From Luxembourg to Georgia on Cessna 172

Every year our aeroclub, Aéro-Sport asbl, organizes various flyouts across Europe and sometimes even the long distance rallies.

In August 2015 we visited Georgia with a purpose to check the possibility to organize a flyout to Tbilisi. The intended airport was Natakhtari, operated by Vanilla Sky. We found a nice and friendly FBO 20 km away from Tbilisi built on the ex-Soviet, now private, airfield with its own regional airline, hotel with a swimming pool, restaurant and DJ bar. We liked the place and decided that it might be a nice destination for our next rally. We met the Georgia’s officials, government representatives and the head of civil aviation authority. 
We spent several months planning the event and negotiating related technical issues like AVGAS availability (there was none in Georgia), flight permits etc. 14 aircraft crews confirmed the participation. The event was scheduled to start on 4th of August and the intended route was :

LHJK (Jakabszállás, Hungary) — LBSF (Sofia, Bulgaria) — LTBR (Bursa Yenisehir, Turkey) — ZZZZ (Engiz-Samsun, Turkey) — LTCB (Ordu Giresun, Turkey) — UGSB (Batumu, Georgia) — UGSA (Natakhtari, Georgia)

On 15th of July a coup happened in Turkey. It was probably the first time ever when a nation’s air force attacked its own capital. As a result the authorities issued the NOTAM effectively prohibiting VFR flights:

A3150/16 (Issued for LTAA LTBB) — 
1. ANKARA AND ISTANBUL TMA CLOSED TO ALL VFR FLIGHTS BTN GND-20.000FT EXCEPT,
- AIRCRAFT UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF THE PRESIDENCY AND PRIME MINISTRY,
- POLICE AIRCRAFTS
- AMBULANCE FLIGHTS
- FIRE FIGHTING FLIGHTS.
2. THE BELOW MENTIONED AREA CLOSED TO ALL VFR FLIGHTS BTN 
GND-20.000FT EXCEPT,
- AIRCRAFT UNDER THE AUTHORITY OF THE PRESIDENCY AND PRIME MINISTRY,
- POLICE AIRCRAFTS
- AMBULANCE FLIGHTS
- FIRE FIGHTING FLIGHTS.
AREA : 412736N0300005E 404611N0330419E 400356N0295621E 394640N0322857E. 18 JUL 14:58
2016 UNTIL 28 JUL 21:00 2016. CREATED: 18 JUL 15:17 2016

On Jul 28th this NOTAM expired, however the other one was still prohibiting VFR flights in Ankara and Istanbul TMA. The majority of our aircraft were C172/C182 types lacking enough range to transition Turkey without fuel stop. There were no AVGAS available eastward of Ankara, so the NOTAM was a showstopper for us.

At last minute our on sight friend (and organizing committee member) Turgut was able to arrange VFR corridor for us. Turkish officials tried to persuade him to stop the rally but he said that he’s not ready to throw away a year’s efforts of the organizing committee. So we obtained two permits from the ministry of internal affairs: one authorizing VFR and another effectively waiving all airport fees.

None of us required a visa to transit Turkey and to enter Georgia but still we had to go through customs and passport control. We didn’t use any planning/handling agents; except the help of our Turkish friend, all FPLs, slot requests, permissions were DIY.

August 5, day one

Leg one ELLX -> EDME:
Initially my crew consisted of three pilots, but few hours before the start there were only two of us left. We took Cessna 172SP with G1000 from our Luxembourg (ELLX) home base. Two week prior the event the plane was involved in a incident and went to maintenance. The plane also required to complete a 100hrs check. The maintenance company released the plane exactly on the start date but only at 3pm so we departed late.

Ready to depart

None of us was instrumental rated so we didn’t expect to reach LHJK (~600NM) that day, the plan was to stay overnight at LOWL. After refueling at EDME (Eggenfelden) we departed to Linz (LOWL) just to be trapped in IMC with scattered ceiling at 1000' AGL. It was getting dark so we had to return.
AVGAS at EDME was ~€2/l plus we paid ~€30 for landing and parking fees.

