. I let this information go by without comment, and when I asked again they admitted there were only 14 knots of crosswind on the runway – small potatoes for a Rallye.

Rather than pay the parking fees, and since I had along tiedown ropes and spikes, I decided to park free on the grass, helped by a kindly fuel truck driver who climbed his ladder to block my rudder, and hammered in the spikes. It was very cold and windy, and at least one Rallye parked without control locks had already sustained heavy damage to its rudder.

Having done everything possible to make my plane safe and comfy, I hitched a ride into Paris, my pitot-static instruments under my arm. These I planned to deliver on foot the next day to the lab at Le Bourget Airport, where landing, parking and handling fees come to several times those of Toussus.

I'd hoped to take off for London in two days, but by then a really awful gale was blowing. Determined not to return home without the biennial review, I decided to call the US Embassy and ask whether they knew anyone in Paris qualified to help me? They gave me the name of an American pilot who flew jets in and out of Le Bourget. It turned out he wasn't qualified to check me out on anything but Sabreliners and black-eyed peas, but one of his buddies was. Alas, this buddy was just leaving for an extended trip to Oilland.

Watching the BAC-111 take off for the Emirates with my last hope at the controls, things looked grim for my flight test. I could picture myself returning home un-checked out and flying illegally until spring. This thought wasn't so bad, except for the question of insurance. It was a really desperate situation, especially since the flight instructor in London refused over the phone to check me out in anything but a Rallye, this being the only type aircraft in which I was current.

As the BAC-111 twinkled off into the storm, my pilot-acquaintance suddenly had a call saying he had to fly the Sabreliner to London. With only two passengers aboard there'd be room for me, so I shot back into Paris, packed my bag, and a few hours later was heading skywards at the incredible angle of attack achieved by these jets. Unfortunately for me, who loathes turbulence, it was the roughest ride they'd ever had in the aircraft, and I watched fascinatedly as the leading edge slats popped in and out, exactly as on my Rallye. I spent a good part of the trip holding tight to the hand of the Englishman sitting opposite, who didn't seem to mind and who even took the opportunity to chat me up mercilessly.

Meanwhile, back at Toussus-le-Noble another drama was taking place. The gale was starting to make short work of the little airplanes parked on the grass. When I returned the following Sunday and went up to the Bureau de Piste to pay the landing fee, I was told there had been damage to my Rallye and it wouldn't be allowed to take off until it was inspected and (if necessary) repaired.

This is terrible news for an aircraft owner without all-risk insurance to hear when she is far from home and hangar. If anything kept me from tearing my hair and beating my breast, it was that I happened to have been driven out to Toussus by my Sabreliner acquaintance, who suddenly turned out to be – you guessed it – an FAA authorized inspector! In other words, the one man standing on French soil who could sign off a U.S. registered aircraft was right there with me.

Grimly we walked out in the cold wind toward the parked airplanes, eyeing the sad scene. One Rallye was tied down on its back, a crumpled wreck. The Rallye whose controls had been flapping now had monster control locks, but the damage had already been done. As for my aircraft, it had been turned slightly since I'd last seen it and tied down into the wind. I'd left it parked into the wind, but when the wind had veered a strong gust had tipped it sideways in spite of the tie-down ropes, so that the right wingtip had touched the soft earth, slightly bending an aileron support and breaking off the mise á l'air tube connected to the fuel tank. It took a while to find a pocket mirror, after which, while I picked grass tufts out of the lower camber, my inspector friend carefully inspected all the controls. After some pushing and pounding he finally pronounced the plane fit to fly.

"Are you sure?" I asked him, things in France never being that simple.

"Ahd fly it," he shrugged with his southeast Texas accent, looking tall and indestructible.

"Well," I told him, "if yewd fly it, ahd fly it."

"Okay," he said. "If yewl fly it, ahl sign it."

While inwardly debating whether or not to tickle him in the ribs, I noticed a large, wet notice taped to the windscreen reminding us that no one, not even kooks, was going to fly the plane without special clearance and to report to control. So back we went to the Bureau de Piste where, much to the astonishment of the controllers who seldom have a chance to see an A.I. in action, my companion wrote out a paper certifying the plane airworthy. There were hurried phone calls as, being a Sunday, the regular airport chief wasn't around to give me flight clearance. But at last they said I could fly away.

"Are you sure the plane's okay?" I asked my friend as we walked back out, uneasy over my easy victory.

"Sure it is," he assured me. "If yew want, ahl fly it to Le Bourget and yew drive the car."

"Ahl fly it," I told him, feeling it was safer flying to Le Bourget with one aileron than driving late Sunday afternoon on the Paris Peripherique.

The reason I'd decided to take the Rallye to Le Bourget is that besides making it convenient to have my flight instruments reinstalled, there was a pilot coming through there the next day from the States who might give me a check ride. Having the plane right on hand would increase the chances. If he couldn't do the job I pictured myself haunting the Transair lounge for days on end, accosting every passing U.S. airman until I finally found one who could.

Because of the delay at Toussus I arrived at Le Bourget just before dark, having sweated out the imminent runway-illumination fee all the way (though Lindbergh would probably have been more than glad to cough up the $32+20% value added tax some fifty years earlier). The next day along did come that flight instructor, who gave me the test and signed me off for the next two years, during which I hope to give up flying at long last, especially in view of what still lay ahead.

The day I chose to leave for Fayence in the south the Paris region was covered by a foggy, scuddy cloud with unflyable ceilings. I sat in the Transair lounge making frequent trips to the telephone, and finally, at eleven o'clock, the met-man confirmed what my eyes were seeing: lift-off possibilities. The N-registered Rallye taxied out.

