Thursday, May 23, 2013

So THIS is what user fees do to GA...

We woke up the next morning after spending most of the night trying to sleep through what sounded like someone dropping bowling balls on the floor above us. The slamming was getting so loud that at one point I was fully expecting something to come through the ceiling. The noise thankfully ended after a few loud bangs that may or may not have been gunshots. We never found out what that was all about, and honestly, I probably don't want to know.

At any rate we got up, grabbed breakfast at the hotel again, and after a failed attempt to make a phone call to confirm our plans for the day, I sent out a quick email and we made our way to the metro to go pick up our car. Which would have worked beautifully, except the metro was closed and we had to walk several kilometers to try to find another stop that would hopefully be open so we could take the train to pick up our car and drive an hour to meet someone who may or may not actually be at the place I was hoping to meet them. And it was very possible we would be late. That wasn't stressful at all.

And somehow, it all magically worked out, we got there right on time, and I just happened to bump into the very person I was looking for.

It was time to go flying in Europe!!

Mark and I met my instructor, Mario, at EHLE - Lelystad Airport. It's in the Netherlands, about an hour east of Amsterdam. We were going to go fly a 160hp Piper Warrior: N611JP. The pilots around here will often fly planes registered in other countries to get around some of onerous regulations (like being required to have a specific rating to fly VFR at night). If you're flying a foreign registered plane and have a foreign license, the authorities figure you're operating under those rules and are exempt from theirs. Because that sure isn't confusing!

Autofuel is commonly used over here instead of 100LL due to cost: 2 Euros per liter for autofuel versus 3 Euros per liter for 100LL. That works out to about $7.50 per gallon for autofuel and $11.40 per gallon for 100LL. Since a plane like this burns 7-9 gallons per hour, that difference adds up fast. The downside is the autofuel stains the paint and they haven't figured out how to get the stains off. I guess a slightly dirty airplane is the price you pay for slightly cheaper flying.

I had told Mario I was up for flying wherever he thought would be neat, so he pointed out a few things on the map and we came up with a plan. Even though it was a Friday morning, the weather was so nice that the airport was hopping. Mario offered to do all of the radio work because ATC over here apparently isn't very tolerant toward foreign pilots, especially if you make a mistake. That was perfectly fine with me...I didn't feel like getting yelled at on frequency!

We got the latest QNH (they use that as an altimeter setting, just like in New Zealand) and I set the altimeter for field elevation: -12. My first airport below sea level! We also made sure the transponder was set to 7000 - the generic VFR code for flying here.

We took off and climbed up to a whopping 900'. VFR flying in the Netherlands is mostly done below 1500', because the main airport (Schiphol) has slowly decided that it needs more and more airspace for itself. Granted, Schiphol is a huge airport, but they don't even seem to consider offering shelves of airspace the way our Class B and C airspace is configured in the US.

It's very flat in the Netherlands and we somehow lucked out and got a gorgeous weather day, so even at 900' you could see for miles. There was a lot of open farmland and windmills, and here and there you could see multicolored squares and rectangles of tulip fields.

We starting heading north and flew past a few small towns along the way. At one point we flew past Urk, where Mark and I had stopped a few days ago.

If you look close at the altimeter, you can see that I snuck up to almost 1000' here. I think the highest we got the whole time was 1200'.

We flew north until we reached the Aflsluitdijk, a 20 mile dike that separates the salt water North Sea from the freshwater lake IJsselmeer. You can see it stretching into the distance. We turned left and followed it across the water. What I was most impressed with was the bike path that stretched the entire length. I know biking is very common over here, but that's still impressive!

We continued southwest bound (accidentally flying through a pack of gliders along the way...oops) and past quite a few more tulip fields. It was starting to get a bit hazy as we flew along. 

We made our way out to the coast a bit north of Schiphol. These small hills and dunes were probably the highest terrain we saw the whole time. The beach stretched on for miles; Mario said it's a pretty popular area in the summer.

You could see more hazy tulip fields out in the distance.

We kept going south, past Schiphol, and eventually flew over a huge pier that stuck out into the water near The Hague. I think one of the buildings may be a restaurant.

Just west of Rotterdam are miles and miles of greenhouses. Mario said they grow a lot of food (among other things) here.

We flew over a long line of ships snaking their way through channels heading to and from Rotterdam, then flew out toward an area that was mostly industrial, with open sandy areas and a lot of windmills. They're making new land in this area, and I wish I had a picture of the GPS display because the database wasn't keeping up with how fast the land was going one point it showed us several miles offshore when we were almost directly over the edge of the coast.

Some of the new land going up...Rotterdam is somewhere out there in the haze.

We eventually looped our way past Haamstede VOR and made a turn back to the east. VORs are pretty easy to pick out in the US...they usually look like bowling pins sitting on a plate, but you could barely see it here, even from 900'. The VOR is the tiny structure in the middle of the square green field in the front part of the picture.

Another huge dam: the Oosterscheldekering. They can close the huge doors to block the water in storms to help prevent flooding. The Dutch are very proactive when it comes to managing the water around them, and with how low most of their land is, you certainly can't blame them!

We had been up for a while at this point, so we started to make our way back to the airport.

At one point we flew over a whole bunch of older windmills. Some of them were still spinning. I wish I had made a note of where these were, because I can't remember now! I know it's somewhere between Rotterdam and Lelystad, but that's about it.

As we got closer to the airport, Mario aimed me toward one of the mandatory VFR reporting points. He had been talking to ATC the whole time, but we weren't receiving any flight following or traffic seemed more like he had to tell them who we were, where we were going, and how high we were so they could track us. They never gave us a discrete code; we stayed on 7000 the whole time. I guess it seemed a bit like the SFRA here; we could fly wherever we wanted as long as we stayed clear of all the airspace, but there was always some sort of ATC facility watching us. For that 'privilege' Mario said he has to pay a yearly ATC fee of something like 80 Euros. Nice.

