Welcome to Fly The Impossible

Day 3: Invasion of Romania

The next morning we enjoyed a very well balanced breakfast, and returned to the airport as soon as possible. It would be a long flying day. In the briefing room, everything was slow in the usual way. After 10 minutes we could access the weather information. It looked good for the first half of our flights, but in the afternoon the chance on thunderstorms would increase. During taxi, we had a discussion with the people from the tower, because our call-sign did match with the one they received by fax. Turned out it wasn’t so easy to convince them that we were the OO-AWT, and not the OO-ANT, not even when we were the only OO-registered airplane in the whole airport, and the only C172. When we were ready for departure, the flight plan problem was fixed and we set course to the biggest airport we would visit on our trip: Budapest international!

Hungary / Budapest
The flight to Budapest was relatively short. We needed to maneuver between some clouds that were floating between the hills surrounding the NW-area of Budapest, followed by a relaxing landing on the big airport. The “Follow Me” car guided us to a parking spot next to an impressive looking Italian airplane. It was painted in shiny yellow and red, and was part of some sort of rescue organization. And it was huge, especially in comparison with our little Cessna.

The handling agent picked us up, and drove us 20 meters to his office. This one was very well equipped, with free drinks for pilots (I assume they could spend a few euro’s when you pay 160 eur for landing fees…). Getting the bill, and filing the flight plan took a while. They didn’t let us do anything by ourselves, everything had to be asked. The fact that we forgot our Romanian VFR authorization number didn’t help either –oops-. After an hour the paperwork was finished. The pilots (there were six of them) of the Italian airplane were also waiting for their paperwork to clear.

This was our last stop before leaving the Schengen zone, so we needed a customs officer. We were expecting some more paperworking, involving copies of passports etc, but all the guy did was look at something he must have assumed was our ID-card. Yes, border patrols, I feel safer already!

The take-off in Budapest was a bit strange. We needed to switch ground frequencies while starting up and taxiing at least 8 times, only to be switched to another station. This frequency madness stopped once we reached the holding point of the active runway. Once we finally got clearance, our take-off roll started. Of course we were already at 500 ft before the first half of the runway. It was at that point the controller instructed us to make a sharp left turn over the airport and the other runway to make room for an arrival airplane. Makes sense, but a little unusual nonetheless. After that, we started our navigation to Arad.
Soon we realized that flying in Hungary is just boring. Nothing to see. Fields everywhere. Sometimes you see another airport in the middle of nowhere. Or you pass some military airspace. But still, nothing to see. Absolutely nothing.

A few hours of sightseeing later, we crossed the Romanian border.

Romania !

The friendly people of Arad airport asked us if we were ready to copy the weather information. A little confused (we were 5 NM out, and weather was CAVOK), we listened to a man who acted like a manual ATIS. Although we were flying VFR, they asked us what kind of approach we would like. Suppressing a reply like (“I don’t know, what kinds do you have ?”), we decided a visual one would be the best –and frankly only- choice. A few seconds after touchdown, the plane started to vibrate heavily. This was caused by the strange type of (or lack of ?) asphalt they used on the runway. Something I was not familiar with. Luckily my co-pilot knew about this. Hitting the brakes a bit harder, and putting the nose wheel in the air fixed the problem.

The airport in Arad looked old. Not much traffic either. The only evidence that this was not a ghost airfield, was one other C172 that was parked on the apron. We asked for fuel. Immediately the enthusiastic groundcrew started to start some machine which was supposed to produce fuel. It took a few tries before the machine made some funny noises and “it was ready”. On our shy question “are you sure everything is ok ?”, they replied with a curious smile, “yes, no worries, fuel ok!”. As soon as the fuel tanks were full with what appeared to be avgas, the ground crew started checking our oil. “Yes, ok. Need tire check ?”. “No, they’re fine” – and please stop touching our plane.

The weather forecast from that morning became worse. The thunderstorm PROB30 turned into a TEMPO. The weather was indeed very hot, but no CB’s were forming yet. After a phone call to the Magura airfield, we were informed the situation was the same over there. The weather was hot, there would definitely be some thunderstorms, but not yet anyway. No CB’s either. The owner also informed us that the last 15 meters of the runway could not be used because they were executing some repairs. With “We’ll see how far we can go” in our minds, we wanted to leave as soon as possible, to beat the thunderstorms to our destination. The people in the flight planning office of Romania were not so helpful though. It’s true, you normally need to file your flight plan an hour before your flight. But nobody ever cares if you do it 10 minutes before you departure for a VFR flight. Except in Romania. Our superior negotiating skills managed to turn the “you need to wait an hour sir” into “we’ll make it half an hour then”. The time was spent patching a flying club sticker onto the cabinet in the office, taking some pictures of ground crew that were admiring the newest addition to their sticker collection, and waiting a bit.

