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Journey To Prague

American pilots in Europe are constantly amazed that, in a Skyhawk, you’re often just two hours away from another country. (See related story on how an American with a PPL can rent and fly airplanes in Europe.)

Ten years ago, at the dusk of the Cold War, a trip from Munich to Prague, one of Old Europe’s most beautiful and elegant cities, would have been unheard of. But on a recent sunny autumn afternoon, two friends and I made that two-hour flight. It was both a piece of cake and the thrill of a lifetime.

The Route From Munich to Prague direct is just under two hours, but I’d thought up an interesting little sidetrip to Ceske Budojovice (Budweis). This would be both a leg-stretcher as well as a pilgrimage of sorts to one of beer-lovers’ most holy spots: birthplace of the Czech Budweiser brewery. I figured on a brief stop there, and then we’d depart for the 35-minute leg to Prague.

The return flight would be direct. Nothing could be simpler.

Red Tape
In Europe, the radio work is still in English, and Jeppesen makes the maps in English, too. But the Red Tape Factor was becoming a supreme worry in making my flight plan, as I couldn’t seem to get a straight answer to the procedure for crossing the German/Czech border. Something about a NATO Identification Zone kept coming up, which sounded mildly alarming to say the least!.

In the end, after many phone calls and several blind leads, it turned out to be as simple as a flight from Miami to the Bahamas: a simple filing, in English, of an ICAO International Flight plan form.

Okay, the Czechs are a bit more procedural than their Bahamian counterparts, but it’s essentially the same thing: the plan must include your exact time, altitude and the place where you’ll cross the border. A little nervous about getting all that right, I held off on filing my plan until I picked up my plane at Munich Flyers Flight Club in Augsburg airport, just west of Munich. There I got a final weather briefing (confirming the predicted clear skies and 20kt headwind at 10,000 feet), and faxed off the plan.

I’d verified my intentions by phone with Prague Flight Information regarding the stop in Budweis, and had meticulously noted checkpoints along the entire route to ensure I crossed the border just where I said I would, about four miles north of Philippsreut, a village nestled in the Bavarian Forest.

I phoned Munich Flight Information right after filing my plan, and they assured me that everything was okay. With that, I got out Cessna D-EHMB, a 172, and was in the process of fueling when the airport loudspeaker blared, “Pilot of Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, contact Munich Information!”.

My flight plan, it seemed, had been ixnayed by Czech Authorities, who now said that there were no customs officials in Budweis – it was direct to Prague or nothing. The idea of hours of flight planning down the commode and then hastily planning a direct route to Prague while sitting in the cockpit didn’t strike me as particularly pleasant, but we reached a compromise: keep the original flight plan, but turn left over Budweis and head up to Prague.

Munich Airport – Europe’s busiest during peak hours – doesn’t provide flight following services as such, but would give me a transponder code and keep vague track of my progress, ensuring I didn’t venture into restricted airspace or veer glaringly off course.

And, I’m almost sad to report, the flight was almost extraordinary in its ordinariness.

I’d secretly hoped for bizarre instructions, exciting NATO complications and cloak-and-dagger intrigue – perhaps the odd MiG scramble at the border. But the flight was as routine as they come. Well, there was something: finding checkpoints was difficult because each and every town we flew over looked identical! Cluster of red-roofed houses with a church in the middle? Why, that’s clearly Dingolfing..or Straubing.. or Deggendorf ..or possibly Ingolstadt!!.

With the help of a goond flight plan (and, okay, a great GPS and the help of two very keen passenger/navigators), we reached the border transition area spot on time. Munich Flight information handed us off to Prague Information, who gave us permission to climb to 11,500 feet and cross the border. We were in!!.

To save a bit of time, they let us turn left heading 06 degrees on a beeline for Prague, rather than subjecting us to the farce of overflying the now forbidden city of Budweis.

Flight Level Five Five
English may be the language of the skies here, but you’d best speak very slowly and clearly: controllers are used to conversing with non-native speakers, who use a more formal – if stilted – version of the language.

