This was a trip which lay at the very foundations of the Whitehill Farm Aero Club (WFAeC). I had been having an internet conversation with Gordon Faulkner, who was at the time the UK importer of the Aeroprakt A22 Foxbat and also the CFI of the microlight club at Otherton. Gordon won’t mind my saying that he had well known eccentric tendencies, so when he said that he was putting together a group of microlights to fly to Poland, and Krakow in particular, I had mixed feelings. And, to be fair, he probably also had mixed feelings about asking me.
I need to say straightaway that my concerns were not well founded. As the planning for the trip unfolded it was clear that Gordon had done a huge amount of preparation and planning. I don’t think that he had himself undertaken such a trip before but he had obviously thought long and hard about what beginners might need in order to have enough confidence to sign up. This included prepacked folders of charts and airfield plates, plus relevant extracts from the regulations of the countries through which we would pass. It even included hotel reservations at our final destination, Krakow. Gordon had been in touch with an Aeroprakt contact of his at the Krakow Aero Klub and had fixed up for them to host us for the weekend in Krakow, which lay nearly three days flying from the UK.
In this article I’m going to tell you about that outward trip, one of my earliest and still one of the longest. I had been flying fixed wing for about 18 months at the time – and had about 300 hours on fixed. Having done the usual things of going to Spamfield, enjoying the “£50 burger” at various UK fields and a couple of short trips to Northern France I was ready for something different. So without much hesitation I signed up for the trip in my first Skyranger G-SKRG and sent the modest amount needed to get the bundle of papers which Gordon had put together.
There turned out to be a group of six fixed wings consisting of two Skyrangers, two Foxbats and two Icarus C42’s, and a further group of four flexwings from North Yorkshire (Baxby) led by the redoubtable Les “See You Up There” Cottle. The trip was really managed as two separate but connected groups, mainly due to the different cruise speeds, but we all managed to meet up at Krakow for the planned weekend there.
The first part of the plan was to meet up at Headcorn, do the flight plan stuff there and then shove off over the Channel in the general direction of Belgium.
So it was that on 7 June 2005, after sleeping (after a fashion) in my hangar, I took off at about 0730 for Headcorn. Here I met the rest of the Group, who had overnighted there, and we left at 0930 for one of the longest flights of my whole career, 3 hours 40 to Aachen which is now a German town but has been in France in the past. This journey took us over the Channel from Dover to Cap Gris Nez, reinforcing my strongly held view that there is no sense in a sea crossing which is longer than it needs to be, then routing north east into Belgium. If you fly in Belgium these days, even without landing there, you need special permission and a permit which costs around €80 for a year. I don’t know whether such a permit was needed when we made this trip, but it was never mentioned and I certainly didn’t have one myself. These days it would be a good idea to have one, if only to have good paperwork in the event of an unexpected landing and a possible conversation with your insurance company.
The 500,000 Jeppesen chart suggested that Belgium had lots of open countryside but my distinct recollection was flying over an endless vista of back gardens and built up areas, with a couple of doglegs to avoid controlled airspace in the Brussels area. No one on this trip had a transponder, by the way, and this was only a minor issue later on as I shall explain.
It seemed - and was - a very long way to Aachen Merzbruch EDKA , our first overnight stop but we arrived there at 1410 local time and secured the aircraft. Aachen is one of those places where the town and airfield of the same name are some distance apart. We had no lodgings booked at Aachen but the people at the airfield, as is often the case, helpfully made some telephone calls and a taxi ride later we were checking into the Central Hotel, a place I would describe as “adequate” – but certainly a lot better than camping. On that subject, as far as I know no one in the fixed wing group had packed any camping gear on this trip – there’s certainly a lot more space in the aircraft when camping is ruled out.
We had a good night in Aachen, with a restaurant full of stags’ heads and dark wood, serving large portions of red meat and quite a lot of beer that night, to celebrate our arrival on foreign shores. It struck me then, as it often does now, that the common love of flying microlights brings - in a most agreeable way - people together who didn’t know each other previously.
The following day we took off from Aachen – no early start today, the log shows 1100 - bound eastwards for Marburg Schoenstadt EDFN, which is a popular gliding airfield about two hours away. For this part of the flight my mother’s remarks about bears and wolves came to mind – huge dark forests below. I had an approach photograph of Marburg airfield which was obviously taken on a gloomy day, and I had a pleasant surprise when it turned out to be much more agreeable than expected. We refueled there but there was nothing much to eat so a decision was taken to get going on the next leg. This would take us over the old frontier between West and East Germany – not much sign of this after unification, the barbed wire and watch towers have gone – and we would make for Bohlen EDOE where there was said to be a flourishing microlighting activity. This route, north of Erfurt, went through an area marked with a very faint dotted line on the chart as a Transponder Mandatory Zone. No one knew exactly what this meant at the time, of course we now have them in the UK and the Germans obviously had them before us. Some pilots at Marburg gave us the impression that they were still “voluntary” – we had no transponders, so we paid some lip service by making a partial diversion and just clipped the corners. Not to be recommended these days.
