My first visit to France was in 1966 when I attended summer school at the University of Clermont-Ferrand language institute in Vichy. Since then I’ve had the opportunity to visit again on several occasions while stationed in Germany, including a trip to Le Bourget for the Paris Air Show on one of three assignments with the Air Force. But I never made it to Normandy to see the D-Day beaches. This year I decided to fix that and designed a pilot’s visit to France.
Online, I found two aero clubs on the Carpiquet Airport (LFRK) serving the city of Caen: Aero Club Regional de Caen and Les Ailes du Calvados (Wings of Calvados – Caen is located in Normandy’s Calvados region). When I got to Carpiquet, I found a third aero club that didn’t show up on my web search — Cote de Nacre. But Les Ailes du Calvados (http://www.lesailesducalvados.fr/) had a Cirrus SR-20, and the rate with an instructor was 204 Euros ($275) per hour, wet, so I e-mailed my request to fly their Cirrus with an instructor. The president of the aero club, Jean-Claude Mottin, replied they would be happy to host me. He put me in contact with one of his instructors, Sebastien Anquetil, who only wanted to know a tentative flight date. I had planned a ten-day visit and wanted to schedule the flight early in that window in case there were any weather delays; he was good with that.
Caen, a city of 115,000 and provincial capital of Normandy, located between the British and American beaches for the D-Day invasion, offers lodging that ranges from 5-star hotels to youth hostels, so they can accommodate any style or wallet. I wanted to immerse as much as possible and didn’t want your standard hotel experience, so I opted for a bed-and-breakfast and stayed in a local family’s guest room (http://www.vigotplaza.com). A continental breakfast was included in the room rate, and I was on my own for lunch and dinner, which was exactly what I wanted. Francois and Janine were excellent hosts ready with information and assistance whenever I needed.
I landed in Paris on Sunday morning, September 9, 2012, took a train to Caen arriving that afternoon, and picked up my rental car on Monday. I found the aero club unattended, so I enjoyed lunch at the adjacent restaurant.
On Tuesday, September 11, I took a guided tour of the D-Day beaches to get myself oriented before Wednesday’s flight. Flags at the American cemetery were at half mast to commemorate 9/11/2001. Wednesday morning’s weather was low overcast and raining, but the forecast was for broken clouds and scattered showers in the afternoon. By the time I headed to the airport for lunch, the field was VFR with scattered to broken clouds at 4,000 feet. After lunch, I met Sebastien to plan our flight.
The commercial terminal and other airport facilities are located on the east side of the airfield, but the aero club and restaurant are located on the west side of the field in an administration building and next to hangars built by the Germans during World War II. The club has two aircraft — the SR-20 and a Tampico TB9 — serving fifty club members, ten of whom have been checked out in the SR-20.
While we were planning the flight, a small rain cell passed over, but by the time we were ready to go to the airplane it was again VFR.
Although Carpiquet is an international airport they have no ATIS. There is only one frequency for ground control and tower, but it is not at all congested. The controller’s English was excellent so I had no problem calling for taxi instructions and clearance for takeoff. Once we cleared the control zone we were VFR just like in the States. I headed north to the shoreline.
Our first checkpoint as we headed to the coast was Pegasus Bridge, which the British took early on D-Day before the Germans had a chance to destroy it (as told in the movie “The Longest Day”). At the coast we headed west to overfly the British and Canadian beaches of Sword, Juno, and Gold. After that we toured the American beachheads at Omaha and Utah. We circled for pictures over the American cemetery at Omaha Beach and over Pointe du Hoc between Omaha and Utah, where U.S. Army Rangers lost over half of their 225-man landing party in the effort to take that strategic location. The American cemetery is on a bluff about 100 feet above sea level overlooking Omaha Beach and is maintained by U.S. citizens of the American Battle Monument Commission; the grounds are immaculate.
Next we went on to Saint Mere Eglise, the drop zone of the 101st Airborne (also depicted in the movie “The Longest Day” with the paratrooper who got hung up on the church steeple). Finally, we headed southwest to find Mount Saint Michel, a church and fortress built on an island starting in the eighth century. The island-fortress now has a 1,300 year history involving William the Conqueror, Joan d’Arc, and King Louis the XIV and the French Revolution. Mount Saint Michel has a 1.5NM-radius restricted area around it up to 3,000 feet AGL, so we used the GPS to arc the restricted area since the ceiling in that area was below 3,000 feet.
After that we headed back to Caen and an uneventful landing at LFRK to complete a great 1.8 hour flight.
I also felt it important to visit the Memorial to the Lafayette Escadrille of World War I, even though I couldn’t fly over it since it is just outside Paris near Versailles. There are sixty-eight American and two French pilots buried in the crypt at the memorial in the middle of a beautiful park.
I knew from the outset that this was going to be a rewarding and enjoyable adventure, but the actual trip exceeded all my expectations thanks to some wonderful people and the great region of France I visited.