A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

April 2009.

Voices 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 what’s normal and what’s not.  Flying in a remote area, there’s not much distraction in terms of airspace and other traffic.  In fact it’s 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.  It’s easy to get the feeling you’re 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, it’s 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, what’s new? 

          I wouldn’t 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 there.

          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.  I’ve 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 …. blue 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.  It’s lonely enough up there in such an empty world without the thought of dying alone.  The radio chatter, although meaningless, is reassurance we’re never totally alone.  Who cares what the weather is 300 miles away?  Who cares that three American crews are going to Alaska?  There’s nothing relevant except the knowledge that another unseen human being is out there. 

             Sometimes on a longer flight in some remote area, I’d turn the radio off.  While some pilots are quite comfortable flying NORDO, it wouldn’t 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.  It’s easy to do with the older radios where there is no digital electronic display.  The numbers are stamped right on the dial, and when they’re 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 I’ve 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 doesn’t 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.

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