An American Pilot In Europe

Flying over the verdant rolling hills of the Italian countryside, circling the ancient hilltop village of Urbino (birthplace of the painter Raphael), I looked at my wife, Corinna, and remembered just what it was that made me want to get that licence in the first place.

Every year, while thousands of licensed American pilots vacation abroad, few think of exploring the European skies. But in much of Europe, US pilots can easily rent a plane and make daytime VFR flights as Pilot In Command.

The linguistically challenged will be able to communicate: ATC, rental companies, instructors and even ATIS and AWAS all communicate in English.

A walletful of greenbacks doesn’t hurt. Anyone who’s ever filled up in a European gas station knows fuel prices over here are out of Mad Max: avgas runs about US$5.25 (you read that right, over five bucks a gallon). Hourly prices for plane rental can be almost double what they are in the States.

But what’s the price tag on an aerial trip up the Rhine, over Stonehenge, or around a castle? It’s the trip of a lifetime.

The ICAO Chicago Convention says licensees from contracting states (including all European nations and the USA) are permitted to fly in other contracting states. The issue of national sovereignty is touchy in Europe, but if you have a valid FAA PPL and current medical certificate, you’re generally permitted to make daytime VFR flights.

In the UK and Holland, you can walk in to any flight school or Aero Club (as they’re called here) and after a checkout, rent a plane and zoom off into the sunset (though one zooms slightly differently over here. See Tips, below).

More rigidly legislated countries (like Germany, France and Spain), have red tape worthy of a Maastricht Treaty, but some advance work on your part can clear the way, at a minimum of fuss and expense, to recognition of your American PPL.

And good news: a certificate of recognition from any European Union member state is honored in all others.

So if you’re visiting, say, Germany, Spain and Italy, a certificate from one will be honored in any other. And best of all, the renter – usually a flight school or aero club that’s dealt with this situation before – will often assist with the paperwork as part of the rental fee. They will guide you through the process of getting a locally recognized “holiday license”.

You’ll usually need to send notarized copies of your PPL, medical, recent pages from your logbook, and your passport. Some countries, like Spain, also require a passport photo, so check whether you’ll need to send those.

Bring all of those items on your trip, too. And while we’re on what to bring, remember this: most planes here come equipped with just two headphones, so bring extra headphones if you’ll need them.

If you’re headed to the UK, Holland or Germany you can start checking into rentals and making reservations as little as a week before you arrive, but if you’re off to other countries start about six weeks in advance.

Renting a plane is almost as easy as it is in the USA, but there are differences. The best bet is to research using the search engines at flying websites, or by picking up flying magazines from the UK, such as Flyer ( or Pilot ( The back of these mags are packed with ads for flying schools, which almost always rent their airplanes.

Shop around! On a recent check of airports around Europe, I found major differences in rental prices, even in the same country. For example, I called Wycombe Air Centre (tel 011-44-149-444-3737), about 20 miles from Central London, and was quoted a price of 126 pounds (US$196) for a C-152 with an instructor, and 97 pounds (US$155) an hour for just the plane, wet, timing from brakes off to brakes on, including VAT (the notorious Value Added Tax). It was about US$10 extra for a C-172 with or without an instructor.

But a call to Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), about 10 miles from London’s Stansted Airport, got quotes of 89.50 pounds (US$143) with an instructor and 75 pounds (US$120) without for a C-152, and 102 pounds (US$163) with and 93 pounds (US$149) without for a C-172, on the same terms.

The Pesaro Aero Club in Fano, Italy (tel 011-3907-2180-3941), demanded the most I’ve ever laid out: US$210 for an hour and 40 minutes of flying, including 40 minutes with the instructor for the checkout, in a C-152.

The Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers, in Saint Maur, France, (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813) wanted 900 francs (US$138) with a (French language) instructor, and 744 francs (US$114) without one for a C-172.

But it can be cheaper (just a bit more than in the USA): Munich Flyers at Augsburg Airport, 45 minutes outside Munich (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761), gets DM240 (US$126) for a C-172 with an instructor, and DM 177 (US$95) without, including fuel, from wheels up to wheels down.

On that trip I took to Italy, I literally followed the low-flying planes I saw from the coastal road to the Pesaro Aero Club, on a grass strip just south of the city of Rimini. Showing my PPL and Medical at the flight school office, a teacher and I set off on a 40-minute checkout (really more of a brush-up on soft field landings and a lengthy description of the local airspace) and then I was off on my own, for a one-hour tour of the whole area.

