Friday, March 6, 2009

An October Flight (Introduction to my airspace)

October 2006:

The clouds had come down like a grey lid on the world, drifting over the mountains at about 4000 feet - the tops of the mountains got snarled in the clouds, merging snow and sky together. While it looked calm and still at a glance, a long, careful watch showed winds boiling over the peaks and roaring along the mountain as a low pushed its way blindly to wherever weather goes to die. But below, I could see for a hundred miles of Alaska, calling me out of the city to come play.

I took three times longer than I used to, preflighting the plane, running my fingers along the leading edge and gently acquainting myself with this new lady. Walk along the wing, looking for any bad dents, checking the pins and the counterweights, the play in the rods and the presence of the nut. It was good to come early, so the plane could introduce herself during preflight and we could get to know our differences - the fuse panel in a different layout, avionics master switch four inches over from where I looked for it, and instruments in a different order. A cherokee once surprised me with flaps that turned by crank in the ceiling, and I've met a 180 with flaps that operated by a bar pulled back from the floor like an emergency brake to full 40 degrees flap down. (That's common in supercubs, and older Cessnas, but the younger models would have you think the world ended at 35 degrees.)

This particular plane is a Cessna 172 P Model. It was produced in 1981, four years before Cessna ceased production of all light aircraft. The interior shows a trim that was absolutely pleasant back then, with a quarter-century of wear and tear in every crack of the Naugahyde and rough spot on the instrument panel. The instructor and I push her out, and climb in, adjusting our seats.

Her engine design dates back to the 1950's, and I give the engine two shots of prime before turning the key. The starter grinds, and nothing happen. The instructor looks at the prop like it's a puppy who forgot what to do when you say "Sit!" and shakes his head. "Try another two shots of prime."

We do, and the engine leaps to life. Once it remembers it's supposed to run, it's a very well-behaved happy growler, content to run smoothly at such a low idle we have to add throttle to start her rolling. Out to the taxiway, clearance from ground, and to the runway. I fumble over my radio calls, unfamiliar with my new name of "Cessna Five Two Niner Five Zero" and nickname "Niner Five Zero."

Up we go, from the quiet air in the lee of the mountain to the altitudes rich with winds. Physically, we've climbing over the eastern part of Anchorage city, passing houses crammed together and the sprawls of forested greenbelt that give us more feeling of space and freedom. Over the Moose Run golf course, where they have rules about what penalties to take if a moose gets between you and your objective, or if a fox kit pounces on your ball and runs off with it.

Before we have to try to climb over the mountains, we turn northeast and run the long gauntlet - keeping between the highway and the mountains. The highway represents a mental and regulatory barrier; beyond the car-studded asphalt ribbon below lies an army base and an air force base, and the airspace above it. There, the fighters practice traffic patterns while the C130's drop loads of soldiers by parachute to exercises below, live-fire tests are conducted, and the AWACS come home to roost.

The wind is from the south, and it keeps blowing us toward the mountains; my track is a zig-zag in the sky of slow corrections. Looking out the window and seeing the golden-swathed mountain closer and closer is beautiful, but not advisable, and we continued north. Not long after dealing with the turbulence and different airflow of the mouth of Eagle River Valley and Eklutna's Valley, we passed the end of the northward march of mountains, and turned east toward Palmer and the glaciers beyond. Silt-grey river wound beneath us, swollen with fall rain, and we sought its headwaters.

Past Palmer, the ranges started coming together again, leaving only a broad, steep-sided path ahead of us that the glacier had carved before retreating. Forward, we found a wall of white reaching far up the mountains til the clouds swallowed it; the base was composed of rumpled ridges of jagged blue-white ice, lightly gray with dust and sporting a broad black streak of dirt like a photo-negative of a skunk. At the base, a wide lake of meltwater was placidly still, and calved icebergs filled half the water with block shapes in colors from startling blue to black.

Borne on metal wings that took us higher than ravens, we flew up the glacier. Further up, the glacier splits into several separate glaciers, each coming down from their own source ice fields and mountainsides. One shone light blue-white, another was dark and dirty. All of them, toward their tops, had their sharp edges softened and colors hidden by the fresh snow of oncoming winter.

The air here was nearly still, and quite calm; we calmed the engine's growl with pulled power, and dropped to fly low over the glacier. Up close, the tumbled field at the base was full of almost-neat rows of jagged spikes, and all the crevices between were deep, deep blue. The glaciers seemed to stretch up forever, sky and mountain indistinguishable from the sources. Cool air came in the vents, clean and smelling faintly of hot engine oil and snow.

Regretfully, we turned and left for home, passing the flanking golden aspens and birch, the deep red highbush cranberry on the mountainsides and the dark spruce - gaining relative altitude by holding level as the ground dropped from walls of ice to far below us. Back, along the windy gauntlet to where home was calling with promises of a mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows, like little icebergs in a lake below.

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