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Author: Garrett Fisher (page 1 of 4)

Switzerland

We decided to head to Switzerland again for the summer, which presented the obligation of flying the Cub there. The first weekend I chose had the unfortunate reality of being infernal heatwave in Europe, where temperatures in France reached 113F and 102F in Cerdanya, exceeding the previous high that I had experienced in the Pyrenees of 95F. It is generally a temperate place without extremes, so this was pretty warm. After my punishing trip to Texas in the heat, humidity, and thermals of an early Southern heatwave a month prior, I wasn’t in the mood to repeat myself, so I delayed.

A window showed up to go a week later, with sunny weather in the Pyrenees, France, and the western Alps, so I took my chances, even though it was supposed to be warm.

As the day approached and I undertook flight planning exercises, I noted a trepidation brewing, which caused me initially to do a thorough check of the airplane a couple of days before leaving. Was this some sort of deep intuition about a problem that I was ignoring? On careful examination, it occurred to me that I had pause crossing France, which I didn’t understand, as I had done it five times in the past. One factor is that, each time, I insist upon going a slightly different way, as the southern half of France features a wide variety of things to see in a narrow band of 75 miles. That adds technical burden to the flight, some of which I forget about each time, inclusive of a French fuel card, special military zones to be checked, flight plans, a byzantine web of restricted areas unlike anything in America, fuel status of airports, landing and handling fees, language restrictions, and a flight plan for customs clearance into Switzerland.

Now I knew what my problem was: crossing France is a tremendous amount of work where lots can go wrong. One could easily find himself marooned at an airport with no ability to fuel and not enough fuel to make an alternate, meaning an early night in a hotel.

The departure out of the Pyrenees was interesting, as a morning inversion developed, which I could clear easily, only to plunge into MVFR Saharan dust that was in a layer 6,000 feet and higher, a first where the haze is only at high altitude. At one point I was concerned it would go IFR, and then it suddenly cleared to a hot and hazy summer day over the French foothills. Proceeding north, it was quite hot, so I stayed up at 5,000 feet, descending slowly once I got past some Mediterranean hills. As I approached a control zone, I asked for clearance from flight following to get through it (something they usually will relay). I was handed to Rodez Info, who told me there “is a strike today in Clermont-Ferrand, so there will be no Info service.” I tried calling the tower and was too far away, so I ducked under the cake, now tossed around in heat and thermals.

This went on awhile as I approached the highlands of the Massif Central near the Cantal Mountains. It is a dormant stratovolcano which has partially eroded away, creating some interesting faux above timberline terrain. Since Info service was on strike, I couldn’t get status of the restricted area, which meant I couldn’t quite see the peak I wanted to overfly. Hot and sweaty after my low altitude jaunt around Rodez, bumped by thermals, wishing I was at my destination, I began to lose faith in the gospel of aviation that ‘more flying is better.’

Fuel was at Saint-Flour, then off to the eastern Massif Central timberlands, down to the Rhône River for my ceremonial crossing, a reflection of past stories while sneaking by Grenoble’s airspace, glancing at fertile farmlands that I recall distinctly from the flight down from Germany in 2016.

Cantal Mountains, France. Maximum elevation 6,086′.

Timberlands in eastern Massif Central. Trees look quite healthy and there is some logging activity.


Crossing the Rhône River.

Farmland in the Rhône River valley.

Fuel was a GA airport outside of Chambéry, choosing a non-controlled field to avoid the mile walk required to pay a 5 euro landing fee at the larger airport north of town. Instead the field was a “French only” airport, a reality one must contend with in places in France, where all radio communication is strictly in French. It was a poor day to arrive, as gliders were swarming like gnats. I waited until traffic subsided, slipped in for fuel, noticing a very specific indifference by individuals on the ground, and after 15 minutes of glider winch activity and landings, found a window to takeoff for the final leg into Switzerland.

My questions about whether I was enjoying myself went away once I began cruising in the Pre-Alps a few minutes later. It is technically a separate mountain range that looks like the foothills of the Alps. Elevations tend to top out in the 4,000’ to 8,000’ range, with thick pine forests, exposed rock, and occasional ridges that look like the Alps.

The Pre-Alps gave way to the Chablais Alps at the border of Switzerland, and my disposition went from fatigue to pure joy. Vertical spires of rocks, small glaciers, remaining June snow, and thunderous waterfalls abounded. I climbed to about 8,000 feet to swing by the Massif du Chablais, a ridge that taunts us from the chalet in Switzerland, and from there swung by Les Diablerets and made my cruise into the Bernese Oberland, to land at Gstaad Airport, where the airplane will spend the summer.

Col de Bornette in the French Pre-Alps. I came from the left and crossed this same pass when flying to Switzerland last year.

Mont Fleuri, France, still in the Pre-Alps (8238′ / 2511m).

Mont Blanc in the background.


Switzerland, how I love you.  Les Dents Blanches (8533′ to 9042′ / 2601m to 2756m).


Massif du Chablais.

Bernese Oberland.

I was extremely content with my choice of location, and after literally “planes, trains, and automobiles,” I was back in Cerdanya the next day, and we drove to Switzerand the day after that. A few days after arriving a nice day was forecast, at least with respect to the fact it is sunny. I am still trying to figure out why one front means clear air, or another means a sunny day with incredible haze, or it means haze in one elevation or area, yet not in another.

Anyhow, I hoped to photograph Lake Geneva in summer light angles, though the morning showed sunny skies with horrific haze. I decided to go up anyway and “swing by the Jungfrau but at an altitude that isn’t 14,000 feet.” Given that it was to be sunny, I figured I could get some angles that never really made sense to try while based in Sion, as terrain is something quite severe and takes a lot of fuel to climb Sion over the Alps, back down to where humans live, then back up over the Alps, and quickly back down to normal elevations.

It didn’t take long in the air to decide I needed to clear the clouds over the Oberland, which I did in a hole over a massive waterfall in Adelboden. From there, the clouds were 50% coverage and clearly went to 11,000 feet, so I’d have to clear them. I wanted to see the Jungfrau, and it would be even better if it was sticking out above the clouds. Snaking east, I climbed as I went, hugging terrain, avoiding clouds, and thoroughly enjoying myself. Eventually I popped out at 12,000’ north of a sizable glacier, noting that the clouds were effectively piling up on the north side of the Bernese Alps and getting pushed to higher altitude, drying out on the south side. I finally did get to see the Jungfrau, after climbing to 13,500’, staying on the north side due to a stiff breeze. The air at altitude had perfect visibility, and stunning views.

On the way back west along the ridge, I noted that the clouds had thickened significantly, with less holes and higher heights. It was still clear to the south via the passes, and north out of the Oberland. Eventually I found a hole between Adelboden and Frutigen and corkscrewed down 3,000’ and popped over the pass towark Lenk-Simmental. Humidity and haze had increased greatly under the cloud deck causing carb ice at cruise RPM, though it was restricted to where it piled up against the Alps, indeed an interesting microclimate, as things were dry on the other side in the Rhône valley near Sion and drier 10 miles north of the base of the Bernese Alps. Anyhow, I cruised along the menacing looking ridge before slaloming around Oberland peaks and finally joining the circuit over a rather vertical rock just north of the airport.

While the first flight was one of technical requirement, to get from one point to another, it turned out to be the best and the worst at the same time. I think I can, at this point, finally declare that I do not like cruising at low altitude in thermals on hot summer days (it has taken long enough to cement that preference) yet alongside that displeasure I find the utter transcendental bliss of flight above glaciers well above 10,000 feet, which is simply the most enjoyable thing I have ever done in an airplane.

Rüwlispass (5636′ / 1718m).

Waterfalls above Adelboden.

Gemmipass (7447′ / 2270m).

Hockenhorn, hiding in the clouds (10803′ / 3293m). I gave up trying to climb over it, went to the right in the lee of the pass, and climbed above the clouds in the distance.