Returning to EDME after getting caught in IMC

August 6, day two

Leg one EDME -> LHUD:
Unfortunately, EDME was closed until 9am. So we decided to skip LHJK and to proceed to Szeged (LHUD) to clear outbound EU customs because we were already late. 
The customs at LHUD had to be arranged at least 24hrs in advance and that had been already done by other pilots participating in the rally. We topped off the tanks at EDME and departed, climbing above all those scattered layers. Due to severe weather we decided not to shortcut the Alps but stayed 9000' over the valley instead. Nevertheless, we were visual to the ground and were able to enjoy those gorgeous mountain views.

The Alps

We were a bit late but customs and police officers were still waiting for us at LHUD. It took us 30 minutes for passport and customs clearance and we paid ~€35 per person. After refueling we sent a slot request letter to Sofia, filed our flight plan (not forgetting to mention in 18 — TECHNICAL STOP, SELF-HANDLING, NO HANDLING REQUIRED), received a confirmation and departed.

Customs @ LHUD

Leg two LHUD -> LBSF:
We decided to refuel at LBSF, Sofia. Fast-forward: that was clearly not the best choice because of AVGAS price (~€3/l) and rather complex arrival-departure procedures, we should’ve used Serbian Nys instead. Upon receipt of clearance to enter Serbian Airspace, we proceeded directly to Sofia. Had to stay over / side of some CB’s in the mountains, and there also was some light turbulence. A follow-me car and a fuel truck met us upon arrival. Refuelling was quick, and the handling charges were like €30.

Sofia

Leg three LBSF -> LTBU:
We were required to cross the Turkish border at the specific waypoint and to take a specific route. We cleared the Sofia (LBSF) TMA and proceeded as instructed by Bulgarian ATC until the point ADORU. It was like 5PM LT. No night VFR rule in Turkey was mandatory, so we were wondering whether we’d be able to make it to Bursa (LTBU).

Turkey VFR corridor

Approximately 20NM before ADORU we were instructed by Bulgarian ATC:

-Lima Xray, just for your information, I’ve been contacted by Istanbul and the last landing time for you at LTBR is XX:XX (which is 1hr ahead of our ETA)

The alternative was Corlu (LTBU) which apparently required significant handling charges but we had to land anyway. We contacted Sofia ATC again:

- Sofia Information, Lima Xray, requesting diversion to alternative LTBU according to flight plan
- Lima Xray, please stand by
- (10 min later) LTBU is approved. Please contact Istanbul Information on XXX.XX. And just for your information, LTBU will be closed tomorrow full day due to NOTAM

It was very hard to contact Istanbul Information on all three provided frequencies, apparently the radio didn’t work well below 7,500'. We switched back and forth to Sofia ATC. Unwilling to become trapped for the whole day at Corlu, we quickly ran through alternatives such as Burgas (LBBG) and Primorsko (LBPR). However, Sofia ATC resisted our attempts to advice on weather or change FPL, insisting that the diversion to Primorsko should be done via Turkey ATC. We headed to Corlu. It was already dark and we noticed a red/blue car lights flashing on a taxiway.

Çorlu approach, 7:40PM LT

After landing we taxied to an apron full of training aircraft, Cessnas and Diamonds. A team of follow-me car driver, policemen and handling agent met us, soon to be joined by Corlu airport manager. They said that the NOTAM is effective from 6am so if we refuel and depart at 5.30am we would be perfectly fine. 
The airport terminal was completely empty. We passed through the inbound customs, got our passports stamped and had some nice talk in the briefing office. The ATC guy who had his shift just finished took us to a Turkish restaurant, and we were assigned with a room at the airport staff hotel. Turkish hospitality :)

They didn’t charge us for anything except for AVGAS (€2.6/l).

August 7, day three

Leg one LTBU -> LTBR:
Kind of refreshed, we woke up early, having to depart before 5.30am. We quickly preflighted and took off just at the sunrise. The route above Sea of Marmara was quite spectacular.

5.30AM departure
Sunrise over Sea of Marmara

We landed at Bursa (LTBR) and waited for our team members (who arrived yesterday and spent a night in a hotel) while refueling.

Me drinking some tea

Leg two LTBR -> ZZZZ:
Departed first from LTBR, we proceeded to Samsun, ZZZZ, a private university airport. Previously we arranged a truck of AVGAS to be delivered to ZZZZ.

