A challenging and rewarding trip in an aeroplane powered by a converted VW Beetle engine, all navigation being done the old-fashioned way
By Bob Grimstead
For European touring you need a reliable Lycoming engine (or preferably, two) a GPS, VOR, ADF, an ELT, a transponder and at least one VHF radio.
No you don’t! A couple of years ago I flew to Norway in my Fournier RF4D G-AWGN (Wagon, stage name RedHawk) using just my eyes, my thumb, a sheaf of charts and its wibbly-wobbly compass. I had a battery-powered radio, but I barely used it. Oh, and my Fournier’s frugal 1400cc engine came from a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle.
It took me just two days to get to central Sweden, two more days back from Norway, and a single, memorable day between them. Naturally there were adventures.
Why go all that way? An article I wrote about flying aerobatics for London’s Red Bull Air Race attracted the attention of airshow organisers at Dala-Järna’s Flygfesten (Sweden) and Rygge’s Aviation Centenary (Norway) so they invited me to display for them. It was over twenty years since I previously crossed the Channel in a lightplane, and I had never done so alone: clearly preparation was required.
For each 900nm journey I would traverse eight countries speaking nine languages and using four currencies, so I popped down to the bank for a variety of folding money. Transair confirmed I would need no fewer than ten charts (costing over £200, nearly as much as the round-trip fuel!) Only now did I realise Sweden’s enormous size, covering eight whole half-million charts from top to bottom, and I needed four of these! All those FIR boundaries meant I would have to file ten ATC flight plans each way. Fortunately, everywhere but the UK and Norway subscribes to the Schengen agreement, so once over the Channel my only Customs requirement would be notes on my Norwegian entry and departure flight plans.
I bought a McMurdo Fast Find PLB. With no transponder, I would be constrained below 1,500 feet in the Netherlands, but that should be little problem in the Low Countries, and lacking a mixture control I rarely climb above 3,000 feet anyway.
I hoped to stay in hotels, but it seemed prudent to carry a lightweight one-man tent and sleeping bag. These almost filled the baggage area behind my head, but space remained for a soft overnight bag with a week’s clothes and two home-made loaves of gluten-free bread. Of the twenty marine distress smoke canisters I needed for displays and practices, four went into the wingtip pods, while the others fitted neatly in the wedge-shaped space behind my seat-back. In here also went my tie-downs, a tool kit, some spares and a litre of oil, minimising centre of gravity effects.
My 42 year-old Fournier operates on an EASA Permit to Fly rather than a C of A, simplifying continental travel, but I still had to write to those non-EU Norwegians for overflight permission. Then all I needed was my passport and the aircraft’s documents. All this paperwork, my ten charts (carefully folded and filed in order), an Aerad flight guide, ruler, protractor and a purloined flight-plan pad went into a plastic bag beside me.
Smaller items like the PLB would fit into my flying overalls’ zippered pockets, and most of the time I would be wearing my lifejacket, sunglasses and gloves. A couple of water bottles, sandwiches and chocolate bars would go behind my left calf, but the equivalent space on the right holds the mainwheel’s retraction mechanism.
My route was dictated by three things: aircraft range, Fournier-friendliness and nightstop accommodation. The low-drag RF4D is incredibly flexible. At 2,200rpm it will do 65mph for eight hours, giving a theoretical 450nm range. But any wind spoils this, so more practical settings are 85 mph and 9.5 litres per hour. The tank holds 36 litres, giving a safe rage of maybe 250nm, so I planned on 200-mile legs, flying three per day.
Starting from Goodwood, I could easily make Holland, but after hearing horror stories of bossy bureaucracy, I decided to overfly their whole country. Belgian Wevelgem (Kortrijk/Courtrai) with fuel, all-day Customs and a café would be my first stop.
A Fournier Forum friend, Jorgen Ästrad, had flown this route a few years previously in his RF4D, and recommended Leer in Northern Germany as being glider-friendly, so that would be my second destination. Jorgen overnighted at another gliding field, Flensburg on the Baltic coast, and I would do likewise. Day two, leg one would get me to Jorgen’s airstrip near Malmö, after which I would follow his advice.
