Fly­ing Ad­ven­ture: See­ing the Light

Fly­ing low level around light­houses in France, win­ning a tro­phy in the Poo­ley’s Dawn to Dusk com­pe­ti­tion

Pilot - - CON­TENTS - Words & Pho­tos Ge­off Scott

Spot that light­house! A chal­leng­ing Dawn to Dusk com­pe­ti­tion en­try around France and the Mediter­ranean

I’d wanted to en­ter the Dawn to Dusk com­pe­ti­tion for many years but you need lots of free time around the date you plan to go be­cause the weather has to be just right ev­ery­where you go. Then you need ready ac­cess to a ser­vice­able air­craft. You also have to be more than a bit barmy and, fi­nally, you have to think of a unique pro­ject.

I had the air­craft−my beau­ti­ful blue Cessna 185 G-BYBP, and Richard War­riner, fly­ing friend based at the same Sus­sex strip, agreed to ac­com­pany me. Luck­ily we’re both a bit barmy! We had the idea of fly­ing around the French coast spot­ting light­houses, be­cause of an ob­ses­sion with light­houses, a sail­ing back­ground, and a gen­eral in­ter­est in nav­i­ga­tion.

A great book on Scot­tish lights by Bella Bathurst, The Light­house Steven­sons, de­scribes the ex­tra­or­di­nary feats of en­gi­neer­ing re­quired to put a light­house on a re­mote rock. Ar Men (Bre­ton for ‘The Rock’), 4.6 square me­tres in area, was un­cov­ered for only a few hours at low spring tides and the navvies had a long jour­ney out there by row­ing or sail­ing to chip away at the rock to make a flat pad for the foot­ings. They could only do it in sum­mer when the weather was favourable. In the first year (1867), they man­aged a mere eight hours’ work; the task took eight years!

I used the Liste de Phares de France to start a mas­ter file of light­houses and their po­si­tions. Some of those listed were sim­ply small lights at the ends of moles at har­bour en­trances and we in­cluded these, although in ret­ro­spect we could have cho­sen just the more iconic ones. The Liste is not com­plete though and we found ad­di­tional light­houses when study­ing charts and even dur­ing our flights.

We num­bered the lights from north to south and con­structed a route and flight plan, il­lus­trated with pic­tures of the lights. Plots were made on avi­a­tion and coastal sail­ing charts which were chopped up, fol­low­ing the RAF method of fly­ing with strips. By gen­er­ally route­ing from north to south, we kept on the cor­rect side of the line fea­ture. It was a lot of plan­ning but, as Richard pointed out, the essence of ‘D2D’ com­pe­ti­tion flights is a lot of plan­ning and then a straight­for­ward flight!

I had hoped to fly the whole French coast­line in one go but the cu­mu­la­tive dis­tance of around 2,294nm would have taken about 19 hours fly­ing, im­pos­si­ble even on the long­est day! So we ac­tu­ally ended up do­ing a Dawn to Dusk in both 2015 and 2016 and were de­lighted to be awarded the Tiger Club Tro­phy for our ef­forts. www.poo­leys.com/dawn-to-dusk

2015: Chan­nel & At­lantic coast­line

In 2015, we planned to fly from our home base in Heath­field, East Sus­sex to Dun­querque and down to­ward Biar­ritz, land­ing fi­nally in Nog­aro. The plan en­tailed about twelve hours fly­ing in three roughly equal legs: Dunkerque to Di­nard, 383nm, 47 lights; Di­nard to Belle Isle, 488nm, 102 lights; fi­nally Belle Isle to Higuer San Sebastian, 459nm, 68 lights. Po­si­tion­ing legs from home base to Dun­querque and San Sebastian to Nog­aro added 79 and 82nm re­spec­tively. We put way­points on Sky De­mon and the in­stalled Garmin, with sev­eral non-light­house turn­ing points to help avoid pro­hib­ited ar­eas (e.g. around coastal nu­clear power sta­tions).

