Over the Alps?

At 5:30 of the morning of our departure, we were still dubious whether we’d be able to leave.

Nabil was stuck in London, his flight having been cancelled the night before, and I was waiting for confirmation that his rerouted flight via Basel took off. When he called to let me know that they also cancelled that flight, I decided to throw in the towel. I mean, there are times when Fate sends you signs and woe betide those who ignore them, as the ancient Greeks had discovered. I resigned myself to it being “maktoub” that we would not fly this weekend.

I always look forward to my annual flying trips with my children, alternating each year between Nabil and Samira. We started this tradition when they were ten, roughly 17 and 15 years ago. These are special moments of bonding and sharing and of my joy and pride in watching them grow. 2019 was Nabil’s turn and would be our fifth trip together. Cancelling the trip therefore was not a decision I took lightly, but we felt it was the right thing to do. As they say in aviation, “it is better to be down here wishing you were up there, than up there wishing you were down here”.

The Plane

Already it had been an ominous start to the trip when Mike Juliet (a Piper Dakota registration HB-PMJ), our favourite airplane and practically a member of the family, was in its 50-hour maintenance two days before we were scheduled to leave on Friday. There was thus no guarantee that it would be finished on time for our flight and it was all I could do to stop myself from phoning the workshop every day to see how they were faring. It was important for us to leave by Friday afternoon, as the weather forecast called for storms in the evening over the Alps. My biggest worry then was that the plane would not be ready on time. If only I knew.

I was delighted to hear that Mike Juliet was finally good to go on Thursday afternoon, and I volunteered to ferry it back from Yverdon (home of the workshop), only a half hour flight away (and an hour by train). I managed to land back home in Geneva, fuel the plane and place it in the hangar at our Aeroclub just as the skies opened up. I ran back home, drenched, in time to cover the garden furniture that was out when I left the house, to take a shower, and finally to allow myself a sigh of relief. Yes. Mike Juliet was finally safely in its hangar, all ready and raring to go. I just needed to pick up Nabil from the airport later that evening. What could possibly go wrong?

Waiting for Nabil

It was a harmless little text message, “Will be slightly delayed”.

Nabil sent it when he was still in the plane. Slightly delayed? He’s in the plane? “No problem”, I replied. As long as he lands before midnight, when the airport closes and flights are usually rerouted to Lyon, it was not a big deal. But then of course they cancelled the flight altogether. It was the last one to Geneva. Still in the plane, the Millennial that he is, Nabil quickly got on his phone but found that unfortunately there were no other flights to Geneva that would land before noon on Friday. There was only one flight to Basel. I told him to take it anyway, and I would fly over to pick him up. It was not exactly on our way south, but it was feasible and the main thing was to cross the Alps to fair weather by early afternoon. I filed a flight plan to Basel for the next day and went to sleep. In the meantime, poor Nabil slept on Heathrow chairs, the ones they purposely make uncomfortable — to discourage you from sleeping on them.

When he called me early the next morning with news of the second cancellation, I told him to take his time and to get home safely whenever he could. We’d figure an alternative activity, maybe take a road trip by cabriolet, or we might be able to fly on Saturday or Sunday if the weather cleared up. I mentally switched off and cancelled my Basel flight plan, emptied my travel bags and waited patiently for Nabil to arrive. An hour later, however, he sent me a message to “uncancel” everything as there were rumours that a Swiss plane grounded in London needed to be ferried to Geneva. It was an unscheduled flight but Nabil managed to wrangle a seat on it. Good job! The flight was due to arrive at 12pm sharp so it was perfect timing as the weather forecast hadn’t changed.

It’s a Go!

I then went into overdrive. I packed my bags again (not forgetting Nabil’s running shoes), filed a flight plan to Venice, contacted Italian Customs, checked the available slots on the runway in Geneva (one green slot for 13:40 that allowed non-commercial flights to use the runway) and basically shut down the house. There were seemingly a million things to do, but somehow I managed. I lugged my 2 backpacks and one large bag the 800m to the Aeroclub, with several breathing stops on the way. I found Mike Juliet and did the “walk-around”, a ritual every pilot makes before flying to listen to what the plane has to say and ensure all is well. I made one last check at the runway slots (they hadn’t changed) and ordered the airport shuttle to take me south of the runway, to the main terminal where I would pick up Nabil. I had a good chat with the friendly driver who explained to me the ins-and-outs of driving on the tarmac. I learned you need a special license that uses a 12-point system. They lose 4 points if they don’t give right of way to aircraft (and that includes our little single-engine planes). That explains why they’re always waiting for us at the Aeroclub apron if we have the engine running and the rotating beacons on. They treat us just like the big boys! Sometimes flying can be an egalitarian activity — and sometimes not, as we were about to discover.


I reached the other side with enough time to buy two sandwiches for our lunch. Nabil’s flight arrived on time and the gods were smiling on us as he whizzed through passport control. We finally met. I couldn’t believe Nabil was actually standing in front of me in the flesh. Time for a quick hug, but no time for reminiscing as we rushed back through the Crew exit, ordered the same shuttle back to the Club, and found our Mike Juliet patiently waiting for us. One last weather check, one last visit to the toilets and it was time for us to hop on board and ask Mike Juliet to do its stuff. Runway slots hadn’t changed but we waited a long time before our taxi clearance. The airport was buzzing with private jets. Indeed as we waited short of the runway at Holding Bay Y2, a private CitationJet behind us had the gall to ask the Control Tower if he could cut the queue and move ahead of us, seeing that we were but a mere single-engine non-commercial flight whose pilots didn’t even wear stripes on their shoulders. We were clearly at the bottom of the pecking order. But the controller, much to our delight and delectation, put him in his place. We lined up Runway 22 and received our take-off clearance.

And thus began our 2019 flying trip to Venice and Ljubljana.

2 thoughts on “Over the Alps?

  1. Magnifique, très bien écrit, plein de suspens…. On attend la suite avec impatience. A bientôt et”good luck” pour l’édition 2021.


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