OBBI 250830Z 10007KT CAVOK 29/12 Q1018 NOSIG
Acclimatized to our surrounding environment, it is easy to fail recognition of our settings to what they are. Partially due to scale, and partly to do with an absurd arrogance towards our existence. It took generations of root knowledge to realize the basics of life; that which we still struggle to master and understand. With revelations so obvious that when realized we are dumbfounded by the simplicity of fact, and amazed at the complexity it creates.
Pressure Altitude = (Standard Pressure - Current Pressure) x 1,000 + Field Elevation
The excitement of zipping through valleys, skimming hills, and shaving trees was almost erotic. Until one day I was assigned visual clearance training, the task was to stay within the legal limits of Visual Flight Rules in a scattered cloud sky.
A bit higher than my usual flight level, we head up to the clouds. I remember the instructor telling me about hypoxia and the expected change in flight dynamics. To gauge my abilities in the thinner atmosphere, we went through some basic recovery and safety maneuvers. Once satisfied, the instructor guided me to the densest cloud cover area and asked me to maintain my VFR clearance.
Approaching Haze level, I can see the separation of humidity splitting the atmospheres as my instructor reports altitude “KBAZ Tower, N5556S reporting Haze Level at flight level blah blah blah”. Even the sunlight felt crisper, with less surrounding glare and more vivid colors surrounding us. Like a layer of film peeled off, once above the haze, the light entering the cockpit went from warm to brilliant white. Looking below, I can clearly see the denser more humid air, the idea of “Submerged in Air”, became clear to me.
As I approach a dense congregation of clouds ahead, I notice wisps of mist, the remnant of a grand mass passing through. The first thing I noticed was the incomprehensible scale of these silent giants. Getting close seemed to take forever, almost giving the illusion of being still in mid-air. Approaching these beasts was humbling. Detail upon detail to expanding and overlapping torrents of mist.
Maintaining my clearances, we slalomed around the clouds, banking from one heading to the other trying to keep within our clearances. Nothing to the magnificence of pulling heavy Gs in an F-16, but I'd like to remember the experience to be relatively similar. My flight back that day was the lightest I ever felt. I was excited with the knowledge of a new skill, mischievous were the thoughts of my solo… Perspective Changed!
As I progressed through my training, I started becoming more confident and comfortable with altitude. For safety reasons, when soloing, we were always instructed to maintain our flights at higher altitudes but remain under 8,000ft within “The Training Area”. Texas with its usual serving of big fluffy clouds meant we usually kept below 4,000ft.
Surrounded by active regional and international airports, two AFBs, and a number of sport activity areas. Reasonably the school restricted us with some safety basics. Plus, the height limitations were more than enough space to play, but my eyes were always looking up at the beyond.
Against Boredom, Even gods Struggle in Vain - Friedrich Nietzsche
On a clear hot summer day, while doing some clearing turns, I circle back with a left 180, I see this gorgeous silver American Airline Boeing on final approach to KSAT right over Canyon Lake not 10nm W in the distance. A quick glance at my altimeter and it read 5,800ft.
Initially, I was shocked at how close I was to this massive machine, yet then, amazed at how effortless it flew across my view. It came from up there, there above the clouds, like Capt. Nemo [NOT THE FISH] I dared the thought of leaving my “Cloud Barrier Reef”, to venture into the heavenly abyss.
The academy was between 2 commercial airports, KSAT to the S, and KHYI to the N, next to an active airbase and its auxiliary facility to the S and E, and at least 10 other small airports dotted around a 10-mile radius. The area was basically a shooting gallery of flying projectiles, did I mention skydivers… yeah them too… Not that the area was overcrowded, or that it was tight, this was Texas. The skies are BIGGER there…
A closer look at the VFR map, I notice a gap in the surrounding Class E, just SW of KHYI. It’s away from surrounding airport approaches, and wide enough to do circling climbs. In addition to that, in case of an emergency, it is surrounded by farmland, and close to my home airport of KBAZ. A final check and clearance with my instructor, to make sure I wasn't doing anything overly stupid, and I was good to go. Intoxicated with excitement, as I am about to do my first 10,000ft Solo flight...
