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Errands at 15,000 Feet

To understand this flight, it becomes necessary to dial things back to last summer spent in Switzerland. I had a very specific list of things I wanted to fly to: the 82 peaks over 4,000 meters (13,123 feet) in the Alps, located in France, Italy, and Switzerland. I thought I had successfully completed the task, except when I went to work on writing the book, I noted that two were missing, and a third clump of peaks would be better suited with different photographs. How could I have come this far, photographed everything large I saw, and missed two? Well, I did that in Colorado back in 2014 when I chased the 58 fourteeners; I missed one and fortunately was able to get it before moving the airplane to North Carolina (it happened to be the closest one to the airport). The nefarious peaks in question in the Alps shared a characteristic of the lone peak of Colorado: They were some of the smallest on the list, thus appearing inconsequential when surrounded by their larger brethren.

I concocted the brilliant idea to get all three in one flight. The Aiguilles du Diable in France (4,074 meters/13,366 feet), Punta Giordani in Italy (4,046 meters/13,274 feet), and the Dürrenhorn in Switzerland (4,035 meters/13,238 feet). It should have been doable in theory, except there was this pernicious reality called an overcast over the Oberland. I figured it would be touch and go to get back to Saanen, so I planned on fueling in Sion if things delayed and that I’d sort it out if the overcast didn’t lessen as planned.

When I got to Gstaad Airport, there were plenty of airplanes flying around, including a PC-24 doing touch and goes. Given that it’s a VFR-only field, there must have been some egress out of the Oberland. I took off, planning to go west via Les Mosses, though there was a business jet up to something I wasn’t sure of, so I turned south over Gstaad, continuing to Gsteig, where a tiny hole in the overcast appeared. It was far too amorphous to climb through, so I continued west over the pass to Ormont-Dessus, then Leysin toward my escape to the sunny Rhône valley. From there it was a full power climb all the way to the Mont Blanc Massif, then eastbound past Grand Combin (4,314 meters/14,154 feet). Clouds were 40 percent coverage over the high peaks, requiring flying around them at 13,500 feet, with relatively clear skies elsewhere, meaning that they were orographic summer lift. I had originally hoped to blast straight to the Dürrenhorn from Saanen, except I now had to reverse the plan.

I came across the Matterhorn (4,478 meters/14,692 feet) in its illustrious cloud-forming glory, then had some angst that the Monte Rosa Massif appeared to be covered in clouds on the south side where Punta Giordani was hiding. It then occurred to me that there were clouds the other handful of times I swung by, and I probably didn’t notice this smaller peak because it was hidden. Thankfully, the clouds parted for a minute on the Italian side of the ridge, so I got my photo and moved on.

From there I went north back into Switzerland toward the Mischabel Group, in pursuit of the Dürrenhorn. Yet again clouds were billowing up, with Dom visible, though not Dürrenhorn below. Perhaps again the same thing happened? Well, no, upon recollection it was completely clear when I flew here last. The problem is the Dürrenhorn is not exciting compared to massive ice caps nearby.

I went over the ridge between two peaks shrouded in clouds, distracted a bit by the beauty of the scene, hoping I could come around the north side and swoop down to get the peak. Fortunately, the clouds were clear from the angle of the Nadelhorn, so after some fancy footwork around moving clouds, I got a shot and moved on.

Rhône Valley, clear of clouds. Altitude roughly 8,000 feet.

Massif du Chablais (10,686 feet). I showed my [nonpilot] wife this photo, and it might as well have been an image of an airplane crash.

Aiguilles du Diable, France (foreground), Mt. Blanc (ice cap-covered background). One can understand why, when I spent my time above the highest summit, that I didn’t notice these rocks below.

The Matterhorn (14,692 feet), from Italy.

Punta Giordani, Italy, yet again below. Signalkuppe (14,940 feet) was above and behind me.

Dom, Switzerland (14,911 feet) in the clouds, a pleasant surprise.

That meant Dürrenhorn (13,238 feet – how piddling) would be at risk of being shrouded. Fortunately it was clear enough to sneak a view.

