Aviation

My instructor, Gerard Landri always said that it wasn’t a matter of “if” your engine would quit one day, but “when.” So, you had to be prepared and have a landing field in mind at all times when flying. Ultralights, because of weight restrictions often use two-cylinder, two-stroke engines for propulsion. Rotax is the main manufacturer of these light, high-performance motors. They are quite reliable when well taken care of, but leave them without TLC (tender loving cash), and they will pay you back at the most unexpected moment, according to murphy’s law. I love ultralights though, they are so much fun to fly. I’ll always remember my first solo flight from a beach in the South of France..

My Europa2 ultralight (21yo)

My Europa2 ultralight (21yo)


I used to ride my motorcycle around my home town of Comines, close to the Belgian border. It seemed like I would often end-up close to the local airport of Bondues, a small grass field for general aviation. One afternoon, I stopped by and looked around the hangars. There was the slickest aircraft I ever saw. Slim fuselage, with a long canopy, curves I had only seen on a woman. It’s wings were thin, long and flexible. The cockpit looked as comfortable as the best lounging chair. It had no motor, no propeller. I approached it, walked around, worried about being kicked out for trespassing when I heard a voice behind me: “Interested?” There was a young guy, a few years older than me (I was 19), smiling. “Sure,” I replied, and he administered the coup de grâce that would be the start of a lifelong passion: “Want to sit in it?” That was it for me! He then explained the fine points of flying gliders, offered me to take a short introductory flight and then a ten-hour block of lessons. I just said: “I’ll take the ten-hour plan.” “But, how do you know you’ll like it?” He asked; to which I replied “I will.”

Months later, I was waiting for a train home at the Lille station one September evening. The news stand had all kind of magazines (lots of porn), but I favored the aviation section. There was an ultralight magazine.. I don’t remember if it was “Vol Moteur,” or “Ailes Magazine,” the two French ultralight publications of the time, but I bought one. Now, you have to understand French mentality a little, the bad side of it, to know that general aviation pilots do not like ultralights.. They pay fortunes to fly “real” airplanes, when someone flies by in a tube-and-fabric contraption that costs as much per hours as it takes for them to taxi from the hangar to the runway, imagine that! So, I had been warned about ultralights being widow-makers, unreliable and dangerous. Well, going through the pages, articles and photos, they seemed much more serious than I was made to believe. The fact that they could land so slowly was in itself a great safety feature. Unreliable? Somewhat true, when it came to engines. But then, you have no business flying over forests or cities anyway, and the rest is pretty much pastures and agricultural fields. You’d have to be a very bad pilot to kill yourself there..

Flipping through the magazine, a small photo caught my attention, that of a small plane towing what seemed to be a gigantic advertising banner, or rather a flag, with an ad for a supermarket. That got me thinking.. I called the company and ask the man on the phone (Gerard), a flurry of questions about his business. Let’s just say that for someone crazy enough to get into it, there was money to be made. That December, I was learning to fly on the French Riviera, near Beziers. I came back without my license, not enough time, but started to look for customers. I had no plane either, mind you. However, I did find one attraction park owner willing to go for it, and received a 20% deposit on a 200-hour contract for July and August on the North Sea shores, from Berk-Sur-Mer to Abevilles to the South, and to Bray-Dunes (Belgium) to the North via Le Touquet, Dunkerque, Boulogne and Calais.

My next trip was to the bank, where I explained to a couple gentlemen that I needed a fat loan to buy a plane made of tubes and tarp-like covering to tow giant banners along the coast.. Well, either I was very convincing or the economy was really good back then, because they said yes! I was lucky they didn’t ask me if I indeed had a pilot’s license! I used part of the money to finish my training, and bought a two-seater ultralight from Monsieur Mathot’s Weedhoper factory in Valenciennes. I was towing banners and giving rides to tourists for the Park of Bagatelle at the end of June.

