You may remember that a couple of weeks ago we went out to Frankfurt in Germany to check out a possible new addition to our MotorGlide fleet. The aircraft turned out to be just what we were looking for (great condition, and identical to Wilhelm, so students can train on either aircraft if one is in use or in maintenance), so all that was left to do was the small matter of getting it back to the UK. Unlike when we brought Wilhelm back, this time we decided to fly the aircraft back on a separate trip to allow time for the international bank transfer and flight planning. The tricky bit was going ahead and booking a one-way flight to Germany without knowing what the weather would be like when the big day arrived, but we just had to take the plunge and hope for the best.
We booked our flights from Heathrow rather than Stansted this time, going into the main Frankfurt airport rather than Hahn, which, as we discovered last time, is actually not near Frankfurt at all, and at least two hours from where we needed to be. To save us the hassle of airport parking – which is difficult when you don’t know when you’ll be back, and would also mean an extra landing and taxi on the way back to pick up the car – Nigel kindly flew us in the Robin down to White Waltham airfield near Maidenhead (I got relegated to the back seat, hmph!), and we made the short journey to Heathrow by taxi from there.
We got to the airport masses too early, so we had plenty of time for some leisurely drinks and sushi in the recently-reopened and very pleasant Heathrow Terminal 2 (“The Queen’s Terminal”), which was really nice. We’d been working in the morning and were both pretty stressed out with everything we’ve got going on at the moment, so it was good to have a little bit of time to stop and take stock before what would inevitably be a stressful trip back.
Our evening flight with Lufthansa was absolutely brilliant. I’d not flown with them before, and the contrast with our super-stressful Monarch flight back to Birmingham from Rome the day before couldn’t have been greater. Lovely airline and we took off on time to the minute! It’s only an hour to Frankfurt, but they still gave us (free) drinks and sandwiches – even British Airways doesn’t do that anymore. I’d left Lee to book the airport hotel and he excelled himself with the Hilton Garden Inn, which is a beautiful hotel a short walk from the Arrivals lounge. We had a great view of the sunrise over the airport and planes taking off and landing when we awoke early the next day.
Christian – the aircraft engineer whose plane we had bought – picked us up from the airport after breakfast and drove us to the little airfield where the plane is kept, about an hour from Frankfurt. As we approached the airfield, glorious sunshine turned rapidly to fog, and this was the sight that greeted us as we pulled up at the gliding club.
It was still fairly early, so we figured that the fog would probably lift before too long. We passed the time by waiting in the cosy clubhouse, where there was a log burner going, as well as packing our things into the aircraft and fitting the transponder we’d brought over with us for the trip back.
Hour after hour passed and the fog was showing few signs of clearing, which was so frustrating. We started to look up local hotels on Google Maps in case we needed to stay the night, and we also went for a nice walk in the forest adjoining the gliding club.
After that we walked into the nearby village and found a civilised restaurant for a bite to eat. There was some Mozart playing in the restaurant and the waiter spoke good English and helped us translate a menu comprised of seasonal produce.
We shared a plate of potato rosti things and some mushrooms before heading back up to the airfield, by which time the sun had FINALLY broken through to reveal blue skies. It was finally time to leave. You can still see some of the fog in the background of this pic, but it had retreated enough for us to get out safely.
It was mid-afternoon by that point, so we knew we’d not be making it as far as we’d hoped (we had planned to get to Le Touquet at least). We flew instead to Aachen, which is where we’d stopped on the way back with Wilhelm. Once airborne, we could see what was left of the fog – you can see how localised it was. We were a bit nervous flying over all those trees!
The 1 hour 50 minute flight passed without event except that we noticed that the aircraft battery wasn’t charging in flight as it’s supposed to. We didn’t really think much of it at the time, as we were too busy concentrating on flying, but it was an issue that would come back to haunt us the next day.
We shared the flying, but luckily the workload wasn’t too heavy, as there wasn’t really any airspace to speak of.
This was the view towards Bonn.
We landed at Aachen and said hello to the guys in the tower, who were really nice. They offered to call a taxi for us but we elected to walk to the hotel, which was about a mile away.
We refuelled the plane ready for the next day and set off on foot to the hotel.
When we got to the hotel – the same one where I’d been really ill when we flew Wilhelm back – it turned out to be full, so we got a taxi from there to another hotel, a B&B in the same cheap chain we stay in when we go to Boulogne. It had a McDonald’s right next door, which was where we had dinner that night and breakfast the next day. In the morning we got a taxi to the airfield and the weather was great, just as we’d hoped. We’d parked in exactly the spot we parked Wilhelm two-and-a-half years ago – here are the two photos for comparison! As you can see from the registrations, the new aircraft must have come off the production line just a few before Wilhelm.
