Summer again, and again the itch to explore the nooks and crannies of the motherland via helicopter became unbearable. This time, I was joined by my brother Chris, a novice helicopter passenger, and my good friend and fellow pilot Jim. This is Jim’s second trip to Hellas for the sole purpose of flying the helicopter.
Our itinerary, somewhat informal, included a trip to Karpenisi, followed by a tour of as many of the Ionian islands as time would allow.
We began the trip at Megara on Saturday afternoon, with wonderful clear skies and almost no wind. Chris, nervous at first, became a great commentator keeping us laughing the entire way. As we crossed Alepohori and entered the Korinthian Gulf, we noticed dark clouds and the occasional lightning brightening the skies over the mountains to the Northwest. As we neared Nafpaktos, the skies became even more threatening, so we decided to land in Agrinion, in the Panetolikos training facility owned by a good friend and fellow helicopter enthusiast. An hour later, we were flying again to the north this time for our first overnight in Karpenisi. The contrast between flying at 500ft and below over the water in the Korinthian, and at 7,000ft over the mountains to reach Karpenisi was amazing. In the US where I do most of my flying, I need to travel for hours to get that great a variance in topography. Here, it was a matter of 15 minutes.
in Karpenisi we landed in a field next to a wonderful hotel owned by a good friend who gave up the virtues of his home in Mykonos to relocate to the mountains of Karpenisi.
The next morning, we left Karpenisi heading to the southwest with Ithaki as a destination. We reached Ithaki and overflew the island looking for a remote beach to swim. The island is magnificent, however the helipad is in a very remote part with virtually no access to anything. Fortunately we found an isolated beach with a large field adjacent to it. We landed for a short swim and then departed again for the north. We overflew Antipaxo and decided to land in the helipad at Paxo for lunch. Again we encountered a helipad with locked gates in a remote part of the island. After some sleuthing with the Internet we found a taxi (land taxi vs water taxi… At first we called a water taxi to come and get us…). Scaling the fence was the next challenge…. which all three of us successfully managed. The taxi took us to a nice village where we ate fish, octopus, shrimp, and a significant amount of ορεκτικα. The departure was equally challenging as the arrival, with locating a taxi and scaling the helipad fence.
We departed Paxo for our overnight stop in Kerkyra airport. We were met in Kerkyra by Swissport who managed our arrival. The staff at Swissport were very friendly and very accommodating. NOTE: there is a discount on handling fees for AOPA members. I am an AOPA member, however, my AOPA membership card was for the previous year and had just expired, so I paid the entire fee of 48 euro. Also, Kerkyra airport provides 100LL AVGAS which we loaded the helicopter to the gills for the next leg.
On Monday morning, we departed Kerkyra, flew around the island and crossed over to the mainland overflying Syvota. A beautiful place, unfortunately with no place to land a helicopter. We did find a very nice long and wide beach north of Parga where we did land for a swim. This particular beach was a minimum of 2km long and at least 300m wide. In addition to our helicopter, I think there were maybe an additional 5 people on the other side. I think all five people made the trek to our side of the beach to talk to us and take pictures with the helicopter.
Following Parga, we flew to Lefkada. We landed in a remote part of the beach at Kathisma where we had the mandatory fish and trimmings for lunch. I should point out that lunch in a beach taverna in Hellas without ouzo is a travesty! However, due to the need for a clear head, we forced ourselves to water.
We departed Kathisma for our next overnight in Zakynthos. Our flighht to zakynthos was uneventful with the exception of some sporadic comm issues with Andravida. I must point out that during this trip which lasted 8 days with over 20 hours of flying we had the best service ever from ATC, whether it was FIC, TMA, or the local airport ATC. The professionalism and the attention to detail was refreshing. Notable: the young lady at Kerkyra tower on Monday morning, the young lady at Preveza on Monday, the SUPER professional lady at Andravida, and the fellow in Zakynthos tower. I wish I had their names. They are true professionals.
Our arrival at Zakynthos on Monday evening was uneventful. We landed at the airport and were met by Goldair for handling. The station manager there, Spyros K. Was extremely accommodating and very resourceful. He arranged for us to park the helicopter and exit the airport in a most expeditious manner. I must point out however, two issues. Issue #1: I, as PIC, neglected to follow the NOTAM regarding the requirement for prior notice to the airport for arriving GA traffic. Issue #2: the choice of parking area for the helicopter for an overnight stay was poor. We were directed by the tower to park in a designated spot (#3) which placed the helicopter in potentially a high traffic area, both for large commercial carriers as well as vehicle traffic. Nevertheless, we had a wonderful time in Zakynthos in the evening into the next morning, and as good prudent flyers, we decided that it would be a good idea to delay our departure until later in the afternoon so that we could enjoy that wonderful island a bit more.