That fateful day, I felt like flying but my Europa2 was down for repairs. I called the factory to see if they had anything I could borrow. I was in good terms with them, having bought two aircrafts from them and a couple spare engines. I was also selling their products.. A customer had left a deposit for a plane, but never paid the balance. The ultralight was sort of in limbo, and they were willing to let me borrow it. Being a two-seater, I wondered who might want to fly, and thought of one of my best friends, Arnaud, who was stuck at home with metal rods sticking out of his leg after a broken femur, open fracture he got in a motorcycle accident. He enthusiastically accepted the invitation.

After a customary thorough preflight, we taxied onto the runway at Valenciennes and I applied full power. The Rotax 532 went up to the 6500rpm limit, but it didn’t feel like we were getting the whole 64hp it was supposed to deliver.. More like 50, which for two was a bit weak. We slowly climbed to one thousand feet where I decided to stay, not to over-strain the engine. It wasn’t but a few minutes before the motor started banging loudly on one cylinder! I hit the emergency stop button. No need to fry the second cylinder. We weren’t going to stay aloft on one anyway. Arnaud turned to me with a concerned look:
– “What’s going on?”
– “Engine failure..”
Nothing had changed though it was now quiet, but for the noise of the wind.
– “Are we going to be all right?”
– “Yeah, we just have to land right now..”
I knew we weren’t going to hurt ourselves bad, but with that hardware sticking out of his bone, any shock to his leg would have been a catastrophe. I spotted some power lines to the right, started turning left where I had seen a long brown field aligned with the wind. We were still at a thousand feet but i didn’t want to do a full turn to lose altitude. I put the plane into a side slip, with the nose way down. That increases drag quite a bit, so we were coming down quite fast. The Europa2 having a high-wing, I could no longer see my field. I checked the prop, which was stopped horizontally, otherwise I would have given it a little starter hit to move it so that it would less likely break upon hitting the ground, if we did. I told Arnaud: “lift your legs up!” and pulled on the stick to flare. “Shit!,” “what?” “Potatoes!”
Anyone with a bit of agricultural knowledge knows by now this isn’t good news.. The brown field was a potato field, with rows of elevated dirt.. Fortunately we were landing in line with them, otherwise, it would have been painful! The back wheels touched down a little fast, but without an engine, I didn’t have much choice. A cloud of dust exploded around us in a sickening crashing noise. We stopped maybe forty feet later, tail in the air, and the whole thing fell back down, right-side-up. We looked at each other in relief, not a scratch! The front of the ultralight though was a bit crushed, save the prop that made it unscathed. Not bad.
We jumped out, and looked around. It was amazing how little ground we covered after touching down. Knowing how much a hassle it would be to deal with the authorities, I said “let’s get out of here!” Then came the farmer.. He was all smile! “Hey guys, how are you? I heard you lose your engine, glad you guys made it ok, is that an ultralight? You know, you guys can come and land here anytime.” Waoh, and I was expecting him to up upset about his potatoes being harvested before their time.. We started dismantling the wings, just a few pins to remove, not tools needed. There was a house about half a kilometer down, so I headed for it, hoping to find a phone. A woman greeted me suspiciously, I can’t blame her, but gave me her cordless phone. The factory didn’t like the news, to say the least. They sent me a driver with a trailer in a hurry, knowing as well as myself that filing tons of forms in triplicate wouldn’t be much fun. We made it out before any cops showed-up. I paid for half the damage, which wasn’t much. It turned out that a spark-plug had burned a hole in a piston.