There are so many variables in aviation that things very rarely seem to go to plan. The first problem of the day came when we strapped ourselves in, shut the canopy and tried to start the engine to find that the battery had gone flat. Luckily the engine keeps going and you can fly perfectly safely without the battery – it just means the starter motor doesn’t work, and nor would the avionics, e.g. the transponder and radio. This meant that to get it started, we had to hand-swing the propeller, just like the early planes that have no starter motor. As you can imagine, this is a somewhat nerve-wracking process. I sat in the cockpit manning the magneto, choke and throttle while Lee did the swinging of the propeller. After many attempts we finally got it going and we were ready to go.
The first leg of our flight took us through a small corner of Holland and into Belgium. With the battery not charging even once the engine had started, it quickly became clear that we weren’t going to be able to use the transponder we’d brought in especially and that we’d therefore have to go under or around controlled airspace. Using what little battery power we had left, Lee explained to Dutch air traffic control that we had an electrical issue and that our transponder was therefore unserviceable. The Dutch (who seem invariably to be a jolly nice bunch) let us in anyway, as they identified us on radar by making us do a 30 degree turn. After a while Lee also explained to ATC that we would now be switching off the radio to preserve the battery but that we would remain outside controlled airspace.
We flew along not able to talk to each other for many miles (it was too noisy to talk with the intercom switched off), feeling increasingly tense as we spotted weather up ahead as we entered Belgium. As we got closer to it we had to descend further and further beneath the cloud. This pic was taken in one of the few clearer patches. The frustrating thing was that we could often see blue sky trying to peak through the cloud, so it was obviously a thin layer – just not broken up enough for us to go on top of it.
We flew for what felt like a long time at a much lower altitude than we felt comfortable with, but we had no choice as there were no airfields anywhere near our route. Eventually, when we were within 20 minutes of another airfield, we made the decision to abandon our route and divert to this airfield until the weather improved. We switched the radio on again to communicate our plans to the airfield, and we were on a two-mile final by the time we were finally able to see the runway.
When we landed, we weren’t even too sure what country we were in – but it turned out that we had landed at Flanders International Airport (Kortrijk) in Belgium, right near Ypres and First World War battlefield territory. At least we’d have something to do if we ended up stuck there! While we waited for the weather to clear, we enlisted the help of an aircraft engineer, who kindly let us borrow his battery charger so that we could recharge it enough to get us home.
While that was charging, we went up to the rather posh on-site restaurant, where I did some copywriting work and we had some lunch. We had a great view of the occasional business jet coming in to land.
The weather did clear, after an hour or two, and with the battery fully recharged, we were able to file a new flight plan, put the aircraft back together and set off again.
The weather was much more favourable for the flight to Calais, as you can see from this photo of an amazing-looking country estate I spotted somewhere in Belgium or France.
Though we’d flight planned to Calais, we decided to press on across the Channel while the weather was good. We’d put Headcorn Airfield in Kent as our alternate destination on the flight plan, so we aimed for that. We’d seen on the weather forecast (which we’d been checking obsessively throughout the trip) that there were thunderstorms in the south of England, and indeed we could see towering cumulus over the white cliffs of Dover up ahead. We figured we’d be able to fly round the showers though. Cloud over the Channel meant we made a lower crossing than we’d normally have done – about 2,000ft instead of 4,000-5,000ft. But it was all fine, and the views were lovely.
Don’t worry, we had our life jackets on!
From Dover it was time to start dodging showers, and we had a handy gap between them to fly through on our way to Headcorn.
There were some great rainbows around.
Having landed safely at Headcorn, Lee had to make some phone calls to close our flight plan, which was a bit of a challenge as we’d not stuck to our original plan. We then refuelled the aircraft, had a chocolate bar, and decided to make a run for it before the thunderstorm you can see lurking in the background of this pic reached the airfield.
It was another 1 hour 50 minute flight from there to home, and we successfully managed to dodge all the heavy showers. We saw loads more stunning rainbows, some wrapped all the way around the wing in a circle. The lakes you can see below the wing in this picture are the Caversham Lakes near Reading, headquarters of the Team GB Olympic Rowing Team.
We also saw the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst…
…and, closer to home, Blenheim Palace.
I just love the shadows in this one.
We landed back at our home airfield and the rain started to fall just as we switched the engine off – so we timed that perfectly!
It took a total of 6 hours 55 minutes in flying time to get from Altfeld in Germany to home, a distance of about 500 nautical miles. That’s a long time to be cooped up in a little cockpit that doesn’t even have proper seats yet – numb backsides all round. Now begins the hard work of transferring it to the UK register, reconfiguring the control panel, redoing all the German labels into English, getting some proper seats, painting and goodness knows what else… Oh yeah, and fixing that battery!