Monday, 17 May 2010

Return from the Monaco GP

After some dodgy looking weather, one of the best Monaco GPs in years and an impressive Red Bull 1-2, it was time to head home.  We had filed the flight plan before we left England with EuroFPL so all we had to do was make sure we were at Cannes in time for takeoff for 0930Z.  Z (Zulu time) is GMT, so that was 11:30 local time in France.  We'd been staying in Menton so caught a train just before 9:00.  We were due to get a local commuter train but two minutes before our train was due, a TGV pulled in so we hopped on that.  We weren't entirely sure our tickets were valid but nobody came to check them and there was plenty of space on the train anyway.  The train ride along the Cote d'Azur is impressive by itself, hugging the Mediterranean coast from Italy, through France, into Monaco and back into France again.  It turns north some way west of Cannes, so it was coastal all the way for us.  We had upper deck seats and wonderful views in the morning sunshine.

On arrival at Cannes, we had to wait a  few minutes for a taxi to take us to the airport but all this had been predicted so was no problem.  Delivered to the airport, I made my way to the office to pay the fees for landing and parking the aircraft for 3 days which came to €52.80.  More than many airports in France but still a bargain compared to many in England.  With that taken care of, we put our luggage through a security X ray and walked through the metal detecting arch ourselves.  I duly set this off, having carelessly left my belt on.  I'm not sure of the benefit of having the pilot of the aircraft remove his belt, but I'm sure somewhere a European bureaucrat has decided it's for my own safety.  We were loaded into an airport van and taken around to our parking space.  We loaded the luggage in and settled ourselves into the aircraft.  The timing was working out wonderfully, it was now 11:20.  Good job we fuelled up on arrival, even with the delays we encountered.

On calling for start, we were informed that we had a departure slot and a delay of 45 minutes.  We put the radio on speakers, pulled circuit breakers for things that would draw power - gyroscopes and the like - and waited.  The controller had sent a ready message into the system for us, meaning that if there was any chance they would get us away early, but we didn't hold out too much hope of this.  It did mean we had to keep the radio on, but if there was a chance of getting moving and not spending 45 minutes baking in the sunshine we'd have jumped at it!  Finally 12:05 rolled around so we put everything back to normal and called for start.  Early because you are allowed to move 5 minutes before or 10 minutes after your slot time and it would take a few minutes to get the start procedures complete before we actually moved.

We ended up releasing the brakes exactly on (the delayed) time which I was pleased with.  As we made the lengthy taxy to the far end of the runway, we overheard a conversation between a jet pilot and the tower...

Pilot: "Can we push our slot back?  Our passengers haven't arrived yet."
Tower: "Sir, your slot time is in 5 minutes.  All today's slots are full.  If you miss your slot you will be leaving tomorrow."
Pilot: "I see our passengers coming out from the terminal now, we will make our slot."

One can imagine the VIP passengers being bundled quickly into their private jet and a very hasty start procedure so as not to miss their slot.

The northerly route was RUBIT G7 MTG A6 MTL R161 LEMIN.  This follows the coast further along to the west before turning north so that the climb required isn't so steep to get immediately over the alps.  It also has the benefit of giving a wonderful view of the coast for a while.

 The route from Cannes to Bourges

We had planned to refuel on the return trip in Bourges again, and having checked the times it would be staffed on the way down, we were expecting it not to be on our return.  En route we broke out the sandwiches.  Especially with the delays, and given that the other option was the McDonald's at Bourges, picking up some sandwiches in Menton before we started the trip proved to be a very good option.  We were given a comfortable,descent at about 500fpm into Bourges, and though this involved descending through a fairly thick layer of cloud it presented no problem.

Descending into cloud at Bourges

Once we were below the clouds and in VMC, there was no need to use up more time and fuel by following the full instrument approach so I requested a visual approach.  In this, the aircraft is still on the IFR flight plan, but the pilot effectively flies the visual circuit to land.  This probably saved us in the region of 10 minutes.

Of course, the winds had changed to present us with headwinds on the way home, and this, combined with the departure slot meant that by the time we landed Jerome was back in his tower and a different fireman was available to dispense fuel.  We brimmed the tanks, popped up to the tower to see our new friend and wait the short time until our departure.  Clear of the busy Cannes/Nice area, there was no slot and we would depart at our filed time of 3:30.

