Wednesday 14 February 2024

Return to Australia

Sydney Sunrise
In September, my company was acquired from our existing Australian investor by another Australian company. It seemed like a good idea to meet the people there, and since even the Cote d'Azur does have a winter, we decided to make a winter vacation out of it. So shortly after Christmas we set off on an Air France flight to Sydney via Singapore for a two week trip


Our arrival in Sydney coincided with some terrible weather. Coming out of the Harbour Tunnel it was raining so hard that we couldn't see through the taxi's windscreen. Over the next few days we had a mixture of rain and patchy sunshine.

We've both been to Sydney several times before, including our honeymoon in 1990. But this was the first time we've stayed outside the centre, in North Sydney - albeit only a stone's throw from the bridge. We stayed at the Meriton Suites, which once a few initial problems were resolved turned out to be an excellent choice. We had what amounts to a two-room apartment, with a fully equipped kitchen and a separate living-room. That's very handy when you're jetlagged and one of you wakes up in the small hours and wants to sit and read without disturbing the other. The kitchen meant we could make our own breakfast every morning rather than looking for cafes, and on the first night we even made our own dinner thanks to the large Coles supermarket just round the corner. The hotel was also just a couple of minutes' walk from the new company's office.

Sydney Icons

I worked during the day while we were there, making the acquaintance of our acquiring company for the first time. Isabelle spent the days with her long-time friend Effie, who she met on a skiing holiday in France over 40 years ago. We all had dinner together, with her English husband Tony, on two of the nights. That was very pleasant.

Being outside the centre meant we got to experience the Sydney ferry system. Our hotel room looked out over the bay, always with at least a couple of ferries in sight. A 15 minute walk took us to a ferry stop with a half-hourly service to Sydney Harbour. I also used the ferry for our work "day out" at Manly, including getting off at the wrong stop on the way home and a two kilometre walk in the dark. It's really an amazing system, which makes travelling round the eastern side of the city much easier. And it is so pleasant sitting on a boat as it gently crosses the bay.


Our vacation proper started on the Friday after we arrived, with a flight to Adelaide. Our plan was to drive slowly from there to Melbourne, with a stop on Kangaroo Island and finishing with the famous Great Ocean Road into Melbourne. We rented a car from a local outfit (East Coast Rentals) who were inexpensive and, once we figured out how to contact them, very efficient. The car itself was my first experience driving a Chinese car, an MG ZS. Verdict: fine as a rental for a few days, but I certainly wouldn't buy one. MG used to be the sporty part of long-defunct BMC, Britain's leading car firm in the 60s and 70s. It's a sorry end to be sold off as just a name. The only thing the Chinese company retained was the octagonal logo, including the way you press it to open the boot which I dimly remembered from my youth.

On our first day we made it to the Central Market before it closed. It's an amazing place with stalls selling every kind of food. Our favourite was The Smelly Cheese Co, staffed by a young French woman whose sales technique was extremely effective. We intended to buy a box of crackers, and ended up with half a dozen cheeses and a fancy bag to put them in.

Our first night's dinner was a big disappointment. Right under the hotel was a French restaurant, which we discovered by speaking French as we walked past and having the entire staff start chatting with us. The menu looked good, but the food and especially the wine was mediocre.

The next day we drove out to the Barossa Valley, home to some of the finest wines in Australia. We ended up stopping at Penfold's, the best-known name. We were very lucky that our randomly-assigned server turned out to be the head of the tasting room - or "cellar door" as they're called in Australia. We spent about an hour there, tasting several wines that were outside the regular tasting menu once she understood that we knew quite a bit about the subject. Their most expensive wine is Penfold's Grange, at AUS$1000 per bottle. We did taste it - even that cost $50. I can't honestly say that it was that much better than their general run of Shiraz, which go for $50-100 per bottle. It was a very interesting afternoon.

Then on our way back to Adelaide, completely by chance, we ran into a Hot-Rod event in a little town. The main street was full of classic cars, mostly American though a few Australian, and some actual hot-rods. There was a gorgeous original Corvette and many other very nice cars.

Dinner the second evening was more successful. Isabelle had found an alleyway full of restaurants, and there she found a place that served a really excellent meal. She had garfish, a long thin fish with a pointy snout which I remember well under its Japanese name, sanma, from when my friend Ole in Tokyo had a sanma party at the start of its season.

Kangaroo Island

The next morning we were up at 5, to catch the 9 o'clock ferry to Kangaroo Island. Australia is huge, and while the ferry port looks like it is in suburban Adelaide it's actually a 90 minute drive away. The ride takes about 45 minutes across the so-called Backstairs Passage between the island and the mainland.

We visited the only real town on the island, Kingscote. The drive was not especially interesting, along roads lined with eucalyptus trees, and we wondered if we'd done the right thing planning to spend two nights there. There's not much at Kingscote. From there we continued out to the North Cape, and got our first real taste of the island. We arrived at a huge beach spanning a wide bay. There were a couple of other cars and just one person in sight along a couple of kilometres of sand. It was beautiful.

North Cape Beach
Finally we set off for our hotel, which was accessible only along several kilometres of dirt road, in good condition. It is completely isolated on the south-eastern tip of the island. The nearest settlement is the ferry terminal at Penneshaw, a half-hour drive away. The hotel, the Sea Dragon, is more of a resort. It provides breakfast and dinner, and even wine with dinner, all included in the price - which is pretty expensive. Our room was in a cabin a few hundred metres from the main part of the hotel.

The owner and manager was a very pleasant German lady. She offered to drive us down to the beach - it can be walked but it involves a descent, and more important a climb, of about 300 feet. A very rough 4x4 trail leads down to it, and she took us in her vehicle. It was another paradisiacal spot. For a while we were the only occupants of the beach and the whole cove. Isabelle even went for a swim, but the water has come non-stop for Antarctica and is freezing cold. I stayed on the beach.

Cape Willoughby Lighthouse
The only other sign of civilization out there on Cape Willoughby is the lighthouse and the cottages that were built for the keepers. It's impossible to imagine what their life must have been like, totally isolated and visited just once every few months by a supply ship. It would certainly be as well to be on good terms with your colleagues. Now the cottages are let to tourists.

The grounds of the resort are full of kangaroos. From our cabin we could see a mother and her child hopping around nibbling the grass. To move quickly, they hop on just their hind legs. But to move slowly, when they are grazing, they have a very strange form of locomotion. They use their tails as a fifth leg, and move their forelegs and hind legs simultaneously in pairs. In effect they have three legs, two of them with very wide feet.

Dinner was excellent, accompanied by a wine grown on the island itself. For the following day, we'd arranged to go on a nature tour organized by the resort. Generally we prefer to do things on our own, but we figured we'd end up missing a lot of things if we tried. And it's a long way - the island is 155 km from one end to the other. It's about half the size of the Death Valley National Park, which makes it a quarter the size of Belgium.