In the afternoon, we arrived at the airport where we were met by our Goldair handling staff again, paid our fees, reasonable 45 euro, and departed for Megara.
Note: while in Zakynthos we scouted for an off-airport landing site with access to MOGAS. We found an ΕΛΙΝ station one mile west of the airport with fuel and a great landing site directly across the street. We landed there and refueled. Clearly Zakynthos would be a destination for us again in the future.
After a few days of non-flying in Athens and a couple short trips to the Aigean side (to be written about later), Jim and I decided to fly back out to the Ionian. We did…. and… as luck would have it, we began to encounter issues…
On a beautiful clear day, we left Megara for destinations unknown (flight plan had Zakynthos airport as final stop). We flew west, we did some landings in remote areas along the Korinthian coast, we did some confined landings, and overall, we had a great time flying the helicopter. As the evening approached, we decided that we would follow the flight plan and proceed to Zakynthos airport. The Tower was accommodating but again placed us in spot #3 for parking. Although we asked for Goldair handling, we were met by Swissport this time…..and the troubles begin…
Swissport meets us, helps with the parking, and assists us in leaving the airport. Our plan was for us to use Zakynthos as a base and to fly for a day or two to other locations, returning to the Zakynthos airport for the evening. Since we had secured fuel in our previous trip, we felt very comfortable with the plan.
The next morning, we arrive at the airport and go directly to the Swissport office to arrange for paying our fees and beginning our flight. There were two young ladies at the office who appeared to be busy performing certain duties which involved speaking to other folks on portable radios and telephones. Finally, one young lady found time for us and gave me an invoice for 92 euro handling fees. I voiced my concern that this seemed unreasonable, and, in my previous visit, I paid less than 50 euro. She indicated that… those were the fees and I had to pay. I asked for her supervisor. The supervisor was not in (let’s see… It’s 9:30 AM, on a work day….) but would be in in about an hour or so… so… I’m invited to sit and wait. I protested, paid the fee as presented, and asked for names and telephone numbers of the responsible people….which I did not receive.
After paying the fees, someone escorted us to the HCAA office where a young lady who was the HCAA duty person lectured me on the issue of the ignored NOTAM. Se also doubted that I had come to Zakynthos before because the helicopter was not listed on her manifest of GA flights (a total of 5 GA aircraft had visited Zakynthos in the previous 15 days, and my tail number was not listed… I don’t think that was something that I caused…. anyway…). After visiting the tower again and filing a plan with the very professional tower attendant, we departed for a day flight around the island, returning in the early afternoon. This time, I asked for Goldair handling again, however, Olympic appeared. Again the handling staff were great, but, once we left the helicopter, the Olympic representative told me that there would be an inspection of the helicopter and all documents by the HCAA. Needless to say that although scrutiny is welcome when everything is in order, there is a tightening of a certain sphincter when told that you are about to go through an inspection.
I followed the handler to the HCAA office where the same young lady was present in addition to a very tall, imposing fellow in police uniform with one star (mr Karagounis I found out later), two other police officers in uniform, and two or three others in civilian clothing. The young lady asked for the helicopter paperwork which I gave. She studied them, copied them, lectured me again on NOTAMS, and…. casualy asked what the issue was earlier with SWissport. It all became very clear. Obviously, the scrutiny, the police presence, the intimidation was a result of questioning Swissport and their fees. The notable comment, which will remain firm in my brain forever, was made by one of the unknown individuals in that office… He said… “The fees are all set by the companies. It’s like you going to the stores for shoes. You find three shoe stores in front of you all with the exact same shoe. Each store has a different price. You pay the price of the store you enter. In one case, the shoes may be 40 euro, the next 80, etc…” . I have never heard a more ridiculous point… Especially since each time I asked for a different handling company than the one that actually showed up.
T continue, once the documents were checked, the explanation of the Swissport event was explained and the shoe store example was analyzed, the HCAA lady pointed to the tall police officer who together with his staff proceeded to direct me to a side office where a body scanner and luggage scanner were present. I went through the scanner and so did my bag at which time I was allowed to exit the airport.
Mr Karagounis was very professional and polite. It was obvious to me that he had better things to do other than harass a GA pilot. I wish him well.
The following day, we departed Zakynthos in the morning with only a short harassment meeting with the head HCAA lady-in-charge….(different than the previous day… This one was more professionally dressed…) who AGAIN told me about the NOTAM and about all the trouble that i and my little helicopter caused to the very busy international airport of Zakynthos. Clearly, my next visit to Zakynthos would have to be at an off-airport location.
Kudos to Spyros K and his staff, Goldair Zakynthos, Mr Karagounis, police officer Zakynthos airport, Mr X, tower operator Zakynthos airport, the staff at the ΕΛΙΝ gas station, 1 mile west of the airport next to the ERT towers!!!!