Leg three ZZZZ -> LTCB:
The only point of Ordu (LTCB) stopover was to clear outbound passport control and customs. To get our passports stamped was a quick 10 minutes deal but to pay all the charges tooks us more than an hour, thanks to one quite slow airport clerk.

En route to Bursa

We noticed convective stuff on radar near LTCG-UGSB, put on our life vests and departed on a 150NM leg over Black Sea to Batumi.

Leg four LTCB -> UGSB — diversion — LTCG:
En route to UGSB, as we were passing Trabzon (LTCG), the visibility was getting worse. The ceiling became less than 1500' and few miles from the coast line something resembling a squall line of CBs started to appear. We were still 30NM away from SARPI (the waypoint to enter Batumi), the clouds were becoming darker and there were few flashes. Divert! We turned back to Trabzon (LTCG).

Does not look good

We approached to LTCG and upon landing we were met by handler, police and customs. The LTCG was specified on our flight plan as an alternative; but we were already stamped out of Turkey, so we were required either to be stamped in again (and go through outbound passport check before departure) or wait in the transit area. Either way we were a real pain for the airport management. After some explanations they escorted us to the briefing office where we learned that the weather wouldn’t allow us to fly that day. Moreover, the outlook was not good for the next day (at least until midday) and there was no AVGAS available at Trabzon. Which meant that considering the remaining fuel and reserves (~24 gal), we had just one attempt left to reach UGSB Batumi (and to turn back in case of severe weather). Should we return, we would be grounded at Trabzon with no AVGAS.
The officials told us that since we had already cleared passport/customs we had to stay in the area before passport control gates. Fortunately, there were some metal chairs to sleep on and we brought our sleeping gear from the aircraft. We filled out the outbound declarations. The customs guys held our passports to make sure we wouldn’t go outside and do anything funny. On the other hand, they were kind enough and brought us pizza & Coke. 
It was hard to sleep in that area, due to bright light and constant passengers arrivals.We were checking the radars, the precipitation was still there, and eventually managed to sleep for about 3 hours.

Lima Xray staying overnight @ LTCG

August 8, day four

Leg one LTCG -> UGSB:
We woke up at 4.30am, the radar was clear! Most of the precipitation was gone! We had a GO! Got our passports back, quickly preflighted and departed to UGSB. Climbing to 3000' we’ve encountered some clouds and light showers but none of that lead colored flashing stuff like the day before. The air was smooth. At 6AM we landed at UGSB.

Batumi approach

We were greeted by the ground staff (they were instructed and waited for us there). We finally joined our aeroclub group parked and refueled.

After the quick passport control, we had our coffee with Georgian Churchkhela — that was our breakfast — and started to meet our pilots.

All our team had reached Batumi (10 airplanes) the previous day, except for us. Guys in Cessnas, Flight Design ultralights, etc. But they flew 1000' above the sea (probably someone even lower) near the CB/TSRA. Well, it was their choice and risk, but we don’t fly in thunderstorms. If you’re above the water 1000' just one downdraft is enough and you’re wet. It was our call — to sleep on the floor instead.

It took us about 30 min to pay for the landing and security charges (€10 total). We’ve departed number one for a final leg.

Leg two UGSB -> UGSA Natakhtari:
Holding short of runway we were questioned by Batumi Tower on whether we were familiar with the prohibited areas near Kobuleti. Cleared for takeoff, we departed and enjoyed mountains, proceeding via Kutaisi (KTS) direct to UGSA.

En route from UGSB

The headwind was like 25kts and the turbulence over mountain ridges was quite annoying. We landed at UGSA number four!

Secured the airplane, took a shower, grabbed a beer and went to the swimming pool.

August 9, day five

No flying that day. It was an official reception where all pilots of our rally gathered with their wives and kids in Vanilla Sky hangar, together with the government officials of Georgia.

It was a day to carry out our organizers’ duties. Helped our friends to solve various issues. Some pilots noticed dirt in MOGAS. Always bring a fuel filter like Mr. Funnel when flying to unfamiliar destinations. One of ultralights had a low oil pressure. We arranged a briefing with GCAA for those who was willing to fly to Mestia (quite a picturesque airport in the mountains in Svanetia).

