Fly­ing ad­ven­ture: Spain

Gar­rett Fisher finds his way through lo­cal cus­toms, fly­ing from his new home air­field in Spain

Pilot - - Contents - Words & Pho­tos Gar­rett Fisher

Iam not sure what I had in mind when I de­cided to es­cape the Father­land. Sure, I had last spo­ken Span­ish some twelve years ago, and I’d heard some pop­u­lar ban­ter about the com­mon­al­ity of ‘the United States of Europe’, how things are ‘eas­ier now’, and Europe is more con­nected than ever be­fore. It was mostly Amer­i­cans who be­lieved that Euro­pean coun­tries func­tion like Amer­i­can states, each merely hav­ing a fash­ion­able dis­play of iden­tity while work­ing un­der a com­mon frame­work with ap­par­ent ease.

It was this delu­sion, as well as the con­stant nag­ging from my Ger­man land­lord who so des­per­ately wanted his soon-to-be-di­vorced wife to move into the house we were rent­ing, that drove my hur­ried move. Es­cap­ing that sit­u­a­tion caused a mo­men­tary sus­pen­sion of cere­bral func­tion, dur­ing which I con­cluded that Spain would some­how be a more civ­i­lized place to live.

The flight out of Ger­many, in­clu­sive of the cross­ing of France, was so in­tense (see ‘Flight from Ger­many’, Pilot March 2017) that I gave lit­tle thought as to what would hap­pen when I crossed the Span­ish bor­der. There was a rea­son­able sus­pi­cion as to the con­tin­ued pro­cliv­ity of the pro­pel­ler to keep spin­ning, though the Ger­mans had been of lit­tle help in re­solv­ing that is­sue. They did, how­ever, strongly sug­gest that I got to France as soon as pos­si­ble, be­cause “an emer­gency land­ing will go much bet­ter in France than in Ger­many.”

One semi-use­ful part did de­cide to fall off over the French coun­try­side, but even­tu­ally I found my­self cross­ing the bor­der into Spain, from which La Cer­danya aero­drome was just a few min­utes away. Be­ing so close, it was as though it was sub­stan­tially in France, and it oc­curred to me that I truly did not know what lan­guage was spo­ken in the cir­cuit. So far, English had worked ev­ery­where in France and Ger­many, even though it did not al­ways work well. I de­cided, in the name of pru­dence, to an­nounce my­self in English and Span­ish, though at that mo­ment, it oc­curred to me that I did not know any avi­a­tion terms in Span­ish. Ah well: “Pee-pair Coob qwa-trow see-yet-ay…” Af­ter land­ing, I had to go find some­one to move a bunch of stuff out of the hangar that I had al­ready signed pa­per­work for and agreed to oc­cupy. I sup­pose af­ter the flight school owner in Egels­bach had per­formed reg­u­lar pa­trols, iden­ti­fy­ing lists of tools, boxes, and oil droplets that I had left out of place, I some­how felt the uni­verse owed me some sense of or­der in re­turn.

I men­tioned the ab­so­lute thrash­ing I’d re­ceived in the cir­cuit−rather hefty tur­bu­lence on what was oth­er­wise a sup­pos­edly calm day. “Oh, we don’t go fly­ing on north wind days around here. The moun­tain waves are very danger­ous.” “It’s sunny and not windy. How could there be moun­tain waves?” “They are there on days like this, and some­times you can’t see them. We re­ally don’t go on the north side of the field, ei­ther.” It was not as though one could find this in­for­ma­tion writ­ten any­where, but then again, I am a pure id­iot who thinks Spain is or­gan­ised be­cause it is a mem­ber of the EU. There was much learn­ing to be done.

A warm fuzzy feel­ing

Af­ter putting the plane away in its new home in an idyl­lic Pyre­nean val­ley with splen­did scenery, I had a warm fuzzy feel­ing that I had suc­cess­fully es­caped Ger­many. For that mat­ter, I’d sur­vived cross­ing the Sixth Repub­lic, and I had ar­rived safely af­ter hav­ing tra­versed some high sec­tions of a rugged moun­tain range. It would be many months later be­fore I would learn the his­tory of the place: that tens of thou­sands of peo­ple fled oc­cu­pied France, cross­ing the Pyre­nees with the just the shirts on their backs through this same val­ley to get to Spain−no pic­nic. While Spain was a haven of es­cape, it still had its own po­lit­i­cal up­heaval, some­thing I did not un­der­stand when I moved to... Cat­alo­nia!

