A legendary flight to Greece

A journey to the fairy-tale island of Hydra throws a couple flying their own C172 into weather conditions that challenge the instrument-rated pilot

Words and photographs by Celeste Goschen

Not long ago I read Douglas Adam’s Life, the Universe and Everything, in which one of the characters expresses his thoughts on the art of flying: ‘The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.’ I never thought of this quote as appropriate in the context of the thousands of miles we have covered over the years in our trusty Cessna 172 ? all pretty much incident-free, up until May this year, when we got caught up in the most challenging weather conditions we have ever experienced.

Our journey was inspired by an email from my sister, Sula, who had invited family and friends to stay in a villa she had rented in Hydra, one of the most romantic Saronic islands in Greece. Years ago, our father had built a house there, living a bohemian existence with a group of artists and mates, including the iconic musician, Leonard Cohen. Having not seen my sister or niece for years, this family reunion was a must.

After filing IFR, we set off from Suffolk, to enjoy the benefits of Roddy’s Instrument Rating. Climbing to 12,000 feet, we routed via Belgium and Germany to Ried, in Austria, which was to be our first refuelling and brief rest stop. For those who have not experienced flying airways before, the charts appear a complex triangulation of reporting points and VORs, possessing names which would not be out of place in a sci-fi novel. However, with proper planning and familiarisation, you don’t have to worry about Danger Areas or Control Zones as you’re vectored all the way by air traffic control.

Nearly five hours of flying later, we touched down at Kirchheim Airport, in Reid. The last time we had visited this well-kept airfield was in 2008 to compete in the World Rally & Precision flying championships, so it was strange to see it so desolate; bereft of the buzzing, competitive atmosphere of crowds and aircraft. After an hour’s rest and a final check on the weather, we were off again via Graz and Slovenia.

Four hours later, we had reached our overnight stop, Mali Lozinj, a charming gem of an island, set in the aquamarine Adriatic, in Western Croatia. Croatia is a truly epic country to fly over, boasting a magnificent, sculptural coastline stretching for nearly 2,000 miles. Losinj airport’s minuscule arrivals hall, archaic as it may be, offers a really friendly service ? once you’ve negotiated your way over the baggage carousel to reach the security office. Needless to say, we fell in love with this magical little island, its sumptuous seafood and friendly people and wished we could have stayed longer, but Greece and family were calling.

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Arriving at the airport the following morning, we were greeted by a stonking headwind on take off, but as the flight progressed, the wind settled and the weather remained fine as we soared over the beautiful Hvar island, past Split and Dubrovnik, feeling privileged to be witnessing such breathtaking scenery passing below us.

All was going smoothly until we reached the high mountains of southern Albania when, quite suddenly from gorgeous CAVOK, the weather deteriorated and we found ourselves enveloped in black cloud and battered by wave upon wave of vicious wind. We had flown straight into an embedded cumulonimbus. Trying to maintain altitude, as well as a calm attitude, in what felt like the spin cycle of a washing machine, is a test of grit and skill. All Roddy’s hours of IR training, competition flying and practice, coupled with reading hundreds of safety reports over the years, were, literally, a life saver and a lesson to all those considering long-distance flying, an IMC or IR. Gentle adjustments and a belief in one’s instruments, while being pummelled by gusts of wind, severe up and down draughts, and the ominous red terrain warnings on the Garmin GTN650 flashing, is the order of the day, as any aggressive or panicky manoeuvres might well have rendered this story null and void. After informing the radar service of our intentions, very carefully, Roddy turned the aircraft away from the weather and, finding a hole in the sinister cloud, we descended over the gulf and out to sea. The feeling of relief in the cockpit was palpable and touching down in the heat of Corfu to clear customs and refuel was a joyful experience. It wasn’t the first time we had been handled by Olympic and they gave us, as usual, an excellent service. After a long wait for the first wave of holiday jets to depart, we took off on a standard instrument departure up to 12,000 feet and after being offered a rather complex route to Athens we questioned this and got a better one (always worth asking).

