Thursday, 28 January 2010

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Italy to Marrakesh - Part 4 - Almost There

The next day, we really, really needed and wanted to be in Marrakesh. We file a plan to Casablanca, which (yet again) is pretty much at the limit of our fuel endurance. By missing out Tangiers, we could make do with one fuel stop. I simply didn’t believe that if we had 2 fuel stops in the Kafkaesque world that is aviation in foreign countries, we’d ever make it to Marrakesh in one day.

So off we go, down the coast, in torrential rain heading towards Gibraltar. There was no chance of heading out to sea in the rain – we could hardly see the coast, and we didn’t want to hit one of the many thunderstorms somewhere over the Med.

We talk to Gibraltar Control. It’s quite weird hearing the Queen’s English again on the radio after so long. There’s some kind of evacuation going on there, and they are not the slightest bit interested in us. We are cleared to cross their airspace and they say goodbye.

We have to fly at less than 500 feet over the sea to make any sensible progress. Black clouds, pounding rain and lousy visibility. So not much change there. The turbulence around the Rock was extreme, as you would expect in a storm at the junction of the Atlantic and the Med with a huge bit of granite towering above us on the windward side. But I’ve been in these types of conditions before, and I know just how strong the R44 is. Fulvio isn’t so sure!

As if by magic, as we strike out towards Africa, the rain stops, the sun comes out and we have a clear view of the coast on the other side.

We contact Tangiers, which is where the fun begins. First, Fulvio tries in French, but neither he nor I can grasp the accent, so we switch to English.

The lady tells us that we must land at Tangiers. It’s Fulvio’s turn to be PIC, and he’s not keen. One of Fulvio’s most endearing characteristics is that he is incapable of doing what he’s told, even by a Moroccan Air Traffic Controller. This strong-will is infuriating at times, but it is also very useful. He gets into a “you must” “no I won’t” conversation with her (in between the Ryanair transmissions) and eventually the lady reads me out the co-ordinates for the approved VFR routing.

I’ll admit to being very stressed by all this, and at one point I lost my temper, which really doesn’t happen very often. Fulvio took everything in his stride, totally unperturbed by the constant badgering from the ground control and my anger in the cabin.

I couldn’t make the GPS accept the co-ordinates, so I had to revert to plotting the co-ordinates on the map – it was SO like the stuff I have to do for the championships. I knew it would come in useful one day.......

Having plotted the course, which was designed to take us away from the many prohibited military areas, we settled down and started to take a look at the scenery. Vast rolling landscapes, with some spectacular hills, and a lot of topsoil. Everywhere people were eking out a living – almost certainly it was a hand-to mouth situation - and such a contrast from the affluent Spanish communities we’d been flying over just a few minutes before.

We have to change controllers to a chap based at Rabat. If we though the previous lady was hard work, this guy must have been her master-class instructor.

He kept demanding our estimates to the next reporting point and then would ask us again in (literally) 5 minutes. (The next reporting point was roughly 45 minutes away.)The constant demands from the ground really were a distraction to safe flying, and I would pity a low-houred VFR pilot trying to learn to fly and having to cope with this barracking.

Not content with refusing to land at just one Moroccan airfield, Fulvio also refused to land at the main airport at Casablanca. It was, yet again a “you must land here”, “no I won’t land there” conversation that I was extremely uncomfortable with. However, right was on our side – we’d filed a flight plan to the smaller airfield (which has been accepted and lodged with Air Traffic Control) and we couldn’t get any fuel at the main airport.

After at least 20 minutes of arguing with various different controllers, Fulvio switched frequencies to our intended destination. Again, the (nice) lady there said we had to go to Mohammed V. Fulvio explained that we had not enough fuel to get to Mohammed V first and then come to them to re-fuel with them.

There was a pause, and the a different lady’s voice came over the radio.

“Are you declaring a fuel emergency” she asks. “Yes” says Fulvio, “Cleared to land” says she, “Thank you” I say.

