Sunday 20 August 2023

Flight to Croatia - My First International Flight in Europe

My story of moving to France and acquiring all the necessary licenses to fly legally here deserves its own article. Suffice it to say that by August 2023, I had everything legally required to fly IFR or VFR, in a US or French registered aircraft - in fact any EASA (mainland Europe) registration.

I've written elsewhere about the loss of "Sierra", my much beloved Cessna TR182, in a landing accident. I didn't plan to replace her, but in the end I bought a very nicely equipped 2003 Socata TB20GT. Whether this was a good idea, or a moment of complete insanity, is still a matter of judgement. My new plane is called "Tango" - not only is this the obvious follow-on to Sierra, but it is also the last letter of her US tail number (as Sierra was for her predecessor).

A major reason for choosing Tango was her avionics. They were rebuilt a few years ago to the state of the art: Garmin G500 PFD/MFD, GTN750/650 navigator combination. The autopilot is the original King KFC225 which works well with the newer stuff.

Flying a plane is the same wherever you are. But local practices differ a lot between countries. Every country in Europe has its own way of doing VFR and its own variations on the rules. IFR is a lot more consistent, which is why I went to trouble of getting a French instrument rating.

I've done a few IFR flights in France now, including a couple on my own. I feel fairly comfortable with the way things work, though I still have to concentrate to understand ATC, whether in French or English.

Years before we returned to France, I joined an on-line group called EuroGA. It's a very pleasant and interesting group of people, and it was a real eye-opener for a US pilot to see how things are done in Europe. (Spoiler: it's very rarely better, easier or cheaper). Since I started flying in Europe, it has been a huge source of help and sometimes just moral support.

Every now and then the group does a fly-in somewhere in Europe. Up until now I hadn't participated, sometimes because I wasn't around, but as often because I just didn't feel ready for "flying to go somewhere" in Europe. Until now, I had only flown within France.

Then a few weeks ago there was suggestion of doing a fly-in to Mali Lošinj in northern Croatia. That's about a three-hour flight from Cannes, where I'm based. It seemed like a great opportunity to expand my limits, and also to finally meet some of the people behind EuroGA.

I signed up, figuring that I could always chicken out at the last minute. As the time got closer, the weather looked good. Even for IFR flight, that matters. Being bounced around inside clouds is no fun, especially for passengers, and there's always the risk of icing. This would also be my wife's first ever flight in the new plane, and her comfort mattered as much as mine.


I started to prepare flight plans. With ForeFlight this is easy - just enter the origin and destination, and tell it to find a route. In the US you can file any route you want. If ATC don't like it, they will give you one they do like as part of your clearance. In Europe, you can't even file a route if it isn't approved by a pan-European government agency called Eurocontrol.

The outbound route was straightforward. The return route was more of a problem. As part of the route you have to file approved departure and arrival procedures. The only arrival it came up with for Cannes was to take a sharp left around Genoa and to fly practically to Corsica, before returning via a U-shaped route to Cannes.

I know from my own limited experience, and from what others tell me, that you rarely get to fly the whole cleared route. You get a bunch of shortcuts, including very often for the arrival and approach part. The western approach to Cannes is typical. It's a twisty, zig-zag route with half a dozen waypoints, each with its own step-down altitude. Each time I've flown it, before I even arrive at its official start, I've been cleared direct to the final approach fix, OBOTA, with a few descent clearances to get me there at the required altitude of 2000 feet.

Still, I didn't want to sign up to fly to Corsica. Apart from the time, distance and fuel, flying over the sea in a single engine plane is best avoided or minimised if possible. I asked around, and looked at what other aircraft do. There's a different procedure, which avoids flying to Corsica. It's universally used by jets arriving from Italy and points east. For me, the problem is a segment with a minimum altitude of FL140 (14,000 thousand feet, more or less). My non-turbo-charged plane would take a while to reach this altitude. It's also the maximum legal altitude, under FAA rules, without an oxygen mask, which I don't have. Also, for the route to be accepted, I would have to file the whole route at FL140, which I definitely didn't want to do.