French low fly­ing rules are very sim­i­lar to the UK although min­i­mum cross­ing al­ti­tudes are spec­i­fied ac­cord­ing to the size of towns. Be­cause of the risk of ditch­ing with en­gine fail­ure at low level we wore life­jack­ets with EPIRBS with dinghy and grab bag im­me­di­ately to hand. We used sev­eral weather and No­tam sources; I rather like ‘Mach 7’, a very good French web­site. We filed with APFEX the day be­fore we set off, as­sum­ing one-hour stops for fuel and the tim­ings worked out sur­pris­ingly well.

On the planned date, the north French coast was clagged in, so we de­ferred to the fol­low­ing day and did a dry run in­stead at 500ft along the south coast to check our nav worked and get ac­cus­tomed to low level fly­ing, the pho­tog­ra­phy and so on: Brighton Ma­rina to Beachy Head light and East­bourne pier end­ing up in Sedle­scombe for fuel. Next day, high pres­sure was fore­cast over France with mild head­winds but a risk of morn­ing and evening fog.

Set­ting off at first light

We de­ter­mined to set off at first light, 0400Z. It was glo­ri­ous in East­bourne but fogged in on the strip, but the sun obe­di­ently rose and burned it off suf­fi­cient to see and avoid the 1,000ft mast at the end of the run­way. Air­borne at 0440, we saw how lucky we were to get away as the strip was just on the edge of a bank of fog which filled the whole val­ley to the north. There were patches of fog all over East Sus­sex but we were in clear early morn­ing sun­shine. The weather was calm and the view sen­sa­tional. We ac­ti­vated our flight plan with Lon­don In­for­ma­tion.

The wind tur­bines 8nm be­fore Lydd stood dra­mat­i­cally out of the fog and the weather cleared over the Chan­nel with just a lit­tle mist at Dun­querque where we ‘cap­tured’ our first two lights. Then we were off down the coast but dis­ap­point­ingly could not see the next light at Grav­e­lines which is in a re­stricted area and was up-sun. Nav­i­ga­tion was easy: we flew head­ings with stop­watch and used the com­put­ers for ETAS. We had mild head­winds through­out, es­pe­cially in north­ern France, and ground­speed was about 120kt.

A low-level flight along the coast can be mag­i­cal. We started with the low sun be­hind us and there was no tur­bu­lence. There are many in­ter­est­ing fea­tures other than light­houses as the ge­ol­ogy changes. Over the wide sandy beaches to Cap Gris Nez and then past the dunes to­wards Le Tou­quet and Berck sur Mer, we crossed the Somme es­tu­ary east of the bird sanc­tu­ary to spot the pretty lit­tle light at St Valery sur Somme; on­wards keep­ing north of Penly nu­clear power sta­tion and back to the coast at Dieppe. Just be­yond Dieppe is Varengeville with a lit­tle light in the trees (Ailly), Bois de Moutiers, the house de­signed by Lu­tyens, and the St Valery church, look­ing out to sea, where Ge­orges Braque is buried. In­land past the nu­clear

power sta­tion at St Valery-en-caux and then out to­wards Etre­tat pass­ing the me­mo­rial to Nungesser and Coli who set off to cross the At­lantic in l’oiseau Blanc (bril­liantly de­scribed by Bill Bryson in One Sum­mer: Amer­ica 1927) and were never seen or heard of again. The lime­stone cliffs with the stacks were cap­tured by Monet and oth­ers. At Cap d’an­tifer, we turned in­land over St Ro­man air­field to the south-east. As an­tic­i­pated, the sur­vey in the Seine es­tu­ary was ham­pered by re­stricted ar­eas and the lights be­ing some dis­tance from the per­mit­ted path down the mid­dle of the es­tu­ary. One light, Quille­beuf is in­ac­ces­si­ble in the mid­dle of R254. We flew from Pont de Tan­car­ville to Pont de Bre­ton down the mid­dle of the river at 1,000-1,500 feet and then emerged from the es­tu­ary to go back north to de la Hève at Le Havre.

Re­sum­ing our west­erly pas­sage, we flew along the in­va­sion beaches over the Mul­berry Har­bour, past the US Army ceme­tery, the in­ter­est­ing for­ti­fied is­land St Mar­couf and to the top right cor­ner of the Co­tentin (Barfleur). We avoided the har­bour at Cher­bourg and an­other nu­clear sta­tion at Cap de la Hague, flew down to­wards Granville and across to the amaz­ing ar­chi­pel­ago at Chaussey, which, un­til a huge storm in 709AD (leg­end has it), was part of the main­land. Fi­nally, we passed la Balue in St Malo and landed at Di­nard.

