Flying adenture: A Greek Odyssey Part 2
Part 2 Flying the C182 to Greece using a hard-won Instrument Rating wasn’t quite trouble-free. It’s now time to contemplate the return trip
After enjoying an idyllic holiday, Stephen and Sally embark on their return journey
Two weeks into our Greek Odyssey and 1,800 miles from my home base at Denham, I had my first accident. Readers may remember from Part One that I’d flown my groupowned Cessna 182, G-MICI, with my flying partner Sally, across ten countries and a decent chunk of the Mediterranean, all the way from the UK to Sitia on the eastern edge of Crete. It had taken us over a week to get there in what was turning out to be by far the most challenging and exciting aerial tour of my piloting life. Since then, we’d spent a few days feasting on fish and feta, swimming in azure seas, marvelling at how far we’d travelled in our little flying machine, and watching the weather with a wary eye. Now it was time to start home. And that’s when it happened.
We’d arrived at Sitia airport at midday intending to fly 150 miles west to the tiny Ionian island of Kythira, nestling at the southern tip of the Peloponnese. The plan was to grasp a perfect opportunity and turn this into a low-and-slow VFR sightseeing expedition over and around a number of stunning Aegean islands. Given the tortuous complexities of most airport opening times in this part of the world−not to mention the almost total absence of avgas and sometimes sky-high fees− we’d decided not to land at any of those islands along the way.
Actually, let me rephrase that and say that we had originally thought of landing at one of them, Naxos, but the operator rather put me off by suggesting that if I didn’t stump up the demanded cash on arrival he could always take my aeroplane. That took Naxos off the list. Kythira, on the other hand, was cheap, cheerful and−we had been told−utterly unspoiled. So it was Kythira or bust.
Sitia airport, meanwhile, was packed−largely with German tourists heading home. Our handlers led us past the long queues at security, earning a number of angry glances in our direction. Then we were out onto the apron where MICI sizzled in the sunshine. I was carrying a
large box of oil. Not, I confess, the Aeroshell W100 kind, but delicious extra virgin olive oil harvested from the groves of Zakros on the Cretan coast. It was to prove my undoing. Thinking how lucky we were not to have to face all those dreadful queues, I managed to trip over the tiedown hook under our left wing and fall flat on my face. Eight cans of the finest quality olive oil scattered in all directions over the tarmac approximately fifty metres from a Germanwings Airbus A320. I’m sure I saw the pilot applauding. I bet the waiting passengers were.
Before this trip, Sally and I had seriously considered doing the excellent BMAA First-aid course but somehow life had got in the way, with the result that the various plasters and bandages she managed to stick over parts of my face and body had a distinctly amateurish quality. But they did the job which is what really matters. Once we’d cleared the cans of oil off the apron−all fortuitously intact−we decided to get going pronto. With a quick thumbs-up to our German pilot friends, we taxied to the clifftop runway, stepped on the gas, and finally were on our way.
One of the interesting things about flying little aeroplanes in Greece is that there are barely any other little aeroplanes flying about in Greece. The appalling bureaucracy appears to have killed most of them off. This means that you have the sky virtually to yourself, but it also means that controllers have an insatiable desire to know everything about your flight at almost every minute. Within the first half-hour of leaving the coast of Crete, we must have been asked for estimates to this or that waypoint on our flight-planned route at least ten times. It was worse than the navigation test for the PPL. Thank goodness for Skydemon!
But that wasn’t the whole of it. Matters were additionally complicated by the presence of an extremely long and convoluted NOTAM concerning a huge air and sea military exercise across practically the entire Aegean. Even Skydemon−normally so helpful with these things - appeared to be stymied by the sheer unintelligibility of this NOTAM, merely drawing a great big circle around most of Greece where the exercises were supposed to be taking place at various times during the day. And if all that wasn’t enough, the Turkish authorities then waded in with a very long NOTAM of their own, in which they stated that the Greek NOTAM was entirely illegal under various cited conventions going all the way back to the 1923 Lausanne Peace Treaty and should therefore be totally ignored.