When we get on the ground, we are greeted by various policemen, the re-fueler and the lady who gave us the permission to land. All of them could not have been more polite and helpful, especially the lady, Amina Farhane. She turns out to be the Director of the airfield, and a pilot, and very much on our side. I can recommend her airfield,

We do the minimum of paperwork, re-fuel, pay in Euros, and head off to Marrakesh. Easy, and pleasant.

We now have the map marked with the VFR routes, and spend the final hour and a half heading south in reasonably good weather taking pictures of the shepherds tending their flocks. The prospect of actually getting to our destination is rather strange, after all this time!

There’s one ridge of hills left between us and Marrakesh, and we climb to go over the top. We’ve been in touch with Marrakesh ATC for some while, as has a Ryanair pilot who is gently trying to persuade the Controller to let him come in a bit quicker. We are the only other aircraft around, and I make it quite clear that we are miles and miles away, and in any event just a few hundred feet above the ground. But the controller is having none of it and the poor chap from Ryanair has to do the whole hold and extended circuit. Then it’s our turn, and to our surprise we get cleared straight in to land. We’ve landed at the airport before the Ryanair is on the stand!

Then, the final bit of mar-mar. We cannot get permission to cross the runway to get to where the exhibition is! We have to shut down. Half an hour later and many exchanges over the radio, we get permission to start up and cross the runway. Other than the half hour passing, nothing was different, nothing had changed, but this is the way things are over here, and I’m getting used to it.

A few minutes later, our helicopter is in position by our stand.

We have arrived! It’s taken nearly 25 hours flying time from Blackpool to get here, about 10 times longer than or flight, and a lot more than 10 times more expensive!

But is has been a hell of a trip, and as usual, I’ve learnt a lot. In particular this trip has been as much about CRM (cockpit resource management) as is has been about flying in terrible weather. CRM is one of those bullshit phrases invented by business people. What is really all about is coping with each others’ egos, and making sure that the whole crew get on and make the best of their strengths and compensate, or accommodate, each others’ weaknesses. I’m quite confident that neither of us flew in conditions beyond the capability of either pilot, but I’d say it came close on one or two occasions.

So for now, we are going to concentrate on selling helicopters and making contacts here in Marrakesh. Here’s to a successful trip back!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Italy to Marrakesh - Part 3 - Save 20 minutes, lose a day

We wake up to the drizzle and low clouds that has been the main feature of the trip so far.

When I say we, I mean that I’m woken up by a call from Fulvio telling me the taxi is here to take us to the airport.

Bollocks, my sodding phone has mysteriously turned itself off during the night, hence no wake-up alarm. In 10 minutes I’m showered, dressed and downstairs. No time for breakfast (or so I thought).

Off we go to the airport, hoping that the refueller will be in for 09:00. But no, this ain’t going to happen, and although we are there well before 09:00, we are all alone.

We start talking to the local flying school instructor, a chap called Petter. Amazingly, he knows Duncan and and has looked at several of the aircraft that my business, has for sale. Even more amazingly, his colleague knows most of the people I know in the training arena – Leon Smith, Mike Green, Phil Croucher to name just a few.

They help us out a lot, with local knowledge, and rather crucially, the right maps for our next leg, since there was a bit of a cock-up on the map front.

So off we go. The previous night Fulvio and I agreed that we would take it in turn to be PIC. Not just on the factual front, but also on the psychological front. We’d had a few differences of opinions on previous flights, and I felt it best to lay some ground rules down. This leg, it was Fulvio’s turn to be boss, the next leg it was my turn, and to make it even clearer, the boss sat in the right hand seat.

As usual, it was raining but not very much so after about 20 minutes we decided to leave the coast and track inland, which was a much more direct route. OK we knew there was some high ground, but there were also some valleys to follow.

An hour and a half later, we were virtually back where we had started. We simply couldn’t get over the last ridge – the highest one. The cloud was wall to wall. We were tantalisingly close to saving the 20 minutes, but we failed.

More importantly it meant that we couldn’t make our intended re-fuel stop at Almeria, instead having to divert to Alicante. Alicante is a BIG airport which meant BIG delays, and BIG bills. They call them “Handling Fees”, but for people like us in little aircraft, the main thing that gets handled is our wallets. We had a lot of mar-mar there, and it put neither of us in a good mood.

