Tuesday 21 September 2021

Moving my Plane and its Pilot to France

Sierra in France, about to leave Toussus-le-Noble


When we moved to California in 2001, I started learning to fly. It was something I’d thought about for years, and in the US it was easy and relatively inexpensive. I got my private pilot license in early 2002.

I bought my own plane in October 2002. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I should get. I decided on a Cessna TR182. The 182 is the Swiss-army-knife of planes, with decent speed, a good payload and range, easy to fly and easy to maintain. The TR182 version adds retractable gear, making it a bit faster, and a turbo, allowing it to fly easily at high altitudes. I found a decent 1980 example at a local dealership. It came with the registration N5296S, and quickly gained the name Sierra, after the last letter.

My friend Bill, who got me started as a pilot, wondered how long I would keep it - apparently the average length of plane ownership is about 5 years. But we were together for 20 years, until her sad demise in the accident described later on. Sierra was in decent shape when I bought her, for a 20-year old plane. The avionics were OK but I soon upgraded them to what was then state of the art - a Garmin GNS530 radio/navigation unit, and a GTX330 transponder that could receive information about traffic in the vicinity. Later I had the interior redone, in cream leather which even now looks very nice.

Sierra and I did a lot of flying together, especially in the early days. With Isabelle, we often went somewhere over the weekend or just for the day. On one occasion I flew her to Denver and then to Leadville, the highest public airport in the country. Flying over the Rockies makes the value of a turbo very obvious. On the way there I made one of my few excursions into the flight levels, at 20,000 feet. (In the US these start at 18,000 feet, though in Europe they are much lower.)

By the mid-2010s, the paintwork was getting tired. A long life parked in the open at Palo Alto, next to the seawater bay, had produced some nasty corrosion. It was time to undertake the repaint that I had been thinking about for a long time. I went for the original orange and brown colours, and a design fairly similar to the original too, though modified to allow for a full-size twelve-inch registration. The colours are “so 1980s”, but any other colors would be tied to a time too. Back when I first started thinking about the repaint, burgundy-and-grey were very popular (along with strange squiggly lines). By now that would look just as dated as the original colors, and even less suitable.

Soon after the repaint, it was time for an engine overhaul too. With that done, I had a 40-year old almost-new plane.

The Move

In 2019 we decided to move back to France. It was something we’d been planning, in an abstract way, for several years. Finally all the circumstances came together. One obvious question was, what to do with Sierra? I certainly wanted to carry on flying back in France. Flying is a bit of a drug, and very hard to give up.

I’d flown in France, and the UK, several times before, though not for a long while. From my own experience, and from following various Internet forums, I knew that it was a very different experience from flying in the US. Everything is more constrained and rule-bound, and a lot more expensive. Instrument flying, especially, is a lot more limited - there are fewer approaches and you have to pay to use them. I really wasn’t sure what kind of flying I’d end up doing.

Essentially I had three choices:

1. Sell Sierra, join a flying club, and fly club planes. The problem with this is that flying clubs in France generally have only a handful of aircraft, sometimes just one. Taking a plane for an extended trip is out of the question, so I’d be limited to local bimbling around.

2. Sell Sierra and buy a plane in Europe. This seemed like a good idea until I asked on European pilot forums about it. Everybody said it was a bad idea. Maintaining a French-registered plane is much more complicated than an N-registered one. Also, I’d want to buy something substantially newer than Sierra, now over 40 years old, so it would mean investing a lot more money.

3. Take Sierra with me. This isn’t without its own complications, as you’ll see later. But it meant I could keep the plane I know so well. And in the worst case, I could always sell her in Europe.

There was variant of number 3. I could leave Sierra in the US, get some experience in Europe, and decide what to do later. But planes need to be flown. I looked into putting her on the rental line at a club. The club head’s prognosis was uncompromising. “Your plane is old, it’s a turbo, and it’s retractable. The question isn’t whether someone will damage it, it’s just how long it will take. Don’t do it.” That left arranging with friends to fly her from time to time, but that could quickly get complicated too.