There was just one other couple in the SUV, plus the driver/guide called Brigitte. She had led a very interesting life: born in Britain, then raised in Australia, then sent back to England for boarding school. Then she served in the Belgian army for 30 years as a meteorologist, before deciding to return to Australia where, she says, she came to Kangaroo Island for a weekend, and stayed for 15 years. The island population is small and everyone knows everyone else. She works as a guide and a firefighter, among other thing. After the disastrous fire which burned nearly half the island in 2019, and killed 80% of the koalas, she was heavily involved in all the recovery.

A sealion walking on land

Our first stop was a beach which is inhabited by sealions. The difference between a seal and a sealion has always been a mystery to me, but thanks to the exhibition there I now understand. Sealions are amphibious rather than marine. They can walk effectively, if inelegantly, on land, as well as swimming. We watched one climb up on rocks just as well as any land animal would have. They have very powerful forelimbs which serve as feet and hands as well as flippers. Seals, by contrast, are uniquely marine animals. They can squirm along a beach on their flippers, but that's about it.

After a lunch stop, Brigitte took us to a little clearing where she promised us koalas. We did find some, but they spend the daytime lodged in a fork near the top of a eucalyptus, not moving. This makes them hard to find and almost impossible to photograph. Koalas are a very odd example of evolution gone wrong. They eat only eucalytpus leaves, because they are extremely easy to catch. But not only are they very poorly nutritious, they are actually toxic. So they spend 20 hours a day sleeping as their overworked livers deal with the constant influx of poison.

The next stop was another lighthouse, at the western extremity of the island, at Cape du Couedic. Kangaroo Island was discovered simultaneously by French and English explorers, so the place names are a mixture of the two languages, with some Breton thrown in (as in this case). This one is even more isolated than Cape Willoughby. There's no access to the sea, so supplies had to arrive via a horse-driven
funicular that lifted goods - and sometimes animals and people - 100 metres up the side of a sheer cliff.

Remarkable Rocks
A short drive took us to Remarkable Rocks which are, well, remarkable. They're the result of the erosion over 200 million years of a granite dome, which has left some extraordinary shapes. Granite domes are common enough, but this can only happen if they are close to the sea and exposed to salt water. It's amazing to think that this dome was in its pristine state when dinosaurs hadn't even shown up, never mind mammals.

After that it was a two hour drive back to the resort, so we had plenty of time to get to know our companions. They are a pretty exceptional couple - she is a professional opera singer in Dallas, and he is the now-retired CEO of a medium-sized oil company. They were both very unpretentious and a pleasure to spend time with. We only discovered their professional side when we asked them explicitly.

Dinner was again excellent, as was breakfast. The best part was a home-made granola with mango yoghurt, which was the best granola I've ever eaten. The recipe was invented by our guide Brigitte, during the time when she was also the cook for the resort.

Ferry to Kangaroo Island
Next morning we drove to the ferry. Packing cars onto it is an art-form. On the way over they packed everything in so tight that it was impossible to get into the car until its neighbour had left. The driver next to me very creatively climbed in through the window.

The Limestone Coast

Today was just spent driving. Australia is a big country, and the distance from the ferry terminal to our next overnight stop, at Robe, was 455 km, all on rural two-lane roads. We stopped for lunch at the Flying Fish restaurant in Port Elliott, a little beach town which is only a couple of hours drive from Adelaide, and quite popular. I had excellent fish and chips (unlike the chewy apology that I'd eaten at the beach bar in Manly the previous week), so the guide book's recommendation was definitely justified.

Our drive would take us along the coast, but first we had to detour around Lake Alexandrina, which despite the name is actually a lagoon. The coast is almost continuous, with a tiny gap which could easily be bridged, but I guess the authorities see little point since this is not a journey that many people make. I could see the obvious route, but Google insisted on trying to send us a further 20 km inland onto the motorway. We ignored it, and it was only once we were committed to our apparently shorter route that we realised why. We would have to take a ferry to cross the Murray River along the way. We decided to just go ahead anyway - in the worst case we would just have to make the 40 km "trombone" to cross at the bridge.

The Murray River, with tiny ferry on the
opposite shore

The ferry turned out to be delightful. It's tiny, with room for only about three cars. There is no schedule, it just shuttles the couple of hundred metres back and forth across the river as long as there is any traffic. We waited less than five minutes. After that, it was just the long drive down the coast. If we had had more time we could have diverted inland to the famous Coonawarra wine region, but there are only so many wineries you can visit before they all blur together.

This stretch of country has been named the Limestone Coast by some enthusiastic marketing type. But limestone is about all there is. After the ferry we passed one tiny settlement, Meningie. After that, there was stretch of 150 km where there was absolutely nothing at all. No towns, no villages, no houses, no gas stations. Nothing. There was very little traffic either. We passed one car or truck maybe every five minutes. Even though we were only a short distance from the sea or the lagoon, we never saw the water. It was a really boring drive. We did make one small detour, recommended by the guide book, to take a close look at a salt lagoon. It was, well, salty. And it involved 10 km or so on a horribly washboarded dirt road. Verdict: definitely not worth the detour.

Approaching our destination, there were lots of very modern houses on the waterfront. It's a mystery who lives in them or uses them - there is no industry, and Adelaide is a four-hour drive away.

Robe was the most disappointing of all our stops. There was nothing interesting about the motel, although it was comfortable enough for one night. We ate at supposedly the best restaurant in town, but the food was disappointing and the first bottle of wine was corked. That happens, but it's always a bit awkward especially when, as here, the waiter says there's nothing wrong with it, although he changed it without protest.

Victoria at Last

Our next day's drive was long, too, at 290 km, though it passed through somewhat populated countryside. We would finally cross the border from South Australia into Victoria.

A Koala high up in its Eucalytpus tree
Our first stop, after a few kilometres, was at a nature park. The walk around the wetlands was pleasant but nothing special, until the group in front of us spotted a koala in one of the eucalyptus trees. Then it turned into a game of
"spot the koala". We found a few more, but the best place turned out to be the car park where, high in the trees, were several of them. I even managed to get a decent picture of one, using my telephoto pocket camera. It's surprisingly hard. Not only are they a long way up, but their fur is very dark and if you just let the camera do its own thing, all you get is a black splodge, barely visible against the tree. With some exposure bracketing I managed to get a shot where you can see the koala's face clearly.

Like most of our route, we were close to the sea but rarely saw it. We were just approaching the turn-off to Beachport, wondering whether we should go and say hello to the sea, when we saw a sign to a"Giant Kite Festival". So off we went. It was very impressive. All along the beach were indeed giant kits, most of them inflatable and drifting about in the wind. There was Snoopy, Batman, sharks, lobsters, and many more. The town itself was tiny and there was nothing else going on, but we enjoyed the detour.

Beachport's Giant Kite Festival

Somewhere along the way we stopped at a cheese factory which was lauded by the guide book, but which was a complete disappointment. It sold a wide variety of tasteless factory cheeses, very similar to what you would find in Wisconsin and with exactly the same interest. Though they did have an interesting museum of old farm equipment and engines, which I quite enjoyed.

We passed through the town of Mount Gambier, which is an important local economic centre but of very little touristic interest. It has an extraordinary lake, which fills a crater and turns bright blue for a few months of the year. This isn't pollution, it's due to some kind of chemical process affecting the natural salts in the water. But honestly, once you've seen it, you've seen it.