Approaching Bohlen, a lunar landscape was spread out before us. The area around Bohlen, which is south of Leipzig, turned out to be one vast open cast mine, quite common in old East Germany, accompanied by huge and belching chimneys, but the airfield itself was deserted. My log shows an arrival at 1510 and a departure at 1520. However, whilst on the ground there we noticed a small town called Colditz only about five miles off the track of our next leg. The famous castle at Colditz was visible from some distance as we approached the town and we all took some superb photographs of this iconic place, in my case at 500 feet AGL with the door open. If we hadn’t stopped at Bohlen we would have missed Colditz altogether. Just an aside here – that’s two stops without real food, so I would always recommend carrying a bag of eatables – in my case bagels, brunch bars, dried dates and apricots, plus of course several bottles of water which could be useful in any unexpected outlanding.
Back to the journey, the leg from Bohlen to Gorlitz EDBX turned out to be 2 hours 40, and we arrived just as a large rain storm was passing through. Gorlitz is literally the last town before Poland, and the river running through the town is the actual border. Some of the town is therefore Polish and we visited the Polish part by strolling down to the river, showing passports and walking over to the other side. I have flown into Gorlitz more recently and now that Poland is part of the EU there is no longer a guardhouse on that bridge. Pity, as it was quite atmospheric.
The next day dawned bright and clear and we filed flight plans at Gorlitz for the journey over the border into Poland. This was a short sector of only 40 miles or so, but passed over some rugged countryside. Leaving Gorlitz at 1100 local, the town of Jelenia Gora came into view about 45 minutes later. The airfield there is very close to the town and has a large factory at one end of the runway. It is also a gliding field. This may have accounted for the guy in tower shouting “get down, get down” in an agitated voice to each of our arrivals, even though our final approaches looked utterly correct. I learned afterwards that gliders had in the past overshot and ended up in the factory – not this time though.
This was my first acquaintance, as a private pilot, with a proper foreign –ie non EU – destination. We had needed to get prior clearance to enter the country via Jelenia Gora as it isn’t an official port of entry so it wasn’t a surprise to see some Polish police on arrival who asked to “see our papers”. This went very well until one of our number tried to hug a couple of officers as a photo-opportunity! My log shows that we were on the ground at JG for three hours, but this included a break for lunch and the opportunity to look at some antiquated flying machines on the apron, such as a couple of Antonov AN2’s, and a redundant jet fighter from the soviet era.
Leaving JG, four of the fixed wing group had decided to call into Opole, a small airfield about halfway on the journey to Krakow, but off track by 20 miles or so. I didn’t do this, preferring to head straight for our destination. The group was therefore split. This led to several of the aircraft having to be left overnight at Opole due to bad weather, the pilots took other transport to Krakow and ferried the aircraft the following day. Two of us, both in Skyrangers, had elected to go direct to Krakow but we were probably 20 miles or so apart for most of the three hour journey.
This part of the Polish countryside seemed generally devoid of friendly landing areas, there are hardly any airfields and the land is farmed in quite small fields, most of which seemed to be growing potatoes. This is therefore not promising from the viewpoint of outlanding, although I learned later that our flexwing colleagues did have to make such a landing when they were caught in heavy rain in this sector. That was apparently a story of sheltering for an hour under their wings before being taken by a peasant farmer to his lodgings, to await the arrival of the regular Polish police. But it was apparently all quite good humoured.
My three hour journey to Krakow was undertaken in a state of some tension, the unfamiliar terrain, the lack of obvious landing sites and a background of clearly deteriorating weather. I was in touch by radio with the rest of the group and warned them of the frontal weather, which was starting to affect my own flight. About thirty miles from the destination airfield of Pobiednik Wielki (PW), which is east of Krakow, I had descended to about 800 feet AGL and the outlook was bleak. If there had been a nearby airfield I would have certainly landed there, but as there wasn’t I had little choice but to continue. Suddenly I found myself in a sunny patch, a few miles due south of the city and was able to report “Romeo Golf visual with Krakow” - said as casually as I could muster in the circumstances. It was then a straightforward fifteen minutes or so round to the east of Krakow, over the hideous steel making complex of Nowa Huta (a new city built on Soviet proletarian lines which looks like something out of a science fiction movie), then crossing the broad sweep of the mighty River Wistula and finally descending for the welcoming grass runway of Pobiednik Wielki.
There was a traditional Polish welcome there, involving some fierce wodka, and many slaps on the back.
A couple of hours later I was in the bar at the Hotel Saski in central Krakow.