Almost inevitably, a summer depression blew in. The furthest I could progress on a murky first day was 18nm along the coast to Shoreham, and that was pushing it. Re-planning overnight, I set off again as soon as Customs were open to stay ahead of another impending warm front.
Heading along the coast for overhead Lydd under threatening clouds, I called London Information and turned right for 23 miles of sea, climbing when I could to 6,000 feet. Visual navigation over the Channel held no qualms, since my Fournier’s 20:1 glide angle should enable me to make the shallows wherever the engine failed. As Wagon and I coasted-in over Cap Griz Nez the clouds broke up and the sun shone steadily. A left turn at the wind farm 11nm inland put us clear of Calais and Gravelines nuclear power station, so I signed off with Lille and enjoyed the radio silence. Heading due east for Wevelgem I called up and landed, slightly cramped but relieved after exactly two hours airborne.
Quickly refuelling with just 14 litres, I filed another flight plan before continuing non-radio straight up through the Netherlands (but around its numerous lumps of controlled airspace) at their non-transponder 1,400 feet. The first leg was an 86-mile straight line past Gent, Woensdrecht and the Rhein estuary to a group of obstructions east of Rotterdam. To my delight, these turned out to be no fewer than twelve classic Dutch windmills.
A gentle left turn briefly took me over highly industrial areas between Amsterdam and Utrecht towards Pampus VOR; then it was half right and a straight 102nm run to Leer. I opened my sandwiches and munched happily. This leg was lovely, first coastal, then a succession of wide, flat fields interspersed with estuaries and dykes ? perfect for forced landings. I started taking photographs.
Approaching Leer/Papenburg airfield, I called for the runway in use and was told 26. Looking for it, I was surprised to see a great big observation tower sticking up on downwind. Further chart scrutiny revealed an over-printed obstruction symbol but, unable to read its height, I gave it a wide berth. Turning final, I was half-blinded by the low sun reflecting off lakes either side of the threshold, which was also surrounded by trees. I landed very carefully. My last leg today was only 115nm. Becoming bored, I opened the throttle and pushed on at 100mph to get it done. As I routed over Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven on the Heligoland Bight the sky became blue-gold and silky smooth, an orange sun glowing over my left shoulder. It was a lovely end to a 483nm, 6:40 flying hour day.
Flensburg had both hard and grass runways, so I opted for the latter, refuelled, unpacked, tied down Wagon and took a taxi into town. After a pleasant fish supper and a mobile chat home from this Baltic port, I toppled tired but happy into a clean bed in a modern, if soulless hotel.
With three international borders and lots of water to cross, I did some serious chart-work, measuring the latitude and longitude of Jorgen’s airstrip for the ATC flight plan. Meticulously filing this with the taciturn airfield manager I mentally christened ‘Curt’, I notified my ETD as half-an-hour hence and zoomed out to pack, un-picket and preflight. But when I radioed for departure information, Curt recalled me to his office. A degree of longitude error put my destination apparently in the Baltic. Although quickly corrected by telephone, this was not an auspicious start.
As soon as I was airborne, Curt changed me to Copenhagen Information. This was the worst move of the whole trip, despite it being a beautiful, calm, clear summer morning with plenty of coastlines and islands for easy navigation. Having carefully explained my route to the female ATCO as “Amrak direct Alsie and Agersø to Lebda, VFR at 3,000 feet,” every five minutes she asked me, “Are you passing near…” reeling off several military airfields I could not find on the visible bit of my carefully folded chart. Wrestling with this 35 by 40-inch sheet in my cramped, foot-wide cockpit, I soon lost my cool. I won’t talk to Copenhagen again.
Fortunately I was only over Denmark for an hour before calling Malmö, who were more helpful. Entering Swedish airspace, I could clearly see, ten miles to my north, the new 8km long Øresund bridge joining those countries and a huge offshore wind-farm. Malmö ATC didn’t know of my destination, but I had no trouble finding it, and signed off while circling for photographs before landing.
Jorgen brought mogas, one twenty-litre Jerry can being all I needed. I asked him where to stop for fuel in the remaining 306nm to Dala-Järna. He suggested a gliding field at Odestugu. Although not marked on the charts (just the town was shown) he said, “You can’t miss it, it’s the only grass among all those trees.” Of transponders and radio he reassured me, “We don’t use either. We navigate by lakes.”
