Diamond in the Desert
After gaining my CPL/IR in June of 2010, I was keen to make a trip that summer; even if I couldn't use the new priveliges due to flying a European registered aircraft! My friend Juan, a PhD student studying in Amsterdam, was keen to join as well so we started planning. The destination: Iceland! The volcano with the difficult-to-pronounce name was just finishing its eruption sequence, and we thought it would be fun to fly out and see the final days of it.
However, closer investigation uncovered a catch: to fly into Icelandic airspace, even if going VFR, the pilot must have a valid instrument rating for that aircraft. So, as is often the case with some of the moronic regulations in Europe, we found ourselves in a situation where the flight would be 100% legal if the aircraft had an "N" painted on the side, but illegal with "PH" painted on instead.
So, on to plan B; let's head South instead. Corsica looked inviting, and having holidayed there once before I had fond memories of it. We settled on Ajaccio as the destination, and booked the aircraft. But then, we looked at the map...it's not all that far from Corsica to Africa, and who could resist the temptation of flying to an entirely different continent. So, finally, the plan was finalised; we were going to Tunisia!
AVGAS availability is limited in Southern Europe, and almost non-existent in Africa. Luckily, my flying club had the ideal solution; a Diamond DA40-TDi. This is a relatively new model of aircraft, all composite, and powered by a 135 horsepower aero-diesel engine which runs on Jet-A. Jet-A is available almost anywhere, and is usually cheaper than AVGAS as well. In addition, the aircraft cruises at 120+ knots, and uses only 20 litres of fuel per hour. It is a fast, economical, flexible touring aircraft, all the more so due to its dual GPS fit, and autopilot. The Thielert manufactured engine has had reliability issues in the past, but the newer version of the engine seems to be performing extremely well, with good reliability.
Before I could take the aircraft away, I had to be checked out on it by a club instructor. This took just a short flight to a local airport for a few touch and goes, the main differences being the greatly improved glide compared to the aircraft I had been flying before and a high level of cockpit automation. The engine is electronically controlled and has just a single power lever to set a percentage power, instead of the three levers (throttle, mixture, and propellor RPM) that would be required on a traditional engine. The full pre-takeoff engine check sequence is performed by simply pressing a button!
August 7th: Rotterdam to Ajaccio
We left Rotterdam early on a Saturday morning. Juan had taken my advice to pack light to heart and turned up with only a small rucksack; with my flight gear, I probably had at least 3 times the amount of luggage! Fortunately, with only two light people on board, there was plenty of weight and space to spare. There was a light drizzle as we loaded the aircraft and took off, but after only a few minutes heading south the rain eased off and by the time we reached the Belgian border the sun was starting to shine through. We had to stay low through Belgium to avoid the airspace around Brussels, but once we entered France we could start to climb, a good thing too as we needed to be up at 6000 feet or more to clear the hills before reaching our first stop - Lausanne, in Switzerland, where we would refuel.
The approach into Lausanne is picturesque, with Lake Geneva in the foreground and the Alps rising behind. Be warned that Switzerland, while being included in the Schengen agreement for free movement of people, is not part of the EU and you must therefore follow standard international customs procedures when flying in and out. Because I had changed the route from a stop in France to the stop in Lausanne, purely so that we could tick off more countries, this customs issue had completely passed me by and it was not until receiving an angry letter from Dutch customs on my return that I became aware of it.
As one would expect, the refuelling stop at Switzerland was quick and efficient with the exception of what was to become a common issue; refueling staff everywhere saw a light aircraft and assumed we would need Avgas. This uually led to a delay while the appropriate keys for the fuel pump were located, or the correct fuel bowser fetched. After less than an hour we had filed our next flight plan and were setting off on our flight through the Alps to Albenga on the Italian coast. I had carefully planned the Alps crossing in advance, and set up the GPS with waypoints every mile or so to ensure we stayed on the correct path as well as having clearly marked, large scale maps as backup. The turbocharged Diamond climbed well with just the two of us on board and we were soon at our cruising altitude of 9500ft and crossing the saddle in the mountain ranges that marked the Italian border. The route took us overhead Annecy, along the A43 and then the D1006, passing into Italy overhead Lac du Mont Cenis.