You can probably guess where all this is going. The Greeks immediately responded with a second, even longer NOTAM, countering that under no circumstances should the Turkish NOTAM be observed, citing another bunch of ancient international treaties which all added up to the blunt message that the Turks were, basically, way out of line. No wonder poor old Skydemon was getting confused. So was I. Anyone reading these notices would think World War III was about to break out just as Sally and I were off to do our little aerial tour of the Aegean islands.
My philosophy in these situations is essentially to soldier on and hope that nobody would really want to shoot down a Cessna 182 and thereby start a war. I’ve also learned over the years−and I don’t just mean this from a flying perspective−that the further south you go the more rules you tend to get and the less anybody takes any notice of them. This was the principle we were about to put to the test.
The first island on our route was Santorini−a celebrated, pictureperfect Greek idyll of whitewashed houses and churches clinging to a cliff, albeit one scarred by too much tourism. As we approached its coast, I asked the friendly female controller if we could descend to 1,000 feet and orbit over the harbour. She agreed and down we went, skimming over the tops of yachts and cruise ships anchored below the town.
I’d seen innumerable photographs of Santorini taken from the vantage point of the town itself, and very pretty they were too, but nothing quite prepared me for the opposite view as we levelled out over the water and looked back up. The little town perched perilously on the spine of a cliff, a dazzling confection of streets and buildings appearing for all the world as if the whole lot might fall into the sea at any moment. We stared, amazed. It was worth more than all the NOTAM and endless ETAS just to get that incredible view.
It was at this point that the Santorini controller cut across our reverie and announced that, because of the NOTAMED Greek military exercise, she’d been advised by Athens Information that we could not fly our planned island tour and that we were to proceed immediately and by the most direct route possible to our destination, Kythira. This was a major blow. For the briefest of moments, I wondered whether to explain that I was observing the Turkish NOTAM instead, but caution prevailed. This was not a time for arguments about history. We’d come three-quarters of the way across Europe to see the Aegean islands and we weren’t going to be stopped now. Thinking I detected the merest hint of embarrassment in the
controller’s voice, I decided to act on it.
In the same tones I remember using as a kid to get my grandmother to buy me a Double 99 whenever the ice cream van turned up, I explained to the controller that we’d flown nearly 2,000 miles all the way from the UK in a once-in-a-lifetime trip for the single purpose of seeing the beautiful islands of the Aegean from the air, and asked her sweetly if there was anything she could do? It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d do, say, with Farnborough Radar but I was desperate and anyway this was Greece where a direct appeal to the heart might just work. The controller laughed, said she’d do her best and told us to standby. Moments later, she came back: “I have good news!” she exclaimed. The military would clear us a passage along our planned route. Sally and I high-fived in the cockpit. The controller sounded almost as delighted as we were.
And so we slowly wound our way at 1,500 feet over some of the loveliest islands in the world, over Ios, Naxos, Paros, Sifnos and Milos among others, all sparkling beneath MICI’S wings in the sunshine. The sky was blue and life felt good. With Athens Information now keeping an eye on our flight, we were occasionally asked to change a heading to make way for some passing jet or helicopter, but we never saw any other traffic. Almost too soon, Kythira appeared over the horizon with its little airport sitting on a plateau. We swung onto final approach over a landscape of olive groves and empty beaches, landing on an immaculately maintained runway. As always, there wasn’t a single other aeroplane on the apron. Our handlers greeted us like old friends, helped us tie down the aircraft (the local winds, we were told, could be seriously impressive) and whisked us
This is off-the-grid Greece, an island that belongs to the world of Gerald Durrell
through the deserted terminal. Within thirty minutes, we were driving our rental car into town.
One of the best things about Kythira is that nobody I know, apart from my Greek dentist, has ever heard of it. And even he was amazed we were going there. This is off-the-grid Greece, an island that belongs to the world of Gerald Durrell, where shopkeepers really do use antique scales to measure weights, where there are no resorts or big hotels, where locals are genuinely fascinated when they hear you speaking English and ask, in wondering voices, how you ever got here? Of course I exaggerate slightly: there are daily turboprop flights from Athens and there is a ferry, but the island still charms with its placid 1950s atmosphere, and sadly that’s increasingly rare these days. To fly there the way we did was truly a privilege.
