Michael McCafferty - European Biplane Tour
An Absolutely Perfect Grass Runway
As I walked to my biplane this morning, I noticed a car speed across the ramp and stop in front of the prettier of the two biplanes (mine, of course!), and some very businesslike people got out, along with a cameraman, and started videotaping! There is an air show nearby at Oostende, Belgium this coming weekend, and they were doing a segment to announce the show on the TV news. They were using my plane as a background for the announcer.
After I refueled, preflighted, and jumped in the cockpit, the cameraman and the on-screen personality came over to the cockpit and said "Will you stay?" (referring to the air show). I gave him my best biplane pilot answer "I love this place where you live, and I would like to stay, but no, I cannot, the sun is shining, and the wind is calling me. I must fly away." If you have one of those satellite TV antennae that gets 500 channels, tune in to the Brussels channel and you may catch my act on the 5 o'clock news.
The prince of Luxembourg married the princess of Belgium (or maybe it's the other way around), and since their countries are right next to each other, there are some similarities in these two different lands. So I wasn't too surprised when the controller at Oostende airport refused to let Matthias and I take off in formation, even though the runway was enormous. I think these people are fun-deprived. Even when they stand in awe admiring our two airplanes, they don't smile. They are a very serious people.
The weather was clear to the north, so Matthias figured he would like to go northeast, and since it sure didn't matter much to me, we turned right when we hit the coastline and followed the beach for two hours until we got to the island of Texel, The Netherlands.
The visibility was very hazy for the entire trip, but when we approached Texel, there appeared low, almost-but-not-quite transparent little gray puffball cumulus clouds hanging lower and lower until we were forced down to 500 feet above the ground. If it got any worse, we would have had to turn around, but Texel was only a few more miles.
My GPS could not find Texel in its database, so I was following Matthias, whose GPS was more knowledgeable. This grass strip airport is situated somewhere in the middle of the island, surrounded by rectangular farms, all growing something green. What I am trying to describe is an airport that is impossible to find visually. I was sticking like glue to Matthias' rudder, and I thought he said it was right hand traffic for runway 22, and when he started doing some left turns, I was looking in all the wrong places, and completely disoriented. But when he finally announced he was on final, it all snapped into focus.
When it was my turn to land, there was a strong crosswind all the way down to about 50 feet above the ground, and I had a difficult time maintaining my position in the air along the extended centerline of the runway. As I approached ground level, everything smoothed out, the plane kept straight without any special controls, and it touched down.
Or did it? Did it really touch down? At first I thought it did, and then I thought it couldn't have. It must be floating above the grass, just an inch or so above, because I know my biplane is very close to the ground, but I can feel nothing. It will touch any second now... What was that? A little bump? Yes, it must have been a pebble under the wheel, almost a microscopic pebble because it was so slight, but it proved to me that the plane must in fact be on the ground, and yet I never knew the exact second when it first touched.
What was even more mysterious was the fact that my biplane is rolling along this grass runway for some several hundred feet and I am feeling almost nothing in my feet, or with my hands, or the seat of my pants. I have had only one other landing in my 4 years of flying that was this good, but it was on asphalt. I have never experienced a grass runway that was as perfectly maintained as this one.
We taxied off the runway and parked right in front of the outdoor restaurant, filled with spectators pointing at us and taking pictures. There was a big crowd farther down the line, beyond the parking area. They were skydivers, and there must have been a competition going on. What a great sight, the sky alive with colorful parachutes popping through the low clouds, and landing with precision in the circle around the big red X. I love to watch these jumpers, but you'll never catch me bailing out of a perfectly good airplane!
And speaking of a perfectly good airplane, here's the photo of the day, good old November Two Five Zero Yankee Mike, on the grass on the island of Texel, in the North Sea, The Netherlands:
It seemed like a very Dutch thing to do, so we went for it. I use a backpack to get my daily needs into town, and Matthias picked up this trick after he spent the first week hauling his huge duffel bag of clothes for the entire trip back and forth to the plane. With just a backpack, it was easy to choose the bikes. So here we are, bicycling 3 miles to town, down a country road on the island of Texel, a place we never even heard of until early this morning, when we looked at our charts.
We found our bed and breakfast lodging, and found that there was only one room, but with two beds. I asked the landlady to call back to the airport for another room. The airport manager said it would be virtually impossible to find another room. Pause. But he would make a call, can you hang on the phone for a minute. Pause. Pause. Yes, I have another room, right across the street from where you are, it is all arranged.
After checking in, we headed for the beach, just a couple of blocks away. The North Sea (it's called Nordsee hereabouts) was delightful, almost 70 degrees! The cloud layer had evaporated and the sun was warm. And the lunch I had at the airport was making me groggy, so I lay down on the beach to relax and soon I was sleeping like a baby. About an hour later, the flapping sounds of a child's kite nearby woke me, and I immediately noticed that the lowering sun was returning the island to its natural state of cold and wet. Time to get off the beach and get a cappuccino to warm up and wake up.
The town we are in is called De Koog, just a little bit north of Den Hoorn and west of De Waal. We are staying on Duinroostraat. I mention this in illustration of the curious Dutch habit of sticking in an extra vowel everywhere they can. If one vowel is good, then two of the same is even better.
It's tough to figure out what to eat around here. This is not the kind of place you find Americans going on their vacation, so the menus are not translated into English. What would you choose from this list: Rolmops, Zure Bom, Garnalen, or Gerookte Paling? See what I mean?
The bed and breakfast place where I'm staying is quite minimalist. No phone or TV, share the bathroom with other boarders (who are in there most of the time), the bed is really a cot, you must provide your own soap, etc. I give it a one-star rating, but only because it was available. This is the top of the season here in Texel, and people from nearby Amsterdam and Rotterdam flood (ooops, shouldn't use that word here in Netherlands) here to get away. I looked in the Guest Book and I'm the only American to stay here since the book was started in '94.
Click here for photos and info on the Texel International Airport.