A fast descend to clear the Turin TMA (not entirely successful, but that's another story) followed, and before long we were climbing again slightly to clear the hills along the coastline ready for the approach into Albenga. We were taken quickly through Italian customs, waited while the Avgas bowser was presented and then taken away again, and finally refuelled with Jet-A. Our flight plan having been filed while waiting for fuel, we were soon taking off and heading south towards Corsica; for the first time the lifejackets were on and the liferaft was within easy reach, just in case! The Thielert engine on the DA40 was not renowned for its reliability after all. Happily, we cruised across the intervening sea without mishap and were soon being given vectors by air traffic control to keep us clear of the tourist traffic in and out of the airports on Corsica's Northern coast. We followed the coastline at low level along the Eastern shore of Corsica and looped round to approach the airport at Ajaccio from the SouthEast. Parking was convenient, although we had to wait a long time to be collected by the handling agents, and before long we were being dropped off out the front of the airport to do battle with the tourist crowds and find a taxi into town and the Hotel Napoleon for three nights of relaxation before continuing to Africa.
The hotel was clean and comfortable, and good value for the price we were paying. It was located just a few minutes walk from the centre of Ajaccio, with the harbour and restaurants. After showering and unpacking we made our way into town; being in France, it was obviously time for crepes. We went out on the hunt for somewhere to eat them; it was holiday season, and the town was full of tourists. Happily we located a crepery mere minutes walk from the hotel and settled down for a relaxing meal before retiring early to bed, tired after a long day of flying!
August 8th - 9th: Ajaccio, Corsica
Our first full day in Corsica started late, and we wandered down to the harbour to have a look around and find some lunch. We sat down to eat at a small restaurant at the waterfront; and then began the slowest restaurant meal I have known. While the food was good, it took longer to prepare than it had taken us to fly to the island in the first place. Eventually, after having finally eaten our main course and waited in vain for both desert and the bill, I put down half the money and we slowly and clearly walked out. They didn't even notice. This was the first time I've ever walked out of a restaurant but, given the quite astoundingly poor service in many places in Ajaccio, it turned out that it would not be the last! After lunch we relaxed on top of the old harbour wall watching the cruise ships and ferries come and go before turning our mind to some holiday activities.
That afternoon we decided to find somewhere to do some sailing. This was apparently possible just around the headland in the next cove, where some small catamarans could be rented. Naturally, we set out to walk there in the mid-day sun, and enjoyed a pleasant stroll along the waterfront of the cove that Ajaccio sits on, and then a hot and miserable slog over the headland to the South. A further long walk along the beach did eventually take us, however, to a location where a pair of Hobie 16s were available to rent. We were not equipped for watersports that day, having a lack of swimming gear, but decided to return the following day for some sailing. This left us only with the problem of how to get back to the hotel, but after a lot of walking around and waiting we eventually located the correct bus and managed to buy tickets, leading to a much quicker return journey.
That evening we attempted to return for dinner at our crepe restaurant. We sat down at one of 6 empty tables for four overlooking the street. The witch in charge of seating, however, could not accept two people sitting at a four person table and insisted that we move to a table for two tucked inside a dark side alley. In my rudimentary French I let her know what I thought of the idea, and we retired to a pleasant restaurant by the waterfront for an excellent meal. As we returned to the hotel later we passed the crepe restaurant once again, where the tables for four were all sitting forlornly empty.
The next day it was time to sail! We slept late and then took the bus back to the beach where we negotiated an hour in a 16ft Hobie Cat and set out into the bay. There was a brisk breeze so we sped across the water, exploring the little coves around the huge bay and even venturing towards the harbour in the bay next door before the rental manager chased us down in the powerboat to ask us to come back closer in! We dried off on the beach, lounging in the sun for a while, before making our way back to town for cocktails by the harbour. Before dinner I finalised our flight planning for the next day; primarily a straight shot down across Corsica and Sardinia to the North African coast. The most important thing was to confirm one last time that the permit and handling agent were both arranged for our arrival!