Our destination was the oddly named Port Fairy, supposedly named after the boat of the first white man to discover it. Our hotel, or at least our room of the hotel, was in an old building dating from the early days of the town in the 1850s. We arrived late but even so we figured we had time to explore the one interesting feature, Griffiths Island. Supposedly you can see the shearwater, otherwise known as the mutton bird because the meat is like mutton. Like the California killdeer, it makes its nest on the ground, making it easy to catch.

We walked all around the island, which was very pleasant, but we didn't see any shearwaters, nor any of the other promised wildlife. By the time we finished, many of the possible dinner places were closed, but luckily we found an authentic Italian restaurant where we ate very well.

The two days of driving hadn't shown us anything very touristy, but they certainly gave us an idea of just how big Australia is. If you look at the map of the whole country, it looks as though Adelaide and Melbourne are neighbours. If you really need to drive just to get from one to the other, it can be done in a single day of hard driving. But nobody would drive it unless they had a good reason - say, to move a carload of stuff. It had struck us when we arrived at Adelaide airport just how big it is compared to the size and population of the city and the region. Now we knew why. Although the country is completely contiguous, practically speaking it's a bunch of islands connected by barely-inhabited agricultural land - at best. Most of the country is just desert. The only sensible way to travel between the cities is by air, even in the relatively densely populated south east.

The Great Ocean Road

The London Arch (missing part to the left)
"Our" Echidna
The Twelve Apostles, or some of them

The official "Great Ocean Road" starts at Warrnambool, a little way past Port Fairy. This, finally, was the objective of our drive. Due to some unique geology, every few kilometres the coast has some unique and strange feature. The first of these is the Bay of Islands. Erosion of the limestone has left several tiny islands just off the coast. Next is London Bridge. Or rather was. Now it is the London Arch. This isn't some politically correct renaming. Originally there were two rock arches, connected to the mainland. Then in 1990 the closest one suddenly collapsed without warning, leaving only a single isolated arch. I joked that it was lucky nobody was out there when this happened. But it turns out that there were indeed two people who were stranded. They were rescued uneventfully by a police helicopter, but it must have been quite a shock.

So far we had seen quite a few people at these famous sites, but they weren't crowded. This all changed at the next one, the Loch Ard Gorge. This is a deep gorge cut into the coastline. The name comes from a ship, the Loch Ard, that was shipwrecked after three months at sea, sailing from England, just hours before it should have docked at Melbourne. They were lost in the fog that is common along this coastline, and the captain hadn't realised how close he was to the shore. When the fog lifted they saw they were inside the long, deep gorge, with no possibility of getting out before they hit a reef. There were only three survivors. The story certainly makes you appreciate Qantas.

Nearly as impressive as the terrain was the sheer volume of people. All of the walkways were thronged, mostly with foreign tourists from China, Korea and India. The car park was full of tourist buses, which must do a one-day Great Ocean Road tour from Melbourne - still a four hour drive away. Every few minutes a helicopter buzzed by.

Walking back to the car we were very lucky to see an echidna, also known as the spiny anteater. They're about the size of a large hedgehog, which they generally resemble. They have a very ungainly walk, wobbling comically from side to side. They're generally nocturnal, and rarely seen during daylight

The next stop was the Twelve Apostles. This was even more crowded. There's a huge car park some distance from the coast, and behind it is a helipad where four helicopters, 2 R44s and two Eurocopters, were constantly landing and taking off. The R44s were never in the air for more than five minutes. The Apostles themselves are reached by a tunnel under the road and then a long walkway, thronged with mainly Chinese and Indian tourists. Finally we got to the viewing platforms at the end, where you can indeed see several limestone pillars, and the remains of others. It's spectacular, but my lasting memory will be of the crowds, not the geology.

Momma Kangaroo, with overgrown baby

From there, our next overnight stop was at Lorne. There's a direct road, or you can continue on the Great Ocean Road around Cape Otway, which we chose. A long, twisty side road leads to the lighthouse at the tip of the cape. Along the way we passed a wildlife sanctuary, where several kangaroos had evidently set up home. We saw kangaroos in several places, but this was the closest we got to them. One of them was a mother, with a young kangaroo planted inelegantly in her pouch. All we could see of him was a forest of legs. I could imagine her complaining to her fellow momma kangaroos that children just won't move out these days.

The final stretch of the journey, from Apollo Bay to Lorne, was very spectacular. The road is literally carved out of the side of the mountain. It was very reminiscent of California Route 1 along the Big Sur, and has a similar history. It was built during the 1920s to provide work for unemployed soldiers returning from the Great War. Like Route 1, it twists and turns and climbs and descends trying to find the best route around the mountains that fall directly into the see. It also reminded us of the lonely coast road we drove several years ago in southern Hokkaido, towards Erimo Misaki.


Sculpture in the QDOS park
The road was spectacular but we had been driving all day and we were very glad to arrive at our final overnight stop at Lorne. This is a very chic beach resort, within easy driving distance of Melbourne. It has the a long, perfect beach, lined with the usual hotels and fancy restaurants. Our hotel though was a couple of kilometres back into the forest, to our surprise. Once there, you could be miles and miles from the sea. It's called QDOS, and it is primarily an art gallery and sculpture garden. The owner has been there for forty years, and at some point has added half a dozen Japanese-themed cabins. Ours was called tsuki, meaning moon. We were astounded to discover a tatami floor, just like every ryokan we've been to in Japan. However it did have a luxurious king-size bed, not a futon rolled out by the chambermaid in the evening and rolled back up again at first light.

Despite the holiday crowds - the next day was Australia day, so lots of people had taken a few extra days off work - the hotel managed to get us a reservation at the best restaurant in town, Ipsos. We had an excellent meal, with equally excellent Australian shiraz.

In the morning we explored the grounds, filled with spectacular modern sculptures. They're all available for sale, but we didn't think Air France would agree.

Cape Otway is famous for its spectacular waterfalls. We'd driven past several the previous afternoon, but we didn't have time to make the detour and hike to take a look. So the following morning we went to see Erskine Falls, following a road deeper into the forest behind the hotel. It was indeed spectacular when seen from the top. It was probably even better when seen from the bottom, via a trail with hundreds of steps, but we decided to skip that. On the way to the falls we went to Teddy's Lookout, high above the town and the coast with great views that show up quite often in tourist guides and so on.

After an impromptu lunch at a postage-stamp sized space at the top of a cliff, we set off for our final stop at Melbourne.


I've been to Melbourne a couple of times before. The investors in my company, the one which had just been acquired, were based in Melbourne, and later the CEO and the sales team were there as well. By coincidence a couple of my friends from Cisco live there too, so there were plenty of people to see. We arrived in time for dinner with my friend J, who used to be CEO of our company. It's hard to believe that it has been five years since we last met, the last time I was in Melbourne in January 2019. As I expected, several bottles of excellent Australian wine were consumed, so it was just as well that we took an Uber.

