Trip to Mali Losinj and Pula - September 2013
This article describes an IFR trip from Shoreham (EGKA) to the island of Mali Losinj (LDLO) in Croatia and back to Shoreham via Pula (LDPL) in Croatia, over a 7-day period.
We have visited Mali Losinj before but usually only as an intermediate stop on the way to somewhere else (Croatia makes an excellent stop on the way to Greece) and this was the first time we explored it properly.
In planning terms this is a straightforward trip - for an aircraft which can do it nonstop. Croatian airports are well organised and communicate perfectly in English. The islands are also a pleasure to stay on, which is important because the best time to embark on a long flight is early in the morning, so any stop is best combined with an overnight stay.
As always on our trips, all stops on this trip were chosen to be in places which we wanted to visit anyway i.e. no stops purely for fuel. Being able to do that is one of the luxuries of the TB20, with its ~1300nm range, and greatly reduces the pressure of having to get somewhere.
Procedurally, the flight was very similar to other airways flights I have done. Other VFR and IFR trip reports can be found here.
Here is a glossary for non-aviation readers.
The aircraft is a 2002 Socata TB20GT which has a zero-fuel range of approximately 1300nm and an economical cruise speed of 140kt TAS at 10,000ft. It has a ceiling of about 20,000ft and is equipped with oxygen. It is not certified for flight into icing conditions but has a TKS de-iced propeller
Navigation equipment includes a KLN94 IFR GPS and a KMD550 MFD and these are used for primary navigation. All IFR flight in Europe requires BRNAV certification which in the GA context is met only with a BRNAV (also called RNAV 5) approved IFR GPS installation. My KLN94 is also now certified for full-IFR which includes GPRS/RNAV approaches. The only thing it can't do (officially or otherwise) is "precision" approaches. These have vertical guidance, like an ILS. In the main they are called GPS/LPV or GPS/LNAV+V. LPV is like an ILS, with a "glideslope" which like the ILS has a guaranteed obstacle clearance all the way to the runway surface. LNAV+V also provides a "glideslope" but only from the FAF to the MAP and obstacle clearance is not guaranteed (and indeed does not exist, at some airports) beyond the MAP. Currently very few of these approaches exist in Europe. The UK has only one - Alderney! Most relevantly operationally, there are virtually no airports in Europe which have Customs (required for flight outside the Schengen zone) and LPV but no ILS. This is partly because LPV requires the same - very expensive - standard of runway lighting as ILS, and most commercial operators can fly an ILS but have no approach-capable GPS equipment.
The aircraft has a KFC225 autopilot which can track VOR/GPS/ILS and fly a preset altitude or a preset VS. There is an additional battery powered Garmin 496 GPS which also provides an audio terrain warning (TAWS) function with a European terrain and obstacle database. The TAWS function projects the current trajectory for 2 minutes and if there is a terrain conflict, one gets a "pull up" type audio warning whose tone gradually becomes more urgent. A WX500 stormscope and an active TCAS are also installed. One of the radios has 8.33kHz channel spacing to legalise flight at 20,000ft although I have never been assigned such a frequency
A Sandel SN3500 EHSI was installed in 2011 on the LHS which provides automatic waypoint sequencing to the autopilot so the entire programmed route can be flown without HSI course pointer adjustment or indeed without any pilot interaction (except for altitude and fuel management). A second SN3500 was installed in 2013 on the RHS, which for certification reasons has no autopilot connection. The Sandel SG102 AHRS solid state gyro was also installed as a plug-compatible replacement for the heavy KG102A heading gyro and provides a backup AI capability viewable on either EHSI as shown here. The RHS panel layout was changed around to provide a usable "pilot panel", with the AI, the EHSI and the altimeter all in their correct places.
I try to use "technical" methods to make the go/no-go decision as objective as possible. I have propeller-only TKS de-ice, which really does work very well but is no good for spending hours in icing conditions. So, with an effectively non-deiced aircraft this means establishing whether the enroute section of the flight can be done substantially in VMC, which given the subzero temperatures at typical European airway levels most of the year means VMC on top if there is any cloud about.
