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Sky high: Flying in south west France

Sky high: Flying in south west France

If you love the freedom of the open roads of France then you’re not going to believe what the open skies have to offer – and getting up there could be easier than you might think... 

Ile-d-Aix-francis-leoryAs you’ll already know if you’ve flown to or from one of the region’s commercial airports, the countryside you think you know so well on the ground suddenly looks very different from the air. It’s surprising what’s tucked away out of sight of earthbound travellers, and factors like weather conditions, the time of day and the changing seasons mean that the scene spread below you is never going to look quite the same twice. Now imagine how it might look if, instead of a limited window seat view, you had the big picture?

If you feel like finding out, there are many options available to you starting with the purist approach of a hot-air balloon flight, as pioneered by the Montgolfier brothers in 1783, over a century before the Wright brothers made their first powered flight. Western France offers many launch points for flights, for unimagined bird’s-eye views of many of our finest landscape features. See separate panel for details of flights over the Vendée and Marais Poitevin.

The next, more hands-on step up from ballooning is paragliding or parapente – the hang-gliding concept, but suspended beneath a giant version of the flexi-foils used by kite surfers, kite skiers and speed riders. Again there are many sites, and you can get a feel for parapente flying by taking a tandem taster flight with a qualified instructor, either via a specialist company or by going along to one of the clubs run by enthusiasts. It’s exhilarating, and it’s now possible to do it from virtually any patch of open ground, thanks to the development of the paramoteur – a backpack-style power unit which
inflates the flexible aerofoil then powers you off the ground and into the skies, with no need for an elevated launch point. You can find out more at

By now we’re in the realms of ULM (ultra-léger-motorisé) or microlight flying, which has for many years offered an affordable entry point for potential new pilots, in much the same way that karting kick-started many an aspiring motor sport driver. Aircraft-wise, the world of ULMs opens up some pretty intriguing options, from the powered flex-wing hang-glider (pendulaire) you’ll occasionally see (and hear) overhead, to what look to the untrained eye like stylish fixed-wing aircraft, yet which only weigh-in at around 500kg, or even less. And, if you ever find yourself getting all dewey-eyed about a childhood spent lovingly constructing flying model aircraft, you’ll no doubt be delighted to hear that even fixed-wing ULMs are actually available in kit form for you to assemble yourself. Among the region’s most enthusiastic ULM operators are Dave and Amanda Lord of Wanafly Airsports, who operate both flex- and fixed-wing aircraft from their home at Azat le Ris in Haute-Vienne, between Poitiers and Limoges. Dave learned to fly in the UK, and went on to qualify as an instructor which opened up some interesting possibilities for a couple with a shared passion for adventures. France clearly offered the space (both on the ground and in the air) they needed for what they had in mind, and now the former farm which they purchased in 2006 has acquired a 650m grass runway and a business offering tuition, with accommodation for those looking for intensive packages:

Also falling within the ULM category are gyrocopters – autogyres – which are essentially modern-day incarnations of the Autogyro aircraft invented by Spaniard Juan de la Cierva in the early 1920s in answer to the age old fixed wing problem of how to fly slowly without stalling. Pre-dating the helicopter, the Autogyro was developed for the RAF as the Avro Rota, and by France as the Leo C-302, an example of which is on display at the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, Paris. Unlikely as it sounds, the gyrocopters’ main rotors are unpowered, and turn by ‘auto-rotation’, an effect stimulated by the horizontal current of air developed by the engine powered propeller used for forward propulsion. Auto-rotation generates lift – enough, in fact, for helicopters to land safely if they suffer an engine failure – and if you remember the sensational flying sequences of Little Nellie, James Bond’s yellow Wallis gyrocopter featured in ‘You Only Live Twice’, you’ll know that you can have a lot of fun in one of these machines. They’re also easy to transport, so you’ll often see one being trailed on the roads.

