Flying Adventure: Casablanca

Taking a PA-28 from Lydd to the great Moroccan city — famous as the setting for the 1942 Bogart movie — over the course of three days and fourteen flying hours

When my friend Jon Barry walked into our club and announced a great idea for a flight, I reacted with caution. Jon’s previous great idea had been to land a PA-28 at Gatwick ? which in the end he did ? so I surmised that his latest brainchild would also involve serious shekels. This time round, he wished to fly the same aeroplane, a group-owned Piper Archer, from Lydd to Casablanca and?given the distance involved ? he enquired whether another pilot would care to join him. I was hooked on the spot but suggested I would fly with him one-way if he could find another pilot to share the return journey.

We were contemplating a 1,400nm trip through France and Spain ? say 14 hours ‘chocks-time’ in zero wind ? for which we would allow a leisurely three days. Another of Jon’s friends, Trevor Jarman, would fly from Gatwick to Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc and then fly back to England with Jon. Trevor’s PPL had lapsed a few years earlier but at the time he had already logged over 1,000 hours.

None of us had ever been to Casablanca but, like most of our generation, we had seen the eponymous 1942 film set in wartime Morocco. The plot centred on Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) love affair with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) and featured pianist Sam (Dooley Wilson) playing the signature tune As Time Goes By. We couldn’t help speculating whether there was a Rick’s Caf� Am�ricaine in Casablanca but if there was, we intended to down a few G & Ts by the piano.

Day One Lydd to Perpignan

We set off from Lydd on a damp and gloomy day, but looked forward to a fine weather forecast south of Chartres. Low cloud and poor visibility in northern France had already delayed our departure by two hours and, with hindsight, three might have been better. As we reached the French coast in deteriorating conditions, Rouen’s latest METAR gave a 400ft cloud base and three kilometres in rain so, after telling Paris our intentions, we turned back and put down at Dieppe to reconsider. The airport was unattended but we found a student pilot in the Aeroclub who let us in, made us coffees and loaned us her computer to access the met sites. An hour later we clambered back into G-CBSO and made a second stab at Rouen. Things were just about acceptable but far from comfortable when the controller at Paris Info ? bless her ? asked if we wanted to hear the Beauvais weather: Broken 1,500 and over 10km sounded wonderful! From Beauvais we routed to Pontoise and then back to our intended course at Chartres, effectively circumventing the worst of the storm. Three hours and five minutes after leaving Lydd, we had covered the 260nm to sunny Poitiers (LFBI) where we made a couple of annoying discoveries. First, somewhere between there and Dieppe we’d lost the Dzus fastener from a cowling latch: with engineering facilities closed for the day, a helpful bowser man (fuel cost €2.24 a litre) rummaged through his tool box and secured our cowling with a cable-tie. Second, our late arrival in Poitiers also meant we could no longer make our night stop, Carcassonne (LFMK), before it closed. Rather than start Day Two 220 miles behind schedule, we established that Perpignan (LFMP) was open till midnight and that it would accept us VFR till 2200 local, so we fired up ’SO for a 255nm leg. The landing fee at Poitiers remains unpaid as I write this ? we tried to pay but were asked to leave our names and addresses so that a bill could be sent. This arrangement, by the way, is not unusual in France and my club has a Euro bank account (cost �12 a year) that saves us paying the bank �20 every time we need a €10 money order to settle French or German fees.

The 2hr 20min leg to Perpignan was quite free of weather distractions. We passed a sleepy-looking Carcassonne heartened by our decision to press on, and soon the Pyrenees came into view ? followed presently by our first glimpse of the Mediterranean. The next day we would be flying almost entirely in Spanish airspace, but that night I reflected once again on how helpful, friendly and professional French ATC had been throughout the day. On landing, Jon and I realised we had not eaten a thing since breakfast and it was now past 9.30pm. We skipped all airport formalities and grabbed a taxi to “the nearest hotel with a decent restaurant”. The Novotel Perpignan-Rivesaltes did not disappoint and after a long day’s flying it was worth the €120 per room. We ate amazing steaks and paid homage to the local wines: a light C�tes de Rousillon ros� and a half bottle of Rivesaltes pudding wine. Day One satisfactorily concluded.

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Day Two Perpignan to Almeria

In the morning, not too early, we were back at the airport. We taxied to the pumps where an attendant filled up our tanks and took payment (€2.22 a litre) before driving us to the flight planning office. We paid our landing/parking fees (€17.30), filed our flight plan and were driven back to our plane. This was a truly sunny morning of the old CAVU variety and by 11.30 local we were on our way. We departed south via the coast then direct to Cerb�re on the French-Spanish border before contacting Gerona Approach. As is customary for Balearics-bound traffic, we headed directly to the Bagur VOR (BGR) on the coast east of Gerona, overflying the lovely seaside village of Cadaqu�s ? a magnet to Europe’s leading art and music luminaries, made famous by Picasso’s paintings, Garcia Marques’s writing and Salvador Dali’s studio. It is close to Ampuriabrava airfield, making it a tempting destination in its own right.

