France in a Eurostar
3 day flight to France in a Eurostar EV-97
City Airport (Barton) – Lydd – Le Touquet – Deauville – La Rochelle – Le Mans – Rouen – Lille – Lydd – Goodwood – Exeter – Gloucester – City Airport (Barton)
I hold a UK CAA PPL with around 140hrs under my belt, and recently began to fly the Eurostar EV-97, operated by Mainair Flying School at City Airport (Barton). With just 5hrs P1 on the type, me and my friend Adam decided we wanted to do a long trip. At first, we were thinking somewhere down south towards the south coast. Then we thought we might as well consider a channel crossing and before we knew it, we had conjured up a plan for a 3 day adventure to France.
With this basic idea, we set about planning. First we checked all the regulations to ensure we would be legal with our licences, and with the planned aircraft etc. We booked the aircraft, borrowed a current French Aviation Map, and then looked where we could go. We had a rough plan, but decided to keep this flexible as we would be at the mercy of the weather. We therefore checked out a selection of around 15 possible airfields as our main possible 'targets'. We made sure we knew which had fuel, and checked their opening hours.
To help with the flight, we decided to make use of the latest technology. In addition to the paper map and French flight guide, we had a NATS GPS Aware, plus an iPhone and iPad loaded with the 'Air Nav Pro' software including UK and Northern France maps. We used the iPad to fine tune our planned tracks to give us good easy estimates of our route and timings, ensuring we had a good plan for fuel endurance and maximising our options for the routes and any diversions.
We also decided that we wanted to record as much as we could of the journey, so we borrowed a set of video cameras and also took a good Digital SLR camera, with plenty of memory cards included.
We planned to fly with maximum fuel, which meant that we were limited to just 15kg for all our belongings. In addition to the electronic items, we had tie down's, a type pump and spare inner tube (just in case), life jackets and clothes change/toiletries.
As we approached our departure date, we watched the weather closely. At first, we thought we might get delayed, as a large occluded front was due to settle over the Channel, but this cleared through, and a ridge of high pressure was building over northern France..it seemed it could be good! The evening before, we still were facing a forecast band of heavy rain across the midlands, but there were chances it might break enough to allow us through, so we continued with our plan for the flight. We prepped the aircraft as much as we could so that we could, if needed, make a quick early start the next morning.
Arriving early at the airfield, we got the aircraft ready, checked weather and notams. There was still a band of rain across the midlands, so we delayed our departure slightly. Once it showed signs it was breaking up, we set about readying to leave. With everything on board the aircraft and full fuel, we set off. The flight started well. As we approached the midlands the cloudbase lowered and we were down to around 1400ft, with a visibility of around 8000m, but this soon cleared as we approached the east of London, and on reaching the south coast, we were in clear sunshine.
We landed at Lydd, took care of the formalities and grabbed a bite to eat. A check of the rainfall radar showed a large thunderstorm cloud sitting right on our planned track across the channel, so we kept in mind that we might have to divert our crossing route to keep clear. After a top up of fuel, and donning our lifejackets, we set off towards Folkeston, and then made a turn direct towards France. We had an ominous looking Thundercloud to our left, but we kept it to one side and easily made the French Coast in no time at all. Landing at Le Touquet, we paid our landing fee and then reviewed the next part of our plan. We had an option of landing at either Le Havre or Deauville and just enough time before sunset and so we set off west bound along the coast.
Talking to the French Air Traffic Control turned out to be pretty easy. They spoke English to us and we were easily able to understand what was said. Along the coast, the air was nice and smooth and it was pretty much hands free flying all the way. It was during this that we noticed how sensitive the Eurostar aircraft is to keep in perfect trim. We noticed that that simply moving an item from the storage area behind the seats to your lap, such as a flight guide, actually changed the balance of the aircraft and needed a slight re-trim to keep perfectly balanced.
As we approached towards Le Havre we asked ATC whether Le Havre was open, but were advised it was for based aircraft only. We therefore elected to continue to Deauville and this would be our first night stop. We landed about 30 minutes before sunset, and parked on a deserted apron. A twin engined aircraft came in soon after and parked alongside us. Once the aircraft was secure we paid our fees and left to find a hotel.
The next morning we arrived back at the airport nice and early, ready to make the most of the day. The evening before we had pre-planned our next part of the journey, deciding to head down to La Rochelle. The weather looked good with nothing to worry about. To keep up to date with French notams and also check the status of the various military corridors of airspace we used an iPhone app called Flying in France. This proved a great app as we could check Notams, get METAR's and TAFS easily with it.