Losing an engine in an ultralight, or small plane like a Cessna for example isn’t that big a deal, if you pay attention at what’s under you when you fly. I knew a pilot, Mr Mesureur, who was operating a banner towing plane, a French Rally, from the same field. I used to see him fly indiscriminately over towns at 500ft. Good for business maybe, but being from the ultralight school of piloting, seeing him always raised a few hair on my neck, as I was going the long way, around towns and villages, never over. Well, one day, I arrived at the airfield to find a smoldering pile of junk in the middle of the runway being hosed down by firefighters. Out of whitch, sticking up, was the tail of his plane. I ran down the strip to be stopped by a fireman. Smoke was still pouring out of the wreckage. “Is he all right?” I asked, panting. “Yes.” He said, to my relief. The pilot explained to me later that his plane caught on fire in the air and that he barely made it, jumped out seconds before the whole thing burst into flames. I asked him if the incident was going to change the way he flew. “You bet.” He said…

My friend Jessica tells me I should write my stories down, so here comes the first one. Back in the days, in France, I was towing advertising banners along the French coast with an ultralight aircraft (I was 21). My airfield, and base of operation was Berck sur Mer, on the North Sea. No, it isn’t Normandie.. Closer to England, for that matter. On clear days, not that common in the North of France, flying along the Calais coast, I could see the cliffs of England. Many times I was tempted to fly across. I was also imagining warbirds from WWII, Spitfires and Messerschmidt BF-109s flying around as they did, and the theme of the Baa Baa Black Sheep TV series would come to my mind. Towing big 25′ by 40′ flags with an aircraft that weights about 320 to 550Lbs is somewhat of an art, as much as a job. My ultralights, Europa1 and Europa2 (as in 1 or 2 seats) were made of aluminum tubes and fabric, powered by a 64hp two strokes Rotax engine. No, they’re not lawnmower engines.. Although they work the same way. They were good engines, but unfortunately water cooled.. Anyone who ever had a leak in their radiator knows what that means.. But hey, so was the P51 Mustang, the famous WWII fighter plane, so, if it’s good enough for the Air Force.. well..
As it goes, that day, I was flying the Europa2 because it had two fuel tanks instead of one. I was going to Calais, so I needed the range. To take-off with a banner, at least with an ultralight, you attach it to the plane and place it in front of you, on a 150′ light kevlar/nylon rope. The trick is to get airborne in 100ft or so, pick up speed one foot from the ground on the remaining 50′ and pull on the stick to climb at a 45 degree angle, until you feel the pull of the banner. Then, you better level-off, because if you don’t, you stall, and end-up like a pancake on the grass. You keep full power until you reach 500′, which was the legal minimum. It isn’t very high at all, and when your engine quits, it almost never is enough.
The banner is printed on one side, so you must fly one half of the trip over the water, and the other half over land. That is, if you are coming back to your base. The first half that day was over water. I had thought many times about how I would ditch if, sorry, when my engine died (my instructor always said it’s not if, but when it happens. He was right, more than once). I had heard so many conflicting ditching techniques, I really had no idea what to do. Landing on the beach was a no-no, as decapitating sun bathers with a six foot prop was highly frowned upon.
It was a great flight, on a nice day, with no rain (only 145 per year average in the area). My arm was getting sore, waving back at people on the beach when I finally saw Calais. The airfield controllers had allocated me a grass strip for my operations. After the usual radio chit-chat, I overflew the runway to release the banner, pulling on the quick-release rope and hook, which started it’s life on a sailboat, for that matter.. There is no way to land with the banner attached, because of course, it would drag on the ground and slow you down.. Pancake! Before you could land. So, I released, did a half-ass Himmelman and promptly landed. Calais was nice, because they had a fire department. Since almost nobody ever crashes, firemen are pretty bored. So, they were glad to rush me back and forth across the field with banner and gas cans on the fire truck! I was also storing my stuff in their hangar. If any of you guys are reading this, thanks again a million times!
