Sometimes dreams do come true. This particular dream started with one man’s desire to land at Gibraltar airport,or to be more precise, for the main road between Spain and Gibraltar to be closed to allow him to land his beloved home built Vans RV7.
Over many cups of coffee in Cloud 9 during the dreary winter days of 2017/18 this dream (or crazy notion) started it’s slow yet steady journey towards fulfilment. After much deliberating five enthused pilots agreed – “let’s do it”. And so the ‘Cunning Plan’ was hatched. To explain for those who are not familiar with it, the Cunning Plan is renowned amongst the veterans of ‘codgers corner’ in Cloud 9 as a plan which is hatched every year without fail, but never actually leads to any form of aeronautical adventure.
The first challenge for Raymond was to find a willing victim to fill the empty seat in G-PYPE and to share the costs. When he’d run out of better options and asked me if I’d like to go along, I jumped at the chance – not having the slightest notion what it would involve. It transpired that there would be 6 hopeful aviators in 4 Vans RV’s. We would route from Ards, cross the channel to France continuing across Spain, down through Portugal, back to Spain and on to Africa before setting off on the ultimate challenge – Gibraltar. Little thought was given to the homeward leg as there seemed to be an unspoken concensus that after Gibraltar we may be quite content to go our separate ways.
If the trip was to be a success we were going to need to invest considerable time in detailed organisation and choreography. Routes had to be planned, authorisations obtained, handling requested and confirmed, hotels booked, car hire arranged etc. Apparently I was expected to help – I did my best…..however the bulk of the research and planning was done by Ray and Marty, with some help from Raymond.
Regrettably with only weeks to go the 6 became 4. Although disappointed that our numbers had reduced, we remained enthusiastic and excited about the adventure. Time was marching on and final preparations gained in intensity. Accommodation in France & Portugal was already sorted thanks to the foresight of 2 of the pilots purchasing property several years ago in readiness. Gibraltar and Tangier were to prove more of a challenge – however bookings were eventually made to everyone’s satisfaction. Our epic adventure required us to be appropriately attired – those who think that flying and fashion design are incompatible should ask to see the design sketches of the embroidered badges on our uniform t-shirts, caps & high viz jackets. We had reason to be grateful to the RV6 fashionistas’ (again all credit goes to Ray & Marty) as our trip progressed.
September finally arrived. With excitement growing, it was time for last minute preparations. G-PYPE was already positioned in France and so Raymond and I started the trip flying Aer Lingus to Bordeaux. The others were due to fly down the next day in the RV6A to join us Biscarrosse. Sadly the weather in the UK simply wouldn’t play ball and despite best efforts and an aborted attempt that got them as far as our proverbial Ringa, our fellow would be adventurers attempts to depart Northern Ireland were to be permanently thwarted.
It then became serious discussion time for Raymond and I. Would we head back home, spend a few days somewhere close by or take the plunge and head off on our own? I had absolutely no doubt that I wanted to continue as planned, however kept my persuasive powers under wraps as it was important that the RV owner made his own independent decision. Without the support of the others the trip was likely to prove more challenging and would undoubtedly be much less fun. Thankfully it didn’t take too long before we were agreed to proceed and got to work redrafting plans.
We decided it was probably best to omit Portugal from our itinerary. Even Raymond balked at the thought of rubbing salt into the Ringa wounds by asking for keys to our erstwhile fellow adventurer’s apartment
We were genuinely surprised at how long It took to rearrange plans to include Cordoba (Spain) instead of Portimao (Portugal), change bookings for accommodation and advise Gibraltar that only one aircraft would now be (hopefully) arriving. Africa had been included initially in The Cunning Plan as we had heard that flying to Gibraltar directly from Spain was not permitted. When later we learned that this had changed many years before we were all so keen to get another continent in our log books that we decided to stick with it. This wasn’t about to change.
Aircraft checks were completed the day before departure, along with weight and balance calculations etc (checked and double checked and handbags left behind). After great anticipation the day of departure dawned bright and sunny as we set out on the longed for journey. As France (and most of the mainland EU) is part of the Schengen Area, we had no need for the hated GAR forms or customs checks. After a quick breakfast and suffering from mild dehydration to ensure we did not face the challenge of operating the rudder pedals with crossed legs, we filed our flight plan, pushed the RV out of the hangar and set off.