Et voila! Üsser Talgletscher. 

Same glacier, looking the other way.

Eiger (13024′ / 3970m). So much for the plan to “photo from below on a clear day.” Its not like I find this disagreeable.

Jungfrau (13642′ / 4158m).

Bernese Alps with clouds backed against them to the north.

And down through the hole above Adelboden.

Cruising along the ridge, where my O-200 turned into an ice machine.

CFIT poster.

Beneath Les Diablerets.

Entering the pattern for Saanen. Standard procedures call for flying above an enormous rock, then making a square pattern around Gstaad. Its a wild airport.

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.

A brief flirtation with another aircraft

If one wishes to make sense out of the present series of flights, then it becomes necessary to dial things back to 2010. My father had recently passed away, and despite taking ownership of the PA-11 that I now fly, I found it necessary to express my emotions by taking up the ancestral mantle of buying Cub and Super Cub insurance wrecks. I purchased a J-3 that had what I deemed to be minor damage (in light of the carnage that regularly rolled in to my grandfather’s shop) and set my mind to get it flying again. I did, except it took years and was a money losing operation, though I became something of an intriguing individual, being the only person in the neighborhood to have a 1940s airplane literally in his garage.

Apparently, I am incapable of learning from past mistakes. The Super Cub that I flew for my “Sentimental Journey” blog post last fall was another yellow, Ceconite-covered Piper taildragger, continuing this model of processing the evolution of life and death with airplane purchases, as my grandfather had died two months prior. In this case, the airplane was substantially perfect, which offered an illusion that it was in no way a repeat of the process earlier in the decade.

When I made the purchase of the Super Cub last year, it was a 2-hour flight to the region where I grew up, and the weather happened to be ideal in that direction, which virtually never happens in that time of year. I tried to rationalize that it was the luck of the draw that I put the Super Cub at the airport where I took my checkride, which happened to be the same airport that, at age eight, my grandfather let me take control of his [bright yellow Ceconite-covered] Super Cub for the first time, telling me to fly home via a road that I was familiar with. I think it’s less likely that I was following the weather and more likely that the obvious is true: there was a processing of a lifelong history of aviation with my grandfather, and this was a way of working through some of it.

Now that winter had come and gone, and a pile of life-altering events unrelated to aviation had changed many of the original plans as to how I was going to use the plane in the USA, I had a need to visit clients in various locations while also making my mind up about the Super Cub. I hatched a plan to use the Super Cub to traverse the country, enjoying myself while figuring out what to do next.

Weather cooperated for my incoming flight from Europe, so I was off from Perry-Warsaw, NY late in the evening heading south, with Charlotte, NC in mind. Since it was 7:10PM at takeoff, I wasn’t going to get far, though I still hadn’t formulated where I’d end up exactly. My wife usually plays the role of travel agent by text, finding hotels, and in this case, it was past midnight for her, so I was on my own. I initially in my mind set out for Williamsport PA, though as I was in flight, I got the sensation that University Park Airport in State College PA would have more hotels. Given that school was out and it’s a big college town, there would likely be tons of hungry hoteliers.

Crossing the Pennsylvania Wilds again, this time at dusk, I was struck how utterly desolate the place is, and few seem to know of it, even having grown up 100 miles north. Anyhow, the sun set and the night lights went on, something I do not have on the PA-11. I was a little nervous with the haze and the fact that the Wilds have zero inhabitants, though I got some civilization to make out a horizon before twilight ended, then came in for a landing at State College, my first at night in over 5 years. Of all of my flight experience, less than one percent is at night.

Silver Lake, NY – not long after departing Perry-Warsaw.

Southern Tier of NY, east of Wellsville.

Pennsylvania Wilds. Indeed one can choose between a tree, rock, or river as a forced landing location.

I pulled up to a very nice FBO, which had a hotel arrangement, a hotel shuttle, and they tied down the plane for me with no landing fees. I had to resist yelling “I LOVE AMERICA!” at the top of my lungs. In the matter of a 90 minute flight, I was deep into another state, changed destination (while getting NOTAMS and AF/D data in flight on my iPad), and landed at a place next to jets where they clearly want to do business and make things as easy as possible. It is hard to describe, though suffice it to say that diversion to a different destination in Europe is only done out of flight urgency and not some illusion that one place is better than another based on in-flight mental musings.

The next day, ceilings would be an issue in the morning and angry warm front thunderstorms in the afternoon. The heavens parted like the Red Sea as soon as I arrived at the airport, and I was off heading straight south in hot and humid air, pretty much certain I would pass the frontal boundary in northern VA before anything got going.

Thirty minutes into the flight, the oil pressure gauge started acting up. While I had only owned the airplane now for 6 flying hours, it had consistently stayed at a PSI setting and moved only slightly and slowly. Now she was bouncing in 6 psi increments, though staying in the green. Curious. Instead of flying VFR on top over a cloud-covered ridge, I turned to follow one of those ubiquitous Pennsylvania valleys that goes for 100 miles, just in case.

“Ridge and Valley” geographic province, south of Pennsylvania. This feature goes on from New York to Tennessee. 

Oil pressures slid about 7 PSI (still well into the green), though temps came up and stabilized at a new high, given it was the hottest OATs yet. If they kept rising, the conclusion would have been obvious, though they sat proportionally at a temp consistent with how hot it was outside, so I kept going, until I could see that the average of the gauge wobbling was going down. Still in the green, I had to choose between Potomac, MD or Hagerstown, MD. Potomac looked to be a continuation of a valley with cloud cover, and I couldn’t get a METAR or AWOS to determine ceilings. Hagerstown, a towered field, had AWOS and I could get a broadcast at 23nm. Sky clear. I diverted direct and by the time I was in the pattern, oil pressure was heading toward the top of the yellow.

After landing, it became evident 4 of the 7 quarts I had at takeoff had decided to go overboard via a leak. Sigh. After extensive phone calls and what not, I left it at a repair station for review the next day and drove to Charlotte, NC in a rental car. Yet again, America is the Promised Land of aviation, as the FBO had a deal with a local car rental agency, so life was easy, absent the ill-timed lack of oil.

The trip took a setback with a bad case of the flu, so a week later, I was back to resume the flight, not sure if I’d make it to California as I had planned. As I am very neurotic about post-maintenance safety (I find that maintenance puts other equilibriums at risk under the cowling), I did a few landings to confirm no leaks, tied down for the night, and left the next morning.

It was a beautiful flight down the Shenandoah Valley, from Hagerstown, MD, all the way to Virginia Highlands Airport near Abingdon, VA on the border with Tennessee. From there, the flight called for following the Tennessee River Valley southwest in East Tennessee, except it was hot as blazes and quite hazy. There is a bit of terrain to the west that tops out just below 4000’ north of Oak Ridge, long on my list that I didn’t ever see from the PA-11 when I lived in North Carolina, so I flew over the windmills on the ridges, then kept going to 8,000’ above the puffy clouds to cool off a bit.

Outside of Front Royal, Virginia.


North of Roanoke, Virginia. Old habits die hard. Even with a transponder and radio, I wasn’t in the mood to talk to Roanoke Approach.

“Mountain Empire” area of Virginia not far from I-77. This area is a famous weather boundary in winter, with IFR to the right and illustrious sun to the left. This was one of the ranges my grandfather long viewed as nothing short of an airplane graveyard. I see it as a knoll.

Cherokee Reservoir, Tennessee.


At this point, I departed the Great Appalachian Valley (which runs from Quebec to Alabama), having flown about half of it, and continued southwest while the Valley turns more southerly. Landing at Tullahoma, TN, I realized something profound: despite the fact that this thing is a 135hp Super Cub with all of the glories a PA-11 doesn’t have, I am so hot its nauseating, sunburn is a problem as I slathered with lotion while flying into the sun for hours, my rear end hurt, my knees hurt due to lack of mobility in the cockpit, and the thermals are just brutal. This has become a test of endurance just like every time I crossed the country in the PA-11, enduring the same discomforts, just at a slower speed in that aircraft.

