The following morning the terrible migraine had gone but I was still feeling really sick and had traces of a headache. Lee wasn’t feeling great either, and it takes a lot to knock him back. We think it was the heat, dehydration and stress of the previous day. I couldn’t stomach breakfast (which was bad, as I never normally fly on an empty stomach) and we decided to get to the airfield for when it opened. The last thing I felt like doing at that point was flying; had I been at home, I’d have stopped in bed all day. But we knew we had no choice, as this was our last chance to get out before the weather turned. As soon as we arrived at the airfield I was promptly sick on the grass by the plane, and felt absolutely wretched (not to mention rather pathetic) while Lee filed our flight plan and refuelled the aeroplane.
I was white as a sheet and just couldn’t see how I was going to make it through the day feeling so sick, with many hours’ flying ahead of us. I felt so horrid that I had tears streaming down my face when I took this photograph of the runway as we were about to take off:
But I soldiered on and quickly regained my composure as we began the first leg of the day, which was to be the longest: two and a half hours to Calais, crossing from Germany into Holland, through Belgium and into France. The weather was good as we took off; there was some high cloud cover, which was good because it meant no sun blazing into the cockpit and turning it into a greenhouse, thank goodness, and even better, no thermals to bounce us around. To my surprise, I started to feel better once we were in the air and I had a job to concentrate on.
We had only the most basic of GPS equipment after Germany (the GPS that came with it only had German maps), so my navigation skills were all the more important as we negotiated some tricky airspace. I really enjoy navigation, and love following where we are in relation to features on the ground, and with the airspace complicating things further, it was quite a challenge. Airspace is three-dimensional, so it’s not just a question of ‘you can’t fly over here but you can over here’, but more ‘you can fly over here up to 1,500ft, you can’t fly over here at all, or you can fly over here as long as you’re above 2,000ft’. It was great practice for my solo navigation exercise, which I’ll have to do soon, and it also gave me something to concentrate on that wasn’t feeling sick. You can see a little of how complicated the airspace is from this picture taken back at the hotel:
It wasn’t long before we crossed the border into Holland, where we switched frequencies from Aachen to Maastricht International Airport. This was where the aircraft’s lack of transponder started to become an issue. Whenever you talk to air traffic control (ATC) they will ask you to “squawk” a four-number code, which you set on your transponder; they see this on their screens so that they know which little dot is you. But not all aircraft have them, especially motorgliders, and nor did ours. We told them that we didn’t have one, and the ATC guy said “that’s surprising”, and informed us that according to Dutch regulations, you’re not allowed in Dutch airspace above 1,500ft without one. We were at about 3,000ft, but thankfully he let us through anyway. Here’s us!
We passed through the corner of Holland and into Belgium, where we changed frequencies to Brussels, who were really helpful. They were calling up different airports for us and telling us that various places wouldn’t let us through without a transponder, and telling us headings to fly so that we would avoid airspace. We passed directly over Gent, and the weather started to deteriorate. We had to descend beneath the clouds and there were a few little showers of rain, and for a minute things were looking a bit hairy – we didn’t have the necessary instruments for flying in IMC (instrument meteorological conditions). But with no airfields nearby, we had no choice but to press on.
As we started to approach France, the transponder issue came to a head. ATC informed us that Liege had refused us entry, so we must descend to below 1,500ft to avoid their airspace. But then Lille also refused us, as did some military airspace on the coast around Ostend. This basically left nowhere for us to go, and no gaps through which to get to Calais. Luckily Lee is brilliant on the radio and managed to persuade them to let us in without a transponder; Ostend ATC, having initially said there would be no way for us to get to Calais, then told us various compass headings for us to follow and said that we had to descend again to below 1,000ft to fly underneath military airspace. This meant we had to be extra vigilant as there were lots of wind turbines in the vicinity, and it added quite a few more miles onto our journey. The weather had improved by that point. I can’t remember where this was.
I had been navigating up to then using our Belgium/Holland chart, and then it was time to switch to the UK chart, which includes Calais. We saw Dunkerque on the coast (with the chimney smoke in the picture below) as we approached Calais, with an interesting old town in the foreground:
It wasn’t far from there to Calais:
When we landed at Calais we experienced typical French inefficiency. The arrogant fireman whose job it was to refuel our plane seemed to think it a great inconvenience that we had landed there (we were the only ones there, surprisingly), and made us wait for him to finish texting before he would come and help us. Unbelievable!