Spain is Spain, right? They speak Span­ish there, cor­rect? That is what un­in­formed Amer­i­cans think. They speak Cata­lan here as a pri­mary lan­guage, con­sider them­selves ef­fec­tively oc­cu­pied by the Span­ish State, and also view them­selves as their own na­tion, de­spite that nag­ging in­con­ve­nience called na­tional bor­ders. Since the ‘il­le­gal’ ref­er­en­dum and le­gal re­gional elec­tion (which both had the same re­sult), lo­cal sep­a­ratists have been in­spired to use Cata­lan in the cir­cuit, mixed with Span­ish, cre­at­ing a grand el­e­ment of con­fu­sion. No bother, this is the least of my cur­rent ag­gra­va­tions.

My first flight from my new base was to blast into the Pyre­nees, cross­ing the bor­der with An­dorra. The air­field el­e­va­tion is 1,097m, and moun­tains rise to 3,000m in var­i­ous quad­rants from La Cer­danya. The chart showed noth­ing overtly du­bi­ous, so I hap­pily turned on my transpon­der, think­ing I would have the ben­e­fits of search and res­cue should the worst hap­pen. Wan­der­ing around tow­er­ing peaks above the tim­ber­line, I felt at home again af­ter hav­ing made my last moun­tain flight in Wy­oming some ten months prior. I was now back in a place I felt I be­longed. The joy of dis­cov­ery was stu­pen­dous,

cou­pled with my fan­tasies, imag­in­ing the beauty of on­com­ing win­ter. I was re­ally quite happy.

Later that day af­ter land­ing, I was mess­ing around on the chart, plot­ting my next place to go, when I stum­bled across a bit of warn­ing in my nav­i­ga­tion soft­ware. It said some­thing ridicu­lous−that there was Class D airspace, un­der Barcelona’s ju­ris­dic­tion, lurk­ing over­head at 8,000 feet. “This can’t be,” I thought, “it makes no sense.” I asked around at the air­port, and they did con­firm that the airspace des­ig­na­tion ex­isted, and kind of shrugged as though it meant noth­ing.

“Eight thou­sand feet? I just took a flight to 9,200 with the transpon­der on, and I hadn’t got a clear­ance!” Be­set by a wave of An­glo-amer­i­can worry, I re­alised I had com­mit­ted an airspace in­cur­sion. Well, maybe not−i was sur­rounded by moun­tains, and I am sure the radar didn’t pick me up. Now that it ap­peared I had com­mit­ted a grave sin, I was ra­tio­nal­is­ing that they wouldn’t have picked me up on radar.

On my next flight I in­tended to go to a peak above 8,000 feet, so I cruised along Cadí-moix­eró, an amaz­ing ridge­line that

Wan­der­ing along tow­er­ing peaks above the tree­line, I felt at home again

tops out at 8,500. That meant that I needed to fly out 25 miles to get past it so I could get ra­dio sig­nal to call Barcelona Ap­proach and get clear­ance to climb higher. Fi­nally call­ing them, I was told to stand by… for ten min­utes. Even­tu­ally, af­ter ask­ing for all sorts of silly in­for­ma­tion, I was granted a transpon­der code and per­mis­sion to climb to 9,000 feet as re­quested, only to be handed off to the next fre­quency, Barcelona Ap­proach, where I lost sig­nal. I de­scended to 8,000 feet, re­al­is­ing the whole af­fair was a waste of time.

A week later, I met a con­troller who works in Barcelona and un­leashed a tirade about the stu­pid­ity of the whole thing. “Did you file a flight plan?” he asked. “NO−I just wanted clear­ance into Class D.” “He asked all of that in­for­ma­tion be­cause he had to key a flight plan into the sys­tem to is­sue a clear­ance.” “How ut­terly stupid is that! How hard is it to is­sue a clear­ance? And for that mat­ter, why have Class D con­trolled airspace down to 8,000 feet, when we can’t even call due to ter­rain ob­struct­ing the airspace? There is that, and the fact that the stupid con­trol zone comes down to the ground in the moun­tains. Are you re­ally con­trol­ling all of that?” “Oh, don’t worry about it. We would never clear any­thing be­low 13,000 feet.” “So, if I hy­po­thet­i­cally hap­pened to fly at 9,200 feet, with the transpon­der on, is that a prob­lem?” “No, we wouldn’t even no­tice.” “Then why the hell is it con­trolled?” I got a shrug in re­sponse.

