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Ownership: The European project

An epic journey through regulatory red tape

By Garrett Fisher

In early 2016, I moved from Wyoming to Germany, shipping a U.S.-registered Piper PA–11 Cub Special as part of the move. During my planning, I had learned that International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) norms would function in Germany, and I would be able to fly the Cub using my FAA pilot certificate. Whether I pursued a European equivalent was something left for another time.

P&E March 2019
The author’s European travels took him to such scenic locales as the foothills of the Pyrenees in Catalunya, Spain (top), and Interlaken, Switzerland (below, left).

I became aware of a complexity of European regulation after arrival. The European Aviation Safety Agency, a pan-European regulator, had passed a regulation some years earlier requiring that European residents acquire a European equivalent license to fly an N-registered aircraft in Europe. This requirement didn’t apply to nonresident foreigners. EASA had been suspending the implementation of the rule for five years at that point, on an annual basis.

Later that year, I moved to Spain, flying the Cub south, continuing what had become a grand adventure. When the time came in April for continued derogation of the EASA regulation, I checked on its status and found a new wrinkle: EASA does not suspend the regulation. Rather, it allows each European nation to decide on annual derogation. Spain had not gotten around to derogation, whereas France, Switzerland, Germany, and a pile of other nations had.

I had a problem to solve. As a European resident, did I have a license to fly the Cub or not? I checked with AOPA-Spain and couldn’t get an answer. Local instructors said I’d be fine, as did just about every hangar and online forum “lawyer” I spoke with, basing their determination on my U.S. citizenship (ICAO technically affords protection in this instance). It seemed that the Spanish didn’t care and the rest of the world kept pointing me to the question: How would they know? My only reply was that an incident would be the most likely way, for which I’d face potential personal injury, third-party damage, a hull claim, and enforcement action—all at the same time. It would be cheaper to get another license than fly around in a semi-legal fog.

While Europe as a continent can be complex, they have done some interesting things here with the European project. EASA is one of them, where one license in any of 32 countries is equivalent in all others. That means that with one license I can legally fly aircraft on any of 32 national registers, without additional validation, conversion, or any other hassles. Certain mechanical and other elements also have such transnational recognition.

I began the process with the local flying club, which kicked me to headquarters in Barcelona. EASA has a stipulated FAA conversion process, which—among other things—requires taking two written exams, down from seven if I started from scratch. Since I initially wanted a Spanish license, Spanish ground school requirements engaged, requiring lots of driving and a stunning cost for ground school. I decided to get the medical out of the way before worrying about school, which triggered a wrinkle I had forgotten about: I was born with poor vision in one eye. This problem had been solved in the United States as a student pilot with a special FAA flight.

P&E March 2019Phoning a Spanish aviation medical examiner, I was directed to the one and only AME in Spain who could handle the problem. Learning a bit about Spanish culture, unanswered phone calls and emails for two months indicated he wasn’t interested, so I threw my hands up and went to the United Kingdom. Doing all of this in English, with cultural similarities and a newfound permission to self-study under U.K. regulations, was just what I needed.

After extensive consultation with the Civil Aviation Authority and an AME in the United Kingdom, it was determined I would need to do another flight test as well as a comprehensive eye exam. While it was extra work, any European flight instructor with a Class 1 medical could do the flight, and any board-certified eye doctor in Europe could do the eye exam. The Spanish were reluctant to do the flight test, so I drove to France and found a Piper Super Cub instructor who was incredibly helpful. Three hours at an eye doctor at the local Spanish hospital was enough to complete the eye exam, and I was off to London to get my Class 2 medical, which was a success, valid for 5 years because I was under age 40.

One technicality of EASA is that the entire license must be done under one national authority. Medical, written exams, checkride, and other requirements must be completed under U.K. certification. Only with the final license in hand does interoperability kick in. With that in mind, I found a school 500 miles away in Spain that operated under U.K. rules, and began corresponding to arrange the next steps. I found out some new requirements: I would need a radiotelephony operator’s license, certification to speak English, and I would also need to take a third written exam.

While all of this cost more, it was particularly byzantine to try to coordinate all the steps, as many different parties were involved. As one could expect, I asked until I was blue in the face about my FCC Radiotelephone Operators Permit, the fact I am a native English speaker, the fact that the FAA license indicates “English proficient,” and the fact that I have a current commercial pilot certificate. European rules do not accommodate common sense, affording no waiver to the process.

Once my studies were completed, it was time to schedule a pile of examinations with the U.K. school in Spain. However, that firm was unable to take on new students for an extended period, so I was back to the drawing board. With winter coming, the United Kingdom wasn’t a desirable place for a checkride, so I searched in the Iberian Peninsula until I found a school that did the written exams in Mallorca, a Mediterranean island. After a weekend trip, the written exams were done. That left arranging to pay an examiner to come from the United Kingdom to my home airport to handle the English exam, radio exam, and checkride, none of which was too terrible, especially as the weather stayed nice in winter.

That completed, I embarked on a 5-month process of extensive interaction with the CAA, sending mountains of paperwork and forms back and forth, ultimately finding that the U.K. CAA is at the moment in a state of disarray. Many items had to be chased through a bureaucratic nightmare, finally resulting in the issuance of my European private pilot license an astonishing five months after the checkride.

In all, the process took 16 months, and cost $4,061; it involved three airline flights, and activities in three countries. Only a few hours of cost involved time piloting an airplane, with the rest related to machinations of paperwork, travel, and onerous fees. The most challenging part was that no single party had an answer on how to proceed, leaving more detective work than I ever imagined to ensure legal compliance. It is, however, powerful to have the freedom to operate local aircraft in an additional 32 countries.AOPA

Garrett Fisher has published 16 books. He blogs about his experiences in his Piper Cub for AOPA Opinion Leaders (http://blog.aopa.org) and his own (www.garrettfisher.me).

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