Into the Red Zone…and out again; Robin DR401 from Darois to Elstree
Steve and Jennie Bailey ferry a new Robin aircraft from France to the UK in June 2020, during the COVID pandemic.
It was all going smoothly: one aircraft sent to its new owner in Belgium at the end of February and the replacement to be collected from Darois en route to Aero Friedrichshafen in the first week of April. Then the COVID-19 lockdown hit, the airshows were progressively cancelled and the Robin workshops shut in late March. There was more: the French authorities had imposed very strict rules for internal travel, international borders had started to close, and Dijon was in the ‘red zone’ for COVID infections.
Robin were able to re-open on 27 April but several of their staff had been unwell with typical COVID symptoms and one had been very seriously ill in hospital. Reduced staff meant lower efficiency and serious disruption of production schedules until the workforce was back up to full strength in May and they could start to catch up. Faced with the prospect of a UK quarantine likely to be reciprocated in France, we decided to try to reach Darois whilst the borders were still open and wait there until our aircraft was ready. All hotels in France were closed and quarantining in an apartment for two weeks would be impossible. There were, of course, several forms to be filled in and we expected problems. So we had asked Robin’s CEO for an attestation; a sort of ‘letter of safe passage’, explaining why we were travelling to and across France. At the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras, the immigration officers were nodding through a stream of French nationals returning home, only scanning the travellers’ passports and looking at the appropriate box ticked at the top of the list on their international travel certificates. The officer did a double-take when he had to search all the way down our forms to the box near the end of the list labelled “Flight or cargo crews or travelling as a passenger (sic) to their departure base.” Taking in our Robin branded clothing and the Robin Aircraft letterhead, however, he quickly skimmed over the letter, smiled, waved us through and the first hurdle was cleared—phew! We did not want to travel across Paris, allegedly one of the COVID hotspots in France, by metro or even risk queuing for a normal taxi. There is usually a facility on Eurostar to order a taxi prior to arrival at Gare du Nord but there were no services on the cut down schedule, so we had located a private transit company on themaninseat61.com and, sure enough, the driver was ready and waiting to whisk us over to Gare de Lyon. Face coverings were obligatory on the Eurostar, within the French railway stations, and on the TGV. Whilst the officials on Eurostar and in Hall 1 of Gare de Lyon were happy to accept a scarf, those in Hall 2 insisted on a ‘proper’ mask. Perhaps they had an interest in the in-house pharmacy that appeared to be doing a roaring trade in the things… The TGV journey was unremarkable and we disembarked in the early evening into the virtually deserted streets of Dijon. Straight to the apartment, then to the local supermarket to lay in supplies.
We were definitely early: at the workshops in Darois, two DR401 CD155 IFR aircraft that were ahead of ours had just been delivered to German clients. Now, some final tweaks were being made to the avionics of our aircraft prior to flight testing later in the week. Then there would be some adjustments, a final flight test, and the 3-6 hour inspection before Form 52 could be issued and the aircraft would be ours to fly.
On June 2, the French lockdown was eased considerably. Steve was able to get a haircut, and the restaurants re-opened. Suddenly, the previously empty streets started to fill again, whilst distancing was observed in shops and restaurants, hand sanitiser was everywhere, and galleries and museums remained closed. We were no longer restricted to picnicking in the apartment, but we were careful to choose restaurants where we could sit outside—and Dijon has lots of those.
On Saturday 6 came the happy news: Form 52 had been issued! There were still a couple of things to be done: some paintwork had been damaged whilst the interior was being fitted out (the protective guards over the sides of the cockpit had slipped) and Robin wanted to make that good properly, rather than just touch it in. The work would be done on Monday and take a day: the painting system has been improved and refined and invisibly repairing small areas and components is now done by a similar method to that used by mobile car paint repairers, with the lacquer dried and hardened by infra-red lamps. The process is fairly quick but the painters still wanted the aircraft back in the paint shop where it could be fully masked. At the same time, Robin re-painted the standard red stripes on the tips of the MT CS propeller to match the fuselage, a process that we previously had done in the UK, but can now be done at the workshops at Darois. Of course, all this took us into the 14-day quarantine period that started on June 8, but we would be able to use the exception of “crew, as deﬁned in paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Air Navigation Order 2016(h), where such crew have travelled to the UK in the course of their work.” We arrived at Darois on Tuesday to find the walkways being repainted as a final touch. This paint only took an hour to dry, so there was still plenty of time for Steve to do the statutory three take-offs and landings, the 90 day limit having passed.
Flying with Gérald Ducoin, Robin’s chief test pilot, Steve was able to tap into Gérald’s enormous skills and experience to put the aircraft fully through its paces. In 1,200 hours P1 in the Robin DR400, Steve had never held a fully established stall, always allowing the aircraft to recover as soon as it wanted to dip its nose. Gérald had him hold the stick back until the aircraft was fully stalled and then, with the stick still held back, control the attitude with the rudder. Lesson learnt: don’t stomp the pedals, they only need a light touch. The second one was much better with the aircraft very gently wallowing as the altimeter unwound. Then came a full power stall, with the aircraft feeling as if it was almost vertical, hanging on the prop until, at 50 kts, it gently fell back and Steve allowed the nose to dip. No wing drop, just a well balanced return to level flight. Nice. Wednesday dawned with the anticipated low ceiling at Darois and an occluded front languishing across the Thames valley, but at least the rain would wash any flies off. After a photo session with Casimir Pellissier, Robin’s CEO, we pushed up above the low cloud to enjoy a very relaxed flight to Le Touquet for emigration. Although the terminal was closed, we had made pre-arrangements by telephone and email so there were no difficulties in executing a quick turnaround.
A straight in to 26 at Elstree, then fuel and to the hangar. Despite the weather, a very comfortable flight during which, unsurprisingly but somewhat eerily, we came across no other traffic. With the application for ARC and C of A filed, we reckoned that we had some time to coat the paintwork and the leather (products from Fraser Aerospace) and have some mats to protect the carpets made up by Richard Baldwin of Air Interiors at Elstree. Of course, we had not reckoned with the introduction of Part ML in March, which meant that our CAA approved 100 hour custom maintenance program, which had been running smoothly for seven years, had to be resubmitted as a CAMO approved maintenance program. In aviation there is always another hurdle…!