Our hotel was in the very heart of central Melbourne, a few minutes' walk from Flinders Street station. In the morning we explored Melbourne a bit, and then found a very pleasant cafe for our breakfast. Suddenly we saw our friends from the Kangaroo Island tour! They are big tennis fans and were in town for the Australia Open, whose final was that weekend. It was an amazing coincidence to run into them again.

Our next stop was Yarra Valley. We wanted to visit the nearby wildlife sanctuary (which seems to be a fancy name for a zoo). When we got there the ticket line was huge, and the place was packed. We made do with a visit to the gift shop - we'd seen plenty of kangaroos, koala and wallabies in their natural habitat, and even an echidna.

Five years ago I visited the Yarra Yering winery with J. In my memory it was all very informal, and we left with a couple of bottles of their "No 2" Shiraz. But this time it was very formal. A tasting was $50 and was evidently a very serious affair, more than we wanted to do. Which was just as well, because they were fully booked anyway. They did let us taste the No 2, and we went away with a couple of bottles. The lady there was nice enough, and suggested the nearby Medford winery for lunch. That was a great recommendation. We sat eating a light lunch accompanied by a glass each of their Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a magnificent view over the Yarra Valley countryside. The Shiraz was good but the Cab was really special, very lightly oaked and almost fruity. We left with two bottles of it.

Downtown Melbourne, from 1500 feet
Yarra Valley, from 1500 feet
Dinner was with a group of ex-Cisco friends in a very good Japanese restaurant. It was only a short walk from the hotel, but we took the tram to try out our shiny new fare cards. Melbourne has the densest tram system in the world - practically every road in the city center and every major road in the suburbs has tram lines down the middle. The previous time I was in Melbourne I stayed out of the town and used the trams extensively (and fell off the platform, quite seriously injuring myself, but that's another story).

Next day the plan was for my ex-Cisco and pilot friend to take us for a flight over the city and the surrounding area. Sadly, Isabelle wasn't well, so I went on my own - probably just as well since the flight was quite bumpy. This was my first ever small plane flight in Australia. His plane is based at Moorabbin, to the south of the city. The airport is huge, with five physical runways (so 10 numbered runways) and many planes. It's home to two large flying schools and several smaller outfits. There is another small-plane airport to the north, at Essendon, and quite a few small airports out in the suburbs. The comparison with the Nice area, having much the same population, is interesting. Here we have just one small-plane airport, Cannes Mandelieu, with maybe a quarter as many planes as Moorabbin.

The flight was superb. We took off towards the city, flying a gentle 270 degree arc around it with fantastic views of the city center. Then we set off towards Yarra Valley - from the flight track afterwards I could see that we flew directly over Yarra Yering. From there we returned to the coast, flying over the barely habited French Island then over the Mornington Peninsula and so back to Moorabbin. The flight lasted about an hour, giving (as always) a totally different perception of the geography.


Broken Hill, NSW,
from 31000 feet
And that was that. With regret but many happy memories, we headed to the big airport on Monday morning for our long return flight to Nice. We would have happily stayed for another week or two.

Australia is so big that even flying up at airliner altitudes is still a form of tourism. It isn't long before all the agriculture has disappeared and you're flying over desert. We saw Broken Hill, one of these big (20,000 people) mining towns in the middle of nowhere. It would be interesting to visit - except that it's a serious day of driving from Adelaide, the nearest big city, and two from Sydney, even though they're both in the same state, New South Wales. It's a country that is really made for flying, in planes large or small. Maybe next time.

Wednesday 25 October 2023

What Would You do if Tom Jones Walked in Right Now?

I’m reading a book where the sort-of heroine, a very ordinary woman whose job is cleaning offices, suddenly becomes projected to fame. She gets to meet in real life various famous-for-being-famous television personalities who she could previously only dream about. (The book is If I Let You Go by Charlotte Levin - I’m not that convinced by it).

It reminded me of my time spent in a typing pool when I was a teenager. When I was small, my mother worked from home. She had a rented typewriter - a good old-fashioned mechanical one where all the work is done by the typist’s fingers. I was allowed to use it when she wasn’t, and as a result I could type capably by the time I was six. This has proven to be an extremely useful skill throughout the rest of my life.

Like most teenagers, I wanted to earn pocket money during the school holidays. Being able to type was a huge advantage. It meant that instead of doing manual work in a shop or factory, I could work in an office. I made more money, and the working conditions were a lot more pleasant. The first summer I signed up with a temp agency, whose role was to provide temporary office workers to replace people who were on holiday or to fill in for people who had left. I was only 15 - which I guess must have been legal, because I didn’t lie about my age. In subsequent summers I found an even better niche, as a Telex operator, but I hadn’t thought of that yet.

My first, and as it turned out only, job for the six weeks of the school holiday was in a local government office. Even now, fifty-odd years later, I should probably be discreet about exactly where, but I can say that it was an inner city borough, in East London. Poverty was rife. I worked in the typing pool of the Children’s Department.

A medium-sized typing pool, around 1930
“What’s a typing pool, grandad?” I can hear younger readers asking. Back then (this would have been the late 1960s), typing was a specialized skill. Most people didn’t do it, and anyway they didn’t have typewriters to hand. Executive types would dictate their missives to another disappeared breed, shorthand-typists. They would write down using a strange script that let them capture speech at normal speed. My mother was trained as one, and was very good at it. Later the typist would interpret her own shorthand and turn the letter, memo or whatever into an official-looking document, ready to be signed by her boss. (It’s safe to say “her” because male shorthand takers were practically unknown - in those days girls were guided into “suitable” occupations).

Other people, lower in the hierarchy, didn’t have this luxury. They would write their documents out longhand, and send them to the typing pool. This was, typically, a large office with anywhere from a handful to dozens of women (never men - see above), each slaving away over a mechanical typewriter, complete with all the sound-effect noises of clattering keys, dinging end-of-line bells and the thump as the carriage was returned to the start of the line. Occasionally you see this scene in old movies.

The office I was sent to had half-a-dozen women, aged between early 20s and mid 40s. They’d evidently been working together for quite a while, and spent a lot of time chatting about their personal lives and, most of all, what they’d seen on television. As a shy, male barely-teenager I was never included in these conversations, but it didn’t stop my inner anthropologist from taking a keen interest.

The actual work was quite interesting, as these things go. Nearly all of the work was transcribing handwritten forms generated by the care workers when they interviewed “clients”, copying them in typescript onto identical forms with several carbon copies.

Another interlude: “What’s a carbon copy, grandpa?”

Before computers, laser printers and Xerox machines, there was no convenient way to make a physical copy of a document. I saw my first Xerox machine at another summer job a couple of years later. So if you wanted multiple copies, they had to be created along with the original document. You loaded several pieces of paper (or identical forms) into the typewriter, interlaced with thin black carbon-coated paper. The typewriter letter struck the paper through an inked ribbon, which produced the image of the letter on the top copy. The impact also pressed the carbon paper against the second and subsequent pages, leaving an image. The first copy was clear, the second was fuzzy, and if you ever tried to make more than two copies, what you got was a barely legible smudge. It was a huge faff to deal with. Handling it inevitably covered your fingers in black stuff, which made its way onto the paper. Getting all these pieces of paper aligned as you loaded into the typewriter was near impossible.

