Strategies for crossing the Channel
Even for our most experienced travellers, the Channel looks a formidable stretch of water. Most of our members prefer to minimize the risks of getting wet by choosing to cross the channel at its narrowest point, from Dover to Cap Gris Nez. This is only just over 20 miles and if crossed at reasonable altitude the risk of ditching is very small.
1. Weather: The weather in mid channel and on the French side can be quite different to the conditions experienced as you near Dover. It is a good idea to get a weather briefing for the whole journey across to the other side and beyond. We have crossed at 5000 feet in perfect viz only to find a cloud base of less than 500 feet on the other side, that area also being prone to attacks of sea fog. A good idea is to phone the tower in Le Touquet before leaving Headcorn or, if in any doubt about conditions in mid-channel or on the other side, to think very seriously about whether to carry on.
2. Altitude: Connected with weather of course. There is a maximum altitude of FL065 for the sector from the UK to the mid-channel international boundary. If you can secure this height, or somewhere near it, then the prospects of having to ditch are very small, subject to 3 below.
3. Knowing the points of no-return and safe glide: This will be determined by the strength and direction of the wind, your glide rate at optimum speed and the altitude you are flying at when the engine stops.WFAeC has produced a program called WindTrig which enables these decision points to be assessed. The program is currently hosted HERE and runs in Microsoft XL. It is provided on a no liability basis.
4. Radio contact: Maintaining a radio dialogue with an ATC unit is a good safety recommendation. On the UK side of the FIR international boundary the usual choice will be London Information or Headcorn Radio, an A/G service only, are happy for you to stay on their frequency until mid channel is reached. On the French side of the FIR boundary, French regulations officially require you to make first contact with Lille Information, but some UK pilots prefer to speak to Calais Tower or to Le Touquet Tower. We do not quote the current frequencies here as they change from time to time and are best checked in the Airfield plates section.
5. Flying in a group: This is often the preferred choice with visual and radio contact contact being maintained. There is no approved air band frequency for air to air but microllight pilots often use 129.825 for this purpose despite the lack of approval. If contact with a group is lost it is best to revert to an agreed Plan B and speak to one of the ATC units.
6. Safety Equipment: The minimum requirement is a good aviation quality life jacket, not self inflating, but with an operable gas canister. It should have a crotch strap fitted so that it can't come off over the wearer's head, and also be sent back regularly for inspection and service. Second, a modern portable distress beacon such as a McMurdo.
Rather more optional is a dry suit, a spray hood, neoprene gloves, buoyancy in the aircraft in the form of li-lo airbeds or solid foam. Installing buoyancy in the aircraft should always be undertaken in consultation with your inspector so that weight and balance and possible interference with control systems can be considered. Some microlight pilots also carry distress flares, sea dye and a life raft, although space and weight could be an issue for the latter.
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