by Stu Simpson
The forecast read like an ultralight jockey’s mid-winter dream…blue skies, light south-westerlies, and plus 8 degrees. Winter weather around here just doesn’t get much better. And on such a day, every pilot who can lay hands on a pair of wings will make hamburger of the guy who stands between him and the runway.
But sadly, there exists a huge gap between dreams and reality. Conditions on the surface weren’t exactly what the weather dudes had predicted. Shocking, but true.
Take the wind for instance. Northeast at 10. And the temperature dangled at about minus 4 – hardly balmy. But it was the sky that was most peculiar. Not the clear blue yonder as promised, but a strange white haze that still leaked plenty of sunshine. I just figured it to be the inversion layer, only a little deeper than usual, and closer to the ground.
I was just pulling the Beeve out of the shack when the unmistakeable buzz of two ultralights tickled my ears. Just barely discernable through the haze, Don and Ron were making their way to Kirkby Field.
“Raymond!”, I yelled. He was in his hangar putting the tail of his Renegade back together. “Company’s here.”
Raymond poked his head out of the hangar and watched intently as the two airplanes droned through the scattered sunshine.
Don was renting the Easy Flyer for the afternoon while Ron flew his Crusader. Don landed first, after a straight-in approach to Kirkby’s runway 34, while Ron completed an overhead circuit. Then he too taxied in and shut down.
The four us of spent some time hangar flying and having a boo at Raymond’s plane. The conversation eventually got around to our destination that day, as yet undecided.
Ron took a look at his gas gauge and decided he’d best head back to Indus. I asked Don what the conditions were like upstairs. He stated the inversion layer lasted only to about 400′ AGL, but it was very well defined. The layer was very cold and blustery, he reported, but once on top things smoothed out nicely and the temperature rose to the promised 8 degrees.
Since neither of us really wanted to venture far, we agreed to just hang around the neighborhood, maybe shoot some circuits at a nearby strip, and generally just play around.
Ron worked the choke and throttle for me as I hand-propped the Beeve and we soon got it running smoothly. I began donning my winter flight gear as he then fired up the Crusader and took of for Indus. Don and I blasted off a few minutes later. I went first.
I pulled the Beeve into the sky, the haze now wrapped around me like a thin grey veil. I levelled at about two hundred feet and circled waiting for Don. He joined me a moment later, parking the Easy Flyer off my right wing as we turned north.
In unison, we began a steady climb. We were on top a few seconds later. Just like that. One moment we could only see a couple of miles throught the mist, the next, we had an angel’s view of forever.
The sight was breathtaking. We floated over a duvet of dazzling white cloud spread out beneath us, soft, puffy and infinite. The sky was the bluest I’ve ever seen. A rainbow, straight as a sunbeam, spread across the horizon, bonding the cloud layer to the sky.
Here, reality transformed itself into a dream. We were suspended in time – we could have been doing 55 mph, or 155 mph – the sensation would be exactly the same. All we could see was sunshine and heaven.
We turned our planes to the northeast and Don switched sides, sliding behind me to perch off my left wing. We could still see the ground directly below us, about a mile or so in any direction. With the cloud layer blocking so much light though, each glimpse of the earth was no more than an under-exposed black and white photo in my mind.
I dropped the Beeve toward the top of the clouds and watched my shadow as we merged on a collision course. We came together as I zoomed through a misty peak. The shadow tried again and again to get away, ducking into the low valleys between one crest and the next. We played this game for a few more minutes until I pulled the nose skyward again and spotted Don. He was doing exactly the same thing, skimming the clouds as his shadow raced to catch him.
Suddenly, we were enveloped in cloud, able to see up much better than down. I pulled the stick back and held it there until I popped out on top. I saw Don a few seconds later, his nose high as he too climbed out of the soup. It occurred to me that this might not be a harmless layer of haze, but quite possibly a growing fog bank. The same thought must have ocurred to Don because he pointed to the southeast, indicating we should head back to Kirkby Field.
We turned back and formed up in a tight left echelon. I peered down, hoping to see some familiar land marks. We weren’t really worried because we were close to home over territory we knew well. Still, landing soon was a definite priority due to the uncertain weather.
I recognized a plot of land ahead, a vast grain field bisected with a gravel road. It’s where I like to practice my nap-of-the-earth flying, and I know those few square miles intimately. I began a shallow descent, regretting that we had to go home now, that we couldn’t stay a little longer in God’s playground.
Visibility improved once we dropped to about 200′ AGL. We soon spotted Kirkby’s and landed a few minutes later on runway 34. We chatted happily for several minutes after we shut down. Our hands zoomed through imaginary cloud tops while we recreated the highlights of the flight.
Half an hour later Don was strapping back in and assuring me he’d be fine on the trip back to Indus. He’d stay low and follow the roads, he said. I knew he would.
I shielded my eyes from the sun’s glare as he back-tracked on the runway. Then he spun around, fire-walled the throttle, and raced into the sky again.
I waved to him as he went by, he replied with a quick nod of his head. As Don faded into the haze I turned to the Beeve and began rolling it toward the hangar.