Top Gear Challenge Pre-Flight

Part of the Top Gear Challenge Flight Adventure.

In an episode of Top Gear (season 7, episode 5), Clarkson, Hammond and May partake in a challenge to deliver a truffle from Alba, Italy to London. Jeremy drives a Bugatti Veyron, while Richard and James are in a Cessna 182. Jeremy wins, primarily because James, who at the time was not yet qualified for night flight, is forced to set down in Lille due to darkness. I decided to take up this challenge myself, and fly the route taken by the Top Gear presenters for this challenge.

My first challenge, then, was to ascertain the route flown by the Top Gear Cessna.

The starting point is reasonably simple to deduce. A map is shown of May and Hammond scootering their Vespas from Alba to the Cuneo airport. The closest airport to service Cuneo is Levaldigi (LIMZ), 20km to the north. When James requests takeoff clearance for their first flight, ground control responds "Lineup zero three." I interpret this as runway 03, which is consistent with Livaldigi. This, therefore, is our starting point.

The Top Gear team does not fly a direct route from Cuneo to London, but rather circumnavigate around the Alps via Nice. In Flight Simulator X, the range of its Cessna 172SP is 638nm, with a fuel capacity of 212L. A complete flight from Levaldigi to London, with a whiplash tour of Mediterranean Italy, is 671nm. James was right, they needed to stop for fuel. During James' initial takeoff clearance he requests "taxi for a VFR flight to Lima Foxtrot Mike Hotel." LFMH is the ICAO code for Boutheon airport in Saint-Étienne, as cited in the episode's commentary.

Now, in the episode there are aerial shots with the Top Gear plane taking off from Cuneo and landing at Lille, both of which depict runway 17 (and even a reversed 17 in one shot). Neither of these airports has a runway 17. I found six airports in France which do sport a runway 17.

Airports in France with Runway 17
Airports in France with Runway 17

Of these, I estimate that Champforgeuil and Charnay could have conceivably been refueling stops. Montlucon Gueret is rather remote, and would be an unlikely choice. Champforgeuil is 85nm north of Saint-Étienne so it doesn't make sense they'd have planned this as another stop. Charnay is even less likely.

The aircraft's registration in these shots, G-BXZM, matches the identification of James' plane, as he announced when taking off from Livaldigi, so this is not simply stock footage. Also, the weather shown for the landing (standing in for Lille) matches the weather in the subsequent shot of the Veyron, suggesting that it was filmed on the day of the challenge. (Unless both are B roll, I suppose.) When and where did James land at an airport with a runway 17? This aspect of the trip remains a mystery.

When landing in Lille we hear James' conversation with ATC where he announces he is on final for runway 18. Lille doesn't have a runway 18. Of the airports in France which offer a runway 18, none are anywhere close to Lille. Therefore, I must assume that the BBC Editors repurposed the landing at Boutheon to stand in for Lesquin at Lille.

Airports in France with Runway 18
Airports in France with Runway 18

A roundabout route from Levaldigi to Saint-Étienne through Nice is 263nm with an estimated fuel burn of 91L. This is less than half the range of the Cessna, so why did James need to stop for fuel? James confirms to Richard that he "filled it up" at Cuneo with "as much as it takes." We must consider, however, that there were two additional passengers (perhaps three, if there were separate camera and sound operators), plus film and sound gear. This extra weight would reduce the Cessna's range significantly.

From Saint-Étienne direct to London it's 405nm (144L), within the Cessna's optimal range provided there's no significant headwind. But if their payload deemed it necessary for James to stop and refuel after the first 263nm, would he be able to extend the next leg to 405nm? Perhaps not. It's possible that there was another refueling stop, perhaps at Troyes, and this fact was cut from the program for time or dramatic purposes. It makes some sense from a flight planning perspective as it splits the trip up into three legs of similar distance. Also, with two landings and refueling delays it would better explain their ultimate conundrum of being unable to complete the journey within daylight hours on a single day.

Given how I might want to interpret the above assessment, I figure I have four flight options available:

Livaldigi → Saint-Étienne → London (669nm)
 DistanceTime
Saint-Étienne 263nm 2h16m
London 406nm 3h35m

Livaldigi → Saint-Étienne → Lille → London (715nm)
 DistanceTime
Saint-Étienne 263nm 2h16m
Lille 307nm 2h46m
London 145nm 1h15m

Livaldigi → Saint-Étienne → Troyes → London (690nm)
 DistanceTime
Saint-Étienne 263nm 2h16m
Troyes 169nm 1h31m
London 258nm 2h15m

Livaldigi → Saint-Étienne → Troyes → Lille → London (718nm)
 DistanceTime
Saint-Étienne 263nm 2h16m
Troyes 169nm 1h31m
Lille 141nm 1h14m
London 145nm 1h15m

 

The first, direct to London via Saint-Étienne, is the shortest, and doable with just me in a simulated Cessna will full tanks. But this offers no drama, and doesn't play enough into the spirit of the Top Gear episode.

The next, via Saint-Étienne and Lille, most closely matches what is depicted in the episode.

A flight landing in Troyes in place of Lille is, I believe, the optimal route with a second fueling stop. Perhaps Paris is more direct, but then you'd have the extra hassle and delays of landing and taking off at a major international hub. Via Troyes bypasses not only scheduling issues, but also the congestion of the airspace.

Then we have the full package deal, with visits to all four destinations. And, of course, that's the one I've chosen to fly, since it sounds the most fun.

But I still don't know how runway 17 fits into the picture.