Even­tu­ally, I spoke with some­one else at the air­port, who put it suc­cinctly: “We never fly with the transpon­der on.”

Try­ing to fol­low the rules

Af­ter the ini­tial machi­na­tions of fly­ing lo­cally in Spain, I set­tled into a rou­tine bound pri­mar­ily by weather and sec­on­dar­ily by air­port in­fra­struc­ture. With danger­ous moun­tain waves on north wind days (where air hap­pened to be nice and clear), and per­sis­tent haze and in­ver­sions in lower al­ti­tudes to the south, I found

my­self wedged be­tween rather un­for­tu­nate at­mo­spheric con­di­tions for pho­tog­ra­phy. This lent to spend­ing a dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of time high in the Pyre­nees, in­stead of ex­plor­ing large ge­o­graphic ex­panses. Pe­ri­od­i­cally, I got the han­ker­ing to go some­where dis­tant, and each time things were a bit on the ag­gra­vat­ing side: tow­ered fields with high fees and flight plan re­quire­ments, no fuel, enig­matic re­stric­tions− fur­ther re­stricted over in France with byzan­tine rules−and so forth. As the months ticked by, it oc­curred to me that I had not landed at an air­port out­side of my home field for nearly six months!

I fi­nally de­cided to suck it up, file a flight plan, hop over the ridge, and see if I could ac­ti­vate the stupid thing with ter­rain and ra­dio re­stric­tions. I am not a fan of set­ting things in mo­tion and hav­ing to re­turn to base be­cause elab­o­rate se­quen­tial plan­ning goes to pot. I also do not like putting the whole plan to­gether, get­ting on the other side, and dis­cov­er­ing that the in­ver­sion has axed suit­able im­agery. There is also some­thing to be said about be­ing up in a high moun­tain val­ley that re­quires climb­ing to 6,000 feet min­i­mum for all egress points−an un­nat­u­ral sit­u­a­tion for most gen­eral avi­a­tion pi­lots. Nonethe­less, I de­cided to head to the Mediter­ranean coast, a whop­ping sixty miles away, and suc­cess­fully ac­ti­vated the flight plan on the other side.

I tried to ditch ‘flight fol­low­ing’, and it didn’t work−it is as though they can­not un­der­stand the re­quest. As I flew along, I got handed to var­i­ous fre­quen­cies, even­tu­ally get­ting told by Girona Tower that I “must con­tact Am­puriabravi­a In­for­ma­tion upon ar­rival if we can­not com­mu­ni­cate.” Like any avi­a­tor in the de­vel­oped world, I read back the clear­ance from the Tower with the full ex­pec­ta­tion of com­ply­ing with it.

Con­tin­u­ing my flight, I was re­minded, and then nagged to con­tact Am­puriabrava In­for­ma­tion upon ar­rival−de­spite each time con­firm­ing that I would. At this point I was ir­ri­tated, though I later came to un­der­stand that no­body in Spain fol­lows any rules, and the nag­ging was tak­ing that as­sump­tion into ac­count.

Am­puriabrava In­for­ma­tion didn’t re­ally

seem to care if I called or not. Af­ter land­ing, I was given in­struc­tions to taxi to the wrong pump, de­spite large signs that ev­ery­one could read telling me to go to a dif­fer­ent one. Once I got out, the other FISO told me that the on-duty FISO had got it wrong, so it was time to re­po­si­tion for fu­elling.

Af­ter that silli­ness, I opted to fly home head­ing to Pic du Canigou in France first, a flight dur­ing which I com­pletely be­fud­dled the con­trollers on both sides of the bor­der in that I would a) not fly in a straight line b) cross a bor­der and c) choose to fly past a moun­tain purely to have a look at it. Barcelona was fur­ther con­fused by my wish to can­cel the flight plan upon hav­ing the field in sight. Am I wear­ing a cow­boy hat of ig­no­rance, or are these peo­ple con­fused, or both?

Af­ter Am­puriabrava, my next trip was to Santa Cilia, where chick­ens were be­ing raised along­side the fuel pumps, though lo­cal pi­lots were ob­ses­sively ob­se­quious about ad­her­ence to sense­less taxi pro­ce­dures.

