It was my friend Pat Malone, fellow club-member at Cornwall Flying Club and regular Pilot columnist, who asked me if I would be interested in a trip to Turkey in his Robin DR400.
He and Keith Hayley, the previous owner of the aircraft, were thinking of joining a ‘flying safari’ which was being organised by a company called Prepare2go. The plan was for a team of aircraft to join together in Istanbul and then spend eight days seeing the sights right across Turkey ? from Istanbul via the Black Sea coast to the Armenian border in the east, then south-west towards the Syrian border and finally through Cappadocia and back to Istanbul, a distance of some 2,000 miles. This struck me as quite an undertaking in a single-engined aircraft ? with the transits to and from Bodmin we would be looking at a total distance of over 4,000 miles and therefore at least forty hours’ flying.
However, I soon learned that to Sam Rutherford, the prime mover of Prepare2go, this was but a walk in the park. After leaving the Army (he was a helicopter pilot in the Army Air Corps) Sam set out to fly a flexwing microlight from London to Sydney. After getting as far as Pakistan he was forced to abandon this project when the problem of obtaining onward over-flight clearances became insurmountable. But Sam merely jumped into the Land-Rover with his support team and continued to Sydney anyway!
Subsequently he started Prepare2go as a company that facilitated other people’s expeditions to areas where terrain and/or local conditions made life difficult ? his typical customers being film crews, rally organisers, security firms and even the National Geographic Society. He also started to arrange flying safaris, enabling groups of small aircraft to undertake adventurous expeditions to distant places. The Maule aircraft which he owns ? bought in Texas and flown by him back to his base in Brussels ? very appropriately has ‘Never say never’ emblazoned on its cowling.
So, given all this I was more than happy to join the trip. Pat and Keith were both experienced private pilots with IMC ratings, but had agreed that they would feel more comfortable if they had my greater experience to back them up ? I appreciated their confidence in me but some of what was to come was not exactly in my comfort zone either. The problem was that the one thing Sam could not organise was the weather ? the expectation was that the scheduling of this trip in May would ensure benign VMC and a comfortable summer temperature of around 25°C. The reality was that we had extensive cloud, frequent rain and scattered thunder-storms to contend with on almost every leg ? made more challenging by the fact that Turkey has mountains in abundance, many up to 10,000ft or more in height.
A further complication was that no reliable VFR charts are available for Turkey, but at least the ever-resourceful Sam provided us with Michelin road maps as well as an IFR route map ? and of course all the aircraft were equipped with GPS. But, all the same, staring at that magenta line on a screen with a plain black background only provides limited confidence when the view outside of the cockpit is of mountains all around and a lowering cloud-base ahead.
Another problem involved the lack of avgas to the east of Ankara; Turkey has virtually no GA activity below the level of executive jets and so much of Sam’s preparatory work had to focus on providing a fuel bowser to follow us around. This he achieved, but inevitably at an increase in the cost of the fuel. Furthermore the Turkish authorities, not being used to such a visitation by light aircraft, ruled that we should only use designated airports of international standard. Hence we invariably arrived at airports with long runways, enormous concrete aprons and shiny new terminals; with us as the only customers. However, this proved to be a boon to the local security staff, who delighted in subjecting us to seemingly endless baggage checks.
As the date for departure approached the cast list became clearer. There would be seven aircraft on the trip, four fixed-wing and three R44 helicopters ? the fixed-wings being Sam’s Maule, an Extra 400 and two DR400s. Three of the fixed-wing and two of the helicopters were crewed by husband and wife teams ? Sam and Bea in the Maule, Nigel and Rosemary in the Extra 400, Martin and Annette in their DR400, with William and Annie and Tony and Mary-Anne in two of the R44s.
Pat, Keith and I made up the fixed-wing numbers and the third R44 joined us from Majorca with Marcus, the owner, Dan (an instructor along for the ride) and Jainie, a professional photographer. The final cast member was Tufan, a Turkish pilot now resident in UK who had contacted Sam for assistance in planning a trip to Cape Town in his An-2 biplane. This was not his first foray into long-distance flying as he had previously flown a DR400 around the world. Naturally, Sam was quick to recruit him as an adviser for this trip.
The first step was to get everyone together in Istanbul, and our first rendezvous was at Charleroi airport near Sam’s base in Brussels. From there we flew on via Linz, Budapest and Bucharest, enjoying night-stops in each place and collecting fellow-travellers along the way. On the due date all seven aircraft were gathered together at Sabiha Gokcen (LTFJ) airport in Istanbul.