Anyway, it’s my turn to be PIC and we reckon we can make it direct to Tangiers from Alicante with a bit of luck and a following wind. So we file a flight plan to Tangiers, pretty much at the limit of our range, but do-able. And in case we cannot, we have Malaga as a diversion airfield

Off we go, and for once, we do get a bit of luck and a following wind. About 30 knots in fact and at this rate we’ll be in Tangiers in just over 2 and a half hours.

But of course things are never that simple. As the journey progresses, the following wind fizzles out, and the rain starts again. Fulvio wants to head in a straight line across to Tangiers – which means that we’ll have about 100 miles of water to cross, rather than the 8 miles I’d prefer by crossing at the Gibraltar Straights. We compromise and I start to head across the Mediterranean, with about 50 miles of water in front of us, and by now a stiff headwind.

About 70 miles from Tangiers, and still over the middle of the sea, I start to voice my concerns about making it to Tangiers without running out of fuel. Sure, we’d make the coast of Morocco, but I didn’t think we’d make the last 30 miles cross-country. And landing at dusk in a random field in Morocco was not what I wanted to do. I got a weather report from Tangiers. Thunderstorms, embedded storm clouds, rain, 5000 meters forward visibility, with low cloud.

With a lot of fuel on board, that forecast wouldn’t actually put me off, but knowing that we had enough fuel (with a safety margin) to get to Tangiers with no aeronautical hold ups, no diversions and no nothing else to delay us, enough was enough. I turned BZMG around, and started to head back to Spain.

Fulvio doesn’t want to go to Spain, so we call up Gibraltar, and blag a permission to land there, having established that they had Avgas. About 10 minutes from landing, the air traffic controller calls up and apologises, he made a mistake – they have Avtur, but not Avgas. I should have guessed 20 minutes earlier when he said that they didn’t have 100LL, but they did have Avgas.

Bollocks. We turned away from Gibraltar and headed back to Malaga. What a wasted day, not to mention the wasted fuel and aircraft hours.

All for the sake of a 20 minute short cut in the morning. “The Coast is Your Friend” is the new mantra for the rest of the trip.

We do the usual formalities, get re-fuelled, fill in paperwork, find a hotel, get a taxi and leave the airport.

It wasn’t all bad – we treat ourselves to a session in a Spa bath which did wonders for my aching back and then it was the end of another day. We had planned to be in Tangiers tonight, Get-There-itus didn’t get-us. But only just.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Italy to Marrakesh - Part 2 - Fog

I’m with my friend, Fulvio Audisio of, and I have been for a couple of days now.

I arrived in Cuneo on Thursday, and it’s Sunday now. And, would you believe it, it has been foggy foggy foggy ever since.

We plan to leave for Marrakesh on Sunday, but I have my doubts. On Thursday I flew the helicopter to the place we had arranged to have the stickers for the show put on.

The idea was to collect it on Friday, but, there was too much fog!

But hey, this means that there is more time to eat, and the Italians do this in style. I was the guest at Fulvio’s parents-in-law and they know how to cook a meal. Course after course of fabulously fresh, home-cooked food. It makes me embarrassed to be English – they would have got an Indian take-away at my place!

Saturday dawns to, errr, fog. I make myself busy with catching up with work, (mainly for our training academy and then we drive back to the sticker place – in the fog.

We clean the helicopter and put the stickers on. This is all inside the industrial unit, and at around 13:00 I take a peep outside. Just about flyable, slowly and with care.

Gingerly, I start up – Toni the designer has blagged a ride and against my better judgement I say OK. Then his girlfriend tries to get in the back.

Remember that it’s minus 8 here, snow on the ground, fog in the sky, the rotors are now running and I’ve got this girl begging me to get in the helicopter – these Italians are crazy! I say no, conditions are too bad.

So we creep back to Fulvio’s house at about 50 miles an hour – even at this speed it’s only a 5 minute flight.

Saturday night we have a quiet evening in. Fulvio – ever the optimist – declares that it will be fine tomorrow – the fog has gone (at night it did) and never, ever is it foggy two days in a row at Cuneo.

