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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Homes sweet homes – Part 2: France: Family, Friends and alternator Failure

To reach France from the Netherlands, we needed to fly a little over Belgium and that turned out more complicated than expected. Our 2.4-hour flight from Rotterdam to Laval (LFOV) was VFR because we left later than planned and the controller could not find our IFR plan, so we decided to just go visual: it was a nice day (albeit for some inversion haze) and we had plenty of hours of daylight ahead of us. When we reached Belgian airspace, we announced our presence and ATC asked us to identify ourselves (aka “squawk ident”). After the first unsuccessful attempt, he asked if we had a “mode Sierra” transponder, we thought we did so we kept trying but it never worked. After a few minutes, we were told we were not allowed in controlled airspace in Belgium if we did not have “mode Sierra”, which basically meant that we needed to stay at 1500 feet during the whole trip, zigzagging between the controlled air-spaces that surround the numerous cities, in the haze. Fortunately, Belgium is a small country and about 20 or 30 minutes later we were already in France, speaking to Lille control who had absolutely no problem with making radar contact with us. Of course, we later checked the various transponder modes and apparently we have “Alfa” (which transmits latitude and longitude) and “Charlie” (which also indicates altitude) but not “Sierra” (which includes more features, not sure exactly which ones) … or maybe we have it but we don’t know how to activate it… In any case, if you ever go to Belgium, make sure you have mode Sierra, or go low, under the radar.

We had chosen to land in Laval because it was the closest airport to Sainte Suzanne, where Nina, Sophie and Tobi were living at that time. It was exactly the kind of small airfield we like and we had contacted the Aeroclub de la Mayenne in advance to check if they had any tips for a piston plane from Argentina. And they not only had tips, they also let us stay in their hangar for free and two of their members (Damien and Samuel) welcomed us upon arrival! Samuel had been in Argentina before, so he was especially enthusiastic about meeting us.

LV-GQF ended up sleeping in their hangar for about 10 days while we made new friends -like Sebastien, the club President and Noël who has built various airplanes by himself- and gave a short presentation about our trip to club members and young students who had just passed their “BIA” (Brevet d’Initiation à l’Aeronautique). We were also interviewed there by a journalist of Ouest France, one of France’s most read newspapers. Famous again!

Below, Sebastien congratulating the club's BIA students at their graduation; LV GQF on display on the right, waiting for its turn to be the star:)

We spent three great weeks in Sainte Suzanne with the children, reconnecting, refueling, sharing adventures, eating French cheese, drinking French wine …. Paradise once again! I hadn’t seen my daughters in over 18 months, so there was a lot to catch up! And for Tobi, who had arrived there only weeks earlier, it was a completely new experience to live with his older sisters and their friends at the “La Noé Gontier” permaculture farm owned by Louis and Margot, where everyone is welcome and everyone helps out.

Apart from being the home of the children, Sainte Suzanne is also a picturesque medieval village with its own castle, ranked among the plus beaux villages de France. So our reunion had a beautiful setting, conducive to long walks and talks and special events like Alex and Sophie’s birthday on June 12th and Nina driver’s license (passed May 31st) and new car (bought on June 14th in Le Mans) in which she and Tobi left to Augerolles in Auvergne to make bread in an artisanal bakery for a few weeks.

Sainte Suzanne seen from the opposite hill, Le Tertre Gane

View from our medieval airbnb Le gîte des remparts

Streets of Ste Suzanne

After a walk to Tertre Gane

And along the watermills

At Caf&Couette bistro with Carole-Marie, one of the owners of our medieval Airbnb

The nearby city of Laval (where the airport and the hospital where Sophie works are), along the Mayenne river

June 12th: Surprise birthday breakfast delivery boy

Birthday girl and boy

The party at La Noe Gontier

Patrick Roger birthday chocolates all the way from Paris (also from the delivery boy!)

Two days later in Le Mans with Nina after buying her new (used) car

On the way to Augerolles (if this blog had audio you would be hearing experimental jazz music according to Tobi)

Learning to make bread in the artisanal bakery, does it get any frencher?

While I was enjoying every minute in my “adoptive” or “comfort” country (terms explained in my previous post June 24th), Alex took a little break from France to fly out for reunions of his own: first with Ivan, a French airline pilot based in Normandy who loves Argentina and then with his brother’s family in Barcelona. Ivan had given Alex all the tips to land at Saint André de l’Eure (aka LFFD which required a special authorization and where he was greeted by the local media!), and before going to Barcelona, he contacted the local aeroclub and could speak to a pilot who explained all about the best way to get to Sabadell airport (LELL). Once there, he met a fellow Cirrus owner -with an almost identical plane! - and they made a small trip to Menorca together. Again, the small airfield/pilot community combination worked perfectly: just ask (for help and tips) and you will receive 😊

At the bottom of this post you will find our extensive media coverage: the news article from Normandy, the video of Alex’s visit with Ivan -Castles, Crosses (Omaha Beach) and Cheese-, that of his visit to Barcelona, adequately described as “Better than Disneyland” and the news article from Ouest France.

While Alex was taking a little break in Spain, I spent the weekend with my good university friend Olivia in Rennes, Brittany (where she has been living for the past 20 years), reconnecting, sharing experiences etc, etc…

With Olivia, Marquis and Garus

Rennes, capital of Brittany

Bilingualism is also on the agenda in Brittany with a minority speaking the Celtic language "Breton", related to Welsh (I should have paid more attention to the signs in Cardiff!).

When Alex got back from Barcelona, we continued our Tour de France by taking Tobi on a daytrip to Lille (LFQQ) to visit the campus where he'll be living and studying in September.

La Grande Place

and around

Only a few more months to go...

