American pilot and aerial photographer Garrett relocates his 1949 Piper PA-11 to Spain, where he finds new rules – but new freedom. Words & photos: Garrett Fisher
I am not sure what I had in mind when I decided to escape the Fatherland. Sure, I had last spoken Spanish some twelve years ago, and I’d heard some popular banter about the commonality of ‘the United States of Europe’, how things are ‘easier now’, and Europe is more connected than ever before.
It was mostly Americans who believed that European countries function like American states, each merely having a fashionable display of identity while working under a common framework with apparent ease.
It was this delusion, as well as the constant nagging from my German landlord who so desperately wanted his soon-to-be-divorced wife to move into the house we were renting, that drove my hurried move. Escaping that situation caused a momentary suspension of cerebral function, during which I concluded that Spain would somehow be a more civilized place to live.
The flight out of Germany, inclusive of the crossing of France, was so intense (see ‘Flight from Germany’, Pilot March 2017) that I gave little thought as to what would happen when I crossed the Spanish border. There was a reasonable suspicion as to the continued proclivity of the propeller to keep spinning, though the Germans had been of little help in resolving that issue.
They did, however, strongly suggest that I got to France as soon as possible, because “an emergency landing will go much better in France than in Germany.”
One semi-useful part did decide to fall off over the French countryside, but eventually I found myself crossing the border into Spain, from which La Cerdanya aerodrome was just a few minutes away. Being so close, it was as though it was substantially in France, and it occurred to me that I truly did not know what language was spoken in the circuit.
So far, English had worked everywhere in France and Germany, even though it did not always work well. I decided, in the name of prudence, to announce myself in English and Spanish, though at that moment, it occurred to me that I did not know any aviation terms in Spanish. Ah well: “Pee-pair Coob qwa-trow see-yet-ay…”
After landing, I had to go find someone to move a bunch of stuff out of the hangar that I had already signed paperwork for and agreed to occupy. I suppose after the flight school owner in Egelsbach had performed regular patrols, identifying lists of tools, boxes, and oil droplets that I had left out of place, I somehow felt the universe owed me some sense of order in return.
I mentioned the absolute thrashing I’d received in the circuit?rather hefty turbulence on what was otherwise a supposedly calm day. “Oh, we don’t go flying on north wind days around here. The mountain waves are very dangerous.” “It’s sunny and not windy. How could there be mountain waves?” “They are there on days like this, and sometimes you can’t see them.
“We really don’t go on the north side of the field, either.” It was not as though one could find this information written anywhere, but then again, I am a pure idiot who thinks Spain is organised because it is a member of the EU. There was much learning to be done.
A warm fuzzy feeling
After putting the plane away in its new home in an idyllic Pyrenean valley with splendid scenery, I had a warm fuzzy feeling that I had successfully escaped Germany. For that matter, I’d survived crossing the Sixth Republic, and I had arrived safely after having traversed some high sections of a rugged mountain range.
It would be many months later before I would learn the history of the place: that tens of thousands of people fled occupied France, crossing the Pyrenees with the just the shirts on their backs through this same valley to get to Spain?no picnic. While Spain was a haven of escape, it still had its own political upheaval, something I did not understand when I moved to… Catalonia!
Spain is Spain, right? They speak Spanish there, correct? That is what uninformed Americans think. They speak Catalan here as a primary language, consider themselves effectively occupied by the Spanish State, and also view themselves as their own nation, despite that nagging inconvenience called national borders.
Since the ‘illegal’ referendum and legal regional election (which both had the same result), local separatists have been inspired to use Catalan in the circuit, mixed with Spanish, creating a grand element of confusion. No bother, this is the least of my current aggravations.
My first flight from my new base was to blast into the Pyrenees, crossing the border with Andorra. The airfield elevation is 1,097m, and mountains rise to 3,000m in various quadrants from La Cerdanya. The chart showed nothing overtly dubious, so I happily turned on my transponder, thinking I would have the benefits of search and rescue should the worst happen.
Wandering around towering peaks above the timberline, I felt at home again after having made my last mountain flight in Wyoming some ten months prior. I was now back in a place I felt I belonged. The joy of discovery was stupendous, coupled with my fantasies, imagining the beauty of oncoming winter. I was really quite happy.
Later that day after landing, I was messing around on the chart, plotting my next place to go, when I stumbled across a bit of warning in my navigation software. It said something ridiculous?that there was Class D airspace, under Barcelona’s jurisdiction, lurking overhead at 8,000 feet. “This can’t be,” I thought, “it makes no sense.” I asked around at the airport, and they did confirm that the airspace designation existed, and kind of shrugged as though it meant nothing.