Which brings us to the realm of more conventional fixed-wing powered aircraft and gliders. Here, in a very real sense, the sky is the limit, with all kinds of interests catered for, from pure leisure time relaxation to a practical alternative travel option – trips across France, across borders and to places like the Channel Islands (not to mention the UK) suddenly take on a totally different, more independent quality. Add such interesting diversions as restoring and flying classic and historic aircraft, and you can begin to appreciate why private flying has such a broad, multi-layered appeal.

Regardless of your ultimate intentions (which can change as you begin to flex your newly sprouted wings), the entry point is the same as for ULMs, i.e. a taster flight, ideally with a qualified instructor, who is aware of your interest and who will be able to help you along the way. You’re also sure to find a warm welcome at your local flying club (our factfile list gives locations and contact details), most of whom will either have their own instructors or be able to put you in direct touch with someone qualified to help. Much the same goes for non fixed-wing flying, although if you have your sights set on helicopters then you might well have to travel further to find an airport offering this kind of tuition. Be aware too that night flying requirements are more demanding than for fixed-wing aircraft, not least due to a helicopter’s unique ability to fly (intentionally or otherwise) in any direction, as opposed to merely forwards.

As regards classic and historic aircraft, the appeal parallels that of vintage and classic cars, and there are some remarkable machines still flying. Many flying clubs have extraordinarily dedicated enthusiasts among their members, and none more so than RRAA – Reconstructions Répliques Avions Anciens – a group of retired pilots up in Fontenay-le-Comte (Vendée) who spent 33,000 man hours and 17 years constructing a 3/4-scale flying replica De Havilland Mosquito. A similar group nearby is currently lovingly restoring a 1959 Sikorski H34A helicopter to an airworthy state. You can find out more about classic aviation projects and events here:

Onto the noble pursuit of gliding. Inherently more affordable than powered flight, you nevertheless need to get up there before you can float around in search of the thermals which will carry you further afield. A winch-tow or décollage au treuil will get you to 400-500m, winches being generally electrically powered, generate (and store) current via photo-voltaic solar cells and you have something truly sustainable, with near zero running costs. Less so is the classic 70m cable tow behind a tug aircraft – avion-rémorquer – direct to the all-important thermals. The third option is a glider equipped with a small motor to get you up and floating, at which point you cut the engine and go gliding, free as a bird.


Get started with a British flying instructor

Stuart Morton knows all about the joys of flying in France. After learning to fly here himself, his enthusiasm for his new-found passion propelled him to qualifying as an EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) flying instructor, and since 2011 has been passing on his skills to others with a similar desire to take to the skies. “Flying in France means not only frequent fine weather, lots of airspace and some wonderful scenery, but more practical advantages too. English language is used by Air Traffic Controllers, and France has some of the cheapest flying in Europe. At our home base of Limoges-Bellegarde Airport, for example, there are no landing fees for local club flyers, who are therefore free to concentrate on perfecting their takeoff and landing techniques. And if you feel like dropping in on one of the other airfields nearby you’ll find that fees there are very reasonable”.

Important factors like these allow Stuart to offer intensive personal one-to-one tuition for anyone from 14-85 wishing to acquire an EASA Personal Pilot Licence, and since he’s also a Civil Aviation Authority Ground Examiner, he can also offer relevant ground studies including Radio Telephony.

Contact Stuart: 06 43 60 21 86 





In September 1910 Louis Gibert (holder of the world’s 92nd pilot’s licence) took off from Bordeaux and flew his Blériot monoplane for an impressive 156km before touching down at St Pierre, Royan. He then took off, flew over Vaux-sur-Mer and landed on Royan’s celebrated Grande Conche beach. Obviously getting into his stride, he took off once again, this time to drop a floral wreath on Saint-Palais-sur-Mer’s modest oratory chapel, dedicated to Notre-Dame du Platine (Patron Saint of Aviators) following Louis Blériot’s historic cross-Channel flight the previous year. Louis then returned to Royan, where he subsequently gave a flying demonstration, headed out for a return flight around the Phare du Cordouan in the Gironde estuary, then landed back on the beach to enthusiastic welcome.