August 10th: Ajaccio to Tunis
Despite having only a short flight today, we were up early to visit a local bakery for breakfast. After teaching the french bakery owner the word for "pig" (and learning the french in turn), we set off to the airport. After all, we were in Southern Europe where everything moves at its own, more leisurely pace. Our caution was well founded and we spent an hour or so awaiting fuel, in the queue behind a private jet that had a Dutch pilot. We chatted about Rotterdam for a while, always a thrilling subject, before they departed and we could complete the pre-takeoff formalities and taxi out to the runway. Lifejackets on again, and engine checks complete, we were soon airbourne and headed south past the end of Corsica. Sardinia is mere minutes further South and, curiously, the countryside there looks considerably drier and sparser than that of Corsica; air traffic control routed us straight across the island and through the controlled airspace in the South before turning us loose across the sea to Africa.
We left the Sardinian coast at Cagliari and before too long we were out of sight of land. My chart was of limited usefulness, showing nothing but a blank, blue sheet. With the autopilot to fly the aircraft, and no radio contact with anyone over the VHF, there wasn't much to do to pass the time. After a while, though, we could just make out land through the haze ahead. This was it; our first sight of Africa, and the first time we had ever flown to another continent! We came in over Bizerta and Carthage, and were vectored low over the huge dusty expanse of Tunis to final approach at the main international airport. It was hot; 40 degrees, but what else can you expect when you decide to visit North Africa in August.
We were met by the excellent staff of First Aviation Services Tunisia (FAST) who helped us secure the aircraft, and then chauffered us to the main terminal. They had the right connections to get the immigration formalities sorted out in record time (complicated slightly by the fact that Juan was travelling on a visa), and then took us to security; all baggage is checked entering, as well as leaving, the country. I suddenly remembered the pocket knife in my flight bag, but not to worry, that was not an issue. My portable airband radio, however, was a problem and we were forced to return to the aircraft and drop it off before we could enter the country and find a taxi to take us to the Sheraton, our base for the next two nights.
The hotel was extremely comfortable and, after settling in, we set out to explore the grounds before dinner. From our balcony, we could even see the airport where our Diamond sat waiting! The hotel had several restaurants, although only one was open, so we enjoyed authentic Tunisian Italian food before wandering the grounds again. Lying on our backs on the stage in the outdoor amphitheater (no productions were being performed at the time), the stars overhead were clear and bright; despite the location on a hill in the centre of Tunis, the night sky was much more visible than from the beach in Holland, for example. We turned in early once again; although the flight may have been short, the heat and the mental stress of international GA still tires you out. The flying is the easy bit; it's the bureaucracy and paperwork that takes the effort!
August 11th: Tunis, Tunisia
On our "day off" in Tunis we had decided to visit the ruins of Carthage, and the well known seaside village of Sidi-Bou-Said. After breakfast on the balcony we secured the services of a local taxi driver for the day, at a very reasonable price, and set about visiting some of the better known locations around Carthage beginning with the Carthage museum. The museum itself was fairly small, mainly full of carved statues and pottery from the time of Carthage. Just as impressive as the museum was the view over the harbour with enormous cruise ships moored in the distance. From the museum, we were taken first to a small but well preserved amphitheatre, and then on to a larger restored amphitheatre which was now in use for modern events; at the time we visited, a weeks-long music festival was under way.
Our next destination was an old Roman villa which was situated nearby on a hill overlooking the coast. Most of the villa was in ruins, but some areas were well preserved or restored, and visitors were free to roam the grounds and building at will to look around. We spent an hour or so exploring, but by now we were under the mid-day sun and it was time to get somewhere a bit cooler such as the gardens around the old baths down near the harbour. The gardens were cooler, although still not exactly cool in the August weather, and the ruins of the old baths extremely impressive; several of the large columns had been restored to give an idea of the original scale.
In the afternoon we made our way to the coastal tourist village of Sidi-Bou-Said. This ancient city is a popular destination for visitors and famous for its blue and white colours, steep hillside paths, and bustling market street. To be honest, it is so tourist oriented that it has become rather tacky and while we enjoyed the architecture, it wasn't long before we'd had enough of the crowds and constant harassment by salesmen and returned to the taxi to take us back to the hotel.