Then someone showed me a way to file lower, and to request just FL125 over the segment in question. I filed that, it was accepted, and things were looking good.

The route from Cannes to Croatia unavoidably crosses the northern part of the Adriatic. This is about a 60 mile over-water crossing. If the engine stops there, you will certainly get wet. Aircraft aren't designed to float, and once they sink, you're on your own. A life-vest will keep you afloat, but unless you manage to ditch alongside a boat, things are unlikely to end well. The best thing is to carry an inflatable canoe, but these are expensive and heavy. Luckily, my flight instructor volunteered to lend me one. I hope I'll never have to try it out.


The weather forecast continued to be perfect as the departure day approached. Then on the morning of the flight, there was a NOTAM that the tower at the destination airport was closed. I guess the tower operator didn't show up for work. That meant that not only did the arrival have to be VFR, but also there was nobody to tell me what to do around the airport. I'm still nervous about uncontrolled airports in France, never mind Croatia. Controlled airports are easy, you just do what you're told. But at uncontrolled fields it's up to you to figure out the right runway to use, the right traffic pattern to fly and to keep a very careful eye out for conflicting traffic.

Mali Lošinj airport has a very complicated set of charts for flying VFR, with numerous points that you have to overfly, routes you have to follow, and altitudes you have to obey. I'd prepared for that - I even had a printout of Google Maps with the various points noted on them.

EuroGA had created a Telegram group for the fly-in. We were already at the airport when an early arriver sent a message that the parking was already full, and they were putting planes on the grass. Parking on grass is fine but what if there was nowhere left, or if I couldn't figure out where to park?

Feeling distinctly uneasy, I decided to set off anyway.

IFR departures and arrivals at my airport (Cannes, LFMD) are more complicated in the summer. The airport is "coordinated" which means that in addition to a flight plan and ATC slot, you also need a slot assignment from the airport, through a completely separate process. It's yet another piece of bureaucracy, but the few times I've done it, it has worked fine.

Flight preparation and takeoff went smoothly. I was surprised to get cleared direct to the eastern coast of Italy (Chiaggio, CHI) as soon as were clear of the approaches to Nice, and while we were still talking to French ATC. Over eastern Italy we got cleared to the handover point to Croatia, LABIN. And as soon as we contacted Croatian ATC, they reminded us we would need to cancel IFR because the tower was closed, and cleared us direct to the destination (LDLO).

Nobody seemed to care about all those points and altitudes, though I did aim for one of them anyway. We descended gently from our cruise altitude of FL110 (11,000 feet) to the prescribed 1000 feet. There was nothing in the air when we got to the airport, so I flew the approved French-style uncontrolled arrival, landed and taxied to the ramp. The runway is on about a 2% slope, which doesn't sound much but means the runway looks distinctly uphill as you arrive. The TB20's trailing-link gear means that almost all landings are smooth, but this one wasn't.


First sight of Mali Lošinj, at the end of its bay.
Arriving at LDLO's sloping runway.
Crowded airport, with fuel truck.
Mali Lošinj Harbour.
First sight of Susak.
The airport was indeed quite full when we got there, with planes parked all over the place. To my surprise, a yellow-jacketted marshaller appeared and guided us onto the grass, along improvised taxiways and into a parking spot. And then, once I'd shut down, he asked if I wanted fuel, and summoned a fuel truck.

One of the few things I miss from our time in the US is the fuel truck at Palo Alto. Fuel trucks are almost unknown for small planes in France. Usually you taxi up to the pump and do everything yourself, just like with a car. Tango has low wings, so it isn't too difficult. But with Sierra's high wings it was a real nuisance, clambering up a ladder whilst dragging the surprisingly heavy fuel nozzle.