Our base was Avlemonas, a hidden cove on the island’s eastern coast where large, balconied rooms were to be had at only fifty Euros a night, with the sea just ten steps away. As this was early October, we had the place almost to ourselves, and the weather continued to be perfect. With our hired car we explored the island’s many villages and monasteries, most of them sleeping in the sun with barely a visitor to be seen. The food was simple and scrumptious. For those thinking of making the same trip or going by air from Athens, I can heartily recommend a restaurant called Pierros in the old capital of Livadi, a place straight out of Zorba the Greek, complete with a patron who could have been a shoo-in for Anthony Quinn.
Kythira’s charms seduced us into staying longer than we intended, but a front moving in from the north meant that we couldn’t hang around forever and it was soon time to move on. The options, as always in Greece, were head-scratchingly narrow. There was no avgas at Kythira airport, and I’d already used up a good third of a tank getting here from Crete. My best fuel options were either to fly to Megara near Athens, one of the country’s very few (and possibly only) dedicated GA airfields, or to fly 250 miles north to Ioannina, a city not far from the Albanian border.
My preference was to get to Megara, because this would allow us to fly the low-level VFR route
along the coast right past Athens, with potentially amazing views of the Acropolis. But the worsening weather quickly put paid to that idea. With broken cloud bases of 2,000 feet or lower forecast over the southern Greek mainland, I couldn’t risk the flight, not least because part of the route takes you over Salamis, the biggest naval base in the country, and the last thing I wanted to do was get lost over that. Having dodged one military exercise, I didn’t want to tempt fate a second time. So it had to be Ioannina which, although almost impossible to pronounce, did at least have the advantage of being a port of entry. In Greece, even when you’re going to another EU or Schengen country, you still have to exit through one of these. And, unless you’re prepared to take out a second mortgage and transit through a big commercial airport like, say, Corfu, there aren’t too many to choose from. Ioannina fitted the bill.
So, in rapidly clouding skies, we rolled up at Kythira airport keen to get cracking. I had earlier filed a VFR flight plan that would take us north along the western coast of the Peloponnese, keeping well away from the high mountains in the interior. That front was racing in faster than had been forecast and I wanted to be well away before things started to get challenging. But, as we all know, things never quite work out like that.
Why is it that when you most need to get a move on something always gets in your way? In our case it was the airport security officer who, on a whim, had suddenly decided to leave the airport and go home for his lunch moments before we’d arrived. Since his home happened to be six miles away and he wasn’t answering his phone, all we could do was sit around while somebody drove all the way out to his house to drag him back so that he could check our bags were free of bombs. I pointed out to the very embarrassed airport operator that the only aircraft sitting on the apron was our own and we were hardly likely to blow it up, but in this case he wouldn’t budge. He did however offer me a case of his home-grown wine instead. I was tempted to drink it there and then. Instead, I checked and re-checked the weather. It wasn’t looking too great− still VMC but veering towards marginal. A couple of years ago that would have meant a definite scrub and back to the hotel, but now I had a joker in the pack, and that was my instrument rating. So out came the instrument approach charts for Ioannina.
Over an airport coffee I got down to studying them in detail. The last thing I wanted was to be caught out, especially since the MSA around Ioannina was 10,700 feet and you definitely don’t want to blunder about in the skies with that amount of cumulus granitas around. Looking at the winds, I reckoned the chances were high we’d get the RNAV for Runway 32, a fiendishly complicated approach with multiple stepdowns threading between sharp peaks, ending up with a Stukalike descent paralleling a lake towards the airport. Over and again, as I’d been taught, I flew the procedure in my head− and, just in case, the opposite approach. Then the airport security guy turned up, full of apologies. I thought he was about to offer me a case of his homegrown wine too, but instead he checked our bags. No bombs or weapons. We dashed out to MICI and, as drizzle began spitting from a lowering sky, finally got going.