Jorgen was right on both counts, numerous irregular-shaped lakes made navigation effortless, and after the anticipated 1:45 radio-free flying time, Odestugu stood out clearly more than ten miles away as a grass-green slash in the sea of conifers. As advised, I called several times on 123.45, but got no answer.
Circling overhead, I saw the wind was calm and the field sloped downhill from north to south, where a Motor Falke sat, engine running, perpendicular to the runway. I expected such a low-performance motor glider to taxi northwards and take-off downhill, so I carefully joined downwind for a southerly landing, wary of him backtracking the runway. Making normal circuit calls all the way, I straightened on final, wheel down, spoilers out and nicely stabilised when, as I started my flare, he suddenly pulled on to the reciprocal threshold, opened up and took off straight at me.
A blind glider pilot! You don’t get many of those. Quickly closing my spoilers, going to full power and retracting my wheel as I climbed, I turned hard right out of his way, for a further circuit and uneventful landing. At the clubhouse an older guy helpfully filled my tanks with unleaded Avgas. His pump read in Kroner as well as litres, so I stopped him at a round number to pay in cash with a single note.
After a brief toilet stop I set off on my final, 182nm leg, chugging past Vattern and Vanern, two of Sweden’s biggest lakes. Further northward the country became wild and deserted and increasingly heavily forested, although I was approximately following a large main road. I remembered Jorgen’s advice, ‘If you have to make a forced landing, go for the lakeshore. Too far offshore, you will sink and rescuers will never find you, but go into the treetops and you’ll fall to earth while the trees close overhead. Searchers still won’t find you, but bears or wolves will!’
The controlled airspace petered out, I suspected a tailwind, and frankly became bored, so I gently started climbing. Approaching 8,000 feet, I lowered Wagon’s nose, increased speed and pushed on to Dala-Järna, arriving at 6:30pm after just over two hours airborne. The total distance from Goodwood had been 951nm, taking 12hr 45min and averaging a 75kt groundspeed. Fuel used was 110.9 litres, giving an 8.7 lph consumption, 8.52nm per litre or 45mpg at 86mph.
I was expecting a big airport, but the place was simply one long tarmac runway in a broad grass clearing with a single fifty-foot square hangar and a small wooden clubhouse. Dala and Järna are just two small towns (one little more than a village) set among the woods.
Flygfesten was wonderful, with aircraft large and small, new and old, fast and slow, and pilots both local and famous. I parked next to Jurgis Kairys, and shared a log cabin with Bell 47 pilot Stig Aggevall and Spitfire XVI and TF-51D Cavalier Mustang pilots, Bertil & Fillip Gerhard. A great weekend of flying was rounded off perfectly by a Pink Floyd tribute band.
On the Monday morning I planned a quick 106-mile westerly hop across to Kjeller, near Oslo. There fellow aviation journalist Jennifer Chisholm-Høibråten would meet me, show me the KFF museum, hangar RedHawk and drive me to the station for a fast train to Gardermoen and jet home, returning in a fortnight for the Norwegian show. Unfortunately, the weekend’s bright and breezy but occasionally showery weather had taken a turn for the worse, with a strong southerly wind, high overcast and a forecast of intermittent rain.
My route crossed a series of north-south rocky, forested ridges regularly rising to 1,800 feet, with scattered lakes, very few roads, and only one possible diversion, the regional airport of Torsby about half way, but ten miles south of track. Setting off under a gloomy 3,000-foot cloudbase, I climbed hard to contact Stockholm Information.
That fifty-minute transit was memorable. As I scudded along at 100mph just below the leaden stratus, the ground rose inexorably below me, reducing terrain clearance while inevitably sucking down tendrils of orographic cloud, although map-reading remained easy as I counted off the ridges and position-fixed with spot heights, lakes and occasional rivers.
But after just half an hour everything changed. The scattered wisps of grey below joined into bigger clumps of strato-cumulus, and drizzle started squiggling up my canopy. Forward visibility dropped to a few kilometres and there was heavy rain off to my right with showers in the distance ahead.
This deterioration from acceptable VMC to near-IMC was shockingly rapid. I quickly banked left down a valley, called Stockholm to say I was diverting, and started descending to keep clear of cloud. Dialling up Torsby’s frequency, I called, but got no reply. No matter, there was nowhere else to go.
