Could an ultralight plane fly from Pisa (Italy) to Lisbon (Portugal) and stay in the air for 11 hours in a single flight?

Of course, if the plane is a Sinus!

The pilot Antonio Alves, a likeable and exuberant Portuguese, took off in the morning of 22 August 2002 at 8.30 from Pontedera, Pisa and landed at 19.00 in Lisbon – in Portugal.

Let’s hear the word of the pilot himself:

“Flying in the spacious and comfortable cockpit for 10 hours was simple and peaceful. I could have done it for another 10 hours, if needed. For me, the Sinus wasn’t just a love at the first sight: after 400 hours of flying in 6 months it has become an obsession. I love the gliders, but i hate being dependant on pulleys. I am therefore attracted to motor-gliders, but there are few in the world market.
Moreover it is practically impossible to find one, capable of a good performance, simple and economic at same time .
For example, the Stemme is very beautiful, but the price is way over my budget. Then the great wing span of these planes renders the hangar storage difficult and impossible to operate on small airports.

Also the Dimona and the Ximango are costly – as the price of purchase and the maintenance. When I saw the Sinus in ’98, it fulfilled all my requirements on paper. The performance compared to the price make it clearly superior in efficiency, in autonomy and the cruise speed and the possibility to operate on small runways. The only competition when it comes to the gliding rate is the Stemme with its 1:50, but the Sinus is without rivals when it comes to cross-country flying.
After months of research i still haven’t found any plane more interesting, so I decided to visit the factory in Slovenia. Observing the production of the plane is even more important than trying out the plane in the air. I couldn’t have tried it anyway because of the bad weather, so I was forced to wait for another few months.
I participated in World Championship 2001 in Spain, where I was able to see the Sinus in action, flying against me in the race. And confirming its great characteristics yet again – with the victory of Phillipe Zen, who won with a half-again advantage over the second-placed competitor.
The characteristics of my Mistral just weren’t comparable – and it was this which finally pushed me to acquire a Pipistrel plane.

Many people still think of the ultralights as the objects of low performance abilities, primitive, fragile and quite dangerous. It was this line of thinking that made me want to test the capability of flight of a modern ULM in one single, long flight.
Moreover, I wanted to travel inside Europe – so I spent a week in Tuscany, Italy, flying from there to the north and to the south of Italy, in order to become familiar with my new aircraft.
My friend Max Pinucci had an idea to film the Sinus in flight over the mountains, lakes and seaside, using me and my new plane as the main actors! Fabrizio Cerboneschi and Max followed me in another Sinus without a door, with a video camera always ready for action.
The weather seemed to like me – the Tuscany and its people are truly special. I remembered the region of my childhood and I felt like home – I even had the impression I knew the language.
We all have dreams, and one of the most classic ones is to fly. I love the Sinus so much that I would find it a sin not to share it with my friends.”

But let us return to the story.

“I am so happy with this aircraft that I will feel egotistical if I don’t share my experiences with this wonderful flying machine to the people who love flying. If you don’t have many experience with flying, you may find an idea of such a long flight almost bizarre. As the enthusiasts, we can’t consult anyone about the planning, support, security and all that the long flights require. We have to do it all on our own. But nowadays there is a lot of electronic things to help us in flight: computers, cell phones, internet, GPS, radar and advanced instruments. I have decided to make my flight only with the help of maps and a compass.”

“I tried to avoid as much as possible flying without having an airport or good terrain for landing at glide range for safety. That’s why I needed to fly high – and this meant as high as possible.
The practical limit is generally the one of 10,000 feet. It is possible to go higher, but with oxygen and special training, which is again further out of the reach of simple enthusiasts. Moreover, the authorities demand that you are equipped with a radio and mode C transponder and have the aeronautics licenses to operate the equipment when you try for these higher altitudes…

A glance to the Internet has promised me a good weather forecast, which would unfortunately only last for a short time… So I decided to leave as early as possible the next morning. Despite my decision, a series of unfortunate events caused me to arrive at the Aero Club in Pisa only at 7:30. I found out that the morning mist has preceded me, so I couldn’t leave Pontedera until 8:30.
After the takeoff I took the direction towards Lucca Tassignano and then through the beautiful mountains of Massa Carrara, famous for their marble, and with the beautiful coastline in sight.