Raymond did the honours and flew the first leg to Cordoba. We had planned to navigate east of Biarritz and cross the Spanish border west of Zaragoza, direct through Madrid Class A airspace. Air Traffic Control instead
Following an incredibly steep descent on final approach into Cordoba due to the surrounding hills, and with no-one talking to us on the radio we made a straight in approach to RW21. After an almost perfect landing (even if it pains me to admit) we parked up on the apron. We secured the plane, albeit without tie-downs and made our way into the terminal where a security officer let us out of the deserted airport. We caught a bus into town and after some refreshments headed to the hotel to plan for the next day.directed us west of Biarritz (where we climbed to FL95) and east of Zaragoza to route around restricted areas. We had hoped to fly over Turuel to see the commercial aircraft ‘graveyard’ of some 100 or so planes, however a strong headwind en route resulted in us flying direct to Cordoba to ensure fuel supplies were not put under unnecessary pressure when the planned 3 hour flight turned into 4 hours.
Whilst not strictly necessary, we filed a flight plan to Jerez where we had prearranged handling to clear customs in order to leave the Schengen Area. Much to Raymond’s horror we also spent £60 on phone calls. We had been advised by Jerez that we needed a ‘Clearance Number’ to enter Moroccan airspace. It took an inordinate amount of time, being passed from pillar to post, only to eventually receive confirmation from Casablanca that clearance was only required for commercial traffic and didn’t apply to us. Of course I was skeptical and asked the lady for her name which seemed to amuse her greatly. She said she was the Senior ATC Supervisor and would phone us back on the number on our flight plan. When we didn’t hear from her we called her again – she had been trying to call us. Lesson – always put the correct phone number on your flight plan!
I landed a plane in Africa! -Nora
The next morning we left Cordoba in slightly overcast conditions, having topped up the RV’s tanks with 30L of Avgas at €3.65 per litre. I was to to take the left seat for this leg. Having fairly recently completed my tailwheel conversion with Archie at Kilkeel, it was with some trepidation I took control of the RV. Those of you who know how Raymond feels about his ‘baby’ will understand what I mean. Cloud prevented me climbing any higher than 2000ft as we routed straight to Jerez. On making contact with Jerez, we were guided to RW20. As we landed, we could see the fuel bowser ready and waiting. After re-fuelling Handling took us the very short distance in the minibus to the terminal to clear Customs and straight back to the plane before relieving us of £146. Not a bad rate of pay for 15 minutes! Before getting back into the RV we had a quick bite of our packed lunch, hopefully out of sight of the tower.
At Raymond’s insistence (not that I objected too much), I again took the left seat for our flight to Tangier. For me this was to prove to be the most incredible leg of the trip. Wow, I flew a plane to Africa. I landed a plane in Africa. I truly still can’t believe it and possibly never will.
The flight time was only 40 minutes. On departure from Jerez we routed east to Echo (Jedula). It was a hot, hazy day. We coasted into Africa over Papa VRP and were vectored in to land on RW28 at Tangier. I was given progressive taxi instructions to the GA apron which was on the far side of the main apron. With no idea how to get to the terminal, we asked another arriving pilot (with wife and 4 dogs in tow) who marched us straight across the apron. After clearing customs we were standing like two lost chicks outside the terminal looking for a taxi when we were approached by a gentleman who could best be described as a friendly gorilla asking where we wanted to go. He led us to a Mercedes, which was of dubious roadworthiness as we could not hear ourselves over the loud knocking and banging produced from 750,000 kilometres of travel. What was not in doubt was whether the horn worked. It got tested at least every 5 seconds. Half an hour later we were dropped off at our Riyadh and arrangements were made for the return trip in the morning. We were immediately accosted by someone who claimed he was definitely not a guide but wanted to help us to our hotel. Once we shook him off we had time to experience and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of Tangier. As we headed back to the Riyadh we were approached by an elderly gentleman who told us he was an artist (definitely not a guide). We humoured him and heard his stories of friends in Ireland. When later he tried to extract money from Raymond he quickly found he’d wasted his time. There would be no payment forthcoming.
After a fabulous dinner at the Riyadh we were woken at 5am by the call to prayer which we politely ignored. Instead we enjoyed an excellent breakfast before heading back to the airport for the climax of the trip. Raymond would fly his beloved RV to Gibraltar.