Employing a trick I figured out flying to Colorado in 2013, with 105F ground temps in western Kansas, I soaked my shirt with water to cool down, and sure enough, 95F wind in the cockpit left me dry within 30 minutes, yet much happier.

Just north of Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee, the terrain that tempted me staring at maps while in Charlotte, NC.

Up to 8,000 feet to cool off. 

Normandy Lake, Tullahoma, Tennessee, while doing a 360 to give somebody else room for a long final.

One more impromptu stop at Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the evening, as my tolerance for anything like a full bladder had waned, and then it was an hour into Tupelo, Mississippi after sunset, making another landing at a towered field with the lights on. The FBO tossed me the keys to the courtesy car for the night, and it was off to a hotel. God bless America and the glories of her general aviation.

Wilson Lake/Tennessee River, Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

My initial plans were to fly to Los Angeles then either return to Texas to show the plane to an internet friend who had expressed interest in purchasing it or fly it back east to North Carolina to sell it on the open market or take it to Europe from there. An opportunity emerged that would have allowed its importation into Europe without tariff or tax, so the result could have gone three ways. This flight was a last hurrah in America, at least for me with regard to this airplane, so the outcome was open ended.

It took a long day of flying to let a few things sink in: the same discomforts of a PA-11 exist in a PA-18, and while the PA-18 is faster and has a few other features, the PA-11 is inadvertently a downright amazing aerial photography ship, a reality I encountered really by pure coincidence, as my grandfather had restored it and basically told me I would be taking lessons in it, and not his Super Cub, which was his “pride and joy” and he didn’t want me or anyone else touching it. One can now understand my inclination toward the superiority of a PA-18 and the philosophical conundrum that I did not have the chance in life to research and choose the make and model of plane I wanted to fly; I have been carrying on a family legacy, at times wondering what I would have done had it been incumbent on me to carry the full load of getting involved in aviation without any help. Would I have found Cubs on my own? Probably.

In any case, the PA-18 poses some technical issues with photography as thermals are tougher to manage, photo subjects go whizzing by many times faster than I can orient the camera, wind is so much stronger that it pushes the camera lens to undesirable zoom positions, and wind coming in the entry door, if opened, is an unholy fury which requires quite some work to coax the door shut, if anything weighing less than 5lbs hasn’t blown out in the process. All of this would require some thought, though it did formulate the decision to aim for Texas instead of Los Angeles. The flight was taking much longer than expected, my endurance was waning, and I had lost a week to illness.

I took off the next morning in heat and humidity that puts the Deep South in a realm of its own. Ten years in North Carolina cannot prepare someone for what one encounters in Mississippi….and it was still late May. Thankfully, I encountered a few rain showers, products of morning IFR clouds that had lifted to VFR, which was enough to cool things down and also keep the temps from rising.

I crossed the Mississippi River in full flood stage, now my fourth crossing, where three of four times the river is nearly bursting its banks. After departing the river delta in Arkansas, I entered a thicket of a forest that I would not escape until Texas with the exception of a brief respite in northwest Louisiana.

Mississippi River Delta, Mississippi.

Mississippi River.

Google Maps does not prepare one for the mass of foliage that covers this part of Arkansas, Louisiana, and eastern Texas. It is practically nothing but trees, with swamps and bayous, something I discovered as I was using an infrared camera, and water showed up black between the trees. If the engine quit, I’d be gator food and nobody would ever have found the wreckage! At first I flew direct, thinking that some of these swamps and forests were errantly thick and things would become human again. I then realized it was nonstop and began following roads.

Ouachita River, Arkansas with Louisiana in the background. Great places to land. 

The not-so-ironically Red River north of Shreveport, Louisiana.

I finally made my destination for the day in the rurals of Texas southeast of Dallas, an airpark with a grass strip. In talking with some local pilots, many of whom have taken long trips, I heard a few times that this flight of mine was something quite ambitious and quite a distance in a Super Cub. The odd thing is that I seem not to see things that way. If a plane can be flown a certain distance in a day, then why should it not be? My longest flying day was 13 hours in the PA-11 (Nebraska to North Carolina), and I only begin to understand that this could be excessive when every single body part hurts and I am nearly worn to the bone. An irony is that I have no clue where this mentality came from. I often point to my grandfather as an influence for many things, yet the man didn’t like flying near hills in excess of 500 feet, and his longest Cub or Super Cub flight was from Wisconsin to New York, taken in the 1960s. Since I began flying with him, he didn’t leave New York State in his Super Cub in a 20 year period, yet I got this Indiana Jones idea about Cubs and Super Cubs from somewhere, and its only when I am fed up with 12 hours of angry thermals do I step back and reconsider the plan (only to do it again later).

Texas, south of Tyler.

I came to a conclusion that I did not need two airplanes in Europe. If I was living in America, I’d probably have kept it, as most everything is easier. Really for many reasons, I came to the conclusion that the PA-11 is just fine, and that my Super Cub infatuation probably had to do with the fact that my grandfather had an apparently superior airplane the entire time I had been flying, so it was something I thought I should aspire to. I missed the memo when he said quite clearly, after half a century flying every fabric Piper product from an E-2 to a PA-22, that a “PA-11 is the best one.” The deal was done in Texas and the plane was sold to someone who had his own specific history with the Super Cub Special (of which this airplane was, with only 300 or so made), so it was a nice feeling that it was going to the kind of place where it would be appreciated. I must also mention that the Super Cub Special was initially used in Air Force affiliated training, and it felt wrong to take the airplane out of America for its historical value. It belonged home and it sits now a few hundred miles from the Air Force base that it first was used as a trainer in 1952.

I completed my activities in the USA by commercial airline and returned to Spain. The day after getting here, I hopped in the PA-11. As soon as I sat in the seat, it felt right. I love this airplane. When I started it up, I noticed how quiet the O-200 is compared to the O-290-D2. On takeoff, it was so quiet that I wondered if someone replaced the engine with a desk fan. When I was very young, roughly 5 years of age, my grandfather had a yellow J-3 and a blue and white PA-18, and he would often ask which one I wanted a ride in. It was always the J-3, and my rationale was that it was “quieter.” It’s funny, decades later, the same holds true. Throttling back to 2000RPM cruise, the engine purred like a kitten and I said to myself, “I like it quiet.” She’s slow…and that’s just fine.

Back in Spain, flying slow with an airplane powered by a hair dryer.

 

 

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.

On the Matter of Mountain Flying

I recently had a realization that my perspective of mountain flying has changed a bit since I first got started. To quote a fellow pilot, “I must admit I laughed aloud at your comments about dangerous wild life in the mountains of the western US! A guy who will fly a 70-year-old 100hp airplane over some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world in less than ideal conditions of wind and weather is worried about running into a bear…” Yes, that is one of my primary concerns, if we’re talking about flying in the Rockies. As long as a forced landing isn’t in a grove of pines or straight into the side of a cliff, bears are my biggest concern afterward, which admittedly seems a little silly. Whatever mountain flying I do is a careful product of removing risks endemic to flying in high terrain, so it doesn’t worry me too much to be in the air if I am well prepared.

Contrast that with when I got started. The biggest hills were a few hundred feet high in Upstate New York, weather tended to be worse in them, and a remarkable number of pilots met their maker flying into the Appalachians. My grandfather couldn’t be bothered with going anywhere near terrain, and the rest of non-pilot family piled on that mountains were equivalent to death, so there I began my pilot days, terrified of mountains.

