. . . not even to France. Repatriated American Nina Galen tries a flying visit to France after seven years away from flying in Europe, and has her problems.
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Question: whom would you most like sitting in the right-hand seat when you are flying an aeroplane of a type unfamiliar to you, and when you haven't flown hardly at all for the past eighteen months?
Eliminating the obvious answers, such as No One, God, and Prince Charles, the list might get down to An Instructor, then, Another Pilot. At the very bottom of the list, after all your uncles, cousins, hairdresser, butcher, etc, might be: Another Pilot Who Also Happens to Own the Aircraft.
And indeed, that was who it was, the reason being that this English aircraft owner was kindly offering me his plane to fly any time, any where — after I'd checked out on it. For a repatriated American who'd dreamed for years of once again flying around Europe, and maybe even writing articles about it for Pilot, as in days of yore, this was an opportunity not to pass up.
Our flight was to be here or there in France, depending on the weather. The plane's owner and I were to meet at Biggin Hill for blast-off at 10.30 am of a May day (sound ominous?).
What worried me just a bit was that the plane in question was everything I detest. I like low wings tucked comfortably out of sight beneath one's ribcage, not wings stuck up above your ears obscuring the sky, the runway you're turning base on, or the soft underbelly of the aircraft you're about to fly into; this one had the high wings. I like to fret about carburettor icing; this one was fuel-injected. An Alzheimer sufferer since birth, who'd forgotten the little French acronym for checklist items within a minute of being taught it, and had stayed alive ever since by owning the planes she regularly flew and never turning off the fuel, I like above all a fixed gear; guess what? Added to all this was a cockpit decibel count registering at least eighty above the pain threshold.
Since I hadn't had a chance to read the owner's manual, having arrived from New York the day before, I was briefed and had a check ride early that am with an instructor. I made some nice stalls and a soft landing, despite a definite feeling that the plane had wanted to fly into the ground sideways (learned later it had been accidented and needed massive doses of horizontal and vertical trim). My good landing made up for my utter confusion over trim, prop control, gear, flaps and airspeed, so that hurdle was past.
The preliminaries completed, the Owner now appeared. With the weather deteriorating, he felt we'd better put our efforts toward getting off. We'd fly to Paris first, and Deauville on the way back. There wouldn't be time to fly down to Fayence.
I was sorry not to be able to revisit my old stomping grounds — I'd learned to fly at Fayence — but not all that sorry because I'd stopped in there briefly six months earlier. To say that since my Teterboro article (Pilot, October 1984) with its one snappy paragraph on how women glider pilots are treated at Fayence, I am persona non grata at that airfield, is to understate the way they feel about me beyond any known measurement of depth. On the other hand, discussions with several pilots during my days in hiding down there had convinced me that general opinion held that the only thing wrong with what I'd written was that I hadn't broadened it to include the way male glider pilots are treated.
One result of my having spent the last several years in the USA is that by now most Pilot readers surely know more about flying the Channel to France than I do. I recall that besides the IFR crossings, there is the LAC where you report crossing the French coast at about Cap Gris Nez. Then there is the (as in the song) "Myyyyyy Waaaaay" method of using the LAC en route to Paris, which includes reporting that you are indeed crossing the French coast, but omits mentioning that you are crossing it somewhere south of Le Touquet. (Damn that drift!)
A decision was made to file IFR for the first leg of the trip, owing to the poor weather. I learned of this decision when I was asked to file the flight plan as well as re-do various other aircraft papers that had expired. For a former aircraft owner like myself, filling in a flight plan while that plane's owner tells you what to write is almost as much fun as cleaning up someone else's vomit. As I scribbled away, we kept reminding me that this was part of the checking-out process which would enable me to solo off to Stockholm some day, not sadism on anyone's part.
After legalising our departure from Albion's shore, we walked out to the aircraft. The Owner looked over his bird and asked as pleasantly as one can through clenched teeth, "Did you do the preflight inspection?"
"Negative." For lack of time, the Instructor had preflighted the plane. The only preflight I'd had anything to do with was noticing a feathery blur leave the fuselage. Starling preflight. (The nest and eggs had been removed by hand.) So he then pointed out to me that a static vent had been overlooked, a vent so tiny that only the plane's owner, its manufacturer, or another Cessna with a kinky static-vent fetish could have found it. I signed a statement never to overlook that static vent and inquired whether now we might climb into the aircraft.
Would you believe the fuel truck hadn't "been by" yet?
But at last we were out of the cold and inside the aircraft. The Cessna came equipped with a monster instrument panel and a monster checklist. It took twenty minutes just to make sure all the switches were off. By the time I got to the place on the list where you start the engine, I was exhausted, bleary-eyed and ready to deplane. (If this is Paris, why does that sign still say 'HM Customs'?)