Transition levels in Europe are different from those in the US, where it is above 18,000 feet. About 15 minutes south of Prague, at 9,500 feet, I had a little moment of confusion when the controller then told me to “descend to flight level five five.”.

I replied, thinking I was being clear, “Mike Bravo, leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet”, and got back, “Cessna Mike Bravo, I say again, Flight Level Five Five.” .

Allrighty. “Mike Bravo is leaving niner thousand five hundred for flight level five five, that’s five thousand five hundred feet,” I said, slower and even clearer.

“Cessna Mike Bravo, I repeat again,” he said, audibly put out by my rebellious behavior, “descend to Flight Level Five Five.” .

We probably could have gone on all day like that had I not just shut up and said “Roger, Flight Level five five!” And descended to 5,500 feet.

Turns out that was the right thing to do for the wrong reason: As my friend Michel McAloon wrote to correct me, “In most ICAO countrues the published transition altitude may be as low as 3000 feet. Pilots when climnbing through the transition altitude are expected to change their altimiters to the QNE standard of 1013.25 hecopascals (29.92 inches Hg).

Buzzing The Rooftops
Despite that hiccup, things were going swimmingly, and having abandoned my flight plan I was happy to quit looking at the map and let the Prague controllers call my every turn. Prague Info handed me off to Prague tower, and I saw the city just ahead, but I hadn’t ever landed there and couldn’t see the actual field, so I was a bit trepidatious. But I’d figured that, since they had me heading 06, I must be on a straight-in approach to runway 06, right?.

“Cessna Delta-Echo Hotel Mike Bravo, descend to maximum 2000 feet, QNH 1023 and turn left bearing 310 degrees”.

Hmm. Confirm the altimeter setting and..that seems a little, uh, low, as I’m about 500 feet above the ground at this point. My front seat passenger, a Brit, says alto voce “I can see bloody dogs on the ground we’re so bloody low!”.

He’s right, but this is seriously fun; actually instructed to barrel in low over the hillsides and rooftops, with the city of Prague now off my right wing and my passengers boisterously humming Wagner’s Flight of the Valkyries.

The hills dropped away and we were now at the relatively sane height of about 800 feet above the rooftops. I finally saw the airport just ahead, but we were number two after an Austrian 737. The tower asked us to, “make now a left turn for one orbit” (more controllers’ stilted English), then to fly right along over runway 31, turning left just past it to enter the left downwind for runway 06.

I’ve gotten used to shorter, European airstrips so I put it down gently right on the numbers. I was in the midst of telling my passengers, “On behalf of Air Nick, I’d like to welcome you to Prague” when I noticed we could have taken off and landed again in the distance it took for us to trundle over to Taxiway Charlie – Runway 06 is 12,188 feet!.

And then began the rock star treatment: the Follow-Me car was a nice touch, and our plane was met by a minivan bearing the gracious Mr Vlastimil Sovak of the Czech Airports Authority Handling Agency who cheerfully offered hotel booking assistance, information on getting to town by taxi or public transport, and then whisked us off to our own private customs and passport control while our plane was refueled. He even made the exchange office employee cut short his lunch hour so we could get busfare to the center!.

Prague is a spectacularly gorgeous city, and it’s so old its “new town” dates to the 15th century. Alas, flying directly over the spectacular city center is forbidden.

20 minutes after leaving the airport, just outside the Staromestska subway station, we were treated to a sweeping view across the Charles Bridge to the magnificent Prague castle, home to Czech royalty since the 9th century. It seemed that around each corner was another architectural masterpiece!.

We spent the evening wandering Prague’s ancient cobblestone streets, and shopping for the justifiably famous Czech glassware. That night, while I caught up on sleep, my two passengers set out to do the town’s lively bars and clubs, sampling the famous beer and, I’m told, getting treated to several on the strength of the tale of their journey.

The next morning we headed back to Augsburg with no barreling, no low passes, and nary a MiG to be seen. With the exception of a slight detour over a restricted area just inside the German airspace I’d somehow (ahem!) overlooked in my flight plan, the return flight was, technically, eventless.

