Avranches June 2006


Several members of our Liverpool, UK, based flying club decided to go to the Biennial Avranches Fly-in, in northern France, so as well as our trusty C172, G-GYAV, we hired an additional aircraft, a Cessna 182 G-IATU.Another Liverpool based Club, Cheshire Training Services (CATS) also decided to go, and took three aircraft, so there was quite a contingent from the home of The Beatles.

The planning was my task. We wanted a route with intermediate stops to change pilot and refuel. As none of us had flown to France before, we needed some guidance, so I spent some time searching the web for information, both official and unofficial, about flying in France. The Avranches Aero Club web site surprisingly gave relatively sparse information for foreign visitors inbound to their event, but the Fly in France web site was a mine of valuable links and help. I have never left things to chance in flying, and my co-pilots were surprised at the folder full of information I showed them at our final planning meeting. Much of it came from the Fly in France web site. I had charts of course, and had plotted legs and distances; put together some official ICAO flight plans; got the necessary customs and fuel drawback forms and decided who was going to fly each leg.

Our plan was to land at Dunkeswell to clear Customs and have a late breakfast. I had telephoned them to ascertain that they were able to offer this service, and received a very welcoming response. We would then continue to Guernsey where we would refuel and perhaps have lunch. The final leg would be across the water to France, coasting in at St. Germain then following the coast south, passing overhead Granville aerodrome en route, to the wide estuary of the river Selune, clearly identifiable by the unmistakable shape of Mont Saint Michel on its southern side. Avranches was an insignificant looking grass airfield on the eastern side of a branch of this estuary, but from the information I had gathered, I was sure we would find it easily.

Although the Cessna 182 is an aircraft with a good payload, it was possible to overload G-IATU because it had long-range fuel tanks. Full tanks, plus four passengers and the maximum 120lbs of luggage would make the aircraft more than 100lbs.overweight. I had flown the aircraft for practice for an hour or more before the trip, and the fuel thus burned was sufficient to bring the all up weight within limits.

On the day of the trip, we met on Liverpool,Äôs General Aviation Apron at about 8:30 a.m. The two pilots who were taking the club,Äôs Cessna 172 G-GYAV arrived shortly after. We checked all our gear aboard, including an extra lifejacket, and wasted little time getting away. The weather was reasonable, broken cloud at 2500 feet with about 15 kilometres visibility. We climbed to flight level 40 and followed the airway down the Welsh border to the Brecon VOR. From Brecon we obtained a clearance to overfly Cardiff , crossed the Bristol Channel to Minehead, then tracked direct to Dunkeswell for lunch. For much of the flight to Dunkeswell we were above the scattered clouds, sufficient to maintain VFR, although as one of us had an instrument rating, so we could legally fly IFR if necessary. This aircraft had the luxury of an autopilot, and so the flying was very easy. It also had a panel mounted text-only GPS, but those of us in the back had a moving map GPS and watched the trip unfold while admiring the cloudscape with the odd glimpse of the ground. We stayed more or less together with Alpha Victor, although we never saw them until after we had landed. Although we were 20 knots faster than them in the cruise that small speed advantage was soon lost when flying the circuit to land.

Dunkeswell was quite busy, and eventually we found ourselves on short final for runway 23 with one behind and 2 ahead to depart. For a moment we thought we might have to go around, but they left swiftly with us on their tail! They made us very welcome at Dunkeswell, and although we had originally planned to land at Exeter on the return trip, because the landing fee at Exeter, being a regional airport, would be a bit high, and because on the day we found Dunkeswell so welcoming, we elected to return there. Once the crew of Alpha Victor joined us, we all had a hearty fried breakfast.

We uplifted fuel at Dunkeswell, checking the quantity carefully so as not to be overweight. With the Channel crossing ahead, we did a very thorough pre-flight of the aircraft, carefully ticking off each item on the checklist. We put on lifejackets and placed our life raft in between the two rear seats. We rehearsed the ditching procedure, and agreed the order in which each person would leave the aircraft. This was 70 miles over water to Guernsey, which, in a single engined aircraft, was an anxious 40 minutes. We felt it wise to assume that an engine failure might happen, and to be fully prepared.