One therefore needs to establish where the cloud tops are likely to be. Cloud tops are almost impossible to forecast with any useful accuracy, but things have improved in recent years with satellite IR images which show actual cloud top temperatures and thus altitudes. Some notes are here and here.
Since about 2009 I have been heavily relying on satellite IR images to get a "cloud tops METAR" just before a flight and this simple technique has been completely successful on every flight where I have used it. No flight I have done has been what some pilots call "eventful", and I have never had to turn back. The cost of this strategy, with the TB20, and with long legs of e.g. 700nm+, is that the despatch rate on a particular day in UK weather is only about 80%. But this is a whole lot better than it would be under VFR... especially legal VFR
More recently I have been using the GRAMET site which can produce impressive forecast cross-sections from the freely available US-operated GFS weather model. Unfortunately this site fails to forecast a lot of cloud layers so is at best a rough guide, and the IR images remain the definitive "cloud tops METAR" source which is consulted in the morning of the flight.
IFR Route Planning
The routes (which included various options) were planned using Flight Plan Pro (FPP) which was used to generate a Eurocontrol-accepted airways route which was then pasted into Jeppesen FliteStar from which I printed out enroute chart sections, plogs, etc. The workflow I use is illustrated in this article. The flight plans were filed using EuroFPL.
There are numerous other ways one can do this job, and there is enough capability in FPP alone, or EuroFPL alone, to generate adequate data to do an IFR flight with. Taking the simplest case, one can fly IFR in Europe's enroute airspace system with just a list of waypoints like this which EuroFPL emails you some hours before the flight planned EOBT. If you pick up this email on a phone, you can enter it into the IFR GPS and just fly it. Electronic or printed enroute (airway) charts are very unlikely to be required. However, my view is that this is somewhat risky, and I have been asked to fly named airways on a few occassions. The other important thing are airport Notams, which can identify non-functioning navaids which can in turn result in a particular instrument approach being unavailable.
EuroFPL offers the Eurocontrol "route suggest" feature which is continually improving but is still less optimised than FPP's routes, not least because the entire Eurocontrol-suggested route is prepared for a single flight level. There are several other non-free products or services which generate Eurocontrol routings with varying degrees of success.
With European IFR flight itself being a wholly point to point RNAV DCT-button-pushing exercise, a flight done fully under IFR needs a lot less traditional flight planning than under VFR which requires current VFR charts. However, IFR flights which involve VFR sections, and this includes Z and Y flight plans, or departures at airports with nobody in the tower capable of getting you an IFR clearance, still do require VFR charts and an awareness of controlled airspace, etc. I don't carry paper VFR charts (apart from the UK one) but have "real printed" VFR charts running on a tablet computer under Oziexplorer - see notes further below.
The route illustrations in this article are screenshots from Jeppesen FliteStar. Note that the terrain profiles shown at the bottom are illustrative only and are not usable for safety altitude planning; in fact the Jeppesen data contains systematic errors. The vertical profile of an IFR flight is at a minimum level which is decided by what is acceptable to the Eurocontrol computer. The minimum levels which can be filed and flown tend to be around FL070 but acceptable routings usually need higher levels. Sensible routings start to appear around FL100 and the best ones (below FL200) are obtained at FL120 plus.
Oxygen is therefore highly desirable for European IFR and that is assuming the weather is perfect! In reality, for me, for any significant flight, no oxygen = no fly. Over the years I have got through various equipment and the best is what I use now: all from Mountain High in the USA:
This equipment works really well and the cannulas are comfortable and are forgotten about almost right away.
In some airspaces, one can file IFR at lower levels without the Eurocontrol computer chucking it out, but it's likely to cause problems with ATC services if e.g. the flight is outside controlled airspace. Some notes are here.