In Di­nard, re­fu­elling re­quires long walks to col­lect the key to the pump and to pay but we cleared in 1h15. Air­borne again,

We flew along the in­va­sion beaches over the Mul­berry Har­bour...

we passed le Grand Jardin and were now on the long Brit­tany coast­line with many light­houses.

Phare des Roches Dou­vres is an enor­mous struc­ture stand­ing way up in the Chan­nel Is­lands zone, so we had to call Jersey then Guernsey zones for just a few min­utes’ flight. Along the North Brit­tany coast, the rock changes from grey to pink gran­ite. We climbed and headed in­land at Paim­pol to Lézardrieux and then down the river Trieux to­wards de la Croix. We tracked around Mor­laix har­bour with its com­plex sys­tem of lights, out to and around Oues­sant. Le Feu de Plâtresses – still on the Liste – has dis­ap­peared, de­stroyed by a tem­pest in 2007 but there are large con­i­cal buoys at that spot. Here the sec­ond cam­era bat­tery ran out of juice and I scrab­bled around in the back of the air­craft to find a cable to recharge the cam­era.

We were not al­lowed into the re­stricted zones of Rade de Brest or to Mor­gat and Douar­nanez so missed sev­eral lights. This was dis­ap­point­ing but pre­dictable, prob­a­bly be­cause it is so near to the mil­i­tary air­field. Nor were we al­lowed up the es­tu­ary of River Blavet at Lori­ent. How­ever, we were cleared di­rect to Isle de Groix and Belle Isle as planned and warmly wel­comed in Belle Isle. The sec­ond sec­tion was 431nm rather than the planned 488nm, with 22 fewer lights ob­served than on the flight plan. There is a won­der­ful light­house (Goul­phar) a short walk from the air­field, well worth a visit, but this was no time to be hav­ing fun.

We de­parted in 55 min­utes, con­tin­ued around Belle Isle and on to Quiberon, elect­ing not to pro­ceed very far up the es­tu­ary at St Nazaire be­cause of airspace re­stric­tion. Now the coast was flat­ter and we had to fly around sev­eral large is­lands, Noimoutiers, d’yeu, de Re, to­wards la Rochelle. There is a large light next to the air­field at île d’yeu which I vis­ited on a bi­cy­cle years ago.

The phare des Barges at Sables d’olonne was be­ing vis­ited by the French equiv­a­lent of Trin­ity House as we flew over. A lit­tle later, we found a most beau­ti­ful light­house, like a tall wed­ding cake, at the mouth of the Gironde: le phare de Cor­d­uan. There has been a light on this spot for many cen­turies. There is re­in­force­ment cladding around the orig­i­nal tower though it re­tains its orig­i­nal shape. The top half was blown up in WWII and re­built. In­deed, nearly all the lights we passed were dam­aged or de­stroyed dur­ing this con­flict and faith­fully re­built. There is a cause­way from the land so you can walk to the light­house at low spring tide, and the Cock­leshell He­roes pad­dled around

this point in mid-win­ter 1942. Fur­ther down the left bank of the Gironde we found the pretty phare de Richard – nat­u­rally adopted by the co-pi­lot – then crossed to the coast route­ing down over end­less pine forests, étangs (ponds) and dunes of les Lan­des. As we headed south it be­came hot­ter and hot­ter, the OAT gauge reach­ing 38oc and the en­gine oil tem­per­a­ture started to climb. It was quite clear but be­gan to be misty af­ter Ar­ca­chon (cap-ferret).

By now it was about 2000 lo­cal and, un­for­tu­nately, just south of Con­tis les Bains, north of Biar­ritz, there was a solid bank of fog so we di­verted due east in good weather across Mont de Marsan zone to our planned des­ti­na­tion, Nog­aro, land­ing at 2055 lo­cal af­ter 4h08. The flight plan was closed with Nantes ATC. This di­ver­sion re­duced the third leg from a planned 541 to 469nm, miss­ing out six light­houses.