Now that my errands were done, I had to figure out what I was going to do about getting back to base. I could see that the entire Oberland and Swiss Plateau were socked in from above, with no holes. I decided then that I’d burn off my excessive altitude by cruising west along the Bernese Alps and land at Sion. I requested permission to cross the TMA, which was granted, and then my ability to transmit stopped working.

I did the whole triple radio battery swap. No change. Tried other frequencies. No change. I could hear, just not speak. If I did the squawk 7600 routine, I’d be let into Sion, though likely not out until the radio was fixed. What a bother! I thought a bit about trying to make a go at Les Mosses and land at Saanen, where a radio was not needed. If the pass was open and no further problems developed, it would work, though that’s it, with no buffer for fuel. That was as dumb of an idea as it sounded, so I opted for Bex, a short grass strip which technically requires prior permission. I landed without incident and found that the radio problem was the mic connection dislodged lightly.

For the flight back into the Oberland, it was evident Les Mosses was open, as well was the overcast in the process of clearing. Since I know little about the vagaries of poor weather in Switzerland, I wasn’t going to play with all the things that could go wrong in high, steep terrain with overcast. At any rate, after almost four hours of technically challenging, ice cold, unpredictable flying, I decided that the flight was a silly idea. Did I really need to hit them all up in one binge session? “There is no reason this needs to be difficult. The next flight I am going to make enjoyable, period.”

Is this idiot whining about flying in the Alps? No, just disapproving of my own unrealistic ambitions. The mere fact that I have flown to these peaks in the past doesn’t make them easy in the future.

The view from 12,500 feet of the Oberland. Home base is in the distant right. 

Approaching the Rhône valley for landing at Bex, 9,000 feet below the cloud deck. Bernese Alps, Switzerland in the foreground, Mont Blanc, France (15,774 feet) in the background.

Les Mosses pass, flight altitude 5,600 feet.

I definitely lived up to my decision on the next flight five days later. Münster is a small field located high in the Goms Valley of eastern Valais (known as the “Texas of Switzerland”). It is open for June through August and is located at 4,400 feet in a deep valley. I contacted the airport manager, got permission (once I described my mountain experience), confirmed fuel, and set off.

Weather was uncharacteristically dry. There were almost no clouds or haze in the Oberland, which is unusual, with glorious blue skies. I had a rough idea of where I might go, though was only constrained by arriving at my destination before the fuel ran out. In flight, I saw that terrain on the northern edge of the Alps was completely clear, so I hung out at 7,700 feet and photographed major terrain from below, as I had hoped to do for last month’s post (and ended up above the clouds at 13,500 feet instead).

The flight was positively glorious.

I continued east over the Sustenpass, south to Andermatt, west to Furkapass, then down the Goms Valley, eventually to land at Münster once the glider traffic jam cleared up. Münster is practically heaven. Scenery was exquisite, with the sound of the turquoise rushing Rhône River alongside the airport, blue sky, remaining snow from last winter on a few peaks, and illustrious green trees and grass. If the airport was open year-round, I would have moved to that valley.

The airport manager asked where I was from, and when I said Upstate New York, he said he has relatives in Rochester. I pointed to the Cub and told him that “I soloed that airplane 45 minutes from Rochester.” Another pilot came over and we chatted for over 20 minutes. He did some training in Cubs in the Swiss military when he was young and was raving about how wonderful the airplane was. Some advice he was taught: “Make sure you come at a peak with the proper altitude in advance, as the airplane does not have the power to climb.”

He articulated his surprise that I showed up. “Who would imagine a Piper from America, here in Münster?” Well, I concur! I never imagined that this Piper would end up in the Valais, either.

I was going to head west and figure out a way to get over the Bernese Alps on the way back to Saanen. The problem was that there were a few orographic clouds, and wind was bumpy over the passes. I wasn’t sure about how to get over without getting beat up, so I decided on climb out to head over the Grimselpass. That was the right call as there was a fair amount of wind per the lakes at the pass, though no bumps. I then descended down to 1,000 feet agl over the Brienzersee, cruising right over Interlaken, then back into the Oberland for landing before the 8 p.m. deadline.