After all this buildup, I'm sorry to say our take-off was a non-event as far as the history of aviation was concerned. The noise, shouting and confusion over flaps and gear notwithstanding, we managed to leave the Biggin Hill pattern without hitting another aircraft or each other, and soon were heading toward the coast. Occasionally we'd fly into patches of low cloud. I was fascinated to see that after several years with no hood time or actual, the five soul-wrenching weeks I'd spent getting my FAA instrument rating.were completely down the tube. When the clouds thickened I was happy to turn the controls over to my companion who assured me he was so current after several years spent getting his (British) instrument rating he could fly IFR sitting cross-legged on the wing, if it came to that.
Soon we were over France, I flying, he working the navcoms, having.promised to let me know when and to which frequencies he turned. At some point along the way I suggested that instead of Toussus we change our destination to Le Bourget. This suggestion came partly from nostalgia (my Rallye used to like to rendezvous there with a certain Texas biz jet), and partly because this time I wouldn't be paying the landing fee.
My companion was willing and eager. He'd never landed at Le Bourget, but just happened to have along a large wad of banknotes as well as the May 1985 issue of Pilot which showed a VFR approach he felt like checking out. We'd save the cab fare from TSU into town, and what the hey: if you have to ask what landing costs these days, you'd better stay airborne.
Wanting to demonstrate to both of us that I could fly a radial, I'd been giving that my utmost attention as we approached Pontoise. So when the cry came I was glad to be wearing a seat belt.
"You're twenty degrees off course!"
"The needle is centred," I objected, pointing to VOR no. 1.
"We're using VOR no. 2. That VOR is dead."
"Dead? When did it die?"
"Fifteen minutes ago."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
We reported vertical PON, then commenced the VFR routing following Pilot’s Gospel according to Le Bourget Approach. I flew, my navigator pointed and shouted, and everything worked out just dandy in that best of all possible skies. Besides hearing again about flaps, airspeed, gear and trim, Pattern Height was big on this occasion as I tend to enter the pattern a little low when I'm not entering it a little high. The landing was possibly a mite less soft than the first one, but well within norms.
Le Bourget is closed now to major airlines, but open to a small carrier or two, bizjets, general aviation, and the odd air show. You have to have the name of some handling service in mind to tell the tower, so if at a loss, just say "Transair" and Ground Control will direct you there. As years ago, the Transair tarmac was sprinkled lightly with BAC-111s, Lears, and a lightplane or two. But inside the doors there had been quite a change — a larger waiting room, new TV room cum bar, a small Met counter where once a telephone had served, and so on. Any Arab or Texan would feel very chez lui passing through here toward jet or limo.
Then, before I could warn him, my companion made his first French faux pas. "I suppose Customs would like to see me," he said.
The man behind the counter eyed him curiously. "Not particularly. Would you like to see Customs?"
"Well, not if they don't want to see me. Heh heh."
I'd forgotten to mention to him that the Beautiful People who transit through Transair are not subjected to such fol-de-rol as we had been put through earlier that day at Biggin Hill.
After arranging for the dead VOR to be resurrected, we taxied off to town where we took rooms in a hotel just a pilot's walking distance from the Champs-Elysee. A light rain was falling as, arm in arm, sniffing the heady Parisian air, we directed our steps toward a well-earned aperitif.
The next 48 hours were spent enjoying the obvious pleasures of the French capital: dining at good restaurants, walking through the Tuilleries, visiting old friends, etc. My day started with a decaffeine au lait complet, a brew just as delicious as the jittery stuff and guaranteed to keep a pilot stressless. A cup or two of that strong French decaff and you won't lose a wink of sleep all night.
The morn of our departure I dialled Transair and learned that the VOR had been fixed and the Met was comme-ci comme-ca, but nothing horrendous. So we grabbed our gear and a taxi and were soon again in bizjet heaven. While the Owner settled the bill, I selected a hotel in Angers from the Guide Michelin and phoned ahead for reservations. I'd hardly hung up when I heard my name spoken. Turning, I recognised a fellow I'd known years ago in Fayence. After chatting of old times I recalled we had a mutual buddy. "How's Claude?" I asked. "Is he still flying in Africa? I hear he married and had some kids."
"You don't know? Claude est mort."
I could feel the blood drain from my face. "In Africa?"
"They'd moved to Montreal. He got a job crop dusting. Two weeks later he flew into some wires at the end of a field. He was electrocuted."
I felt electrocuted myself, as if struck by lightning, Claude had been one of my best buddies at Fayence. We'd flown a lot together. I'd written up our trip to Tunisia for Pilot. "When?" I asked.
He looked at me strangely. "Four years ago."
Tunisia - Passenger and friend Claude,
who would die crop dusting
Through the window I saw the fuel truck driving off from the Cessna and my friend beckoning. In a daze I walked out to the plane. I wanted to curl up somewhere and grieve, but there was that checklist in my hand and the switches to be verified off. Somehow the moments passed and we were airborne. I asked my friend to take the controls for a while and didn't take them back. I wanted just to look down at the countryside that I'd overflown so often when I lived in France. Soon the views below changed: chateau country. Everywhere you looked there was a chateau more magnificent than the last. We kept pointing them out to each other and banking so the other could catch a glimpse and hold up an appreciative thumb.
