Our US expat pilot thought Germany would be a homecoming for him but the bureaucracy and regulation proved to be all too much
Following in the hallowed footsteps of my ancestors, I came to Germany from America to understand more about my roots and to embrace the only culture that “can get anything done”, words often heard from my grandfather when referencing the shining glories of the Fatherland.
What I did not consider while in America, even though the data was plainly evident in front of my face, was the fact that all of my German ancestors left Germany for some unexplained reason, and whatever that was, it was sufficient to warrant crossing the ocean to the west to come to the United States. Instead, I wandered east?with an aeroplane?thinking I would find something better.
The first indication that I might have had a moment of delusion came during some initial maintenance activities on the Cub, a hangover from equipment installation in the United States?all of which had been needed to operate in Europe in the first place. Attempting to handle the most basic of maintenance activities, I ran into the largest of roadblocks: a complex system of inane, obtuse, and poorly-thought-out regulations that rendered it all but impossible to find qualified assistance to troubleshoot and repair some issues with the airplane.
To make matters worse, if a person brings up ‘troubleshoot’ with reference to an engine, Germans are programmed to have a neurological reflex, standing at attention and barking “Overhaul it!” while suspending all further thought.
Early in the maintenance adventure, I walked into a nearby shop wishing to get my transponder checked, for prevention’s sake. The guy behind the desk asked the make and model of the aircraft, and proceeded to look into some reference materials, shout some orders, and then dial a number on the phone. I reminded him I needed a transponder verified, and asked if he wanted the make and model of the unit. No, he did not need it, and please shut up while I finish this call.
After an ordinary conversation in German, he advised me that while they have a mechanic certified for the PA-11, the repair station is not, so they could not help me. “Excuse me? I simply need a transponder checked. What is so hard about that?” “Ve are not zertified to verk on your airplane.” “Um, I need you to check the transponder. You’re not working on anything. You’re just checking that the signal is correct. Why the hell can’t you do that?” “Ve cannot help you!”
In the United States, a mechanic can work on any aircraft, there is no such thing as certification for specific makes and models. Perhaps Germany keeps aviation safe by prohibiting flying?
That started further adventures in finding other mechanical assistance and learning about Part 43, which is the section of regulation that governs maintenance on N-registered aircraft. American pilot-owners are permitted to perform quite a surprising number of activities themselves, up to and including removal of some significant aircraft parts.
When he saw this activity take place, I was warned by a prospective buyer of the flight school at which I was basing my aircraft that such things would be verboten when he takes over?and I must get my engine overhauled because, as he put it so eloquently, “it is f***ed”.
What this German failed to understand was that he was dealing with an American. We are the type of emotionally-fuelled, self-centred, ignorant, and sometimes violent culture that will fight to the death to preserve a dilapidated hovel of a mobile home, brandishing all eighty IQ points in the defence of one’s God-given right to private property. There was no way in hell I was going to put up with some pontificating, self-righteous autocrat who believed that the answer to all questions was a major overhaul.
There was also the matter that Germany completely sucked as a place to live. I had long held a profound disdain for much of the cultural stupidity that took place in the social circles of my childhood into young adulthood, the product of what I now understand to be cloistered, post-immigrant communities of German and Polish descendants, all basted with the worst facets of American thinking and baked in the oven of Rust Belt economic underperformance.
I merely viewed such foolishness as American short-sightedness as I yearned for the land of order, organisation, cleanliness, hard work, and fiscal solvency. It only took a few months to realise that just about everything I disliked about the social fabric of my youth?and most particularly the bulk of my family that I despise?was actually a composite picture of German cultural norms! Like a Twilight Zone episode that meets a horror movie, I woke up to the stark and horrifying reality that I laid out extraordinary sums of money to move to the one section of the planet that contains the highest concentration of the list of things I dislike the most.
Quietly, I began a fervent search for somewhere else to live. The rule was simple: aviation would be prioritised, for the sake of flying, and for the sake of photography and freedom. My wife and I also decided that proximity to a large city was overrated, and we should choose a site near a pleasant, small airport, in the countryside. That was all well and good, except there was a hangover from the days of National Socialism that stood in the way.
Back when Germany was the number one superpower on planet Earth, things were so utterly splendid that the German government felt it necessary to prevent people from committing the delusional act of leaving the utopian capital of fascism by imposing a tax of 96% on the gross proceeds of all asset sales related to outbound migration; the Reichsfluchtsteuer. As one would logically expect, selling one’s house, taking the proceeds in cash, and attempting to escape via airports was a bit of a problem, so the Nazis kindly required that all airports be manned for aircraft operations to take place in order to prevent anyone from leaving. To this day, the hangover is called ‘Information Service’.
