When a friend suggests that it would be fun to fly the Mistral winds blowing down the Rhône Valley, it’s not the sort of thing that you jump out of bed for ? but that is exactly what Bill Studley and I did last September when we flew our P&M GT450 flexwings to Spain on our annual pilgrimage to warmer climes. We then ventured back via some of Europe’s famous Altiports.
The journey started at Compton Abbas Airfield in Dorset. With flight plan lodged, hugs and kisses exchanged with the girls and wearing survival suits and lifejackets, we tracked south over the Isle of Wight direct to Cherbourg. There was no point in trying to avoid the water issue so we decided to go for it. We crossed the Channel at 2,000ft in clear and calm conditions.
Strangely there wasn’t any other traffic at that altitude, which gave us an uninterrupted view of the shipping below. We flew over the Brittany ferries as they crossed in the middle, as well as oil tankers and private yachts. It was so tempting to drop down to sea level, but we were far too sensible for that…
As I had communication problems, in order to talk to Bournemouth and Southampton my messages had to be relayed via other aircraft ? which kept me on my toes ? but speaking to Plymouth Military was so clear they could have been in the next room. They duly gave us a clear passage through their danger zone. After fifty minutes over water I called up Cherbourg for a right base join on to their mighty Runway 28. Wow, this felt good.
We touched down on French soil to be welcomed by the English speaking controller who had already closed our flight plan and told us what to do. With the €12 landing fee paid, the only thing we had to do now was prepare for the onward journey with a croissant and café au lait.
Despite the best laid plans, you have to change your heading from time to time. Bill and I were originally going to fly to Corsica with Marcus Dalgetty and Simon Jeffrey of Pegasus Flight Training school, situated at Gap Tallard in the foothills of the Alps ? but as they had to attend their first French ULM festival at Blois, it was all change. So we journeyed south in order to meet up before making onward decisions.
With our flexwings secure next to our mobile home, Bill and I scrounged a lift to the ‘Festival International De l’Aviation Ultra Légère’. This is a two day event at Blois le Breuil and is the French aviation industry’s centrepiece for Light Sport Aircraft, ULMs, paramoteurs, mini helicopters, autogyros and much more. There is no other word to describe this event than ‘awesome’. There is every conceivable toy you can think of for sale, as well as flying displays that are simply mesmerising. It is mind-blowing to see how those French pilots throw around the latest gyros or demonstrate the capabilities of the latest high performance carbon fibre aircraft at over 179kt. Whatever rocks your boat you will find something at this show.
The following day, Bill and I set off for Gap Tallard for the next leg of our adventure. We got there in 4½ hours, having stopped in Roanne for a break. Meanwhile Marcus and Simon were stuck in traffic somewhere near Lyon. So with three days left to carry out an adventure we hatched a cunning plan. As the mistral was still blowing in the Rhône Valley, we decided to run with it to Empuriabrava, a lively coastal resort on the Costa Brava in Spain. We were in for the time of our lives.
So Spain it was! Marcus and Simon climbed aboard their mighty Skyranger and Bill and I mounted our GT450 flexwings. The flight out of the Alps was fairly uneventful, but just as we went over the last mountain things started to liven up. Winds were by now gusting up to 65kph. All we had to do was fly diagonally across the Rhône Valley to avoid the restricted areas and then head south west.
We flew into the leeside rotor of the mountains, which were fifteen miles up wind, and then all hell let loose. We bounced around in our cockpits for some ten minutes. Marcus found all the things that he had lost under the seats as they were now floating weightlessly around the cockpit, as well as being reminded that his head was not too far from the roof. Simon meanwhile was discovering levitation. Bill and I were simply hanging on and wondering what was going to break first.
I did hear Bill at one point singing Rocking all over the world by the Quo, which is his mantra in times of turbulence. My bottom lip was quivering monosyllabic answers to any questions over the radio.
As we continued west, the drift angle started to open up and we were now looking straight down to see where we were going as opposed to out through the windscreen. An estimate would be in the region of fifty degrees between where we were pointing and where we were going. Any more of this ‘mistral’ and we would be flying into wind completely and not managing to track sideways.
Further on we saw some ‘wave markers’ and as we flew into the most awesome rising sector, it carried us aloft at 1,500ft per minute whilst the aircraft were set for the cruise. It was smooth, effortless. This kind of flying is breathtaking, adrenalin pumping, scary and yet the most fulfilling flying you will ever get.
We landed on the far side of the Rhône valley in the Ardèche at a small airstrip called Ruoms. Despite the windsock being erect pointing down the runway it was in fact five degrees off, making landing extremely testing. The rotor over the trees was horrendous as it slammed me into the ground. It was more of an arrival than a landing! Everything had to be tied to the ground as the machines would have flown off on their own given half the chance.
Whilst I repeat this story, you have to bear in mind that this was an instructor’s holiday and not the sort of thing that Pegasus France would be subjecting any student to on their first solo.
