VERSAILLES – MAY 16th to MAY 18th 2019

Versailles – May 16th to May 18th 2019

It’s my birthday in May. I mention this because from the long and bitter experience of outdoor childhood birthday parties rapidly decamped to the local village hall, I know that May’s weather can either be glorious… or distinctly vile. With the Group planning a major fly-out to Versailles for the middle of the month, which aspect of May’s weather would present itself? Read on to find out…

Many of us have long harboured an ambition to visit the charming little grass strip of Saint Cyr l’École. Situated on the west side of Paris, and a stone’s throw from the stunning Palace of Versailles, you could liken it in Britain to being able to approach London and land in the grounds of Hampton Court. The problem is that, just like attempting to land at Hampton Court, it involves an awful lot of complex airspace to avoid, built-up areas to avoid, oh and a World Heritage site which people would not thank you for squashing if your engine suddenly went quiet. In other words, as tempting as it sounds, the amount of bravery pills required is usually sufficient to persuade most of us that lunch at Le Touquet is an easier and less stressful option.

However, as lemmings will attest, the alternative to copious quantities of bravery pills is the tried-and-trusted principle of ‘safety in numbers’, and hence no shortage of hands went up when the 2019 fly-out programme went out and Paul casually enquired whether anyone fancied making up a group fly-out to Versailles.

And so it was that an impressive total of nine ‘Avions Britanique’ were assembled – being five group aircraft (‘VB being considered an honorary group aircraft for the purposes of this exercise), plus four long-standing friends of the group.

Due to the complexity of the airspace around Paris, plus the very prescribed procedures to be followed in the final run-in to St Cyr, many hours were spent by the crews in the days and weeks prior to the fly-out studying charts and reading up on those procedures. In addition, Malcolm heroically took on the task of obtaining PPR for our travelling circus – a task which took over 30 phone calls – and put together comprehensive briefing notes

However, with all that done, all that was required was some decent weather, and as Friday, May 16th approached it actually looked… well it looked pretty decent to be honest. OK, there was some weather pushing in from the west which might arrive towards the end of the day on Sunday, but we should all be safely back in Blighty by then anyway. We were good to go!

Come the morning of departure and the weather was even more glorious than predicted, and showing as equally if not more glorious all the way down to Paris. With planes pre-flighted and packed we all set off from our respective bases, aiming for a first stop, for lunch and fuel (obtaining fuel being said to be a bit of a palaver at St Cyr), at Rouen.

In Fox-Charlie, Malcolm and I made the decision that in a break with tradition one would fly both outbound legs and one would fly both the return legs, and on a toss of the coin Malcolm got to go first, and I accordingly settled in to watch the world go by from the passenger seat.

All the crews enjoyed a flight down in some of the best flying weather ever. Clear blue skies, calm wind, unlimited viz, and, being a Friday, very few other people clogging the radio. The miles ticked by in an appropriately leisurely fashion, with only the amusement of the Lille controller’s absolute refusal to answer my radio call to break up proceedings (we were deep into France until he eventually relented).

France at its Finest

On down over mile after mile of magnificent sun-bathed open countryside until eventually it was time to let Rouen know to put the kettle on. Cleared into their Class D airspace we could see the field dead ahead on the nose from miles out, plus hear the welcome sound of other members of the fly-out radioing in as they too commenced their final run in.

Unfazed by the number of ‘Rosbifs’ now converging on his field, the cheerful Rouen controller cleared Malcolm and me to join right-hand downwind for Runway 04, before immediately announcing to Pete and Vrai in NUKA, “And you join left-hand downwind for 04”. With no doubt Pete and Vrai doing exactly the same, Malcolm and I looked at each other and said “Err, how’s that going to work then?” Nevertheless, we both persisted with this rather strange Mexican stand-off, until, approaching the base turn, NUKA blinked first and Vrai’s voice announced over the radio that they were going to drive around Ikea’s car park for a while instead (or something to that effect – I never did quite understand what he said, but it seemed to do the trick).

Safely on the ground at Rouen we picked up fuel as the rest of the crews arrived one by one, and then we all enjoyed lunch at the airfield’s café – a concept that sound ridiculous in England but is par for the course in France.