I had some time at the airport afterward, as I needed to change the oil and there were some aggravations to sort out, typical of being in a new place. That afforded a classic hour in evening light after a long day of flying. I was the happiest I have been since I can remember after a flight, rating it probably in the top ten of all time. I suppose the difference is merely perspective.

Golitschepass (7,148 feet) in the foreground in the Oberland, Bernese Alps in the background.

Oeschinensee (5,177 feet surface elevation). I am usually 6,000 feet or more above it after a Jungfrau binge.


Lauterbrunnen (below) with Mittelhorn, Schreckhorn, Eiger, Mönch, and the Jungfrau (left to right). Flight path was a bit right, straight ahead, then left beneath the peaks in the back.

Jungfrau (13,641 feet) from 7,700 feet altitude. To get a wide angle vertical of something so high above a high-wing airplane, it is necessary to bank 50 to 60 degrees to the left.

Across from Grindelwald, I came across an interesting opening in the mountain range.

So I went into it and found a veritable cathedral. 

Ischmeer, with Grosses Fiescherhorn (13,280 feet) in the rear. A bit of katabatic wind off the glacier, which is normal apparently when I get that close and they are that big. Still figuring that part out.

Ober Ischmeer. This was a very tight situation, even for a Cub. I could not discern my agl visually, as there were no trees, people, or buildings, so everything is subjective. Looking at Google Maps on terrain mode later, I figured out I was 500 feet above the glacier. 

Out of the cathedral. Rather vertical rock above Grindelwald, continuing east.

Three layers of mountains in the foreground. The valley to the Grimselpass eventually opens to the right. Winds got frisky in here.

Andermatt.

Grimselpass, from the south.

Münster, looking south. I was nearly scraping the trees on the other side of the airplane. It’s a Swiss thing….

Münster, looking north, scraping the trees behind me again.

Climbing out uphill…slowly. Goms Valley.

More altitude…still in the Goms Valley, with the Rhône River below and its headwaters on the horizon.

Grimselpass. A forced landing would be better suited with floats.

Interlaken, looking back up toward Jungfrau.

Climbing into the Oberland.

Gstaad, about to enter the circuit. 

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 long wait to get home

I’ve touched on the challenges of commuting before. I recently endured a nightmare of an experience in trying to get home after a trip, and all I could say to myself is that I have been pretty lucky of late with respect to the (relative) ease of my commute to and from work. I was due for a “[t]here I was …” story, and this one more than filled the bill.

I finished a two-day trip at 12:15 p.m. in late July, and just missed a flight that was leaving at about the same time I was finishing. Not that it would have mattered, as it went out full with a jumpseater, but … still. I recognized a few of the names on the list of standby passengers, and I knew who would be trying the same strategies as me. Still, I headed to a different terminal for a different airline, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, one of the said pilots was already at the counter waiting for an agent so that he could list for the jumpseat on the 2:00 p.m. flight. All I could do was hope for the best. Unfortunately, this flight also left full.

My next option was a 3:45 p.m. flight, at my own carriers’ terminal. So, back I went and I was listed for the jumpseat. I should mention at this point that when I checked flights the night before the passenger loads weren’t great, but I was fairly confident about getting home. Unfortunately, that confidence was misplaced. Overnight I’m not sure what happened, but the loads went completely to pot, and getting home was going to be a challenge at best. The next day wasn’t much better.

In the meantime, I looked at alternative airports where I could either rent a car or have my wife drive and pick me up. They were even worse, with jumpseaters already listed (access is first come, first serve if it isn’t your own airline) and loads that were well over-sold due to flight cancellations.

Back to the 3:45 p.m. flight. Weather was the main threat, but I found out that the auxiliary power unit (APU) was broken, and while that normally would just be uncomfortable, in this case, it would be much more than that. Temperatures were in the upper 90s, which meant that the airplane would be well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping passengers locked up for a long delay would be unconscionable. But, if they could fix it, I was assured of the jumpseat as long as the weight and balance didn’t become an issue on the E-145. I wasn’t the least bit confident that it would work out in my favor.