When we’d finally sorted that out, and he’d faffed around getting the paperwork for our fuel and landing fee payments done, we sat down in the airfield cafe for a baguette. I was feeling a lot more human by then, and was hungry for the first time in about 24 hours, which I took to be a good sign.
We filed the flight plan for the next leg of our flight, and sat feeling slightly nervous at the prospect of crossing the Channel. I realised at that point that nobody had ever asked to see our passports!
After lunch it was time to don our life jackets in preparation for the Channel crossing. It’s the law to wear life jackets when flying over water, but it did add to our nerves as we thought about what would happen in the event of an engine failure. We discussed putting our phones into a plastic bag in case we ditched in the sea, but thought that might be overkill – after all, the plane doesn’t know it’s flying over the sea!
On the runway about to take off from Calais:
As soon as we took off, we could see the white cliffs of Dover and a layer of cumulus clouds above them, and conditions in the Channel looked as good as we could have hoped for. We climbed to 4,500ft over the beach before starting out over the sea; the altitude would mean that we’d be in gliding range of one side or the other if the engine cut out, except right in the very middle.
In the end it was absolutely fine; it only took about twenty minutes to get across and the weather was great. Here’s a ship, with my map reflected!
We were both very happy to enter English airspace and know that the end of our journey was almost in sight. You can see the port at Dover here:
It was only when we got into the UK that we hit unforecast bad weather. Having been flying so high, we had to descend rapidly beneath the cloud layer we met with when we got to the other side. In fact at one point we had to open the spoilers to descend quickly enough!
Luckily we soon passed this area of bad weather and all was good again. Our next stop was Andrewsfield, a small airfield right on the edge of Stansted airspace.
We landed there and received a friendly welcome.
As we had flown out to Germany with Ryanair, our car was parked in airport parking at Stansted, so the plan was that Lee would fly the last leg by himself and I would drive the car back to our home airfield to pick him up (I was pretty gutted to be missing the last leg of the journey, but logistically it made sense). I phoned the airport parking and they were really shirty with me because we were back early (we’d booked until Saturday as we didn’t know when we’d be back, as we’d explained when we left the car with them), so Lee very kindly got the taxi there with me and dealt with that and then we drove back to Andrewsfield so that he could jump back in the plane.
With the M25 closed and severe delays on the M40, I had an arduous three-hour journey back home via the M11, round Cambridge and across towards Kettering and down to Coventry. It took forever, with lots of stopping and starting due to congestion and roadworks, but a couple of interesting things happened. The first was when I was driving down the M11 and I saw Lee cross ahead in our plane, near Duxford airfield! This was amazing because I’d been driving for some time when he appeared and he had no idea that I was down there watching him fly over. What are the chances?! Normally when he appears in the air when I’m driving it’s because he’s looked up where I am on Find My Friends, but this time it was pure coincidence. The second interesting occurrence was that I saw a tornado! Well, a funnel cloud. You can just about see it in this picture:
I finally arrived at our home airfield at 7pm to find Lee chatting with our friend Nigel next to the plane – he’d already taken him for a flight in it! I was so happy to be home.
Nigel took this pic of us:
Then we drove home, collapsed exhausted with some toast and marvelled at all we had achieved. Here’s a map of our route with very basic outlines of airspace so you can see where we had to go round it (though this doesn’t show where we had to make amendments on ATC instructions!):
It was definitely one of those trips better enjoyed in retrospect than at the time, but the enjoyment of telling tales of our adventures will make up for the tougher moments of the trip! And I have now completed one of my new year’s resolutions, which was to fly in Europe, and I’ve flown across the Channel, which is certainly a ‘bucket list’-type life achievement. Would I do it again? Definitely not on my own – the airspace is so complicated, at least in the area we flew through, and I wouldn’t want to do it without someone of Lee’s experience on board. But the main thing is that we now have a plane safely back in England, which is ridiculously cheap to fly and we can call our very own. All’s well that ends well. :)