Approaching Mestia Airport (UGMS). Photo from our 2015 trip

Ensured that everyone received a briefing package mentioning all the prohibited and restricted areas (which are quite numerous in Georgia).

Having business back in Luxembourg we decided to go home the next day. It was a pity to depart early. Georgia is a nice country. Growing up in USSR, I’ve spent several summers on Black Sea coastal cities, Batumi and Kobuleti among them. The cuisine is delicious. One day the Georgians chose to become more open to the world and since then the country underwent tremendous transformation.

August 10, day six

Leg one UGSA -> UGSB:
We were the first to fly out from our group. Refueling at Batumi (UGSB) was not an option for us because the fuel tanker was scheduled to arrive at UGSB airport only on 18th of August. So the most practical option for us was to take the fuel on board in jerry cans. With some reluctance, I made sure that those cans were not completely full in order to allow some air to expand as we climb, that there were no leaks and that there was nothing rubbing against the cans in flight. We performed the take-off run calculations and a tested takeoff to asses whether we had enough runway on a hot day (30+C). With full tanks and 100l of fuel in cans on board, we were near the MTOW, so we waited for the sun to settle a little bit, loaded all our stuff and departed at 6PM.

Natakhtari ATC:
“Nu davaite rebyata, priyatnogo polyota!” [Do it, guys, have fun!]

We managed to get 140+kts GS to Batumi, landed exactly at the sunset and refueled.

Sunset over KTS

By that time we carried only one out of two 50L jerry cans of fuel in the passenger compartment. Sort of relieved! We stayed in Batumi overnight.

Batumi

August 11, day seven

Leg one UGSB -> LTCG:
We settled the paperwork (unfortunately had to wait until 9AM because all airport offices were closed) and had to wait a little bit more due to a thunderstorm in the vicinity. The plan was to land at Trabzon, dump the remaining jerry can of AVGAS to the tanks and to proceed either directly to Bursa (LTBR) or via a small airfield near Ankara (Sushm) to refuel, in case of strong headwind.

Approaching LTCG,

-Lima Xray, Trabzon tower. There is a problem with your flight plan. Discontinue your approach and hold outside Trabzon TMA
-Trabzon Tower, roger

Immediately upon landing a bunch of officials — armed police, custom guy, the familiar airport manager and some plainclothes types — either the airport security or the special service agents surrounded us and started to ask questions:

-Why did you land here?
-According to the flight plan. We’re flying Batumi to Bursa with a technical stop at Trabzon
-We have no flight plan for you
-Here it is, look at the confirmation (we showed them Deutsche Flugsicherung email). And here’s the Interior Ministry letter regarding our event

We decided to not waste time and refuel while those guys were arguing in Turkish what to do with us. We asked them if it would be ok to put the gas right there on apron. They didn’t care. Finally our passports were stamped and we were escorted to the briefing office, where we found the cause of our problem. The day before there was a terrorist attack in the south of country and security measures were stepped up again. They ignored our flight plan which had been filed via EUROCONTROL and insisted that we had to file it via local Turkish ATS. Locally filed plans were approved by military security service while EUROCONTROL filed ones were not. Briefing office staff offered us some Turkish tea which we gladly accepted. They said that small airplanes flying VFR were not a problem; the real problem was that we arrived at the wrong time. We filed the flight plan again and departed to Bursa.

Leg two LTCG -> LTBR:
Suddenly, we realized that there was no AVGAS for us at LTBR because the fuel truck didn’t arrive. We decided to proceed to LTBQ which was specified as an alternative in our FPL. We spent our longest leg (5+hours) cruising at FL105, leaned for fuel economy.
We were denied LTBQ where our Turkish friend Turgut waited for us due to “military restrictions”. So we landed at LTBR with ~1 hour of fuel reserve and waited for our friend to pick us up. He said that he saw us diverting on Flightradar (despite having no ADS/B transponder, apparently they receive information from ModeC).