There are two ways to move a small plane like Sierra across the Atlantic. The obvious one is to fly it, starting at Goose Bay in north-eastern Canada, then via Greenland and Iceland to Wick in northern Scotland. For Sierra, this can be done without even installing extra fuel tanks. But it’s a risky flight - if the engine stops, you’re in the near-freezing north Atlantic, with minimal chance of survival even wearing a full waterproof immersion suit. I wasn’t keen on this, and my wife was even less keen. There are professional ferry pilots, who do this for a living. I got in touch with a company, who quoted me nearly $40,000. That is getting on for half the value of the aircraft, and not realistic.

That left the other solution, which is to unbolt the wings and put everything in a shipping container. Then, when the container arrives in France, the wings are reattached, and the plane is good to go. At least, that’s the theory. I found someone nearby, at Hayward airport just across the bay, who does this for a living. They quoted me $9000 for the dismantling, packing and shipping. There would obviously be some costs at the French end too, but it would be a lot cheaper than ferrying.

The surprising thing about their quote was that it included absolutely nothing about what would happen when the plane arrived in France. Their plan was to ship it to the container port at Fos-sur-Mer, near Marseille, and that was it. I’d assumed they would be in touch with a network of shops at least in major countries who could finish the job, but evidently not.

Fortunately I had made contact with someone at my destination airport, Cannes-Mandelieu (LFMD), who seemed perfect. She was an FAA qualified mechanic and inspector (IA) as well as being both a French and FAA instructor. She agreed to take charge of the reassembly, and would also be ideal for getting the French pilot qualifications I would eventually need.

Arriving in France

Sierra at Hayward, waiting to be shipped

On Monday 15th March 2021, I dropped Sierra off at Hayward airport, meeting for the first time Ed, who ran the shop there. His office was full of exhibits and artifacts going back a very long way - he told me he has been doing this for over 40 years. I was joined there by my aerobatics instructor friend Rich, who had agreed to drive me back to Palo Alto. Ed regaled us with tales of the various aircraft he has shipped over the years

The rest of our move was a long and incredibly stressful tale of bureaucracy, packing and dealing with the movers. Despite my worries and all the sleepless nights, everything ended up going smoothly. Two days later, on 17th, we set off for San Francisco airport, with our cat Missy, seven huge suitcases and as many items of cabin baggage, for the one-way trip to France.

As far as Sierra was concerned, there was nothing to be done until she showed up in France. The original estimate for that was six weeks - two weeks for the dismantling and packing, and four weeks for the container to reach France. That turned out to be extremely optimistic. Nearly three months passed before I even got a confirmed date for the shipment. The shop attributed this to Covid and the difficulty of getting hold of containers. For sure, all shipping worldwide was a big mess - there were articles about it in the media.

I wasn’t bothered by the delay. We had far more than enough to occupy us with the household move, once that container showed up, at the end of May. It would be the end of July before we had (mostly) finished unpacking and organizing things at our new home in Nice.

In early June, Ed sent me the shipping information, with a planned arrival at Fos-sur-Mer on 20th June. Now it was time to get serious about the French end of things. But it turned out not to be so simple.

Communication with Ed was a problem - he didn't return emails or answer the phone. The one time I did manage to get hold of him, I had to squeeze every word out of him. The only information I could get was “you’ll need a fork-lift with extra-length forks”. That seemed reasonable enough, and I passed this information on to the mechanic.

Ed had also managed to tell me the contact for the shipping agent in France. Fortunately they were extremely helpful and responsive. Finally the container arrived at Fos. It would take a few days to clear customs and then be delivered by road to Mandelieu.

Then it turned out there was a last minute problem with Plan A, to do the reassembly at Mandelieu. Enter my friend Laura. I’d met her on the internet very early on when trying to figure out the move. She’d shipped her own Carbon Cub from the US to France a year earlier, and gave me lots of useful advice. I sent her a despairing message late at night, when I got the message from the mechanic. She responded instantly, giving me the contact information for Michael, who had taken care of her plane.

At 9 the following morning I called him, naturally speaking French. After a couple of sentences he said to me, “You speak English, don’t you?”, and I realized he’s American. “Of course I’ll take care of your plane,” he said. We had a deal. I can’t even begin to describe my relief. To store the plane in the container while I searched for another solution would have cost something like €100 per day.