Basking in the Sun Whilst Lining Up for Fuel at Rouen

Suitably refreshed, it was now time to attempt the tricky bit. Departing Rouen we tracked south-east towards the outskirts of Paris, taking care as the base of the Paris TMA began to step down. Around 15 miles from the outskirts of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower clearly visible on the nose, we turned onto a more southerly track to avoid Pontoise and cross the Seine at Épône, where we announced our impending arrival to St Cyr. St Cyr Tower then asked our preferred routeing. It is possible (and in many ways more straightforward) to position out to the west and then track in along the main road, but as conditions were good we elected to proceed direct, duly noting to be careful to give traffic at Chavenay some breathing space. As the airfield with its parallel grass strips hove into view, we were given the instruction to “Join left base for 11 Right” – an instruction that slightly frazzles my brain even now. Nevertheless, Malcolm pulled it off with aplomb and lined us up on the runway, with the Palace sitting magnificently off to the left of the nose, before gently settling us down on the ground. Magnifique!

As we taxied to the parking area we watched the rest of the crews follow in. Mention should be made at this stage, since it is such a rare treat, of ‘VB’s arrival, which, having plumped for the ‘easy’ westerly approach, found itself having to perform a go-around as it struggled to satisfy as to what was runway and what was taxiway, earning many a hilarious ‘Allo ‘Allo-like admonishment from the man in the Tower in the process! In fairness, it’s not immediately obvious as you line up on approach, so a photo is included here which I would recommend you review if ever thinking of visiting the airfield yourself.

View from the Passenger Seat of Runway 11R at Saint Cyr on Final Approach
Note the Palace of Versailles off to the Left of the Nose!
(Note Also That the Runways are the Wide Open Spaces – The Coned Areas Mark the Taxiways)

With all crews safely down and parked it was time to catch a short cab ride into town – where we had booked ever-dependable Ibis rooms – before settling back and reflecting on a job well done over a beer or two. Or three. Or four. And then I think that one of my supposed ‘flying buddies’ poured Avgas in my glass because I don’t remember much of the evening after that…..

Saturday dawned bright and sunny (once my internal fog had lifted) and whilst some elected to head into central Paris, most chose to stroll around the corner from the hotel to visit the Palace.

What to say about the Palais de Versailles apart from it is every bit as stunning as you might expect (both the Palace and the gardens). The grounds are enormous, and despite the inevitable numbers of visitors it is quite possible to wander off through the woods and find peaceful (and beautiful) locations everywhere. Marie Antoinette’s mini-palace, Le Petit Trianon, is particularly worth a visit, and its comparatively small and intimate style contrasts with, and complements, the grand opulence of the Palace itself.

Formal Gardens at Versailles

The nice thing about Versailles is that you can mix and match cultural immersion with simply mooching around the grounds whilst enjoying a (surprisingly reasonably-priced and well made) filled baguette. As to the Palace itself, it really is something to behold. OK, some of the rooms are in a style that has inspired a thousand Essex bathrooms, but it’s impossible not to be wowed by the sheer scale and grandeur and the infinite attention to detail. Of particular note is the Hall of Mirrors, and the Galerie des Batailles (if for no other reason than, as Vrai pointed out, the 120m long room had originally been designed with space to depict around 40 ‘Glorious French Victories’, which had then required a bit of scrabbling around for content matter, and outright ‘poetic licence’ in the form of paintings depicting the French beating… err… the French).

The Hall of Mirrors

The Galerie des Batailles

With a happy day having been spent non-aviating and enjoying our surroundings, we all then regrouped in the evening, with Linda managing to somehow negotiate room for all of us upstairs at a very good restaurant, Le Boeuf à la Mode, a five-minute walk from the hotel. With twenty or so of us taking over the dining room, the few other diners occupying the other tables managed studied Melania Trump-like ‘No really, we’re enjoying ourselves’ smiles as we chattered loudly away en Anglais, slaughtered their language when we attempted to order, doubtless slaughtered their steak by ordering it all wrong, and generally made the most of the wine on offer (albeit rather more sensibly and sedately this time, mindful that tomorrow we would be required to get back in our aeroplanes and fly).

And speaking of flying, the latest weather reports indicated that the bad weather pushing in from the west might now arrive in the late afternoon, so with that we all resolved to quit whilst the going was good and plan to depart after breakfast.

And so to Sunday…

I’m not sure if Sunday morning ever actually ‘dawned’. First glimpses out of the hotel windows revealed leaden skies and soaking wet pavements: the other side of May had arrived early.

As group members gathered for breakfast many a furrowed brow was cast over weather apps, METARS, TAFS, you name it, but sadly they all pointed to pretty much the same thing: the weather was grim and set to remain so. Looking charitably at some of the PROB30s there was a chance that a corridor might open up mid-morning, but that aside it looked like the typical sort of day when email in-boxes would normally fill up with notifications from other NWFG pilots announcing ‘Cancelling booking due to WX’.