“Eight thousand feet? I just took a flight to 9,200 with the transponder on, and I hadn’t got a clearance!” Beset by a wave of Anglo-American worry, I realised I had committed an airspace incursion. Well, maybe not?I was surrounded by mountains, and I am sure the radar didn’t pick me up. Now that it appeared I had committed a grave sin, I was rationalising that they wouldn’t have picked me up on radar.
On my next flight I intended to go to a peak above 8,000 feet, so I cruised along Cadí-Moixeró, an amazing ridgeline that tops out at 8,500. That meant that I needed to fly out 25 miles to get past it so I could get radio signal to call Barcelona Approach and get clearance to climb higher. Finally calling them, I was told to stand by… for ten minutes.
Eventually, after asking for all sorts of silly information, I was granted a transponder code and permission to climb to 9,000 feet as requested, only to be handed off to the next frequency, Barcelona Approach, where I lost signal. I descended to 8,000 feet, realising the whole affair was a waste of time.
A week later, I met a controller who works in Barcelona and unleashed a tirade about the stupidity of the whole thing. “Did you file a flight plan?” he asked. “No?I just wanted clearance into Class D.” “He asked all of that information because he had to key a flight plan into the system to issue a clearance.”
“How utterly stupid is that! How hard is it to issue a clearance? And for that matter, why have Class D controlled airspace down to 8,000 feet, when we can’t even call due to terrain obstructing the airspace? There is that, and the fact that the stupid control zone comes down to the ground in the mountains. Are you really controlling all of that?” “Oh, don’t worry about it. We would never clear anything below 13,000 feet.” “So, if I hypothetically happened to fly at 9,200 feet, with the transponder on, is that a problem?” “No, we wouldn’t even notice.” “Then why the hell is it controlled?” I got a shrug in response.
Eventually, I spoke with someone else at the airport, who put it succinctly: “We never fly with the transponder on.”
Trying to follow the rules
After the initial machinations of flying locally in Spain, I settled into a routine bound primarily by weather and secondarily by airport infrastructure. With dangerous mountain waves on north wind days (where air happened to be nice and clear), and persistent haze and inversions in lower altitudes to the south, I found myself wedged between rather unfortunate atmospheric conditions for photography.
This lent to spending a disproportionate amount of time high in the Pyrenees, instead of exploring large geographic expanses. Periodically, I got the hankering to go somewhere distant, and each time things were a bit on the aggravating side: towered fields with high fees and flight plan requirements, no fuel, enigmatic restrictions?further restricted over in France with byzantine rules?and so forth. As the months ticked by, it occurred to me that I had not landed at an airport outside of my home field for nearly six months!
I finally decided to suck it up, file a flight plan, hop over the ridge, and see if I could activate the stupid thing with terrain and radio restrictions. I am not a fan of setting things in motion and having to return to base because elaborate sequential planning goes to pot.
I also do not like putting the whole plan together, getting on the other side, and discovering that the inversion has axed suitable imagery. There is also something to be said about being up in a high mountain valley that requires climbing to 6,000 feet minimum for all egress points?an unnatural situation for most general aviation pilots. Nonetheless, I decided to head to the Mediterranean coast, a whopping sixty miles away, and successfully activated the flight plan on the other side.
I tried to ditch ‘flight following’, and it didn’t work?it is as though they cannot understand the request. As I flew along, I got handed to various frequencies, eventually getting told by Girona Tower that I “must contact Ampuriabravia Information upon arrival if we cannot communicate.” Like any aviator in the developed world, I read back the clearance from the Tower with the full expectation of complying with it.
Continuing my flight, I was reminded, and then nagged to contact Ampuriabrava Information upon arrival?despite each time confirming that I would. At this point I was irritated, though I later came to understand that nobody in Spain follows any rules, and the nagging was taking that assumption into account.
Ampuriabrava Information didn’t really seem to care if I called or not. After landing, I was given instructions to taxi to the wrong pump, despite large signs that everyone could read telling me to go to a different one. Once I got out, the other FISO told me that the on-duty FISO had got it wrong, so it was time to reposition for fuelling.
After that silliness, I opted to fly home heading to Pic du Canigou in France first, a flight during which I completely befuddled the controllers on both sides of the border in that I would a) not fly in a straight line b) cross a border and c) choose to fly past a mountain purely to have a look at it. Barcelona was further confused by my wish to cancel the flight plan upon having the field in sight. Am I wearing a cowboy hat of ignorance, or are these people confused, or both?
After Ampuriabrava, my next trip was to Santa Cilia, where chickens were being raised alongside the fuel pumps, though local pilots were obsessively obsequious about adherence to senseless taxi procedures.
Lleida was next, featuring a controlled airspace… with no controller. After five attempts to raise a response, I called Barcelona, who told me that “nobody seems to be in the Tower today” and to “proceed ahead anyway.” I commented about this on Facebook for which I got a snarky reply by a controller who said “We have this thing in Spain called the AIP. You’ll note it has the hours for control services…” Reading the AIP, I found that the Tower is manned six out of 168 hours per week, though the airspace is entirely Class D, with no note on the chart to point out it is uncontrolled for 96.42% of the time.