And heaven help you if you made a mistake. No tapping the delete key and carrying on in an instant. You had to unpeel the carbon paper, carefully erase the erroneous letter from each copy and then retype the corrected letter. Little wonder that corrections were generally made afterwards with a pen.

Anyway, back to the Children’s Department. Just like doctors, the care workers seemed to be specially chosen for their illegible handwriting. There were times when I was reduced to guessing what they might have written. A word which cropped up often, and which I have barely ever seen since, was “putative”. It has nothing to do with sex workers, for my French readers. It means “supposed, generally believed” and it occurred in the expression “putative father”.

The care workers’ job, which must have been awful, was to spend all day interviewing distressed, penniless mothers who desperately needed help - money, accommodation, food, clothes for their hapless kids. The notes often contained things like, “The putative father of her three children left, taking all her cash. She has no money to buy food, and no food in her flat.”

And now, finally, to the title. Tom Jones was a pop singer of the era, a sexy hunk with a deep baritone voice who got knickers tingling the length and breadth of the country. At least once a day, when other conversational subjects had given all they could, one of my colleagues would say to the general audience (you have to imagine the cockney accent) “What would you do if Tom Jones walked through that door, right now?”

Needless to say this wasn’t very likely. But what followed was ten minutes of oohing and aahing as these ladies imagined getting their hands - and other bits - on their hero. It was harmless amusement, no different from speculating what you’d do with a lottery or football pools win. And it kept the Children’s Department typing pool running smoothly.

Saturday 14 October 2023

Becoming a French Pilot

In 2001, even before we had fully moved to California, I started learning to fly. It was something that had always tempted me, and it was much easier in the US than in France or Britain. I got my private pilot’s license (PPL). That was soon followed by my Instrument Rating (IR), allowing me to fly in clouds and on an instrument flight plan. I bought my own plane, a Cessna TR182, which quickly acquired the name Sierra. Together we flew all over the western US. Later I got my helicopter license (PPL-H) and my commercial license (CPL), which would have allowed me to be paid for flying if only I had ever found anyone who wanted to.

In 2021 we returned to France, as we had always planned. I wasn’t sure how flying in Europe would work out, but I was sure I wanted to carry on doing it. After a lot of thought I decided to bring Sierra with me, arranging for her to be packed up in a container and shipped. I’ve written about that elsewhere. Sadly, Sierra perished in a landing accident less than a year after I started flying her in France.

Long before my planned return, I’d joined the EuroGA internet forum. The name says everything. The most active members are regular flyers in Europe, often with instrument ratings that they use frequently. Unlike most forums, it is informative, stimulating, and thanks to Peter, its originator, almost unfailingly polite. It has been a constant source of information, help and reassurance.


In case you’re an FAA pilot moving to Europe or France, like me, and you just want to know what to expect, here’s a summary.

  • ATC in French (or any other non-native language) is hard, even if you speak the language fluently. Expect to struggle with it for a long while.
  • Nearly all non-professional flying in France is done with aéroclubs. They have their good sides and their bad sides, but generally they are a lot more social than US flying clubs. They also very much have their own way of doing things, which you have to accept - or buy your own plane and operate out of their system.
  • One aéroclub fixation is a disdain for all things GPS and iPad. While you are flying with their instructors, your iPad will be banished to your flight bag as you struggle with pencil/paper/watch navigation. Once you’re qualified - and flying without an instructor - you can do what you want.
  • Very few European PPLs have instrument ratings - at most 5%. This means that the aéroclubs and the whole PPL business aren’t really set up for IFR instruction or operation. Very few aéroclub planes are equipped for IFR - often none at a given club. IFR instructors are equally rare.
  • France has a similar concept to US flight following, called “Info”, but it works differently, generally on its own exclusive frequencies separated from IFR traffic.
  • Flight plans in Europe must specify an exact and detailed route approved by Eurocontrol. A typical cross-country flight will involve dozens of intermediate waypoints. But once you get in the air, you’ll almost never fly what you filed - you’ll get sensible direct routes.
  • Airspace designation varies by country, and is never anything like the US - though it follows the same ICAO classes. For example, whereas in the US “Class D” means a small towered airport, in France the classes seem to get assigned at random.

Regulatory Matters

While the act of flying a plane is the same anywhere in the world, there are lots of practical differences. When we first arrived, it was perfectly legal for me to fly my American-registered plane anywhere in the world including Europe, on my American license. But that was about to change. In any case it seemed a good idea to get a French license, so I could fly rented French planes.

ICAO, the international governing body for civil aviation, imposes the rule that you can fly an aircraft anywhere in the world if your license corresponds to its registration. So a US pilot can fly an N-registered aircraft, a French pilot an F-registered one, and so on. This is obviously essential. It would hardly be possible for an airline pilot to carry a license for every country they might visit or overfly.

This creates a headache for the bureaucrats charged with regulating aviation in Europe, though. If you visit any mid-sized airport anywhere in Europe, you’ll observe that about half the small planes carry US (N) registrations. There’s a good reason for this. The FAA, for all that American pilots scorn it, operates a much more pragmatic regime than its European counterparts, EASA at the European level and the various national agencies such as the DGAC in France and the CAA in Britain. EASA was created by a fusion of all the regulations of its member countries, and invariably went for the most demanding “gold-plated” regulations. Aircraft maintenance is tightly controlled by the FAA, but EASA imposes many extra requirements which add nothing to safety but a great deal to expense and bureaucracy.

The same is true for pilot qualifications, in particular the Instrument Rating. Flying safely on instruments is hard and takes a lot of practice. It typically takes around 60 hours of instrument flying to obtain the qualification, and constant practice once you have it. That is unavoidable. But on top of that, EASA imposes several months of mandatory, full-time ground school. People who fly for pleasure, rather than a living, can’t afford the time for this. EASA’s view is that private pilots are fine as long as all they do is potter about at low altitude on short flights to nearby airfields. Serious “flying to go somewhere” is for the professionals. 

In the US, anyone who is serious about flying has an IR. All the US pilots I know who are still flying after a few years have one. In Europe, pilots with a PPL/IR are almost unknown. Between this and the maintenance regulations, the consequence is that pilots who want to fly seriously have generally bought N-registered aircraft and got FAA licenses, possibly in addition to their own national ones.

You can imagine that this does not please the EASA bureaucrats at all. They go to all the trouble of making byzantine regulations, only to find that people exploit unavoidable loopholes to ignore them altogether. For literally decades they have been trying to find a way to stop this.

Finally a compromise was reached. From June 2022, if you are resident in the EU, you must have the EASA license for what you are doing, even if the aircraft is not registered in Europe. When I arrived in 2021, I knew this was coming. Getting a French license was essential if I was to continue flying, even in my N-registered plane.

The Aéroclub

I couldn’t fly my own plane for our first few months in France. It had been dismantled and put into a container for shipping, which ended up taking several months. Also, we were living on the opposite side of the country from our long-term residence, while we waited for our furniture to arrive. I found a local aéroclub where I could fly in the meantime, taking the opportunity to learn the quirks of flying in France, and using the French language.