He wanted to know a bit about how the plane had been packed. I tried to get in touch with Ed, at Hayward, but got no response at all. Michael tried too, but to no avail. Finally he sent me a message saying, “Sorry, was in a car accident, but I’m fine now.” I hope he is, but that was the last we ever heard from him. Michael just had to improvise when it came to extracting Sierra from her container.

I had to call the importing agent again. Michael’s shop is at Toussus-le-Noble, one of the few GA airports in the Paris area. It would cost me over €1000 more to move the container from Fos to Toussus, but there was no choice. One little twist was that the container made the journey by rail - making Sierra one of the very few aircraft to have travelled by train. I was told it would take at least a week, because of all the congestion of container traffic.


Then on Friday, I got a message from the importers. “Please pay your bill immediately so the shipment can take place. Is the mechanic ready to receive the container on Monday morning?”

Well no, he wasn’t. I’d told it him it would take at least a week. I called him. “Sure, Monday is fine,” he said. On Monday morning he texted me a picture of a huge container truck. “On my way to work, got stuck behind this!” he said. And indeed it was my container. Later that day he sent me more pictures. It was wonderful to see Sierra again, even if she was still a long way from being flyable. He extracted her form the container with no difficulty and sent the truck back on its way, avoiding any storage charges.

Sierra's container arriving at Toussus-le-Noble

It turned out that the packing had not been done very well. The fuselage was resting on the bare wood of a pallet, with no packing at all, and the gear half-retracted. Surprisingly, this had caused little damage, just a few cosmetic scratches on the belly. As the reassembly progressed other damage showed up. They’d cut through a couple of cables when they removed the wings. They hadn’t noted the position of the critical camber-adjustment cams when they removed the wings. They’d damaged some bits and pieces of the landing gear. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed, but irritating.

I agreed with Michael that he would do an annual at the same time, since it would soon be due, and left everything in his hands.

A couple of weeks later I was able to meet him. He was visiting Mandelieu and invited me to lunch and to meet the people he knew there, which turned out to be extremely useful. He’d flown down from Paris in his Aerostar, a sleek, fast piston twin. It’s one of the few small planes where you have to worry about the 250 knot speed limit below 10,000 feet. Afterwards I visited the FBO where Sierra was to be parked and maintained, meeting the people there.


There’s a saying in aviation that no aircraft can fly until the weight of the associated paperwork exceeds the weight of the aircraft. This wasn’t quite true for Sierra, but there was a lot to be taken care of.

The first hurdle was customs. Normally an import like this would have to pay VAT - 20% in France, quite a lot of money. But because it was part of our belongings returning to live in France, it ought to be exempt. Laura had been a big help with this, and among the vast quantities of baggage we had brought with us was every document I could find which would support it, including 20 years’ worth of receipts for parking and taxes at Palo Alto. It wasn’t enough, though. The importers wanted the original purchase receipt from 2002. Getting hold of this, or at least a copy of it, was quite a challenge, but fortunately it worked. The shipment cleared customs without a hitch.

The next problem was legal ownership. It comes as a surprise to most people that you can operate a plane in France with a US (N) registration - like N5296S. If we’d managed to import our Toyota FJ, for example, we would have had to re-register it in France within a few months - which is the main reason we didn’t. Probably over half the privately owned aircraft in France, and Europe generally, are on the US register, and flown by pilots using their FAA licenses. The ongoing bureaucracy associated with European registration is much more demanding than the US. Also it is pretty much impossible for a private pilot to obtain an instrument rating in Europe, so if you want to fly IFR the obvious route is an N-registered plane and an FAA IR. The European authorities hate this, and have taken steps to control it, but it remains true.

Still, without US citizenship, I cannot legally own an N-reg plane outside the US. Fortunately this is a widespread problem with a well-known solution. There are companies that specialize in providing US ownership via trustees, keeping everything legal. Following recommendations on the web, I got this set up without too much difficulty. In the US I’d owned Sierra through a Delaware Corporation, and the cost was similar. (That also created some worries over the duty-free import, but it turned out not to be a problem).

