French lessons

How French aero clubs nurture the nation's GA community

September 1, 2012

french aero clubs

Photography by Mark Wagner

In spite of all the bad news in general aviation these days, there are times when you see glimpses of hope, positive energy, and strategies that bode well for the future. Times when you forget about the recession, view sluggish student starts as a temporary glitch, try to forget about the threat of user fees, and remember why you started flying in the first place. A recent visit to France gave me one of those uplifting moments, and made me wonder how that nation’s general aviation scene seemed to foster high levels of enthusiasm and flying activity. Sure, French general aviation pilots face challenges galore, but many forces work in their favor.

The aero club network

Unquestionably, the biggest GA booster in France is the nation’s network of 650 aero clubs, located at some 450 airports. Virtually all of France’s 42,000 GA pilots are members of an aero club, following a tradition of membership that dates back to the founding of the Fédération Française Aéronautique (FFA) in 1929. The FFA oversees the aero clubs with the blessing of France’s equivalent of the FAA (the Direction Générale de l’Aviation Civile, or DGAC), acts as an advocate for GA interests, provides insurance to pilot-members, and lobbies to defend the freedom to fly. Membership is 55 euros/$71 a year; a subscription to the FFA’s monthly magazine, info-pilote, is another 35 euros/$45 annually. It’s the biggest aviation federation in Europe, and membership in the FFA is a prerequisite for joining an aero club.

atc tower

By the way, general aviation isn’t the only activity with its own federation. The French are big into nationally organized clubs; among them are those for golfing, archery, hunting, and other forms of recreation. What’s more, some large companies’ enterprise committees (comités d’entreprise) reimburse their employees for participating.

Do French airports have landing fees? Yes, but thanks to the FFA and AOPA-France, these fees are some of the lowest in Europe. Where you might pay the equivalent of $12 to $15 for landing at a typical GA airport in other European nations, the norm in France is on the order of $7—with a few exceptions.

The Brevet de Base

France has a rough equivalent of the U.S. sport pilot certificate. A decade ago, the DGAC established the Brevet de Base (BB, or basic license). Students as young as age 15 can earn the Brevet de Base after just 15 hours of dual instruction. After passing written and flight tests, the newly minted pilot is free to fly fixed-gear, fixed-pitch-propeller piston singles for fun—as long as the flying is under VFR, and within 30 kilometers/16 nm of the airport. An additional endorsement is needed to carry passengers. While the minimum amount of dual instruction may be 15 hours, word has it that most first-time students take around 25 hours to earn their sign-offs to take the practical flight test. The typical total cost of earning the BB is about 3,500 euros/$4,500. Even so, for pilots looking to fly purely for fun, the Brevet is the way to go—especially if an aero club is nearby, and an enterprise committee is helping to pay.

Brevet d’Initiation Aéronautique (BIA)

The Brevet d’Initiation Aéronautique (BIA) is another means by which the FFA helps young people get into flying. This certificate is awarded by France’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Transportation, and is available to motivated students age 15 to 18 years old through their high schools and a participating aero club. Students take classes in aviation-related subjects such as aerodynamics and meteorology at their high school, receive some ground school time at their aero club, then pass a written test. Successful students are then given two or three flights of 30 to 40 minutes (paid for by the student’s parents, the high school, banks, private subsidies, plus a 50-euro scholarship from the FFA), in the front and back seat. Whenever possible, this includes a short dual cross-country flight, to help students put navigation theory into practice.

If all goes well, BIA students are then eligible to go for the Brevet de Base (one-third go for it), including further scholarships from the FFA of up to 670 euros for a BB, and 1,270 more when they get their full pilot license.

Primary training isn’t the only subsidized flying activity. A similar program is available for those wanting to become flight instructors; the cost of training is shared between the supporting aero club (one-third) and the FFA (two-thirds), provided the new instructor signs up for 300 hours of dual at the benefit of the aero club.

jodel d140 christian sinet

Aéro Club du Dauphiné

To get an idea of the aero club experience, I visited the Aéro Club du Dauphiné (ACD, at http://aeroclubdudauphine.fr/, if you feel like practicing your French), based at the Le Versoud airport just outside Grenoble. With exemplary facilities, 600 members, 27 airplanes, 27 instructors, around 30 volunteer-employees, 12 paid staff, and locations at three satellite fields, this aero club racked up 9,600 flying hours and 1.8 million euros/$2.3 million in revenues in 2011 alone.

“This is the biggest, most active aero club in France,” said Christian Sinet, the club’s president. “Mainly, I think, because we are so near the French Alps and because we do so much to recruit pilots and provide a good social environment.” Sinet said that 10 percent of ACD’s members have the Brevet de Base, 70 percent have a full pilot’s license, and “we train about 100 students per year, plus 120 high school students attend the BIA program before joining the club.”

At Le Versoud there are airport open-house days, introductory flights, sightseeing flights, and frequent formation-flying shows held for the public by a group of seven pilots who call their team WIPS, for “Wings in Purple Sky.” Oh, and there’s a very nice restaurant in the same building as the aero club—a favorite with pilots and nonpilot locals alike. And yes, wine is served.

