Back in the 1980s, I used to inquire of my grandfather about a pile of airplane parts that was strung from the ceiling of his hangar in rural Upstate New York, asking why he didn’t fix “that one.” “Oh, that’s the PA-11. Your father wants one. I am finding parts for it.” By the time I turned 15, my grandfather was test running this airplane on a cow patch at his winter home in Florida, where he began giving me informal lessons “because instructors just want to milk it. You need to learn so you can impress this guy.”
I would take my solo flight in that airplane in 1997, and earned my pilot’s license in New York in 1998. I never imagined I would fly this airplane all over the United States….and Europe.
It isn’t a fast plane by any standard: cruise speed of 75 miles per hour on a good day. Its fuel range is only three hours, which means I can’t get very far. It was a basic model when it left the factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania in 1949, and it is still a basic airplane now, with just 6 instruments – the minimum required by law. What all of this simplicity offers is a ton of fun, incredible up close views, lower cost, and fantastic photography.
Fast forward to early 2016, when the airplane was unpacked from a shipping container near Frankfurt, Germany after an epic series of adventures all over Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, and Utah in 2015. Less than two months after its arrival, the airplane made its maiden flight after reassembly in Germany, and the adventures began.
There was a bit of a problem, however. Germany was harsh – too harsh for aviation over the long term. As I can work anywhere, this bucket of cultural cold water in my face was something I could change, and so I decided to do something about it later in 2016.
Thus began a search all over Europe for a new place to live, one with a focus on aviation, being away from the big city, and in a place with sunny weather, but also with a requirement it can’t be too hot. In effect, the impossible combination that everyone wants. After months of stressful searching, I discovered La Cerdanya Aerodrome in the Catalan Pyrenees, north of Barcelona. The issue, as always, is the presence of hangar space, as the antique requires it – sticking it outside just won’t work.
In my rusty Spanish (I hadn’t spoken it in a decade), I got the gist that someone had crashed an airplane, and there was an opening! I told him I would take it, and then decided to drive down from Germany to confirm that I would actually want to live there. After some real estate searching and nonsense, I found a place to rent near the airport, and set the date to depart Germany.
This time, the airplane wouldn’t be shipped to [another] foreign country, it would be flown. While I had made it up to the Netherlands in the PA-11, I hadn’t stepped foot in France, and I was told it would be difficult. Stereotypes of refusing to speak anything but French were bandied around by the Germans, so much so that I printed a cheat sheet of French phrases and, in a resigned fashion, said “we’ll see what happens” and plunged in, intent on crossing the entirety of France in one day.
It didn’t quite work out as expected, as the weather turned to pot, a small mechanical issue presented itself, and I ran out of time on the first day, making it only to Valence. What did work was interacting with French air traffic control: they all speak English and are very helpful. The following day, I discovered La Mistral and the Tramontane, fierce localized winds that blow on sunny days, making the South of France what it is. Nonetheless, after about 8 hours of flying, in a fashion that felt like Thelma and Louise, or Bonnie and Clyde, I started the ascent into the French Pyrenees, with La Cerdanya in mind.
The French border runs through the middle of our valley, meaning that the aerodrome is only a few kilometers across the border. As I was contemplating the reality that I was unsure if I should speak English or Spanish on the radio (or if anyone would bother to answer), I discovered that the winds were plainly awful on an otherwise perfectly sunny day. Very close to the airport, I was getting angrily knocked around by winds of unknown origin. Upon landing, I asked what that was all about, and was told: “Oh, we don’t fly in that part of the valley on north wind days. It is very dangerous.”
With that fitting conclusion to another transcontinental adventure with an ill-equipped airplane, I began a second chapter in expat living, dragging an antique family airplane with it. Little did I know that the antics of my first day would pale in comparison to Spanish customs regarding small planes and private aviation.
Using the most ill-equipped aircraft possible for such adventure flying, Garrett Fisher has based his antique Piper PA-11 Cub Special in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the highest airport in North America in Colorado, an elitist airpark near Yellowstone, the busiest airport in Germany, and now a secluded hideout in the Spanish Pyrenees. In the process, he has flown to an exhaustive list of rugged and dangerous places in America as well as some of the most beautiful sites in Europe, amassing an enormous collection of aerial photographs. Perpetually clueless about what is coming next, he continues wandering in the airplane, blogging about his adventures at www.garrettfisher.me.