I’m not so sure, so I start looking at the EasyJet flights to Marrakesh!

Sunday dawns. Guess what? No, it wasn’t lovely and sunny, it was....... fog. This time, thick fog, so thick you couldn’t see across the garden to the helicopter.

Bollocks. I’ve just about had enough of this – I’ve struggled all the way across England, France, the Alps, into Italy and now I can’t even think about flying to Marrakesh. All that pain, all the expense and all the stress, for what? For sitting about, waiting waiting waiting. Maybe I’ll start selling cars instead of helicopters.

I look at EasyJet flights again.

But, pilots are optimists – they have to be -- so we put the kit in the helicopter. I start it up, just to make sure that it will start after a night out in minus 18 temperatures. It does, first time. G-BZMG is a fantastic R44!

It’s now around 11:00 and I have another sleep on the sofa. I’m getting pretty good at sleeping at any opportunity, it must be an age thing.

Suddenly, there is a flurry of excitement. Fulvio has rung his parents-in-law who live just 10km away. The sun is trying to poke through the gloom.

We rush to the helicopter, and I take off into far less than ideal conditions.

Discretion being the better part of valour, I won’t say how low we were as we followed the river bed through Cuneo towards the Alps, but it was low. Then, bang on cue, we could see both the sun and the ground – at the same time! I put BZMG into a gentle climbing turn to the right, always keeping the hole in the fog in sight, and POP – there we were basking in glorious sunshine, the ground ahead clearly visible with the Alps rising magnificently in front of us just 20 miles away.

So we set track for Beziers, in France near the Spanish boarder, our next re-fuel stop.

Over the Alps, it was a bit bumpy, but nothing we couldn’t cope with. As we tracked down the coast, we had to dodge the hills and the rain and the cloud, but all went well. French Air Traffic Control were ever so helpful and the guys at Beziers were waiting for us to expedite our onward journey.

I guess we were only on the ground for 15 minutes, which is pretty much a record for a refuel in a foreign country, and for this we were very grateful. We only had enough daylight to get to our next stop if we got a move on, so there was no time to fanny around with niceties like lunch or rest. We were off like the proverbial Bat Out Of Hell.

Nearly 3 hours later we arrived at Castellon, by Valencia, just after the sun had set. We closed our flight plan, organised fuel for the morning, and imposed on the local pilots to sort us out with hotel and taxi, which they did with enthusiasm and kindness. If you are an aviator reading this, remember this, and do anything and everything to help a visiting pilot. One day this visitor will be you.

Now, we are in a hotel. We’ve had Tapas and beer, and all is calm on a Spanish Sunday night. Fulvio is fed up because he cannot find the website to watch his favourite football team , AC Milan, play a “very important match”. Personally, I’m not that bothered.

I’m more interested on reflecting on the day, and of the week. It’s been a roller-coaster ride of emotional exhaustion, anxiety, relief, elation and achievement.

And it’s not over yet - tomorrow we head off to Malaga, and then across to Morocco. Weather permitting, of course............

Italy to Marrakesh - Aero-Expo January 2010

I’m in northern Italy (again – this is the third time this January!) We are heading to Marrakesh, leaving Italy on Sunday in our R44, G-BZMG.

I had one of the most traumatic trips down to Italy – all weather related of course, and it took 4 days instead of the usual 1 or 2.

It was made a lot worse by the fact that a chap who left the same time as us from Cheltenham in a microlight en route to Australia decided to cross the channel on Monday afternoon, and didn’t make it. They found his body the next day.

It was all very poignant for me: he was the same age, shared the same name, was doing exactly what I did 10 years ago, we were flying at the time he was. The difference was that I made the decision to stay at Lydd, near Dover, rather than cross the Channel since I deemed the weather too bad to get to the other side. Clearly, and very sadly, I was correct. It’s hard to explain the pressure to go when the conditions are “not good”, but it’s very strong. By not going, I knew that we’d add at least a day to the journey time, the weather window was forecast to close on Tuesday night, and my two mates needed to be back in the UK by Thursday evening at the latest.

