July 21-22: Mont-de-Marsan (LFBM)

11 August 2014

This is what greeted us at the military base of Mont-de-Marsan:

But I'm getting ahead of myself, let's back-track a bit to that morning. We were all super stoked to fly to a military base. This was a first for me. Naturally, I had never flown into a military base in the US before either. The morning of the 21st, we ate breakfast and met in the big hangar for our morning weather briefing. They had given us our route the night before, and so our flight planning was already half complete. The trick in transporting 60 light aircraft as quickly and safely as possible from one airport to another was to assign everyone an order based on TAS (aircraft true airspeed) and have each plane take-off in 3 min intervals. They also assigned us transponder codes and we had our "HOP! Tour" frequency of 123.55 Mhz.

Weather (Météo) Briefing
The radio communications procedure was one thing I struggled with at first because I did them in French. Now, you pilots out there must be thinking, "Doesn't she know she can talk English on the radios in France?" and you're right, I could...and I did at the last airport. However, keep in mind I'm flying with an instructor who does not speak proficient English. I had to speak French just to communicate with him...so I figured I would go ahead and just do the radios in French too.

In France- and in many other countries worldwide- there are airfields that don't have Air Traffic Control but do have an AFIS (Aerodrome Flight Information Service). You can think of it as a halfway between a controlled and uncontrolled airport. It was explained to me that you call up the AFIS controller much like you would a Tower, but s/he can only give 'suggestions'--- not tell you what to do. Essentially, the AFIS controllers are there to inform pilots of other known traffic in the vicinity, meteorological conditions, airport information, possible hazards to flight, etc.


Another interesting tidbit-- in France, the controllers aren't as busy as over in the US. So, when you first call them up you say (as an example) "Francazal, Fox Golf November X-ray Tango, Bonjour" and wait for them to call you back before you give them more information. That goes for all ATC: AFIS, Tower, Center, etc. It's a courtesy to say "Bonjour," and it's just how they do it over there. Also, I was told to say "Fox" rather than "Foxtrot." Must be too hard to pronounce in French, ha.

My lil plane on a military base
My little DR 401 was the fastest of all the planes, cruising at 120 kts with its 155 hp Thielert Centurion 2.0 turbocharged engine. That meant that we were always the first to depart.  No waiting, that's how I like it! They gave each pilot a GPS tracker and a brown bag lunch and we were off.

Mirage 2000E
Although I had my Ipad with me and had downloaded Jeppesen's VFR app, I chose not to fly by GPS. This trip was all about perfecting my basic piloting skills, and I had fun learning how to identify towns and visual references on the paper charts. Pilotage really is a dying skill in today's GPS world. There were parts of the trip that were particularly challenging because the landscape consisted of hills and small towns that were a dime a dozen. While we were flying, we had to locate three different landmarks on our route based on photos taken from Google maps and mark it on our map. That is the only reason I wished they had given me a high-wing airplane as opposed to a low-wing.

We landed at Mont-de-Marsan after a 1.8 hour flight. After finishing the paperwork (welcome to the world of aviation) I ate lunch and chatted with my fellow pilots as we waited for the rest to trickle in. During all this, there were no less than 10 Rafales and a couple Mirage 2000s taking off for their scheduled practice flights. So cool!

Once everyone arrived, there were a few presentations about the Armée de l'air (French Air Force) and we got to get up close and personal with a Rafale and Mirage 2000E.
Les bleus!

We were scheduled to depart the next day, so around 1700h we had our flight briefing and a bit of time to start flight planning. The rest of the evening consisted of cocktails, speeches, then supper. No liquor for us bleus, however, because it was prohibited during the Tour.

Next airport: Niort

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