We rested for the remainder of the afternoon before heading into Tunis city centre to find dinner. The city turned out to be remarkably quiet; it turns out it was Ramadan, something that we knew, but the ramifications of which had escaped us. In the event, not a single restaurant was open so we simply toured the city a little. A remarkable number of stray cats were in attendance, and amongst other interesting sights we found the headquarters of Shell in Tunisia. Having exhausted the delights of deserted downtown Tunis we returned to the hotel and enjoyed the traditional Tunisian meal that was being served to celebrate Ramadan. Tunisians seem to like tuna a lot...
August 12th: Tunis to Tozeur
Today's flight would take us SouthWest towards the city of Djerba. Djerba is located well into the desert and is most famous for its date palm plantations. Late the previous night, when checking the NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen) we had noticed one that reported Djerba airport as being closed the day of our arrival. This was concerning, and we had immediately checked with our handling agent who confirmed the NOTAM but reported that he had arranged for the airport to be open specifically to receive us! We just had to pay the fee. This last past made me a little nervous, until we were informed that the fee to open the entire international airport for us would be 80 Euro-cents.
FAST took us quickly through the formalities at Tunis airport and we were soon on our way towards Djerba, following the IFR airways and climbing quickly up to 10,000ft where the air was cooler. The climb-out took us over the port, where plenty of new development was in evidence, and then over a huge new stadium and conference centre. It wasn't long before we were out over the desert, although there was still a surprisingly high level of vegetation. The Garmin 430 GPS units did not like the heat; the screens distorted and became illegible with washed out colours and strange bands across the display, but once the temperature cooled a little things improved and we could navigate with them again. A lot of dry riverbeds and small villages could be seen as we went, and we even passed some rain falling from high clouds and evaporating before making it to the ground.
We began a descent into Djerba and before long could see the huge expanses of date palm plantations near the city. It was not immediately obvious how they were irrigated out here in the desert. ATC cleared us to land, and as we approached we saw two decrepit 747s parked up outside the terminal. We taxied in and were directed to our parking spot; right in front of both of the two jumbo-jets. They were marked up in Iraqi Airways colours and it turns out that they had been flown to Djerba before the first Gulf War to keep them out of harms way. In the end, they were never returned and had been sitting rotting at Djerba for 20 years.
The temperature on the ground was over 40 degrees, so we were happy to be quickly collected and taken through the terminal. The airport staff called a taxi for us which took us to our hotel, built and decorated in traditional Tunisian style. The rooms were set around small courtyards, and on the bottom floor where we were had doors opening directly into the gardens which were full of statues of African animals. Not having learnt from our Tunis experience, we set off to walk into town and find dinner, but were midly more successful on this occasion finding a small café billing itself as a "Tourist Restaurant". Juan enjoyed the camel steak, although it tasted suspiciously like beef...
That evening we received a phone call from the handling agents. Our planned mid-day stop for the next day, El-Borma, was closed. This time they could not arrange an opening for us, as they were tearing up and resurfacing the runway, so we changed our plan to be a simple loop down into the desert and back up to the coast for that night's stop at the island of Djerba.
August 13th: Tozeur to Djerba
We arrived back at Tozeur airport, which was open as usual on this occasion, and Juan waited with the security staff at the gate while I went upstairs to pay our 80 cent fee, collect the weather briefing, and file the flight plan. Juan passed the time downstairs translating the Chinese characters on the x-ray machine for the security staff, who were pleased to find out what they meant at last. We walked back out to the aircraft, taking some photos of the Diamond with the 747s as we went, and preflighted thoroughly before a long taxi to the other end of the runway and an easterly take-off over the date plantations. We turned south and headed out into the desert; the water shown on the map is deceptive, and is in fact a dry lake!
This time we were flying over real desert; none of the vegetation or settlements of the day before. Just bare rock and sand dunes with the occasional dry riverbed to break the monotony. After 40 minutes or so we turned and became our track East across the desert, passing only a solitary oil pipeline as we went. We flew overhead an old dirt runway that had been used to service a pumping station on the pipeline, but was now out of use; despite still being listed as active in the Tunisian AIP, a phonecall to the authorities had confirmed that it was not possible to land. We flew over without stopping, then, marvelling at what a lonely life it must be to work there, and before long we were turning North and starting to see signs of civilization once again.
