My first cross channel flight some years ago now was relatively smooth. I had invited three friends for a jolly to France. We started from a airfield just north of London at the first opportunity to leave after it opened and set out for our great experience. The weather was unusually good and although my stomach was churning just a little with tension I was the Captain. Having spent thousands of pounds and what seemed like as many hours of study learning to fly, it was now the moment to impress my friends with my new found skills. Flight plans, customs clearance filed, and flight preparation were completed. I had heard so many times that 'Going Foreign' was what it was all about. To my surprise things went quite smoothly. Perhaps I was a better pilot than I thought?
There were if I remember correctly a couple of differences which caused me to sweat a little. The first was the lack of clear authorisation to transit Class D Airspace. The UK method is very prescribed and formulated. In France no formal clearance is normally given. Clearance is normally assumed once requested unless denied or refused. Generally all ATC spoke English and I began to relax a little. My first panic attack occurred just after I began to relax. I was talking to Paris Info. at one point in the flight and the controller asked me to "report at the Sin". Now, I was in foreign airspace, not speaking French at all and with very little hours maybe just 65 hrs in my log book. To fly the aircraft straight and level and on track was a success to me let alone being able to look for some obscure reporting point on the map at the same time. After what seemed like an eternity, but probably was just a few minutes, I had lost 2kg in weight, was wetter with sweat than when I had my morning shower and a mouth which would have made a camels bottom seem very moist. Eventually I had to admit that I could not identify "The Sin". I now felt a complete and utter failure, and was approaching brain overload. The controller I could tell was very surprised and repeated very slowly "report passing the Sin". At this point a big river appeared in front of me and being very astute (all pilots are) I realised he was talking of the "Seine". He was trying to pronounce La Seine as he thought the English would say it to help me.
Eventually we arrived at our destination and I walked proudly with my passengers; who I wanted to believe were a little impressed, into the small terminal to clear Customs. French Custom Officers I had been advised were not to be messed with, as they had the power to send you to the French Foreign Legion with immediate effect for not less than 10 years. This was if you were lucky and did not really upset them.
The French always say the English cannot speak another language so I was out to prove them wrong and was ready with my best French, "Bonsoir, Je suis Anglais, je n'ai rien a déclarer". To my surprise and some disappointment the terminal was deserted, no people, no customs, nothing. I wondered if perhaps the world had come to an end. After some searching I saw a telephone which indicated it may be connected to the Control Tower.
"ellooo" I said with a heavy implied French Accent.
"Can I help you?", came the reply.
"How did you know I was English?" I foolishly asked,
"It was difficult for me, but, you are the only aircraft that has landed since everyone went to lunch and maybe I am just a little psychic", came the reply, with a little hint of sarcasm.
"Where are the customs?" I enquired
"Lunch, of course ! came the reply.
It was now 12:05 and this was my first experience of something I have now coined as the 'Cinderella effect'. Whereby all French believe they will be turned into something else if they are at their work just one millisecond after 12.00 o'clock.
Keen to impress my passengers, and to have our Gastronomic delight, and of course to await the return of the customs, I enquired if there was a local restaurant?
"Oui, d'accord!", came the reply, "you could walk, or perhaps you may wish to taxi your aeroplane to the restaurant on the other side of the airfield?". Keen to take this opportunity we were all back in the Piper and requesting taxi instructions from the Tower.
"Turn to your right and follow the narrow taxiway". What started out as a normal taxi way soon changed into what I thought was possibly a local road. This fear was soon realised when the Tower called on the radio and said, "There is a van coming towards you, please be aware". The CV2 passed us as if it was quite normal and we continued to taxi towards a building some 200 yards away. The tower then advised us "you are at the restaurant, bon appétit". Parking was a little complex but eventually we parked between a builders van and a car in what appeared to be a car park for the restaurant. Nobody was interested or concerned at our somewhat noisy arrival and we walked excitedly into the restaurant.