Equipment and Communications
I always fly with a liferaft, an emergency bag containing a 406MHz EPIRB, a handheld radio and a lot of other stuff, a second 406MHz+GPS EPIRB, and together with the large 48 cu. ft. carbon/kevlar oxygen cylinder these take up the RH back seat. on long trips I carry a spare identical oxygen cylinder (and a spare 1st stage regulator) in case the main cylinder leaked out through a faulty valve, or because I forgot to shut off the gas after landing. With the O2D2 electronic regulator the leakage (in the absence of breathing via the cannula) is very low but if any constant flow cannula is connected the gas will be all gone by the next day... There is also a large toolbox with enough tools to do the 50-hr service plus potential emergency jobs like changing the vacuum pump. I carry a spare vacuum pump too, with the vacuum line filters which must be changed if the pump fails. On longer trips I also carry a refill for the 2-litre TKS propeller de-ice system, and several 1-litre bottles of isopropyl alcohol (IPA) for use as fuel anti-icing additive (there is no known case of a TB20 suffering fuel icing but this is a very cheap precaution, although on this summer trip the temperatures were so high - lowest seen was -4C at FL170), and four 1qt bottles of engine oil. Plus a lightweight reflective aircraft cover (from Bruce's Custom Covers) which keeps the cockpit cool when parked in hot climates and is a huge help in keeping the interior in good condition.This leaves the LH back seat free and Justine sometimes likes to sit there; that seat is a lot thicker and softer than the front ones. In that case I run down the LH fuel tank substantially, to keep the aircraft balanced.
It is of course possible to pre-plan everything back home and even file all flight plans in advance (maximum for Eurocontrol is 5 days). I usually do that on overnight trips and then I travel with just an Ipad and a phone. This enables me to delay a flight plan (by phoning the departure airport, or by using the EuroFPL SMS facility) or even file a new one, and get the weather and notams. However, on any longer trip, the chance of needing to replan in detail, using flight planning software, is high and then I carry a lightweight laptop - a Thinkpad X230-I7 which is amazingly fast and has a battery life of about 7 hours. This does everything needed for VFR and IFR route planning, weather, notams, flight plans, and communication via fax and email. The laptop has several different ways to get internet access; in descending order of preference: normal WIFI, a WIFI connection to my Nokia 808 phone running JoikuSpot, a bluetooth connection to the 808 phone, a WIFI connection to an E585 GPRS/3G-WIFI modem which is normally used with a locally purchased SIM on longer stays in one place, a built-in GPRS/3G radio (with a UK Vodafone SIM). Fax remains very handy for some airport communications, where a phone call is difficult due to language issues, and published email addresses often don't work, and is done via email2fax and fax2email accounts; these are not free but are very cheap.
Mobile Data / Roaming
Free unsecured WIFI is very unusual in Europe nowadays. WIFI is also rarely available outside hotels and cafes and in nearly all cases it is secured with a password issued to customers only. This means that mobile data - GPRS/3G - is often the best way.
The cost of roaming data has recently been much reduced by "EU data bundles". I am with Vodafone who are normally anything but good value but they offer a deal whereby for £3/day you transfer your UK allowances (500MB of data in my case, on a £10/month contract) to anywhere in Europe. Most unusually this includes non-EU countries such as Switzerland and Croatia (in any case Croatia joined the EU in July 2013) but the daily rate can vary on some of them.
Otherwise, a very cost effective way of getting cheap and virtually unlimited internet data is to purchase a local data SIM card and put it into a 3G-WIFI modem such as the E585 mentioned above, or into a spare phone which can act as a WIFI access point. I have been doing this for years in Greece and Croatia.