I finally did fly into those Appalachians, renting a plane in Charlotte, NC and flying a tad into West Virginia on a sunny day. Although terrain was roughly 3,000’ at most, I cruised at 7,500’ just to be safe, and found myself in mountain waves, alternating between full power and descent power, with airspeed going from slow flight to maximum structural cruising speed, even though I was almost a mile above terrain. “Curious” I thought, got tossed around coming over the ridge in Bluefield, and made a graceless landing, where the guy picking me up noted that he “saw every last bounce of it.”

I’d eventually poke around in the mountains of North Carolina which max at 6,674’, managing to scare myself once with downdrafts at 3,500’ over Lake Lure that exceeded full power (ahem, turn around), though otherwise it didn’t seem like too terribly big of a deal…until moving to Colorado. At the last fuel stop before entering the foothills and then the Rockies, there was a kind poster that showed menacing peaks with black clouds and in large block text “Last year, 15 airplanes went into the Colorado Rockies and never came out.” With that illustrious introduction, I climbed painfully to 12,000 feet and wedged over a pass, certain that something bad was bound to happen. I was in the Rockies after all! After an hour of playing, it was somewhat anticlimactic, and there I was.

At every step of the way, I voraciously read more than one aviation magazine, learning the general wisdom of mountain flying, inclusive of standard advice: max winds 20 knots at the peaks, adequate clearance, stay on the windward side of the valley, cross at 45 degree angles, and always have an escape plan. Talking to locals hasn’t really ever been much use; they tend to reinforce whatever negatives exist, suggesting against it in “that airplane” and go about their merry way, casting an aura that I am a retard.

It wasn’t until a few years later that someone noted that “you taught yourself mountain flying.” In retrospect, it’s quite obvious, though I didn’t see it that way at the time. I frankly didn’t think that I “taught” myself much of anything; really, I just read up on seemingly senseless airplane crash narratives, and figured out where the wind was blowing, so I could avoid getting swatted out of the sky, as the PA-11 is basically a glider with a lawn mower engine hooked to the front at 14,000 feet.

Once I was quite proficient with Colorado and Wyoming flying, an enthusiastic friend who was a student pilot at the time (while also a highly skilled mountain paraglider) couldn’t get enough of my flying around the Tetons, acting like it was some kind of secret sauce. I finally said to him: “If I were sitting in the right seat, I could verbally tell you what to do, and as a student, you could do everything I am doing. It’s not that complicated.” He wasn’t convinced, and that began the discussion that I continue to struggle to distill.

The thing about mountain flying is that flight control movements to command the aircraft in almost all situations differs little from normal phases of flight. Turbulence on average is higher, though no higher than a summer day with angry thermals in the South. Otherwise, flight movements are pretty standard. If the airframe and engine cannot handle the conditions it is facing, the pilot needs to have not gotten there in the first place, or get out. The entire dance of flying around grand peaks has been more to do with weather and wind than a mystical operation of the flight controls.

I devoted some more time to thinking about the subject, as I find discussions of mountain flying to still remain dramatic (crashes continue – I am sure its related). I thought about another mountain sport: skiing. That is something where we specifically do not shove a beginner on a black diamond and let them figure it out. It is certain they will wipe out repeatedly, if not be unable to complete the first run. Is skiing a good comparison? Nobody downhill skis on flat surfaces and then increases mortality heading into the mountains, so it is not apropos. Ok, so I thought about walking and hiking. That is something that average people have certain skills at, and I think mountain parallels are similar.

Just about every risk to a hiker on relatively flat surfaces is amplified in the mountains. The biggest danger is a person who is unaccustomed to it and is therefore physically and mentally unprepared. Colder temperatures, stronger sun, rapidly changing weather, getting lost, bears…. the list is almost the same as what a pilot faces compared to flight over non-mountainous terrain. Even in North Carolina, a remarkable amount of people manage to kill themselves on basic day hikes on geologic features that are no more than hills in my view. Some of the stories are quite impressive, as we’re talking people with extensive university education managing to fall off of cliffs and/or die of hypothermia in entirely avoidable situations. In the end, lack of familiarity is the culprit.

The real issue with mountain flying is not operation of the controls; it’s the knowledge base and therefore aeronautical decision making to proceed through terrain minimizing risk and problems. While fearmongering the dangers of mountains presented significant barriers to entry to my initial mountain exploits (theoretically translated into safety), it became counterproductive once I got into the thick of it, as it seemed that nobody knew, or they kept to the zeitgeist that mountain flying was so mysterious that it is a thing of mythology. Yet, it is certain that there are mountain mavericks, as they land on glaciers in Alaska, though it takes a short conversation with a fuel attendant at Leadville to hear stunning stories of high-altitude aeronautical stupidity…in a flat valley that merely happens to be at 10,000’.

My contention is that we need more knowledge and less fear. It is evident that an ignorant pilot heading into the mountains for the first time is in a heightened state of risk. To advertise the maxim that mountains are merely dangerous only works to the extent it causes the acquisition of knowledge or avoidance of terrain. The moment an uninformed pilot heads into terrain (ironically least qualified to determine a safe day vs a poor one), fear does not give one pivotal bit of data that said ignorant pilot needs: why it is dangerous, particularly for the airplane being flown, in the mountain range in question, with the person behind the controls, and in the weather for that flight. Mere knowledge of the “why “of the risk in question almost automatically lends to an evident solution.

The reason I mention these factors is that mountain flying can be incredibly enjoyable while also at times having virtually no added risk (or even wind!). At the same token, depending what country a pilot lives in, it might be unavoidable to some extent. The USA features enough mountains that I am surprised I wasn’t taught something other than avoidance during initial flight instruction, though I guess the Rockies were so far away nobody figured I’d take the PA-11 there.

In the latest news, I have released my 18th book, “Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers the 3000ers of the Pyrenees.” After reading this post, one should feel that it is inconsequential….


Some flying photos since the last post. It has been an active spring weather pattern, a nice contrast to a dry and windy winter.
Cadí-Moixeró with some late April snow fall.

The cloud clump was being blown out of the valley as I chased it. This is a frequent occurrence locally once a storm system clears out. There is a short window where winds aren’t too bad before the northerly waves get going.

Another day with Cadí-Moixeró producing some lee side cloud formations. One would note that I remain on the windward side.


Andorra to the left and France below. Whenever flying above overcast, I ensure there is a hole big enough in the event of a forced landing, and that I know what’s under it. In this case, I was over El Pas de la Casa, Andorra, with a hole below and about 2,500′ of space under the cloud with some fields to land in.

Also familiar terrain over Pic Carlit, France. There was an orographic consistent gap in the clouds to the right, with farms down below many thousands of feet. I could always land in the snow, except the post-forced landing survival matter would be complex given the late hour. I carry a tent, food, first aid kit, tools, and other supplies on all flights. 

Avalanche in late April snow. First I had seen one in this location.

Pedraforca with light May snowfall.

Spring in the valley.

After an early May snowfall, the north winds got going sooner than expected. This range is a bit of a fierce wind tunnel when the winds are going, so I stay on the windward side as getting sucked over would have featured severe turbulence, among a host of other problems.

France left, Spain right, Andorra ahead. Winds were light at 10,000′, with an overcast deck stuck against the north side of the Pyrenees. To my rear left was another orographic gap in the clouds, in the lee of Pica d’Estats, with a 4,000′ descent to a road below with hikers’ cars in the parking lot.

From Spain looking into Andorra. The Spanish side is in the lee; hence, the clouds dried out behind me, though they stayed in Andorra and it was precipitating on the north side, a common event. To proceed into the range would have been profusely silly.

 

 

 

 

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.

Nostalgia of Grass

I routinely refer to the underlying purpose of taking a particular flight, as merely flying for the sake of flying is something that I do a minority of the time. This winter’s almost desert weather has featured a personal exploration into how much pattern and other work I will do for the love of flying, which is still a surprising amount. In any case, what I am doing most of the time is undertaking an adventure of exploration on some level, with the airplane as the primary platform to achieve the objective in mind. Coincident to using the Cub to get somewhere, I get whatever pent up aviation need is lurking satisfied, thinking the sole reason for the flight was the adventure.