Ten minutes before our slot time, we started the preflight check. Suddenly, we heard the tower calling us. Not on the radio as you would expect on an airport. But really calling us through the window.

“Hey ! How high do you wanna go ?”
- “Huh ? Excuse me ? “ (Where does this voice come from ?)
“How high do you want to fly ?”
- “Depends on the weather on our route, it’s a VFR flight plan, we’ll climb to 3000 ft initially”
“Ah, ok, I’ll write down 1000, but you can go as high as you want !”
- “Okay then ?”
“Have a nice flight!”

Interesting experience. Makes you wonder why an airplane needs a radio anyway.

Five minutes before our approved flight plan time, we started the engine and taxied to the holding point of the opposite runway we landed on. No vibration of the nose wheel this time. We climbed to 3000 ft and started our trip under the few clouds, between the hills. In the beginning, we could just fly over every hill, but as our trip progressed, we started to navigate the valleys, so we could keep our altitude and stay clear of the scattered clouds. After an hour flight, our radio transmissions were getting a little difficult to understand, due to interference of the terrain. Switching frequencies a few times only helped so much. Fifteen minutes later we finally managed to contact Sibiu Tower, just as we were about to enter their airspace. Upon first contact the controller told us the one thing we didn’t want to hear: “For your information, there are heavy showers overhead the airfield and gusty winds”. No thunderstorms yet though. One quick discussion later, we decided to proceed and were hoping for the weather to improve.

The closer we got to Sibiu airport –which was the controlled airport that was situated next to Magura airport, our actual destination-, the lower the clouds and the higher the terrain got. The controller seemed a bit anxious that we were in her airspace, and approaching from the west. This put us right into the extended centerline of the active runway. Still 10 NM out, and at 1000ft above ground level, that shouldn’t pose much of a problem we thought. One 360 –due to departing traffic- later, she gave us a heading directly south. Pretty soon, it turned out this was a problem at our current altitude. Flying at 3500 ft when you’re heading into 4000 ft mountains isn’t very healthy. “OO-ABC, request to climb due to terrain” was responded to with a “Negative, OO-ABC”. Strange. The mountains were getting really close now. With clouds at 4500 ft, terrain at 3500 ft and we somewhere at 4000 ft, the situation was getting worse every second and the heavy showers started to pour down now, which severly reduced our visibility. The mountains ahead of us were practically invisible now. Time to get in control of the situation and fly to our destination, which was behind the mountain ridge we were flying over. “OO-ABC, at 4000 ft, unable to climb higher due to clouds, heading directly towards Magura due to terrain. Descending to 3000 ft”. A little irritated and frightened, she replied “But then you’ll be on the same level as the IFRtraffic !”. We found it hard to believe there would be IFR traffic at our current altitude south of the airport, especially since in the last half an hour we only heard one other traffic that had left to the north. Not having left a lot of options, our reply consisted of the one word that aviators all around the world just love to say. It gets you out any situation, while in the meantime indicating in a very polite yet decisive way that the discussion is over. “Roger”.

We flew through the heavy showers for 5 minutes, when they suddenly stopped. The weather was calm. Clouds were around 2000 ft above ground level. We did not see or hear any other IFR traffic. Nor would we the rest of our flight. Time to find our destination. A small grass strip in an area covered with fields. It reminded me of my first international navigation during my PPLtraining, but the situation was different now. This time, we had a GPS on board. Due to the lack of navigation aids, and the terrain without any distinct features, this came in handy. The GPS didn’t know our destination airport, so we had to enter it manually. When we didn’t see the airport when we were only 2 NM out, we started to wonder. Did we enter the correct coordinates? Where the coordinates we received actually correct ? The plan was to follow the GPS just a little longer and see where we’d end up, keeping in mind that the international expensive airport of Sibiu was always a viable option to divert to. Suddenly, the silent radio started to speak again. In Dutch.

“Dag Digits” //Translation: “Hello Digits”
- “Hello Magura, we zijn aan jullie aan het zoeken” //Translation: “Hello Magura, we’re looking for you
“Ge vliegt eigenlijk net boven ons” //Translation: “You’re actually flying right above us”
- “Ah, oke, bedankt” //Translation: “Ah, okay, thanks!”
[…quick look around, high bank angles do come in handy sometimes…]
- “Ja, we zien jullie. Break break. Sibiu Tower, OO-ABC has Magura airfield in sight, request to leave your frequency”
*”OO-ABC cleared to leave the frequency, bye”

This helpful voice was one of the owners of the Magura airfield, who helped us with the paperwork and the car rental in Romania. He was a Belgian guy who moved to Romania 20 years ago, and was very happy we paid his airfield a visit.

The runway was 600 meter long and 18 meter wide, so we didn’t really worry about the landing. Until we joined the circuit for landing.