And then the weather hit. Rain. Monsoon-like rain. The airport ground to a halt. The 5:00 p.m. flight had no jumpseaters listed, and there was a possibility of one open seat. The downside is that it was far enough away that I was ultimately going to have to choose and gamble. I decided to go list for the 5:00 p.m. jumpseat, with the idea of coming back to the 3:45 p.m. flight in my back pocket if that would work out. Realistically, I knew I was basically changing my plans, but I had to get to that realization later.

Luckily, I got the jumpseat on the 5:00 p.m. flight, just beating out a friend of mine. About the time that occurred, the airport closed, and every flight was taking delays of no less than forty-five minutes. Then the weather went from bad to worse to nobody-may-be-going-anywhere worse. Rain, thunder, and lightning were the story of the day, but I’ll say this about the weather affecting the three New York area airports: Newark gets hit first, but it also reopens first. Finally, there was a break, and the public address systems were echoing with panicky gate agents trying to get wayward passengers back to their gates in order to board and leave. My flight was no exception, and we began boarding a bit after 8:00 p.m.

In the meantime, passengers that stayed the night or made alternative arrangements (thanks to a bribe) had left. Somewhere in the midst of all this my gamble paid off, as the 3:45 p.m. flight was canceled. My flight (the third option, if you’re keeping score) began to board, and I got on and introduced by myself to the captain, who it turns out was on his first trip as a captain and under the watchful eye of a line check-airman. My first question to them was how much duty time they had remaining. It turned out that they were legal until 3:00 a.m. the next morning. “The pilot in me feels your pain,” I said, “but the commuter in me is thrilled!” That got a knowing chuckle.

Oddly enough, there were enough seats that my buddy got on, as did a flight attendant who was also trying to get home, and I even got a seat in the cabin—I didn’t have to sit in the jumpseat! We weren’t entirely out of the woods yet, though, as we had to sit on the ramp and wait our turn to taxi, which took well over an hour. The ride was better than I anticipated. When I landed, the temperature was no longer pushing 100, but was instead struggling to hit 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I got home around 12:30 a.m., which meant that I had spent over 12 hours just trying to get home, eight of which were spent just trying to get on an airplane.

The adage was proven again: Don’t give up until you can be sure the aircraft will leave without you. There are three of us who can vouch for that.

Deficiencies in emergency training

I try to be pretty positive about life at the airlines, and for the most part, I am. This will be one of the few times I criticize both industry and the FAA.

Airline training is pretty intense, and some of it can be done in mind-numbing, excruciating detail. However, there are a few areas in which the training required by the FAA is all that is provided, and as a result, the training provided often is lacking. One of those areas is dealing with a water landing or a ditching.

Fortunately, such events are rare. Unfortunately, as a result of this rarity, and also as a result of the relative ease of US Airways Flight 1549 (the so-called Miracle on the Hudson), emergency water training for pilots has not been made a priority. The airlines usually only do the minimum required with respect to training because of the cost.

Flight attendants often get better training than pilots on ditchings, since the assumption is that they are the ones who will conduct the bulk of the actual evacuation. Flight attendants at major carriers are put through training in a pool with a raft and given an opportunity to get hands-on experience with life vests and other emergency equipment. Pilots…not so much.

So what is missing, and what to keep in mind? In a perfect world, where the flight deck crew finishes the landing with minimal or no injuries, and is able to actively participate in the evacuation, the following are points to keep in mind:

The life rafts are stored in the ceiling. In six years of training at a major, I’ve never seen what they look like when they are packed and sealed. I have no idea how heavy they are (I’m guessing about 80 pounds minimum), or how awkward they would be to move from the ceiling and out the door to the water.

Once in the water, there is no “upside down,” as the rafts are designed to be used no matter which side faces up. That said, the sides are fairly high, so I can only speculate what it must be like to try to get in one of these rafts from the water while wearing a full uniform or even a coat. Add to this the possibility of dealing with frigid water temperatures and you can imagine how smoothly this isn’t going to go in real life.