Within twenty minutes, the clouds were brushing the tops of our wings at 2,000 feet over a grey sea. I called Athens Information and explained I wanted to switch to IFR. I was told to stand by. Just about the point when I was considering making a U-turn and heading
I had a joker in the pack, and that was my instrument rating
back to Kythira, Athens came back. They had a question. Was I instrument-rated? This was not something I’d ever been asked on the radio before, but I supposed it was because an instrument-rated private pilot flying around in a single-engine Cessna was a pretty rare event in Greece−hardly surprising given that any sort of private light aircraft flying about in Greece was a pretty rare event as far as I could see. Yes, I told Athens, I was suitably rated. The controller cleared us to FL100 just as the rain began pouring on the windscreen, masking any view ahead. Up we went into the soup. It was in the nick of time.
Popping out of the clouds into brilliant sunshine at FL85 we tracked north into improving weather, but the approach into Ioannina still had my pulse racing. We got the procedure
I was expecting and I was glad I’d done my homework. Weaving in and out of cloud in the descent, I was acutely aware of the proximity of those peaks. As we turned onto the final approach track the sun obligingly re-appeared, giving us a tremendous panorama of the lake nestling in the valley with the old walled city lapping its western edge. We landed on a huge runway and parked on yet another deserted apron before entering yet another deserted terminal. I say deserted, but there were at least six, all very friendly handlers standing there to greet us. It took almost an hour to complete the required paperwork.
Ioannina was a revelation. An ancient Ottoman city, it enjoys a truly sensational setting. Despite having only one night there we made the most of it, taking a boat across the lake to an island studded with magnificent monasteries and wandering the maze of streets and the old mosque in the walled town.
In the warm outdoors we had dinner in a restaurant serving the best souvlaki I have ever eaten, washed down with a carafe of the local wine. The city buzzed with life but not once did we hear an English voice. Up here in the wild mountains of northernmost Greece it was hard to remember that tourist-saturated Corfu was just forty miles away.
Back at the airport the following morning we arranged to have the tanks filled with fuel (at a whopping three Euros a litre), paid an equally whopping landing fee (all those friendly handlers don’t come cheap), showed our passport twice to two separate security officers who clearly had nothing else to do all day, before being driven by two further handlers less than twenty metres to our aeroplane. We loved Ioannina, but frankly the airport is an expensive obstacle course. By now Sally and I were looking forward to finding ourselves in a more user-friendly GA regime. We would certainly get that at our next destination, Linz in Austria.
I’d chosen Linz largely because it sits north of the easternmost Alps where the terrain is less problematic. Having crossed the Alps in the opposite direction further west, I didn’t fancy my chances going back that way well into October with less cooperative weather. The flight from Ioannina would be my longest ever, over 650 nautical miles, pretty much the same distance as London to Madrid. Not bad for a Cessna 182, if tough on the bladder.
So, having denied ourselves any coffee or even water at breakfast, we took off, spiralling up over the lake and the mosque and the mountains before heading initially to Corfu, then turning MICI’S nose northwards. The weather was excellent as, once again, we crossed Albania with its barren hills and strange landscape of strip fields, a leftover from the days of collective farming when the country was a Communist police state. Tirana, its capital, passed 9,000 feet below us, but even
from this altitude we could see huge piles of Soviet-style tower blocks encircling the city, ugly monuments to an ugly regime. On we went, past Croatia and Slovenia, over the Alps where we picked up a scraping of ice, and finally into Austria. Five hours after leaving Ioannina we were back on the ground at Linz, with only one thing on our minds. After a quick photo, we sprinted into the terminal, both absolutely desperate to find the loo.
With time pressing on, we could only stay a night. By now we’d been away for more than two weeks, and we had to get home. Sadly, this sort of trip doesn’t pay for itself and we had jobs to get back to. Linz itself did not disappoint, despite its dark history as the city where Hitler spent his youth. It proved to be a less touristy version of Salzburg, with its clattering old trams, cosy cafés and Rococo churches flanking the Danube. One day we’ll go back. But with a short-lived high pressure zone enveloping northern Europe, I wanted to take advantage of the good weather while it lasted and head on to England.