The route onwards and back to England was GILUX A3 DOMOD H20 LGL A34 MID, so with a backtrack and a right turnout we were on our way home.

The route from Bourges to Fairoaks

On the way, Mark remembered that Fairoaks closes at 6:00 and our ETA on the GNS430 was hovering around 5 past.  I knew we would make up some time in the descent but was at least a little concerned that we'd be diverting from Fairoaks to our nominated alternate, Biggin Hill.

Thanks to some great shortcuts and speedy descents given by London Control and Farnborough Radar, we made it into Fairoaks 10 minutes before they closed.  I reassured the tower there that we would only be staying 5 minutes to drop a passenger off and be on our way.  As soon as we had shut down, Mark jumped out, my dad jumped into the front seat and we were off again to Gloucester.  I thanked the Fairoaks staff for waiting around the extra couple of minutes to get us away; it's the little things that make airfields places you'd be happy to return to.

As on the way down, this is a simple flight which once we were on the way I let my dad fly.  He started training for a PPL a few years ago but ended up stopping after first solo; he therefore is more than competent to fly the en route portions of the flight, even if I wouldn't let him land the Commander.  As he's commented on before, the approach speed is 10kts faster than the cruise speed of the PA28s he was learning in and that takes a bit of getting used to.

Back in England, en route to Gloucester

Gloucester were using runway 04 so we joined on a right base.  I started the turn in to 36 before realising my mistake and continuing along the base leg to line up to land on the correct runway.  A turn off onto 09 and park at the pumps to fill up again took no time at all.  We unloaded my dad's bags and went into the terminal building to pay.  Unfortunately, even though I had a receipt in my hand written by the fuellers, we still had to wait for them to put the fuel uplift into the computer system 200m away before the ladies on reception could bill me.  This they eventually did after a chase up phone call, and with the bill paid I made my way back out to the aircraft.  I called for taxy and was told to make my way along 3 taxiways to take off on 09; about a 10 minute trip at Gloucester.  With the windsock hanging limp I requested runway 27 instead and with the proviso that I could go quickly - there was an aircraft on downwind - I was allowed this choice.  Just goes to show that ATC will do their best for you, but if you want something else, just ask!

And so it was that I set off on the final leg of the trip, back to Liverpool.  After flying over my parents' home and a waggle of the wings to my mum on the way overhead the flight back to Liverpool is as simple as could be.  15 hours of flying behind me, I was touching down on runway 27 back at base at 7:45pm.  The gate at our end of the airport is closed when the last employee leaves at 8:00 so I hurried to tidy everything up and make my way out, only realising afterwards that of course the employees that were still there, not least to put the Commander away, would be leaving after me so the gate wouldn't be locked.

For the fourth year running this has been an excellent trip, with fun flying, the glamour of Monaco, excitement of the race and the sense of achievement at getting there under our own steam.  Roll on Monaco 2011!

Friday, 14 May 2010

Flying to the Monaco GP, part 2

Given the size of the Commander's fuel tank, the expected headwinds, and the size of the aircraft occupants' bladders, the trip to the south of France was to be taken in two legs.  We needed somewhere half way along the journey to Cannes (LFMD) that had customs and immigration, fuel and a restaurant nearby.  A few years ago, Bourges (LFLD) was chosen for this purpose.  On that occasion, the place was deserted and we were left at the mercy of the local aeroclub who required cash for the fuel.  Fortunately one of the passengers had changed a lot of money to Euros prior to the trip so we could make this work.  I was assured that this was not normal, and that there was usually someone in the tower, and a fireman who doubled up as a fuel dispenser from the locked pumps.

The route chosen to get from Fairoaks to Bourges was GWC N859 SITET A34 KOVAK H20 DOMOD A3 GILUX.  I realise that will mean nothing to most people (me included) without a map so here's the route we intended to fly:

The route from Fairoaks to Bourges

The kinked route is required to follow airways - defined routes in the sky that IFR aircraft are required to follow.  Sort of.  More of that shortly.  The plan said that this would take 2 hours and 15 minutes, departing at 10:00am.  Given the earlier delays, we were running a bit late and finally managed to depart Fairoaks at 10:25.  The kinked route represents an increase in route length of 6% of flying in a straight line between the two airports.  This is a very good result for routing around Europe.  15-20% increases in distance flown aren't uncommon.

