Le Touquet Trip
There comes a time when every recently-qualified pilot decides to do an international flight, and for most people in the south of England that means a trip to Le Touquet, which is a town on the north coast of France.
Doing an international flight involves a couple of extra bits of planning and preparation. Firstly, you must by law file a flight plan, which contains details of your route, estimated time of arrival, number of people on board, safety equipment carried, etc. Secondly, if like us you're flying from a non-customs airport, you have to fill in a customs form. It's not rocket science, and in most cases it just means taking the bits of paperwork up to the controller in the tower who will fax them to the appropriate people for you.
The only other difference, in the case of flights over water, is the need to wear life jackets. Below you can see Mark next to Echo-Tango, figuring out how to put his on...
Right - That's me (looking a bit startled by the camera!) doing the planning and wind calculations for the flight.
Left - Lining up into wind for the power checks. Aircraft engines are mostly air-cooled, so for the run-up checks prior to take-off it's usual to point the aircraft into wind to improve engine cooling.
Right - And we're away!
When departing Redhill to the east, you have to stay underneath the Gatwick CTA (not above 1500ft). Conveniently, there's a railway line to follow, which takes you past Bough Beech reservoir (left) a few miles east of Edenbridge. This is right on the edge of the CTA, so after this point you can climb to 2500ft.
Another handy landmark for anyone flying to or from Redhill or Biggin Hill is Paddock Wood (below), with its distinctive banana-shaped warehouse near the railway line.
Right - Bewl Water, with its curious shape that looks like a set of fingers, has prevented many a student pilot from getting lost. You can usually see it for miles, so it's a useful landmark to use when you're planning your route, and on a sunny day you get a chance to admire the sailing boats on it. Trouble is, everybody uses it, so you can expect to encounter other traffic if you fly directly over it.
Left - We flew over the top of Lydd's ATZ on the way to the coast. Lydd is normally very hard to spot, because the main runway merges into the colour of the sandy background. You can just about see the second (unlicensed) runway at about ninety degrees to the main runway.
Right on the coast near Lydd is Dungeness nuclear power station (right). Spotting this can sometimes help if you're trying to find Lydd airport itself.
When leaving the coast behind you and starting the sea crossing, it's impossible not to take a deep breath and say a silent prayer that the engine will keep going today, as it always has done in the past. Fortunately, engine failures are extremely rare, but midway over the Channel is the last place you want to experience it!
We had chosen a fairly short sea crossing from Lydd to Cap Gris-Nez, using the Lydd VOR to guide us across the featureless water. Today, the visibility was pretty good, and almost as soon as we'd coasted out over the water we could already see land on the other side through the haze. It took about 15 or 20 minutes before we were safely back over dry land at Cap Gris-Nez (left), where we turned to the south towards Boulogne.
On the way over, we had been in contact with London Information (124.6 MHz), and changed to Lille Information (120.275 MHz) but got absolutely no reply - so we just went straight to Le Touquet Tower (118.45 MHz). I was impressed with the way the French controller was able to switch effortlessly between French and English - many of the local pilots spoke only French which is fairly standard at smaller airfields, although you should always expect to be able to speak English at larger airports.
So we tracked the coastline down southwards, passing Boulogne (right). We were looking for the river estuary that Le Touquet airport lies next to, and found it fairly easily - and it wasn't long before we could see the airport, which was closer to the coast than any of us had imagined. The controller instructed me to join on a right-hand downwind leg for runway 32 - a nice stretch of tarmac about 1800 metres long, although I probably only used about 400 metres of it.
Left - Me on final approach into Le Touquet, with Mark sitting in the passenger seat on the right-hand side.
Parking was plentiful, and it was amusing to note that there wasn't a single French-registered aircraft there - all were "Golf" registered British aircraft. I had been expecting tight security that day, because this was only four days after the World Trade Center atrocity - but nobody even asked for our passports. The only "security" was a rather dried-up antiseptic mat inside the doorway as a foot-and-mouth precaution. Conveniently, there is a fax machine on the main desk for you to file your flight plan for the return journey.
The taxi into town was fairly cheap at just 50 francs, and then we set about looking for a restaurant.
Left - We eventually chose a restaurant called "Le Matisse", which is just visible on the left-hand side of the road. Mark and I decided we'd stink the cockpit with garlic on the way back by each having the snails.
Right - Many of the streets in Le Touquet are narrow and crowded, but the town is a cheerful place. The people are very friendly, and they all smile politely as you stumble through a sentence of the best Franglais you can manage, before answering in perfect English.
It wasn't long before we had to head back to the airport and begin the journey home. Mark flew the return trip, with me doing some of the radio work. I'm sure the aircraft benefitted from the extra lift provided by the garlic fumes in the cockpit! Le Touquet makes an excellent day out by air, and we will definitely be going again soon.