August 12, day eight

Leg one LTBR -> LTBU:
So we parked our airplane with ~1hr of fuel remaining in the airport with no AVGAS available. The solution was to go Mad Max again, put some 20 gallons to the tanks and fly over the Sea of Marmara to Corlu (LTBU), to refuel, to get our passports checked and to depart to Bulgaria. Our friend drove us to Istanbul Aviation Club (located inside Sabiha Gokcen airport perimeter) where we got four jerrycans of AVGAS from the club’s fuel truck. It took us 1.5 hours (and a crazy driver) to reach Bursa by car. After refueling we proceeded to Corlu, listening to a heavy radio traffic of Istanbul arrival and looking outside for aircraft traffic.
While approaching LTBU we got quite a strong headwind (like 25G30). Had to tie down our Cessna to several big airliners wheel chocks. Man, that stuff was heavy! Unfortunately, the fuel truck guy refused to fill our 30L jerry can

Leg two LTBU -> LBGO:
Decided to avoid Sofia. Our first option was to proceed to Szeged refueling at Niš (LYNI) and the second option was to fly to meet our friends at Vetrenno, Bulgaria (LBxx) via Gorna Oryahovitsa (LBGO) for customs and passport check. We decided not go to Burgas or Varna (due to Fraport handling fees. Our friends were charged almost €200 for handling of C172). We called LBGO, confirmed that customs were available and managed to arrange delivery of some AVGAS by our friends to LBxx. Approaching the Turkey/Bulgarian Border, just after handed over to Bulgarian ATC we got a surprise from them again:

-Lima Xray, we have no flight plan for you. You are not allowed to enter Bulgarian airspace. Hold over VADEN

They kept us holding almost 15 minutes. Finally we filled the flight plan again (over the radio) and were cleared to proceed. It seems like it’s a recurrent problem in some Eastern European countries which are a part of EUROCONTROL but for some reason they keep on losing those flight plans filed not via a local ATS.

Should we?

LBGO is a Soviet-built airport with quite long (2500m) concrete runway. There is a skydiving club flying on AN-2s. All fees (landing, passport, etc) were €50.

Gorna Oryahovitsa Airport

Leg three LBGO -> LBxx:
On our approach to LBxx we saw a tiny 400m rough field with some scary-looking grain elevators near the threshold.

Short/rough field @ Vetrenno

One private operator uses this field for crop spraying ops. We put some AVGAS in Lima Xray and left.
A semi-constructed house was our place to sleep that night. Our sleeping bags were of use again.

August 13, day nine

Leg one LBxx -> LBGO:
We took off LBxx almost at the threshold having used all the available runway length and proceeded to LBGO for outbound customs and passport check. Paid €50 again and decided to skip Niš (LYNI) as we had enough fuel to make it to LTBU.
On our way we found a mystery airfield. There were so many airbases with long runways that had been constructed across the vast territory of Eastern Europe with the goal of fielding scores of military aircraft. Some are now standing dormant and decaying, some have been looted. Some have been converted to general aviation airports.

Leg two LBGO -> LTBU:
That leg was a cakewalk. Weather was completely visual at all times. We were handed over from one controller to another and quite often needed relays from airliners to contact our control stations. (Thanks a lot to you guys who relayed our comms!). We were listening to Metallica. The only problem was icing, OAT was around 0 degrees at 8500’. We descended to 6500’ as we saw some frozen droplets on wing struts. The icing and headwind slowed us down quite a bit. Inbound passport check was quite quick; we skipped customs because Bulgaria is within the EU custom zone and we’d been already cleared. We were tired and decided not to proceed to ELLX that day but to stay at LHJK.

Reșița, Romania

Leg three LTBU -> LHJK:
Finally we got to the rally official starting point! The Aero-Hotel (LHJK) is a private airfield with hotel, restaurant, sauna and spa. We enjoyed delicious Hungarian cuisine, resting after those nights spent at crew hotels, airport terminals and friend’s houses. There was a wedding celebration taking place in the hotel but nothing could disrupt our sleep.

Aero-Hotel (LHJK)

August 14, day ten

LHJK -> EDME:
The weather system that was plaguing the area around Vienna over the Alps was gone. We landed at Eggenfelden and refueled there. It was Sunday, we saw lots of small aircraft and skydivers.

EDME -> ELLX -> LFQV:
Several times we were advised by ATS regarding glider activity. We saw some gliders in the air at almost 6000’. Having arranged some AVGAS (~€2/l), we proceeded to Charleville-Mézières (LFQV). This small nice airport with a paved runway was a full stop for me. My friend flew the Lima Xray LFQV to ELLX solo.

Full stop