On 4th September, 1913 Marcel Brindejonc des Moulinais landed his Morane-Saulnier monoplane before large crowds gathered on the beaches of Pontaillac and La Grande Conche, at the debut of what would become a brief but much-decorated career for the celebrated Breton aviator, who perished after being shot down three years later.

By 1930 Royan had established an Aéro Club, based at the Royan-Médis airfield established by Joseph de Lélée, who would become its chief pilot. Lélée was a relative of aircraft manufacturer Réné Caudron. At Lélée’s request, Réné Caudron established a school to train aviation mechanics and pilots at Royan. It opened in 1935, with workshop and hangar facilities for 600 trainee mécanicens de l’air, and was followed by the école de pilotage, whose biplanes soon became a familiar sight on a triangular test circuit 5000m above the Gironde estuary.


Balloon Flights over Vendée countryside and Marais Poitevin

A hot-air balloon flight is always something of an occasion, not least since the best times for flights are at sunrise and in the evening a couple of hours before sunset, when long shadows highlight every detail and the most subtle contours of the land. Montgolfière du Bocage offers both sunrise and evening flights from Puy du Fou or Poupet, in a valley near the Sèvre Nantaise, and sunrise flights from Fontenay Le Comte aerodrome in south Vendée, around 45 km from La Rochelle.

While actual flying times vary according to the wind speed and direction on the day, the company’s Skysurfer Hot Air Ballooning Experience lasts around four hours, and the fun begins as soon as you arrive at the launch fields. You’ll be greeted personally by your highly experienced pilots, Damien and Thomas (with over 2500 flying hours), who will then brief you carefully about what to expect on your balloon flight.

Flights from Puy du Fou or Poupet will take you high above the forests of the Vendée and the landscapes of Deux-Sèvres, dotted with small châteaux, while taking off from Fontenay Le Comte offers overviews of the canal system of the Marais Poitevin (“green Venice”) and the abbey of Maillezais, with glimpses of wildlife such as roe deer, swans and grey heron.

At the end of the flight you’ll receive a Balloonist’s Diploma followed by ‘the Balloonist’s Toast’, before a return car journey to the take-off area.


Montgolfière du Bocage, L’Orfosse, 79140 CERIZAY 05 49 80 10 45



Aerial photographer Francis Leroy (who shot our stunning opening image) records the landscapes of western France as he sees them from his ultralight aircraft, which he flies from Luçon (85). Many of his finest views are featured in a series of four perpetual calendars covering the départements of Charente-Maritime, Loire-Atlantique, Deux-Sèvres and Vendée. The calendars are on sale in selected independent and supermarket bookshops in their respective départements, or direct from Francis at:, price 24.90 € including delivery.



The largest museum in France dedicated solely to naval aviation is based in two hangars donated by the Marine National de Rochefort. Manned since 1990 entirely by volunteer members, the Association ANAMAN (Association National des Amis du Musée de l’Aeronautique Naval) has so far amassed thirty-three historic aircraft, which its dedicated members restore and maintain for future generations. Among the treasures of the 11 hectare site are a WWII Dewoitine 520 fighter and lots from the 1950s, including Broussard and Lockheed Neptune reconnaissance aircraft, an Aquilon (De Havilland Sea Venom), a North American T6 Texan trainer and a Breguet Alizé anti-submarine aircraft. Representing the ’60s and ’70s are an F8E Crusader fighter, a Super Frélon anti-submarine helicopter and the sole Jaguar M strike fighter. In addition there are 1500 models, ranging from the Zeppelin to the Stealth of the Gulf War, 200 other exhibits plus a thousand volume library. The Association hopes to open its doors to the public in 2015, although in the meantime, visitors are able (by reservation only, and preferably on Tuesdays) to take a guided tour. There’s no charge, but a donation of €5 per person is welcomed. Association Anaman, Rondpoint Albert Bignon BP 90179, 17300 Rochefort. The Tourist Office has more details 05 46 99 08 60


The aviator behind Le Petit Prince...