Flying down the Loire
Angers is a smallish airport with Customs and a gliding school. On finals I didn't notice we had a slight tailwind. "Close the throttle," someone said.
Following all the noise and confusion we'd just had over gear and flaps and pattern height, I was simply unable to decide whether "close" meant push or pull. I saw nothing wrong with my glide slope, but decided that "close" meant push, as in "close a door." So I pushed. This action, I realised a moment later, hearing the explosion from the right-hand seat, was wrong, so I immediately pulled the throttle back. There was a long, long feeling of sink. At last we hit bottom and rose again. Again a long sinking, then the event was repeated a third time. "Why didn't you give it throttle when you saw you were sinking?" came the amazed question. I don't recall what I replied. I remember feeling, as we sank, that I never wanted to push in a throttle again.
If you want to visit chateaux, and as Angers Airport is rather far from town, the best thing to do upon arrival is rent a car at the airport, especially if someone else is paying for it. Having long ago decided that longevity depends to some extent on whether one agrees to enter cars in which English persons will be driving on the right, I was rather firm that I was to take the wheel. I also needed some way of regaining my self-respect after that dismal landing; driving a car is an easy achievement and gives you something to do with your hands besides cutting your throat.
Angers is, the tourist literature modestly states in four languages, "Une ville a aimer." It was built around a thirteenth century fortress and is a good base nowadays from which to visit a half dozen chateaux. We chose Brissac, a chateau built in 1502. After five centuries, Brissac is still inhabited by descendants of the family of origin, and this is as much as I will bore you with that sort of trivia. Then we 'did' Le Plessis-Bourre, a chateau-fortress complete with moat, thick walls, towers and bulwark, dating from the fifteenth century. After two guided tours we felt that chateaux were fine but fine food was finer, so we hied ourselves to restaurant Le Toussaint where le chef vous propose such delights as LE FLAN CHAUD DE LANGOUSTE AUX COULIS DE LANGOUSTINE 80F and LE FILET DE BOEUF A LA BOSTON AUX HUITRES 130F.
After supper I was able to retreat to my little pit and grieve for my friend. It seemed ironic that a friend could die as easily as a VOR, and no one would think to tell you.
The next day we learned there was a gusty crosswind for take-off and.while that sort of thing was usually my meat, I didn't want to try it. I couldn't face the pre-flight or the checklist either. We carried our bags out to the Cessna and I discovered another thing I prefer about low-wing aircraft: after you load your luggage and start to straighten up again, they don't whack you in the forehead with the trailing edge of their wing.
We headed now toward Dinard, the airport where, after training at Cranfield, I'd taken my FAA commercial flight test. I wasn't at the controls this time as we heard the tower tell us to report direct base. Like magic, we were already on base. I looked at the airport which lay far, far below, as if we were making a Shuttle landing from outer space. "Pattern height?" I inquired. There was no reply.
Again a rental car and a ride to the island fortress of St. Malo where we found rooms at a tiny hotel. Everything is small on St. Malo because there's no way to expand the stony perimeter of the town. While one of us relaxed with a beer, the other jogged around the ramparts, the fresh ocean wind on her face, views in all directions.
The next day we drove to Mont St. Michel, out in the sea and the quicksand, but not lonely, even off-season, though I think there were more shops selling tourist items than there were tourists. Throughout our trip we'd found tourist shops everywhere, and this island castle appeared to be the spot from which the infection had spread.
The next day, on our way to Deauville, we did a 360° vertical Mont St. Michel. I was doing just fine in my new right-hand-seat-potato-sack routine and the Owner was happily flying his bird. We had agreed that he would fly and I drive and both were happy as Larry with the arrangement.
From Deauville, which was in a deserted, off-season mode, we drove to Honfleur, a lovely little fishing village. There we lodged in a charming old hotel, the Hostellerie Lechat. It was in Honfleur that we partook of perhaps the most memorable repast of our voyage, during which we hadn't done badly cuisine-wise. Seated at a small sidewalk table outside the Creperie Ste-Catherine we ate seafood crepes, washing them down with snifter glasses of golden Calvados. (Sigh.)
The next day we were to be back in London, and suddenly those tourist shops we'd shunned and ridiculed throughout our trip became the entire objects of our lives. Gifts for those back home. T-shirts with Honfleur writ large thereon. A pretty handmade terrine for an acquaintance in NYC who had some neurotic need to receive birthday presents well into her fifth decade of life. The shops had something for everyone.
The following day, from the right-hand seat, I watched ships tossing in the Channel. How many times I'd watched that scene from my Rallye. Soon we had crossed the English coast and a short time later were trying to spot Biggin Hill in the gloom. I was enjoying the incredible freedom of being a passenger, letting someone else do all the work, take all the responsibility. Had I found a new way of life? In any event there was no question of my ever flying that Cessna any place, anywhere, alone. I didn't care. Possibly that part of my life was over for good. There are other things in life than flying a lightplane to Mikonos . . .
On the other hand, what if some day on Biggin Hill someone were to drop the keys to a Warrior II into my hand and whisper in my ear, "Any time, anywhere"?
Who knows. Who knows?