As we neared the coast, the agriculture and human habitation below became more and more prevalent. Soon we could see the straights between the mainland and the island of Djerba appearing, and as we continued our descent the outside temperature quickly rose into the 30s. We were asked to orbit over the southern edge of the island for a few minutes while jet traffic landed at Djerba ahead of us, and were then directed in for final approach over the palm trees and little houses. We were directed past the terminal to the GA parking and met by handlers in a pick-up, who helped us load our bags on board. As I was closing the rear canopy, there was a loud crack; the rear hinge had snapped clean through!
This was a problem; without the hinge intact, the powerful piston that holds the canopy open would not allow it to close at all. With some tools borrowed from the handling agent, I disconnected the piston, which allowed us to close the canopy so that it was secured by the front hinge, and the locking pins at front and rear at the bottom of the canopy. Once closed, we left the canopy secured for the rest of the trip in order to avoid putting any further stress on the front hinge. The tower gave me permission to do a high speed run down the runway to ensure that the door did not flex at all when under way; all seemed good so we parked up and took a taxi to our hotel.
Despite arriving after check-in time we waited for half an hour in the lobby for our room to be prepared, finally getting fed up and going off to have a late lunch in the hotel restaurant while we waited. When we finally made it to the room it was at least comfortable with a passable view of the beach! The afternoon was spent relaxing and flight planning for the next day; I was starting to think I may have bitten off more than I could chew. The plan was to fly all the way from the south of Tunisia, stop for fuel after 4 hours in Northern Sardinia, and then continue another 3-4 hours to Northern France for a night stop. Not impossible, and I have since flown for similar amounts of time in a single day, but challenging nonetheless and with little room in the schedule for delays.
We returned to the same restaurant for dinner, stopping along the way to sweet-talk the receptionist into printing out some airport diagrams for me. An after-dinner walk on the beach, and some room-service chocolate pudding, and we turned in ready for our marathon flight the following day.
August 14th: Djerba to Olbia
The return journey started well; although it would have been surprising to have bad weather in Tunisia in August. The controller directed us north along the low level IFR airways as is done with all VFR in these parts and after a couple of hours we were leaving the African coastline behind. A slowly lowering cloudbase had appeared across the water between Africa and Sardinia, and while it cleared up a little as we flew up across Sardinia, our destination Alghero proved to be unreachable behind cloud; it was the only part of the island that was closed in like this! By now we had been flying for 4 hours and only had a little over an hours fuel left so I quickly made the decision to diver to Olbia, on the NorthEastern side of the island. Air traffic control were happy to grant our request, and half an hour later we were parking up at Olbia and waiting for the handling agents to collect us.
The plan was to head to the GA Terminal, pay our fees, re-file our onward flight plan and continue to our night-stop at a little fly-in chateau in France. Alas, it was not to be; the flight plan ended up lost somewhere between the French and Italian systems and we spent a fruitless hour waiting in the aircraft for it to come through before giving up and calling for a ride back to the terminal. This proved troublesome as some jets had arrived and it turned out that we were lower down the pecking order than they were; another hour passed before Juan disappeared. I was concerned about her wandering off airside and was fairly sure I'd find her arrested by the Italian police for being too close to commercial jets, but she reappeared in a van driven by an excitable Italian baggage handler who she had charmed into driving us back to the GA terminal. He informed us that it was not uncommon for small aircraft crew like ourselves to be left hanging by the GA handlers, and apparently this was due to the fact that they were "all bastards". We were instructed that we should tell them, from him, that they were "all bastards" but then he reconsidered, and decided to come inside and tell them himself. Marvelous. We thanked him and slipped away to the in-terminal travel agent who managed to find us a hotel room downtown and a taxi to get there.
We'd had no choice of hotel, as we were assured it was the last one in town with availability. Happily, it was extremely comfortable with views over the harbour and, less happily, the noisy funfair. Fortunately this shut down at a decent hour and we spent a pleasant evening eating pizza and planning the next day of flying before heading to bed. The new plan would take us first to Lyon for fuel, and then on to Rotterdam; a long day of flying, but at least we'd be home in time for work!