After an hour or so, we were nearing our approach when the aircraft began to lose altitude. Roddy trimmed nose up and the air speed decayed. At these altitudes with the throttle fully open and the mixture leaned to max EGT, there is a fine margin between stopping the engine by further leaning (to try to squeeze an extra horsepower and the engine running very rough) and losing power through too rich a mixture. Nothing could be done and yet we were VMC on top, “All very bizarre,” Roddy could be heard muttering. We simply sank gently, but uncontrollably down over 1,000 ft and into the cloud layer and asked ATC for a lower level as ‘unable to maintain altitude’ caused a slight panic on the ground. After a brief ‘negotiation’ with the ATCO, we received clearance to a lower altitude whereupon we hit some horrendous turbulence and I now know what it feels like to experience a 2,000 foot per minute downdraft. Answer: terrifying! Released from its grip, we broke out VMC at 5,000 feet over the sea, cancelled IFR and began our approach into Megara, a military airport, located 40km WNW of Athens. The NOTAMs warned of strong crosswinds and they certainly weren’t exaggerating. The wind was thirty knots and forty degrees off the centre line and required all of Roddy’s skill to deal with this hefty crosswind component. The aircraft crabbed in and he pulled off a smooth landing diagonally across the runway; amazing, considering the day’s events. After a mad dash in a taxi to catch the ferry from Athens to Hydra, a big family hug, followed by a beer at the other end, the ground had never felt so good.

Hydra did not disappoint. A fairy-tale island greeted us; its crescent-shaped harbour surrounded by mountains, with stone streets cut into the hillside, is the stuff of dreams. There are no vehicles allowed on the island, not even bicycles, so the only methods of getting about are boat, Shanks pony or donkey. It was three days of paradise which included a surreal return to my modeling days, standing in the sunset on the highest point of Hydra in a hooded cloak, while being photographed for my niece, Lily Blue’s, latest fashion line. After exploring artists’ ateliers and picturesque coves; long dinners followed into the evening with old friends and new.

Reluctantly, our day of departure loomed and at an ungodly hour we set off by ferry to return to our steadfast Cessna waiting in Megara. The airfield impressed us with its efficient service, which included no parking or landing fees (during the holiday period). We filed for Corfu, and after an uneventful, picturesque flight, we touched down behind a French display team in their fabulous Long-EZ aircraft.

On take off from Corfu, we knew that this was to be our longest flight to date. We had filed to Bastia, in Corsica. Having done our calculations and asked to climb to 11,000. By the time we had passed Brindisi and were half way across Italy, it became apparent that the forty knot headwind meant we were unlikely to reach Bastia before running out of fuel. Alternates in Italy were unappealing, but an ATIS check of various airfields ahead indicated that at low level, a tail wind might be possible. After requesting VFR to a lower altitude of 2,500 feet, we descended, and watched our ground speed improve from 88 knots to 115, meaning that our original planned destination could be achieved with 1.5 hours fuel reserve. This decision was right for another reason as, under our right-hand wing, we had the most spectacular, unmissable view of Mount Vesuvius. With Bastia in sight, 5 hours, 35 minutes flight-time resulted in a record distance for us and a large kir royale to celebrate!

The following morning we awoke to heavy rain. The decision was made to scud-run around the north of the island before crossing the Mediterranean to St Tropez and then fly VFR to the petrolhead’s paradise of Le Castellet, home to the Formula one Paul Ricard circuit. On arrival, it turned out we were in great company in the hotel?Team Lotus (now Caterham) and the Nigerian football team had arrived to keep us entertained.

It was a treat waking up the following day and climbing into a cloud-free sky, watching the landscape of Marseilles and Aix-en-Provence, with its jigsaw pieces of Medieval architecture, pass under our wings. We routed via Montelimar, rife with danger areas, to land at Troyes: an airfield, like many in France, where everything closes for lunch. After sampling Troyes’s wonderful on-site restaurant, we filed an IFR light plan, refuelled and called for clearance and climbed to 7,000 feet back into the familiar clouds we had grown to know so well, arriving back in Suffolk in just two and a half hours. As soon as we’d parked, Roddy turned to me and said, “The good thing about this trip is you’ll never be frightened by a bit of turbulence again.” Never a truer word has been spoken!

We covered 2,900 nm in total, 28 hours of flying, mainly in IMC conditions. There were times during that trip when I thought I never wanted to fly again; throw in the towel and my licence and take up a more sensible hobby. But when you pass over the mouths of volcanoes and struggle to find words to convey the wondrous landscapes that slip under your wing, you can only wait for the next invitation and another excuse to take to the air again.