Visiting Dracula by Plane
It all started a four years ago. I was taking flying lessons and practicing my first navigation flights. The fascination with all those little trees, tiny cars and funny railroads made me dream away. In Belgium, there is no space anymore. Every square meter of space has been used. Would it be like this everywhere ? The mind starts to wander… Fly outside Belgium. Sounded crazy. What would be a nice destination. France ? Too close, and they speak French there. UK ? Everybody goes there. Something a little further. A place related to flying. Too bad Superman lived on Krypton. Flying. Like a bird, or a bat… Wait, a vampire. Yes, that’s it. I want to fly to Dracula’s castle, Transylvania, Romania. A plan was born.
It would take four years to find a soulmate who was willing to fly to this far away, mythical and –let’s face it- not so appealing destination. It was no touristic highlight, and many pilots prefer to spend their time in more sunny places, closer to the Western Europe they know. But not us. No, the adventure and the unknown, those are the sexy elements. Those are the places worth visiting, worth flying to. Easier said than done, yes…
The first bridge to cross, was determining a route to fly. No problems there in Belgium, Germany and Czech. But once you reach Slovakia, Hungary or Romania, airports are spread thin. Fuel ? Not always available. Schengen-zone you say ? Oh, no, Romania is not a part of that yet. So we need to enter via an international airport, which limits our options to 3 airports, for an area three times the size of Belgium. As soon as we found a rough route to fly, we checked the internet for peculiarities. And we found them.
Apparently, flying VFR in Romania is not so easy for a foreign airplane. JAR rules etc sound good on paper, but in practice, you still need some administration before you can legally fly there. No problem of course, and truth be told as it would turn out, the people at the Romanian aviation authorities are very helpful and work very quick, even in the evening and during weekends.
So, after a few weeks of charts ordering, planning, changing plans, finding out that airports that were open according to the internet are actually closed according to the map and the AIP, and turn out to be open after all, we finally got a route fixed. We were ready to go, and nothing could stop us. Except for the weather of course.
From two weeks before the planned departure date, we were anxiously checking the first very unreliable long term forecasts. The closer we got to the day we would leave, the worse the forecasts became. After considering all kinds of alternatives, we decided it would be best to leave a day earlier, in the evening. There our first problem surfaced: our airplane reservation only started a day later, and the airplane was booked. However, thanks to the flexibility and the kind-hearted nature of the pilot who reserved the airplane, we were able to leave a day early.
During these preparations, we made the first mistake on our trip. Apparently we needed to file EHAA as Flight Information Region we were about to cross instead of EHMC, the area we were actually going to fly through. Rules and regulations, you’ve got to love them. After a minor bruise to our ego’s and self-confidence, the helpful people at Brussels Briefing corrected this mistake, and all paperwork was accepted. We were ready.
A few moments before the rain started to pour down, we could leave with a full tank of fuel, lots of luggage, and an airplane that came straight from maintenance.
“OO-ABC, leaving the circuit to the north, request to leave your frequency”
- EBGB Radio: “Roger, will you return this evening ?”
“OO-ABC, negative, we will return next Wednesday”
- EBGB Radio: “Roger, have a nice flight, byebye!”
So the adventure began.
After an uneventful flight through the complex airspace structures in Belgium, we arrived in relatively fair weather safely in Kassel-Calden (EDVK). Because the weather forecast for the night was not so good, the friendly people in the tower offered us a free spot in the hangar. Well, actually, the whole hangar was empty, but we don’t want to sound ungrateful, do we ?
Since we were going to fly to an area with little Avgas available, we wanted to keep track of our fuel consumption to check if the endurance on paper would be possible to attain safely. So after every landing, our first job was to check the fuel, using our over-priced plastic tube with markings calibrated for a C172. We wrote down the numbers, and decided to calculate everything once we were in the hotel. It must have been during this measurement that I lost my sunglasses that I owned since my first flights. These loyal shades will be missed and I hope they will make some lucky finder very happy in the rest of their life. At that moment, we were enjoying the lovely scenery and the drive in the luxury van towards the tower, and I was not aware of the big loss I suffered.
Once we arrived at the tower (after a whooping 20 seconds drive) , we heard the question “What’s your maximum take off mass ?” for the first time that trip. Of course we could have expected this, but due to the rush in which we left, and the massive amount of luggage we carried along, we did not write this number down on an easily accessible place. The guy decided it would be okay to write it down the next day. After advice from the local taxi driver, we decided to switch from hotel. Apparently, the previous pilots were not very happy about our first-choice-hotel. The taxi driver also informed us t hat the hotel he advised was located in an area that did have GSM coverage, which we considered as a good thing.
The welcome in the new hotel was in stereotypical style. We had to wait until she had time to check the reservations. It would take a few minutes, and she explained it in a voice that made clear we should not ask again, and were not supposed to speak unless spoken to. A few minutes later, she confirmed there was a room available. The taxi driver was happy to leave, but could not drive us back the next day. After a German dinner (Schnitzels, because a lot of the menu was not available anymore), we returned to our room to prepare the flight for the next day. The first task was to calculate our fuel consumption. It turned out we burned 9 gallons per hour, which is 34 liters per hour. A number that was a lot higher than expected. According to the manual, this was a fuel consumption one could expect when flying full-throttle all the way, while we were actually flying at the normal long range cruise settings. If the consumption would stay this way, our endurance would be reduced from the theoretical 7 hours, to 5 hours, which would give us problems in Romania, where there is not a lot of fuel available. We decided not to panic after just one measurement, and decided to wait for the next measurement, and check if the average would improve. It would turn out it didn’t…
Thanks to the free internet in the hotel (for which we needed to ask a password –twice, because the first one didn’t work- to the same Germany-friendly lady. We were expecting her to smash us with her computer anytime soon), we could check the weather forecasts. It didn’t look very good, but it should be flyable. This was a sentiment we would be feeling for the rest of the week, but at that time, we were still optimistic, and hey, the weather should improve during the week. It should have indeed.