After Lleida, I got the hairbrained idea to fly to Morocco. The forecast went to hell in the first 100 miles, tailwinds turning into raging headwinds, and I had to divert to Castellón de la Plana, where it took two hours to fuel, and I got so worn out by the affair that I got a hotel, went to the beach, and flew home the next day.
Of course, on the way home, I landed at Igualada, which has no published frequency, on more than one map. Barreling into the airspace unannounced, I found someone sleeping in a chair, who indignantly told me the “assigned” frequency before going back to sleep, for which I was grateful as a Piper Cherokee announced a full speed buzz down the runway in the wrong direction, followed by an aerobatic manoeuvre?all while I was sitting ready to take off.
Ranging further afield
After these airports, I intended to photograph various areas which had ‘official’ airfields but, like much of the rest of Spain, no avgas. Having communicated with other pilots, I was told that ULM fields tend to have mogas, though “nobody knows or cares if it has ethanol in it”.
The paperwork authorising mogas in my Continental engine demands zero per cent alcohol, so I started carrying jerry cans in the passenger seat and landing at registered standard-category airfields that featured large ruts, rocks, and one-metre tall grass to transfer fuel and return home. While it is legal to land at an effectively abandoned but registered airport, it is illegal in Spain to land at a maintained but unregistered forest service strip, and heavy fines await those caught?though many do it anyway.
No account of activities in Spain would be complete without mentioning British and German visitors competing to be the most rude, difficult, and unruly bunch in Iberia. It was the English pilots who pioneered a manoeuvre, careening in their sailplanes perpendicular across the airport at thirty feet after a full speed dive, before pointing the nose up, climbing back to pattern altitude, and properly announcing a “join left downwind” for which they would then make a proper circuit and land.
I had photographed one of these manoeuvres from the Cub, and after landing walked over to the nearest white plane visitor to see if he knew who to share the photos with. As the glider rolled to a stop, a red-faced German stood up and yelled to the world “zese stunts are not helping!” Retreating to another visitor, I asked if he knew who to give the photos to, only to find out that he also was a German. “Oh them. They are British. We call them island monkeys. They call us effing Germans.”
Later in the year, I encountered some nerdy Germans blathering in German in the pattern, and I decided to declare “Deutsch ist verboten in Cerdanya!” over the radio, after which they went silent and did not speak another word of German on the frequency for the rest of the week. I suppose it is forbidden to forbid that which is not forbidden in Germany, so they must have believed my edict to be correct.
Finally this summer I conquered landing in France, traversing the Pyrenees and landing in Bagnères-de-Luchon… on a Saturday afternoon. While I had called in advance to ensure there was fuel, I was not told that attempting to land in such conditions could result in my death. There were no fewer than fifteen paragliders, gliders, and airplanes swirling around like gnats in an absurdly tight valley, babbling on in French while more gliders were winched up.
I found out upon landing that, had I not called in advance, they probably would have refused to sell me any fuel?even though there were at least eight planes and and dozens of people at the airport. No one spoke enough English to explain this bizarre requirement.
Next up was a far-flung bender into Provence to see the lavender, where I actually experienced a fleeting moment of sensible aviation. I was able to land, taxi, refuel with an automated pump, and tie down for the night, without any airport staff satisfying their fetish for imposing bizarre obstructionist rules on helpless foreigners.
My experiences in Spain were topped off with a flight on 27 October, when Catalonia declared independence while I was taxying for takeoff. I suppose it is unlikely I will ever be in the air again during an attempted change of sovereignty.
The practicalities of flying in Spain
There are practical matters associated with aviation, and there are no practical solutions in Spain for any of them. When it came to buying oil, nobody knew where I could purchase any. As for maintenance concerns: a fellow pilot found his engine was leaking, so he removed it, took it home, changed all of the gaskets, and put it back together. “How did you get it signed off?” I asked. He told me he didn’t think a signature was necessary.
If it involves paperwork, I go to France or the UK to solve it. If it involves supplies, America, the UK, and,
God forbid, the Fatherland come to the rescue.
While on one hand the financial, legal, and regulatory matters in Spain can be tiresome, the country also affords a brilliant scenario where everyone is too disorganised, confused, lazy, and undisciplined to exert a shred of mental effort caring what someone else is doing. For that, it may as well be Alaska, and I pretty much can do whatever I want?if I can find enough avgas to keep the prop spinning.
The First 100 Days: Flying in La Cerdanya, a book of photographs from Garrett’s first 100 flights in Andorra, Catalonia, France and Spain, has recently been published. It is available in the UK, Europe, and the USA on Amazon. Garrett blogs regularly at www.garrettfisher.me
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