Flying to Prague (in 1975)

The food is excellent, and foreign pilots are very welcome.

By Nina Galen

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It started with a letter from a friend in the US saying that he would be lecturing in Czechoslovakia for a month and why didn't I hop over with my plane and pay him a visit. On his way to Prague he'd be passing through Heathrow on a certain date, in case I just happened to be in London.

I was – to work out the details and make sure we managed to meet behind the 'curtain'. He had as yet no address or schedule and I feared that once inside Czechoslovakia mails might be slow and signals crossed. I said I'd try to arrive in Prague on a certain Friday in June, and if he were in town he should look for me at the airport in case I didn't receive his Czech address in the mail before leaving. I didn't.

The next step was to get a visa. A phone call to the embassy in London informed me that visas took two to three days. I told them I didn't have that much time, and was advised to come at ten o'clock the next morning and be the first in line with two visa photos and some cash. I was. At ten to. Even so, through the glass door we waiters could see a sign saying that no excuse in the world would get us a visa quicker than two to three days.

All the same I had an excuse ready, but this was waved aside with a visa form to be filled out in quadruplicate and returned to the lady at the desk. I returned with my excuses too, and heard a young man ahead of me say that he had to have a visa the next day. He was told to return the following morning. I began wistfully: "I'm leaving London early tomor . . ." "Come back in an hour," was the reply. I went out and wandered back 20 minutes later. "Where have you been?" the lady said over the heads of the crowd. "We've been calling you." And she handed me my visa. So much for that hassle.

The Saturday before the Friday in question I found myself at Egelsbach (Frankfurt) airport where I inquired about the procedure of filing a flight plan for Prague and was told I'd have to do so at least 48 hours in advance of the proposed flight. I decided to file it immediately for the following Thursday (giving me an extra day in case of weather problems), Nürnberg-Prague via the Cheb VOR which is where the air corridor to Prague begins.

However, the information Egelsbach gave me was incomplete. Fortunately I checked up on my flight plan by telephone two days before arriving at Nürnberg. It seems Egelsbach had failed to tell me that included on the flight plan must be the purpose of the visit and the pilot's address, so the plan had not been processed.

When the weather on Thursday was unflyable, I called to postpone the flight plan by 24 hours. The next day I arrived at Nürnberg Airport thinking that I must stick to the departure time I'd given, which was 1300Z. By that hour the weather was quite poor and the met office said that the mountains between Germany and the CSSR were not passable. 'Cloud stagnation' was the term they used, and although I'd never heard this expression before, there was little doubt what it meant.

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While waiting for the local storms to abate, I asked the pilots of a twin-engine airliner which had just arrived from Hof what sort of conditions they'd observed toward the southeast. They told me that the mountains were not in cloud and that I should be able to pass. However the met people still insisted that I could not. As Hof was not Cheb, I couldn't argue the point. I don't like overflying mountains, even low ones, in poor weather conditions, and therefore was very undecided, not knowing whom to believe. To take off and then have to return to Nürnberg would necessitate another landing fee, another long walk to and from the aircraft, and a repeat of the airport formalities. While chatting with the met people I asked what had happened to the nose of the airliner whose pilots I'd just been talking to, for the nose was missing. They replied that it had been taken off by lightning during their flight from Hof. I decided to wait at least another hour before takeoff.

By five o'clock the radar could only summon up one Cb near my flight path, over Bayreuth, and even as we watched and measured it, the echo was sliding out of the way. I took off immediately and flew on a radial inbound to the Cheb VOR, at right-angles to a new storm bearing down from the NW of Bayreuth. Helped by a good west wind, I soon had the famous Wagnerian city in sight. Bayreuth Luftaufsicht wasn't speaking English that day, but we had a little chat in German about the weather, just to pass the time.

Prague had instructed that I fly at flight level 50 in the corridor, but the presence of Cbs and chunks of stratus up ahead made me doubt whether I could. Then I saw a long lake and found it on my chart. At its eastern end was Cheb, and a moment later the VOR went to FROM. I was surprised to find that this was Cheb because I hadn't noticed any mountains. Down below was just high ground. I kicked myself for having listened to the met people rather than the pilots.

Although supposed to contact Praha Control at this point, I couldn't raise them. A change of flight level was now necessary to remain in VMC and I decided rather than descend to climb to 6000 feet and inform them when I could. A few minutes later I did raise Praha and told them of this, and they replied in excellent English that I should maintain FL 60 and report at Rakovnik.

Egelsbach had warned me that I had to give absolutely accurate estimates in my flight plan, and fly circles if I got to Cheb a minute too soon, etc., but this was nonsense as it turned out. Because of unexpected tail winds I was ten minutes ahead on the overall flight plan estimate, and no one could have cared less than Praha Control.

The countryside I flew over was lush farming land with villages and a chateau or two along the way. The visibility was excellent, and in the evening sunlight the isolated, dying Cbs gave the scene a special dimension.

Praha/Ruzne Airport is a nice-size international affair, modern and convenient. Two uniformed men with walky-talkies climbed out of the Follow-Me car and waited while I tied down the plane and got out my bags. They didn't even glance into the aircraft, which was filled to spilling with gear – camping stuff, tent, etc. [I’d just spent a few days at the vintage glider rally on the Wasserkuppe] – then drove me to the main building. My bags were not inspected either on arrival or departure, though a cute, mini-skirted customs inspector asked me each time whether I had a camera. I did. This fact seemed to make no impression on her either way. So much for the "Iron Curtain."

Before being allowed to enter the CSSR, the traveler is obliged to buy seven dollars worth of the local currency for every day he wishes to stay, I'd asked for a visit of seven days, more time than I really needed, and so changed $50. Unused money can be changed back on going out of the country, though there seemed little chance I’d need to do that.