So to have the pleasure of a fuel truck at a tiny uncontrolled field was truly amazing. We filled the tanks to the brim, mainly to be sure of exactly how much we had.

Two other planes from the group arrived shortly after us. We hung around until everyone was ready, making the most of the very pleasant, modern, air-conditioned terminal building. Everybody at the airport was pleasant and helpful.

There was an airport taxi - a big van affair with 7 seats - waiting for us. We had to hurry the other people along because there is a bridge along the route to town, that closes at 6pm - and by now it was 5.40.

Mali Lošinj

The arrival in the town was delightful. The old part of the town is wrapped in a U-shape around a large port, full of small boats of various kinds with some larger ferries. The island is a perfect natural harbour, screened from the Adriatic by various other islands and channels. It was once one of the largest ports in Croatia. Legend has it that nearly every man in the town was a sailor.

We relaxed, showered, and had a beer at one of the many bars and restaurants that line the waterfront. The charm of the town comes from its inaccessibility. If you don't arrive by plane or boat, the only other way is by ferry. There are car ferries to the island, but it involves a lot of driving as well. There are no big, modern hotels, just a few more traditional places and many vacation rentals.

Our hotel, the Mare Mare, had just a dozen or so rooms. It was nicely decorated, comfortable and everybody there was charming and helpful. From our window we looked out over the boats in the harbour. As we discovered next morning, many people arrive on foot using the ferries from the mainland, carrying beach chairs, tables, food, small children, and everything else needed for a day at the seaside.

At dinner we met the rest of the EuroGA group, in particular Peter who started it and still gives it a lot of time and energy. It was a very simple dinner, just whole fish cooked in different ways. It was absolutely delicious, accompanied by a tasty local white wine made from the Malvazija grape.

To The Sea

Our idea the next day was to visit one of the other islands, by boat. But as usual we got up late and by the time we were ready, all the regular tourist promène couillons had left. We stood in line to take a regular ferry, but it wasn't looking very promising - I suppose they get booked in advance. Luckily for us a German couple standing behind us overheard our conversation. They'd spoken with a private boat operator, but he wanted four people. We quickly agreed to make up the foursome, and soon we were on our way out of the harbour towards the island of Susak.

The island has a long and complicated history. Like much of the Dalmatian coast, it has belonged over time to Rome, Venice, Austria, Italy and Yugoslavia. In the 1950s practically the entire population debunked to the US - Hoboken, New Jersey, which to someone who grew up on an idyllic Mediterranean island must have been an uncomfortable change.

Since then some have returned and apparently the language spoken is now a mix of English, Croatian and the local dialect which nobody else has ever understood. The permanent population is now about 100, down from 1600 in the 1940s. It's accessible only by boat, with a year-round ferry service to the main island.

We wandered round, dipped our feet in the sea, then returned to the boat for an indifferent lunch. But it was nice of them to serve it.

The boat passes through a narrow and very shallow passage between the main island and a smaller one. The much bigger regular ferries take a longer way round through a much deeper channel.

The hotel had already told us that they could lend us bicycles, so we planned to use them to visit a beach. These are on the opposite side of the island, on the relatively open sea facing the Croatian mainland. Unfortunately the bikes were in really terrible shape. Nobody expects the gearshift to work on rental bikes, but these really didn't work. We just about persuaded them to cross the slight rise towards the beach, but there our courage gave out. The nearest "beach" to the town is really a series of concrete platforms on the rocks, which suited us very well. We both went for a swim, then  a walk along the coast path before tackling the bikes again for the short ride back to our hotel.

Dinner that night was right next to our hotel. It was, again, three large whole fish, each prepared differently. It was absolutely amazing. The best of all was a sea-bass, baked in salt and then dismembered at the table. I think it's the best fish I've ever eaten in my life, succulent, juicy, tasty and just all-round delicious.