Nearly all my flights were done with the same instructor. One big surprise in France is that most instructors work for no payment, bénévole in French. That means they’re generally either retired, or like mine, young and building hours while they wait for a professional flying job. He worked in a sandwich shop in the mornings just to make ends meet. That’s a pretty dismal reward for spending hundreds of hours and thousands of euros studying to be an airline pilot.

French airspace looks terrifying for low-altitude VFR flying. The chart is absolutely covered in red ink, signifying places you can’t go without special permission. The aéroclub was right in the middle of a bunch of it. I soon learned that this kind of flying requires extensive local knowledge. Some “red” airspace is easy, you call the specified frequency and they will generally let you in, though you may have to stick to an altitude or a defined route. Others will never let you in. Yet others are “active by NOTAM” and in use a handful of days per year. You have to know which is which, especially when you are planning a flight. You don’t want to get half-way and discover your route is blocked by airspace you can’t get into.

ICAO defines seven classes of airspace, designated A to G, each with its own rules about how traffic is separated, what kind of clearance you need, and various other things. In the US, it’s simple. Class A starts at 18,000 feet, and is IFR only. Classes B, C and D are for big, medium and small airports respectively. Class G is close to the ground (up to 1200 feet), and is uncontrolled. Class E is everything else. It’s controlled for IFR but when VFR you don’t need to talk to anyone. Class F is one of life’s great mysteries. I’ve yet to find any, in any country.

In France, airspace designation seems to be completely random. Most French PPLs never leave Class G, which goes up reasonably high. My first instructor wouldn’t go anywhere outside Class G, figuring we probably wouldn’t get a clearance. The airspace around big airports, like Nice, is a hodge-podge of randomly shaped chunks of airspace with what seem to be randomly assigned Classes. I envisage an office somewhere in the inner sanctum of the DGAC with a dice marked twice each with C, D and E. (Class B is never used, and the only Class A is around Paris). Whenever they create new airspace, they roll the dice, and assign the class accordingly. The distinction between C and D is especially odd. The regulatory difference is so subtle that I bet 99% of pilots don’t know it. The space immediately around an airport is generally Class D, while the surrounding airspace used for approaches is Class C - though with plenty of exceptions.

Approaching an airport, all but the smallest define “points” that you have to use. So you will say something like “Nxxx approaching point SE”, and be told to continue via point SY. This seems strange at first but it’s actually a lot better than the US which relies on local knowledge. Someone flying into Palo Alto, my old home, may well be told “traffic abeam Cooley’s Landing” or “direct KGO” (a radio station). That’s fine if you know the area, but incomprehensible otherwise. If you’re using GPS with a navigation app, all these points are shown and it’s very easy to work with them.

But then you run into another French idiosyncrasy. At aéroclubs, GPS is regarded as the devil’s handiwork. Navigation is done strictly with a paper “log de nav” (a list of points and time estimates), a pencil, and looking out of the window. You have to recognise all these points purely visually. Sometimes it’s easy - the junction of two big rivers. In other cases it’s the intersection of two goat tracks. Once you know what to look for - local knowledge again - it’s fine. But until then, good luck.

Luckily, away from the vacuum-tube-era eyes of the instructor, there is an excellent iPad app for French VFR flying. It’s called SDVFR, and it’s free. The user interface is a bit quirky but once you get used to it, it does everything you need for route-planning and navigation. It makes it easy to see whose airspace you’ll be flying through, who you need to call, and how likely you are to get a clearance. As a bonus, it records the track of every flight even if you don’t ask it to.

I had to learn to fly in French. It’s not strictly necessary as ATC and all towered airports can work in English. But the aéroclub instructors generally don’t, and untowered fields - of which there are many - are French-only. I speak fluent French, almost bilingual, but using French to communicate in the air is a whole different story. There’s a specialised vocabulary to learn, words like “downwind” and “taxi”. And for my first few flights, every communication from ATC just left me staring open-mouthed at my instructor while he explained what they meant. Even now, after two years, I still have to concentrate to understand French on the radio.

When you fly VFR in the US, you call the “center” (e.g. Oakland Center), the same as IFR traffic, and you request “flight following”. This means you’re in touch with someone, useful if there’s an emergency, and they’ll call traffic if there’s a potential conflict. France has something similar, but it’s dedicated service for VFR flight, generally on a different frequency and with different controllers. It’s called “Info” (e.g. “Marseille Info”). I’ve always found them very helpful - they call traffic, and warn you if you’re about to fly somewhere you shouldn’t.

Reunited with my Plane

I’d planned to base my plane at Cannes-Mandelieu (LFMD), once it arrived and was reassembled. I did one flight there with an instructor, which was very useful to understand the routes in and out and to identify the various named points. This is a busy airport by French GA standards. It is used by a lot of bizjets as a cheaper alternative to Nice LFMN, it’s home to at least two professional pilot schools and two aéroclubs, there's constant helicopter traffic, and there are quite a few based small planes too. I was lucky to make a contact there who could provide parking for my plane - as I discovered later, getting a parking spot is far from guaranteed at French airfields. The waiting list for one of the airport-run hangars is about ten years long!

At the beginning of September, my plane was finally ready to be collected from Toussus le Noble, just outside Paris. It was my first long flight in France, and had to be done VFR since I was out of instrument currency and anyway had no experience of IFR flight in France. I spent days planning the flight, carefully avoiding all the military airspace.

After the summer I continued flying with the aéroclub. All my flying was done in a Robin DR400, which until recently was the staple of all French aéroclubs - and almost unknown anywhere else. It’s a pleasant enough plane to fly, with nice handling. Unusually for modern planes, it has a stick rather than a yoke. The one I flew was woefully underpowered, its original, and already quite feeble, 120 HP Lycoming engine having been replaced by a 100 HP Rotax. The Rotax requires careful management to stop it overheating, and its climb performance is dire. On one occasion taking off towards the Pyrenees, I really wondered if we would make it over the hills in front of us. I also flew a “proper” DR400, with a 180 HP engine, which flies and climbs very nicely.

On one flight we did that uniquely French power-off landing manouvre, the encadrement - of which more in a moment. It was the first time I’d tried it, and I came in a bit high on final. I asked if it was OK to slip - a handy way to lose height and speed by using the fuselage as an air-brake. I entered the slip as I have dozens of times and as I was taught - a “blended manouvre” where the wings are rolled one way while the rudder goes the other way. The instructor was surprised, to say the least.

Talking with French pilots, I discovered that the slip is almost unknown, or at least never used. Even my airline pilot friend said, “Well, it could be done, but I never would”. In France it seems to be taken for granted that it is very easy to enter a spin that way. That is absolutely not the case, as I confirmed in a flight with an instructor in the US. Even if you stall, nothing bad happens as long as you recover promptly.

Back to the encadrement - all pilots are taught how to land with no power, since if the engines fails, you’ll have to. Generally you pull the power back abeam the arrival end of the runway, and fly the last part of the pattern to touch down on the first part of the runway. I used to practise it all the time in the US, at an airport which is so quiet you can be pretty sure of spending half an hour there undisturbed. If in an unfamiliar plane you do come in a bit high, you can always use a slip - though not in France!