Aircraft checked out, with a top up of fuel, we set off. The planned flight time was around 3 and a half hours. The flight was quite uneventful. We had great CAVOK weather the whole journey, which took us to the west of Rennes and Nantes to our destination. Once we had landed, the fuel was closed for lunch, and so we had a wander to the terminal to find food. Unfortunately the chap there was in the process of closing and so all we managed to get was a packet of crisps and a hot drink. We set about planning our next flight looking for where we would night stop. We elected on tracking east, with possible stops at Poiters and Chataeroux. We took on fuel and set off. The wind had picked up slightly so with a full crosswind we departed. Once we were around 100 miles east of La Rochelle, we found the weather was looking worse on our intended track. Wanting to make the most of the available daylight, we reviewed our plan using the iPad software, and we devised a new plan which would take us via Le Mans and on to a night stop at Rouen.
We adjusted our course and soon after arrived at Le Mans airport. A quick stop over and a hot soup from a drinks machine and we were soon on our way again. As we passed west of Evreux we suddenly spotted a military fighter jet which passed just behind us, possibly 200ft above our level and going very fast. Whether he saw us we'll never know! Contact made with Rouen ATC we were able to join straight in, and landed nicely with 20 minutes to go to sunset. After landing and a fuel top up, a quick Google search and we found a reasonable hotel just a couple of miles from the airport. Hungry from a day with little food, we grabbed a nice meal at the hotel and then decided our plan for the 3rd day back to the UK. Again we wanted to make the most of the day so we planned to leave early.
The next morning we had breakfast and tried to order a taxi to the airport, only to be told it was not possible before 9am. With our planned route this would mean we might have to cut it short so we elected to walk to the airport. However after ten minutes of walking a chap from the hotel drove up and offered us a lift which we graciously accepted.
With the aircraft checked out and ready, we re-reviewed our planned route which would take us to Lille, then on to Lydd, Goodwood, Exeter, Gloucester and finally back to our home base Barton. With the early morning delay we reckoned we would just have enough time for the plan, providing we made each stop fairly quick.
Tracking towards Lille, about half way we found that a low level of cloud was building. It was looking at one point like we might have to adjust our track to go around as it was too low to go under. We even saw some windfarms poking through the tops of the cloud. However then it cleared and we were back to CAVOK conditions inbound to Lille. Following a Ryanair aircraft we were routed in downwind and parked on a designated stand.
We exited the aircraft intending to file our Customs GAR form and PPR in to Lydd. However we then found that the General Aviation Terminal was not manned and were kept waiting for almost half an hour for someone to come and open up. Finally we filed the paperwork, paid our fees and departed for the UK. Routing direct to Cap Gris-Nez we were stuck down at 2400ft over the channel due to cloud, however ten miles from the French coast we could easily see the white cliffs of Dover across the channel.
We arrived straight in at Lydd, where we took a top up of fuel and carried on our way. To make up lost time, we planned a direct routing, passing just north of Shoreham. A very quick stop at Goodwood we continued on our way, getting a transit through the Southampton Control Zone, routing just north of Bournemouth. Upon reaching Exeter, we were asked to orbit to position in behind a Dash 8 aircraft.
Another quick stop and a sandwich at Exeter we departed again on a direct track for Gloucester. Our GPS software showed that we would potentially arrive late back at Barton and so we elected to fly a little faster, and decided to take a top up of fuel on arrival at Gloucester. We got a transit overhead Bristol, where the controller nicely crossed us in between to of their arrivals. A transit over Bristol Filton and we were soon on the ground at Gloucester.
Fuel uplifted and paid we continued our flight for the last leg. Again we planned direct, passing just west of Wolverhampton/Halfpenny Green. As we were approaching Winsford ready to enter the Low Level Route, we knew we would be arriving just on the dot of closing time, and so, traffic permitting we elected to join downwind left for the Runway in use, 27L. Just in time, we landed and parked, tucking the aircraft back into the hangar.
All in all, we covered 1440 nautical miles, and our total flying time was 17hrs 40 minutes over the three days. It was a fantastic trip. For anyone thinking of making a similar trip, I would definitely recommend it. It's not as difficult as you might think. Particularly with the help of modern technology, it's easier than ever to keep up to date with the weather and Notams en-route and re-plan as required. On our trip, we stuck to the larger airfields and we found them all to be easy to access, with few restrictions or difficulties. French ATC was easy and not a problem at all.
Would I do it again..most definitely..and maybe next time I'll venture further into France, or perhaps down to Spain!