Since my friend was out of town [real story: when I didn’t arrive at the time we’d arranged, his Czech friends were afraid to call the airport authorities and inquire after me, so…] no one was at the airport to fetch me although we did meet on Monday. I couldn’t help noticing that Avis and Hertz had arrived behind the Iron Curtain before me. No escaping them on this earth, I guess. It was now about seven o'clock Friday evening, and the only place to get a hotel reservation was Cedok Tours in the city centre. Helped by a local citizen, a sad-faced, bearded young man, I took a bus into town and after a great deal of walking we found the central Cedok office which was still open.

There was only one reasonably priced room to be had in all of Prague (unknown to me this was the height of the tourist season and the city was packed with tourists) at a hotel a 20 minute tram ride away from the centre of town. My acquaintance put me on the tram and I soon arrived at the grimly modern Hotel Solidarita where I was given a clean, attractive seventh floor room with no attached bath but with wash basin, a pleasant view, a hard bed with fluffy feather cover and pillow, an enormous radio which produced one Czech station if pushed toward the wall, and electric wall sockets marked 220V which blissfully accommodated European hairdryer plugs.

Prague is a beautiful city for tourists. If you don't speak Czech you can get by with German, though the intellectual crowd speak English. The Czech people are cordial and helpful, and if they seem a bit sad, this is offset by the hilarity of the West-German and the zest of the Russian tourists. The folk from the DDR are more sober, but everyone is friendly on the whole.

In this spirit of internationality that reigns in Prague I attempted my first conversation in Russian in the hotel lift. A big Russian girl was holding the lift door open and calling frantically for her friend, Tanya, to hurry up. When Tanya at last arrived and we started down, I couldn't resist asking,"Rusky?" "Da", the girl replied. Then she asked me in Russian what floor I wanted to get off at and I replied "American."

Having a car is unnecessary in Prague as the city has excellent buses and trams. Since 9th May there is a gorgeous new Underground, which however fails to brighten Czech spirits if only because it was a Russian 'gift'. So don't praise it unless you want them to look even sadder.

My single room without bath or breakfast cost about $10. Meals can usually be had for a pound or two almost anywhere, and the food is good. I wasn't sure at first whether to leave tips, but capitalists at least are expected to. There is a black market money exchange, but I wasn't there long enough to be tempted.

On Sunday I took a bus out to a local gliding airfield. (The plump little bus driver, finding we both had a few hours to kill before the bus left, and although we spoke not a word of any mutual language, first took me on a tram and walking tour of the old city, and then bought me lunch in a centuries-old and very nice restaurant. As he was in his busman's uniform people kept asking him about bus schedules, even while we were visiting the cathedral or eating lunch. This didn't perturb him, and even seemed to please him.)

At the airfield, since the weather was poor, the two-seater Blaniks and the Orlik VT 16 and 116s were inside the hangar, and only one Zlin was doing patterns. I talked to the CFI, who told me they do roughly 900 hours per year with the gliders and about 1,800 hours per year with their motor aircraft. There are, he told me, about 100 sport airfields in the CSSR, and their biggest problem is the lack of airspace allotted to them because of heavy civil and military traffic. I told him one could hear the same complaint in France and other European countries.

I'd originally wanted to fly my plane over to the gliding field, but this wasn't permitted, obviously for security reasons. However the attractive young women in Praha Control told me I could go to any normal airport in Czechoslovakia after filing a flight plan 48 hours in advance. In fact they told me that any movement in, into or leaving Czechoslovakia must be filed 48 hours in advance. For this reason, I would suggest that a pilot visiting that country file any flight plan he needs, or even thinks he may need, upon his arrival in Prague, or even prior to arrival if on a brief visit. Once filed, the flight plans can be postponed or cancelled, if necessary, by telephone.

When I was ready to fly back to Germany the weather was poor and I was informed that the ceiling was about 1,000 feet AGL in the corridor with tops at 7,000. The only available IFR levels were around 290, so I asked for VFR and was given FL 50 again. "Now remember, you must stay at 5,000 feet and remain in visual conditions," the control room girls cautioned me. I promised faithfully to do this, and we all burst out laughing.

Flying back through the corridor I stayed as high as I could, but it wasn't anywhere near 5,000 feet, and it was all I could do to remain in the corridor at all with so many clouds and so much rain at lower altitudes. [Real story: I flew under the cloud at about 1000 feet and whenever Praha asked my altitude I told them, "One thousand feet and climbing."] Inevitably I lost radio contact and wasn't able to report passing Cheb on my way out. It wasn't until an hour later that I was able to raise Frankfurt Information and ask them to relay the message to Prague. [Frankfurt sounded miffed but we both knew there wasn’t much they could do about it; WW II was over.]

In the meantime, those mountains which had seemed non-existent when I'd flown into Czechoslovakia at 5,000 feet a few days earlier, were very much in evidence as I squeaked through on my way out. In fact, some "peaks" were actually hidden in cloud, and I had to kind of pick my way through the "valleys". Luckily the visibility outside the cloud was good. I called Bayreuth Luftaufsicht to chat in German about the weather, but they were speaking English that day and were unreadable.

Since I didn't take on fuel in Prague, I wasn't able to inquire about prices, but as petrol for cars is more expensive than in France, one can assume L100 isn't any bargain either. Although I'd held onto fifty Koruns (about 50 pence for 1000 kilos of plane) to pay my landing fee, when the time came Control said they'd bill me. As the bill will undoubtedly be for dollars, which is like a second currency in Prague (I advise you to take along a wad of dollar bills for paying taxis and tours, for you do much better with them and it is accepted practice), I am 50 Koruns to the good.

Mister, you want change money ... ?