in the Sky
From ninety five hundred feet, the view
was a spectrum of two colors. The
solid white cloud below topped by a dome
of blue sky. The warm sun beating
through the windshield was comforting, a
sensation not experienced in several
weeks. The weather on the ground
all that time had been overcast, cold and
wet, but up there in another world, a
pilot could forget winter. A few
mountain tops punched up through the
cloud cover but were far enough away that
progress seemed slow in such an otherwise
empty sky. My flight over the Rocky
Mountains would seem longer than two
hours. In the welcome sunshine, it
was fine with me.
On departure, the airport was in the
clear, the cloud cover stationary within
ten miles to the south. I was
flying VFR over the top. There is
a preferred VFR route marked on the map,
which follows a highway through some
mountain passes. The highest point
on that road is only about 3,500 feet
ASL, quite possibly do-able flying under
the cloud. However, with the
waypoints established in the GPS, I could
stay close to the route but remain above
the cloud cover enjoying the sunshine and
zero wind conditions.
Settled in nicely at
cruise altitude, listening to the
familiar drone of the engine, it was easy
to relax in the smooth air. After
flying in the same airplane for about 25
to 50 hours, a pilot becomes familiar
with the sound, feel, vibrations and
other inputs of that particular machine.
He knows whats normal and
whats not. Flying in a remote
area, theres not much distraction
in terms of airspace and other traffic.
In fact its difficult to contact an
FSS sometimes, and even when you can,
there is no reliable weather information.
There are simply too few reporting
stations in the vicinity. Its
easy to get the feeling youre all
alone in the world.
Occasionally a voice comes on the radio,
a call to a flight service station with a
request for weather or to file a position
report. Pacific Radio,
its Mooney Charlie, Alpha, Bravo,
Charlie, request latest Vancouver
weather. That guy must be
three hundred miles away, I thought.
There was no way I could hear the
response from the specialist, but the
Mooney read back the conditions. It
was overcast and raining there. So,
I wouldnt be flying to Vancouver
that day. Where I was going was
forecast to be CAVOK. I would
check in another 60 minutes for an update
The voices in the sky were my only
company, and in the smooth, warm air I
speculated about who and what kind of
pilots were on the radios making those
calls. The Mooney pilot was
probably a private pilot flying IFR on a
business trip. Ive never
heard of a Mooney in an air taxi fleet.
Another call to the FSS came from a 172.
The pilot explained she was on a flight
from Abbotsford to Williams Lake,
Vanderhoof and return. My mind
sought memories of my first cross-country
flight while earning my private license.
That one was a whole lot shorter than
this girl had to fly. Have they
raised the bar for young pilots so much?
One instance that stood out on my trip
back then was descending into a thin fog
layer above the runway. When the
ground disappeared, it scared the pants
off me. My first mandatory
overshoot, and a lesson learned.
A fleet of three U.S. registered Cessnas
requested weather updates through the
Rocky Mountain Trench enroute to Alaska.
Their brief chatter back and forth hinted
of a well-planned holiday. They
knew where they were headed. Another
aircraft was searching for a hole through
the clouds attempting to land in
Revelstoke. That is high mountain
country. He was getting assistance
from someone on the ground. I
silently wished him good luck.
The miles and time slipped by. My
vistas remained unchanged
and white. As I clicked off the GPS
waypoints, the airplane remained roughly
overhead the highway. There was
some comfort in that. Should the
engine quit, I would not simply settle
into the cloud cover and wait for the
end. Knowing the valley and road
were underneath, at least there was a
chance to break out before flying
straight into the side of a mountain.
Its lonely enough up there in such
an empty world without the thought of
dying alone. The radio chatter,
although meaningless, is reassurance
were never totally alone.
Who cares what the weather is 300 miles
away? Who cares that three
American crews are going to Alaska?
Theres nothing relevant except the
knowledge that another unseen human being
is out there.
on a longer flight in some remote area,
Id turn the radio off. While
some pilots are quite comfortable flying
NORDO, it wouldnt be long before
that kind of silence had me wondering if
I were missing something, an aircraft
close by or a pirep for the route ahead,
perhaps a call for help. In fact I
have actually flown into controlled
airspace with the radio off, having
become accustomed to the silence of a
leisurely trip. Its easy to
do with the older radios where there is
no digital electronic display. The
numbers are stamped right on the dial,
and when theyre centered at the
top, that was the frequency you were
transmitting on. But, there was
nothing to indicate the radio was on.
It was easy to interpret the silence as a
controller taking a nap. It is more
a matter of good luck than good
airmanship that Ive never had
anything more than a little
talk with the tower following
something like that.
No doubt the radio is a big intimidating
factor for the student pilot, but it
doesnt take long to become your
best friend. The voices in the sky
are always there, anonymous, unseen,
sometimes interesting, informative and
sometimes annoying. A fact of life
for flyers everywhere.