As we headed south it be­came hot­ter and hot­ter, the OAT gauge reach­ing 38°C

Nog­aro is a pleas­ant small town in the Ar­magnac re­gion. The ac­tive air­field has an ad­ja­cent road rac­ing cir­cuit but, more im­por­tantly from the pi­lot’s point of view, a nice ho­tel just a cou­ple of hun­dred yards down the road and a nearby su­per­mar­ket to buy Ar­magnac and vict­uals. All through the day we’d ex­isted on pro­vi­sions we took with us−sand­wiches, snacks and drinks− and were prob­a­bly a bit de­hy­drated by the end. But at least it meant our com­fort stops could co­in­cide with re­fu­elling stops!

On the coast, we had flown 1,222nm and ob­served 184 lights in 10h49. A very few lights which we flew past (hon­est!) could not be seen; per­haps hid­den in trees or cam­ou­flaged in the mid­dle of a town. There is one near St Malo that I know well and have nav­i­gated by, yet I could not see it as we flew by. Later I biked over to make sure it was still there. It is but dis­guised within an es­tate of stone-built houses. Most of those we didn’t see were in re­stricted airspace or in fog.

To­tal fly­ing time dur­ing the day was 12h05 over 1,365nm. Next day we had a most en­joy­able re­turn flight of only 3h45 via Deauville to Heath­field. So ended our first at­tempt.

2016: across to the Med

So what next? We’d al­ready made the flight plan for the Mediter­ranean light­houses so it seemed log­i­cal to at­tempt to com­plete the task. We planned to fly back to Nog­aro and restart at Con­tis les Bains where we had fin­ished in 2015. Af­ter pass­ing the few light­houses from Con­tis south which we had missed be­cause of fog in 2015, we in­tended to fly high across the Pyre­nees and start the Mediter­ranean coastal jour­ney at Cer­bère on the Span­ish bor­der. This plan gave ap­prox­i­mately 9.5h fly­ing in three legs, with roughly equal den­sity of lights. Sur­pris­ingly, Richard was will­ing to risk life and limb again so on 7 July we po­si­tioned from Heath­field via Deauville to Nog­aro in 3h50.

Next morn­ing the weather was not as fore­cast! Cloud base at Nog­aro was about 1,000ft with mod­er­ate vis­i­bil­ity un­der the cloud. Nog­aro was de­serted around 0600Z, 0800 lo­cal when we took off. We con­tacted Biar­ritz In­for­ma­tion and fol­lowed the low level rec­om­mended route across the top of Mont de Marsan zone, a straight line to­ward Con­tis. The weather on the coast was slightly bet­ter and it was a fine flight along the sand dunes. We saw Cap Bre­ton and Biar­ritz lights and pro­ceeded to­wards St Jean de Luz. We could eas­ily see the lights at So­coa just south of St Jean de Luz and Higuer in the dis­tance. Air traf­fic told us rather firmly not to go near Higuer be­cause of IFR traf­fic into San Sebastian, so we skirted St Jean and re­turned up the coast to turn to star­board north of Biar­ritz zone. Now the weather was un­pleas­ant with low cloud and mod­er­ate vis­i­bil­ity but, with an ex­cel­lent low level route to­ward Pau fol­low­ing the river Adour, joined by rail­way and mo­tor­way, our es­cape route was sim­ply to re­turn the way we had come. We were south abeam in­vis­i­ble Pau aero­drome by 0736Z but then the weather cleared a bit and we were able to climb grad­u­ally.

We had planned a spec­tac­u­lar flight along the Pyre­nees at 5,000ft but this route took us into the low foothills well to the north. We crossed one river val­ley af­ter an­other, keep­ing a close eye on the heights of the ridges and spot heights. Even­tu­ally we could see the Pyre­nees to the south so we turned back to­wards our more southerly track and climbed ap­pro­pri­ately. Ar­riv­ing at Cap Cer­bère at 0856 we made a fairly rapid de­scent in a few or­bits to cel­e­brate reach­ing the Med then were off on the coastal route again in clear weather.