Isn’t it amazing how technically eventless flights can leave you with memories for a lifetime?

Land And Hold Short

According to the FAA, “LAHSO is an aviation procedure that has been used safely since 1968…LAHSO have been refined through years of operational experience and cooperation among the FAA, airlines, pilots and controllers”.

The Hold Short Point beyond which a landing aircraft with a LAHSO clearance is not authorized to proceed is painted in the runway, and red and white holding position signs are located alongside the hold short point. Additionally, there are six or seven in-pavement, pulsing white lights at the LAHSO hold short point.

The minimum requirements are 2,500 feet, measured from the landing threshold to the hold short point on the hold short runway. Two planes may arrive on intersecting runways if the distance on the full-length runway from the threshold to the intersection where the hold short clearance is effective is greater than 3,000 feet.

Weather minimums required for LAHSO are a 1,500-foot ceiling and three miles visibility, though if the runway is equipped with precision approach path indicators (PAPI), then minimums can be 1,000 foot ceiling and three miles.

The minimum runway requirements are 2,500 feet, measured from the landing threshold to the hold short point on the hold short runway. Two planes may arrive on intersecting runways if the distance on the full-length runway from the threshold to the intersection where the hold short clearance is effective is greater than 3,000 feet.

Like The Weather? Take The Tour!

Any pilot wishing to have a guided tour through a Flight Service Station is welcomed, and in fact the FAA has launched an effort to get more pilots to take them up on the offer.

One of the busiest and most interesting in the country is the New York Automated Flight Service Station in Islip, NY, about an hour outside New York City. By calling the center, on 631-471-7181, any pilot can arrange a free tour.

Living Aboard A GA Airplane

I’m coming up on PREDA Intersection and 7,000 feet on my departure from Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport. The Tiger snaps left on Bahamas Route 70V toward Freeport, and I’m concentrating so intently that I’m startled by a squeal of delight from the backseat – Corinna thinks she just saw a dolphin.
I look down and see that we’re completely over the azure waters of the Caribbean. Within 10 minutes we’re out of sight of the Florida coast, and we can’t yet make out Bimini or Grand Bahama Island.

For three months, this kind of adventure happened to me every day.

Last year I spent about 300 hours in honest-to-goodness cross-country journeys in Cessna Skyhawks, Mooneys, Piper Cherokees, and a new Tiger, taking photos and gathering information for the Flyguides Web site. The trips took me to places I’ve always dreamed of visiting: the Grand Canyon, the Rockies, the Appalachians, the Deep South. After years of traditional travel writing, I had found the perfect gig: writing about the great places I was flying to. Some of that information also finds its way into the Postcards Online that members receive in AOPA ePilot. There we deliver information about a destination in your region one Friday a month (sign up for your free copy online at www.aopa.org).

The downside about such a job? The commute was no picnic: Say what you will about the 8:17 a.m. from Poughkeepsie – I was catching the 3:55 a.m. from Munich, Germany. Every other Monday. I began to suspect my wife – who stayed at home in Germany – did not love this setup as much as United Airlines did.

So we decided to move back to the United States. We threw all our belongings into a shipping container and headed west. Rather than settle down immediately, we decided that I would take the family with me on an extended research trip, which would double as a grand tour of America, my German-born wife and son’s new homeland.

Astonishingly, some have used the word vacation when referring to a three-month family trip in a general aviation airplane, although I must admit that I was, in fact, hoping for just that. Spending uninterrupted time with Corinna and 4-year-old Spijk (rhymes with Mike) was a dream come true.

But bills needed to be paid, and for me the trip was about gathering information on great fly-in destinations. In the first year, Flyguides had laid the foundations of a pilot travel Web site by publishing detailed guides to the largest metro-area GA airports in the country; now our small squadron of freelancers and I are flying around America to get information on the mid-size and smaller places we need to include to give our Web site a truly nationwide appeal.

With five and a half thousand airports to cover, we couldn’t afford to stay on the ground long.

My mission: profiling the East, South, and Midwest United States, as well as the Bahamas. We tried to schedule stops at beaches and interesting activities for the family, but adhering to the tight production schedule didn’t leave much time for lounging.