Doggedly swerving around a rocky outcrop, I knew it was in the next valley, at the head of a lake. Squinting through the rain now streaming over my canopy, I spotted a slick, 1,500-metre tarmac runway on the hillside ahead and almost level with me. Squirting out a quick “Turning final” and frantically swivelling my head for traffic, I dropped the wheel, popped my spoilers, turned left and landed, ready to face official wrath.
But the place was deserted?a beautiful, big, apparently new regional airport, with all appropriate facilities, but completely devoid of life! I taxied right up to the terminal, hopping out to shelter under its eaves from the lashing, icy rain. Nordic flags flapped damply as I scanned the skies for brightness. Otherwise all was silence.
As the rain subsided to a miserable drizzle, a lone figure hove into sight. This young man in floppy, knee-length boots appeared to be a fireman-cum-ground handler. We shared no common language, but he opened the terminal, indicated a free coffee machine, fired up a computer and summoned a current radar picture, then disappeared.
After nearly three hours, the radar’s approaching rain seemed thinner and the southern horizon appeared lighter, so I prepared to leave. The place was still deserted. So there would be no landing fee.
Once aloft, the weather was barely passable, but I had a flight to catch, so I called Stockholm to file an airborne Flight Plan. Finally, after 55 minutes of meteorological unpleasantness and navigational anxiety, I popped over the last saddle on to Lake Øyeren. Kjeller was at its northern head, so I transmitted blind and landed thankfully. Jennifer’s friend Juul met me and helped stow RedHawk in one of KFF Museum’s hangars, and then his son Jaan whisked me off to the railway just in time for my jet home.
DISPLAY NO.2: RYGGE/MOSS
Returning a fortnight later, I preflighted RedHawk for an aerobatic practice over the lake and another over their runway, before packing it for the 37 nm transit south to Rygge in formation with the KFF aeroplanes.
Rygge/Moss is an enormous base, and I was initially awed by a heavy military presence ? lots of big grey aeroplanes and dozens of keen-eyed young men in tailored flying suits. I rather stood out, a grey-haired old geezer in bright red overalls flying a forty-year-old wooden relic. In fact, the flying was mostly civilian, and I think I acquitted myself reasonably well.
On the Monday, my Bell 47 pilot buddy Stig recommended Höganas as being friendly to small aeroplanes. This 192nm leg was due southwards, following the coast for easy navigation. En route I passed the only fjord I saw all trip, but spent a long time over the sea avoiding Göteborg’s airspace, not a pleasant interlude with single ignition and a motor-car engine. Höganas was a perfect grass airfield covered in bright yellow dandelions which the friendly manager was mowing assiduously before helping me make another quick 35-minute turnaround.
The next leg was 156nm with even more water, south-westwards in a near straight-line to Flensburg, following the northern coast of Zeeland, crossing the Storbælt and passing Odense. Now to make my tuna salad sandwich. It’s not easy slicing tomatoes and spreading tinned tuna on crumbly bread in this cramped environment, but it saves time on the turn-arounds. On arrival the wind was blowing a steady fifteen knots, but luckily only ten degrees off the grass runway’s heading. Here I made another 35-minute turnaround before pressing on into Germany and an increasing headwind.
Half-way to Leer, I was squinting into the setting sun and enjoying the eventual serenity of clear skies, when I barely missed another bloody Motor Falke. Popping into my vision maybe 200 yards ahead on my right, he was on a direct collision course at 2,750ft over a 2,500ft control zone. On my right, he was ‘in the right’, and I should have ‘altered course to pass behind him’, but there was barely time to shove Wagon’s nose down and dive underneath. I had perhaps five seconds; banking and turning with these long wings would have taken the rest of my life.
He was so close I could read his under-wing registration clearly as he passed directly overhead. After avoiding him, I rocked my wings in salutation, but he sailed onwards, presumably not having seen me from first to last, despite my gaudily-striped red-and-white aeroplane having been directly lit by the sun behind him. Heigh-ho, another unusually blind motor-glider pilot.