But that’s not good enough for France. Instead you are taught - and tested on - a complex manouvre where you start at 1500 feet above the ground, perpendicular to the runway, then fly a trapezoidal pattern in such a way that as you descend, the runway is at a constant position relative to the wing. It’s not especially hard, though it does require familiarity with the plane. But I have no idea what the point is. If I’m unlucky enough to have an engine failure, I want to get safely on the ground in the simplest, safest way. Flying an arcane and unnecessary manouver would be the last thing on my mind.

Return to Cannes, and BASA

Back at Cannes, I did several flights in Sierra, mostly over the back country behind Nice. It rises rapidly to 3000 metres, making for some beautiful flights alone or with friends.

I mentioned earlier that it would soon be necessary to have a French PPL to fly even N-reg in France. As part of the bureaucratic compromises, they introduced a new procedure called BASA to make it easier for experienced US pilots. The only problem was, they hadn’t finished inventing the process. It was all signed in May 2021, but France didn’t implement it until the New Year. On 31st December, a description of the process appeared on the DGAC website. All it took was a checkride with an examiner, no need for any formal ground instruction.

Within a few weeks I’d arranged to fly a checkride at Cannes. We did it, and sent the papers off to the DGAC.

I didn’t hear anything so after a few weeks I called them.

“Yes Monsieur Harper, we have your dossier, but we don’t know how to process it. We are still waiting for a training course from Paris.”

More weeks passed and I called them again. This time things got surreal. 

“We have your dossier, and we will process it as soon as we get the training. But there is one document missing.”

Fair enough. “If you tell me what it is, I’ll send it to you right away.”

“But Monsieur, until we have received the training, we don’t know what it is.”

This made no sense. How could they know a document was missing, but not know what it was? Anyway, a few weeks later they called me again. Everything was fine, they said, except that I’d have to fly the checkride again. I was busy when they called so I foolishly didn’t ask why.

Then disaster struck. I wrecked my plane while trying to land it at the notorious plane-wrecking airport at Barcelonnette (LFMR). I ran off the end of the end of the runway while attempting a go-around. Nobody was badly hurt, but my flying companion of 20 years was no more.

Not only did I not have a plane any more, but my confidence was in tatters. Still, I tried to arrange another checkride, but all through the summer either the examiner was unavailable, or his plane was in maintenance.

A New Plane

When I lost my beloved 182, I swore I would never own another plane. It’s just too much hassle and expense, especially in Europe. From time to time I would look at the planes-for-sale websites, to convince myself that even if I did want one, there was absolutely nothing available, just a collection of tired old Robins and PA28s. Then one evening I spotted a Socata TB20 for sale. It had excellent, brand new avionics, and looked generally in good condition. What’s more, the seller was the aéroclub in Arcachon, a fairly short drive away.

I called the seller, drove up to Arcachon, and flew the plane. It was every bit as good as it seemed from the advert. I told them I’d like to buy it.

I ended up doing my PPL checkride at Arcachon, too. They'd already used the BASA process, which helped a lot. In the process I also figured out why my earlier checkride was rejected. It turns out there are two kinds of checkride, the ab initio one for getting a PPL, and a recurring ride used for example to reissue a lapsed license. The DGAC wanted the second kind, but my first examiner - lacking any guidance from the DGAC - had done the paperwork for the first.

Return to Instrument Flying

It took a couple of weeks to get the magic piece of paper. Meanwhile I had realised that for “flying to go somewhere” in France, IFR is essential. First, the weather, even in the famously sunny Cote d’Azur, is completely unpredictable. In California the weather crosses the Pacific, changing very little as it does so. Forecasts are good several days out. The French Atlantic coast is the opposite extreme. Forecasts are often wrong even for the next few hours. For the next day they are worthless. I discussed this with a friend who was once a professional meteorologist. He agreed, explaining that the geography of the Pyrenees and the Spanish coast makes everything subject to rapid change.

The Nice area isn’t as extreme as that, but even when it is sunny on the coast, Provence - which is on the way to everywhere - is often cloudy or stormy. The pressure systems - which determine the weather - can be extremely odd. I’ve seen the airports at Nice and Cannes, just 15 miles apart, have strong winds in completely opposite directions.

So if you want to plan a trip in advance and have a reasonable chance of executing it, you need to be able to fly IFR. There’s another reason too. French airspace is very complicated, and much of it is controlled by the military. Planning a long VFR flight is a nightmare, zig-zagging round and up and down to avoid restricted airspace. Whereas for IFR flight, you let a navigation app like ForeFlight figure out a route, you file it, and once you’ve taken off, you do what ATC tell you. It’s up to them to keep you out of forbidden airspace.

I hadn’t flown IFR since leaving the US, by now 18 months ago. I had long since ceased to be legally current to file an IFR flight plan. I did a couple of flights in the TB20 with the instrument instructor at Arcachon, and was reassuringly surprised at how readily my skill returned.

The problem with IFR training in France - and Europe generally - is that outside the airline pilot training schools, there are very few instructors. I was very lucky to find a training outfit that specialises in personal training to individual pilots like me. They’re called Orbifly, and best of all they have a base at Cannes. 

The Arrival of Tango

Tango, just arrived at Cannes

In February, I finally completed everything necessary to take possession of my new plane. We’d already given her a name, Tango, from the last letter of her tail number and as the obvious successor to Sierra. I chose a day with good weather. IFR is not a panacea. In winter, clouds mean ice. Small planes have no protection against that. I did the flight from Arcachon to Cannes with Arcachon’s only instrument instructor. It was uneventful, taking us over one of the most uninhabited parts of France, the Plateau du Larzac north-west of Montpelier, where there is little sign of villages or even roads.

In the weeks that followed I did several flights to get used to my new plane. Then we went to the US for a couple of weeks. I flew with my instrument instructor friend at Palo Alto, and did an instrument proficiency check (IPC). That made me legal to fly IFR under American rules, but not in France without my French IR.

Returning to France, I started to practice seriously. In the US I had more than a dozen airports with instrument approaches within a half hour flight. From Cannes, the closest is Avignon, nearly an hour away. Cannes itself has an approach, but with minima at 2000 feet it isn’t much use for training. The airline airport at Nice of course has approaches, but you will never get cleared to fly one in a little piston plane. Nice is strictly for big jets.

Avignon's two mirror-image (almost) approaches - which you
get depends on whether the Orange controller is on coffee break,
and may change every few minutes

Avignon’s approaches are strange. For a start, they are all aimed at runway 17, heading south. Yet the prevailing wind is from the north, the famous Mistral which often blows at 25 knots or more, and usually runway 35 is in use. Of the three approaches, two are designed for traffic arriving from the south, with the Initial Fix (IAF) practically over the airport. They have a similar trapezoidal shape, one passing to the west of the airport and the other to the east. Which is in use depends on whether the military field at Orange, a bit to the north, is active or not. And nobody tells you that until you arrive. It can even change while you are in the arrival phase of the approach. So you have to be prepared to completely reset the avionics in the busiest, most stressful phase of the flight. It is hardly necessary to say that this is not conducive to safety.


