The other day I made a routine cross channel flight to deliver one Pipistrel Virus aircraft and return with a mate in his Pipistrel Alpha aircraft.
The flying was routine along the French, Belgian and Dutch coastline, the weather was perfect. The air was smooth with a strong tailwind of about 30 knots, just the way I prefer it when on a cross-country flight.
What was not routine was the lack of other aircrafts in the air in a normally busy block of airspace. I counted 3 contrails in the upper sky where normally there would be scores of criss-crossed white lines as if the Gods are playing Tic-Tac-Toe.
The radio waves were eerily absent of the usual mid Channel calls made by pilots crossing east and west, swopping frequencies over the FIR boundaries, speaking in all kinds of accents ranging from heavy Dutch to frothy French to plummy Queen’s English, earthy Essex and of-course the well recognised Hinglish calls from yours truly and the handful of Indian pilots from London.
Talking to Lille information I noted the delay in ATC response to my calls, as if there was a sip of distraction from a glass of something attractive near the PTT button. We were in his TMA (controlled airspace) when Geoff requested a climb from 3000 feet to 4000 feet. We were told we could climb as we wanted, which is very unusual. Normally we would be given a specific clearance to change altitude or flight level. I was intrigued by this and wondered whether the different terminology was due to the changing nature of EASA regulations.
I asked Geoff (he was PIC on the flight) if I could ask the controller a question… he said yes…
“Lille Info, I have a question…”
“Yes, go ahead..”
“Why did you tell us to climb as we wish?”
“At present all TMA in France are classed G, so we cannot give you Radar Control”
“Are airports in France closed now?”
“We are open but will not accept VFR Traffic at major airports”
“What about Le Touquet and Calais, will they accept cross channel traffic”
“Yes, no problem”
What I gathered from the above exchange is probably due to lack of ATC officers attending duty, all or most of French lower airspace is now classed Golf and no separation is offered between IFR and VFR traffic. Thus no VFR traffic is accepted at airports where there is IFR traffic. What a pragmatic way of separation for safety!
Further across the channel, going west towards Blighty, we crossed into the English FIR and changed as usual to London Info. An exchange of routinely worded calls followed. Once we were ready to change to Southend ATC, we requested London to allow us to change frequency.
She ordered us to “Squawk Conspicuity” rather than the usual “Squawk 7000, frequency change approved”. I was surprised by the ‘squawk conspicuity’ rather than the 7000 number.. I wondered again whether this was due to the adoption of SERA (Standardised European Rules of the Air) in the UK.
I asked Southend ATC about this and they were not sure either about why the terminology had changed. They were using the ‘squawk 7000’ phrase as normal. Perhaps it is because the selection of 2000 on the transponder is now allocated to IFR flights and 7000 remains for VFR flights not receiving any service from ATS and flying outside controlled airspace. I will have to find out soon to satisfy my curiosity.
After landing I telephoned the ATS manager at Le Touquet and was told that all airports in France are open but many of them are not able to offer any kind of service. Thus keeping separation between IFR and VFR flights becomes impossible. One could land at any small strip or small aerodrome but no licenced airport will take VFR traffic. However, after landing the pilot will most certainly be asked to show their “permit to move” since all personal movement in France is prohibited without a specific permit from the Gendarmerie.
I made a few phone calls to the Dutch and Belgian ATS central units and was told that the Netherlands was open for VFR traffic and their ATS units were providing a service. The Belgian controller told me that I could fly into Belgian FIR only with permission from ATC as normal, but that could not be possible because there was no ATC officer to offer a service, so in effect Belgian airspace was closed to VFR traffic.
Of course the above situation could change without notice at any time… I wonder what the situation may be in the UK in the next few days and how our Government and CAA handle the situation.