The curious thing about flying all the way to Greece and back is that a country like Austria suddenly feels almost as close to home as, say, Le Touquet once did. I realise how odd (and perhaps even a little smug) that must sound but it honestly does feel like that. Once we’d crossed the formidable barrier of the Alps, the distances left seemed undaunting. Given the previous day’s mileage, we could easily have flown all the way from Linz to Denham in one go. MICI was certainly good for it. With the engine leaned well beyond peak, she could virtually go on all day. But in the end we decided to give ourselves a bit of a break and head first a couple of hundred miles north-west for a brief stop at Rothenburg in Germany, a small town in Bavaria with a super little airport manned by a kindly AFISO and his Alsatian dog. So off we went.
The countryside below was gently rolling and autumnal, something of a shock after the harsher tones of the south. We kept low, enjoying the views and the freedom not to have to give ETAS every few minutes, or to negotiate a path through complex military exercises, or to cope with the challenges of 10,000 foot peaks. It was delightful simply to amble along over unchallenging terrain in sunny skies with the window open and little or nothing to say on the radio. Pure heaven, in fact.
Rothenburg is a town so perfectly fairy-tale that at any moment you half expect to see the Seven Dwarves sauntering down the street with a witch or two in pursuit. Every building seems to be half-timbered and quaintly crooked, which is why it comes as a shock to learn that forty per cent of the place was
actually bombed to pieces in WWII. Still, it’s an astonishing restoration, and a lovely destination which I’d strongly recommend to touring readers in search of something a bit different. Plus it has one of the best Christmas markets on the continent.
With heavy hearts, we lined up on the runway for the last leg
After bingeing on dumplings and sauerkraut, we stopped briefly for fuel and customs at nearby Schwäbish Hall−itself a charming town with one of the most efficient airports I have ever visited. Then finally, and with heavy hearts, we lined up on the runway for the last leg home. This time I’d decided to let the controllers do most of the work and filed IFR up in the airways. Wearing our cannulas, we cruised serenely above the clouds in brilliant sunshine at FL120 across Germany and Belgium, snacking on lunch while trying to remember to breathe through our noses.
Before we even reached the Belgian coast the unflappable professionals at London Control took good care of us, handing us from sector to sector in the descent towards London. The radio got very busy with airliners flying above and sometimes below us, still a strange sight to me from the cockpit of a Cessna 182. As always, I found myself amazed that those controllers were willing to make room for slowcoaches like us, skilfully threading us through one of the busiest aerial crossroads on the planet.
London conveniently dropped us out of its controlled airspace only a few miles from Denham where we joined an empty circuit to land. In silence we taxied to our parking spot, both wrapped up in our own thoughts. We had just travelled a total of almost 4,000nm to the other side of
Europe and back in a tiny singleengine piston aircraft. We stepped stiffly out of the cockpit into the cool of an English October evening, quietly removed our bags and more than two weeks worth of bits and pieces from the cockpit, and put MICI to bed. I gave her strut a little pat of thanks. She had carried us a long way. More than that, she had given us both the adventure of our lives. As we walked away, I had only one thought in my mind: where would our next adventure be? Already I couldn’t wait!
Sally doing her re-packing thing at Ioannina. Next stop Linz
BELOW: Clash of the NOTAM. This is Turkey's response to the Greeks
BELOW LEFT: Kythira airport plate and... BELOW RIGHT: ... turning final for the real thing
ABOVE: flying low over the islands
ABOVE: Kythira island, with its 'unspoiled 1950s atmosphere'
BELOW: at the airport before our departure to the north with deteriorating weather
LEFT: weather closing in as we head north to Ioannina – time to go IFR!
ABOVE: the old walled city of Ioannina, at the western edge of a lake nestling in a valley
BELOW: Ioannina's mosque – a relic from Ottoman days
BELOW: stunning mountain scenery in Albania as we head north
ABOVE: Ioannina airport, where friendly handlers ‘don’t come cheap’
Beautiful Linz; a quieter version of Salzburg and a place that, after Greece, felt close to home.
View of last overnight stop Rothenburg, a small town in Bavaria
Sally and me at Linz after our 650nm flight. Moments after the picture was taken we raced to the ‘facilities’
Skydemon keeping a warchful eye on our path
BELOW RIGHT: ready for another adventure? Stephen and Sally can’t wait
BELOW LEFT: Mountain High's excellent O2D2 pulse-demand unit in action at FL90.
ABOVE: the joys of IFR. Cruising home over Belgium at FL120, above the clouds.