In Croatia, this used to involve a horrible setup process described here but on this trip I found my Croatian T-Mobile SIM card was dead and when I went to buy a new one I found the whole process had changed. T-Mobile have now completely washed their hands of any customer communication (other than robotic email replies) and instead you give a phone shop about €10 to configure the SIM card for you - which is OK. Just make sure you completely test it before leaving the shop because the entire process is in Croat
Supplementing Panel Mounted Avionics / Getting Weather
One needs a backup for a total electrical failure, and it is useful to have mapdata which is not available on any panel mounted GPS. On all long flights I run European VFR charts as a GPS moving map under Oziexplorer, mainly for emergency use but also for identifying interesting places on the ground. For years I used to run Oziexplorer on an LS800 tablet but in 2013 I moved to a Lenovo Tablet 2 (T2)
The T2 does not have the "military grade" antireflective LCD of the LS800 but is good enough (with the matt screen protector; the Ipad has the same issue) and is about half the weight and half the thickness of the LS800, draws far less power so doesn't suffer from overheating in sunlight, and at about €500 was 1/4 of the original 2005 cost of the LS800. It is also compatible with my bluetooth GPS which is semi-permanently installed in the aircraft. Like all tablets the T2 is a competent PDF display device although not as slick as an Ipad running Goodreader. It runs Windows 8 which is a clumsy operating system but it works, and being "Windows" one can run just about all the "serious" apps and they work as expected, and the whole functionality is much richer than one gets on an Ipad. The T2's major drawback is the lack of a screen lock and it suffers from the occasional accidental touch. It really need a "kill touch screen" utility which blocks finger touches but still allows pen touches. There is such a utility for Windows 7 but it doesn't work on the T2... The touch screen can be disabled via Control Panel but then you have to use the special pen the whole time...
Oziexplorer does also run on an Android tablet and there is now a good number of those around but I also need dial-up networking (DUN) to access the internet via my Thuraya 7100 satellite phone, for getting TAFs, METARs and other stuff. DUN is not possible under Android or IOS (Ipad) and the solution for those involves using a modern satellite phone with a WIFI access point adapter.
The new Thuraya Satsleeve is a particularly interesting product. It is a satellite phone without a display or a keypad. You slide an Iphone5 into it and it connects to it via bluetooth
With an ex-Ebay Iphone5, about £300, this finally drags satellite phones out of the Starsky & Hutch era and delivers a very slick standalone satellite phone which is obviously good enough by itself for aviation weather purposes. It also provides a WIFI access point which is compatible with normal WIFI devices such as Ipads. There is also now a Satsleeve for Android, for the huge Samsung Galaxy S4 phone, which would make an even better dedicated weather-getting gadget and that is probably what I will eventually get.
One can supposedly get destination weather from ATC but many ATCOs are too busy, many in southern Europe cannot speak English well, and some evidently don't like doing it anyway. It also appears unprofessional when the vast majority of the players in the IFR airspace (airlines) get weather via their own comms systems (ACARS). I did some tests on using satelline phones for aviation weather here but the Satsleeve transforms the whole usability picture of the otherwise amazingly backward satellite phone business.
Some pilots have gone "paperless" in the cockpit and use e.g. an Ipad as the display device for both enroute charts and approach plates. This involves paying serious money for charting / moving map products such as JeppFD who charge some €2000/year for European coverage. Also, I have worked in electronics and IT for many years and I know that this is going to bite you one day - unless you have backups and then you end up with yet more gear, with the associated chargers, etc. This is why I try to fly with "paper" - it is 100% sunlight readable and no backups are needed.
It always pays to do as much as possible back home, before departure, where internet is free, printing is cheap and quick, and one would not depart in any case if the weather is not suitable. For this trip, all routes were preplanned and the ones actually intended to be flown, and all main and alternate approach plates, were printed on a duplex colour inkjet printer. The pile of paper was about 10mm thick.
On our long foreign trips, we normally set aside three consecutive days for getting out of the UK, and usually this works. This time we got away on the first day. The 0600 1200 MSLPs were clean, as were the satellite IR sferics and TAFs/METARs. For good measure, the 1200 SigWx was also clean. The weather for the two following days 1 2 was good on the 1st one but not on the 2nd one, and one should always pick the first technically flyable opportunity.
From the MSLP, the winds aloft were expected to be very light.