Lleida was next, fea­tur­ing a con­trolled airspace… with no con­troller. Af­ter five at­tempts to raise a re­sponse, I called Barcelona, who told me that “no­body seems to be in the Tower to­day” and to “pro­ceed ahead any­way.” I com­mented about this on Face­book for which I got a snarky re­ply by a con­troller who said “We have this thing in Spain called the AIP. You’ll note it has the hours for con­trol ser­vices…” Read­ing the AIP, I found that the Tower is manned six out of 168 hours per week, though the airspace is en­tirely Class D, with no note on the chart to point out it is un­con­trolled for 96.42% of the time.

Af­ter Lleida, I got the hair­brained idea to fly to Morocco. The fore­cast went to hell in the first 100 miles, tail­winds turn­ing into rag­ing head­winds, and I had to di­vert to Castel­lón de la Plana, where it took two hours to fuel, and I got so worn out by the af­fair that I got a ho­tel, went to the beach, and flew home the next day. Of course, on the way home, I landed at Igual­ada, which has no pub­lished fre­quency, on more than one map. Bar­rel­ing into the airspace unan­nounced, I found some­one sleep­ing

in a chair, who in­dig­nantly told me the “as­signed” fre­quency be­fore go­ing back to sleep, for which I was grate­ful as a Piper Chero­kee an­nounced a full speed buzz down the run­way in the wrong di­rec­tion, fol­lowed by an aer­o­batic ma­noeu­vre−all while I was sit­ting ready to take off.

Rang­ing fur­ther afield

Af­ter these air­ports, I in­tended to pho­to­graph var­i­ous ar­eas which had ‘of­fi­cial’ air­fields but, like much of the rest of Spain, no av­gas. Hav­ing com­mu­ni­cated with other pi­lots, I was told that ULM fields tend to have mo­gas, though “no­body knows or cares if it has ethanol in it”. The pa­per­work au­tho­ris­ing mo­gas in my Con­ti­nen­tal en­gine de­mands zero per cent al­co­hol, so I started car­ry­ing jerry cans in the pas­sen­ger seat and land­ing at reg­is­tered stan­dard-cat­e­gory air­fields that fea­tured large ruts, rocks, and one-me­tre tall grass to trans­fer fuel and re­turn home. While it is le­gal to land at an ef­fec­tively aban­doned but reg­is­tered air­port, it is il­le­gal in Spain to land at a main­tained but un­reg­is­tered for­est ser­vice strip, and heavy fines await those caught−though many do it any­way.

No ac­count of ac­tiv­i­ties in Spain would be com­plete with­out men­tion­ing Bri­tish and Ger­man vis­i­tors com­pet­ing to be the most rude, dif­fi­cult, and un­ruly bunch in Ibe­ria. It was the English pi­lots who pi­o­neered a ma­noeu­vre, ca­reen­ing in their sailplanes per­pen­dic­u­lar across the air­port at thirty feet af­ter a full speed dive, be­fore point­ing the nose up, climb­ing back to pat­tern al­ti­tude, and prop­erly an­nounc­ing a “join left down­wind” for which they would then make a proper cir­cuit and land. I had pho­tographed one of these

ma­noeu­vres from the Cub, and af­ter land­ing walked over to the near­est white plane vis­i­tor to see if he knew who to share the pho­tos with. As the glider rolled to a stop, a red-faced Ger­man stood up and yelled to the world “zese stunts are not help­ing!” Re­treat­ing to an­other vis­i­tor, I asked if he knew who to give the pho­tos to, only to find out that he also was a Ger­man. “Oh them. They are Bri­tish. We call them is­land mon­keys. They call us eff­ing Ger­mans.”

Later in the year, I en­coun­tered some nerdy Ger­mans blath­er­ing in Ger­man in the pat­tern, and I de­cided to de­clare “Deutsch ist ver­boten in Cer­danya!” over the ra­dio, af­ter which they went silent and did not speak an­other word of Ger­man on the fre­quency for the rest of the week. I sup­pose it is for­bid­den to for­bid that which is not for­bid­den in

Ger­many, so they must have be­lieved my edict to be cor­rect.