There are ways to work together to get into the raft and once one or two people are in, they can help the rest get in relatively quickly. Getting those first couple in may prove challenging, especially in rough water.

With respect to some of the other equipment that is available, like portable radios, knives, first aid kits, flashlights, et cetera, we are shown them in a classroom, on tables, but we are never given a chance to use them, and we aren’t forced to find them in the airplane. Given how poorly humans respond in situations of great stress, this is a huge shortcoming.

Some of the emergency evacuation training deficiencies go beyond just water landings. In almost 23 years of airline flying, I’ve never had to partake in a simulated evacuation of the cabin. As mundane as this would be in normal circumstances, imagine what it would be like trying to do this while putting on a protective breathing equipment hood in a cabin that is filling rapidly with smoke. Now imagine being forced to help a passenger with a serious injury try to evacuate—someone with a broken leg or even unconscious. We are exposed to none of this. Further, none of our training is done jointly with the cabin crews.

Airline training covers a gamut of scenarios, and most of what we do is done well, but some of the emergency possibilities are extremely limited. It comes down to each of us to think through some of these scenarios to determine the best courses of action, with the realization that some people will freeze and others will panic. The possibility of a water event strikes close to home for me because I spent a few years doing nothing but overwater flying. Even now, I spend a lot of my time on Atlantic routes, and I fear for the day when an airplane is forced to ditch and a crew begins to realize just how poor their training for such a scenario has been.

If I had my druthers, water and emergency training would be required for every new hire, for each airplane change, each upgrade, and every two years that follows. That training would take place in a wave pool and in a simulated cabin fire, and it would require the use of as many pieces of emergency equipment as possible. Further, pilots would be required to learn and demonstrate basic CPR skills, which we don’t have to do currently (flight attendants do).—Chip Wright

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.

Pilot on-the-job injuries

Every job has its hazards, and airline flying is no different. You wouldn’t think that something as benign as flying could at times be so risky—and I’m not even referencing the possibility of an accident. In twenty-three years of airline flying, I’ve seen both predictable and unpredictable on-the-job injuries, all of which call for some increased vigilance. Here are some examples.

A fellow first officer was getting out of the cockpit seat of a Brasilia, which has a very narrow space between the center console and the seat. There was an art to placing your inside foot in such a way that you could stand, pivot, and turn to get out. This guy’s foot got stuck in the worst place at the worst time, and as his weight shifted forward, his foot stayed still. He shredded several ligaments in his knee, which required extensive surgery and a lengthy rehab and absence from work. It was more in line with what you’d see in a bad football injury, but it forever changed the cavalier way in which any of us who were there that day get in and out of a seat. The pain on his face as he sat waiting for an ambulance is hard to forget.

In the pre-iPad days, with flight bags that routinely weighed more than 40 pounds fully loaded, shoulder injuries were very common. Bag stowage in the flight deck was often a secondary consideration of the manufacturer, if it was a consideration at all. Too often, in the interest of expediency, pilots would just reach around their seats and heft the bag out of its location, and anyone could see the potential for an injury. Repeat this act several times a day, and the risks just magnified. At my regional, it was even worse, because the bag had to be picked straight up at least 6 inches just to clear the hole it sat in. Imagine twisting your body 90 degrees, using the outside arm, and trying to get the leverage to lift 40 pounds straight up before pulling it toward you and twisting some more. While shoulders were the most common problem, lower backs and elbows were also affected. It became so expensive in terms of health costs that the parent airline began to work toward a transition away from such heavy bags, and those costs are a common argument made by most airlines as a driving force toward electronic flight bags.

Speaking of bags, several pilots suffered injuries while trying to do more than just their jobs. In an effort to help mitigate the impact of delays on both the company and the passengers, pilots have taken it on themselves to help load or unload luggage, especially valet-tagged bags that passengers are eagerly awaiting before they move on to their connections. Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished, and several pilots have been hurt. To add insult to the literal injury, the company refused to honor workers compensation or to cover the medical expenses because the pilots were outside the bounds of their jobs. While most of these refusals of help result in such a loud cry of outrage the company is forced to reverse its decision, it doesn’t always work out that way, especially after the warnings are given. If it isn’t in your job description, think twice before you do it.