Before I get labelled as politically incorrect, I have validated this story with many sources. I am not sure what is more disturbing: that it is correct, that Germans confirm it with a completely straight face without the slightest hint of displeasure, or that no one has actively fought an oppressive, inane, expensive, and silly regulation that harks back to repressing unfortunate souls fleeing for their lives. Instead, the Germanic tendency to accept things as they are kicks in, and the German aviation community continues to pay the fees, foregoes freedom, undermines aviation potential and submits to the grand system that achieves no more than bureaucracy and homage to deceased Nazi airport guards.
German airports still mandate an Information Service for all movements. There are no such things as blind calls in uncontrolled airspace. To make matters worse, I have had near collisions at German airports with Information Service, where the FISO chose not to tell me about things like two aircraft on left and right base, turning simultaneously on final.
Hampered by an obsessive need to stare at the moving map on my GPS, to avoid a fine for not flying precisely around the designated circuit, I have never felt less safe in the air. Even worse, my wife and I needed to be close enough to civilisation to have an airport with scheduled operating hours that included weekdays. If things were too remote and pleasant, the local airport would only be open on weekends, and that was not viable: Germany wasn’t going to work.
After a long and taxing search, I located what I understood to be a rental on Atlantic Airpark in western France. The entire process was mind-bending, particularly as I had not considered moving to France before, didn’t speak a word of the language, and would need to get a visa and figure out how to move within Europe. While I had done it enough in the USA, this was just something else.
In the middle of this process, I received a note that the owner of the house we were renting wished to come over to discuss something important. He then broke the news of what was then a love triangle overlaid with (I wish I was making this up) neo-Nazi activities.
There would be a separation from his wife, and she was demanding the house we were living in, so we were handed notice?which was legally binding due to the nature of the contract and who was moving in?and had three months to exit the property. For the record, the love triangle turned into a very convoluted love quartet over the next few months.
Unlike America, however, guns were not involved, both parties separated assets in an orderly manner, instead of spitefully spending it all on divorce lawyers so the other person couldn’t have it, and new paramours were paraded with abandon in front of former spouses. While Germany is an impossible place to live, it seems they know how to manage divorce efficiently whilst celebrating spiteful virility.
A few days later, the owner of the home in France decided to sell in lieu of renting. We ended up in a bit of a scramble, looking for a new place to live with the nearly impossible combination of short notice and exalted focus on aviation.
The search took us from Norway to Portugal and just about everywhere in between. We came close to opportunities ranging from a dusty Portuguese farm to a Danish island to a French chateau, and others, all falling out of the running for reasons ranging from suitability of housing, lack of heat, or someone else renting it first.
By pure chance, I searched for airports in Andorra, leading me to the nearest one in Spain, La Seu d’Urgell, which looked quite pretty from the air. I phoned to check on hangar space and got the hazy impression that I could displace someone with a suitably large enough pile of unmarked bank notes, so I started looking for housing in the area. What I found was quite splendid, and inexpensive to boot.
Curiously, the best housing was thirty minutes to the east. Wandering around Google Maps, I discovered an airport that was not on ICAO maps, La Cerdanya. Looking at the website and researching the area, it was incredibly beautiful and just about exactly what I wanted in life?at least from a distance. I phoned to inquire about hangar space. After finally connecting with the right person, I was told there was room for one airplane (later coming to know that my good fortune was due to a glider crash). My immediate reply was “I’ll take it”, and then set about the process of finding a place to live.
After a few agonising weeks, my wife and I found a glorious place to live close to the airport and leased it from the end of summer, in sufficient time for the angry middle-aged German divorcees to prepare their respective nests for salacious copulation. Less than a week before the nearly impossible plan involving moving across Europe and returning to fly the aircraft south, I learned how Germans don’t cause hangar rash on airplanes, they practice hangar smash.
I got a phone call that there was a “slight mishap” while ground handling the Cub, but “it’s airworthy”. Upon laying eyes on the carnage, I was greeted with a completely caved wingbow, amazed more that Germans would consider this airworthy yet demand complete overhaul at the slightest aberration when it is not their financial responsibility. In a mad dash, the damage was repaired in mere days before the move.
The terrestrial portion of my impossible moving plan worked quite well, whereas the aviation portion didn’t get off to the greatest start due to weather. Standing at the information desk, I filed my first flight plan in Europe, direct into France for the first time and across the entirety of the country, on a marginal weather day, without the aid of inflight weather services that I am used to on my iPad.
Using the standard European forecast system, the grading was yellow for a corridor south through the Rhine valley, southwest over the Continental Divide between the mountains to the west of the Rhine and the Jura Mountains to the south. From there, the plan was to head south through the Rhône valley and into the South of France. While the standard forecast and operational metrics indicated that things would be fine, I had an inadequate amount of information, by my standards, to back the plan up, and my instinct from crossing the United States many times told me that there would be a monkey wrench.
Taking off in Germany, it felt like I was sneaking out as a fugitive, flying on a breezy, cloudy day with sprinkles and an evil, menacing sky, over farmland of nearly perfect polygonal layout. Most would have noticed the beauty of vineyards and rolling farmland; I saw a sea of rules that could be broken with the stiffest of consequences. France couldn’t come soon enough.