Much of the continuing French passion for flying was inspired by the life and works of one of her best known literary figures. Before writing Le Petit Prince (currently the world’s third-best-selling work of fiction) Antoine de Saint Exupéry was an aviator, gaining his wings with the French Air Force before piloting early Aéropostale mail flights between Toulouse and Dakar (Senegal). In 1929 he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur for his work in securing the release of French flyers held captive in Morocco, and went on to do pioneering work in establishing new air routes in South America. His flying exploits inspired L’Aviateur (1929), Vol de Nuit (1931) and Le Petit Prince (1942) much of whose imagery was prompted by his near-death experience after crashing in the Sahara during an attempt to break the Paris-Saigon speed record. During WWII he fled to the USA and lobbied for US military intervention in Europe, then flew with the Free French Air Force in Algeria before piloting reconnaissance missions in a specially adapted US Lockheed Lightning from Corsica to monitor German military movements. On 31st July, 1944 he failed to return, his P38 having gone down in the Bay of Carqueiranne, near Toulon, presumed shot down by a German fighter pilot. Part of the landing gear of the aircraft was recovered in 2003 and is now displayed in the excellent Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget Airport (Paris), while the man himself was famously portrayed on French 50 Franc banknotes issued in 1993.

FIND OUT MORE – includes all the aircraft types he is known to have flown. – a charitable foundation established in the writer/aviator’s name to promote and support activities for young people.





Find out more...

>> Francoflyers is an English-language point of contact for flyers based in France. Created by Les King, the website provides a useful question and answer dialogue service:

>> The Fédération Française Aéronautique (FAA), formed in 1929, promotes private flying, supporting local clubs and flying facilities, helps young flyers, organises flying events and acts as an intermediary with the Direction Généraledel’Aviation Civile (DGAC).
Membership brings basic insurance, with upgrade options:

>> The Fédération Française de Vol à Voil (FFVV) promotes gliding activities in France.

>> The Direction de l’Aviation Civile Sud Ouest website has lists and a map of ULM/microlight, gliding and powered private flying aero clubs, schools and
associations throughout Aquitaine and Poitou-Charentes:

>> The Transport section of the Ministère de l’Ecologie, du Développement Durable et de l’Energie website has a wealth of useful information relating
to all kinds of light aviation in France:

>> The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has a wealth of information relating to aviation legislation:



Local Airfields

ANGOULEME-COGNAC 16430 Champniers, 05 45 69 88 09,

Héli Union Training Centre Professional trains helicopter pilots; Rotor Angoulême specialises in helicopter maintenance and private pilot training; Aéro-Nautic Services & Engineering researches modern airship potential. 1860m tarmac runway, plus a 750m grass strip. L’Aéroclub d’Angoulême (powered light aircraft) and l’Association des Ailes Angoumoisines et Charentaises (gliding)

CHALAIS 2 km SW of Chalais. 840m grass runway. Les Ailes Chalaisiennes flying club - private powered and glider flying.

COGNAC CHÂTEAUBERNARD 16130 Cognac,05 45 82 13 51, 6 km S of Cognac, and home to the Air Force flying school (EPAA) but open to domestic, non-scheduled commercial traffic and private aircraft. Home to European Aeronautic Defence and Space (EADS) ‘Snowy’ surveillance drones, the French Air Force Cartouche Doré aerobatic team and Les Ailes Cognaçaises Aéro-Club (powered light aircraft, gliders and aero-modelling).

JONZAC-NEULLES 17500 Jonzac-Neulles. 4km N of Jonzac, offers light-aircraft and hot-air balloon flights, plus instruction incl. night flying. 1250m (plus 610m ultra-light-only) runways. L’Aeroclub Jonzacais: 05 46 48 06 47,

LA ROCHELLE - ÎLE DE RE 17000 La Rochelle. 2255m tarmac runway used by commercial carriers. L’Aéroclub de La Rochelle et Charente-Maritime; l’Aéroclub Rochellais; la Grand Club Ouest Aviation Altitudes (parachute/freefall); Aunis Air; Air Loisirs (for amateur aircraft constructors) and Héliberté (helicopter pleasure flights).