In light of the foregoing, I go through an elaborate dance before I decide to go somewhere. After weather and photography conditions are factored, I am usually looking for some angle where I am in pursuit of something, whether it’s an itch to satisfy from staring at Google Maps, or simply a beautiful day that beckons taking flight. On this flight, I struggled as two months had gone by with hazy and unattractive weather, an itch had developed to fly, yet I couldn’t seem to devise somewhere to go. I finally discovered the ruins of an old church, sticking out above the water line in a reservoir, something I found on Google Maps yet was not evident when I flew there when the water level was maxed out two years ago. That, and there was a ridge I wanted to see again, also two years having passed by. With those two in mind, I decided to have some good old backcountry fun and land at two little dirt strips, for the sole reason that its enjoyable.

Exploration of the Pre-Pyrenees turned out to foster a few surprises. By now, I thought I had flown it all so much that there was nothing new, and I found some rock formations that I would have been duly impressed if I saw them in Wyoming or Utah. From there, it was off to Peña Montañesa, a curiously long ridge that reminds me of Cadí-Moixeró, then down to the Mediano reservoir to check out the church steeple in the water, which I did find. I landed at Coscojuelas, a grass strip used as a gyrocopter school, that sticks out on a peninsula, surrounded by water on three sides.

What I found there surprised me a bit. It is a grass strip as expected, and I have landed there before, though I found myself flooded with memories of flying with my late grandfather in childhood. After thinking about it, this was the first non-asphalt landing surface that I had used since his passing, and it reminded me of his frequent preaching about how landing on grass was better. Any time we landed on asphalt, he’d shake his head when the tires would howl on touchdown, later grimacing as he repeated how turf was far better for a Cub or Super Cub, like it was its natural habitat.

The funny thing is that I find grass filings and all sorts of clippings and dirt in places I’d rather not have it. Greasing the tailwheel, pulling grass from the landing gear and behind the hubcaps….the list goes on where the stuff gets crammed, and yet I still agree that asphalt is somehow unnaturally “hard” on an airplane, logic notwithstanding. I learned on a short grass field, and that will always feel right to me.

From Coscojuelas, it was off to Castejón de Sos, a remarkable little dirt strip in the Valley of Benasque. The field elevation is a hair shy of 3,000’, lower than La Cerdanya, yet tucked prodigiously in towering terrain on all sides. I took a direct route through some impressively steep valleys that would have made the Swiss feel proud, coming upon the field, amazed yet again that the place exists. I landed there in October 2017, having already experienced typical mountain winds with tight quarters, so I knew what it was like, though it was still a treat. While I am sure some Swiss fields could give this place a run for its money, the tightness so far is the most out of any of the airports I have landed at in the USA or Europe.

After takeoff, I did the obligatory circular climb so as not to smack into rock, then explored some rocky cliff sides on the way home, with a big smile on my face, having forgotten all of those “concerns” I had about where to go and if it would have been worth it.

Muntanya d’Adons. Pre-Pyrenees.

Catalunya/Aragon border, Riu Noguera Ribagorçana.

Tozal de Sis.

Southeast of Bacamorta.

Peña Montañesa.

Church steeple sticking out of the water. Mission accomplished.

Coscojuelas airfield.

Peña Montañesa is in the rear background.

Ésera River Valley, on the way to Castejón de Sos.




Castejón de Sos airfield in lower center right (to the right of campground, along the river). The valley is rather tight.

Climbout, after doing a 360 to avoid ramming into terrain.

Pre-Pyrenees texture, on the way back.

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.

Boredomitis

Gethereitis is the most common form of in-flight decision-making disease, though my past exploits cause me to wonder if we should add a new one: boredomitis, the antics resulting in a lack of anything useful to do coupled with a desire and willingness to fly.

I suppose my first exposure to boredomitis was when I was quite young, living in New York next to my grandfather’s grass airstrip. At the time, he was in his 50s, jaded from many things in life, choosing to spend his time rebuilding Cubs in his shop, or taking local flights. While he had gone some distance in his younger years, by the time I came along, he was past the novelty of it all and had his routine: evening flight here, a burger in Great Valley, land at a few pilot’s airfields every now and then and….buzzing. When he would get frisky, he would buzz the snot out of my grandmother, my aunt (who lived nearby), my parents’ house, and other rural-dwelling friends of his. There were war stories (possibly just rumors) of an incident or two where foliage needed to be removed from the landing gear.

At any rate, I enjoyed every second of it my entire youth, and it all unceremoniously stopped about eight months before I started taking lessons on the same field. So I am told, there was a concerted conspiracy, probably led by my aviation-hating mother, to “not set a bad example.” Rest assured that I remembered his methods.

Anyhow, fast forward to the Winter of Discontent 2018-2019 in Spain. I had recently returned from Switzerland, having achieved the pinnacle of my aviation experiences, both figuratively and literally. At first, I had an initial zeal to breathe some energy into my local flying. “Every flight in Switzerland was 2.5 to 3 hours. Why not do the same in Spain, instead of these silly little flights I usually take?” Fresh with optimism, I plunged into the high country of the Pyrenees on a two+ hour flight the day after arriving back, enjoying some early season snows, thinking that this new zeal was wonderful.

Then reality struck, in the form of the weather.

Early season snows disappeared, though wind and the pernicious inversion to the south set in. So, I decided to chase them. First it was the wind, weaseling up into the high peaks in strong waves and moving clouds, deftly doing so without a problem. Another day, it was flying above a cloud deck under a strong NW flow near Pic Carlit, France, getting the snot beat out of me in orographic turbulence. That switched to chasing the inversion below. Instead of it being an aggravation that limited cross country possibilities, I decided to treat it as something beautiful, taking flights right over the rim of it, which was fine assuming the engine kept operating the entire time.

The inversions quit showing up in cloud form, though remained in haze, exacerbated by a small forest fire, which I decided to go flying around. That led to breaking my altitude record in a mountain wave, flying to 19,500’. Not to be deterred, another day I decided I was “finally going to do some aerobatics.” The legality of aerobatics is somewhat murky here. I talked to a French instructor, who said it’s a pain in the rear over the border, so they come to Spain to do it, though I couldn’t tell, as usual, if Spain was regulatorily permissive or just so disorganized so as not to care.

I climbed to altitude in the typical place, did some clearing turns, fired up the GoPro, and was ready to go for my first loop. At thirty degrees nose up, I completely wimped out. “I can’t do this!” I descended and went home, staring at 70-year-old weld joints that hold the airframe together, wondering what I was thinking. Save aerobatics for a newer, properly constructed device.

Then the unthinkable happened: 5 weeks of solid, unforgiving, nonstop blue sky and sun, right in the middle of winter, with some days as high as 72F/22C. Not a shred of snow or rain, mostly sunny from the end of January until the beginning of March. While my fellow compatriots in America will be inclined to give a speech to “count your blessings,” especially given the nature of the foul winter many have had in North America, I must note that it was especially hazy, and the surfaces were quite brown and devoid of snow, with the exception of very high-altitude locations. Cross country flights weren’t appealing given lowland haze, so I resorted to flying in a circle in the valley: touch and goes, spot landings, max performance takeoffs with vortex generators (26mph indicated) to entertain airport restaurant goers, 2000 RPM takeoffs, low approaches, and the like.

Recently, we had a clear day in the mountains, so I went up for flight over Cadí-Moixeró, and on the tediously long descent down, I decided to solve a nagging question I’ve had. When I was a student, I went to 14,000’ in the PA-11 specifically to annoy my father, who had a tizzy I went up to 7,500’ and venomously barked “never to do it again.” I made a point to go as high as I could without oxygen in a statement of teenage rebellion. On the way down to field elevation of 1,284’, I decided to pull the mixture to confirm what I had suspected: the prop still spins, though at a few hundred less RPM. Push it in and off we go.

