Spain from the air: Meet the adventurer flying an antique plane over Pyrenean peaks

Garrett Fisher discovered that Spain is far superior to Germany when it comes to adventures in an antique airplane.

Spain from the air: Meet the adventurer flying an antique plane over Pyrenean peaks
Garrett Fisher with his antique plane. Photo: Garret Fisher

Time does not afford the ability to fully explain the story that resulted in flying the peaks of the Pyrenees in an airplane from 1949, so I will begin the story where irrational decision making starts. After years of indoctrination from my grandfather, who is of German descent, that Germany is the best place on earth, I made the fateful decision to move there some years ago. At the time, I owned an inherited family airplane that my grandfather had restored, a light 353kg antique that seats a total of two people and is powered by a 100-horsepower engine built in the 1960s. Since it wasn’t much money to choose a bigger shipping container, I impulsively decided to take the wings off the aircraft and toss it along with our belongings and send her to the Fatherland. It helps that I spent my youth in my grandfather’s shop, where he regularly purchased crashed antique aircraft and repaired them.

In a nutshell, Germany sucked. This is something I should have known, as I don’t like most of my [German] family, and in retrospect, their ham-fisted, dogmatic, inflexible ways have a cultural origin, and it was a wee bit too much of a good thing. We decided to look elsewhere in Europe, and I made the determination, after getting nearly pummeled out of the air by German rules, that I needed a friendlier place to fly. I had last been in the USA in Wyoming, and it was a veritable Promised Land of illustrious aviation, leaving me forever longing for the ability to put on a cowboy hat and toss German fees, schedules, and procedures aside.

Eventually, I found a little aerodrome in the Spanish Pyrenees on Google Maps. For some reason, it did not show up on official aviation software I was using. The place looked glorious from a satellite, photos were even better, so I picked up the phone and called to see if they have hangar space, a key item that is usually not available in Europe, and is required for an airplane of my type. I happened to speak relatively good Spanish from prior exploits in South America and the United States, so that helped. Someone had crashed a glider, and there you have it, there is space.

The antique plane. Photo: Garrett Fisher

I should have known what was coming culture-wise when we drove 12 hours to preview an apartment, only to have the departing tenants refuse to let us see it. The owner merely shrugged, despite my entreaties as to the long drive. That cultural indifference would turn out to be a two-edged sword: on one hand, Spanish aviation is deficient when it comes to infrastructure and rules can be filled with senseless paper. On another, nobody really cares much about what is going on, so when there are gaps in official certificates, stamps, and flamboyant signatures, it reminds me of Alaska: a frontier-style wide open space where one is left to their own devices.

The flight from Germany through France took two days, was harrowing as I navigated stormy weather, La Mistral, and Tramontane winds. When I finally got out of the Mediterranean wind storm, I was greeted with a view entering the Pyrenees in France, just before La Cerdanya, Spain, that left me mesmerized by its beauty. I had inadvertently found a place that looks like parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana combined. This was the closest to “home” I had been since I left the USA.

Flying has its challenges anywhere in the mountains, so much so that private pilots have a healthy dose of fear flying around large terrain. Just about anything that can be made more difficult and dangerous presents itself in high country: worse weather, strong winds, mountain waves, cold, wilderness in the event of an engine failure, and the like. I was already adequately familiar with such things, as I specialized in the highest mountain flying I could find in the Rockies, writing a few books on my adventures flying an underpowered airplane around remaining glaciers and many high peaks.

Interesting weather in Catalonia. Photo: Garrett Fisher

The Pyrenees are a little softer on elevation, with Pico Aneto, the highest peak, at 3,404 meters. My prior adventures too me in excess of 4,200 meters, though timberline in the Rockies is actually higher than Pico Aneto, which means if the Pyrenees were transported to North America, they would be covered entirely in trees. On the other hand, the Rockies are relatively shallow in relief compared to European mountains; it was somewhat astounding to see such vertical, rocky, and menacing terrain throughout the entirety of the mountain range.

The rugged peaks of Aigüestortes i Estany of Saint Maurici National Park.  Photo: Garrett Fisher

My flying and photography style changed once I got to Spain. While I do take long flights and adventures, I found an element of texture in Spain that is something I haven’t seen elsewhere. Some days I have wondered if famous Spanish painters merely looked at the terrain around them, inspired by natural landforms and cultural land management practice to see surrealist landscapes already prepared by a combination of nature and agriculture. I began to focus almost obsessively on sweeping cloud formations from weather, colorful land textures, and stunning changes in season, collecting a massive collection of photos in the Pyrenees and Pre-Pyrenees.

 Photo: Garrett Fisher

Eventually I decided I should write a European-themed book on the subject. I first chose to express my discovery process, showing images from each of the first 100 flights I took from La Cerdanya (an indication of how much flying one can do here). After that, I decided to fall back on pattern of chasing lists of high peaks like I did in the USA. There is an accepted list of peaks over 3000 meters in the Pyrenees, comprising 129 mountains. I compiled a map, researched documentation to confirm their location, and set out to get them all, collating the images into my second Europe-themed subject.

I have since heard that many European pilots come to Spain as the country has some of the largest uncontrolled airspace zones in Europe, with favorable weather and a laid-back atmosphere. For the same reason, I think I followed my instinct to find an amount of freedom I was looking for, finding a shocking beauty as well. 

For more about Garrett Fisher, visit his website, and check out his Cerdanya book, and Pyrenees book

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Partner finds body of missing British hiker close to border between France and Spain

The partner of a British hiker who went missing in the French Pyrenees last November has found her body, her family said on Tuesday, adding that an accident was "the most likely hypothesis".

Partner finds body of missing British hiker close to border between France and Spain
Illustration photo: Raymond Roig/AFP

Esther Dingley, 37, had been walking on her own in the mountain range, which straddles the border between France and Spain, but had not been heard from since sending a WhatsApp message on November 22nd.

Her partner Daniel Colegate, who raised the alarm over her whereabouts, found her body on Monday following a “relentless search”, according to a family statement released by charity LBT Global.

Colegate found Dingley’s body and equipment close to where a bone was found by a mountain runner two weeks ago.

A DNA test on the bone confirmed last month that it belonged to the hiker.

“At this stage an accident is the most likely hypothesis, given the location and other early indications,” the statement said.

“A full investigation is under way to confirm the details.”

Her family said they “remain incredibly grateful for the efforts of the police units involved and their commitment to understanding the exact circumstances of Esther’s death”.

Dingley had planned to make a loop around the Salvaguardia peak, which stands at 2,738 metres above sea level, between Spain and where her vehicle was parked, according to investigators.

The BBC reported she and Colegate, who were partners for 20 years, had travelled around Europe in a camper van after leaving northeast England in 2014.

Colegate was house-sitting at a Gascony vineyard while his girlfriend took their motor home on the journey to Spain.