WIZAD M140 DVR/N0150F110 L10 RINTI B3 CMB/N0150F140 B3 RLP G4 HOC L613 RIPUS N850 ODINA M727 SRN L615 ADOSA L612 CHI L614 PUL
FL140 Alternates: LDPL, LDSP
Distance 700nm (GC) 807nm (airways)
There are several routes which can be worked through the Eurocontrol system which are all of a similar distance. The route chosen involves a short Alps crossing with an airway MEA of FL140, so flying at e.g. FL160+ offers additional protection from turbulence, as well as better options for an engine failure
The flight plan was filed the evening before, using EuroFPL. With IFR flights - particularly ones to the east - there is a risk of a departure slot being issued by Eurocontrol. For GA flights in the FL100-190 band, these slots are apparently meaningless artefacts of their software and in any case the resulting delay tends to shrink near the time due to the slot time being modified, so one must still be ready for a departure at the originally filed time (EOBT). The paid EuroFPL subscription delivers slot notifications etc by email and SMS. On this occassion there was no slot.
The provisional clearance from Shoreham Tower was "remain OCAS, on track SFD, squawk 0576, contact London Control on 133.175".
There was some fog in the vicinity of the airport
I had filed for FL140 as usual but given the nice weather asked for a "stop climb" at FL110, which normally keeps once above the military etc areas on this route.
The conditions were hazy but smooth, though very warm (+8C at FL110) which really impacts aircraft performance. Here is the French coast, with Le Touquet visible
The performance at FL110 was TAS 149kt, +8C, 2400rpm, 10.3 USG/hr. The GS was 147kt initially, so there was almost no wind.
Early on in the flight the fuel totaliser system showed a Landing Fuel on Board (LFOB) value of 28 USG which is ample
Northern France offers relatively little interesting scenery from high up, but there are nice bits
This rather mysterious and obviously military or ex military airport (Chaumont-Semoutiers, LFJA) is always seen along this airway route (click for the original 10MB image)
The Wiki article suggests it is in use but not open to GA.
I continually ask for shortcuts but France would not allow any significant deviations from the filed route, with active military airspace given as the reason.
The lack of wind is evident in this pic, showing the near-vertical smoke column, with the Alps visible on the horizon
Just before the Alps, the LFOB remained at 28 USG
The Alps crossing is always scenic and for me is a big part of what makes flying so worthwhile
We climbed to FL170, hopefully to be above any turbulence, and to get better engine failure options. In reality, most of the Alps consists of flat bottomed canyons which one can glide to if flying high enough - so long as the conditions below are VMC.
Over the Alps, the wind was generally under 5kt. A very rough rule is that for every 10kt of wind flowing across mountain ridges, one should be at least 1000ft above the terrain in order to limit the up/downdraughts to 500fpm. In this case, we were about 6000ft above most of the terrain, and there was no turbulence.
A spectacular formation at the bottom of this pic
At FL170, the TAS was 138kt - 15", 2575rpm, 9.0 USG/hr, -4C. We got a 110nm shortcut to ODINA.
This is Meiringen LSMM - a military airfield
GA flying brings much healthier in-flight catering than you get with an airline
The crossing on that particular route is short. As the Alps start to open up, here is Locarno, still from FL170
We checked the destination weather over the satellite phone. Here is a very dirty pic of the T2 tablet screen
One could not hope for anything better!
We passed the little village and grass strip called Unije
In past times the strip appeared disused but there does seem to be some activity nowadays.
It is hard to imagine the former Yugoslavia having the hard northern European version of communism when people could live in places like this
Left base for Mali Losinj
This is the track actually flown, from the Eurocontrol tracking data accessible via EuroFPL
On the ground, refuelled, packed up and ready to go... zero hassle.
We landed with 29.5 USG in the tanks and the bowser refill showed an error of 1.57% relative to our fuel totaliser, with the error on the safe side. It is good to see an accurate bowser meter; they are not that common in southern Europe
The airport operates a taxi service in a King Air, to various places including Zagreb. The hangar was built for the King Air
It's not cheap however:
Mali Losinj gets quite busy at times. It is easy for pilots from Austria and southern Germany to pop down there for lunch
In line with all our previous experiences in Slovenia and Croatia, Mali Losinj Airport is a model of efficiency, with friendly and helpful staff and no hassle. A single policeman makes it an "international airport" with a Customs presence. There is no sign of the UK yellow jacket brigade.
