North West France 2008
The North West France trip was to be our first foreign trip and our first with the WFAeC. Anita had some experience of flying in France as she had some training with Phil Lee at La Baule during her flex wing training. Our longest trip in G-WYLE had been to Spamfield, which was our introduction to flying over water, so it was with great trepidation that we examined the charts and proposed route. On day one we left Priory Farm in Norfolk to fly down to Headcorn for their opening at 0900. Bob Sage, the owner of the strip had cleared us for the early take off and was there to wave us off.
Anita flew the first leg and it was one of the smoothest we had experienced for some time. As we got closer to Headcorn the chat on the microlight frequency increased as other intrepid aviators approached. Landing at 0900 we taxied in and met up with other expedition members for the first time. As novices in the cross channel game Ric literally took us under his wing and at 1000 we followed him into the air and set off for Dover. This leg was to have 3 new experiences for us, the highest we had ever flown at 6000’, first time flying in formation and our first channel crossing. Once clear of the coast the visibility was excellent and we could see France in the distance. Our nice new dry suits gave us a nice warm feeling, literally, and as we had been briefed we knew when we were half way over the channel as the ships were going the other way.
Coasting in was a relief but with the good weather the crossing had not been as tense as expected. The flight down to Abbeville gradually went by and then we were trying to sound proficient in franglais in the circuit. Unfortunately our attempts were rather spoilt when a French pilot in the circuit asked Rick if he spoke English. Once on the ground and out of the dry suits we felt that we had really achieved a lot. Into the restaurant for lunch and watch the other expedition members arrive. Unfortunately as all are aware Mike's arrival in the CT did not go according to plan. Once he was safely off the runway we sat down and enjoyed our lunch. A quick change of seat position and off to Bernay for the night stop. The flying was a little turbulent and on arrival at Bernay there was a strong crosswind. The 3 axis group all arrived happily and information was passed back to the flex wingers. We set off into town to the hotel and only learned later that a flex wing had lost its nose wheel on landing at Bernay and rolled. As an ex bomber navigator I did not really expect these Bomber Command loss rates but luckily there were no more loses on the trip. Day 2 saw us set out for Le Mans to refuel. The weather was again kind and we all made it to what was a superb airfield. Flying in over the 24 hour racetrack and then hearing the practicing cars when we shut down was an experience. The airfield was almost deserted but the facilities were superb. Another example of how the French seem to encourage aviation. It was possible to imagine what it would be like on the 24 Hour race weekend.
The plan was then to fly to a ULM site near La Rochelle and group up into 2 flights to fly into La Rochelle. As the CT had been one of the 2 transponder equipped aircraft a rethink would be required. The original choice of ULM site had to be changes as it had a strong crosswind and the surface looked rather rough. The second choice was into wind so Le Thou it was. As we taxied in we saw a figure running up the strip and thought we were in trouble. It was the strip owner who rather than being angry over a swarm of British microlights landing on his strip was delighted. At this stage the Skyranger contingent decided to fly into La Rochelle sans transponder. The rest of us decided to leave the aircraft on the strip and get a taxi to the hotel in La Rochelle. The strip owner insisted that we picket the aircraft in front of his house as there was a footpath down the side of the strip and the aircraft would be safer where he could keep an eye on them. It turned out that he learned to fly in the 1950’s in a Tiger Moth and now flies a modified microlight which he uses for aerial photography, he produced a coffee table type book which he has had published. La Rochelle in the late afternoon was very crowded with tourists, us included, but very relaxed. The group met up for dinner in the evening when Ric was able to present club wings to those who had crossed the channel for the first time. The taxi service was rather poor as we had to wait for over an hour to get back to the hotel. Day 3 saw the group starting from separate bases. The Skyrangers from La Rochelle and the rest from Le Thou. This was our first time on our own. As we passed La Rochelle we flew under Adam and Amanda in their flexwing and then on to La Roche Sur Yon. Anita was particularly keen to fly in to this airfield as her maiden name was LaRoche. There were some problems over language, I was asked if I spoke French and when I replied very little I was given a high speed French reply but with the essential bits tacked on in English.
The trip on to Quiberon took us up the lovely atlantic coast past all the seaside resorts. Today Pilot features Quiberon in the December edition and refers to the aircraft carrier approach and then turbulence on the final approach. I can agree with all that. We watched the aircraft in front jump around as it hit the turbulence and then it was our turn. Once down we received the usual friendly French greeting. We decide to stay in the adjacent campsite and hired one of the permanent tents for the night, excellent value. Some of the group had decided to go to the microlight show at Blois so it was a reduced number that strolled into town for a nice and relaxed evening meal.
Day 4 started off well enough except for the fact that no breakfast was available at Quiberon. Once airborne we set off for Mont St Michel. The weather had deteriorated slightly so the visibility was not the best for photography but we got a good view of the monastery. Then on to the invasion beaches. The Mulberry harbour was still impressive and we had to smile when we heard the comment from a nameless person that the shelling had managed to miss the footpaths on the cliff tops. The military cemeteries were as sobering as ever.
The next stop was Le Havre where we managed to get fuel but nothing else. No food available. The decision was made to press on to Abbeville. There we had our first problem with French aviators. The 3 aircraft ahead of us called for runway 20 and we followed them round. It was a crosswind and just after I called final 20 I thought I heard a call for final 02. As I mentioned this to Anita, we were flaring at the time, I saw a PA 28 flaring at the other end of the runway. Luckily it was a long runway and we both got away with it. The food gremlin had followed us however and the restaurant was closed until the evening.
Some discussion took place over the weather forecast for the UK and it was decided to head for home that afternoon. The trip back was again great with good visibility all the way over the channel. This time Anita flew the channel leg so that we have both flown over the water. Headcorn was soon on the radio and one of our merry band asked if the café was still open. It was. The prospect of our first meal since the night before was looming. After landing we rushed into the café to order food to find them pulling down the shutters. We were told we could camp on the airfield and that the parachute club would provide meals. We casually took off the channel gear and wandered over to the parachute club to order food. There we were met by the most unpleasant man we had met on the whole trip. Only 4 of us wanted food but he was not interested as he had 60 competition parachutists coming in later. He could not suggest anywhere local to eat and did not sell coke in cans.
Faced with that attitude I took one of those decisions which can come back and bite you. It was 1850 and I calculated that the sun set at about 2000 which meant we could just about get back to Priory Farm before dark. We decided to go and were airborne by 1900. We normally fly at about 70 mph but that night I wound up the Rotax 912 and we set off at 100mph. As we flew further north we could see lights coming on the ground and then car lights being switched on. When the grey scales started disappearing on the GPS it was obviously getting dark. We hit the circuit at Priory and held 100mph downwind then hauled off the power and turned in. As I flared I suddenly saw flashing lights on both sides. A moments panic and then I realized it was the strobes. We taxied back in to be met by Bob Sage and 3 others who had guessed it must be us as ours was the only aircraft still not in the hangar. The Macdonald on the way home tasted better than ever before.
What had we learned ? Flying in France is a pleasure as the airfields are there to support flying. Flying with the WFAeC is an excellent way to travel abroad with minimal hassle and a good crowd of people. WYLE Coyote flies higher and faster than we usually do, although at the penalty of increased fuel consumption. Will we do it again ? You bet, Netherlands, Aachen, Germany and France are already in the diary for next year..