For us in Pat’s DR400 the outbound transit had proved straightforward, apart from the challenge of crossing the Carpathian mountain range between Budapest and Bucharest. A low-level run through the valleys did not look an appealing option with the cloud-base lowering as the mountains rose ahead of us. However, trying to remain above safety height and maintain VMC had us up at 12,000ft for a while, with the heavily-laden Robin clearly unimpressed with the effort required to maintain such an unfamiliar altitude. But, as was to happen so often over the next few days, all was resolved once the clouds cleared. Furthermore the engine never missed a beat, and as the trip progressed we learned the importance of adjusting the mixture to provide for best performance when operating at higher altitudes. We were delighted to note on our return to UK that the average fuel consumption for the 42 hours flown was in the order of 31lt/hr ? pretty good for a 180hp engine.
After a pleasant stay in a hotel opposite the famous Blue Mosque and having enjoyed a free day savouring the sights of Istanbul, we were ready to set off on our circumnavigation of Turkey. The idea was that we should fly close enough to maintain contact on the designated ‘chat’ frequency and on previous expeditions Sam had chosen an appropriate root call-sign. For this trip it was to be ‘Carpet’ and as numbering was in speed order we became Carpet 3. The fixed-wings normally tried to depart in a ten second stream whilst the helicopters departed in similar fashion as a separate group, often some time ahead of the fixed-wings to reduce the spread of arrival times at the destination. While Nigel went on ahead in the Extra and the two Robins followed along, Sam concentrated on keeping contact with the helicopters as the group inevitably spread out during the transit. Radio contact was maintained on the chat frequency with Nigel passing back ATC and weather information as necessary. The helicopters, low down and often unable to maintain contact on ATC frequencies, kept up a seemingly continuous flow of in-flight banter on the chat frequency, with William often chastising the others for perceived deviations from the route. But when conditions became difficult, as they often did in the mountains, the mutual support and co-operation they displayed contributed greatly to the fact that we completed all our flights as planned.
Our departure from Sabiha Gokcen was typical of what was to come, except on this occasion the helicopters left only a short time ahead of the fixed-wings. With a cloud base of only 1,300ft and rising ground ahead the helicopters were soon struggling to find a clear route, while the fixed-wings were able to climb. Nigel was quick to report that he had found good VMC at 3,000ft and we were able to continue our climb to 7,000ft to clear the hills ahead. Eventually the helicopters found good viz and by the time we reached Ankara (LTAC) the weather was fine.
After refuelling we set out for our next destination of Trabzon (LTCG) on the Black Sea coast. Despite Sam’s standard brief “the weather’s good, we fly direct” (it rarely was and we rarely did!) it transpired that directly across our route there was a large military training area with a rather ambiguous lower level. Nigel in the lead aircraft called up on the designated frequency and was re-routed via a VOR on the coast, whilst in Carpet 3 we were given radar headings that took us in a similar direction. In Carpet 2, however, Martin was less prepared to accept a diversion from his planned route, but the more he raised objections with the controller the more he was given headings further to the left of his desired track. Eventually he had to give in, by which time he had entertained us with the amount of English grumpiness he had managed to convey in his otherwise correct and courteous R/T. Meanwhile Sam and the helicopters made the decision that they would be below whatever was the lower limit of the area and continued on without interference. For us, the change to our route resulted in us following the coast towards Trabzon and soon Nigel was relaying that the ATIS there was giving good VMC. So we were a little surprised to be forced to descend below 1,500ft in murky conditions as we approached the airfield, but a straight-in approach with ILS assistance proved simple enough.
However, for Sam and the helicopters approaching from the south and now above the clouds to clear the hills, but expecting VMC once over the coast, things did not look so good. The helicopters needed a break in the clouds to descend to the airfield, so Sam queried with ATC the difference between the reported conditions (scattered at 3,000ft) and the observed solid overcast at 1,500ft, but was assured that the former was correct. Fortunately it did appear that there were breaks in the cloud out to sea so the helicopters fanned out in search of a hole through which to descend, which eventually solved the problem. Meanwhile Sam had landed, talked himself into the visual control room in ATC and managed to get his hands on the microphone. Thus ‘Carpet Tower’ issued the landing clearances to Carpets 5, 6 and 7.
The purpose of our stay in Trabzon was to visit the Sumela Monastery which we did the following morning prior to our departure on the next leg of our trip. Founded in the fourth century, and completed in its present form in the thirteenth, it remained occupied until 1923. Built into a sheer rock face in a steep wooded valley it certainly presented a remarkable spectacle. After an hour or so exploring the monastery and its surroundings we were back in the mini-bus and returned to the airfield for our departure to Erzurum (LTCE), only some 120 miles to the south-east. After climbing through a thin layer of cloud we continued in good VMC up to 9,000ft to clear the mountains on track while Sam and the helicopters took the scenic route through the valleys. During our descent towards Erzurum, an airfield with an elevation just over 5,700ft, we had to avoid some heavy rain showers, but emerged in the clear with ten miles to run for a straight-in visual approach.