I crossed near Wissenbourg into worsening visibility and precipitation, though still sufficiently VFR. At the behest of Langen Information, I called Strasbourg Information, wondering what linguistic horrors would await this portion of the trip. Germans had made it quite clear that the French would refuse to speak English on the radio and that it would be wise to learn some aeronautical French to fly in the land of francophony. In a symbolic gesture of breaking the rules, I didn’t bother to learn a single phrase, instead pulling up a cheat sheet on my iPad in case it was necessary.
My decision was to plead American ignorance and foolishness if it came down to it. Oddly, Strasbourg Information and every other ATCO and FISO in France spoke English without hesitation. Perhaps the French reticence to be accommodating to Germans has something to do with two unwelcome visits by the Wehrmacht in the early 20th century.
My first landing point was Colmar, France, where my first pleasant surprise was that I was cleared direct to land, no obsequious observance of imaginary lines on the map required; the second was a thirty per cent reduction in avgas prices. Vive la France!
From Colmar, the next intended stop was north of Lyon, though I wondered about the reality of the plan. Clouds and precipitation looked problematic in the surrounding terrain, despite an update to weather forecasts on the ground still allowing a VFR corridor. Opting to climb out over 5,000 foot mountains to the west of the airport due to precipitation to the south, I was greeted with a sea of clouds on the other side of varying layers and densities.
I turned south following the path of least cumulus resistance, eventually trying to go under the clouds, only to find that it was a recipe for controlled flight into terrain. I climbed back to 7,000 feet to weasel around some towering cumulus, always maintaining sight of the ground and an escape plan, even if it was to an ultralight field. Finally, faced with a wall of clouds and precipitation, I did something I had never done in my flying career: called information for some help to navigate around the weather. In the USA, for decades I either lacked a radio or had better live inflight weather backed by a national cellular data network. Here, I was reliant on more traditional methods.
I changed course to the northwest to avoid the bigger clouds and maintain sight of the ground, while Luxeil Approach quite kindly called area airports to confirm ceilings. Finding one with a 1,200 foot ceiling, I headed west, circled down, and ducked under the cloud deck until it got too low for my liking further south, turning to Gray to wait it out for two hours.
As the ceilings rose, I made it to Dole thirty minutes to the south, and waited another two hours for ceilings to lift. Similar to crossing the United States, I sat at the airport with fellow pilots who were waiting for destination minima to rise so they could make their flight on an IFR flight plan. If my Cub can’t make it, chances are IFR aircraft and business jets cannot either. I have lost track of the amount of times that has happened.
I finally made Valence for the night, only to find out that, in the capital of le Mistral, the local airport did not think providing tie-downs was a sensible plan. Improvising using cement blocks and extension cords, I weighted the plane down and feasted on some delightful French food before sleeping for the night.
The next day, le Mistral was raging, so much so that it lifted one of the aircraft tyres during refuelling. Lacking tie-downs, I decided it was best to get out as soon as possible as locals advised it would only get worse in the afternoon. Taking off mid-field, I was above circuit altitude after covering one thousand feet along the ground, and quickly turned south, with a 45 knot tailwind to accelerate my plans.
One of the negatives of French flying is airspace. Someone in Paris was playing with shape-making software, had a sponsored epileptic event, and then decided to publish the result as the national map of French airspace. It is the most convoluted thing I have seen, though it was nicely offset by French information services, as I was cleared through every control zone that I had requested thus far. That was, of course, until the morning with 45 knot winds, where I was handed to Orange Approach, cleared to only 1,700ft, and had the blissful joy of riding the rotors in the small hills with blowing dust and bent trees on the ground.
Eventually, I was permitted to turn westward, for which I was directed to climb to 3,300ft to overfly another active zone, though that was far more pleasant than scraping the ground during a hurricane. That leg culminated with learning about the existence of another wind, la Tramontane, which rages between the Pyrenees and Massif Central. The radio operator at Lezignan came out and walked the wing during taxi to prevent the airplane from tipping over.
The final flight leg into Spain was delightful, save for some nasty turbulence in the circuit, which was the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mountain winds. La Cerdanya is situated at 3,609ft MSL, in a valley with peaks rising as high as 9,500ft in the Pyrenees, along the border with France.
A happy refuge in Spain
What are my initial impressions of Spain? Home to a prolific governmental ineptitude coupled with Spaniards’ natural view that laws are suggestions; it is a delightful flamenco twirl of freedom, even if created by virtue of neglect and disorganisation.
I speak the language (hey, imagine that), have no Information Service to deal with, do not have to fly a straight line in the circuit?much less goose step on the tarmac?have unlimited landings for a small monthly fee, and basically can do whatever the hell I want. For that I am extremely happy at the latest adventure life has thrown at us.
Garrett Fisher is an author and aerial photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline.
He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.
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