The evening before, after climbing into my jammies, I'd asked the big met-man in the sky to give me a good viz, and if terrible wind there had to be, to see that it came from the northwest. I understand northwesterly winds, which have a certain logic and flow and can be dealt with. But when I took off the next day, the wind was still from the southwest and quite strong, with the barometer down around my knees. I knew it was going to be a bad trip.

There are not trente-six ways to fly directly from Paris to Fayence, and I headed as usual toward the Loire Valley and the Nevers VOR. The wind was not favorable, but with the temperature low the Rallye was nipping right along. Because of the rough air I requested Bretigny Approach (French airspace is reserved for the military nearly everywhere) to let me climb above the small, scuddy clouds into smoother air, and they cleared me to 2,500 feet asi, which wasn't all that high given the low pressure, but enough to do the trick. However, soon the scud began to be seven octas of stratocumulus, so I requested descent and came down through a hole, since up ahead it looked like big buildups.

Flying along at about 500 feet altitude under the cloud the viz was extremely good. The earth was painted by a weird light coming through the one octa of hole, and the eye could see incredibly far. But in spite of the clear air the normally lovely farmlands appeared ugly, owing to this sharp winter sun which gave the scene below the harsh, cold quality of a National Geographic photograph. It was only noon, but you felt that night would fall any second.

Approaching Nevers the turbulence became rather stronger. Seeing sunlight in the distance I climbed back up into smooth air, but was obliged to redescend soon to go under a rain cloud. Paris Information had been warning me for some time about severe turbulence in the Rhone Valley, so there was little doubt in my mind that sooner or later I'd get into some real misery. I just hoped it wouldn't be too awful. Lyon was reporting 1001 mb and only eight knots of wind from 220°. Light winds were also reported at other airports down the Rhone Valley. This seemed rather odd, but encouraging. Most likely the turbulence had been caused by the cold front which had just gone through, and by the time I arrived it would have subsided.

Overflying the hills west of the Rhône Valley the air was very smooth. This usually is a bumpy place because the valley winds are nearly always northerly or southerly – every runway in the valley lines up for these two directions – and it creates a horizontal wind shear at the point over the hills where you enter this wind stream. But today, since all the wind everywhere blew from the same direction, southwest, this wasn't the case.

Feeling the situation was in hand, I began to climb, noticing, as I changed my altimeter from 1001 mb to 1013 mb, a 600 foot difference. Arriving over the Rhone River I reached FL 55. There was a moment of utter calm. Then wow! The joyride was over. The aircraft started going wild.

My first thought, of course, was to descend. But this didn't help at all. My second thought, since no way was I going to climb again, was to turn back and find that lovely smooth air of a moment ago. But this was like seeking yesterday; it was not to be found. Instead, as I turned, the plane felt like it was dropping sideways down a mail chute. What was wrong? Was the aileron finally kissing me goodbye? I'd been glancing at it during the entire flight and looked hard at it now, but it was still hanging in there.

Leveling out, and hoping to crab northward up the valley, the plane went into a terrible skid. I tried what skid remedies I knew but nothing seemed to work. The aircraft didn't seem to want to fly at right-angles to that turbulent wind. More bank would send us back down the mail chute; right rudder turned us ignominiously to the right. Although I'd reduced power to lessen the shocks and was flying more or less level, the indicated airspeed was about twenty knots above cruise. I wondered, given the slips and skids, whether the static ports were registering ram pressure and the pitot tube getting the static. In any case, one thing was perfectly clear: I was over my head, aerodynamically speaking.

Having been flying for over three hours that morning and having missed lunch, my courage wasn't very high. I decided to land at Lyon/Bron Airport and find out what was happening. Though it may seem perverse, while I heartily detest turbulence in flight, ultra-hairy crosswind landings and take-offs with plenty of knots and turbulence thrown in are what really turn me on. But as I descended toward Lyon the thought occurred that, if the runway were right there in front of me then, I'd simply wipe my landing gear off on touchdown.

Lyon was still reporting only eight knots of wind as the Rallye clawed its way along base to line up for final. With the windward wing low, and keeping the airspeed high for the wind shear to come, I held myself ready to correct for anything the dumb plane might decide to do. To my disappointment, about fifty feet above the runway I found the eight knots of wind and landed without difficulty.

Munching chocolate cookies and feeling like une cloche (what my French gliding instructor called me years ago when I flunked my two-hour epreuve by landing a minute early), I went straight to the met office and asked what gave. They mentioned the cold front which had recently gone through, as well as the wind over the relief. I told them fine, but they'd have to do better than that. I'd been in a lot of turbulence in my day, but never anything quite like that.

Then came an item of more interesting news. It seems there were fifty knots of wind at 5,000 feet, thirty knots at 3,000 feet, and eight knots on the ground. The strange turbulence which had given me trouble all the way down was caused by wind shear. Wind shear is defined as "a change in wind speed and/or direction in a short distance resulting in a tearing or shearing effect." Severe turbulence can result when vertical wind shears exceed six knots per 1,000 feet.

"Well," I said to myself as I dusted the cookie crumbs off the front of my sweater, "what's a little turbulence if it keeps me legal and the FAA happy?"

Sunset was only two hours away, so having now a better picture of what was happening in the air, I opted to press on right away, staying as near the eight-knot level as possible. After leaving the Rhone Valley the worst of the turbulence abated. To the northeast the Alps, covered in fresh snow and crested with crisp, meringue-shaped pink and grey cumulus, posed starkly in the setting sunlight for any passing National Geographic photographer. Up ahead the Mediterranean was a great, grey depression. Fayence airfield was looking good.