We had changed pilots for this leg, and after takeoff we fell silent as the coastline of Britain slowly faded into the haze behind us. We climbed to flight level 65, at the base of the airway, (for altitude equals thinking time), and tracked the Guernsey VOR inbound, each of us I was sure, in our own thoughts about engine failure, relaxing only when the island appeared when and where it should! The visibility was quite reasonable, and we could see the airfield before we turned downwind. The coastline was very picturesque, with cliffs, several lighthouses and small busy harbours. It was a pity that the pilot flying scarcely had little chance to appreciate this view as he was concentrating on the approach to land.

After landing we were directed to parking on the General Aviation grass area, and a fuel truck arrived as we climbed out of the aircraft, relieved to be back on terra firma. Initially we declined to refuel, because we were already heavy, and had more than enough reserves for the rest of the flight. However, because the landing fee was halved if we uplifted fuel, we changed our minds and topped up the tanks to bring us back to maximum all up weight.

By this time, Alpha Victor too had landed. In the flight briefing room, we all slowly completed the unfamiliar Customs paperwork; filed new flight plans, then had a quick cup of dubious tea from a machine in the rather Spartan ,ÄúPilots Rest Room,Äù. At this point, one of us brought out the traditional Devon cream tea he had bought at Dunkeswell. The scone was dry and there wasn't enough cream, and he declared his ,Äútreat,Äù actually inedible. Before setting off on the final leg to Avranches, each aircraft crew took photographs of the other for posterity.

Dressed once more in our lifejackets, and possibly a trifle more relaxed in view of the fact that the water crossing we were about to undertake was only 20 miles, we took off from Guernsey,Äôs 09. We were told by ATC to turn left heading 030 degrees immediately after takeoff, not above 1000 feet, for we had to remain beneath nearby Jersey,Äôs approach path. Once we had passed Sark, ATC graciously allowed us to climb to 2000 feet, at which height we were obliged to remain, somewhat uneasily, over the sea. We were cleared to route direct to Avranches, which seemed strange, because that made it a longer water crossing than necessary. We compromised by coasting in some 25 miles north of Granville instead of our intended coasting in point at St Germain.

There were two French speakers in the crew, but only at a fairly rudimentary level. Granville ATC was supposed to be only in French, so it was a daunting prospect having to talk to them. We had been warned by the Fly in France web site that it was better to speak English than to attempt using French if our French wasn't first-class, and it certainly wasn,Äôt. Anxiously, the right hand seat pilot, delegated to do the radio, keyed his microphone and made a tentative call. Much to our relief the reply came back in English. We were cleared to cross their runway extended centreline along the shoreline, and would we please report on reaching.

From the air, the French countryside looked little different to that in England. The wide estuary of the river Selune soon came into view, and there ahead was the unmistakable shape of Mont Saint Michel. We turned east and followed the northern edge of the estuary until we could see the tributary coming in from the north where, somewhere on the far side of this tributary lay the Avranches airfield. Minutes later we saw it. They had mowed the grass along the runways so they stood out well from the surrounding marsh.

Fresh from his triumph of talking to Granville, the co-pilot called Avranches on the radio and received a reply in perfect English. Tr©s bon! The runway in use was 04 which brought us in over the estuary rather than over the land. Alpha Victor had left Guernsey a few minutes ahead of us and now we heard him asking for joining instructions. We had overtaken him without seeing him, for as we turned final, he was just positioning downwind. The Avranches runway was just over 800 metres long but very wide, making it look rather short, but we brought Tango Uniform in to a very gentle landing with plenty to spare.

A Marshaller directed us to parking, to join the 60 or 70 other aircraft that had already arrived. About 50% were French registered, and the rest mostly British, with a scattering of Irish and at least one Swiss aircraft. There was a free ice-cold beer for each arriving visitor, which we drank gratefully in the humid warmth.

A Party to Remember

The two French-speakers among us hesitantly rehearsed their lines for booking in and requesting accommodation, then somewhat timidly we walked into the clubhouse surrounded by a sea of French voices. We needn't have worried, because sitting at the booking in desk was the charmant Sylvie Hardy, A©roclub secretary and English teacher at a French secondary school. She had the barest touch of a French accent in her near perfect English, putting us completely to shame. She spent several minutes finding us a hotel, and soon we were in a minibus driven by an affable Frenchman, Rollo, with whom we conversed half in English, half in French, en route to l,Äôh¥tel Ibis on the outskirts of the town of Avranches.