As crews looked to each other for some sort of easy answers – of which there were none – I decided the easier thing to do was retire to my room and think things through. In due course, satisfied that I had a Plan B, plus a Plan C, and if needed even a Plan D, it was time to head to the airfield along with everyone else.

In really very unflyable weather we all arrived at a deserted St Cyr and readied the planes – all apart from Tony who discovered a flat tyre on his Arrow. Not being in any way practical I would have assumed that was that – a sure-fire case of ‘Fetchez la Eurostar’ – but remarkably, though it naturally delayed him somewhat, on a wet Sunday morning at a seemingly deserted French airfield, Tony was able to locate help and get it fixed. Remarkable.

‘Assistance Par Excellence’ on a Wet Sunday Morning!

Meanwhile, as we watched the skies, it did appear that one of the PROB30s was coming true and the cloud-base was lifting, the rain was easing off, and the viz was improving such that we could clearly see the low-lying ridge to the north of the field. That last point was my cue to go – if it was good enough to clear the ridge then we knew from the outbound flight that that was pretty much the only bit of high ground that we had to deal with – and Plans C and D would give us options to avoid any that remained. Time to fire up the mighty Lycoming!

Now, as a veteran of many a group fly-out, I have always observed that I am one of the slowest to get the plane fired up and ready to taxy. I was, therefore, a little surprised to look through the windshield past my rotating prop and note that everyone else was still stood by their planes watching us. Hmmmmm… someone has to be the first Muppet to give things a go, and apparently today was our turn!

Undeterred, and despite no response from the Tower (hardly surprising we thought, given the conditions) we started to move – only to see Gordon legging his way over to us. Just as he reached us, we figured out the problem – one of the switches had got knocked and there was indeed someone in the Tower, we just couldn’t receive them.

With that problem fixed we took a deep breath, lined up, took off, turned sharp left in front of the Palace (hell, it was even bathed in the first glimmerings of sunlight!) and headed for the ridge – still mercifully clear four or five miles away. Hallelujah!

That feeling of elation lasted until exactly the point we cleared the ridge – whereupon we sailed straight back into the muck. It was grim, and definitely a case of VFR minima, but it was just doable: we would continue.

Back at the field, encouraged by the fact that we hadn’t come winging our way straight back in ashen and shaking (Plan B), the rest of the crews climbed in and one-by-one started to depart.

All crews will have their own stories about their character-building flight across France that day. In Fox-Charlie Malcolm and I edged forward, cockpit conversation cut simply to relaying pertinent information to each other, as we both backed up what we were able to see out of the window with two nav tablets – mine set to short-range for situational awareness, Malcolm’s set to long-range for ‘nav’. Other crews had more joy climbing through ‘a convenient gap in the clouds’ in order to find a relatively clear layer just above the low-lying clag, others got so far and then wisely diverted into Albert Bray in order to let the worst of things pass, and others ventured forth displaying admirable competence in very trying conditions.

Pretty Standard View For Most of the Flight Back up Through France

North of Abbeville the worst of the clag began to ease, but in its place as we began to approach Calais came haze; serious haze the closer you got to the coast, such that our ‘field in sight’ and ‘entering downwind’ calls were virtually one and the same. However, 1 hour and 25 minutes after leaving St Cyr, our wheels brushed the Calais tarmac, and the ‘adventure’ was over.

In due course, the other crews followed in, each with their own tales to tell, and before long it was time to start the final leg home. The haze meant that the Channel was a goldfish bowl – we didn’t see the English coast until we crossed over it at Deal – and we saw little of Kent until we reached the Thames, whereupon the murk suddenly lifted and we had a serene run into North Weald in the sunshine, landing back at 2:30 in the afternoon.

How to sum up the trip? Well, the first two days were about as good as flying can get: the third day was definitely one where all crews added considerably to their experience as pilots. It is to the great credit of all those who took part that everyone got back without fuss or drama – although I expect a few grey hairs were earned as a result.

As for St Cyr itself, I would definitely recommend it as a destination, whether you are looking to visit Versailles itself or simply fancy a weekend in Paris. The flight is actually very uncomplicated until the last 10-15 miles, and even then it’s far less scary than it looks on the chart: in practice, anyone used to the requirements of operating in and out of North Weald should have no real difficulty in tackling St Cyr. Why not give it a go sometime!