The traffic pattern was pretty busy and we flew it at 700'. Mario told me that one of the flight schools has their students hold at a point that's basically in the traffic pattern, at pattern altitude, so it can get a little hairy if there are too many students flying around because sometimes there are airplanes everywhere.

On final for EHLE. I made the landing, though I'm sure Mario logged it too because with how much landing fees are over here it's common for instructors to log their students' landings, too ("I was in the plane, too", Mario told me). My one landing cost me 20 Euros alone, and that was because Mario told the controller it was a local flight (in a broad sense I guess it was local, though we sure did cover a lot of ground for a local flight!). If it had been a cross country flight, the landing fee would have jumped to 35 Euros for the exact same landing. I didn't think to ask what would have happened if we needed to go around.

We parked back at the hangar (after stopping to let a C172 with a full KLM paint job taxi past - I wish I had a picture of that!). The airport was still hopping, and a few helicopters were coming and going.

Ta da! You can thank Mark for all the pictures from the air...he was in the backseat with both of my cameras.

I didn't schlep my logbook all the way over here for nothing! 2.7 hours of European flying time wound up costing me over $800 US. User fees and the increased cost of gas have basically doubled the cost of flying when compared to the US, and when we finally said goodbye, Mario was heading over to the FBO to cough up the various fees for the flight we just did.

As Mario was filling out my logbook another local pilot wandered in, and after chatting for a while it turns out he learned to fly over in Doylestown, PA (DYL) - just on the north side of Philly, and not far from where I learned to fly. He was flying a German registered plane for the same reason Mario flies a US registered plane - the regulations. Many pilots in Europe save their money and come to the US since it's so much cheaper to fly over here (though I know it doesn't always feel that way to us). A license fee that costs just a couple dollars in the US costs 500 Euros in the Netherlands, and Mario said that to renew his various licenses, he has to take 8 written exams. 8!! Including an English proficiency exam, even though he has FAA licenses, which require English proficiency anyway.

Landing fees are a huge safety factor over here, too. At 20 Euros a landing, would you want to do pattern work to stay proficient? Mario said that in some cases it's cheaper to pay to do a cross country to Germany and do pattern work there, since some airports have landing fees as low as 6 Euros and sometimes the airports will cut you a break if you do enough pattern work. Accidents are more common on landings because of the lack of proficiency. It probably doesn't help, either, that the VFR charts are not very accurate; Mario brought a brand new chart with him for the flight and spent quite a bit of time laughing and pointing out "that's wrong...that's not on the chart...that's not right...they left that antenna off...nice, those windmills aren't there...". When you're forcing VFR planes to fly at low level you'd hope that the terrain and obstructions would be accurate on the chart, but nope.

At any rate, I had an amazing time flying over here and even with the landing fees, I'd do it again if I had the chance. (But that would probably be the last time, unless I take out a home equity loan or max out my credit cards.) I wish the people in our government who think user fees are the answer to budget shortfalls could spend a bit of time overseas and see just how they degrade safety, but in the meantime, let's appreciate just how great things are for GA in the US.


  1. Hi, Sarah!

    First of all, thanks for posting these way cool pics of your flight in the Netherlands. I never managed to fly while I was there, so I'm jealous but at the same time thrilled for you.

    As for tonight... When you said, "Heads up, the winds at ADW and DCA are 320 at a lot of knots gusting to a lot more knots", I heard you caring that I wasn't doing somethin' dumb. You know that 320 or so is a direct xwind for VKX and it had to be a little spooky from your seat. I wish I could have taken the space on the freq to tell you why it was OK.

    Before VKX was Potomac Airfield it was Prince George's County Airpark. And before that it was Rose Valley Airport. The operative word is "valley". The airport really is in a hole in the ground. So while DCA was saying 32016G26, the (non-standard) AWOS at VKX, down below the valley rim and the tree line, was saying 320V030 9G14. Lot's more do-able.

    I had to do a quick re-think from 24 to 6 as the wind shifted, and it was a bit sprightly on final (about a 30 degree WCA) but as I went below about 150 AGL it all smoothed out, as I knew it would, and the landing was just an ordinary crosswind landing.

    Thanks so much for having my back and caring. Don't ever hesitate to make that "loaded" remark that will get a complacent pilot to start thinking! I had this one thought through, but you couldn't know that and you poked me in just the right way if I hadn't. Thank you!

    Have I mentioned that I love Air Traffic Controllers? (Mark shouldn't be's entirely Platonic :-).)

    Warmest regards,


  2. Hey Frank!

    Aww, thanks...that made my night!! :) Yeah, I always feel for pilots (especially in our little GA planes) when I see them heading somewhere and know it's going to be a strong direct crosswind...I know what it's like to be in the pilot seat for that kind of fun (most notably, on my private pilot checkride years ago - 20G30 right across the runway...I think I got my license just for showing up and not wrecking the plane), so I always try to watch out and help where I can when the winds are squirrelly.

    And thanks for the history lesson on VKX! I've been lucky enough to ride along on a couple flights in and out of there before; the view of DC is awesome, and I love the approach to Runway 6...I swear, it feels like you're flying down that street at rooftop level. I'll have to keep your wind tidbit in the back of my head when I eventually get my PIN and can fly in there myself. I can't wait!

    -Sarah :)

  3. Oh, and I forgot to mention...if you ever find yourself heading back to the Netherlands, let me know and I can pass along the contact info for the instructor if you want to go fly!! It's not cheap, but it's totally worth it.