Jean Ries and Patrice Deyglun pictured in front of the latter's private aircraft
Luxembourg aviators Patrice Deyglun and Jean Ries’ plan was an ambitious one: to fly a single-engine plane from the grand duchy to Japan, along the silk road. But the daunting route ended up quite different.
The fog was dense when I met with Ries and Deyglun. Although we could hear passenger aircraft taking off from the main airport just metres away, we couldn’t see the planes. We were heading over to the hangar where Deyglun’s E-class Cirrus SR22 is housed—the aircraft which took the two aviators on their silk road adventure, among others.
Before our interview, they want me to sit inside the aircraft to get a sense of the space. “You need a lot of trust because you are in a very confined space,” Ries told me later, echoing the sentiment I felt when seated in the cockpit.
Ries says there are some clear rules when it comes to managing that space. “The one on the left is the pilot in command, the one on the right does the radio and navigation. Every time we stop, we switch.”
The two have been flying since “before we started driving cars”, according to Ries, both starting with gliders. Today, both own their own planes, although Deyglun’s has a de-icing system, good for colder climes, not to mention about 110 extra horsepower.
A Luxembourger, Ries met Deyglun about 15 years ago when the Frenchman moved to the grand duchy and contacted the aerosport club, and they’ve had a number of adventures all around the world ever since.
From idea to plan
The two have participated in international rallies together including, for example, the one in 2017 which took them to Senegal along the historic Aéropostale route, flown by the likes of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
While out hunting one day, Deyglun suggested the two fly to Japan. The idea took hold and was around six months in the making--Deyglun writing around 1,000 mails in the process--but they realised early on they wouldn’t be able to take the shortest route. “We’ve been to Russia several times. Going into Russia isn’t an issue, it’s getting out of it,” Ries said, adding that pilots have run into extortion situations there before they can leave the country.
The biggest fraction of the costs for such trips is for the plane maintenance and handling. Landing in Luxembourg, they say, costs only €6, whereas in other European countries this price could be around €40. In countries where there isn’t the notion of sports aviation, that price hikes substantially—the smaller aircraft landing prices are put on par with the smallest plane to land there—like a Boeing-737. There’s permits, fuel, plus general travel expenses and so on.
But what Deyglun didn’t expect when calculating the prices was that China was insisting they take a private guide with them onboard—again, at an exorbitant price. Despite weeks of negotiating with Chinese authorities, the price was still too high. The aviators realised they could reach Japan by circumnavigating China, via the Philippines to get to Okinawa, a Japanese prefecture which has been a strategic location for the US since end-World War II.
Agricultural crops being grown in the Saudi desert Photo: Patrice Deyglun/Jean Ries
After their calculations, they realised they would have to travel around 9,000 nautical miles to achieve their original goal, lengthening the trip since they would be forced to fly farther south.
“We basically did a third of the trip,” Ries said. “But we don’t like to give up.”
11 days, 50 flight hours
The two set out from Luxembourg on Thursday, 23 May 2019, over the Alps to Dubrovnik, later on to Samos, Greece. The next day they were en route to Hurghada, Egypt, where they recalled seeing the green Nile delta and were impressed with views of wheat crops being grown in Saudi deserts. During much of the hottest parts of their flight, they were using a shield for protection from the sun which meant they couldn’t see outside.
From there the route led them through Kuwait, then Abu Dhabi where, on the ground, they were relieved to have air conditioning in the lounge. During their stay in Abu Dhabi, they also met with Luxembourg’s ambassador to the Emirates, Elisabeth Cardoso.
On 31 May, they were beginning their return home—for the first leg, the destination was Aqaba, Jordan, via Kuwait. Ries recalls political tensions on the ground having real implications for them in the air, after air tower control put them further into the Persian Gulf than they had expected. “While flying, we hear on standby [emergency] radio, ‘preceding aircraft, this is the Iranian Air Force, identify yourself’,” Ries said. “I was on the right, [Patrice] was pilot-in-command, I said no way we are being intercepted by the Iranians.” Neither answered the alert, even after there was a second similar announcement. “In that moment, Bahrein control took us on a [westward] heading, away.”
It was the most frightening part of the trip but as Ries explained, “You don’t have time to shake.”
An image of the flight’s path from inside the cockpit around the time Iranian Air Force alert Photo: Patrice Deyglun/Jean Ries
Although the incident had them rethink their routes, the two nevertheless always had detailed flight plans, alternate stopover points in mind.
As they talk about the highlights of the trip, their eyes light up: they share stories about how they pushed through altitude rain, so-named because it evaporates before it hits the desert floor. On seeing the ancient King’s Highway from the air.
By 3 June, they landed safely in Luxembourg after their 11-day journey which totalled around 50 flight hours.
Catch up with the aviators
The two will share their experiences about their silk road journey with the public for the first time on Saturday, 8 February, beginning at 5:30pm. The event is being organised by UPL-AOPA Luxembourg (Union des pilotes de Luxembourg-Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) at Namur in Luxembourg-Hamm.
Advanced registration is required via the event page.