He Knows I’m in a Plane, Right?

I’ve not been flying so this week I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a Piper Flyer article, where I recount one of my first experiences with flying into military airspace in France.

You can’t fly very far in Europe without flying through military airspace. In the UK, in fact, it’s something to aim for, the military controllers are exceedingly helpful and always patient, which is not necessarily the case for the civil airfields. But still, I felt nervous, convinced that the slightest misstep would get me shot down out of the sky. I had visions of men with missiles watching a black screen and my little aircraft ending up being an unlucky blip in the wrong place. “Intruders in the north east quadrant! Scramble! Take ‘em out!”

But I couldn’t argue against crossing Cazaux for our flight from Oxford to Málaga: it would keep us along the coast (no chance of getting lost!) and our flying time would be reduced by over half an hour. My (French speaking) boyfriend had phoned Cazaux on my behalf the day before and asked if the area was active. He was told no, no problem and we would have to make contact but we would be able to cross.

So it was a bit odd that Cognac sounded surprised when I stated my intentions. He blustered for a moment and then told me to call Cazaux directly.

An older voice responded to my call with an almost sexy accent and blissfully fluent in English. I smiled at the radio and explained that I wanted to traverse his airspace.

His response was calm and friendly. Were we aware that there was bombing activity along our proposed route?

Well, er, no.

I’m not one to argue with bombs about but Cliff was a bit annoyed, having called the day before. “Ask if you can cross anyway,” he insisted. It seemed simpler than going back to Cognac and trying to explain what had happened.

Amazingly, I got a positive response. The controller asked if I was willing to take direction from him to lead me through the airspace.

Not a problem. I made sure that he was aware that I was flying under Visual Flight Rules and told him I was happy to follow his instructions. I could understand him perfectly. It was a bright day with a clear horizon. There was only him and me on the air. And I wouldn’t even have to navigate. Great stuff.

Then he started giving me directions.

“I need you to follow the ring road.”

“The, er, ring road. Standby.”

I zoomed in on the GPS, sunglasses tugged off so I could see the lighter lines of the roads. Meanwhile, Cliff grabbed the map tucked away between the seats and re-folded it to for our general area. Our French friend became impatient.

“November 666 Echo X-ray?”

I couldn’t see anything vaguely ring-shaped.

“Affirm, I’m trying to find the ring road, Echo X-Ray.”

Cliff cursed. “He must be in Bordeaux!” He waved the map at me, drawing a U around the city with his finger. “Look, right here! That road goes around the west of Bordeaux but it doesn’t show on your navcom map until it is clear of the built-up area. He’s taking you east.”

I looked at the map and then made the call. “Would that be the E70?”

“The ring road. You see it? Follow it to the junction, then follow the A62 towards Langon.”

I looked out the window for a moment and then back at Cliff.

“He knows I’m in a plane, right?”

The GPS was close to useless now. The physical map showed the roads but only gave the E-numbers (European references) which the French don’t use. Without Cliff, I’d have turned around and hightailed it back to Oxford. But with the help of the village names, we were able to spot the junction on the ground and follow his route. I followed the road around and then leaned into the turn at the junction.

“Sylvia.” Cliff and I have a long-standing agreement not to criticise each others flying whilst in the air. I sensed he might be about to break this agreement.

“Look, you don’t have to follow the cloverleaf exactly. You can just head southeast from here. Please.”

I forget sometimes that he suffers from motion sickness. I straightened the plane out and called the controller.

“I have turned southeast onto the E72. I have Langon in sight. Can I proceed direct south?”

“When overhead Langon, proceed direct to Mont de Marson.”

I sighed. Either I had to learn how to spell French names or he had to learn to use compass headings. I looked at the GPS and then again at Cliff.

“I think he might be taking ‘visual’ a little bit too seriously,” said Cliff. He showed me the map. “Its due south from Langon. Want the road number?”

I glared at him and proceeded to follow the roads.

“November 666 Echo X-Ray is overhead Mont…” I had to stop and look at the map again. “Mont de Marson. May we continue south to leave your airspace?”

He sounded almost disappointed as he bid us a pleasant onward journey.

Category: Europe,

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