When regional jets were first introduced, very few used jetways, so boarding and deplaning required the use of air stairs on the door. When it rains, air stairs get wet and slippery. Imagine the potential with the aforementioned 40-pound flight bags while trying to navigate the air stairs during a driving rainstorm. I’m here to tell you that it’s a hoot and a half—until somebody gets hurt. More than one pilot and flight attendant has fallen (either forwards or backwards) from the air stairs, sometimes resulting in broken ankles, mangled knees, or even head injuries, to say nothing of torn uniforms. You didn’t even need to be carrying a bag, as the steps are steeper than standard, and slipping was all too easy.

One injury that didn’t take place on the job, per se, occurred in a hotel during a layover, when a pilot was asleep in a hotel and suffered a bite on his ankle from a brown recluse spider. It was right before his alarm was scheduled to go off, so he got dressed and decided to work the flight home. By the time he landed, nearly three hours after the bite, his foot and ankle were so swollen he had to take his shoe off and needed emergency transportation to the hospital. His delay almost cost him his foot, but he eventually made a full recovery and returned to work.

The most avoidable injuries seem to occur in vans and cars taking crews to and from hotels. While accidents are relatively rare, they do happen, and most of the injuries come from not wearing seat belts. A crew getting a ride to the airport on a foggy morning was involved in a single-vehicle accident when the van driver lost track of his location and took the van over the curb. The van driver suffered no injuries, but all of the crew did, as none of them were wearing seat belts.

Pilot on-the-job injuries often come from the files of the absurd, silly, or even humorous, but those affected are rarely laughing. You need to keep your vigilance up, keep a comfortable cushion of hours in your sick bank, and if your company offers short-term disability insurance, you should have it. When you see a situation in which the potential for injury is clear or obvious, use the appropriate means to report it and suggest changes. If the company refuses to consider your suggestion and something happens, you can at least have it on record that you tried to make a positive change.

If nothing else, always wear your seat belts and be careful in the rain.—Chip Wright

Alphabet Soup: The value of joining associations and clubs

Recently I was on Facebook and I saw a post from a new pilot. His question to the group [of over 50,000] was “Why should I join one of the alphabet groups? Is there any value to it?” Many responded to this fellow, but mine was probably the longest response. I believe strongly in the three-tiered approach to advocacy for general aviation.

Having just attended AOPA’s regional fly-in at Livermore, California, I saw the three tiers in full effect. Presently I am planning and packing for my annual trek across this beautiful country of ours to EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It never ceases to amaze me that I can depart the Central Coast of California, fly over beach, desert, mountains, plains and farmlands and end up at the world’s largest celebration of aviation. So here is my take on alphabet soup, and how it is imperative we all become joiners to protect airports and GA.

Advocacy: Think like an upside-down wedding cake

As pilots, we are used to looking at Class B airspace as an upside-down wedding cake. We understand that the first level extends from the ground upward; a larger ring sits on top of that, and a still larger ring above that. In terms of airport advocacy, we need to subscribe to the same three-tiered model.

Local Advocacy: Father’s Day Fly-In, Columbia CA

 Tier 1 – Local Advocacy Local wisdom is the best source of information at an airport. Who better understands current issues, history, and future needs better the pilots who are based there? Encourage pilots to:

Local Advocacy: Oceano Airport Celebration: Salute to Veterans

Tier 2 – Statewide Organizations

Not every state has its own general aviation organization. But a quick Google search will tell if your state does. Statewide airport advocacy organizations are important because they maintain statewide contacts, information, and strategies. Further, our statewide groups can also advise and assist the local airport groups when issues arise.

California Pilots Association celebrating its 70th year of state-wide advocacy

Tier 3 – National Organizations

Our national aviation organizations [AOPA, EAA, NBAA] are a critical piece of the three-tiered airport defense strategy. Membership insures that each maintains its ability to support statewide or local airport/pilot organizations. Critical to interfacing with our congressional representatives, lobbying that national pilot organizations provide a large presence in Washington, D.C. This voice serves to remind D.C. of the importance of general aviation to the nation’s transportation infrastructure.