The next day, dressed in Red, with [YNWA] on my chest, I drove to the field and took to the sky. Initially, I maintained 2,500ft, did a minor flight check, and circled with some clearance turns. Confirmed by the tower, I face the wind and pushed the throttle to the max, in an attempt to get whatever speed I can out of my tub. My Indicated Air Speed gauge pointed to a strong 110kts, I pull the yoke, initiating my journey to the heavens above...
Initially, the climb was wonderful, I had a great rate of climb exceeding 1,000ft/min in updrafts, and my speed was a stable 75kts. I was passing clouds and sometimes even circling their tops. The sky was beautiful and playful. That is until I hit about 7000ft.
It’s odd how we perceive clouds from the ground to be distant, yet in flight, the first thing you notice is how close the clouds are to the surface, especially those big fluffy ones. Up close, they are massive, but that’s only a human perspective to the scale we know. Factor in the size and scale of the atmosphere and even the biggest and highest of clouds are dwarfed.
In commercial aviation, aircraft are quick to gain altitude [ Usually FL250 in 15min ], this is done to maintain passenger comfort by avoiding turbulent weather, among other safety reasons. An ATR 72-500, for example, can comfortably achieve 2,000 ft/min in its initial climb, compared to my 1,000ft/min in a thermal draft at a quarter of the speed.
When I reached Top of Cloud levels, I noticed my OAT change dramatically. At Takeoff the ground air temperature was around 35-40c. As expected in a climb, the temperature gradually decreases, but after Top of Clouds, I can see the needle move quickly to the right. I obviously reached a new level of air, less dense, colder, and swifter winds.
The climb was too slow, even with a low AoA, I was struggling to gain 200ft/min. I decided to periodically level off, adjust my aircraft for the altitude, speed up, then attempt the climb. At this point, I was a mere 2,000ft from my goal. I kept circling around in elongated laps, gaining whatever speed I can.
It took another 10 – 15 min until I approached my altitude. Enough time for the Outside Air Temperature to reach inside. At this point, my thermometer was reading close to zero, and my exhausted body was defiantly feeling the cold. With minor shivers and the occasional shake, I shrugged it off and moved along. I decided to maintain just under 10,000ft, A final adjustment, gain some speed, and set my cameras for the awaited moment!
I can feel the effect of a lighter atmosphere creping in. My breath was heavy, even at level flight I was struggling to maintain IAS above than 85kts. Ground speed, on the other hand, was closer to 110kts in a tailwind, as indicated in the Garmin 430 display. I made sure I was still within the safety parameter, did a couple of clearing turns, adjusted my seat and enjoyed the view.
From up there, I saw my airport, along with KSAT and KHYI, with dotted white landing lights on approach lining up to land, and departing traffic piercing out with speed. The shallow valleys and hills surrounding my airport, looked nothing more than draped fabric, folding and bending with the terrain. In the distance, Canyon Lake looked like a cropped out piece of land, fed by shimmering and dancing threads of silk. Highways stretched to forever, with what looked like paused traffic.
The different levels of haze were clear to see, with dramatic shading to differentiate them. The clouds below seemed to have a silvery top, floating on a creamy fluff. The hills had a color gradient from vivid at the tops, to almost yellowish green at the base. The water reflected the Sun, but the scatter of light, surrounded the lakes, rivers, and streams with a brilliant glowing glare. For the first time in my life, I can comprehend the ocean of air that we live in, and I was only at 10,000ft.
As the shivers extend deeper into my body, it was time to head back to the green bed of life below. As this was my first time up, and the fact that the Aircraft ID badge read 1975, I wasn't too confident with my tub. Due to the risk of carb icing and my low IAS, I decided to decent with engines doing their best!
I managed to hit about 120kts IAS, and I can defiantly hear a difference in the engine’s pitch. With the added airspeed rushing my wings, control and response were back to what felt to be normal. All of this with only 250 ft/min descent. I didn't want to risk a faster descent, plus I wasn't in any rush, but I have to say, I was very tempted to dive that tub! I'm sure it would have given anyone watching a thrill. It took a while to shake off the cold, but the Texas heat was quick to melt the small ice crystals forming on the glass.
Closer to cloud tops, I start leveling off and going through my checks, the main one being to check on myself. Higher altitudes can be extremely dangerous if not respected. My ears adjust to pressure, my breathing back to normal, heart rate stable, I reduce my speed and resume my decent.