Avgas was 17.33 HRK per litre, including duty and 25% VAT, which is currently about €2.25. That is a 27% increase since 1 year ago.
I don't have the airport costs to hand but on an earlier trip in 2013 there was a landing+handling charge of 200 HRK (€26) and a parking charge of 75 HRK (€9.80) for 1 night. I don't know the parking charge for subsequent nights, if different.
We head for the El Paso bar which is about half a minute's walk
The harbour is a good first stop
A good hotel - Apoksiomen - is behind the large boat in the right of the above pic, but since we were staying for a few days we found some self catering accommodation, a few mins' walk up the hill, at less than half the price of any hotel.
About 15 mins' walk up the road is a lovely herb garden, where they also sell stuff like lavender and tea tree oil
There are endless scenic views from a path along the coast
which ends at a little town called Veli Losinj
There is a scenic bus ride to Cres in the north of the island
Food options are excellent and the fish are nowhere near as pricey as they are in Greece which (in the Aegean) appears to have problems with over-fishing
It is much easier for travellers to find healthy light food in south eastern Europe than in northern Europe where anyone travelling ends up eating a rubbish diet unless he/she goes to a lot of effort to do shopping and self-catering. And even then most of the food is not fresh but is frozen.
We tried to swim in the sea but the water was too cold - even in September. I guess that the sea never gets very warm this far north in the Adriatic. At Brac, near Split, it was much warmer during our past visits there.
One thing which I find curious and which is seen a lot around the Croatian islands are impressive-size derelict houses. Abandoned properties are a common feature around southern Europe and more so in Greece, but the main reasons seem to vary. In Greece they tend to be abandoned because the family which owned it for generations has dispersed around the world and nobody can agree on what to do with it - especially in the present depressed economic times. In Croatia, most of these were apparently originally owned by wealthy Serbs whose application for compensation (following the breakup of Yugoslavia some 20 years ago) was unsuccessful, often due to difficulties in proving the ownership, or a lack of building permission
As with all of former Yugoslavia there are many mysterious reminders of the past. This tunnel was a part of a network bored into the side of the hill, and coming out in the harbour
We met up with two groups of pilots: one comprising of several pilots who flew down from Scotland also in a TB20 (all VFR!) and a Croatian pilot and his wife who flew over from Zagreb, also in a TB20
Looking at the weather picture it was becoming apparent that returning to the UK would be problematic. Some return routes were examined e.g. via Dortmund (Germany) or Bordeaux (France) but in the end we decided to extend the stay by flying over to Pula, which is a very short flight.
Losinj has a problem in that the lack of convenient commercial flights (from Pula, accessible on a ferry) makes is logistically complicated to abandon an aircraft there. There was only Ryanair which was not only very expensive but also flies to Stansted ("London Stansted" - what a joke) which is a long trip for us to get back home. And then I would need to do the same in reverse... It would be better to fly down to Brac or Split and get Easyjet back to Gatwick from Split and in fact I did that in 2009.
1. Visit the Aromatic Garden (on the road out of Mali Losinj) which nurtures medicinal herbs from the island. If you have time take a tour with one of their guides, if not just buy some of the lovely essential oils.
2. Take a walk. Losinj is criss-crossed by footpaths and you can do something different every day. The path from Mali Losinj to Veli Losinj is well paved and suitable for all levels of fitness (even wheelchairs). You can do it in about an hour each way, making this a good stroll for lunch or dinner (take a torch).
3. Treat yourself to at least one meal at the restaurant - don't recall the name - which is just a few doors down from the fish market. They’ll tell you what the prize catches are, but be sure to leave room for a slice of their secret recipe orange-chocolate cake.
