Climbing that student pilot mountain once again. The mysteries of Eurocontrol. What does “crossing Schengen borders” mean exactly? (Turns out that it means crossing national borders within the scope of the Schengen Agreement. Or so I dearly hope….) Fortunately, we have been wrestling with the ICAO flight plan format in the States for awhile now. That’s reasonably familiar. But how the heck can we get a forecast of cloud tops? Tried all the myriad sources of weather for the U.K and Europe and can’t find anything resembling the familiar FA or Area Forecast, which itself is being replaced with a graphic forecast in the U.S. Awash in charts,
in myriad ways, but without an obvious indication of tops, here we are at Biggin Hill looking at fog and vis well less than a half mile and a ceiling of a hundred feet, or a 100 meters or a 100 something. All I know is that I can’t see the runway. I can see a Piaggio Avanti on the ramp. Always wanted one of those, but not today.
What I do want is more fuel. Figuring about 0435 en route with 109 gallons. Should work but we are relying on flight planning tools that are not so familiar, without the flexibility of altitudes and routings that we are accustomed to negotiating in the U.S. But the TAFs show steady improvement through the afternoon and our alternate is Vienna International — and ruinous fees. And by my calculation, that puts us into Vienna International, after a miss at LOAN and vectors for the ILS at Vienna, with about 0.5 hours of fuel. But this is not a VFR hop to Siler City. More than a few variables between here and there.
So we recalculate based on something closer to a best-range power setting and speed and fuel burn, save a few gallons in exchange for about thirty minutes en route. But LOAN, Neustadt, closes at sunset, so there is a window forcing a go/no go decision in the next hour. Another look at Ogimet, Rocket Route, AutoRouter, and the TAFs and METARs. Still no tops forecasts. Always a concern for icing at fifteen thousand, not only our filed altitude but just about the only altitude that Eurocontrol will accept for this routing. Oh, yeah, those are the Alps toward the end of this route. Something there to think about. The fog is continuing to lift and, as it does, reveal some cumulous clouds with some vertical development. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.
So, if LOWW is our alternate, the Vienna “big airport,” do we need an arrival slot? We don’t intend to land there unless we fail to make the approach (or the closing time) at LOAN, but LOAN has a peculiar RNAV approach that is only intended for – and this is the exact language – “cloud-breaking.” One must cancel before landing, no later than the missed approach point. So must we reserve a slot at LOWW just in case we need it as an alternate? Is there a charge for that slot? Almost certainly. Is it levied even if we are able to land at LOAN?
Just a moment ago, I approached a pilot in the Biggin Hill FBO who was obviously planning a flight. Perhaps he was a flight instructor? His accent was German; that’s about as much as I could discern. I asked him if there was such a thing as an actual weather briefing from a specialist in this part of the world. Seems a simple question and I felt foolish even asking; seems like the sort of thing that I should know; but everyone with whom I have been in contact in regards to this trip just assumes that everyone self-briefs with the plethora of information available. He looked at me wistfully and said, “I have flown in the U.S. It is wonderful. Wonderful support. And it is all free. It’s not like that here.” But in a strange land, with strange weather patterns — more properly unfamiliar weather patterns — and unfamiliar procedures a professional briefing would be welcome. We should give some thought to that in the U.S.