We were greeted at Tangier airport by heavily armed security officers demanding our boarding passes. Yet again our ‘uniform’ was to prove its worth. After checking our licenses and passports and hearing about our ‘Rally’ the now friendly security staff couldn’t have been more helpful. They radioed through to bag security to let them know we were coming and so we quickly found ourselves in the terminal. Getting out to the RV took time. We could not find anywhere to pay for the landing or overnight parking. Eventually we were told us that all we needed to do was fill out an embarkation form and go through security. So simple. Everyone was interested in what we were doing – we left a security guard scratching his head as to how 2 retired folks could afford a jet (we didn’t bother enlightening him as to the true nature of the ‘jet’). We crossed the apron to the RV, checked everything and requested start. Start was refused as ‘you haven’t paid your taxes’. Raymond explained that we had asked and no one could tell us where to pay. The reply was ‘pay at the office’. So we got out of the RV and walked back
across the apron, where we saw the ‘C’ that we’d both missed running after the wife and 4 dogs. On entering the office we were advised that there was a problem with our flight plan – we would be passing too close to a restricted zone. This was quickly sorted. Simultaneously other staff were sorting out the ‘taxes’ – we were asked how we planned to pay and previous experience suggested card was the best option. The bill was duly produced for a whopping €2.91. GA traffic is definitely welcome in Tangier.
So it was back across the apron and finally time for Raymond to take control for his flight of a lifetime. ATC asked if he was happy to depart from Bravo as there was only 2500m of runway available for take off. Needless to say this was not exactly a problem for the RV. We were quickly airborne for a hazy flight up the Strait of Gibraltar.
‘Nora Nora, Nora look, they’ve closed the road, quick quick take a photo, they’ve closed the road, take a photo’– Raymond Pyper
The Rock appeared out of the haze and we were cleared No 1 to land on RW27. After a perfect landing, instructions were given to proceed to the end of the runway and turn in the turning circle before taxiing back along the runway to exit at Alpha. A very excited Raymond repeated back the instructions. Then he started to scream ‘Nora Nora, Nora look, they’ve closed the road, quick quick take a photo, they’ve closed the road, take a photo’ and then he realised his finger was still on the PTT. The female ATC was laughing uncontrollably as she replied ‘yes sir, we have indeed closed the road and it will remain closed until you have taxied to the apron’. . ..she also complimented the RV and its colours, saying it should be in films. What an amazing realisation of a long held ambition for Raymond.
Compulsory handling meant we were transported for a few yards in a grubby Mercedes at the cost of £116 for the privilege. After a night just over the Spanish border in La Linea (not to be recommended), we returned to the airport to continue our trip. When we asked the grumpy handling agent to check that our flight plan was in, he begrudingly radioed the tower and we overheard him ask if the plan for the puddle jumper was in. Needless to say Raymond was not best pleased – no Christmas card for that handler.
Back at the RV, and after an appropriate photo shoot to capture the realization of the dream, it was time for me to again take control as we flew out of Gibraltar and on to Granada.This was to be yet another momentous occasion for me as my co-pilot was so busy taking photos of the closed road that I took off in his baby completely unsupervised! Leaving Gibraltar we turned out left and flew anticlockwise around the Rock. The views of the Rock and the harbour were stunning. En route our filed flight plan took us overhead Malaga.
We expected to be rerouted so it was a pleasant surprise to be given clearance to cross the 13 threshold at 5500ft with heavy inbound and outbound traffic. A short stop was to follow at Granada to clear customs now that we were returning to the Schengen Area. Before landing we had to orbit whilst a Swedish military jet conducted secret manoeuvres. The handling agent relieved us of £112 and we took on fuel to make the final trip to back to Biscarrosse. We took off towards Madrid and entered Class A airspace at FL95 only to be told to descend to 5000ft on QNH. At just 1500ft above the ground we experienced the worst turbulence of the trip. Approaching Zaragoza CTR, and unable to establish contact with ATC we made a sharp left turn to avoid their airspace, climbed back to FL95 and headed direct to Biarritz. Commercial traffic taking off from Biarritz asked to climb, however permission was denied as VFR traffic (us) was above. We loved it. Then trying to cast Biarritz ATC off, Raymond said he had Biscarrosse in sight only to be told ‘no you don’t, that’s Mimizan!’. Red faced, we eventually landed back in France at a very busy Biscarrosse, where we waited a week for weather in the UK to improve and made the usual uneventful trip home to Newtownards.
It was an incredible flying adventure. Raymond’s long held dream was realised. As for this aviatrix – she still cannot believe that it wasn’t just a dream.
Now it’s almost time for the next Cunning Plan to be hatched……