And all the above was just the North of France, but we are now in the South, in Cannes, getting ready for our next programmed leg: the Italian lakes. In the meantime however, we have also completed an unplanned leg, to the Italian Riviera by car, due to an Alternator failure on the flight from Laval to Cannes which grounded us for a few days.

We left Laval on June 21st to enjoy Europe before our Russia crossing scheduled for August. The first destination was Cannes (LFMD) from where we would meet friends from Grasse, Nice and Monaco. The beginning of that 3.2-hour flight was quite demanding: we had to actively cloud-surf to avoid the abundant CB’s that had built up after days of warm weather. It got better towards the end, when we passed Limoges (porcelain city) and Montélimar (nougat capital), but all of a sudden a yellow warning started flashing on the main screen, alerting us that we were running on batteries only, which meant that they were not being charged by either of the two alternators and that we basically had 30 minutes of electric power left. After that, our screens, our GPS, our radios, our lights and our flaps would stop working. Not dramatic in visual conditions with daylight because you can still fly and land without them (especially since we have basic analog back up instruments), but not super safe and certainly not comfortable.

Alex immediately looked at the circuit breakers and saw that 2 of them had popped. He pushed the “ALT 1” plug back in but it popped again. When he pushed the ALT 2 plug back, it stayed and started to charge the battery, so we relaxed. After careful consideration, Alex decided not to attempt pushing ALT 1 back in since he was afraid it could compromise ALT 2 which now seemed to be working perfectly and would keep us flying without problems for the remaining 40 minutes till Cannes. The only thing we did differently is that we turned the pitot heat off as soon as the OAT reached 5 degrees Celsius during the descent to save at least that bit of energy (normally we don’t watch the temperature so carefully and turn it off when we remember to: our avionics warn you to turn it on as soon as the OAT is under 5 degrees, but there is no warning to turn it off…). Once on the ground, we parked at the spot very precisely indicated by the tower and started asking around for a service center at the airport. In parallel, Alex contacted his entire support network (Leo from the Cielo workshop in Buenos Aires, Shawn from Sweet Aviation in Fort Wayne, Ivan from Normandy who knows everyone and Joël, our new pilot friend from Martinique who was living in Nice) and by the next morning it appeared there were 2 possibilities: either the alternator (which is new) was failing or its regulator would need to be replaced. To find out, the alternator first needed to be tested because there was of course no point in changing the regulator if the alternator was causing the short circuit. At least the steps toward recovery were getting clearer: first alternator 1 was to be removed in Cannes by the “RPM” (Riviera Plane Maintenance) service center Alex had identified, then it had to be tested by the closest specialist who was in Le Luc-en-Provence (45 minutes away by car) and if it worked, we had to order a new regulator. If not, it would be a whole new can of worms… Hartzell alternators can not be repaired, only replaced, and ours was still under warranty, meaning we would have to involve Continental Engines in the process as well.

Luckily, the chain of events turned out to be quite favorable:

1. RPM were busy and short staffed the next day but they made room for us and after giving us an estimated time of 3 pm, the manager Nathalie and her colleague Eric triumphantly brought us the suspicious alternator in a box to take to le Luc around 4 pm, as if it were a newborn baby or an organ to be transplanted.

Thank you Eric and Nathalie!

2. We raced the baby/organ to Le Luc in our rental car because we knew the specialist “AZ aero” would close soon, but Olivier -apparently the only one in France working in his field- was waiting for us, he tested the alternator immediately on the appropriate bench and it worked! He carefully replaced the safety pin that he had removed for the test with a new one, also stainless steel, as instructed in the manual. He recommended we order the regulator from the company “Aero Stock” right nextdoor to his workshop (we were thinking we needed to order it from a Cirrus specialist in Avignon). To top it all, amazing Olivier did not charge us anything for his intervention, during which he also advised to order a magneto capacitor and contact for our trip because apparently they break easily and are not complicated to replace….if you have the parts.

Thank you AZ Aero!!

3. Aero Stock was still open and immediately ordered the regulator which needed to come from the US (aviation paradise, remember?) and would arrive on Friday or Monday (it was Wednesday).

4. Joël, helped us through the whole process with his expert advice and local knowledge and also showed us around Nice for a whole day! Nice is only about 30 minutes from Cannes and also has an airport but Joël had recommended we land in LFMD because it is much more General Aviation friendly than Nice International, although the latter is more spectacular with its runway by the sea, almost in the middle of the city.

Nice nightlife!!

5. And finally, thanks to having landed in Cannes, we were close to Grasse where our Ipsos colleague and friend Andrei lives and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner with his wife and him at restaurant La Môme, in a very cheerful and musical atmosphere because June 21st is La fête de la musique.

(yes, in the bottom right corner is Alex who makes most of our pictures and is featured least... not a very fair deal...)

It was a silver lining to have this mechanical problem in France versus in many other places where it could have been much more complicated to solve, and our improvised weekend road trip to the Italian Riviera made up for it all. I will describe that along with our super-short-stop in Monaco and our second Italian adventure -the Lakes- which should be starting tomorrow (it is Tuesday June 29th by now and as I am writing this, Alex is driving back from Le Luc with the new regulator to be installed by RPM; today's post is almost real-time for once!).

To finish, here is our extensive Media coverage, as promised:

- Alex’ Normandy trip with Ivan, Castles, Crosses and Cheese:

- Alex’ Barcelona trip, Better than Disneyland (sorry for the advertisement in front of it, no idea how that crept in but we are certainly not getting the revenue...):

- Article in Ouest France (with this link you get an idea, if you want the whole text, I have a copy so you don’t need to subscribe to the newspaper):

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Luis Eduardo Cepeda
Luis Eduardo Cepeda
Jun 30, 2021

Wow, now I understand why they are not seen in flightradar24 (Mode S)

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