Sinet, who is serving his third one-year term without pay, is retired, but still finds himself putting in plenty of hours at busy Le Versoud—especially on VFR weekends. “Our six staff mechanics work weekdays, though,” he said. “Remember that many of our airplanes are 30 to 40 years old, and with all the flying we do, we need a full-time staff of technicians to keep all the airplanes flying and meet the demand. But we couldn’t do it without our volunteers, who handle all sorts of administrative tasks, and our voluntary instructors.”

It costs 180 euros/$234 per year for ACD dues (60 euros/$78 if the member is younger than 25), and rental rates—wet—vary according to the airplane. ACD’s Cirrus SR20 goes for 195 euros/$253 per hour, for example, but the most popular of the fleet—the 10 Robin DR400s—go for 142 to 188 euros ($184 to $239) an hour depending on the horsepower. Fuel was running at 2.19 euros/$2.84 per liter when I was there, which works out to about $11.30 per gallon of 100LL avgas.

The fleet includes the DR 400s, the Cirrus, four Socata Rallyes, a Thielert-powered Robin DR135, a Cessna 172, a CAP 10 aerobatic two-seater, two light sport airplanes, and five Jodel D140s dubbed “Mousquetaires.” The Jodel and Robin DR400 airplanes are the backbone of the fleet, and they’re French through and through—despite their Lycoming engines. With their wood-and-fabric, cranked-wing construction they’re unmistakable, roomy four-seaters with sliding canopies and control sticks.

It’s the taildragger Mousquetaires that serve as the macho machines of the ACD. Fitted out with retractable skis, these airplanes land on snow-covered mountaintop landing strips in the colder months, and are used for flying to the nearby paved mountain strips, called “Altiports.” These include L’Alpe d’Huez and its better-known neighbor, Courchevel. To land at either of these places is the experience of a lifetime. Courchevel, for example, is paved, all right—but the runway is a mere 1,700 feet long, with an 18-degree upslope and a less-than-even surface. L’Alpe d’Huez is even shorter. Don’t believe me? Google “Courchevel Airport” and behold the videos.

Club President Christian Sinet is especially busy on weekends, when locals like to watch the action.

mountain flying

Mountain flying

AOPA Live Executive Producer Warren Morningstar, photographer Mark Wagner, and I pile into two Mousquetaire skiplanes and head for perhaps the two most unforgiving airports in the world. Go-arounds are impossible, owing to rock walls at the ends of the one-way runways. This kind of flying is not for the faint of heart. Although L’Alpe d’Huez and Courchevel serve ski communities, arriving safely is no party. It calls for very, very precise flying.

Our pilots were Jean-Pierre Triques, at the helm of F-BOPT, and John Archer—a British citizen who works at Grenoble’s Institut Laue-Langevin—flying F-BNIF. Archer, who of course belongs to the French Association of Mountain Pilots, said that earning a mountain checkout at ACD is no walk in the park. “I spent 20 hours flying the airplane on wheels, then 30 more hours flying the Mousquetaire on skis. The flight test had me doing six landings a day at each airport, and another two to three landings at airports and landing strips on skis,” he said.

A few short minutes after takeoff from Le Versoud, we’re flying around the mountaintops and through the passes. At 8,500 feet it feels very much like nap-of-the-earth flying, and all very exciting as the snow-covered terrain slides by. Soon enough, L’Alpe d’Huez comes into view, and Archer descends to 6,700 feet, steering for the entry point to the pattern.

“Altimeter errors are common, so we descend and make a pass over the runway at about 100 feet agl to look over the strip and check for winds,” he says. “After that, it’s a right pattern to Runway 6, at about 6,400 feet. It’s easier to judge your progress to the touchdown point when you fly a lower pattern altitude, so that’s important.

“So is flying the approach at 110 km, or about 60 knots, with full flaps. No faster—unless the winds are a factor—and no slower. You must be at 60 knots and you must touch down within the first 100 feet or so. Remember, no go-arounds, so if you land too long or too fast, the only option is to steer the airplane off the runway and accept any damage.”

plane keys

The aero club’s airplane keys come with fuel cards and work with software from SafetyPlane that tracks time aloft, engine parameters, and even aircraft position via GPS.

aeroclub du dauphine runway

Archer and Triques nail their landings, but it’s what happens immediately afterwards that’s counterintuitive. You apply power—lots of it—so you can climb the steep grade to the ramp, and the chalet serving up coffee.

Stories abound of pilots who stopped their airplanes on the grade, only to roll backwards. Then it’s a matter of stopping the airplane and calling for a tow.

The Courchevel landings are just as accurate, and before long we’re headed back to Le Versoud. Every once in a while Archer points out a snow-covered landing strip, in the middle of nowhere—indistinguishable to the untrained eye, but evident to those who’ve flown to them during the full skiplane checkout.

Back at the airport, there’s a crowd at the fence, and in the restaurant. The WIPS team is firing up and taxiing out for more formation flying. There are smiles all around, and after the WIPS’ performance a raucous review of air-to-air camera footage of the team in action. It may be fashionable for Americans to think of European pilots writhing in agony over user fees and high avgas prices, but here, in surroundings like these, it is quite the opposite.

Email tom.horne@aopa.org

formation flight
Thomas A. Horne

Thomas A. Horne | AOPA Pilot Editor at Large, AOPA

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Tom Horne has worked at AOPA since the early 1980s. He began flying in 1975 and has an airline transport pilot and flight instructor certificates. He’s flown everything from ultralights to Gulfstreams and ferried numerous piston airplanes across the Atlantic.