When the chance came to fly a Cirrus across Europe, it would be an understatement to call it a chance of a lifetime. For years, it had always seemed to me that Europe was the perfect place to have a small, personal airplane. You can fly from almost anywhere to anywhere else in western Europe on a single tank of gas. You’re looking down medieval castles, hillsides where legions of Roman soldiers camped, important battlegrounds from two World Wars, wineries as well as windmills, an almost unimaginable display of a world civilized for thousands of years…. Would I like to see all of this from the window of a tour bus or from an aerial view the Greeks once thought was reserved only for the gods?
Our flight plan would take us out of Holland across Germany, then through the Alps into Switzerland and Italy. Next would come the highest airport in Europe, Saint Moritz, Switzerland, then to Salzburg, Austria, and finally back to the Netherlands to return our borrowed Cirrus SR22. Flying the airplane would be the same as it is anywhere, but the trip would be an opportunity to test my medal at the comparatively elaborate preflight planning that flying in Europe requires.
There’s just no arguing that piloting a GA aircraft in Europe is exponentially more involved than flying in the United States. At first, trying to figure out where to even begin the preparation can seem a bit like transferring into a graduate-level organic chemistry class at mid-semester. But little by little, pieces to the puzzle fall into place, and fortunately, there are lots of people in the world who are happy to help.
The members-only section of the AOPA Website (click on the Trans Atlantic section) is a good starting place. There you can find basic info about traveling abroad, plus a list of AOPA groups in Europe. Another valuable source for European flight planning is Jeppesen. As the world’s repository of aeronautical data, they provide a number of goodies to help bring the whole picture together. Jeppesen sells VFR and GPS charts for the whole of Europe as well as IFR charts and approach plates. If you’re a flight-planning software fan, Jeppesen’s FlightStar program is just as happy planning for Europe as it is putting together flights in the United States. They also sell the Bottlang Airfield Manual, a sort of Euro-Airport Facilities Directory or AOPA Airport Directory that lists wads of information, including frequencies and phone numbers for any airport you’re likely to visit.
Those phone numbers proved to be a good thing. Prior to our departure out of Holland, a precautionary call to our destination revealed an overlooked detail—they were closed on Sunday, the day of arrival, as were our second and third choices for destinations. But the folks in Lugano, Switzerland, a full-service airport on the border with Italy, would be happy to have us. A quick revision to our flight plan, and we were good to go.
With the long-anticipated “cleared for takeoff” coming from the tower, we were off. Moments later, we were handed off to our first European air traffic controller. Much like the Euro is providing a single currency for Europe, Eurocontrol is an attempt to provide a “Single European Sky.” So far, there are 35 member states for which Eurocontrol oversees airborne traffic. With all those different languages to deal with, how do they manage? With English. All controllers speak English. Some better than others, but language typically presents few problems when dealing with ATC.
We quickly learned there are a few minor differences from the basic aviation vernacular we’re used to in the States, however. For example, if you wanted flight following, you need to ask for flight information. And course, as in much of the world, barometer settings aren’t given as inches of mercury, but instead as millibars, or QNH. CAVOK means ceilings and visibility okay, and the term “flight level” can be applied to just about any altitude, depending on the country.
En route, the Cirrus’ magic Avidyne Entegra panel made the whole flight plan come alive. We could extend the range of the moving map and clearly see the depiction of our little airplane heading right across Europe toward the boot of Italy. Honestly, it was exciting! The MFD also made it painless when a controller asked us for our position or had questions about our intended routing. NEXRAD weather isn’t yet available in Europe, but the Cirrus Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) was worth its weight in gold, like when we were crossing the Alps. Long before the terrain started to rise, the TAWS allowed us to look ahead and pick a comfortable 10,500-foot altitude running through what has to be one of the most beautiful mountain passes in the world. No one knows for sure anymore, but the pass we flew is thought to be the route Hannibal and his elephants used to cross this mountain range 2,000 years ago to attack the Romans. Now, that’s cool! Finally, as the snow-covered peaks began to fall away behind us, we started our descent. In less than three hours, the Cirrus had taken us across three countries, and we were about to enter the fourth.
The Cirrus’ all-glass cockpit made flying in Europe much easier. While the PFD displays pertinent flight data, the MFD shows the aircraft en route above the familiar outline of the boot of Italy.
A short car ride from Lugano took us across the border to Italy. We wanted to visit one of Europe’s oldest flying clubs, Aero Club Como, which has been in the same spot since floatplane activities began on Lake Como in 1913.
Flying clubs are perhaps the best-kept secret in Europe. Many are used to getting requests from foreign pilots for all kinds of help, everything from assistance in finding an aircraft to rent to helping get your American pilot certificate recognized for flight in Europe.
“If a pilot sends us a copy of his or her passport, pilot’s license and medical, we will arrange all the necessary paperwork before the pilot arrives,” Cesare Baj, president of Aero Club Como, told us. This nonprofit group is one of the busiest seaplane training operations in the world, and their clientele come from everywhere. Aero Club Como does everything from seaplane ratings to complete private-pilot licenses, with all the training done in a seaplane!
|The Cirrus’ all-glass cockpit made flying in Europe much easier. While the PFD displays pertinent flight data, the MFD shows the aircraft en route above the familiar outline of the boot of Italy.|
Baj offered us a tour of Lake Como in a Lake Renegade. We overflew the Bellagio (the original resort with hundreds of years’ head start over its counterpart in Las Vegas), several villas dating back a thousand years and the red rooftops of tiny villages that have remained on the lake ever since the days of Julius Caesar. We landed our amphib next to the ruins of Castill di Cannero, a castle that clings to the same rocky island where it was built in the 13th century. We didn’t have to remind ourselves we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
As turnabout, we took Rino Caldiroli, an Aero Club Como pilot, for a sightseeing flight in our airplane. Cirrus is just now spreading itself across Europe, and the sight of one of these modern wonders is still a bit of a spectacle. The Italians like to pronounce Cirrus with a “ch” sound, so Caldiroli referred to our SR22 as a “Chirros.” After some time at the controls and a tour of the Avidyne glass panel, his eyes had turned the size of grapefruits. In his limited English, he said, “The Chirros, it’s a miracle!”
In fact, everywhere we went, the Cirrus created a stir. Pilots are pilots anywhere, and many wanted to stop and talk to us about the aircraft, our trip and our route—conversations that frequently ended in some valuable exchange of local knowledge. In Saint Moritz, a pilot who had watched us arrive came to help us file our next flight plan using a new interactive computer-based kiosk, the first that we had seen along the way. In Salzburg, a line crewman got on his radio to call another line person over just to look at our new Cirrus. Of course, in no time, we were all immersed in more flying stories, and no one was from any particular place anymore. We were all just pilots.
And like any great trip, it was all over too soon. After touring the home of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Salzburg, we packed the Cirrus for the last time. A short flight back to the Netherlands, and it was over. But in a short week, we had transformed ourselves from meek American pilots cautiously sticking our toes into the European airspace to veterans of one of the great places to fly in the world. The best thing about the trip? Flying in Europe made me remember why I got a pilot’s license in the first place.