I would encourage everyone to think like an upside down wedding cake when it comes to advocating for GA and airports. Think globally and act locally. The more we promote general aviation the more we protect our airports.

The AOPA Livermore Fly-In I attended is a perfect example of the upside wedding cake of advocacy. First layer: local Livermore pilots: EAA chapter, Flying Particles Club, volunteers. Second layer: California Pilots Association had a booth in the exhibit hall and held their annual meeting and election of officers. Third layer: AOPA who did a great job educating attendees about their advocacy of airport and aviation interests on a national level.

AOPA LVK Future female pilot

Father [pilot] and Son [student pilot] excited to meet Jason Schappert from MZeroA

Instrument student at LVK

AOPA Regional Fly-In, Photo Credit: David Tulis

Oshkosh is three weeks away. This event is the largest example of three-tiers working in concert. I am always amazed by this event. I hope to see a lot of you there. Take a moment and look at the photos I have included in this blog. What is the commonality? The smiles. That’s the secret folks, that’s why we become joiners. See you at #OSH19.

Jolie Lucas is a Mooney owner, licensed psychotherapist, and instrument rated pilot. Jolie presents aviation seminars around the country including Sun n Fun, EAA Oshkosh and AOPA. Jolie is the Vice President of the California Pilots Association. She is the 2010 AOPA Joseph Crotti Award recipient for GA Advocacy. Email: [email protected] Web: www.JolieLucas.com Twitter: Mooney4Me

Making the most of holiday flying

The Fourth of July holiday is this week. I’m fortunate to be off, but at least half of my fellow pilots will be working. This isn’t all bad. Although some holidays are easier to work than others, the key is a positive attitude and a glass-is-half-full approach.

When I knew I didn’t have the seniority to hold the big days off, I decided to use the system to my advantage. There are a lot of great cities in which to enjoy the festivities of the Fourth. Using the bid package and knowledge of the hotels as a guide, you can find a layover that will allow you to see some great fireworks, often in a downtown location on the roof of a hotel. Boston, Washington, D.C., New York, and coastal cities in Florida all come to mind as great places to enjoy the holiday.

Even if you have to fly a leg at night, it isn’t all bad. One of my most memorable flights was a Fourth of July flight just after sunset, and along the entire route we saw fireworks non-stop—some right below us and some miles away. We couldn’t hear them, but it was a visual spectacle. When we landed, even the passengers were smiling at their luck, as they saw more fireworks in one passing than they had ever seen combined.

Christmas can be tough because we all want to be with our families. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to fly to Florida, especially south Florida, getting some warm weather can be a nice alternative. You’ll still be feeling the pangs of homesickness, and you can’t entirely make that go away, but being able to take a walk on the beach in shorts and a T-shirt or having a slice of pizza and a beer outside in December has a way of making things just a little less depressing. You might even be able to go for a swim in the hotel pool if isn’t too cold.

Like the Fourth, you can plan your Christmas travel by using the bid package as a guide. It’s very common for Thanksgiving and Christmas to have a full day in a layover city, as the flight schedule is often a skeletal one at best. Find those layovers, and see if there are any festivals or events that might make the down time more enjoyable. Likewise, see if they are cities where friends or family may be that you can visit and have a home-cooked meal…and get paid for it. These are likely to be in smaller cities, but not always. The one benefit of being a junior pilot working on a holiday is that layovers and trips you might not normally be able to hold suddenly make themselves available. Take advantage of it!

Last but not least is the option of taking your family or significant other along on a trip. This may require some planning or purchasing tickets or extra hotel rooms, but it also means not being alone and miserable. Holiday work isn’t always fun, but it doesn’t have to be something to dread. Use your job to your advantage, and you might find yourself enjoying those holidays more than you ever thought you could.—Chip Wright

Minimum equipment lists

Every once in a while, a flight will be released with something on the airplane that is amiss. The minimum equipment list (MEL) is a document that is written by the airplane manufacturer in conjunction with the airlines and regulatory authorities. It spells out items that do not have to be in perfect working order in order to safely dispatch a flight. Likewise, an MEL can be pretty specific about items that must be working in order to operate a flight, or to conduct certain operations.