I had since read about the aeronautics behind engine-out forced landings and the effects of windmilling, and an article made reference to a “dangerous” maneuver to slow the airplane to get the prop to stop, in order to remove the drag of a windmilling propeller. With boredomitis, the mind has a long list of things to probe, so I gave her a whirl descending from Cadí-Moixeró. At 48mph, the prop stops in about 15 seconds without anything special involved. Thankfully, I have a starter. Anyhow, the airplane does glide really quite nicely without any power. For any who think I am a lunatic, I was about a mile above the ground.

Since I rarely suffer from gethereitis as I usually pick sunny days that are good for photos, boredomitis is more likely to show up. I have a few stories of trying to cross the USA under a schedule in the PA-11, and they are filled with typical nonsense gethereitis implies. It is definitely worse to toy with weather to meet an arbitrary goal. Boredom, on the other hand, is a bit of a two-edged sword. It probably is why so many have tried new things and pushed the envelopes of aviation to new places, though could be the source of total stupidity if left unchecked. Fortunately spring is around the corner.

First flight after Switzerland, filled with optimism for the winter. Central Pyrenees, looking west.


First indication of boredom: going above the clouds with strong mountain waves.


Getting knocked around above the cloud layer near Pic Carlit, France.

Making some beauty out of inversions that usually present issues with cross country flights.


This photo appeared in my recent P&E article in the March issue of AOPA Pilot.

Rather windy and turbulent, looking over the edge. If I got sucked over, I likely would have not been able to outclimb the descending wave back into the Pyrenees.

Forest fire.


Lowland inversion presenting as haze instead of clouds. This will stay until April like this.

Going into the Andorran Pyrenees while the waves are in force. At least it prevents boredom!

Wave signature, after getting out without too much of a problem. It was turbulent.

Finally! Some clouds. Who would have thought I’d be so happy to get precipitation?

 

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.

Fighting the Elements

There are days I don’t give enough credit to the fact that day-to-day life can be hard on aviation. I take a belief that not flying much isn’t really an option, and thankfully have the ability to configure things such that I can fly quite regularly. Motivation is usually not a problem; if something gets in the way, I take it as a matter of extreme urgency to get back in the air, if anything just because a good moment might be around the corner.

This winter has proven to be a bit different. A variety of back-to-back unpleasantries that could be summed up as “life” accumulated, and before I knew it, I started referring to the fact that I “used to” fly. Granted, that is quite dramatic, as I think something like 10 days went by, though I found myself struggling to fight uphill against this year’s Spanish winter. Usually when it snows, the wind dies down enough that I can scamper to the airport in glee, shovel in hand, defying snow piled on the runway, and make a run for it before it melts. This year has featured screaming wind during and after each storm.

Staring at the problem long enough builds up a chemical tension that demands satisfaction, so one day after a 10” snowfall, I checked the wind report online at the airport, and it showed 12mph down the runway. This reading was compared to wind gusts in excess of 50mph at the house a few miles away, though winds can be localized in this valley, so I figured I’d plow through the snow and go around the pattern.

The little voice inside knew it was futile, but alas, I went to the airport instead. Wind was far in excess of 12mph. I drove to the edge of the unplowed runway and decided to walk it to feel the snow consistency and depth. While winds were gusting over 30mph, it was down the runway, despite the fact that it was unpleasant and agitating. Walking over 1000 feet of the runway to check for drifts and hidden snow thickness, the wind picked up with such a fury that I had to lean into the wind to walk with zero visibility in blizzard conditions. Ok, forget that. I was remiss that I “technically” could have not had to worry about snow thickness due to wind, though I would have been blown over taxiing.

A few days went by before the next incoming storm, for which the wind blew a lot of snow away. It was starting to snow over terrain, curiously stalled just on the north end of the valley with NW flow, so I battled nasty wind to take off. It was, needless to say, raucous in the air, so I turned around and went back with my tail between my legs.

That storm did produce 8” in the valley, without as much wind afterward. I had a chance to get to the airport to see if I could takeoff with that much on the ground. Granted, the last storm deposited a giant drift in front of the hangar, which was in the shadow of the sun. For this problem, I negotiated with the airport maintenance guy to shove some out of the way with the tractor, as the plow truck unceremoniously died in the parking lot. Now wrangling a brutally heavy airplane parked in front out into the snow, then getting mine out, and warming up, I found that I could taxi, with quite a bit of power. I taxied up and down the whole runway, finding waves of drifted snow in what appeared to be even snow cover. A brief run a full power showed little promise of picking up speed. Since I had tightened the shoulder belts “just in case” she nosed over, I decided to pull the plug on that one as I didn’t like it one bit – if one needs the caution of such safety restraints, then one might wish to restrain the activity at hand. Perhaps some Alaska guys can weigh in on how much snow 8.50×6.00 tires can handle, though I confess 7” is the max I have done.

After some days, the sun came out, and enough snow compressed and melted to blast through it and takeoff, for which winds were still not that pleasant in the air. I was sandwiched between systems, and was angling to see some high terrain before the clouds blew in. They beat me to it, cloaking the mountain ridge ahead of me in unpleasant and overly energetic wind, for which I was forced to abort and scurry from a forming cloud layer.

Finally, high pressure came in some days later. The field was melted, and I took aim for the Central Pyrenees. These continuous storm systems had deposited over 6 feet of snow in parts of the mountains, and I went for the heart of it in the Vall d’Aran, something I realized I hadn’t yet done. In winters past, local snowfall was so shiny and enthralling that I didn’t venture as far to see it. As the photos show, it was a rewarding flight.

I do have to confess that motivation wasn’t the same this winter. Each time I shoveled a pile of snow, yanked a heavy plane over ice, battled wind, and dealt with aggravations associated with winter, I could only look back on a year ago and wonder where all that energy came from. I had unrequited glee to fight what the mountains could throw, whereas this year, well, life sometimes makes it harder. I guess for all those who park their planes and don’t bother to fly in winter in areas with foul climate, maybe this year I get it.


Snow on the north side of the valley, with nasty wind.


The PA-11 with snow jammed in all sorts of places after plowing through and giving up on taking off.

Clouds beat me to the ridge.


Finally! Escaping the confines of winter. Andorra la Vella, Andorra.

Ridge above Andorra la Vella. This rocky feature sneers at me when I go to Starbucks. Now I can return the favor.

Back in Spain, rounding the bend at Parc Natural de l’Alt Pirineu.

Aftermath of an avalanche. Vall d’Aran.

Peculiar snow patterns, which appeared in many places. I suspect it has something to do with the amount of snow that fell.


Avalanche, from source to terminus.

Vall d’Aran, looking west, with France below on the right horizon.

More interesting snow patterns.

Look out below! Avalanche made it down to the river.

Creeping up on Pico Aneto (11,168′), the tallest peak in the Pyrenees.

Pico Aneto. Just below the summit, the smooth sections contain the largest remaining glacier in the Pyrenees.

Aneto ridge, from the west.

On the way home as sunset approaches. Snow depth is less as I depart the Central Pyrenees.

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.

Surfing the Wave

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.

Sentimental Journey

A rather unique opportunity presented itself tied to a trip back to America over Thanksgiving. I would have the chance, if weather held, to fly a 1952 Super Cub from Lock Haven, PA to the Buffalo, NY region, where all of my aviation adventures started. The flight itself turned out to be one day less than exactly three years from my last general aviation flight in the United States.

The irony about Lock Haven is that it’s 108nm from my grandfather’s airfield, which adjoined my parent’s property for my entire youth. Did we ever visit there? Of course not! Here we have a family that is infatuated seemingly solely with aircraft models that would have been produced in Lock Haven before Piper’s relocation to Florida, and yet we didn’t bother to go. It was something of a homecoming to visit the place, considering my current PA-11 left that factory in the 1940s.