Things did not begin well. A couple of days into the trip, our rented Skyhawk blew out its radios in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) as we approached Lexington, Kentucky. It was interesting doing the “turn-left-two-two-zero-if-you-can-hear-this-ident” thing with the excellent approach and tower controllers there, but it was not something I’d wish to repeat any time soon.

Herb, at Hortman Aviation Services at Northeast Philadelphia Airport, was great: He told us to “fix the radios, send me the bill, then get on back here,” where he would swap us out for a 2004 Tiger. That Tiger turned out to have 80 hours on the Hobbs and that new-car smell.

One of the things we had worried about while planning the trip was Spijk’s ability to roll with the punches of GA: weather-related itinerary changes, getting stuck anyplace that is not Disney World…what amazed us throughout was his nonchalance when it came to getting into the airplane. After he called out, “One, two, three…takeoff!” to begin each flight, we could almost set the altimeter to Spijk’s nodding off as we hit 600 feet.

Perhaps the biggest surprise we faced as a family essentially living in an airplane was how quickly those routines evolved. Unless you’re driving a bizjet, GA travel is far more intimate than travel by car – if only because you’re unable to toss the luggage in the trunk. For the first few days, my right-seat passenger was a 55-pound Samsonite.

But imagine flying by GA every day, and every day someplace new: Leave the hotel, return the rental car, check the weather, load up and preflight the airplane, file the flight plan, take off, land, unload the airplane, get a rental car, head to the hotel…. The complex preparation, which I relished in the days of more sporadic flying opportunities, quickly became mundane.

This repetition was also an immersion course in real-world flying: Being in the system every single day is normally the domain of airline and cargo pilots. Being a part of this airborne community was a thrill, and I noticed that after a while, controllers treated me like a pro. As a newly minted private pilot, I’d been tentative on the mic. Later I overcompensated to the point of drawling like a graybeard. After weeks in the system I was relaxed but concise, and I knew when to be cute – and when to shut up.

Throughout our journey, we benefited from that most holy of travel-writing perks, local knowledge: We learned about the bourbon business and horse training in Lexington, and why the waters of the Bahamas are so gin-clear. We learned about the Bayou and the oil industry in Louisiana, Kansas’ high-tech corridor, and the Amish and Mennonite communities of Iowa. And that the best burgers any of us have ever had were at the airport restaurant in San Marcos, Texas.

Early on, we recognized my propensity to make decisions based on comfort in addition to safety, something new to me after a couple hundred hours of solo cross-countries. There were several days during which the weather was soft IMC: no icing or convective stuff, just garden-variety soup. Operationally this spells a smooth ride. But I had to scrub the flight because “Daddy, are we there yet?” takes on new meaning inside a 200-mile-long cloud.

Time, in aviation, apparently differs from that in the real world. A major point of contention for the first week or so was the allegation that I was underestimating journey time. “How long is it to X?” I’d be asked. I’d reply, “Oh, just under an hour.” Except, where we pilots count in Hobbs time, our friends and family tend to judge time using something they call a watch. Note to self: Families judge journey time door to door, not chock to chock.

I spent the entire three months feeling I was late for an appointment. Never before have I felt like such a rat as I did when, in a hurry and down to minimum fuel requirements, I landed at Morgantown, West Virginia, in the midst of a Young Eagles Day. As I was snappily marshaled in by Civil Air Patrol volunteers, I gazed at the sea of shining, innocent faces of children eager for their dreams to take wing. Then I slammed the Skyhawk door, said, “Sorry, guys, I’m just here for a fill-up,” and stomped off to the terminal.

Flight planning now required consideration of family business as much as the business end of cold fronts. We’d planned a straight shot from Northeast Philadelphia to Grand Strand Airport in North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, as the inaugural flight in the Tiger, so early in the morning we loaded kit, caboodle, and Spijk into the airplane and set off. As soon as we were in the air, though, Spijk had the mother of all temper tantrums. We set down at Philadelphia International Airport nine minutes after departure – and learned our first valuable lesson: The new Selby family rule is no one gets into the airplane without breakfast.