After takeoff form runway 24 we turned left and headed for Goodwood (GWC) and contacted Farnborough Radar.  Our takeoff clearance was to 1400', but on contact we were cleared up to 3400' to keep us below some other traffic.  Once clear of that this was lifted to 6000', and before reaching that all the way up to our cruising altitude of FL100.  In the climb over the southern shores of England and into the channel we went through a broken layer of cloud which dissipated altogether once over the English Channel.  Passing over Le Havre on the French coast there was little more to do than admire the scenery and occasionally make contact with the next ATC unit along the route.  This is what IFR touring is about - the flying is easy!

As we approached Bourges we were given descents in good time so down we went through some fairly thick clouds that had been increasing the further south we went.  We picked up quite a coating of ice in the descent, over a centimetre on the temperature probe and leading edge of the wings and a thin coating on the windscreen.  No doubt the leading edge of the tailplane had some, too.  As soon as we descended through 5000' and the temperature outside became positive, the ice came off quickly.

The Paris controller we talked to informed us that the Bourges tower was currently unmanned, and was very insistent that we take down and confirm a phone number to call to close out flight plan once on the ground.  At a manned airport, ATC will do this for you.  Failure to close an IFR flight plan will result in the search and rescue services coming to look for you, and in France they will send you the bill for their troubles!

We landed 2 hours and 20 minutes after takeoff, making us half an hour late as compared to our planned arrival time.  We pulled onto the parking area near the fuel pumps and set about trying to find someone to unlock them and dispense some avgas into the aircraft.  After a small amount of investigation, the fireman/fueller appeared from a locked door and we managed to convey the message to him that we'd really appreciate some fuel.

The intention had been to walk into Bourges for lunch, but given our late arrival and the need to be off again at our flight planned time just 25 minutes later, I asked the fueller what was nearby.  The best he could come up with was a McDonalds, but at least it had free wifi so I could check in on the weather further along our route.

The route we had filed onwards to Cannes was MENOX R31 MTL R161 AMFOU, which is again just 6% longer than the direct route.

The route from Bourges to Cannes

On our return to the aircraft, the fueller came over as he saw us loading up to inform us that we had a departure slot, and to go up the tower to see the controller.  Jerome's English was much better than the unnamed fireman, and he was able to tell us that we had been given a departure slot, delaying our flight plan by 45 minutes.  This meant that we were now not due to depart for an hour.  We filled the time by chatting with Jerome, checking the weather inbetween Bourges and Cannes, reading about the F1 news on the PC with an internet connection and before long it was time to head down to the aircraft and be on our way.  After a short backtrack we launched into the cloudy sky and headed south.

The climb up to FL100 for the cruise would take us through clouds that were likely to contain the same icing conditions as those we had descended through.  I decided that as we knew the tops were below our intended cruising altitude we would try to get up through them and allow the ice to sublimate off in the sunshine above.  Sure enough, as we climbed above the freezing level the ice began to accumulate.  100kts - my usual climb speed - was fine for the first few thousand feet, but in order to maintain the climb we came back to Vy, 94kts, at about FL80.  The ice was starting to get uncomfortably thick, and the last few hundred feet, with the brightening near the top of the clouds was agonising.  I wasn't far off making the decision to descend back to warmer levels when we popped out of the top and crawled up to FL100.  The ice did gradually sublimate and our cruise speed rose as the airframe became clearer.

Ice sticking to the OAT probe

We were given clearance to route all the way to the MTL VOR, some 150 nautical miles away.  As the route was fairly straight anyway this didn't make too much difference, but was good to hear nonetheless. We could see the cloud tops rising to meet our level ahead, so I requested a 1000' climb to FL110 which was readily granted and kept us clear of the clouds and further icing conditions.  The temperature outside was a chilly -6C and I'm sure the ice would have stuck to us at an alarming rate.

As per the forecast we'd seen both at home and in Bourges, there were a few buildups which rose above the FL100 or so cloud tops to something like FL140, and one of these was right in our way.  A quick request to ATC to deviate right to avoid weather was granted and so we did.  When we were approaching a point at which we could turn back towards MTL ATC asked us how long before we would be able to do so; I told them another 5 minutes would do it and they seemed fine with this answer.