Finally I had to get European insurance. This worked out to be bit more expensive than in the US, but not a problem. In the US, it’s insurance companies who really decide what you can own and fly. If as a new PPL with 100 hours you go out and buy a sophisticated retractable, you simple won’t be able to insure it. In Europe this seems to be less of a problem. For example when I added Michael to the insurance, so he could do post-maintenance test flights, all they wanted to know was his total time. Nothing about time in model, or retractable time, which would have been a major issue in the US. When I added an instructor to my US insurance, they wanted not only time in model but time in model of the same year, which is ridiculous.

Flying in France

Although I can legally fly my plane in France without any formalities, it seemed like a good idea to get some experience operating in France and also with using French on the radio. This isn’t required for ATC, who will work in English, but it’s needed if you ever go to uncontrolled fields, and it seems like a good idea to be able to do it even with ATC. Also, from May 2022, a French license will be needed for residents even when flying an N-reg aircraft with an FAA license. The good news is that they have invented a simplified procedure for getting one, for experienced pilots, but still it has to be done.

We planned to stay at our “beach house” near Biarritz, while we waited for our possessions to show up. I’d flown a long while ago with the Aéroclub Basque at Biarritz airport, so I contacted them, but they took a long time to respond and when they finally did they weren’t very encouraging. One time, years ago, I’d stopped by the club on the airport at Dax, and when I got in touch with them they were much more helpful.

Their first requirement was for a French medical. I made an appointment with an aviation doctor nearby. In the US the system is pretty much self-policed. If you can walk unaided into the doctor’s surgery you will probably get a medical, as long as you haven’t declared anything the FAA doesn’t like - which is pretty much everything. On the other hand, if you omit so much as a dental hygienist appointment from your declared list of medical treatment, you can be banned for life from holding an FAA license. This makes the self-policing work quite well.

The French doctor actually examined me, which was quite a shock. I did a hearing test, a vision test, an ECG, a respiratory capacity test, and various other things. Luckily it all went well, and half an hour later I left his surgery clutching a French medical certificate.

My first flight at Dax was in a Robin DR400, the universal French aeroclub plane, which had been modified to fit a 100hp Rotax engine. The nice thing about the plane is that everything seems brand new. The not-so-good thing is the 100hp engine, which makes climbing a delicate matter and limits it to a top speed of around 85 KIAS. Still, I’m not in a hurry to get anywhere. We flew to Biarritz, not far away, and did a missed approach since otherwise we would have to pay the €40 landing fee. That’s another big difference between the US and Europe - in the US only truly huge airports, like SFO and JFK, have landing fees. At an equivalent of Biarritz - say San Luis Obispo - you pay nothing. Then we returned to Dax via the beautiful Atlantic coast.

Dax is a strange airport. I don’t know its history, but now its main role is as the training base for all official French helicopter pilots - army, police and so on. There is fleet of about 20 identical red-and-white H120s based there, and during the working day there is a constant background noise of helicopters. It’s controlled by the military, and civil flying is permitted only for the aeroclub and the small handful of based planes. You can’t just go and land there.

The other odd thing about Dax is the runway. The actual paved surface is 800 metres (2600 feet) - about the same as Palo Alto. But trees just off one end limit its useful length to 494 metres, about 1600 feet and definitely the shortest runway I’ve ever used at a designated airport. Landing on 25, the usual runway, you spend more time looking straight down at the treetops 100 feet below you, than you do looking at the runway. The airport is closed at night, and you can understand why.

I’ve done several more flights there, getting to know French airspace and regulations, and practicing French on the radio. I speak French fluently, almost bilingually, but still the first few radio interactions were just as panic-inducing as the first few flights in the US. Now I can generally get by OK, but if ATC goes off-script I can still be left completely lost. There’s always the option to switch to English, but that seems like a bit of a defeat. Occasionally it happens that ATC hear my accent and reply in English anyway, which is kind of annoying.

An oddity of French aero clubs is that the instructors work for nothing - bénévole in French. This makes no sense to someone used to the US system, where you pay $50-100 per hour, but that’s the way it is. Most of my flying has been with Pierre-Alexandre, a trained airline pilot, who but for Covid would now be flying for Ryanair or Wizz. He’s staying current and filling in time by instructing at Dax, but in order to eat and pay the rent, he works in a sandwich shop in the mornings!