For example, every turbine airplane has multiple sources of producing electricity in the way of generators, usually at least three: on one each of the engines, and one on the APU. Some have more. There is almost always relief for flying with one generator that is inoperative, but for certain operations, such as long flights over water with only two engines, there may be a requirement that certain generators are functioning and available.

Certain low-weather approaches also have requirements with respect to equipment functionality and even basic maintenance. Category II and III ILS approaches require certain autopilot standards, and if the equipment isn’t tested or used on the proper schedule, the lower approaches can’t be legally flown until the mechanics can do their magic.

I recently had an airplane that had a problem with the plug for the external power cord that plugs into the jetway. This isn’t that big of a deal, but it can create some issues. With external power, the APU has to be run to provide electricity to the airplane, and APUs burn fuel, and fuel is expensive. It also means that between flights or crew changes, the APU has to be left running or the airplane has to be completely powered down. Some carriers—my first one, in fact—have strict rules about leaving an APU running unattended. Others have enough people trained to shut the APU down so that it isn’t that big of a deal, but it still costs money.

In our case, the deferral of the plug was on the release, and finding the airplane with the APU already running was no surprise. But we were doing a late flight to the outstation, so the company made sure that the outstation knew not to try to plug in the airplane (a maintenance sticker on the plug door would have theoretically alerted the ground crew). Further, the local mechanic was waiting for us, which meant that he could get his work done as quickly as possible and shut the airplane down for the night.

Some deferrals are relatively minor—like this one was—and some are far more complicated than they should be. But MELs are a part of daily airline life. The captain is responsible for being familiar with any deferrals, and both pilots need to know how to properly use the actual MEL document, which can run hundreds of pages. When in training, take the time to become familiar with the layout (it is standardized) and some of the restrictions specific to your company. Most important, know how to determine if an MEL is expired so that you don’t fly with something illegal.—Chip Wright

Moving around

Hiring is so hot at the airlines right now that pilots are quite literally hopping from one carrier to the next.

In the last few years, I’ve known of several pilots that have been hired by one major only to leave for another in short order. As pilot compensation packages have become more similar across the board, it makes it easier for pilots to either stay in one place or go somewhere else that is more desirable for their individual circumstance.

Even the power-house airlines are not always safe. A handful of hires at Southwest—long considered one of the best, most stable jobs in the industry—have jumped ship in order to go another carrier of choice. The rationale varies from one individual to the next, but it usually comes down to not wanting to commute or move, or desiring to do international flying that may not be available to pilots at Southwest or JetBlue.

Generally, when this kind of turnover takes place, it happens with pilots who have less than a year or two of seniority. Once the first big pay raise kicks in, it’s hard to bring yourself to leave. Also, you start to see the movement up the list that makes  the left seat more of a reality than just a dream. Leaving and starting over means taking a potential pay cut and going back on new-hire probation while possibly learning a new airplane.

But this trend is an issue at the regionals too, as pilots look for the quickest way up the ladder. Signing bonuses and other monetary incentives are being used, and often need to be paid back if taken. Resourceful pilots are not allowing themselves to be bound to any particular loyalty other than themselves, and that’s OK, though it does come with risks. Airlines don’t want to see someone who can’t—or won’t—stay employed at one place long enough to allow the company to recoup their investment. After all, training a pilot is expensive.

The other risk you run is that you can wind up burning some bridges in various human resources departments. I’ve written before that this is a relatively small industry, and word gets around about certain people fairly quickly. You may walk out on a job today, only to find that the person you left in a lurch is an obstacle at another company down the road. If you’re going to make your stay short, at the very least, be professional about it.

All of that said, by all means, keep your applications out there. If you have your heart set on a particular company, don’t give up, and take the first job that comes. If your dream carrier comes through later, you can re-evaluate based on whatever your new circumstances are.—Chip Wright

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.
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