A Quest for Flight Across Two Continents

taking wing
Getting back into the left seat of a single-engine airplane after nearly a year proves more difficult than anticipated.Sam Weigel

Summer, glorious summer! It snuck right up on me. Sailing the relentlessly sunny Caribbean for seven months aboard Windbird, the pageantry of northern seasons played out distantly across the flickering screens of muted beach-bar TVs: Halloween horror flicks, cable-news Snowmageddons, Yankees-Red Sox at Fenway Park. So when Dawn and I hurricane-prepped and hauled Windbird at a Puerto Rican boatyard in June and flew home to Minnesota, our abrupt return to the land of seasons caught me a little flat-footed. Having survived the long winter we elected to skip, friends and family were excitedly shaking off their winter doldrums and basking in the golden euphoria of a freshly blossomed summer.

The enthusiasm was infectious, and I quickly established my summer agenda. To wit, in ascending order of importance: return to full-time line flying and rebuild the cruising kitty (for which purpose I bid a schedule packed with good European layovers); get the motorcycles running and hit the road on a two-week Rocky Mountain tour; and most important, get myself back into the left seat of a single-engine airplane. It had been nearly a year. It proved more difficult than I anticipated.

The problem was my complete (and typical) lack of planning. So on the one gorgeous day I had free between arrival at our summer home and heading out on my first work trip, Dawn and I drove out to the local rural airport on a lark to see if there was anything to rent. We found three deserted hangars and two yellow crop-dusters tied down on the wind-swept ramp. Quite surprisingly, the airport manager was in attendance, but he responded to my query about rental aircraft about as incredulously as if I had asked if he had a spare P-51 I could take for a spin around the pattern. “Shoot, you’d prolly have to go to Fargo for something like that,” he said, stroking his chin. Fargo was 90 miles away.

No worries, I didn’t really want to fly the dusty plains anyway. What I wanted to do was splash around in some cool lakes and finish up that floatplane training I’d dabbled with a couple of years back. As luck would have it, my first trip back to work had two long Orlando, Florida, layovers in between hops to and from Amsterdam. It was a perfect setup for Jack Brown’s two-day seaplane course! I emailed them a few days ahead of time with my brilliant plan, only to have my hopes dashed when they promptly replied that they’d be delighted to accommodate me during their next opening — a full month distant. I felt a little sheepish explaining that my summer was so full I basically had to do this on layovers.

A couple of days later, I found myself in Atlanta with one day off between work trips, not quite enough time to commute home but a perfect interlude, I hoped, for some fun flying. The day prior, I called every listed FBO and flight school within a 30-mile radius of Atlanta. About a third of the places I called were out of business. The survivors, however, were apparently doing very good business. “You should have called a few days ago; we’re really busy on the weekends,” said one receptionist, not unkindly. Oh, yeah — it’s Saturday, isn’t it? “Next time, try scheduling a week or two out,” she suggested. Several other FBOs had converted to flight academies. “Wait a minute, so you’re already an airline pilot … why are you calling us?” asked one obviously confused correspondent. “Because you have Cessna 172s, and that is what I’d like to fly, with an instructor,” I responded patiently. “But we train people to be airline pilots,” he replied, still mystified. “Can’t you retrain airline pilots to fly Cessnas?” I queried. I think I broke his brain.

I’d just about given up, until my next trip when I landed at Frankfurt, Germany, on a truly brilliant morning. Gazing down upon the rolling forest hills, brooding river gorges, vineyard-draped valleys, ruined castles and rambling villages of the Rhineland during descent, I knew what I had to do. A little Googling at the layover hotel revealed Flugplatz Mainz-Finthen only 12 kilometers west; a quick walk to the Hauptbahnhof and a 20-minute bus ride got me close. After a short stroll past apartment blocks, a kindergarten and an abandoned factory, I emerged from the woods to find a neat little single-runway field bordered by several rows of T-hangars, a few Quonset huts and a squat control tower with a restaurant and biergarten terrace at its base. It looked like any of a thousand small airports in America, except that besides the usual mix of Pipers, Cessnas and Beechcrafts, there were some very unfamiliar-looking flying machines scattered about.

There were three flight schools on the airport: one for microlights, one for gyrocopters and one for full-size airplanes. I tried that one, Schule für Privatpiloten, first. An affable long-haired guy about my age answered the door and introduced himself as Freddy, the mechanic. The school’s Piper Tomahawk was down for maintenance, but they also had a four-place Fuji FA-200, a type I’d never seen in person before. It looks a lot like a Meyers 200; I’m not sure if there’s any connection. Unfortunately, the Fuji was booked until that night, and the owner/instructor was in another part of Germany. Perhaps on another FRA layover.

