My wife and I make an annual pilgrimage to Florence…it revives the soul to be in this beautiful city for a few days! We always plan our trip in November, to coincide with my wife’s birthday, but this year switched to January, to coincide with mine.
There are a number of options traveling from the UK to Florence. Both BA and Alitalia offer competitive fares to Pisa, and then onwards by either train or bus. Three are also competitive fares with Lufthansa, Alitalia and Air France if you fly via Munich, Milan or Paris respectively. However, in past years our preferred choice has been the direct air service from Gatwick to Florence’s “City” airport with Meridiana. A trawl for fares in December kicked up a competitive £160 return on the Meridiana flight but with an AZ code share ticket.
Friday 24th Jan duly arrived and we checked in at Gatwick’s South Terminal a couple of hours before the departure of AZ7261, scheduled for 09:55. A quick bit of breakfast and a trawl of duty free, saw the time quickly pass by and we were directed to Gate 103, one of Gatwick’s more remote and indeed original gate platforms. Waiting for us was BAe146 I-FLRE, looking somewhat battered on her front end since I last flew her in 2001. We soon boarded and took our seats 9D and 9F, a pair just behind the main wing spar bulkhead, with excellent views of the engines and underwing goings on. The flight was about 2/3rd full and the weather was developing into a beautifully clear winter’s day. Incredibly, we pushed back bang on schedule and made our way to the hold of LGW’s 26L. (Just thought I’d interject here. I am writing this on the morning of 30th Jan. The South of the UK has had a good dump of snow, but the skies are crystal clear. Concorde has just departed LHR, about an hour late, over my snowy roof top and fields here in Berkshire, climbing majestically into the clear blue…even after all these years it is still an awesome sight!)
The 146 is an interesting little machine and I always love to fly her. The flaps let out a banshee wail when deployed and those smoky little exhausts hanging out the bottom of the engines always amuse me (I know, daft!). 26L presents no problems for ‘RE and after a roll of just over 20 second from a take-off thrust, brakes off position we are climbing out due West into the morning sunshine. The climb takes us to the edge of the Gatwick CTA and we turn due South just before the former RAF base at Dunsfold. We are now flying over the beautiful South Downs and the flooded river Arun valley below before coasting out into the English Channel at Worthing. The Captain advises us that our track will take us over Paris and then down through France to Turin, Genoa, Pisa and then inbound to Firenze. Apart from small areas of cloud, mainland Europe is basking in the winter sunshine and our leisurely cruise altitude of 8,000m affords a fantastic view below, particularly the Italian Alps which look awesome in the sunshine. Service is brief, with a sandwich and bar on offer. With the prospect of excellent Tuscan cooking only a couple of hours away I settle for a bite of my sandwich and a beer. Turin passes below and we are soon running along the Mediterranean coast with the City of Genoa and its airport located in the harbour clearly visible. We follow the coast to Pisa, passing over the airport and now having begun our descent into Firenze. The flight now gets interesting! The Captain advises us the weather is good in Firenze, but that winds are strong. He is not wrong! As the 146 descends, we enter ever increasing turbulent conditions as the Tuscan hills stir up the air in which we are flying. With flaps and gear deployed on finals, the 146 is being tossed about like a goodun’ with gasps and sighs in the cabin (I am secretly enjoying it and admiring the skills of our pilots). We cross the airport perimeter well and truly crabbed into the cross wind, but the pilot in command clearly has it in his stride with a perfect kick of the rudder and wing down, the starboard gear graces the runway followed by the remaining rubber and a rapid stop! Good flying! The 146 does a 180 and we taxi to the parking bay by the Meridiana hanger and are soon off loaded into a bus (my god it is windy!) and in the small terminal. The flight has lasted just over two hours. On the bus, we wait to cross the runway for a landing Citation which is all over the place on final and demonstrates what a rocky ride we have just endured.
Our weekend in the beautiful city of Firenze is over too soon and full of food, wine, coffee, culture and grapa we make our way to the airport for AZ7264, our 17:05 departure to LGW. The airport is busy, with an Air France 146, Lufthansa Dash 8 and Alitalia ATR72, as well as a few Meridiana 146’s in attendance. As outbound, our departure looks on time and we are bussed to the waiting BAe146 I-FLRO, looking very nice in the late evening sun. We again have seats 9D and 9F, with all the action. Firenze airport is interesting because there is a bloody great mountain at the end of the runway. Accordingly, but obviously subject to weather most departures are normally back up the valley. It is with interest therefore that I note the mountain at the end of the runway as we line up! However, this is of course all in a days work for the Meridiana crew and the 146. Full thrust is applied and held for maybe 5 seconds, then bang, brakes off and we are charging down the little runway in our little rocket. Again after just over 20 seconds the only part full 146 lifts off and after only a few hundred feet enters a sweeping turn to the port, with that big mountain looming in our window. Excellent!! The sun is now low and the 146 again settles into the cruise at a modest altitude as the last of the snowy Alps creeps into the darkness below. Well not much happened after that. Again a brief but adequate snack service and an unfussed and smooth flight to England. The weather is clear and accordingly the English coast line was visible despite the dark with Eastbourne glowing orange below. Our inbound route took us in for an approach on 26L and with the flaps wailing their way through the deployment, ‘RO was lined up on final. A clunk saw the gear drop out from literally below my feet and the last few hundred feet were flown down to what I can only describe as the finest landing I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. 10 out of 10 Sir! Gatwick was quiet and we were soon back at the gate and departing Meridiana and her able 146’s until next year.