At Leer, I securely picketed my Fournier in the lee of a long hangar and took a taxi into town. The hotel’s proprietor spoke no English, and I had no German, but we quickly concluded a favourable deal. After a twenty-minute stroll, a welcome cold beer and light meal in a mid-town restaurant, I calculated I’d covered 460 miles in 6:30 that day, with a total fuel burn of 61.7 litres costing £135. This was well under ten litres per hour at over eighty mph groundspeed into a significant headwind. I was pleased.
BBC World’s forecaster warned of an active cold front tomorrow, smilingly indicating a swathe of cloud across my intended route. There was nothing for it but to get a good night’s sleep, so I didn’t set the alarm and was woken by the chambermaid at 10am to a rainy grey morning.
I untied, dried and packed my Fournier for what I hoped was the last time this trip. All morning I alternated between the airfield’s office and restaurant, sipping coffee while repeatedly checking the computer’s radar weather picture. I was eventually persuaded by the AFISO that, despite the ever-advancing swathes of cloud blown by a strong wind, a long south-westerly corridor of precipitation-free air had indeed stayed clear for several hours. There was no guarantee this would continue, but I was becoming impatient. If I didn’t leave very soon, I would not make it home by nightfall. Importantly, being the Low Countries, there was no high ground to bump into or form orographic cloud. So, heart-in-mouth, I started up and set course under a low, dreary sky of scudding stratus and frequent, albeit mostly light, showers.
The first two hours were all low-level contact navigation below a ragged, grey 1,500-foot cloudbase, first approximately following the river Ems, but later diverting westward on a more direct line. This route was far from straight because of the need to avoid the many control zones and danger areas while dodging swarms of showers and lower blobs of cloud and rain, whose dull and uninviting tendrils swept the terrain ahead. With visibility around 5km, I often had to drop below 1,000 feet to stay VFR. While there were few potential diversions in this area, the many fields were green, long and wide.
There was no time for the distraction of R/T. I was too busy navigating thumb-on-map between showers and zones, weaving back-and-forth between Germany and Holland, while continually updating my chart with scrawled crosses and times. That was two hours of hard work, and if there had been an airfield along the way I would have diverted, but there wasn’t.
Eventually, the weather improved to reveal the sprawl of Arnhem, and yes, there was a bridge, perhaps not the famous one, but good enough to photograph ? my first chance on a hectic day. There was still a high overcast, but visibility was now 30km, so navigation became easier. What I needed to know was, after all that swerving around, did I still have enough fuel to reach Wevelgem?
There is no more reliable fuel gauge than the Fournier’s float-and-wire type. Its most likely fault (float leakage) gives you a fail-safe zero reading, but at any significant speed airflow blows that wire hard against its supporting tube, so it can’t slide down. After 2hr 20min, abeam my last feasible en-route diversion of Seppe, and needing to confirm my fuel remaining before pushing on to Wevelgem, I got my gauge working by throttling back and stalling. As the nose pitched forward, the wire slipped down its tube revealing thirteen litres remaining ? enough for a whole hour! Mind, I was busting for a pee. At 3:15 and 227 straight-line miles, this was the trip’s longest leg, but still only burned 28.8 litres.
I was airborne again within thirty minutes and heading for that French wind farm. The Channel may be the world’s busiest seaway, but that evening there was barely a ship in sight. This time I crossed at 3,000 feet, feeling much more confident in my trusty motor and buoyant wooden airframe.
Lydd’s £13.80p landing fee cost more than all my other landings added together, and I anticipated it would be a hateful destination reading Pooley’s ‘Non-radio aircraft prohibited. Microlights PPR. High visibility clothing mandatory.’ I’m clad in bright red from head to toe, so they can stuff their yellow waistcoats!
In fact Lydd turned out delightful, despite its expense. Now I merely had to get home before sunset. The weather was idyllic, the air was still and my sprits were high. That last one-hour leg turned out best of the lot.
The whole trip covered 1,940 nautical miles in 27:30, giving a fuel consumption of 45.8mpg at an average groundspeed of 81mph despite continual headwinds! I don’t think many aeroplanes could beat that for economy.
I felt pleased to have flown it all solo and by eye, without any modern electronics, in my snug but lovely forty-year-old Fournier. All navigation was by simple map-reading, and I am pleased to say, always within a few miles of intended track.If they invite me back, I will happily do it again. I still have the charts.