Alex wasn’t available in the morning, so after a light breakfast we took an Uber to the airport and spent a while asking around before we managed to find someone from the handling agent to guide us back to the aircraft. Fees were extremely reasonable for a 2 night stay, at less than 60 Euros total. The Bombardier private jet parked next to us taxied out at about the same time; clearly it was rush hour!
We were flying this leg VFR as Alex had suggested a detour to sight-see over the Danube delta. Several danger areas and restricted areas were active along our route, but ATC gave us clearances to pass through all of them, with a few restrictions on where we could fly. We headed south along the border with Moldova; underneath it was all tiny fields and tiny villages. As we approached Galati, and turned east to parallel the border with Ukraine, things started to become more developed and industrial. We received clearance through the airspace around Tulcea and headed out to admire the delta.
From here, it was a simple matter of following the coast down towards Varna. As we approached the border ATC wanted us out to see a little way, to enter Bulgarian airspace over one of their set entry points; the reason behind this wasn’t terribly clear. As it was we were forced to stay closer to shore than they wanted due to a pair of large emerging thunderstorms that we had to thread our way between. Nobody seemed to mind.
Varna have strict, and pretty low level, VFR routes that have to be followed in and out of their airspace. The ground along this part of the Black Sea coast was high and we skimmed the terrain until we suddenly shot out over the top of a high ridge and saw Varna and the airport laid out before us. We were put straight on to a right pattern for runway 27. A follow-me car met us as we taxied in past a long row of regional airliners, and led us to a parking space just in front of the terminal; holidaymakers waiting to board their flights looked on with interest.
The handlers, Fraport, met us at the aircraft. This German company have taken over most of the Greek airports, and raised prices for light aircraft to obscene levels, so when I saw that they run Varna I was worried, but in the end my fears were unfounded. The handlers were friendly and efficient, and the prices were very reasonable for an overnight stop at a large airport. It was clear that not many small airplanes come by, as we noticed the fuelers and a couple of other airport staff taking surreptitious selfies with Planey! We fueled up on arrival (fuel prices, sadly, were not in any way reasonable) and then headed in to the city and the “Hotel Boutique Splendid”.
Varna has been populated for millennia, with the oldest evidence of settlements dating back 100,000 years. A Roman city covered 47 hectares here and our first stop, after an abortive attempt to visit the archaeological museum, was the ruins of the Roman baths. Not much remains, but from the sections that are still present, it’s clear they were an enormous and impressive structure. From here we walked down to explore the beach and the very quiet port, bumping into a wedding party taking photos by the quayside, by one of the beautiful sailing vessels moored alongside.
A walk through the park took us into the center of downtown, so before dinner we stopped in to see the cathedral. The second largest cathedral in Bulgaria, it was opened in 1886, and is visually stunning from both within and without. We finished the evening with an exceptionally good Italian meal at a restaurant near the hotel. Without a guide, we decided not to try and figure out traditional Bulgarian food!
We left the hotel some time after 8am and took a taxi back to the airport. This time I had called the handling agents in advance to let them know we were coming, and we were met on arrival. The Fraport rep led us rapidly through the crew channels to the departure doors, and eventually a bus turned up to carry us the very short distance to the aircraft. Since we arrived the apron had emptied out and only a couple of lonely aircraft sat out on the ramp. We pre-flighted and started up, earning ourselves a small telling-off from ground control that we hadn’t called for start-up. Of course, information like “you need to call for start-up” is something contained within the AIP package of a country, and Bulgaria choose to hide theirs behind a registration wall. I applied 3 weeks ago for access, and never heard anything; so they have nobody to blame but themselves!
Our flight took us along the coast past Burgas, and then we started to head inland to cross the Turkish border. We were handed over by Sofia Information at the border, to Ankara, but never got within range of them. Instead we called the tower at Corlu directly, shortly before entering their airspace, and were cleared in to their airspace at 1,500ft. We landed in between training flights; it turns out that Corlu has a large and busy flight school, with a gaggle of Diamond DA20s moving in and out all the time. Turkey is not a GA-friendly country, with extortionate handling fees. We had contracted with “Gozen Air Services”. They were helpful and responsive for obtaining the permits, but their performance in country turned out to be very poor and I would suggest anybody visiting Turkey tries a different handling agent such as Celebi. In Corlu, Gozen had no presence so had subcontracted to a local agent (Celebi) who turned out to be excellent when they finally met us; nobody at Gozen had told them we were coming!
Customs met us at the airplane together with the handling agents once they showed up. The customs lady wasn’t interested in any of our baggage, but only wanted to take a photo of the instrument panel! We were transported to the terminal in a large bus more suited to unloading an airliner and the friendly and efficient handling lady led us through immigration and filing of flight plan for the onward leg. Soon we were back at the aircraft, waiting on our flight-planned departure time to head to Selcuk-Efes. We lined up ahead of a flight school DA20 and lifted off, with tower keeping us on runway heading for 3 miles to clear the training traffic in the circuit before a right turn on course and south across Turkey.
After crossing the Sea of Marmara and hitting mainland Turkey we climbed to 5,500ft to stay clear of the hilly terrain. The afternoon thermals were starting to make things a little bumpy so I took it off auto-pilot and hand flew, to save wear and tear on the servos. I’d be relying on the autopilot more on the long legs to come later in the trip! We were impressed by the huge amount of industry and manufacturing we could see as we flew along, it’s no surprise that so many of the goods seen in the Middle East and elsewhere are labelled “Made in Turkey”. The approach controller at Izmir seemed concerned that we were flying direct destination, rather than following the rather circuitous VFR routes shown on the charts, but she accepted the fact that this exact clearance had been given to us on departure. Communications between controllers are often not very joined-up for VFR flights.
The tower controller at Selcuk had us fly holding patterns north of the airfield for a while before letting us into the zone to land on runway 27. As we pulled in we could see Gavin and his parents waving, along with a small local welcoming committee of interested airport staff and students; there is another, much smaller, flying school here. The stop at Selcuk was planned in order to swap copilots for the final time on this leg. My dad would be flying back to the UK, in time for a Rod Stewart concert. The adventurous Gavin would be joining me for the flights as far as Thailand. He had found my website a year or so ago and then kept in touch. His parents have a place in Selcuk, making it a good stop, and the small local airport would be ideal for us to do some routine maintenance.
We immediately got stuck into an oil change, switching up to the heavyweight Aeroshell W120 for the hot areas to come. Things went quickly with assistance from the boss, engineers, and interns of the maintenance facility on the field who came over to see what we were up to, and got stuck in. They told me they didn’t see many aircraft other than the C172s and the light twin that are based there. The heat was brutal so as soon as we could we ran up the engine for a leak check, got the cowlings back on, and headed to freshen up at the Curtis residence.
Dinner that evening was in Selcuk, at a local restaurant. The owner is a good friend of the Curtis’s and somehow runs an entire restaurant, with fantastic food, from a kitchen smaller than what I’ve seen in most 1-bedroom apartments! “I only have a small kitchen”, he told us, “so I had to get a small wife”. Somehow, though, he works miracles and we had a great meal before wandering through the town a bit and back to an early night. While I had a lie-in to look forward to, my dad would be up at 7 to get his flight.