This whole idea started with an online forum discussion, pondering how high a Super Cub can really go. Sure, there is the whole published ceiling that might offer insight, though there was my rather extensive personal experience flying the PA-11 to interesting heights. I exceeded the ceiling once, with a passenger, in Colorado, getting to 16,300’. In France last summer, I came close on a warm day, reaching 16,000’ just over the summit of Mt. Blanc, but still hadn’t broken the record again in almost five years. I had even installed vortex generators since, and it was looking like the published ceiling was about it (16,000’ in the PA-11). I supposed, on engine power alone, a Super Cub would do the same thing: roughly its published limit and not too much more.

Well, that is fine on engine power. Mountain winds are another story. What goes down must have gone up somewhere else, so find the upward wind currents and see how far one can go.

On an innocent morning in the Pyrenees, I told my wife I was going for a flight (without telling her what I was up to), filed a flight plan to talk to ATC, and went to the airport. I talked to the airport manager, who is a renowned glider instructor, and confirmed exactly how to best catch the waves, and asked to borrow a nice oxygen setup.

The thing is, mountain waves are very tranquil…once in them. The transition layers beneath feature plenty of turbulence and rotors, usually enough that when about to enter the wave and have things calm down, a sensible pilot turns back. After all, he and his airplane are getting the snot beat out of it. Why risk more? I had gotten into waves a number of times in Colorado and in the Pyrenees, though it was usually a nominal altitude gain and wasn’t necessarily with the intent to ride them as far as I could go.

As it was a chilly winter morning, climb out was good. By 7,500’, I was beginning to get knocked around. At 9,000’, it got a little interesting. By 12,000’, turbulence was almost gone. At 15,000’ I really hooked the wave and was heading up nicely. At 19,500’, French ATC put an end to the party, as Class A was lurking above, and despite my repeated pleas to continue my fun and go for a better record, they couldn’t issue a variance. You know, airliners going into Toulouse and Barcelona….sigh. It took 43 minutes to get from field elevation of 3,609′ MSL to 19,500′ with full fuel and 100hp.

So that answers the musings of the mind. It was astonishingly cold, though the airplane handled as normal. Mixture was leaned quite a bit to keep the engine running, airspeed was consistent, and nothing was too terribly out of the ordinary. Some descending circles with GPS indicated upper level winds of 58kts in the wave, though I still haven’t broken my wind record. That was done at 13,500’ just east of Yellowstone in 2015 in the Absaroka Mountains.

If it’s not obvious, I’d love to go higher in the Cub.

Statistics from the Climb

Waves in the upper atmosphere from 12,000′.

13,000′. The Pyrenees, looking west from France to Spain and Andorra.

19,000′. Took a photo with the wing to prove I wasn’t faking it in another aircraft. Timberline below is 7,500′, and the highest peaks in the foreground are 9,500′.

19,500′. The highest peak in the Pyrenees is on the horizon at 11,168′.

Cockpit view. I don’t even have a 10,000′ hand on the altimeter, though the altitude from standard altimeter settings on the transponder reads FL192.

18,500′ on the way down, with the Mediterranean on the horizon. The pass beneath is roughly 5,400′.

Getting to more reasonable altitudes at 11,500′.

Note the boats in Barcelona harbor on the extreme left horizon of the image. They are 76 statute miles from the airplane.

 

 

Garrett Fisher is an aerial adventure photographer, having photographed some of the most rugged and wild terrain in America from his 1949 Piper PA-11. After living in Germany with the Cub, he recently moved to the Spanish Pyrenees to continue the flying adventure. He has published six aerial photography books covering the Colorado Rockies, Wyoming, high terrain in the Southeast, and the Outer Banks, with more US and European books in the pipeline. He blogs regularly about his flights at www.garrettfisher.me.