From Bagur we set a course direct to Ibiza that would keep us clear of the Barcelona and Palma TMAs. There’s not much one can say about flying nearly 200 miles over water when the only visible feature is the sea. We carried a dinghy and a PLB close to hand and had donned lifejackets. My one passing thought was that if we had to ditch, the Med seemed a safer bet than the English Channel we’d flown over the previous day. Once we were released by Barcelona, Palma showed little interest in us and we called Ibiza Approach with forty miles to run.

Ibiza’s (LEIB) 2,800 metre runway has a northeast?south-west orientation, much like the island itself. There are two VFR entry points, November (north) and Sierra (south) and the procedure for both is the same: report reaching entry point (November in our case) and you will be told to proceed towards the runway’s mid-point for a right or left downwind join as appropriate. Between the entry point and the airport there is an ‘orbiting area’ where ATC may hold you until it can slot you between airliners. Today it was just one orbit then left downwind for Runway 06 behind a turboprop.

Ibiza airport is used by fifty carriers, who in 2011 created 61,000 movements involving 5.6 million passengers and 2,700 tons of freight, yet light aircraft are welcome, well catered for and sympathetically integrated with commercial traffic. The airport charges at €89.29 were not cheap but compare favourably with, say, Bristol at almost �200. Our flight time to Ibiza was 2hr 40min. We refuelled (€2.68 a litre) grabbed a quick bite and discussed the next leg ? 215 miles to Almeria (LEAM).

The scenic route would have been Ibiza to Benidorm (just 70 miles over water) but we wanted to press on and opted to make our landfall by the port of Cartagena. This meant a 170nm crossing with sight of land expected an hour after departing Ibiza and all the way to our destination. During this flight Jon and I observed some puzzling patterns on the sea: from 3,500ft they looked like meandering narrow rivers, turning hither and thither as rivers do, except they were coloured the deep yellow of high-carat gold. Fish? Shallows? We manoeuvred the aircraft to discount reflections and optical illusions but the patterns remained, both sides of our track, hundreds of metres long and for a good five minutes. Maybe a Pilot reader can shed some light on this phenomenon?

We passed the beautiful strip of beaches at La Manga on the Mar Menor and then followed the shoreline. Alicante passed us on to Sevilla Radar ? though the station was quite remote and we could read it fours at best. On first contact with Almeria, we requested a join via point Sierra ? that’s approaching from the sea and avoiding the high terrain, which was proving difficult to deal with in appallingly thick haze as we flew towards the setting sun. Given a left base join for Runway 25 we were still unable to see it when all our kit told us we were lined-up on final and only 1.2 miles from touchdown. A helpful Tower turned up the the lights to maximum intensity and suddenly there it was, all 3,200 metres of it, straight ahead and 700ft below! A light nose-wind made this leg 2hr 25min.

Almeria is a thousand-year-old Andalucian city of 200,000 inhabitants, with a busy port and lots of history ? but unfortunately we had no time to do it justice. Our pre-booked rooms at the comfortable three-star AC Hotel in the old-town were worthy of any four-star. There was a terrace pool on the third floor and the rate per room, with an excellent buffet breakfast, came to €54. After showering we took a walk until Jon could find some Guinness, then dined al fresco on a cobbled square and watched the world go by.

Day Three Almeria to Casablanca

We were in no rush ? or so we thought ? to make an early start on the final day. Casablanca was only 330nm away so we left the hotel at 10.00 local time. Our original inclination had been to fly from Almeria to Casablanca’s main airport, Mohammed V International, but we discovered it did not have avgas. The GA field, Tit Mellil, had LL100 but no Customs, so we needed to enter Morocco elsewhere and Tangier ? with both customs and fuel ? fitted the bill.

The morning of Day Three greeted us with an overcast sky and a light mist, which we assumed would clear by the time we reached the airport. It did not. We knew that aircraft transiting Almeria to or from non-Schengen destinations (e.g. Morocco) required the services of a handling agent and on arrival at the airport we were met by Josefina of AGA Handling, who told us conditions were IFR but expected to improve. Meanwhile she proved invaluable in seeing us through all the formalities (police, immigration, flight plan and fuel at €2.72 a litre) and easing us through locked doors. We also had access to AGA’s computer to check TAFs and METARs at regular intervals until the magic five-kilometre visibility cleared the way to VFR.

Leaving Almeria on a direct track to Tangier, we climbed to 4,500ft and flew on as if inside a fishbowl, trying to guess the landmarks we may or may not have seen through the thick haze. Sevilla Radar gave us a squawk, but we were reaching the end of our half-mill charts and would have to rely on the ONC one-millionth. Our panel-mounted Skyforce II was also at the end of its remit and carried only the basics of Africa’s north coast. We did, however, have a hand-held Bendix-King AV8R, which was more informative than the chart.