The reward was now to come: the downwind run with the mistral. As we took off and turned tail to the wind we shot through the Rhône valley like bullets out of guns. With our airspeed around 75mph, our ground speed was touching 120mph for a good 45 minutes. It was an awesome experience.
As we were carried south we flew down the coast tracking sideways by Béziers and eventually landed at Narbonne, a wonderful large grass airfield about 3km from town. The machines had to be tied down again due to the winds and, after aperitifs with the locals, we headed into town in search of a hotel and a bar. The evening was full of merriment and laughter reliving the day’s excitement. A charming Tapas restaurant revealed Bill’s appetite for strange and foreign delicacies.
The next morning saw us back at the airfield, where we waited for the wind to ease. It was still blowing hard but there was promise of it reducing to 35kph, which was our comfort factor. We modified our flight plans from ten o’clock to two o’clock and settled into a leisurely morning sitting under the aircraft enjoying coffee from Bill’s multi-fuel stove.
Meanwhile in the time we were waiting we decided to go for a walk for something to eat. Simon checked the location of a nearby restaurant using his smart phone and, as it was only 4km away and we had nothing else to do, we set off walking through vineyards, a hamlet and past large dogs in time to arrive at a McDonald’s for lunch. Not the fine dining I was expecting but, let’s face it, it was an adventure.
At two o’clock the wind had eased, so we took off towards Empuriabrava and arrived there in fifty minutes. We tracked around the coast at 800ft whilst talking to Perpignan, which was busy directing a Ryanair jet in over the top of us. Calling finals was surreal, as we descended over acres of multi million pound houses, yachts and real estate. My cousin Nick Walter met us with the mighty Ford Mondeo known as ‘the Bismark’ – a sturdy old girl that survives the challenges of life in Spain – and took us to our accommodation.
That evening we made a tour of the town and watched the spectacle of life. The Costa Brava is a buzzing place with a multinational community and many places to eat. As the shadows grew longer and the cicadas serenaded the fall of night we all slipped the moorings of consciousness and prepared for whatever tomorrow might bring.
The return journey saw us with 35kt on the nose for the first ninety minutes and then things eased. The run around the corner of the coastline into France was quite fruity though as it lived up to its tradition of being the windiest place in France but by now the wind had dropped considerably.
The next day as Marcus and Simon were sleeping off their instructor’s holiday, Bill and I ventured up into the Alps to visit some of the famous ski resorts. Having experienced some mountain strips last year when Marcus was wearing his mountain guide hat for us, this was the first time we were going into the mountains on our own. First stop was L’Alpe d’Huez, located at 6,102ft AMSL. Being only forty minutes’ flying time from Gap it was a naturally straightforward flight for first thing in the morning. Flying overhead we spotted the windsock and settled into the figure-of-eight circuit pattern. As I set up for the approach the first thing I noticed were the pylons beneath me with great big marker balls. They appeared to be very close, as I flew flatter and faster than normal for my final approach. Despite the runway having an 16.2 per cent gradient in the middle, it is quite gentle at first before rounding out at the top. It is a bizarre experience flying up a slope, but as soon as you make contact you stop very quickly and then have to use the power again to get to the top!
After congratulating each other on our first altiport landing, we then lined up for our first takeoff. This is even more of a bizarre experience. As the tarmac let me go, I flew down the slope gaining airspeed. Bill, who was still holding at the top, completely lost sight of me for a while before I emerged, gaining height. Having rotated, you are immediately 4,000ft above the valley below.
Next stop was Meribel. Climbing up to 11,500ft, the view was superb ? flying alongside glaciers and snow-capped peaks. As we flew overhead, we spoke to a resident helicopter, which was just leaving, before we made our call for finals into one of the prettiest altiports in the Alps. Positioned at 5,639ft AMSL, the gentle gradient runway is lined by trees, opening up to a golf course above. Being mid September, everything was now closed for the season so without even a cup of coffee we jumped back in to our flexwings and headed off around the corner to Courchevel.
Regarded as one of the top ten most dangerous airstrips in the world, Courchevel sits at 6,583ft AMSL. The runway is 535m long from the drop-off at the bottom to the mountain face on the top and has a gradient of 18.5 per cent at its steepest. It is one of those altiports which has to be done. The circuit height is generally 7,000ft on a clear day, but it can also be as low as 6,600ft when the weather is bad.
At this altitude one is flying at the same height as that of the tarmac at the top of the runway, which actually means that you are flying a circuit below the Tower. Today the weather was low cloud so we opted to fly the low circuit. With a shallow glide slope, I aimed at the threshold. I was leading Bill and as I continued to descend until nearly level with the threshold, I started to flare on the lower twelve degree gradient, but kept the engine power on in order to fly up the slope. No sooner had I done this, than I met up with the famous Courchevel tarmac and it was full power to get to the top. Bill followed me in with a huge grin on his face.
This was it. Bill and I had achieved everything we had wanted to do. All boxes had been ticked and it was now a question of where to go next year. Thanks Marcus and Simon for allowing us into your aviation paradise.
Words And Video Tim , Photos Bill Studley & Tim Jackson.