This year’s big trip was to be to the Balkans and the two pilots who signed up for this longer than usual trip were James Barker and Jason Wright.
Day 1. This weather for the duration was looking good and the initial plan was to get down towards Salzburg on the first day so that we could cross the Alps first thing in the morning before the afternoon clouds built up. Unfortunately due to an oleo issue we had to return to Stapleford to swap planes which meant we only managed to get as far as Freiburg, about 2 hours short of Salzburg.
Day 2. We departed seconds after the official opening time of Freiburg for Mulenhof. This was a cheap fuel stop at a local flying club before the short hop to Salzburg to comply with customs requirements as Croatia is not within the Schengen zone. From Salzburg we routed south towards Pula in Croatia with the climb to 10000ft taking an hour. We picked our way through the peaks getting more down drafts than up drafts whilst thankfully the bubbling clouds failed to appear. The further south we flew the mountains stopped looking quite as big. As we passed the boundary in to Slovenian airspace we gave a little sigh of relief as the barrier to the Balkans had been crossed. Soon enough the Istrian peninsular came into view and we were directed into Pula airport via the easy to follow reporting points. After customs, some more fuel and a quick group decision we decided to push on to Dubrovnik. Flying down the Dalmatian coast late in the day over its hundreds of islands and blue water was one of the best routes I have ever experienced. One thing we did note that was that in case of a forced landing that the only flat surface was the sea.
Day 3. The weather was behaving so we filed the flight plan and booked our slot in to Sarajevo. Soon we were on our way with a climb up to 5000ft out to sea so that we could clear the mountains that tower over the coastline. There was nobody else on frequency with Banja Luka Info that morning and I suspected that we were the only GA aircraft in the entire country. An unfamiliar thing we noticed was the absence of towns or roads below. This was quite remarkable as we are so used to seeing signs of civilisation wherever we fly. We changed to Sarajevo who cleared us straight in from about 10 miles out for runway 30. The airport is surrounded by mountains on all sides thus making the approach a bit more interesting. We had our passports stamped as we were now outside of the EU and my contact, Vedran, who runs the only flying school in Bosnia, SBA Aviation, met us for coffee. He had been a great help in advising us on flying in Bosnia.
Before I became a Flying Instructor I was in the British Army and I had served here during darker times in the 90s during the civil war as part of NATO. I had visited Sarajevo numerous times in the back of a Chinook and by road. It was a good to see that normal day to day life had returned.
The next leg took us to Zadar back on the coast. The route took me over familiar ground as I recognised where the front lines had been between the forces of the Croatian HVO and Serb backed Republika Srpska troops. I saw roads that I had driven up many times and villages that had been burnt out and devoid of life. I could see that they were now habited with farmers working the fields. It was quite a surreal experience for me to be flying over this part of Europe that only felt like yesterday was in the news every evening.
The plan was to get to Fano on the East Italian coast by the end of the day as there was some bad weather forecast for Croatia. We had to clear back in to the Schengen zone via Portoroz back up the coast in Slovenia before our 70NM hop across the Adriatic for an evening pizza.
Day 4. The day started with 4 hour leg across the Italian mainland and the Cote d’azur for a fuel stop at Carpentras. James and Jason both wanted to get Chambery in their logbooks so we popped in and did a few circuits. Chateauroux with its 3500m runway was the final stop for the day with G-SACI parked next to a 747.
Day 5. After stops at Cherbourg, Alderney and Deauville just to get a few more airports in the logbooks we finally made it back to Stapleford.
In summary James and Jason flew 32.5 hours between them, 2834NM, visited 16 Airports, 7 Countries and gained heaps of experience in those 5 days.