Time being money, sometimes; I would take-off again for the over-land return trip. Before each flight, I would perform a pre-flight inspection, which basically is looking at everything on the plane to make sure it is airworthy. You do it in the same order, always, as to never forget anything. All ok, ready to go. People not used to see me take-off always thought I was going to stall, pancake! And die. But at the last moment, to their relief (I hope) I would push the stick forward, and for a few seconds, float between a safe speed and catastrophe, hoping the engine wouldn’t quit just then. If it ever had, I probably would not be writing this. The return trip was usually more bumpy, because of the ground heating up the air, but there was many possible landing spots if need be. My instructor, Gerard Landri, bless him, told me to always have a landing spot in sight. So, I didn’t quite fly in a straight line, but from one possible landing spot to another, in the same general direction.
I was near Boulogne when I noticed my engine temperature steadily climbing. It was a hot day, so not that unusual, and I was climbing a bit at that moment to avoid high power lines. However, it kept going up. My engine was starting to feel weird.. You know, when you spend so many hours per day listening to and feeling an engine, like a woman (outch, shouldn’t have said that!), you know when something isn’t quite right.. I didn’t know it at the time, but my coolant tank was leaking. I could hear the controller at Le Touquet Airport in my earphones, and that’s when my Rotax started sputtering. I immediately called them: “Le Touquet, this is ultralight 59CK, East of Boulogne having engine trouble, not sure if I’ll make it to your field.” There was a pause, then: “59CK Roger, all aircraft in the pattern, please hold. Fire vehicles on the field, we have an emergency.” I thought “Holly shit, all that for me!?” But I was already looking at my next possible landing spot, a nice green strip of grass 500ft below. There was a banging noise, and then only the noise of the wind.. “Le touquet, 59CK, engine failure, will call you on the ground.” I was looking at the wind, trying to see which way I should land. You always land in the wind, so you’re not too fast.. I was losing altitude by the second, released the banner, had a quick look at where it fell, then concentrated on my grass field. The ground was approaching really fast, and I was banked to the left. My left wing was about to hit the ground, so I had no choice but to lever-off and go straight. Bye bye grass! I flared over a wheat field, a bit too fast for comfort. My back wheels caught on the wheat. The was a big crashing noise, dirt and wheat flew all over, the plane’s tail was up in the air. My gas tanks did not burst! I took the ignition key off, jumped out (easy when you don’t have doors), and kicked the plane for letting me down. Not a scratch! I landed at about 25mph, strapped in my seat, wearing a helmet, no great surprise, but still, it could have been worse.
There was no-one around, no houses, only a farm within walking distance. I picked-up my helmet, took my radio and tried to call Le Touquet. I could not reach them, being on the ground, but a nearby plane relayed my message, essentially telling them I was ok, and thanks for helping. I started walking towards the farm.
Now, picture me, wearing a gray cotton flight suit, with grease stains, carrying a red helmet and a portable radio with cables dangling.. I took a deep breath and knocked on the door. The farmer opened, wearing a tuxedo! I thought it was a bit odd, but I said: “Bonjour Monsieur, sorry to bother you, but I crash landed in your field I think, but don’t worry, everything is fine, and I am insured.” He looked at me like a lemur at an electric can opener.. For a couple seconds at least, then raised his arms in the air, I took a step back, and he started blattering about what in hell did I have to crash here for, on his daughter’s wedding day! I didn’t linger around.. made it to the nearest road and hitch-hiked my way back to Berck. I was supposed to call the cops, but I was hungry, and what the hell, the plane isn’t going anywhere. Well, I should have called, because they found me, and I had to spend some time explaining that, no, I didn’t do it on purpose like last time (that’s for another story..). They took me to the crash site, and their tone became more friendly when they saw that I indeed crashed, not just landed to refuel somewhere, pretending engine troubles (like last time..).
My father showed-up that night with the plane’s trailer. I had already taken the wings off. A bunch of people from the village were trampling the field, wanting to see the plane. That worried me because the police counted only fifteen square meters of damage to the wheat.. Then, we had to drag the wreck to the side of the field, damaging it even more. Fortunately, the farmer must have been at the wedding reception by then, so no risk there..
I worked my ass off to fix the ultralight, and had it flying again a few days later with a new prop and fairing. I never flew over that farm again though, always imagining the farmer loading his shotgun at the first engine noise over his fields! To my regret, I never saw the farmer’s daughter.