Takeoff, with Croatian Alps on Mainland
I'd filed a flight plan for a 12h05, departure, which should line up reasonably well with our 15h00 arrival slot at Cannes. We had a relaxed breakfast, went for a little walk along the quay, then boarded our airport shuttle back to LDLO.

There wasn't much to do when we got there. The plane was already full of fuel, so all it needed was to remove and fold the cover (always quite an exercise), do a normal pre-flight, and figure out how to get from our parking spot to the taxiway. At the appropriate time we climbed in and requested start-up clearance, which we received. Then one of the marshallers ran up to the plane making hand signals which evidently meant "whatever you were going to do, don't". We had to shunt the plane around by hand until we were aligned with a different impromptu taxiway, then taxi out very gingerly since one wing passed over some airport equipment and the other close to another plane.

While we were waiting to leave we got to watch a Croatian medical evacuation. A huge Soviet-era Mi8 helicopter landed and hover-taxied to a corner of the ramp, making an incredible racket. An ambulance joined it, the patient was moved, and the Mi8 hover-taxied back to the runway and departed. The whole procedure took less than 10 minutes. It was very impressive.

Today the tower was staffed, meaning that we could depart IFR. The wind meant we took off on runway 02, meaning up-hill. The hill continues after the runway and we seemed pretty close to the vegetation, but everything was fine. Our filed route took us north initially, before turning left towards Italy. But as soon as we contacted Pula Approach they gave us direct LABIN, the handover point to Italy. And so it went, the dozen or individual waypoints comprising the filed airways all ignored as we flew with just three direct clearances to Genoa.

My old Garmin GNS530 in Sierra didn't know about airways. I would have had to enter all the intermediate waypoints laboriously by hand, twiddling knobs to enter each letter. The GTN750 in Tango is a dream, once you get used to it. You just tap the last waypoint on the flight plan so far, tap "add airway", it gives you a choice of airway and then the exit point. From there you repeat this until you reach the end of the en-route part, then add the destination airport and any associated procedures.

Approaching Cannes, Les Iles de Lerins,
packed with small boats
Giant cruise ship at Cannes

I was still concerned about having to climb to FL140 for the sector to BORDI. I needn't have worried. Overhead Genoa we were cleared to OZMIC, the "frontier point" between France and Italy. That feeds neatly into the Cannes approach at INLOV. There was someone in front of us so we got vectored a bit, but it was very straightforward.

As we flew towards the airport we had a magnificent view of Les Iles de Lerins, as always with hundreds of boats packed into the channel between them. Off the shore was a giant cruise ship. We couldn't help comparing the packed, claustrophobic environment of the ship very unfavourably with nearly-empty Mali Lošinj.

Next came the very odd approach to runway 17 at Cannes. It consists of flying north towards runway 35 (which is to say in the opposite direction) then breaking off into a giant circle-to-land, officially called a Visual Prescribed Track (VPT). This could be easy, but thanks to French bureaucracy and the airport's neighbours, it isn't. You have to fly precisely over two points, but the DGAC (French regulator) will not disclose their precise location. So you have to look out of the window and try to identify them visually, while flying a descending turn. And if you get it even slightly wrong, you overfly the airport's nimby zones. You can guess how I know.

It turns out that there is an organization of elderly nimbies in the surrounding villages that spends all day watching airport tracks and filing complaints about them, whether or not they infringe the nimby zone. Yesterday they filed 127 complaints, probably at least one for every aircraft flying the VPT.

We were on the ground within less than five minutes of our arrival slot, which is pure good luck. Tower told me of my accidental nimby overflight as I left the runway, though they were very nice about it.

And that was our weekend in Croatia, 6.3 hours of flight time and the discovery of an idyllic location for future weekends. All thanks to EuroGA and to Peter.


Anonymous said...

Very nicely written. Enjoyed reading it. Great trip. Happy my route suggestion worked out!

Anonymous said...

As always, a lovely narrative that lets us live through the entire flight experience vicariously!