After freshening up, we returned to the airfield to join the hangar party. In typical French style it started off with appetisers which were almost a meal in themselves, and continued later with a sit down meal. The hangar was laid out with long bench tables, and whether by accident or design we found ourselves in the company of the Cheshire Air Training contingent from Liverpool. One of our crew found himself sitting alongside two French demoiselles with whom he fraternised enthusiastically.

The meal was excellent, and very French, each course very nicely presented, and with sorbet fresheners between, and of course as much wine as we felt able to drink, bearing in mind that we had to fly home the next day. Although there was a live band to provide music, in typical French style the meal itself was the main entertainment, with long gaps between courses allowing new friends to be made and stories exchanged. Altogether this splendid meal lasted over four hours.

For further entertainment, l,ÄôA©roclub had included a superb means of creating les Ententes Cordiales. They had provided every diner with a party bag containing, among other games, un jeter des pois - a peashooter, with ammo! Witness over 150 grown men and women firing peashooters at each other for over four hours. It was hilarious!

At around 2 o'clock in the morning, the affable Rollo took us back to our hotel in his minibus. We had tasted several samples of the national drink, and were very cheerful! We certainly didn't need much rocking that night.

The following morning, back at the A©roclub, the weather on their computer looked poor over France, and even poorer over Britain. The forecast was for it to get even worse, and the distinctive shape of Mont Saint Michel was actually not at all distinctive! We took this as a warning, and decided to forgo le petit d©jeuner and make an early departure. Before 11 a.m., we were en route to Jersey, a little fragile perhaps, though any mal Ý t™te soon wore off as we concentrated hard on flying. No sooner were we airborne, than the poor visibility became immediately apparent. We groped our way up the coast to St Germain, then headed across the water to Jersey at 2000 feet just below the cloud but with no visible horizon. The island came into view some 7 km from the JSY VOR, much to our relief. Jersey ATC routed us along the very pretty south of the island to a right hand downwind join for 09.

After landing, we taxied as instructed to the far eastern end of the airfield, to the modern clubhouse of Jersey Aero Club. After completing the formalities of flight plan and Customs declaration, we went in search of breakfast, and we weren't disappointed. Those of us with a large appetite were regaled with up to four eggs, sausage, baked beans, and over a quarter of a pound of bacon.

Cloud and Rain

Jersey's weather seemed to be improving as we took off from runway 09, but it turned out to be very local. We were routed to the north east corner of the island, at 1000 feet, but once over the sea requested and were granted a climb to flight level 65. By 2000 feet we were in the clouds but broke out above them at about flight level 55. However, by latitude 50° north, Jersey's zone boundary, the cloud tops had risen to meet us, and we continued in cloud and heavy rain for some time en route back to Dunkeswell.

No one said much, our collective thoughts almost certainly being on the grim possibility of an engine failure in the conditions. You could almost touch the relief when the rain stopped, the cloud began to break up and the English coast came into view. However, the visibility was still very poor and had we not had the collective brains of four navigators plus a 3 GPS units on board, we might have been ,Äúuncertain of our position,Äù trying to find Dunkeswell in the conditions. After landing, we repaired to the superb restaurant for a light lunch.

The final leg of the trip was back home to Liverpool. We backtracked smartly onto the disused runway to get out of the way of landing traffic, of which there was a steady stream, for Dunkeswell was as busy as it had been as we arrived the previous day. The flight north was fortunately uneventful, although the heavy grey overcast kept us down just below 3000 feet all the way home. We routed through Bristol,Äôs overhead, and because the cloud ceiling prevented us from going over the Welsh hills, we routed slightly east passing abeam the Long Mynd, Welshpool, Oswestry, and Wrexham. The approach into Liverpool was in low cloud and haze but fortunately no rain. Everyone was glad to be back on terra firma, though we agreed it had been a magnificent trip. Already the talk was of doing another similar.

We had been lucky to get home when we had. The club aircraft G-GYAV came back the same route as ourselves, also IFR across the Channel, but the other Liverpool contingent, from CATS had to struggle VFR at low level not only across the Channel, being pinned down to 600 feet above the sea at times, but also travelling north through England. They must've hit the weather that we narrowly avoided by being early, for a mere hour after landing, the heavens opened, and it rained right across the UK almost continuously for the next 24 hours.