Flying to Colorado for High Altitude Training and Microbreweries

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Takeoffs are still my favorite. This time was no exception. Throttle to the wall, my roll out was swift. Like a shot of nitrous, the headwinds gave me an extra boost as I lifted off. Gear up, the confluence of LA receded along with my frustrations of living among way too many fuckin’ people. I was headed to Colorado with a friend for high altitude training and microbreweries. But first, we had to get out of Los Angeles…

Northbound, I switched my radio to Los Angeles International (LAX) Air Traffic Control (ATC) to request permission to enter their airspace. The pilot chatter was relentless. ATC approved my request in their typical auctioneer style.

Reaching my assigned altitude, I was surprised by what I saw. A nearby storm threat had grown. I was headed toward it.

I canceled my request and asked to go higher. Getting a second approval, I circled away and configured my plane for best climb. After my 360 degree turn, I leveled out. Weather was only marginally better. The layer I was trying to avoid was building faster than I could climb. Additionally, updrafts were pushing me closer to clouds above. I was sandwiched.

My aerial escape routes were diminishing fast.

I thought about my options and invented a few to ease my mind. It boiled down to this: either turn back or find an opening above…Wait too long and I’d be forced to land or be blinded by weather.

Getting a lucky break, I spotted a small opening of blue sky peering through the top layer. Could I climb steep enough to reach it or would I smush into the dark clouds?

I was going for it.

I keyed my mic and told the tower my intentions. Just as I let go of my transmit button, they were clearing me for the upward sprint, “without delay.” The climb was going to take all the guts my plane had.

Full throttle, I pulled my yoke back and spun my trim to lock in my climb. I traded speed for altitude and slowed to 80 mph, which is dangerously close to my stall speed.

Clawing higher, I reminded myself that a turn would wash away my lift and push me over the edge. I caged my thoughts on keeping my wings level.

Suddenly, my engine began to vibrate…

Pilots train for these risky scenarios. As a pilot, you never stop learning, at least you’re not supposed to. Like anything in life, study reduces danger. And in the high stakes of flying, you better always be studying.

In my haste to avoid storms, traffic and flying into inclimate weather, I forgot to adjust my fuel mixture. This helps my engine breath when exposed to the high pressure of altitude…Without it, it’s like the engine trying to get a sip from a fire hydrant spewing water. My lifeline was choking. Twisting back my mixture knob, the engine was resuscitated. My nerves were calmed with a smooth idle.

Back to flying the plane, I watched my airspeed, jockeyed my yoke to combat the wind and eyed my escape route…I poked through the VFR window and was greeted with sunshine at top. I couldn’t help but think of a quote I learned in flight school, “Superior pilots use superior judgement to avoid having to use superior skill.” Then I burned into my mind the three lessons I just learned:

Lesson #1: Always have a plan B and C.

Lesson #2: Get your IFR, you never know when you will need it.

Lesson #3: In flight weather is a gift. And always call the Briefers before any and every flight (which I did, but it had changed fast). Then double check on your ipad or computer using DUATS.

Colorado was better than ever, except the altitude made me feel like I was breathing through a snorkel for a week, unless I was drinking beer.

Knowledge Pack