4. Take the bus to the northern end of the island. Jump off at Osor to check out the sculpture gardens, museums and architecture, or continue all the way to Cres for a lazy lunch at a waterfront café.
5. Pray it doesn’t rain. This is not the place to be in bad weather. Bring a Scrabble set if it looks dodgy.
There was no significant weather (MSLP) for the short flight.
On the way out there was an interesting SMA diesel powered Cessna
In Croatia, passports are always checked, though this may gradually change as EU membership sinks in. Nevertheless, it took only minutes to get airside, and off we went - for a short and simple low level VFR flight
We flew over Unije again and this time there was some activity
I asked Pula ATC for permission to orbit around the amphitheatre
while a Ryanair was getting ready to depart out over the sea
There was a lot of GA activity at Pula, including a TB21 with full TKS which we parked next to
We stayed at the Amphitheater Hotel which was about 100m from the amphitheatre itself
There is a lot to do in the city, including seeing some fortresses at the end of a rather erratic-timetable bus ride, one of which has an aquarium inside
The weather eventually started to look possibly flyable back to the UK.
The 0600 and 1200 MSLPs didn't look good so it was time to look at the satellite IR on the morning of the planned flight, which looked OK as far as cloud tops went. The sferics image was clean. The 0600 SigWx was ambiguous as ever. The TAFs/METARs were OK too, with not great weather at the UK end but well above minima. The GRAMET forecast also suggested the tops would not be too high but this site is not to be fully trusted.
The route was almost the opposite of the outbound route:
PUL P11 ROTAR L615 DESIP N851 ELMUR L613 HOC G4 RLP B3 BILGO H20 XORBI H40 ABB N20 KUNAV Y8 WAFFU
FL160 Alternates: EGMD, EGHH
672 nm (GC), 766nm (airways)
The forecast winds 0600 0900 looked like there might be about 30kt of headwind, which would have been fine given the 1300nm aircraft range, so we went ahead.
It was a fine morning
There was some weather to the east
but we were going in the other direction, soon climbing above the scattered tops
Departure from Croatia's airspace was completely uneventful and Italian ATC gave us a DCT to SRN (120nm). The route took us directly over Venice
St Mark's Square - a rather poor photo from FL160 which took some work to de-haze and de-jpeg
Unfortunately the headwind was clearly well above the forecast and approaching the Alps at just 95kt GS the fuel totaliser generated LFOB was indicating just 7 USG
This was not a concern at this early stage of the flight, and anyway we were getting a low airspeed due to the downdraught caused by the north-westerly airflow coming down the Alps.
Soon after the handover to Swiss ATC, we were ordered (at CANNE, FL170) to "immediately descend" due to an A320 4nm away. I declined "due weather" as we were only slightly above the cloud tops. It was an outrageous request to order a light aircraft, right on the limit of its climb performance, to make room for a jet which can climb at around +2000fpm at that altitude. They somehow sorted it and I never saw anything on TCAS (which has a ~ 15nm range) so the jet was never anywhere near the 4nm claimed.
We had to do a lot of weather avoidance and did only just manage to remain above the tops later, though not above another layer whose base was around FL200, eventually climbing to FL190
Eventually we made it on top and remained there for the rest of the flight
Unfortunately the wind continued to be nothing like the forecast and with a GS of 70kt at times (TAS 135kt i.e. a 65kt headwind component) it was obvious, by the time we were over France, that a stop for fuel would be necessary.
I am not familiar with airports in that part of France, and asked ATC if there are any on route which have avgas. They were unable to assist - they appeared to suggest they did not understand the request but maybe they just didn't want to spend any time on it. I did have various means of looking up airport data but there were two issues: there really isn't much in that part of France that is non-military and has an instrument approach, and the weather below us was substantially convective with icing to be expected in the descent. Justine was becoming scared of descending into it (she doesn't like turbulence, especially in IMC). With surface temperatures of around +10C or higher, the reality was not hazardous because any ice picked up would be long gone, but it's hard to convince a passenger of that...