While we were getting used to the Tiger, Corinna and Spijk got an intensive course in aviation weather. As any Florida pilot knows, convective sigmets in the Sunshine State are much like the temporary flight restrictions around our commander in chief – they’re in place whenever you’re overhead. As we approached the Florida border, we began a three-hour cell dodge, which had us diverting 50 miles inland, then back to the coast, then inland again before making our way to St. Augustine.

We saw places we’d never have seen if it weren’t for the airplane: I’d never even contemplated Port Arthur, Texas, but when I arrived there for a break and fueling on our flight from New Orleans to San Antonio, the disarmingly friendly lineman at the Southeast Texas Regional Airport handed me the keys to his new truck (in lieu of a formal courtesy car). “Just make sure the gas is where it is when you got it,” he told us. And then he gave me directions to a nearby restaurant. Took me three tries to decipher his twang, but I heard something like “Sahtn.”

Forty minutes later, Corinna, Spijk, and I practically rolled away from the table at Sartin’s Seafood, where we had dazzlingly fresh, crispy, and enormous portions of fried fish for Corinna, barbecued crabs for Spijk, and broiled flounder for me. Awesome.

That kind of hospitality doesn’t, as far as I can tell, exist outside aviation circles. But within those, it’s commonplace.

The Bahamas provides pilots the best of all worlds, and the government is keenly supportive of aviation tour-ism, which is nice in itself. But the flying isn’t great there just because of the jaw-dropping clear water and dazzlingly white beaches; it’s practical, too. I could and did fly from Freeport to Walker’s Cay for a delicious lunch, then return for an afternoon on the beach at Port Lucaya; this is something the earthbound could never accomplish. There’s not enough space in this magazine to list opportunities like that in the Bahamas.

And having an airplane there was an interesting opportunity for me to show others the wonders of flight; the look on the face of the Rev. Hicks, as I let him take the controls on a flight from New Bight Airport to Hawk’s Nest on Cat Island, was of childlike wonder and bliss.

At the end of our odyssey, Corinna, Spijk, and I were, truth be told, ready to land for a while. Covering 5,099 miles, landing at 77 airfields, and moving our bags every 24 to 48 hours for three months took their toll. I knew it was time to stop when I found myself saying, “Roger,” at the Radisson check-in desk. I have to admit, during the next two months, I didn’t even sit down in an airplane.

Looking back, the journey was a lot like high school, or a stint in the Army: It was intense, I learned a lot, and we made some wonderful friends. But I wouldn’t want to do it again. In fact, it makes me wonder just how great my job really is. Maybe GA is best in smaller doses.

I think of my friend Carl, who starts planning his weekend trips on Monday and spends the week tweaking the route, researching his destination, and checking the weather. These ingredients are all part of the allure, and anticipation, of a GA flight to somewhere new.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more the whole concept of carpe nundinae – arguably Latin for seize the weekend – appeals. So next time you find yourself contemplating an hour of circles around the airport and holes in the sky, remember that no matter where you live, you’re under an hour flight from someplace great.

On The Radio

German and Czech ATC are highly competent and professional and speak English, but remember, it’s not their native language, and they’re used to speaking English with other non-native speakers. Americans, they feel, tend to speak colorfully or offhandedly, which makes it difficult for them to understand you – even if you’re saying what you feel are relatively simple things.

What they say to you can sometimes sound convoluted (and there’s the near universal German tendency to call your Cessna a “Chessna”), so be on your toes. Halfway down the runway on take-off in Augsburg, for example, the controller without preamble came back with,

“…and if you appreciate, on your way to [checkpoint] Oscar, you may continue with climb, and until passing with three thousand.”.

Ah. Don’t turn left towards Oscar till you reach 3000 feet. I appreciate!.

Speak more slowly than usual, and be as precise as possible. Remember, too, that it’s required you repeat every piece of information given: if they say, “Clear to land, runway 07, QNH1013, wind 100 at 12 knots”, that’s what you say back!