MARENNES 17320 Saint-Just Luzac. Licensed for limited private light-aircraft, 770m grass runway, unsupervised. L’Aéroclub Albert Baron 05 46 85 06 51.

PONS-AVY 17800 Pons. 1250m grass runway, plus grass and gravel model aircraft strips. L’Aéroclub de Pons

ROCHEFORT 17620 Saint-Agnant. Has an important military role, is home to l’Ecole de Formation des Sous-Officiers de l’Armée de l’Air (EFSOAA) and has 2280m tarmac and 830m grass runways. L’Aero-club Charentais et l’Aéroclub du pays Rochefortais and l’Aéroclub Charentais Activities include light aircraft and glider flying instruction.

ROYAN - MÉDIS 17600 Médis. Royan’s historic airfield has 1255m tarmac and 1000m grass runways.
A full-time Chief Pilot oversees instruction, possible throughout the year at Royan (and Saturdays at Soulac). Scenic flights plus pilot taster sessions. l’Aéroclub de Royan 05 46 06 86 00

SAINTES - THÉNAC 17460 Thenac. Popular with British visitors flying planes, gliders and model aircraft. Flight instruction (incl aerobatics) seven days a week, 05 46 93 08 97. Seven gliders available in summer, 06 99 73 50 44. Model aircraft club for free-flight and R/C aircraft.

SAINT-JEAN-D’ANGÉLY - SAINT-DENIS-DU-PIN 850m long grass runway. Home to l’Aéroclub Angérien 05 46 32 19 38 http://aeroclub.angerien.pages
. Flying instruction in a Cessna 152, Wed-Sat.

SAINT-PIERRE-D’OLERON 17310 St Pierre d’Oléron. 1011m and 520m grass runways. l’Aéroclub Les Ailes Oléronaises 05 46 47 02 31. Instruction, scenic flights, new hangars for 40 aircraft and ULMs.

MAULÉON-BOCAGE 79700 Rorthais. Opened in 1995, it hosts l’Aéroclub du Bocage 05 49 81 85 54 - flying instruction and pleasure flights over north Deux-Sèvres.

NIORT-MARAIS POITEVIN 79000 Niort. Open 24 hours a day, serving business jets, military transports and light aircraft. L’Aéroclub de Niort flies planes and gliders. Instruction, taster and scenic flights. L’Aero Club of Deux-Sèvres offers training and flights, with instructors for planes and gliders. Other activities: microlights, model aircraft and parachuting Les Ailes Anciennes http://ailesanciennesniortaises.
 preserves classic/heritage aircraft.

THOUARS 79100 Missé. 5km from Thouars in N Deux-Sèvres, with 1100m grass runway, the Aeroclub Thouarsais offers pilot instruction and leisure flights.

CHÂTELLERAULT - TARGÉ 3km S of Châtellerault. Les Ailes Châtelleraudaises flying club was established in 1933 and offers afternoon instruction (all day at weekends) Active model aircraft club.

CHAUVIGNY has a 740m grass runway. L’Aéro-club has been training plane and glider pilots for 60 years, and added ULMs in 2008.

COUHÉ - VÉRAC 86700 Couhé.
Two grass runways, one for ULMs. L’Aéro-Club de Couhé offers pilot instruction including a Handivol programme training disabled pilots. Annual Air Day in July.

LOUDUN 86200 Loudun. Recently-refurbished 790m grass runway. Leisure flights and pilot initiation sessions offered by l’Aéro-Club

AÉROPORT DE POITIERS-BIARD 86580 Biard 05 49 30 04 40 Managed by Vinci Airports since January 2013, Poitiers plans more low-cost flights to European destinations. In addition to pilot training, the Aéro-Club du Poitou offers glider flights and training, plus aero modelling. L’Aéroclub ASPTT Poitiers offers taster and pleasure flights.