I considered checking with the gyrocopter school because I’ve never flown one and they look outrageously fun, but decided to stick with my original goal for now. When I entered the microlight school, Flugschule Skydreamer, I found an older gentleman manning the desk. He didn’t speak English, and I fumbled clumsily with my secondhand “Deutschlish” to explain that I was an airline pilot on layover for 24 hours and would like to fly a small plane with an instructor, if possible. “Ja, ja, kein problem,” he said, explaining that his son is an instructor, speaks English and would be by shortly. In the meantime I sauntered out back to look over their aircraft: a white-and-yellow high-wing design with fabric covering and gull-wing doors, a sleek-looking low-wing Breezer and a not-quite-completed Murphy Rebel look-alike, which I later found out is an ULBI Wild Thing.

A few minutes later, Tim Willrich pulled into the parking lot and came out to introduce himself. He had to work on the ULBI for a few hours, he said, but would then be able to go flying with me in the high-winger, which he identified as an Ikarus C42. I passed the time walking back into the village of Finthen for lunch, but returned a bit early to give the Ikarus a good going-over. What the Germans call microlights or ultralights are what we in the United States know as light-sport aircraft, with very similar operating rules, type certification, and pilot training and license requirements.

The C42 is an interesting design. The fuselage is covered by a hard-composite shell, while the wings and tail have ultralight-style sewn fabric envelopes. Power is provided by a 100 hp Rotax 912S turning a three-blade prop. The bulging gullwing doors provide a surprising amount of elbowroom for the occupants. Visibility is excellent through huge windows and over the low instrument panel and sloped cowling. The controls are a bit nontraditional: There is a center-mounted stick with a single motorcycle-style hand brake attached, and twin linked throttles that pivot to slant between the pilots’ legs. It looks very odd but feels fairly natural.

Tim and I strapped in and started up. The liquid-cooled, fast-turning Rotax sounded quite different from the air-cooled, slow-turning Continental O-200 with which I inevitably compared it. Takeoff with 10 degrees of flaps was brisk even at max gross weight (European microlights are legally limited to 1,042 pounds MGTO\W but typically designed for 1,320 pounds). Once airborne, I was very pleasantly surprised by the solid control feel and stability of the airplane. We were getting a fair bit of turbulence from wind spilling over the Taunus mountains across the Rhine River to the north, but the C42 was unperturbed, with small attitude excursions easily corrected with fingertip stick pressure. It felt like a bigger airplane than it is.

I climbed to 3,000 feet and winged over to follow the Rhine as it meandered to the northwest. Past Bingen, the hills rise high above the river on both sides; tidy vineyards dotted with ancient ruins line the valley walls. The river towns of Bacharach, Oberwesel and Sankt Goar slid beneath, along with dozens of castles erected by the sundry princes of the Holy Roman Empire to enforce various river tolls. We passed the brooding, decimated ruins of the mighty Rheinfels fortress and the restored hilltop castle-cum-youth-hostel Burg Stahleck. These are places I know well from previous travels to Germany, but seeing the area from above gave a fresh perspective on the Rhineland’s geography, history and biology.

The slanting late-afternoon sun threw the rolling landscape into sharp relief, golden ridges alternating with velveteen hollows. We turned around short of Koblenz and cut across the eastern Eifel mountains back to Bingen, where we left the Rhine to follow the Nahe River to Bad Kreuznach. This is another beautiful area — one I’m not familiar with, but it was Tim’s childhood backyard, so he showed me various historical sites and natural attractions: fuel for future layover adventures. Finally, I turned back northeast and made a 45-degree dogleg to enter the downwind for Runway 26 at Mainz-Finthen. The wind was around 10 knots from the north, which in airline pilotese translates to “almost nothing” but in such a light machine requires a significant slip. I landed well to the left of centerline and attempted to flare at 30 feet to boot. Tim wisely kept his left hand on the stick for my first single-engine landing in a while, which is a little awkward in a single-stick aircraft. This stick had what’s best described as a “noodly appendage” to give the instructor a second grip, but still, in a C42 it’s best for student and instructor to be on good terms!

It felt so good to be back in a small airplane, even one I hadn’t flown before and in an unfamiliar environment. I should note that the experience was surprisingly cheap, considering that Europe is a notoriously expensive place to fly: only 127 euros ($147) per hour dual. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Cessna 150 with instructor for $147 an hour in the States these days. I’m sure I’ll be back to Flugplatz Mainz-Finthen; I’d like to fly the Fuji and a gyrocopter …and Flugschule Skydreamer also has a microlight helicopter. Looks like I’d better bid more Frankfurt layovers this summer!