I also managed one flight with an instructor in a 172 out of Cannes. We did a tour of all the named VFR reporting points around the airport, which was extremely useful. I’d hoped to fly some more, but between holidays, aircraft availability and other hiccups, I didn’t.

Named reporting points are another non-US difference. In the US, there are reporting points around airports but they’re informal. At Palo Alto you can report Lake Elizabeth, Cement Plant, Cooley’s Landing and numerous others. The only way to get to know them is to fly locally. If you fly to an unfamiliar airport and they tell you “direct Joe’s Tire and Muffler” you have to say “unfamiliar” and hope they’ll come up with something less cryptic. In France every airport has a “VAC”, a combined approach chart and airport information sheet. For bigger airports this will include several named reporting points which are used when arriving and departing. Dax for example has S, SE, N, N2, NE, BG and more. Luckily SDVFR knows about these, because some of them are pretty obscure if you’re trying to identify them by ground reference.

First Flight

Our route from Toussus to Mandelieu

Getting Sierra ready to fly again took a long time. There was, as expected, a constant string of little things that needed fixing, and then there was August - when the whole of France, including Michael, disappears on holiday. Finally, at the beginning of September, we agreed that I would pick Sierra up on Monday 6th. This was subject of course to weather - I certainly wasn’t going to fly a recently-reassembled plane in IFR, and with zero IFR experience in Europe. The previous week I’d signed a contract to park and maintain Sierra at Mandelieu - necessary since otherwise I would have nowhere to park when I got there.

Luckily the weather was good. A pilot and CFI friend of mine had agreed to come along as moral support, and practical support if necessary. We took an Air France flight to Orly, and a taxi for the half-hour ride through the leafy southern suburbs of Paris to Toussus. Finally, I saw Sierra again, just one week short of six months since I left her at Hayward. She looked perfect.

Michael gave us a tour of his hangar. His speciality is rebuilding damaged Piper PA46 Malibus, of which there were several cadavers around the edges of the hangar. Two of them had been damaged at the same airport, the very challenging “altiport” at Courchevel. We went to lunch at the on-field restaurant, where I finally met Laura - she’d agreed to join us there. It was all very enjoyable, swapping flying stories. She had worked in the Bay Area for a time, and flown out of Palo Alto, so we knew a lot of the same people there.

We did a short post-maintenance test flight together. Everything seemed fine, though we forgot to test the autopilot, which turned out to be a mistake. I surprised Michael by rolling into a 60 degree bank - quite forgetting that not everybody has aerobatic experience. Toussus is a tricky airport. It’s right under the 1500 foot floor of the Paris airspace, which is absolutely closed to VFR. It’s also hemmed in on three sides by the surface region of the same airspace, so it’s a bit like flying in a blind tunnel. There is one route out, and the same route back in again.

I’d been worrying over the preparation of the flight for weeks. French airspace is extremely complex. There is military airspace everywhere. Some of it is permanently closed, but most isn’t. All my French pilot friends told me, don’t worry about it. Plan a straight line, you’ll nearly always be allowed in, maybe with an altitude change or a slight detour. Michael had quite literally flown in a straight line from Cannes to Paris after our meeting there. But what if they don’t let you in? What do you do then? Finally, with the help of the excellent SDVFR app which understands all the subtleties of flying in France, I’d worked out a route which would let me avoid all military airspace, including all the stuff that would probably be inactive. It also avoided flying over any seriously inhospitable terrain, like the Massif Central. The actual route was Toussus - Rambouillet - Pithiviers - Nevers - Moulin - Montelimar - a few kinks around stuff en route - Cannes. I had to choose the right altitude - 7500 feet, no higher or lower.

Finally at 4pm, two hours later than I had intended, we took off. Despite all my fears the flight was completely uneventful. I soon discovered that the autopilot didn’t work, mysteriously since Michael assured me it had been fine in ground testing. It was quite enjoyable to hand-fly a long flight for a change. The first hour was over the rather dull agricultural plain south of Paris, under a perfect blue sky. As we got further south we started to see a few clouds, though nothing you couldn’t fly around. We also started to see terrain - we were within gliding distance of the Rhone valley, but underneath us were the rolling foothills of the Massif Central.

