Even Routine Flights Can Have Surprises in Store

I recently offered my brother a ride in a plane. It had been a long time since I took my family flying so I figured this was a great way to spend Sunday afternoon, flying from Le Touquet to a nearby airfield and  watching the skydiving operations there. I love staring at the Pilatus PC-6—my favorite airplane—used to drop skydivers out of FL135.

The only problem was the weather ahead. A huge system had recently swept over the region, with high winds and storms. Now that the cold front had reached us, nasty clouds were blocking the way to our destination. With careful analysis, I think we could have made it to the field, but the flight back home could have been compromised, given the uncertainty of the weather situation, and I didn’t want to be stuck almost in the middle of nowhere, especially after a flight that had absolutely no purpose.

The choice was made to fly along the coast, thus remaining close to the departure airfield in case conditions deteriorated quickly. It’s a routine flight I always did every time I didn’t have a particular destination in mind, but one with lots of beautiful things to see.

However, I decided to wait a little bit at the flying club, to let some cells pass over the airport. I could easily see the dark bases coming from the southwest, and didn’t want to get close to these. Conditions looked far better behind.

Staying on the ground for a little while turned out to be an excellent idea. Not long after I had checked the weather on the club computer, I heard something through the open door. I rushed outside and saw a magnificent Spitfire passing by the tower, at high speed and low altitude. I was told that warbirds would be returning from an airshow that had taken place south of Paris, and that some of them would land in Le Touquet before getting back to their home base in the UK.

Since I had some time to kill, I decided to go and have a closer look at the airplane after it had landed gracefully. My brother is not particularly an avgeek—he’s more into cinema—but since he’s a fan of Nolan movies, the vision of a Spit reminded him of the movie Dunkirk. It’s always a pleasure to see that machines like these are still airworthy today, thanks to dedicated people and, of course, a little amount of money.

Spitfire
A brief weather delay brought an unexpected surprise.

We managed to get to the apron to take some pictures of the plane and its tiny cockpit. This particular model was a two-seat version of the original Spitfire. One thing certain about the Spitfire is you’d better not be claustrophobic if you want to fly this thing. This statement is true for almost every warbird, actually.

It was a short stop for the pilot. We just had the time to take a picture or two of the Spit, and the pilot was already getting back to the plane, ready to cross the Channel. He put on his life vest, fired up the engine and taxied to the holding point. Departing from runway 31, he faced his destination so there was little chance we would see him perform another fly-by after takeoff. The weather was probably another reason he chose to depart straight ahead.

I learned that the airport expected two other warbirds by the end of the afternoon, which were a Curtiss H75 (French designation for the Curtiss P-36 Hawk) and a Bearcat. The weather improved along the coast, so I decided to launch for my local flight, hoping I wouldn’t miss the two planes. It was raining a bit over the field when I called the tower, holding short of runway 31. I got the information from another plane that departed before that a towering cumulus was over the town (southwest of the runway), but that severe clear was awaiting me if I decided to head south.

That was my intention. A right turn after takeoff kept me clear of the bad conditions and I headed to a more welcoming sky. The flight was beautiful, and it was the first time my brother had ever ridden in the right seat. The only flight he did before was in the back of the French Robin DR400. This time he gave a try at flying the craft. He did well and managed to maintain level flight and even performed slight turns. For me, it was a first taste of what it’s like to be a flight instructor, something I aspire to be someday.

Weather out front
Fly to where the skies are brighter.

The weather kept improving during the flight, so I decided we would overfly our parents’ house, located northeast of the airport, something I almost always do before heading back to land. The house is actually located on an extended right base for runway 31, so I was ready to join the circuit after saying hello to my parents.

Upon reaching base leg, the controller asked me if I were able to perform a short circuit in order to land prior to an arrival. I accepted the offer because I felt proficient with the plane I was flying and the runway is 2 kilometers long, enough (by far) for the DR400.

I reached the base leg at full power and, once I was sure the runway would be made, reduced the throttle to idle. White arc, one notch of flaps extended…

I let the plane fly on its own, rolled on final and aimed at a point close to a taxiway, to be able to vacate rapidly once the speed was under control.

Touch down…

I kept back pressure on the yoke for as long as possible to allow for some aerodynamic braking action, and let the nosewheel gently touch the ground. I vacated the runway and asked the controller about the arriving aircraft. I had heard over the radio that it was a formation of two. I was told to just look over my left shoulder.

Bearcat
Two warbirds in one day!

I turned my head, and barely had time to process what was happening. Two warbirds were coming in really fast, over the runway at about 500 ft. I opened the canopy and enjoyed the sound of the planes, the aerodynamic whistle that you get to hear at high speed, as well as the roaring sound of radial engines developing thousands of horsepower. Once they flew over us, one of them broke off the formation and made a sharp turn to the right. The other one followed after a few seconds, and both landed beautifully. By the time I had brought the airplane back to the hangar, they were parked next to the terminal, to refuel and find a way through the weather to go back to the UK. People were already gathered around the planes to take pictures.

Again, my brother and I joined the group of people, which consisted of photographers, pilots and even some of the airport firefighters. I love these moments when people who share this passion for aviation gather around such flying jewels. The airmen behind the controls are accustomed to public relations during airshows, and you can feel how stoked they are to talk about their experience flying a warbird. They answered a lot of questions, then refueled the planes and were airborne about 30 minutes later.

This flight was a great learning experience (every flight is, by the way), regarding weather decision-making. The choice of staying close to the departure airport was a good one. Also, delaying a flight by a few hours can mean sitting at the airport and getting to see a few warbirds passing by. At the end of the day, sharing moments like these with your family is priceless.

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