The fog became light rain and eventually water was all over the windows which diminished my vision, but if the weather forecast had been right it should dissipate some 150 km ahead. To reach the promised clear sky areas I needed to deal with the mountains on my right and on my left with the restricted airspace and dangerous coastal areas of La Spezia.
I tried to keep an eye on the small but empty beaches as landing places just for my peace of mind. It was really difficult to fly there for I couldn’t go through to the coast because of the restricted areas going far out into the Mediterranean Sea.

These restrictions forced me to go around and through mountain valleys or return to coast and fly far out over the Mediterranean Sea in a series of very unpleasant detours. But this was the only legal way to transit this area.

Upon arriving in Sestri Levante, I had to decide whether to face the controlled airspace of Genova. The ceiling was around 1500 feet, much too low to cross the mountains. So the only way was flying over the sea, low again, which made me uneasy. I could see Geneva airport in the distance and some ferryboats on the water.
Then further on to Savona and Albenga and the comfort of more beaches and seaside places and, finally, a bit of sun!

Imperia, San Remo and Ventimiglia, then the Azure Coast: beautiful beaches and high mountains, ports and ships, ships and ports. Now I had in front of me the airspaces of Nice and Monaco and in the right side the Alps.”

“The blue sky and the sharp peaks attracted me: the route towards the north, over the Devil’s Peak, the Alps Maritimes, the Mounier mount, the Pelat to 11,000 feet. I flew over Barcellonette and the High Alps (4103m – 13,450Ft). I recognised from the 50 miles distance the shape of the Mt Blanc (4810m 15,770Ft) and decided that it was the time to turn towards the west. To avoid the forest of aerospace controls on the south of France seemed a hopeless enterprise, but in truth that was the calmest part of my travel.”

“A mountain here and there (nothing compared to the Alps), still air and a beautiful and fast journey. The feeling of peace began to disappear fast as I approached the Pyrenees, wrapped in an impenetrable cloud blanket.

I attacked a sandwich, a yogurt and a some fruit and in the meantime transferred the contents of my silent companion on the right seat, a 25-litre gasoline can, into the right wing fuel reservoir. Few people are aware of the dangers of handling gasoline in flight, high up in the dry air and with the electric devices working at high voltage…”

“It was noon and I have been flying for three hours and a half. The previsions from the night before were advising me to fly towards north, but even after 150 km the situation wasn’t any better. I knew of the passage through Andorra and I knew even about the three good airfields to land in this region, but the basis of clouds was blocking all the passages and the path that I envisioned was disappearing in the fog.
I remembered the passages through the South Alps valleys. The wind was picking up speed and forced me to fly carefully in the exposed wind side of mountains to avoid the strong turbulence. I reduced the speed to 140 km/h. I found a passage on the old border between Bourg Madam/Puygcerda through an Alpine aerodrome valley.
It is a nice airport for gliders, but today it was raining and there was no one around, but I still recognized the gliders silhouettes on the field. It was a nice temptation, to land. But I promised myself to finish the flight in one go. I proceeded to fly along the valley of Seo-de-Urgel, flying low between the mountains, in company of light rain.

In this hostile region i was searching constantly for a possibility of an emergency landing place, trusting only into the great gliding capacities of Sinus and keeping at least one airfield in the gliding distance. Flying so low over the Pyrenees, I couldn’t never really feel secure unless close to a landing place. It would be impossible to hope for the beautiful weather to continue uninterrupted from Italy all the way to Portugal, especially not if you consider the Alps and the Pyrenees. It is therefore very important how you plan the route, in order to be able to value your own position in every moment, in relation to the nearest airports where you could land if necessary. Before leaving I have listed and researched over 1000 airports on the route in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal.”

“Leaving the dangers of low visibility back in Pyrenees, I faced increased wind speeds and strong turbulence. The terrain became a high-plateau desert, 7000 feet tall. I couldn’t fly any faster than 120 – 150 km/h, because of the frontal wind of 50 km/h which drastically lowered my speed in relation to the ground.
I spent more than four long hours traversing the rough mountains, rising and descending, rising and descending.
Between 2 and 4 pm, the thermal upwinds were so strong that I was able to achieve over 15 m/s rise, flying with the minimum use of the motor. Such a pity that I wasn’t able to make any use of such great thermal – but I intended to arrive home on that same day.”

“I have decided on a slight change of the plan: a descent to the airport of my friend, close to my own place, to re-fuel the Sinus, to have a drink, and above all, to talk about my adventure!
At 9 pm, I was already at home – 11 hours after leaving Pontedera in Italy, on the same late August day. I could have completed the route much faster, if only I had less turbulence and one nice transponder.

However, it will be so the next time!”

Antonio Alves