Beau­ti­ful lit­tle sea­side fish­ing towns

There are small lights in beau­ti­ful lit­tle sea­side fish­ing towns (Banyuls, Col­lioure, Argelès) and a unique feu met­allique light­house on the mole at Port Ven­dres. Fur­ther up the coast to­wards Per­pig­nan and Béziers, small lights mark en­trances from the sea into étangs but we con­cen­trated on the ma­jor lights in the flight plan. We headed for Port-la-nou­velle, cap d’agde where the is­land and mole lights were eas­ily spot­ted but it was less easy to see the sem­a­phore on the hill near the ra­dio tower. In the basin de Thau be­tween Agde and Sète, we flew un­der a cu­mu­lonim­bus cloud and climbed 500ft in a few sec­onds. We saw the ef­fect of ro­tary wind on the calm sea; easy to see how a wa­ter-spout could form (and how land­ing un­der such a cloud could be trou­ble­some!)

Flight time from Nog­aro to Mont­pel­lier was 3h35. The air­field was wel­com­ing, with par­al­lel run­ways al­low­ing very ac­tive GA train­ing to op­er­ate with com­mer­cial traf­fic, re­fu­elling was quick and the land­ing fee rea­son­able. The weather was good and this made for pleas­ant fly­ing with OAT 25oc. The an­cient fish­ing vil­lage of les Saintes Marie de la Mer, made fa­mous by van Gogh’s paint­ings of the lo­cal fish­ing boats, had two small lights on the moles and it was nice to see the old church and the bull­ring. The Ca­mar­gue was very beau­ti­ful, the étangs a pretty pink colour but I do not think it was flamin­gos, more likely the salts in the wa­ter.

We spot­ted a com­pletely new light mast at the Port-st Louis-de-rhone (not even on Google Earth when I looked later), crossed past Fort de Bouc, cap Couronne, the bay of Mar­seilles and headed for the an­cient lights at the en­trance to the old har­bour. As we

flew straight to­wards the city at 500ft, ATC called (in a panic) and told us to turn away to the south so we headed to­ward Château d’if (late home of the Count of Monte Cristo) and down the beau­ti­ful Fri­oul is­lands. There is a fab­u­lous light­house just to the south (Planier) akin to Ed­dy­s­tone off Ply­mouth, the first sign of land­fall for many im­mi­grants. Be­yond Cas­sis the cliffs rise to an ex­tra­or­di­nary height in mag­nif­i­cent white.

The area around Hyères (Toulon) is re­stricted with the lights at cap Cépet in the re­stricted mil­i­tary zone. Some of the îles d’hyères are also re­stricted (mil­i­tary zones or na­tur­ist colonies!), so we had to pass Ti­tan on Le­vant at some dis­tance. Ad­ja­cent to Agay, near St Raphael, is a me­mo­rial to Saint-ex­u­pery near the po­si­tion of his last flight. Even­tu­ally, we crept round to the bay at Cannes and fol­lowed the low level route to cap Fer­rat. Un­sur­pris­ingly, we were not al­lowed to float around the har­bour at Nice be­cause it lies just un­der the lo­cal air­port’s ILS ap­proach, though we could see the light­house on the mole.

From cap Fer­rat, we re­turned the way we had come and landed at Cannes Man­delieu. For­tu­nately, this has card self-re­fu­elling so we had a very quick turn­around. Af­ter this rel­a­tively short leg of two hours, we were happy to pro­ceed with the fi­nal route to and around Cor­sica. Af­ter an hour, the is­land emerged from a sum­mer haze in a dreamy sort of way and we noted high ro­tor clouds char­ac­ter­is­tic of west­erly air­flow cross­ing the Mediter­ranean but there was no cloud or tur­bu­lence at low level. We started at the top of cap Corse (Gi­raglia is­land) and cir­cled Cor­sica anti-clock­wise, spot­ting a huge dis­used as­bestos mine glint­ing in the sun­light on the west side of cap Corse. There are not many light­houses around Cor­sica and they are outnumbered by old tow­ers on ev­ery rocky head­land. The coast was like Brit­tany (nowhere for a forced land­ing!), although dif­fer­ent ge­o­log­i­cally.