Our appetites were running ahead and Larry who had been telling, or more accurately boring us all morning of his culinary experiences in France was pushed to the front as the speaker. What we soon found out is that he spoke less French than all of us put together and what he believed to be French food, was Steak Frites. He had no idea whatever about a menu in French. My other friends by this time were not too worried and had ordered 2 bottles of Vin Rouge and what they thought were Cornish Pasties this turned out to be a drink called Pastis, something which looks like diluted Milk Magnesia and tastes like aniseed. They however quickly developed a taste and after a few more were quite happy for me to do the ordering. I was after all the Captain who had made this international flight, negotiated with the natives and actually got us all back on the ground safely. Looking at the menu I half recognised some items, there was chèvre which I thought was something to do with goats. Neil who had been the quietest the whole trip mentioned that Poulet en France was excellent and everyone agreed to have du poulet avec des frites. Unfortunately Poulet was off the menu it transpired. Two items I recognised were veau and foie gras. I once had foie gras in London. To stamp my authority I suggested that we all started with the fois gras and then had the tête de veau. Larry of course wanted his Steak Frites and this encouraged the others to have des frites with the tête de veau. Fortunately it was some months later when I found out what the main course consisted of. I decided discretion was the better part and never told my friends what I had made them eat on that day. The meal was completed with an île flottante which every one liked but Larry thought the custard should have been hot not cold.
After a fine lunch our encounter with hell occurred when preparing to leave France. We had to pay our landing fee to the Firemen, who we could not find until we had nearly searched the whole airport. According to the Pompier, to whom I had just paid 25 Fcs for landing and parking, there was a piece of equipment in the next room for my use. This turned out to be machine designed to defeat even those with an I.Q of 200. It is called 'Minitel' This machine designed to test inverse logic is almost impossible for a non French speaking person to interface with. I not only needed some weather but also had to file a flight plan with it. I still remember a key marked "Envoi" in green print which I quickly learned was a master key. I never did manage to get any weather and I will never know how I managed to file a flight plan or possibly just how many I filed altogether. Returning to the Piper we now came across the Customs. They were polite and examined our passports as if they had never seen one before. They were not too impressed that we had arrived after they had gone to lunch and only gave up lecturing us on the subject when they realised that we spoke no French and as they spoke no English. Further communication was fruitless and with a "Bon Voyage" they had got rid of us. Next we had to show our passports to the Police National who were much friendlier. They even asked : Vous avez bien mange? Neil who was still brooding over his chicken replied that being in France he really wanted to have a poulet. Had I known that this was the slang word for a Policeman I could have avoided us all being scrutinised and kept waiting for half an hour whilst they checked with Paris on Neil's Passport. Eventually though we were cleared to go and everyone said "Merceee...Orv-voir", in the spirit of Entente Cordiale, Vin rouge and Pastis.
Having drunk only sparkling water whilst everyone else discussed the nose, bouquet and smoothness of the wine, the tenderness of the veal chop, the size of which no-one had ever seen, I felt a little left out. I was however responsible for getting them all back to London and nerves now stared to set in again. Was the weather getting worse, how could I know? I knew it was my responsibility to obtain the weather before our flight but how could I? It was at the point of defeat when out of the corner of my eye I saw as sign "Meteo France". This from my prior investigations I knew was my saviour. To be able to walk into a station meteorologique and obtain all the weather information, see the weather radar screen, and speak even in broken English with a human being is for a U.K. pilot something one dreams of. There was no charge and I left with more pieces of paper containing weather data than I needed or could understand. Now knowing we had good weather for our return I settled in to the routine. "Fasten seat belts and in case of need, Life Jackets are complimentary". Larry was in the front and was designated door opener and life raft dispatcher in the event we should need to ditch in the sea on our return. The choice was not so much based upon weight and balance as who was the most sober.
We left France that late afternoon and from the peace of the French side of the channel to the hectic frequency of London Information. I was almost at Dover before I could get a word in and by the time they replied, I was in fact at Dover and therefore requested a frequency change, which almost made the whole procedure pointless. We landed on a beautiful warm evening and all agreed this would be a regular event. I would however learn a little French for the next trip.