“OO-ABC, middle of righthand downwind 33”
- Magura dispatch: “Roger, we advise you to touch down between the threshold and the first white/red block, because there is a lot of water on the second half of the runway. Also, use the right half of the runway, the other half is in bad shape“
“OO-ABC, euhm, roger”
[few minutes later]
- Magura dispatch: “Just to confirm: use the right half of the runway and touch before the white and red block due to water“
“OO-ABC, we’ll land to the right and touchdown before the first red block”
- Magura dispatch: “Thanks“
[few minutes later]
“OO-ABC, final 33”
- Magura dispatch: “Cleared to land, wind is calm”

Being used to the Belgium quality of airfields, we thought they were exaggerating a bit about the state of the runway. Nevertheless, we managed to pull of the smoothest landing of the trip, in the small designated touchdown square. As soon as our wheels touched down, we saw the first lightning strike north of the airfield. Just in time! We pulled the stick back the whole time during taxi to avoid damage to the nose wheel due to the bumping terrain. When we passed the first red/white block, the whole airplane got showered by a huge puddle of muddy water. I guess they didn’t exaggerate about the state of the airfield. On the left side of the runway, we could admire a flock of sheep. For a moment, we thought we were in Africa. Sheep on the active runway. It’s a bit different then the occasional bird strike of course. One very slow taxi later, we reached the parking place. Just a field of grass actually, in front of the tower, which was a blue painted shed with a big yellow C on it. We loved it immediately.

As soon as we stopped the engine, it dawned upon me: we made it. Despite the bad weather forecast and the bumps along the road, we landed safely in Sibiu. We flew to Romania. Four years of trying and planning and starting all over finally paid off. Romania.

There was no hangar where we could put our airplane, so we were looking for a place to tie it securely down. The airport  crewfixed this for us by knocking some metal rods in the ground, which allowed us to tie the plane down. The owner –probably aware of the stereotypical image the West-Europeans have about Romania- assured us there would be around the clock security. In the mean time, I used some tape to fill up some tiny holes in the border of the window since we already knew from previous trips that this airplane has some tiny leaks when flying through rain. After the plane was secure, the airport crew informed the car company that we arrived.

A few minutes later, our rental car arrived on the airfield. The driver informed us that it was the last car they had available. It was the “company car”. We just had to pay attention to the steering wheel, because sometimes the power steering works, and sometimes it doesn’t. We felt safe already! Oh yes, and the GPS we ordered to find our way to Dracula’s Castle wasn’t available either. And of course there is no map in the car. Fun! After some advice (“there’s only one road to Brasov, and then follow direction of Bran”) the estimated distance was +- 160 km and the locals expected it would be a 3 hour drive. Double fun!

Transylvanian Road Trip
During the weeks before our departure, we heard all kind of horror stories about Romania and the Romanian roads. We were about to find out if those were true. After 10 minutes of rally riding through the small hilly roads around the airport, we entered the “main road” which we needed to follow for 140 kilometers. Apparently, farmers can take up the whole road with their cattle, so maneuvering between cows is a skill you better master before you decide to drive on the Romanian roads. We also passed some other farmers driving an old-fashioned horse (mule?) and cart. Every now and then we had to avoid the occasional giant hole in the road. The car itself made some funny noises every now and then but as long as it was still moving, we were happy.

Since we were running a bit late, it would be a good idea to contact a possible hotel in advance and let them know we would be arriving around midnight. We did bring some addresses, but unfortunately, there were no phone numbers. Oops. Luckily, the people at home were still fully awake (one of the benefits of travelling with someone who just had a baby ), and managed to make some reservation in advance. One less thing to worry about.

After a few hours driving, we started to get hungry and were looking for some decent looking restaurant. We already disapproved four restaurants, so we got a little less picky, when suddenly, in the middle of nowhere this nice looking restaurant appeared. The combination of us not speaking any Romanian at all, and the waitress only knowing a few words English made it a little complex to fully understand the menu. We ended up with some chicken and a messy dish of rice, spiced with the occasional mosquito. Food and drinks for 2 people: 10 Euros in total. Welcome to Romania!

Our belly (at least partially) filled, our trip continued. We were approaching the big city (Brasov) were we had to take a right turn and continue to Bran. We tried recognizing some road on our VFR flying maps, but that didn’t work out very well. The GPS we brought should have contained maps of Romania, but apparently, it didn’t after all. We used our GPS as a compass, which allowed us to navigate using the flying maps. Driving roughly in the good direction –and being very nervous when the road made a curve-, we saw the first signs of “Bran”. A few kilometers later, those signs disappeared. A few lucky guesses and some friendly advice from some Romanians later, we finally saw our destination: Dracula’s Castle in Bran. Our hotel should have been “a 5 minute walk away from the castle”, and after a 10 minute drive we finally reached it.

We checked in to our luxury suite, and checked the weather forecasts. Some chance for thunderstorms. It was going to be a difficult decision we would have to make the next morning.

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