So I decided early on to divert to Lille LFQQ which is a known quantity and was not far off the route. However, as we approached, a couple of things happened: the convective weather in the direction of Lille was pretty substantial
(resulting in a distinct lack of passenger reassurance) and the headwind largely dropped off so the LFOB climbed up to a value which made Le Touquet a much better option, with an LFOB of almost 20 USG and good weather. In fact we could have made Shoreham with legal reserves, but landing with the required 45 mins' reserve is cutting it awfully tight in case one other thing goes wrong.
The arrival to Le Touquet was via the ILS and a circle to land and was uneventful. On that particular weekday there was no ATC so the approach was non-radio after Lille Radar. The ground staff at the airport office closed the flight plan for us - as is necessary in France at untowered airports.
We landed at Le Touquet with 17.5 USG, filled up and were back in the air within an hour, on a VFR flight filed as DCT ALESO DCT, and home 40 minutes later. The weather for the short flight was clear IR with 32012KT 9999 FEW028 at Shoreham.
The EuroFPL/Eurocontrol tracking facility broke partway through the flight to Le Touquet, ending with a flight time of 15hrs!
General Notes, and Lessons Learnt
Cloud Tops: this trip has again proven the use of IR satellite imagery as a 100% reliable go/no-go decider. One could achieve safe IFR flight using just this data, with TAFs and METARs for the terminal areas to check against departure and approach minima in the usual way. MSLP charts still play a part in more general forward planning because they can be obtained 5 days ahead and show obvious suspect weather. Normally I use this UKMO site for cloud tops, and it is updated every hour, but recently I have come across this one which is also free and is updated every 15 minutes.
Wind forecasts: They are not as reliable as one might expect! On future trips, whenever any reasonably strong winds are forecasts (say over 30kt headwind) I am going to file a different route. On the Pula-Shoreham trip, for example, a more northern route would have been much better - even though the time spent over the Alps is a lot longer.
Fuel stops: It's a good idea to plan a few airports on the later portion of a route, especially one in a westerly direction which is against the prevailing wind, in case the wind forecast is wildly out.
Flight Times (airborne):
The aircraft performed perfectly. The dual EHSI with AHRS installation worked without a hitch. Some notes on Socata TB20 ownership and operation are here. As on every IFR flight I have done, the late-1990s centre stack avionics were 100% capable of everything required. It would be such a shame to have to rip them out to comply with PRNAV (RNAV1) which is another boat which left the harbour about 15 years ago but is being kept alive for political reasons... but this is a project I am keeping an eye on. Most likely the KLN94+KMD550 would be replaced with a GTN750 which happens to be just the right size. Unfortunately that will lose the separate "MFD" functionality of the KMD550, and preclude displaying e.g. satphone weather data which is possible on the KMD550 via its NTSC video input.
The TB20 is ideal for this type of mission, though a turbocharged engine would be nice for the high altitude (FL160+) portions. Even though I keep half an eye out for a nice TB21GT (the turbo version) I have not taken it further because a) along with most of the turbo scene, none of the engines seem to reach TBO without at least some cylinder work; b) the ~50kg payload loss is significant when our 2-up holiday flights are already at MTOW with full tanks; c) to make real sense one needs the full TKS system and then the payload loss is ~100kg; d) for reasons which are not entirely clear the fuel burn per mile of the TB21 is about 10% greater despite the higher potential TAS gain.
All flights on this trip could have been done under VFR (except the Pula-Le Touquet leg on the day) albeit with the usual airspace access issues meaning the routes and altitudes would have been very different.
Therefore, paradoxically, the capability to do IFR legally and overtly gives one access to doing the flight in VMC, which is what VFR is supposed to be about
The airborne photos were taken with a Pentax K5 DSLR and the ground photos were taken with a Nokia 808 phone. The pics within the writeup were cropped. The airborne ones were also de-hazed using a simple method in photoshop. The pics in the gallery are mostly original.
This page last edited 3rd February 2014
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