August 15th: Olbia to Semur-en-Auxois
The day dawned bright and clear, and the "bastards" at Olbia had thoughtfully printed out the weather for our route. As far as Lyon things looked good; after that, not so much. We set out anyway to see how far we'd get, routing first up the East coast of Corsica and then turning West across the Northern tip of the island to follow the approved VFR routes back to the mainland. We coasted in and turned North up the valley towards Lyon, and before long started to see cloud reaching lower and lower above the mountains to the East. We skirted a couple of torrential downpours on our way into Lyon le Bron and parked up next to a DA-42, the twin engine version of our own aircraft. A swift refuel and we were off again, trying to find a way through the weather to the North.
Our efforts were not terribly successful. The cloudbase lowered and the ground rose, and it was not long before we were informing the controller that we'd be changing our plans and landing at the nearest airport. This happened to be the small airstrip of Semur-en-Auxois. We were not the only ones caught out; the controller had sent a British PA-28 in their 30 minutes earlier on a weather diversion and had not heard back from them; he asked us to check that they were safely down and give him a call to confirm!
We landed safely at Semur, despite the runway being significantly smaller than we were used to up until now! The British PA-28 was parked up at the fuel pumps, with a family of four unloading baggage. They had been flying in Spain and, like us, were trying to get home. With the weather like it was, it was clear that none of us would be going anywhere soon. Before long a pair of Frenchmen arrived to see what all the traffic was about; they had been running a table-tennis club in one of the hangars for 15 or so local children. They sympathised with our plight and very kindly drove us into town to a hotel they knew, which had views across the valley to the airfield. We could even see our aircraft!
If you ever need to get stuck somewhere, Semur-en-Auxois is an excellent place to do so. We dressed up in our warmest clothes (Juan, with great forethought, had decided to pack a woolen hat for a holiday to the desert, in August) and ventured through the drizzle into town. The town is absolutely beautiful, situated on the inside of a wide river meander with slopes plunging 30m or so down to the water. The architecture is all extremely old, and here and there parts of the old town fortifications are still apparent. We walked a long, long way out the other side of town to the supermarket to buy some supplies, but found it shut. The only thing we found were more slugs than I have ever seen; thousands of them, rampaging (ok, slowly oozing) across the roads and pavements. Very strange.
We walked back into town to find some dinner. The only place open was an English-themed pub, serving a wide range of pizzas, and icecream for desert. It wasn't quite the same as the previous nights pizza in Sardinia but it was pleasant nonetheless, and we returned to the hotel early to sleep. The weather forecast for Monday was not good.
August 16th: Semur-en-Auxois
The weather the next morning was even worse. Oh dear. On the plus side, I did have my work laptop with me, so I was able to work remotely. I placed a call to my boss to let him know that I was stuck out of the office because "my flight has been cancelled". This was fine with him, although he did phone back half an hour later to say "Wait a minute, weren't you flying yourself?" I explained the situation and he was, thankfully, very understanding! For lunch we made our way back into town to a small cafe, where we shared two toasted sandwiches and then, due to severe indecision, four deserts.
That evening we dined in the hotel, an irritating experience as a result of the baby monitor belonging to the table next to us. Apparently they were content to sit and listen to the baby cry (along with all other tables nearby) rather than going to investigate; their logic could have been that they'd only need to go and see what was hapening if the crying suddenly stopped. The weather forecast for the Tuesday was slightly better, but still poor; we went to bed wondering if the next day we might be able to get home to Rotterdam!
August 17th: Semur-en-Auxois to Rotterdam
We woke up, and looked out the window. At last, the cloud had lifted! Not much, but it was a definite improvement so we filed flight plans and set off on the walk to the airfield. Our first flight of the day took us a little north to apparently freight-dominated airport of Chalons. We were flying between cloud layers, out of sight of the ground a lot of the time, but three GPS units (not to mention the VOR instruments for further backup) gave us confidence in our navigation. Fueling at Chalons was quick and easy; we didn't even have to leave the vicinity of the aircraft, and were soon on our way again. The weather slowly improved as we crossed Belgium, gaining clearance through the airspace of the American military base at Chievres.
Before long we were crossing the Dutch border, and flying through decent weather towards Rotterdam. We made an uneventful arrival and tied the aircraft down, taking a few minutes to show the mechanics the problem with the canopy. With that, we headed home to rest; and start plotting our next flying adventure!
© Ross Edmondson 2011