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