Fi­nally this sum­mer I con­quered land­ing in France, travers­ing the Pyre­nees and land­ing in Bag­nères-de-lu­chon… on a Satur­day af­ter­noon. While I had called in ad­vance to en­sure there was fuel, I was not told that at­tempt­ing to land in such con­di­tions could re­sult in my death. There were no fewer than fif­teen paraglid­ers, glid­ers, and air­planes swirling around like gnats in an ab­surdly tight val­ley, bab­bling on in French while more glid­ers were winched up. I found out upon land­ing that, had I not called in ad­vance, they prob­a­bly would have re­fused to sell me any fuel−even though there were at least eight planes and and dozens of peo­ple at the air­port. No one spoke enough English to ex­plain this bizarre re­quire­ment.

Next up was a far-flung ben­der into Provence to see the laven­der, where I ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enced a fleet­ing mo­ment of sen­si­ble avi­a­tion. I was able to land, taxi, re­fuel with an au­to­mated pump, and tie down for the night, with­out any air­port staff sat­is­fy­ing their fetish for im­pos­ing bizarre ob­struc­tion­ist rules on help­less for­eign­ers.

My ex­pe­ri­ences in Spain were topped off with a flight on 27 Oc­to­ber, when Cat­alo­nia de­clared in­de­pen­dence while I was taxy­ing for take­off. I sup­pose it is un­likely I will ever be in the air again dur­ing an at­tempted change of sovereignt­y.

The prac­ti­cal­i­ties of fly­ing in Spain

There are prac­ti­cal mat­ters as­so­ci­ated with avi­a­tion, and there are no prac­ti­cal so­lu­tions in Spain for any of them. When it came to buy­ing oil, no­body knew where I could pur­chase any. As for main­te­nance con­cerns: a fel­low pilot found his en­gine was leak­ing, so he re­moved it, took it home, changed all of the gas­kets, and put it back to­gether. “How did you get it signed off?” I asked. He told me he didn’t think a sig­na­ture was nec­es­sary. If it in­volves pa­per­work, I go to France or the UK to solve it. If it in­volves sup­plies, Amer­ica, the UK, and, God for­bid, the Father­land come to the res­cue.

While on one hand the fi­nan­cial, le­gal, and reg­u­la­tory mat­ters in Spain can be tire­some, the coun­try also af­fords a bril­liant sce­nario where ev­ery­one is too dis­or­gan­ised, con­fused, lazy, and undis­ci­plined to ex­ert a shred of men­tal ef­fort car­ing what some­one else is do­ing. For that, it may as well be Alaska, and I pretty much can do what­ever I want−if I can find enough av­gas to keep the prop spin­ning.

The First 100 Days: Fly­ing in La

Cer­danya, a book of pho­to­graphs from Gar­rett’s first 100 flights in An­dorra, Cat­alo­nia, France and Spain, has re­cently been pub­lished. It is avail­able in the UK, Europe, and the USA on Ama­zon. Gar­rett blogs reg­u­larly at www.gar­ret­tfisher.me

When it came to buy­ing oil, no­body knew where I could pur­chase any

Re­fu­elling and top­ping up the oil at one of Spain’s many ru­ral airstrips

One of the ‘pesky’ in­ver­sions that hin­dered Gar­rett’s early ef­forts to pho­to­graph the Pyre­nees

Cloud forms re­veal moun­tain wave, as­so­ci­ated with both lift and the po­ten­tial for se­vere down­draught

There’s gran­ite in those clouds — this kind of moun­tain fly­ing is not the kind of thing to un­der­take with­out prior ex­pe­ri­ence and lo­cal brief­ing

The rather grand Tower at Lleida, which is sur­rounded by Class D but ser­viced by ATCOS only six hours a week

Mount Canigo: why would Gar­rett want to make a de­tour to see this, the ATCOS won­dered?

I found my­self wedged be­tween rather un­for­tu­nate at­mo­spheric con­di­tions for pho­tog­ra­phy

Pop­ping over the bor­der to pho­to­graph the laven­der fields of France

Rather more geo­met­ric in their pat­tern, the salt pans of the Delta del Ebro

Gar­rett’s Cub can be run on mo­gas, but only if it con­tains no al­co­hol. As no­body in Spain seems to ‘know or care’ whether it does or doesn’t, he car­ries cans of av­gas I in­tended to pho­to­graph var­i­ous ar­eas which had ‘of­fi­cial’ air­fields, but... no av­gas

Above: you are al­lowed to land at an aban­doned reg­is­tered camp de vol like this - but not at an un­reg­is­tered one, how­ever well main­tained it might be! Right: field pat­tern at the edge of the Mone­gros Desert

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