The Great Escape – The French really do close airspace

After about 2 months since my first trip to France, I wanted to go on a second hop across the pond, and this time, make it a more interesting navigation exercise. Stapleford this time opted to go across to Caen in France with an alternate if weather on the day was poor, to Coventry. French air traffic control decided to throw a curve ball at us when we landed meaning we couldn’t stay very long but more on that later. Thankfully on the 08 October 2015 day looked like this:

Mid Channel with the UK behind and a few dotted towering cumulus in the distance
Mid Channel with the UK behind and a few dotted towering cumulus in the distance

The UK was in a mass of high pressure which had lasted for week and a half and the fly out was luckily at the tail end of it before it got cloudy. In excess of 10km visibility, stable air and limited wind, more or less a perfect flying day.

We took off from Stapleford at approximately 1000GMT (0900 UTC). The route that I had planned would take us to the south coast overhead paddock wood (abeam Tonbridge Wells), turn eastward towards Lydd (via the VOR) and coast out overhead Dungeness power station at 5000ft QNH. Once over the water we tracked out on a radial from Lydd VOR heading overhead La Touquet. We reached the airspace intersection boundary between France and the UK at approximately 1045GMT and where passed over to Lille Information. Overhead La Touquet we then turned south to follow the French coast going past Baie De La Somme toward Dieppe (via DPE VOR). At this point I was pushed downward by some mid level cumulus so went down to 3000ft. This led me to an interesting point because at this height and on this course I would fly straight into a prohibited zone (P33) which in France on the coast, are generally nuclear power plants.

Coasting into French soil overhead Le Touquet

Abeam my half way point at Cayeux–sur– Mer my co-pilot (my old instructor – Dave) and I came up with a plan that would take us round the prohibited zone following a semi circular path of wind farms at Le Treport and using navigational beacon known as a non-directional beacon (NDB) of a close by airfield (Dieppe) I put myself back on track onto my next waypoint which was overhead Le Havre Octeville airport. At this point in time we were talking to Paris Information with a change coming up to Deauville Information controlling the airspace around Le Havre. My direction of travel put me on the direct in approach path to land at La Havre, so when we got closer we offset our direction to put us abeam the runway, so as not to obstruct anything on final approach.

Preparing to coast in after a short hop across the bay from LaHavre
Preparing to coast in after a short hop across the bay from Le Havre

From here it was a short hop across the bay to Caen. Halfway across we were asked to call Caen and we reported coasting in at Ouistreham about 10nm out from Caen. The airport was fairly quiet for an unknown reason at the time and we joined for runway 31 which was even bigger than Rouen at approximately 1900m long!

The Apron at Caen (LFRK)
The Apron at Caen (LFRK)
The crew waiting for a refuel
The crew waiting for a refuel

The point of us flying out was to take a day trip to a nice town in France. However, to our amazement, upon landing we found that we had landed in the nick of time because upon going to the office to pay our landing fee we were told French airspace is closing in 20minutes, you have to get out of here! I have never see my instructor run so fast and he broke the news to me as I had just refuelled and parked up. My other fellow PPL licensee (Steve) flew the leg out but the urgency meant that Dave did all the checks and after a quick taxi (40kts) down this giant runway we were back in the air again. Steve, had planned to do the same navigation as me but in reverse but due to the urgency of the situation we went up to 5000ft and crossed the channel straight out of Caen and coasted into the UK at Shoreham. We decided to still make a day of it and decided to land at Goodwood about 20nm along the coast from Shoreham.

This turned out to be an epic decision because Goodwood satisfies 3 male guilty pleasures:

  1. A good Sausage and Egg bap with a mug of tea
  2. Racing cars around a track
  3. An airfield in the middle with a flying spitfire!

Yes we may have got stuck in the mud because we didn’t know where to park but once we did park up we found and sat in the old raceway café on the first floor watching a spitfire go on pleasure flights while Ferraris, Porsches, and Mercs whiz round the track is priceless – much better than the striking French!

Spitfire on the Apron at Goodwood
Spitfire on the Apron at Goodwood
The straight on the Goodwood as seen from the Race Cafe

We couldn’t of asked for a better adventure and on the way home we even passed the Top Gear airfield – Dunsfold.

Top Gear track - Dunsfold
Top Gear track – Dunsfold

My nav taught me a number of key things and most of all: Don’t trust the French to NOTAM things they do on the day, like close airspace at 1315 on a Thursday afternoon!

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