On the way to the Ital­ian bor­der with Sar­dinia, head­ing to phare des isles Lavezzi, we un­ex­pect­edly spot­ted the me­mo­rial to the sailors and sol­diers of the three-masted frigate Sémil­lante from Toulon, wrecked here in a storm in 1855 while bound for the Crimean War. We routed north past our last two lights (Chi­appa and Alistro) on the east coast of the is­land but then spot­ted yet an­other un­planned one on the way past Punta san Cipri­anu.

De­ci­sion time: stop at Bas­tia and stay at the ex­cel­lent Chez Wal­ter? No, we de­cided to get back to Cannes, as it would mean a pos­si­ble sin­gle-leg flight back to the UK next morn­ing and the UK weather looked like it might be de­te­ri­o­rat­ing by 10 July.

Af­ter an un­com­fort­able (30oc at 3,500ft) flight back to Cannes into the bright set­ting sun, we had flown 1,203nm and ob­served some 58 lights in 9h40. We saw al­most ev­ery light on the flight plan, and some ‘new’ ones were added to the jour­ney log. Air traf­fic con­trol in Biar­ritz/san Sebastian and re­stricted zones in Mar­seilles, Nice and Toulon/hyères could not have been more help­ful and re­garded our strange aerial be­hav­iour with equa­nim­ity.

The next day, we cleared im­mi­gra­tion and set off to re­turn to Heath­field di­rect. The moun­tains be­hind Cannes were cov­ered in cloud with base 2,000-2,500 feet. We had in­tended to route di­rect to DGN VOR but were routed by ATC to the south around R138. As we passed this zone to the west, the sky cleared and we set course to the north. From Cannes to Heath­field took 4h35.

And the award for pret­ti­est light­house...

We re­flected on what con­sti­tuted a light­house. Clearly the iso­lated tow­ers are the icons, the taller and fur­ther out to sea the bet­ter! Yet there are some very pretty small lights on land, par­tic­u­larly those in­cor­po­rated in small houses in town or on a rock, es­pe­cially in Brit­tany. The lights at har­bour en­trances, whilst cru­cial to safe nav­i­ga­tion, sim­ply do not have the éclat of Ar Men or Ile Verge.

We con­sid­ered all the light­houses we had seen: phare de Ni­vidic was the most west­erly at the edge of Oues­sant, Ar Men the most iconic, stand­ing as it does way out from the Pointe de Raz de Sein. How­ever, we think the most el­e­gant and at­trac­tive is in the es­tu­ary of the Gironde: le Phare de Cor­douan. Ac­cord­ingly, we award it our own prize for be­ing the pret­ti­est light­house on the côtes nord et ouest de France. Of the Mediter­ranean lights, Planier just off Mar­seilles is the most dra­matic.

le phare de Cor­d­uan, Garonne es­tu­ary, judged by Ge­off and Richard to be the pret­ti­est ‘phare de France’

Left & above: when they say ‘dawn to dusk’... and, over­head Rom­ney Marsh, wind tur­bines just vis­i­ble above a layer of fog Dun­querque, first land­fall in France — how many light­houses do you see? There’s more than one!

Dog leg to clear Penly nu­clear power sta­tion near Dieppe

Napoleonic fort (with small light­house) îles St Mar­couf

A plethora of GPS de­vices: Garmin GTN750, GNS 430 and Aera 660, and the ipad run­ning Pi­lot Aware

Fan­tas­tic pink-tinged rocky set­ting for le phare de Paon, île de Bréhat. Up­turned faces are vis­i­ble in the orig­i­nal im­age, as vis­i­tors watch the 185 fly over­head

In­spect­ing the Phare des Barges the hard way!

Le phare de Roches-dou­vres in Guernsey zone

Le phare d’agay — there is a me­mo­rial to famed writer and pi­lot St Ex­upéry here

Beached ves­sel le Ly­dia, Portes-du Rousil­lon

Sited amid eroded rock strata le phare de la Madonetta, South Cor­sica

Akin to Ed­dy­s­tone off Ply­mouth, le phare de Planier off Mar­seilles has been the first sign of land­fall for many im­mi­grants

Speed­ing at low level past Chateau d’if, late home of the Count of Monte Cristo. A map of the route and fur­ther im­ages can be see at: tour­de­sphares­de­france.com

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