VFR Over The Clouds

‘A pessimist only sees the dark side of the clouds, and mopes; a philosopher sees both sides and shrugs; an optimist doesn’t see the clouds at all–he’s walking on them.’ – Leonard L. Levinson

Another day, another delay.

As the midwest gets drenched by day after day of storms, we have managed to get as far south as the United States goes and still weather presents challenges. Today we got up and found northwestern Texas still covered with big storms and flight advisories that can be best summarized as “really, we’re not kidding. Don’t fly.”

I spent the morning in the lobby of the Stephenville, TX Hampton Inn watching World Cup (and I’m certain I could have done a better job than the referee of the Côte d’Ivoire v Portugal match. It wasn’t terrible soccer, but he blew more calls than should ever be allowed in international play). I was also spending some time seeking a hole to fly through and find a path to a state who’s official question is “Red or Green?”

Things in western Texas didn’t look great and flying down to Mexico wasn’t an option this trip as I had done no prep work and am not even sure if I would be permitted by club rules to take the plane into Estados Unidos Mexicanos. Nonetheless I was still amused to see the not so cleverly named “Rancho la Vaca” just over the border. Around noon it looked like we had the hole we needed. KINK had been instrument conditions earlier and was improving to visual as the morning progressed, so we took off thinking that it would likely continue to improve and ready to turn back if it hadn’t.

Around Eastland I called Flightwatch and got a weather update. Things hadn’t really improved much, but another possibility presented itself. Carlsbad was in the clear and so were we. That meant we could jump up on top of the clouds and fly in smooth, cooler air. This was the first time I had an opportunity to use this trick, so we excited to add a new play to my book. There are two concerns in flying on top. The first has already been hinted at. It’s really not a good idea to decide to fly over the clouds and then not be able to get back down. Flightwatch assured us that Carlsbad was “clear” and I knew from my pre-flight that conditions generally improved the further west we flew. The other problem is that there are no landmarks to help guide your flight. On this I was extremely confident. One of the things I love about flying is using various radio navigation aids to find my way around. On today’s flight we had two GPS units (one hooked to the autopilot) and two VORs (radio beacons that your plane can see and tell you where you are relative to the beacon). One of the GPS receivers has battery backup and runs independent of the other three radio navs, so even a total electrical failure wouldn’t cause us to get lost. Perhaps a bit worried about other things, but not lost, so up we went.

At five thousand feet it was hot and muggy in the cockpit. The outside air temperature (OAT) claimed it was about 90F, but with the sun shining through the windows it felt even warmer. As we climbed higher and higher, eventually to 12,500 the OAT kept dropping further and further until it finally bottomed out at 48F. We actually had to shut down some of the vents because we were getting cold on this blazing hot June afternoon.

All good things must come to an end and we finished up about two hours of visual flying over clouds in clean air with a bumpy descent and landing into Carlsbad, where the winds couldn’t make up their mind what direction they wanted to blow. The landing was challenging, gusty winds from all directions, but uneventful. Just what you want. A bit of challenge to keep you sharp, and a landing that doesn’t bend the plane.

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