Finally, in May, came the day for my checkride. Arriving at Avignon, they indeed switched the approach on me while I was flying the hold. I was still getting used to Tango’s Garmin GTN750. It’s a fantastic piece of kit, capable of all kinds of things once you get used to it. My instructor shows me a couple of new things every time we fly together. But you have to get it right. Switching the approach, I forgot one final button press. As the minutes went by, I could see that things were going wrong. Luckily I figured it out, and we were on track.

Then on the second approach, I made a mistake. As I expected, that meant I didn’t pass. I would have to fly a couple of approaches again, later.

For the second ride, we planned to do a couple of practise approaches on the way to Avignon as a warm-up. It was busy, as always since it is practically the only place to practice approaches for miles around. They asked us to hold.

Tango's G500, on the way from
Arcachon to Cannes

It’s very rare to be given a for-real hold, although you have to practice them regularly for FAA currency. In the US I did maybe 4 of them in 20 years of flying there. In airline flying you can rely on holding for Heathrow, but anywhere else they are rare.

Once we were in the hold, they asked us to climb. Once we’d climbed, they slotted traffic under us and had us climb some more. In the end we went round that hold 12 times, spending over an hour. Meanwhile, the military zone at Orange kept changing from active to inactive and back. I suspect that every time the controller there wants a coffee or needs to go to the bathroom, they deactivate it. And with each change, the approach in use changes, and everything has to be set up again.

And then on final, someone got stuck on the runway and we had to go around. When we finally got into the airport and started the checkride, everything went fine and I’d passed.

Flying IFR

Marseille from 8000 feet

The magic piece of paper showed up shortly afterwards. Over the summer I did several IFR flights, some on my own and some with an instructor. It’s one thing to be legal, but another to be comfortable with the system, and I needed to get comfortable.

One big difference from the US is how IFR flight plans are filed. In the US, you need to figure out a route, but the ATC system doesn’t care. If I was flying say from Palo Alto to Medford in Oregon, I’d just file direct to somewhere in Medford’s approach structure. ATC will give me their own route out of the Bay Area, regardless of what I file. Once I’m en-route, nobody cares.

In Europe, though, you must enter a Eurocontrol-approved route. Foreflight will very helpfully figure out one of these for any origin/destination pair, though it may not be what you would have wanted. The route, following airways, will involve a large number of intermediate waypoints, often zigzagging between them.

Once you get in the air, it’s a different story. On my first long IFR flight, ferrying Tango to Cannes, all those waypoints melted into three or four “direct XXX”. Even the complicated approach structure into Cannes turned into “direct OBOTA”, the final approach fix (FAF).

Another difference is how to combine VFR and IFR. Most US airports, even small ones, have instrument approaches. You can file IFR say between Palo Alto and Siskiyou County - truly the middle of nowhere, and with the world’s most impossible NDB approach - and ATC will take care of you. In France relatively few non-airline airports have approaches, consistent with the fact that only commercial pilots have instrument ratings. If you are going to a non-IFR airport, you can file a mixed IFR/VFR flight plan (IFR-Y). For the last non-IFR part, you’re completely on your own. It’s up to you to avoid restricted airspace and all the other stuff, just as for any VFR flight. ATC aren’t required to give you any help at all, though the VFR-only “Info” service is helpful.

I did one such flight, with an instructor, to Carpentras, in the Rhone Valley. ATC gave us a very odd route towards the end, not really in the right direction. My instructor got on the radio and sorted things out.

“He simply had no idea what to do with us. He’s probably never had to deal with someone going to Carpentras before,” she explained.

French ATC is, in my experience anyway, very helpful and pretty informal. You will generally get what you ask for, as long as it’s legal and sensible. On another flight, to Carcassonne, I’d just turned to the first fix of the approach (KONON). After a few minutes ATC called. “Where are you headed?” he asked. I told him.

“Oh, OK, I wasn’t expecting you to go that way. Cleared direct KONON.”

But you have to be prepared for surprises as well. The altitude for KONON is 4000 feet, and we were arriving at 8000 feet. I asked if they’d let us descend. But there was a Ryanair flight using the approach too, and they clearly didn’t want us doing anything that would interfere with that. I suspect they get an earful if they delay Ryanair by so much as 30 seconds - as shown by O’Leary’s recent rant about the UK ATC system. So there we were at KONON, 4000 feet too high. Between us we made it work, but it certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.

In August, EuroGA organised a fly-out to Mali Lošinj on the Croatian Adriatic coast. It would be a great chance to meet people, and to do a real flight to go somewhere. I’ve written about it separately here - it was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. It was my first flight outside France, and everything went extremely well. Once again my planned route zigzagged all over Italy, but even before we entered Italian airspace I got cleared direct to the far side of the country. Croatian ATC were great, giving me direct routes straight away. Italian ATC was good too, apart from a stretch where I got handed off to Genoa but there was nobody home. Most of the traffic you hear on the radio is airliners. But to my surprise, there were a few exchanges in Italian with small planes.

Back to Arcachon

In September we visited Arcachon. They had some hangar space free for a while, and offered to host Tango. So a week later I was on Easyjet for an overnight stop in Nice, to fly Tango back to Arcachon.

Planning the flight was quite an exercise. Arcachon is VFR only, so at some point you have to cancel IFR. But it is also surrounded by all kinds of restricted airspace. The forbidden airspace of the military base at Cazaux is literally within walking distance. Over the airport and for a very long way to the north, above 1000 feet also belongs to Cazaux. There's more, too, so any flight in the area has to be planned carefully.

An IFR flight plan produced a route half way up the Médoc peninsula, which would add about 25 minutes to the flight. It’s unlikely you’d get to fly it that way, but if you did, it leads you into a maze of restricted areas. I tried editing the route to eliminate the detour, but nothing I did was accepted. Someone on EuroGA suggested an IFR-Y flight plan. This is something which (as far as I know) doesn’t exist in the US. It means that at some point it turns into a VFR flight plan. There is also IFR-Z, which starts VFR and becomes IFR at a specified point.

To my amazement, this worked perfectly. ForeFlight immediately found the perfect route, ending at MAPRI on the edge of Cazaux’s airspace at a point where you can proceed at 1000 feet without their permission. Only one small edit was required, to change the altitude at MAPRI to 1000 feet using the notation MAPRI/F010. And better yet, when I filed it, it was accepted.

The flight itself was uneventful. There wasn’t a cloud in sight along the whole route, there was almost no wind, and no turbulence. As I by now expected, the complicated sequence of waypoints in the flight plan was replaced by a total of four direct segments. The radio, talking to Toulouse, was so quiet that they called me and asked for a radio check. I’ve never had that before. Once I got close to MAPRI I was given direct, and a series of altitudes that gave me a continuous descent to 1000 feet. Approaching MAPRI I cancelled IFR, contacted Arcachon and finished VFR after a flight of exactly 3 hours.

That was my first mixed IFR/VFR flight on my own, which is the last of the various things to master before I feel confident as an IFR pilot in France and Europe. For this I owe a lot to my friends at Arcachon and at Orbifly.