The day of the flight in question was Thanksgiving, which was one of the coldest on record in the Northeast. Skies were blue, wind a bit brisk, temps holding at 10 F, and the forecast clear for the flight to Buffalo. My intention was to get it to a nearby airport to where I was staying, tie down overnight, and then position it the next day at its destination for the flight: Perry-Warsaw, NY.

I was a bit cautious as I had only a brief intro flight once around the pattern the day before. While I knew how to fly the airplane, it wasn’t my trusty PA-11, where routines, sounds, and procedures are so well memorized that I don’t have to think that hard. With 36 gallons of fuel, a cruise speed at an astonishing 110mph, and heat, I had to honestly ask what about this flight would be difficult? The airplane had all of the conveniences I lack with the PA-11.

Preflight was simple. Runup was simple. The only thing holding me back was full throttle. I decided to get it over with, gave her full power, and held on. I am astonished at what 135hp can do (with more airframe weight and fuel) that my 100hp cannot. The aircraft is a raging homesick angel. I had previously decided to play it safe and follow roads to I-390 in NY. Seeing the “Pennsylvania Wilds” (the Allegheny Mountains), I turned northwest over the most remote terrain and sped off, enjoying whiplash from the latest in early 1950s technology.

The flight was really unlike any of my flying memories from 18 years of flying in New York. Some of the winter scenery reminded me in many ways of things I had seen in other parts of the world, with textures, patterns, and intriguing little details I hadn’t come close to witnessing. After some thought, I realized a solid foot of snow on the ground meant that the PA-11 was entombed for the winter before I owned it, as nobody cleared the snow off the grass runway. I recall a few flights in February where a few inches of powdery snow fell, though that was it.

As my grandfather had recently passed away, taking the time to fly around Western New York and visit sites in many ways related to aviation was a pleasant experience and a chance to reflect on how much changes in life while much doesn’t change at all.

One may ask how flying in the USA felt after three years in Europe. Well, it felt how it should feel: easy. Departing from Lock Haven wasn’t all that different than leaving from La Cerdanya. It was the cross-country flight, quick ride for a friend in Buffalo, and ground operations at multiple airports that was magnificent and uncomplicated.

The Super Cub before powering up. A delightful machine and a delightful flying day.

Lock Haven, PA Airport – where Cubs were born.

The “Pennsylvania Wilds.”


Allegheny River, not far from the NY border.

Lake effect snow! It wasn’t forecast, though that is the nature of the beast. Somewhere in southern Wyoming County, NY.

This is the first time I got to see features like this in Western NY from the air.

Route 20A. When I was first being taught how to navigate at age 8 by my grandfather, he told me to “use the roads. That’s 20A. You know how to get home, so fly us there.” That first flight was between Perry-Warsaw, NY and his airfield following this highway.

My grandfather’s airstrip, where I soloed in the PA-11 in 1997. It is in the bottom half of the image on a diagonal.

Lake Erie, NY with Canada on the horizon.

Buffalo, NY. Canada is across the Niagara River. For some reason, I didn’t ever overfly downtown after getting my private certificate, even though the airspace is still the same as it was in the late 90s.

Larch trees. I did not know these existed in New York until a few years ago, did not recall ever seeing any of them, and recently paid some homage to them in the Swiss Alps. Oh, the ironies.

Middle falls, Letchworth State Park. This place has two distinct noteworthy events associated with it. The first was my only involuntary spin in my aviation career. My instructor used my uncoordinated practice stall as an object lesson, permitting a Cessna 150 to spin to imprint in my mind that its a poor practice. One minute I was staring at the sky, the next I was staring at this waterfall, spinning as it got closer. Oh, and the second thing. I got married beside this waterfall 4 years after the spin. 

Letchworth State Park in evening light.

Perry-Warsaw, NY airport, the destination of the Super Cub. It also happens to be where I passed my checkride 20 years prior!

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.

Going West

If someone asked me what a version of heaven in an airplane would be, I’d probably choose flying in the Alps in October. October has a majesty to it that I can’t get enough of, and the Alps, well, they’re the Alps.

I had met a new friend who spends part of his time in Gstaad. An American pilot, he loved the Cub, so we arranged that I’d fly over from Sion to Gstaad. From there, we’d head to Interlaken, on to the headwaters of the Rhône River, and then wander along the Bernese Alps before descending into the Bernese Oberland back to Gstaad, where I’d make the quick hop over the ridge (9000’ or so) back to Sion.

On the flight over, I went around the bend, crossing a section of the Oberland that I had not visited before. Upon entering left downwind over a massive piece of rock (Swiss patterns are intriguing), I noted a proliferation of old airplanes on the tarmac. After powering down, I noted a number of L-4s and other old aircraft, a result of some sort of group that happened upon the place. It was quite nice to see a pile of Cubs on a picture-perfect day in the Alps, so I snapped a shot before refueling for the next leg.

The flight over Interlaken is something I hadn’t yet done, even though it had been a dream for a long time. I used to use Google Earth’s “flight simulator” mode, specifically in this neck of the woods in the Alps, flying the F-16 over all sorts of precipitous terrain, stunned at what I saw on my computer screen. How could it be that glaciers spill thousands of feet down, or that proceeding over a mountain ridge, the ground could drop more than a mile? Today would be the day to experience it in real life, 10 years beyond my initial fantasies.

Interlaken was as stunning as expected. We were a bit high owing to the fact a 100 hp airplane doesn’t climb so well when loaded, and I didn’t want to drop down only to lug ourselves back up. Besides, we were heading to a famous Swiss pass, for which I later hoped to get above 12,000’ if we could, to enjoy some of the higher terrain. It’s a debatable presumption in this airplane unless it’s the dead of winter.

Battling a wind funnel that was not in our favor, we finally got over Grimselpass, turned west, and then let the terrain and wind lift us up. Unexpectedly, I got as high as I wanted to go, circling some enormous peaks, overflying those glaciers and mile-deep mountainsides that I had hoped to see. From there, it was a fun ride along where the Oberland and Alps meet, before the descent back into Gstaad for fuel. As the sun was getting low and the Swiss take time quite seriously, I got out of Dodge, went over Pas de Cheville in brilliant evening light, descended over vineyards in autumn color, and landed at Sion. The last in the hangar, the Cub was parked in front of four business jets, leaving me with a feeling that such a flying day is as heavenly as it gets.

Looking back toward Sion before rounding the bend, Rhône River near Martigny.

Not too far before left downwind for Gstaad.

Two other Cubs on the ground at Gstaad. Even better.

Interlaken!

Brienzersee.

Grimselpass.

Rhône Glacier, source of the Rhône River. In summer 2017, the Cub went to where the Rhône meets the Mediterranean.

Schreckhorn.

Top of the Aletschgletscher.

Jungfrau, looking north.

Along the Bernese Alps looking into the Oberland.

Descending toward Gstaad.

Climbing out of Gstaad.

Bernese Alps in evening light before heading over the pass.

Larch trees near timberline in evening light.

Pennine Alps in the distance from the Sion control zone.

PA-11 in Sion, parked as it should be! A perfect flying day….

When I got home, my wife greeted me with: “Your grandfather is dying.”

Before I go any further, this is the grandfather that took me for my first ride in a J-3 at age 2, that began teaching me to fly the Super Cub at age 8, and restored the PA-11 for my flight training at age 16. The airplane I use for this blog is the same plane that I used for my solo flight, and it was done on his grass strip, which was next to my parents’ property. Aside from that, he had a Cub and Super Cub restoration shop on his property, for which I spent most of my youth admiring aircraft in various stages of restoration, watching the process or just hanging out in the shop because that’s where I’d rather be.

He had made it clear for a long time that he was not going to deal with the disabilities and inconveniences of old age. Sure, we all say something like that, though this guy always meant business when he spoke. Within a few hours of arriving back from my flight, he was on the way to hospice, where he died a few hours later at age 87.