The weather system that was bothering south eastern France came with some winds, and typically these were headwinds for us (aren't they always?) with the result that the 2:10 planned flight took us 2:45 making our touchdown time at Cannes 6:50pm.  We taxyed straight to the fuel pumps, reasoning that a short delay now was better than any delay on the return journey and potentially missing our flight planned departure time or slot if we had one.  We pulled up at pump 2 as there was a Jodel already waiting at pump 1, but there were no fuellers to be seen.  The Jet A1 truck was out fuelling up the business jets of the rich and famous - the Cannes film festival is on at the same time as the Monaco grand prix, making this weekend Cannes airport's busiest throughout the year.  I checked with the Jodel pilots, and found out that they had been waiting just a few minutes.  Before long an airport official came over on a golf cart to tell us that the fuellers would be along in about 20 minutes.  I asked if we would be better waiting until Monday morning and he confirmed what we thought; that the potential for delays on Monday was far greater.

Something like 30 minutes later, the fueller arrived.  All he had to do was throw a switch to enable the pumps.  Surely he could have taken 30 seconds from his jet refuelling time to do that for us!  Another aircraft had joined the fuelling queue in the meantime.  I dispensed the 115 litres of avgas (not bad for 2:45 of flight!) paid in the fuel office and we all boarded again to taxy to our parking stand.  The ground controller asked how long we would be staying and after confirming that (as booked) we were there for the weekend, we were directed to park on the opposite eastern side of the airport on the grass.  After parking the aircraft we unloaded our luggage and a neat airport van collected the crew of an aircraft parked next to us.  We were ready moments after they had driven away but thought they would be back soon.  25 minutes later, and (sod's law) with me having unpacked a headset and climbing into the aircraft to call ground and ask how much longer we would be expected to wait, the van returned.  It proceeded to collect 5 more people from helicopters that had landed in the meantime and then return to the terminal.

There was just one taxi waiting, so while the others collected our luggage I was out of the van door first and went straight to the driver, asking him to take us to the train station.  Finally, something had happened without any delay!

Flying to the Monaco GP, part 1

For the last few years, myself and another pilot have made our way to Cannes (LFMD) with the ultimate aim of attending the Monaco Grand Prix.  The routes have been varied, and each year we take another passenger or two but to date have always been in four seat single engine piston aircraft.  This year, as last year, we would be making the journey in my Commander.  The passenger would be my father and the simplest way to achieve this, with the Commander being based at Liverpool, my dad near Gloucester and Mark in the London area, would be to make a couple of stops to collect people on the way.

This year we chose not to be there for the practice sessions on Thursday.  At most Grands Prix, these are on the Friday but Thursday practice is just one of the many ways that Monaco is a bit different to the rest.  We chose, therefore, to fly down on Friday and return on Monday.  After work on Thursday afternoon, I drove to the airport and made a simple VFR flight to Gloucester at around 2,000ft.  There is very little in the way of airspace between Liverpool and Gloucester so once out of the Liverpool zone at Chester the routing is a case of telling the GPS I want to go to EGBJ and following the magenta line.  On radio contact with Gloucester I offered to make an SRA approach as they are currently training new controllers but was told that the trainee wasn't around so I made a simple right base join for runway 22.  In order to save some time in the morning, I fuelled up at this point before parking for the night and being collected to spend the night with my parents.

En route to Gloucester

Returning the next morning with the intention of being off blocks at 0900, we ended up moving at about 0920.  After beginning the taxi to the threshold of runway 22, we were asked to wait for a locally based training twin.  This proceeded to take a rather long time for the student to complete checks at the holding point, then longer to receive an IFR clearance, even longer to put up IR screens and ended up delaying us by more than 10 minutes.  Would it really have been such a pain for them to taxi behind us?  Gloucester is normally a slick operation but this was a poor example of sequencing.

We set off in the direction of Fairoaks (EGTF) and again the navigation was little more than a straight magenta line between the two.  With the help of Brize Norton allowing us to cross their zone and a very short dogleg towards the end to avoid the south western point of the Heathrow CTR the flight was uneventful, culminating in a downwind join for Fairoaks' runway 24.  Mark was waiting for us at the aircraft's parking spot and within 10 minutes we were starting the engine again for the IFR next leg into France...