The town of Montelimar is famous for two things: fudge, as immortalized in the Beatles song Savoy Truffle, and its VOR (radio navigation beacon). Whenever you fly from London to Nice, the pilot always comes on to the radio about 30 minutes out and says “we are just approaching Montelimar”. Why this little insignificant place rather than say Lyon or Avignon, you ask yourself. The answer is that the VOR there is where the flight will turn left towards Nice.

We did the same, but then we realised that despite the perfect weather forecast, there were actually some clouds. We dropped down to 7000 feet, and then by stages to 5000 - still comfortably above the terrain, though not what we’d planned. Our route took us over the vines of the Cotes du Rhone, and later over Cotes de Provence, and just north of the highest mountain the area, Le Mont Ventoux at 6600 feet.

Clouds over Le Mont Ventoux

We’d been talking to someone for the whole flight. France makes a distinction between control and “info”, which is a VFR-only service. Sometimes they’ll hand you off to someone, sometimes they just say “squawk VFR” and leave you to figure out who comes next, though they will tell you if you ask. Generally working in English was fine, though it took me several attempts to get Marseille Info to understand who I was. That seems a good argument for using French.

Finally we reached the first reporting point for Mandelieu, WL, and were able to call Cannes Tower. They gave us a straightforward arrival - thank goodness for my one recent flight there. We taxied to my brand new parking spot, after 2h45 of flying.

And that was it. We left for the Atlantic coast again a couple of days later, leaving Sierra in the hands of Jet Azur to finish up the few remaining squawks. Now I have to figure out where we want to fly to, when we get back

First Landing at Mandelieu

Postscript - A Sad Ending

After Sierra was reassembled and we returned to Nice for the winter, I did several flights over the spectacular mountainous country north of Nice. I'd seen it from commercial flights, much higher - it is much more spectacular down low. I took quite a few passengers including my wife's doctor. I met another local pilot and we flew in his rented plane to Gap, and in Sierra to Avignon. That took us over the continuous vines of Provence, stretching for nearly 200 km.

In the meantime I needed to get my French pilot's licence, since from June I would need it even to fly my US-registered plane with a US license. That went fairly smoothly - I did some flights with an instructor at Mandelieu, then a checkride with him. I sent off all the paperwork to the DGAC in Marseilles.

In May, for want of somewhere to go, we decided to visit Barcelonette together. It's a tiny airport hidden in a deep, narrow valley, approached over one of the highest passes in the area, the Col d'Allos.

Getting down to pattern height in the narrow valley is quite an exercise - you get quite friendly with the landscape as you make the turns. When I lined up with the runway I realised I was still a bit high. No problem - Sierra can descend magnificently if asked to, and we made it at the landing end of the runway. I was a bit fast so we touched down further long than I would like.

This runway has another unusual feature - it is humped in the middle, by about 15 metres. As we went over the hump I quickly realised that we were rapidly running out of runway. My "go around" instinct kicked in and I firewalled the throttle. But it was already too late, the end of the runway - and the trees beyond it - was rapidly approaching, without enough room to regain flying speed. I pulled the throttle and waited for the inevitable.

It didn't take long to come. Less than a second later we ground to a halt on some gravel. A low bank just off the end of the runway had torn Sierra's gear off, and the subsequent impact had twisted the frame and bent just about every panel on the plane.

The only good thing is that neither I nor my pilot passenger was badly hurt. We were able to walk away from the wreckage and spend the day dealing with everything and helping to move it onto the airport.

And that was the end of my beloved Sierra, my best flying friend for 20 years and the perfect plane for me.  Writing this months later it still hurts. I feel much as if I had just accidentally run over my own dog.


Unknown said...

Hi John,

This is fun. I have actually followed your endeavours for a while, and that culminated with hearing you (Michael) on the radio at Toussus as you took off, and I was taxiing to depart from 25R in a DA42.

Please contact me by mail.


Anonymous said...

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got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from
Huffman Tx! Just wanted to tell you keep up the great work!