Once we had all landed it was into a bus for our continued journey on to Kars, which had been our preferred destination but at which we had not been permitted to land. The inconvenience of this was compounded when our bus suffered a catastrophic failure of its cooling system and we ended up stranded beside the road whilst Sam and Tufan made several urgent phone calls. Despite being out in the sticks it was notable that, like everywhere else we went in Turkey, a full strength mobile-phone signal was available. Remarkably, within an hour and a half we were on our way again in a replacement bus.
The following day we travelled out to the ruined city of Ani on the Armenian border and spent half a day looking around this remarkable site. We returned to Kars in the afternoon and remained there overnight prior to being driven back to Erzurum the following morning ? this time in a brand-new and very up-market machine. On arrival in Erzurum we stopped in the town for lunch in a local restaurant and just avoided being outside in a vicious hail-storm ? a good day not to be flying. The next day we were flying again, this time heading south-west towards Sanliurfa/GAP (LTCS) airfield. A mini-bus ride took us to our real destination of Adiyaman, but this time on a good highway past the enormous Ataturk Dam and through a well-developed agricultural landscape. That evening we climbed to the summit of Mount Nemrut, the site of stone statues erected in honour of a pre-Roman megalomaniac king and his gods. From this vantage point at over 6,500ft we viewed the remarkable vista of hills and mountains as the sun set below the western peaks.
The next morning we drove into the attractive town of Sanliurfa for a look-around before heading out to the airfield to prepare for our flight to Nevsehir (LTAZ), which would be the base for our visit to Cappodocia. Once airborne we ran in to the problem of high ground and cloud obscuring the hill-tops again, but on this occasion I encouraged Pat to remain below the cloud and with the road map carefully aligned with our route I set about providing him with the necessary guidance. Not everything seemed quite as per the map but on balance I was pretty sure I knew where we were, so I told Pat he should follow a valley around to the left, after which we would see a small lake and a village from where we should turn right to follow a valley leading west and towards lower ground. However, he did not seem impressed when there was no lake to be seen! All I could say was that he should continue to follow my directions and that the map was wrong about the lake ? which he did and it was, much to my relief.
Once on the ground at Nevsehir we were transported to a charming hotel in the delightfully named village of Mustafapasa. Some 300 years ago this area was populated mostly by Greeks and much of their culture remains reflected in the local surroundings, as we were to see the next day ? with monasteries and churches built into caves, and their walls decorated with beautiful frescos. But before that we had an early start so that we could make a dawn balloon flight over the extraordinary Cappadocian countryside with its amazing rock towers, created by the wind and weather eroding the soft volcanic rock into hundreds of strangely shaped pillars. Most of us had not made a balloon flight before and I was certainly very struck by the manner in which we sailed serenely along, free to observe so clearly all that was below us. It was fascinating to watch the way in which our pilot adjusted altitude to take advantage of the changing wind direction as we climbed, and thus achieving a remarkable degree of control over where we landed. But the most startling fact was that we were just one of some sixty balloons in the air that morning ? apparently Cappadocia is one of the best places in the world for ballooning, with conditions being suitable for flight on more than 320 days a year.
The next day was the last of our trip around Turkey and by mid-day we were airborne on our way back to Istanbul, having the seemingly obligatory tussle with cloud and high ground along the way, and again finding ourselves above 10,000ft for a time, before descending back in Sabiha Gokcen to complete our circular tour. Officially the safari ended at this point and we were all free to make our own way thereafter, and indeed the helicopters did just that. However, we fixed-wingers were all keen to head straight for home, so the following day saw us headed back up the Bosphorus ? this time in clearer conditions than when we had flown in and therefore able to enjoy more the impressive sights of Istanbul and marvel at being able to view two continents, one on each wing-tip.
While Nigel in the Extra had the performance to reach Linz in one go, we could not get beyond Bucharest due to the weather over the Carpathians and so made a night-stop there. This meant that we had to do 1,100 miles the next day if we were to achieve the objective of a two-day run back to the UK. We struggled to maintain a safe height over the mountains, this time with icing threatening, but cautious patience was rewarded and we were soon clear and descending over the plains beyond. We stopped for fuel at Linz and Kortrijk, and finally reached Biggin after ten hours and twenty minutes of flying… then had to do an ILS to get in.
This had been a fabulous trip with some remarkable experiences along the way; not least the realisation that so much is possible in a single-engined aircraft.