Saturday, 5 May 2007

Day Four: Berdoues to Niort

Oh, but look how pretty...
The head’s feeling a little battered this morning. The boys were righteously abstinent last night, so they’re well fettled for the flight. Jean and Adrian continue the argument they started last night about continental navigation. If this was a school playground, we’d be marking the height of the urine stains on the wall.
As a diversion we wheel the Cub out into the chill February air. Time for detailed pre-flight checks. No need to check for condensation says Jean, there isn’t any in his hangar. Adrian does a discreet fuel check anyway. Old pilots, bold pilots…
Loose struts aren't a problem. On the ground
We find a loose jury strut. Not actually as big a problem as it might sound, but much nicer to discover with your feet on tarmac.

The Cub was built in 1943, so she’s looking pretty good for an old lady. Ully Shuhmacher has looked after her with devotion and there’s a definite un-Teutonic wetness to his eyes as he watches the preparations. Ully is a great John Cleese fan and keeps mentioning the war. Anyone who says Germans have no sense of humour has never heard Herr S in full spate. I laugh until my head hurts (even more).
Ully Shuhmacher mentions the war

This is an L4 Cub, the military variant of the J3, so it has much more glazing in the cockpit than the civil version. It was used extensively in WW2 for artillery spotting. This involved flying very slowly and predictably above enemy anti-aircraft guns. Heroism is far too small a word. It’s widely acknowledged as one of the world’s sweetest-flying aircraft, with an honest simplicity that’s hard to resist.

747s have more dials than this. So does my watch
The last dogfight in WW2 was won by a Piper Cub! Nicknamed Miss Me, it was an unarmed L4 whose two-man crew attacked a German Storch with pistols. They forced the enemy plane to crash-land, landed alongside and took its crew prisoner. Nowadays, when someone rescues a trapped kitten, we call them a hero…

Healthy morning exercise, Piper style
Herr Shuhmacher admits sheepishly that she can be “a bit of a bitch to start” An hour later, when everyone’s arms are aching from swinging the prop, we’re all too knackered to hit him.

Finally, the old girl decides we’ve suffered enough and deigns to give a stately cough, a discreet belch and the daintiest of farts. A puff of white smoke marks the transition from lifeless metal to 65hp of unbridled muscle. That’s about the same power output you get from a Nissan Micra. Or a Flymo.

A slow grin spreads across Martin’s face, Ully’s head emerges from his collar, and Jean explains that we should have listened to him from the start.

The engine warms and settles to a steady, well-maintained beat. Ully steps forward to pat the Cub’s tailfeathers affectionately as she taxis gently out to the airstrip.

And zero she flies as the morning sighs (with thanks to Al Stewart)

The Cub’s not a rocket ship climber when solo, and with Adrian’s six feet four crammed into the back seat (he actually can’t get into the front at all), plus fuel, maps and hand luggage, the climb-out is decidedly leisurely. AHC gives us a laconic wave as Martin settles down to get the feel of his new baby.

I’m trapped for another hour by Jean and Mary’s fantastic hospitality. Last night’s urinary competition reappears when Jean insists that the guys were lost from the moment they took off. They followed the wrong river, he insists. I nod stickily through the home-made marmalade and perfect coffee.

As it turns out, the wrong river leads to the right destination, and I get a call from Adrian to say that they’ve reached Ste Foy Le Grande while I’m still driving out of Berdoues.

It’s Sunday. I’m in rural France and low on fuel. This slowly turns from a worry into a problem. Then it pales into insignificance as last night’s minestrone, basil and garlic make a bid for freedom.

Dites en français: There are few petrol stations; there are no public toilets.

Suddenly sunlight breaks through my mental thunderhead: Kaz’s survival kit! Andrex to the rescue! A lay-by with a hedge and… there is a corner of some foreign field that is forever England.

Feeling more complaisant by far I find a petrol station that, through some oversight, is open. I roll in as the final fumes are sucked through the injectors. As I fill up I remember the fifteen gallons of gas in the jerry cans in the boot.

I’m now well behind and the guys arrive at Niort over an hour ahead of me. This is to be our overnight stop. Jean has called ahead to his friend Robert who kindly finds us space for the Cub in his hangar.

Robert kindly finds the Cub a room for the night

Another publicity photo - an hotel as characterful as a community centre
Time, once again, to find the elusive characterful auberge. The Hotel les Ruralies comes highly recommended so we book in from the airfield. If concrete has character, then this place has plenty of it. It has three stars, but then, so did Game For A Laugh. It also has the similarity that no sane person would ever spend a night with any of them.
We go in search of vegetarian food. Adrian is ready to eat road kill. We eventually find a pizzeria with fantastic three cheese pizza. Martin and I trough two each. A modicum of vin is consumed and it’s back to the hotel and bed by 9.30. Such party animals.

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