Anyway, it didn’t do much for our morale nor our confidence since on Tuesday the weather was only marginally better. We waited until about 13:00 and then headed out into the murk. Flying across the water at 350ft in near freezing conditions in light fog is never fun, and when the French coast appeared some 30 minutes later we were relieved, to say the least.

We headed down the coast towards Le Touquet. Along the coast we had lovely weather – sunshine, a bit of cloud here and there, but we knew it wasn’t like this for long. Having check the weather forecasts again and again before we left, I knew that there was no chance of us going the direct route, which was to the east of Paris – they’d closed the airport at Paris and that tells a tale in itself. Fog and snow.

So we headed due south and we planned to get to a place called Blois, near Tours. Having been doing this for a while, I have contacts all over the place and at Blois we could rely on my mate Patrick to help us out. Assuming we could get there, of course.

As we passed Le Touquet, I had another decision to make – do we fly above the clouds in glorious sunshine, or fly below the clouds in the drizzly gloom? I elected to go above, since there were some gaps in the clouds, so we could see the ground just in case we had to land in an emergency.

As we headed south, I made a “X” on the map each time we saw a sensible gap in the cloud, just in case we had to turn back if it became untenable to continue, or if the weather deteriorated further. But after an hour and a half of extremely stressful flying, we were within reach of Blois, and I’d had a text from Patrick telling me that he had “swept the sky at the airfield”. I found a gap in the clouds and slipped though it and continued the last few miles underneath the clag. Again, we were very pleased to have arrived at our intended destination: we’d made the correct decision – the weather below the clouds would have made the journey impassable in places.

So we went out for a lovely meal, and we all slept like babies that night.

Guess what the weather was like on Wednesday? Yep, more fog, this time with quite heavy rain. It was at this point that David and Andy had to bale out. They both had stuff to do in England, there was a TGV station at Blois, with an easy connection to the Eurostar. It was pointless for them to continue to head south in these conditions, with no certainty of getting to Cuneo at any time soon. So I said A bientot to them and waited. And waited. And waited.

By about 12:00 the fog was lifting, but I knew the weather was going the same way as me, so had I taken off, in just a few miles I’d catch the fog and rain up and be grounded again.

At 14:30 it was time to go. I said goodbye to Patrick and headed off. I had a tailwind, and was covering the ground at nearly 150 miles an hour. Fantastic!

As I got down towards Lyon, the weather was back to what, for me, had become normal. Layered cloud, light rain, terrible visibility. I had intended to land at Grenoble, but the lovely Air Traffic Controller at Lyon told me that it was snowing, with a cloudbase of 200 foot and almost zero forward visibility. There are very big mountains all around Grenoble so I diverted to another airfield, and once again, called it a day. That night I got 10 hours sleep – it’s indicative of just how hard this type of flying is. I was obviously exhausted.

Thursday, I get up to slightly better conditions, and take off at around 10:00. I’ve only got 100 miles to go, but the Alps are in the way. The Alps are perhaps the most challenging part of the trip – the weather of course being the main problem. Nicely lodged in your mind, though, is the thought that if the aircraft goes wrong, it’s a long, long way down with very little chance of you being alive, let alone rescued!

Heading directly across the Alps is impossible: I make one attempt, but have to turn back – the cloud is too thick, and there are no gaps to climb through whilst avoiding the mountains hidden within. Pilots call this type of cloud “Cumulus Granitus”, with the usual droll humour that seems to be prevalent in aviators of all generations.

So I head south, towards Valance, hugging the mountains, trying to turn east as soon as I can. I’ve got a tailwind again, which under usual circumstances would please me greatly, but heading over these big lumps of rock with a 30 mile an hour wind makes the trip very bumpy and unpleasant indeed. And you are always waiting for the Big One – the updraft that takes you into the cloud above or worse, the downdraft, that knocks you out of your seat (yes, it has happened).

But this time all is OK, and the further east I get, the nicer the weather becomes, and by the time I get to Gap, it’s blue skies, calm wind and glorious scenery. And it remains like this for the rest of the trip!

Now I’m in Cuneo, with another friend. On Sunday we are leaving for Morocco, and I’ll update you as the journey progresses.