A German instructor named Tom told me that he checks out people all the same way, even if it’s obvious they’ve been flying for years or are newly licensed.

“We do two traffic patterns,” he said, “to check their radio skills and landings, and then head for our practice area, where we do power-off and power-on stalls and steep turns. If they handle all that right, they’re on their own – and if not, they do an hour or two of brush-up lessons.”

I enjoy the rental checkride as much for the local air tour I get as I do for learning the different ways people teach flying in different countries (for example, in Germany, Tom wanted to see just the barest hint of an impending power-on stall, while my Italian instructor demanded – and demonstrated – something out of Snoopy and the Red Baron!).

The rental checkride is so important here because local regulations are dictated by many more idiosyncrasies and customs than in the USA. In the UK for example, noise abatement is so strict that procedures like, “On takeoff, make a right turn at 300 feet and head for the treeline before ascending,” and, “On downwind, approach from south of the village and then scoot round the village to the right and turn left again when you see the pub,” are more common than not.

And in Germany, where takeoffs and landings even on privately owned farms require clearance, strictly – even Germanly – regimented exits and entrances to the airport vicinity are required, using map points with names like Whiskey One and Echo One, as well as local conventions that aren’t even marked on the maps (see the box)!

The rental checkride’s good for learning all these, but even better is a visit to the tower. If you plan ahead, you can make the visit when you arrive – get off the commercial flight and head upstairs for a half-hour chat with the controllers. They’ll fill you in on restrictions, give you local flying tips, telephone numbers for weather forecasts, useful web addresses and tell you where you can buy charts of the area locally.

Most Americans are horrified to learn that practically every single airfield in Europe charges some sort of landing fee. In most airports it’s waived if you’re taking a local flight, but if you take a day trip to somewhere, be prepared to fork over anywhere from US$10 to US$25 in landing fees at the destination airport.

“The airspace is fairly restricted here compared to the USA,” said Carol Cooper, Chief Flying instructor at Andrewsfield Aviation.

“For your own sake, study the map, and the airspace where you can and can’t go – which is much different around here.

“Experience obviously matters, and radio navaids can help, but England’s a small place, and you’ve got to watch your proximity to Stansted, Heathrow and Gatwick,” she continued, referring to the fact that all those airports’ airspace is completely off-limits to VFR pilots in single-engine planes without a special VFR clearance.

Which you almost certainly won’t get!

Noise abatement rules dictate that you avoid town centers and other populated areas.

Radio work is also different, and Europeans seem to think the American practice of repeating the last three registration numbers as acknowledgment of an ATC directive just a bit too, well…American! You’re expected to repeat all the instructions given you by ATC, each and every time.

And finally, if you’ll be travelling outside larger cities, brush up on your soft-field landings and takeoffs: many airports have grass strips.

Note that anywhere in Europe your American license gives you the same rights at you have at home if you are flying in an N-registered (US-owned and registered) aircraft. Regardless of registration, you need no holiday license or any additional paperwork other than your valid PPL, valid medical and pilot’s logbook to fly as PIC from the UK or the Netherlands (Holland) – even if you land in another country.

For other countries you will often need a holiday license, recognizing your American license. The most straightforward agency to deal with in Europe is Germany’s Regierung Oberbayern Luftamt Suedbayern, Maximillianstrasse 39, 80538 Munich (tel 011-4989-2176-2523). Send them a letter, telling them the dates of your travel in Europe, a request for a Holiday License and photocopies of your PPL, Medical Certificate and the most recent page of your logbook, along with a copy of the data pages of your passport. The holiday license they will send you (Bescheinigung ueber die Allgemeine Anerkennung eines auslaenden Lueftfahrerscheins; allow four weeks for processing) is good for six months and costs about US$30. It is valid everywhere in Western Europe, allowing you to rent nationally registered planes.

In France, contact Direction Generale de l’Aviation Civile (tel 011-331-5809-4321, fax 011-331-5809-3636), License Office, 50 rue Henri Farman, 75015 Paris

Andrewsfield Aviation Ltd (tel 011-44-137-185-6744), Saling Airfield, Stebbing, Dunmow, Essex CM6 3TH England

Munich Flyers Flugschule, GmbH, (tel 011-49-89-6427-0761) Hochederstrasse 2, 81545 Muenchen, Germany

Pesaro Aero Club (tel 011-3907-2180-3941) Via Dela Colonna 130, Fano, Italy 61032

Aerodrome Chateauroux Villers (tel and fax 011-33-2-5436-6813), 36250 Saint Maur, France