For an hour and a half we flew deeper into the Mediterranean while the Spanish coast receded, before reappearing through the haze as it swept south towards Gibraltar. A distant Sevilla faintly told us to contact Casablanca Radar. We did as asked but got no response ? Casablanca was about 200 miles away ? so we agreed to try it every few minutes and meanwhile peered into the haze trying to recognise the landmarks. We spotted the Pillars of Hercules, two massive lumps of rock ? Jebel Musa to the south and Gibraltar to the north ? that flank the Strait, with Africa on our left, Europe out on the right and the Atlantic Ocean ahead. But for the haze it would have made a most spectacular photograph.

Our fourth attempt to raise Casablanca prompted a kind soul in an unseen aircraft above to volunteer as relay and we acknowledged Casa’s request to report the Moroccan coast and, if still out of range, contact Tangier Approach.

The rest was simple. We crossed the coastline over high ground (up to 4,000ft) just south of the Spanish enclave at Ceuta and were in time cleared for a straight in approach on to the 3,500 metres of Tangier’s tarmac Runway 28. Ibn Batuta Airport does not look very busy in international terms, but it sure is big! We seemed to taxi forever before reaching the GA apron, where an attendant promptly fuelled us from a quaint old bowser. The leg had taken two hours and the fuel uplifted was the most expensive of the trip at €2.95 a litre ? but the landing fee, at €2.50, would be the cheapest by far.

We had heard that Morocco can be somewhat bureaucratic when it comes to customs formalities so we travelled well-equipped: original C of A, Registration, Insurance with North African endorsement, Annual, ARC, Radio Licence, Noise Certificate, etc. In reality such rumours could not have been further from the truth. A police officer drove up to us in a jeep, dropped us at the GA planning room and went off to get our passports stamped while we discussed our flight to ‘Casa’ with a helpful young man. Yes, there were forms to fill in and questions to answer but a lot less of both than I’ve experienced lately in, say, the USA. My original flight plan (just as in Spain and Portugal these are required for all flights in Morocco) read ‘direct’ and was laughed away. The approved route was via seven reporting points ? five towns and two IFR waypoints, which was not that helpful: all we had was our ONC and the AV8OR and all the airport had to show us was a 2006 VFR chart and a 2010 IFR ER. But with the dispatcher’s help we made some notes and more or less got an idea of where to turn. Lots of handshakes and good wishes and we were on our way.

Flying south along the Atlantic coast we bid Tangier farewell twenty miles out and changed to Casablanca Radar. At that point all data on our Skyforce ceased, as though we’d fallen off the edge of a pre-Ptolemaic flat earth. Casa Radar caught us by surprise, requesting estimates for Tit Mellil and Ibidir. Our destination we got spot-on but I confess that I had only a rough idea of Ibidir’s whereabouts and I blagged it with a figure out of a hat ? yet on the whole I think we got the route right. Moroccan ATC was very professional and helpful. With a setting sun and evening haze we never saw Tit Mellil until we were almost overhead, but there was very little traffic in evidence and we landed uneventfully 1hr 45min after brakes-off in Tangier. The landing fee was €2.70 and fuel €2.68. Finding a taxi was a little harder, but the airport’s sole person on duty ? the air traffic controller ? phoned around until she found one for us and then rushed home to prepare her children’s tea.

Narrow streets and bazaars

What can I say about Casablanca? Morocco’s biggest city is also its business centre. Modern high-rise buildings abound around the sweeping shoreline and the ancient medina with its narrow streets and bazaars is all you would expect of the old Morocco. Our Novotel (€120) had great food and drinks so we saw little need to wander out that first night. The following morning we walked for hours, visited the impressive Hassan II Mosque and its surrounding Islamic complex. Completed in 1993, it reminded me of the Moorish architecture found in southern Spain. It is an imposing marble and granite edifice overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

During our walk we found Rick’s Caf�, stopped for a drink and booked a table for the evening. Alas, it was only built in 2004 and I’m afraid the original only ever existed as a set at Universal Studios, California. But as conceptual replicas go they have done a great job here and the 1940s colonial atmosphere is well captured. We dined well, drank a surprisingly pleasant Moroccan Cabernet, and were entertained with appropriate music from a saxophone and a piano.

In the morning Jon and Trevor set off on the return journey. The first two days were reversals of our southbound journey, but on the third the weather played up again. Unable to go north from Perpignan they diverted to Nevers and got socked in overnight. After that, they ducked and dodged storms all the way to Deauville and finally on to Lydd. Yet, amazingly, their total flying time of fourteen and a half hours was within fifteen minutes of our outbound total.

My own return trip was less exciting. From Casablanca I got on easyJet to Paris Charles de Gaulle (�54 including Speedy Boarding) where I caught a TGV to Lille (€59) and stayed the night. Next day another TGV got me to Calais (€28) in a few minutes, then I took a €20 taxi to the airport (LFAC). I just had time for a coffee before Lydd Aero Club’s CFI, Ivan Hart, braved a forty-knot wind in a club Warrior and arrived to fetch me.

All in all it was a fantastic journey. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to any pilot looking for something different, though a little more time to enjoy the stops and destination would have been nice. Technically speaking this was not a difficult adventure. You’ll just need charts, a decent GPS and thorough planning. Then tuck this copy of Pilot under your arm, re-read the article and fly it again. Unlike Bogey, you won’t need help from Sam.