In the following days, my sister offered to send over some scanned photos. I thought the idea was silly. Hadn’t I seen them all? Well, “why not” I thought and agreed to it, for which I got a pile of photos and saw the whole story in a different light. Whether it was my late father at age 5 in the 1950s standing next to a Super Cub, or me sitting in the backseat in the 1980s with my sister as a J-3 was being started, or a long series of crashed airplanes that he brought home for repair and restoration, I noticed some things I hadn’t seen before. For one thing, the Cubs and Super Cubs look alike. The Ford pickups in the background are like a lineage of Americana, changing with the times as the airplane in front of it doesn’t change at all. Then there was the matter of my sister, for which the photos seemed to indicate she was quite happy back in the 80s, sitting in the airplane, more so than I remember. We recently talked, and I discovered that she was going to become a pilot twice, and various major life stages got in the way, even though he had taught her how to land the Cub. How can one grow up together and miss such obvious things? At least it puts a smile on my face that I am not the only descendant to take to aviation in the family.

My late father with my grandfather and his Super Cub. 1950s. Note the old pickup.


Advance to the mid 1980s. That’s me sitting with a big smile on my face (it looks the same when I fly today), while my grandfather hand cranks the J-3. The Ford in the background is newer….

And my grandfather.

Now its 1997. I have gotten a lot bigger, and watch puzzled as my grandfather hand cranks the PA11 I now have. He had a relatively new Super Cub with a starter and I wondered why this airplane lacked one (teenagers…). There is yet another newer Ford in the background yet the Cubs are still Cubs.

This was a big part of my youth: my grandfather sourcing crashed airplanes for repair. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

I decided to exercise some caution and hold off on flying for a bit. My wife aptly asked if my first flight could “not be around Mt. Blanc” (15,774’), for which I agreed. As we had to return to Spain due to running out our immigration allowance in Switzerland, I chose to take a flight on a blue-sky day to scope out my feelings, and, well, like my grandfather, flying is a great way to lift the mood. When my father had terminal brain cancer and I visited a decade ago, my grandfather thought that it was a great time to ride in the Bell 47. While conventional wisdom said I shouldn’t have, I too couldn’t resist and hopped in.

My grandmother often said that when I was young, I was a little version of him. It’s hard to describe him in words, as on one hand, he is unassuming, and yet on another, he did whatever he wanted and didn’t let anything stop him. I am quite aware that my inspiration for my present approach to life can be credited to his influence and giving me the gift of aviation. Everything about this paragraph is an understatement.

I had expected him to live into his mid-90s based on his robust health, and therefore hadn’t thought too much how I might feel about aviation once he was gone. There was some concern that my motivational equilibrium might change, and I found myself having to face the question sooner than expected. The flight to Spain from Switzerland was both functional and uneventful, though I have been flying quite a bit since. Each time I get in the plane, I feel alive and it feels like a bit of him is alive, and I think the best answer to how I feel is…..more flying.

My wife at one point said that she felt awful for “ruining such a good flying day,” and I wouldn’t have it any other way, other than to have been in New York instead of 4000 miles away. Whether it was the picture perfect skies, flying the Cub he restored, the litany of old airplanes at Gstaad, fulfilling a dream in the Alps, or the Cub sitting in front of a bunch of business jets, everything about the day was a culmination of so many factors that started when my grandfather saw a Piper Cub advertisement in 1939, drew them in grade school, walked to a gas station to work in his early teens to save up for lessons, and bought his first J-3 in the 1940s. From those early days to the decades that passed into my flying career, it made that day in the Alps possible, and will hopefully lead to more dreams being fulfilled for others in the future, for that is the gift of aviation.


Test flight on a nice day to make sure my equilibrium is kosher. Larch trees in full color. While conflicted, its refreshing to fly.

Over Grenoble, France on the way to Spain.

Wandering around the central Pyrenees.

Another day over Andorra.

And some mountain waves over the convergence of Andorra, France, and Spain. I guess I can say I’m back in the saddle.

 

 

 

 

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.

The Biggest of Many Things

Part of why it took so long to come to the Alps had to do with the expectation that sheer size of the mountains was directly correlated to how dangerous things must be. When I took the flight here from Spain, I expected to get involved with a death-dealing ordeal pushing the limits of me and the airplane. It has turned out that instead of being a thing of brutality, it appears that it is the culmination of years of mountain flying, as it has all gone off without a hitch, and has not been as dangerous as I thought.

I set out to attack a specific goal, which I can happily state that I recently achieved: photographing all 82 peaks over 4000m (13,123’) in the Alps. Similar to my flying bender last summer going at it 83 days in a row, and the 65-hour flying month of September 2015, it has been two months of razor-sharp focus on the high peaks, which meant that I only went flying if I could fly at those altitudes. While it turned out to not be death-defying during every flight, it was a project consisting of a tremendous amount of effort.

Spread from France, to Italy, and almost to the border of Austria, these peaks take about an hour of climbing to get to altitude, leaving 2 hours before I need to be back on the ground. Therefore, flying has been in 3-hour full-tank increments and has also taken me a number of places. With the focus of my project done, I have also had the chance to fly for the sheer fun of it, which has meant visiting some more interesting places.

Switzerland flows pretty smoothly when it comes to aviating. Dare I say it, the “system” here runs fairly close to American aviation, albeit at about three to four times the price. I get my dose of American flying in Spain by simply checking out of the system and doing things the backcountry way, which is both a joy and tiring. Here, it’s a nice mix, as the Swiss restrict airspace near congested areas, leaving the mountains for fun.

In visiting other airports, it has been quite interesting to partake of Swiss traffic patterns. Instead of a standard box pattern, most that I have come across are custom, taking terrain into account. The size of some of the terrain here, wedged inside a traffic pattern, is quite a treat. Even in a Cub, I feel a sense of nervousness, with trees whizzing by one wing, and the runway wedged down below on the other. I couldn’t imagine doing some of these things in a fast aircraft.

The Swiss adventure isn’t quite over yet.

Aletschgletscher, the largest glacier in Europe. It is 14 miles long and is almost 3,000′ deep at some of the upper points.

Roughly 1,000′ above the Aletschgletscher, looking downhill. 

Left-hand downwind for Samedan, Switzerland, airport. At 5,600′ elevation, it is advertised as “Europe’s highest airport,” though the designation may be dubious. Landing here required the completion of an online course and requires carriage of the certificate.

Taxiing at Samedan.

The natural order of things has been restored. I have achieved getting above Mt. Blanc, France (15,774′), the highest peak in the Alps. Previously, I could only get close and the Cub just couldn’t do the rest due to unfavorable winds.

North slope of Mt. Blanc. This kind of thing puts a smile on my face.


Forbidden fruit of Courchevel, France. Located at 6,587′, at a length of 1,761′ and a gradient of 18.6 percent, it is an “altiport” requiring a special signoff. As one can see, it is strictly one way in, and no go around after short final.

Aiguille du Midi (12,604′ – to the left). It is Europe’s steepest gondola. Yes, you can ride a gondola to the rock with a pointy antenna on it.

Glacier d’Argentière, France. My first flight near it was from quite far away. This is a better way to see a glacier.

Megève, France. Note the short, angled airport to the right. It is truly a field with no go around located at 4,840′ elevation. Mt. Blanc lurks to the left.

While Gstaad Airport isn’t overly crazy when it comes to landing, it does evoke a certain sense of being one of the most expensive European destinations available. Landing was a tad over $25 and fuel was market price. Left-hand downwind is over the rocks in the back of the image, which tower to incredible heights.

In the middle of this project, I have birthed Winds of Change: An Aerial Tour of Rocky Mountain Forests, a tour of forests in their varying conditions in the Intermountain West. It was a pleasant project to put together, taking me back quite immersively into my Wyoming flying days.

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.
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