Pilotage: Two days, two ways

June 1, 2009

Mark R. Twombly writes and flies from southwest Florida.

The Seattle-Tacoma area is startlingly beautiful—rolling green hills dipping down into Puget Sound and Lake Washington with the coarsely chiseled Olympic Mountains to the west and the magnificent white-capped Cascade Range to the east. It all came into breathtaking view as soon as we lifted off of Runway 16L at Paine Field in Mark Matheson’s Cessna T210 and began a sustained climb to the southeast to top the rising terrain. Our destination: Scottsdale, Arizona.

Having spent almost my entire flying life in lower-elevation areas of the eastern seaboard, I was brought up believing that aircraft engines aspirate normally. Now Mark was about to show me why turbocharging is a must if you live in the northwest and want to go places in a piston-powered airplane.

There’s an especially imposing obstacle southeast of Seattle in the form of 14,410-foot-tall Mount Rainier. Mark had flight-planned a route that took us east of SeaTac traffic and west of the big rock, but we were prevented from enjoying the sight of it because of a murky overcast that soon engulfed the airplane.

We donned oxygen masks passing through 12,000 and eventually leveled off at 17,000 feet msl, well above non-turbocharged piston-powered traffic and well below turboprops and jets. That slice of the sky was all ours. The air was seamlessly smooth, the six-cylinder Continental TIO-520 purred, and it felt like we were motionless, suspended in a gossamer gel.

With nothing to look at below we busied ourselves with checking our progress on the 210’s impressive suite of electronics—WAAS-enabled Garmin GNS530, Garmin MX200 multifunction display with Nexrad data-link weather radar, and a Sandel 3500 electronic HSI—and discussing the weather. It was a concern, primarily the potential for icing. We reviewed our options in the event the stuff began to collect on the airplane. Descending to warmer air was on the short list, but the high terrain we were overflying made that a less appealing escape. Climbing was not an option because the clouds extended on up. It looked like the safest option would be to head east to clearer skies.

Flight service updated us on conditions en route, and we monitored the progress of areas of precip ahead and to the west but moving east. We pressed on. For a brief moment the base of the windshield and the leading edges of the wings acquired a thin, frosty coating but it soon sublimated, never to return.

We were headed to an inexpensive self-serve gas pump at Reno/Stead Airport just northwest of Reno, Nevada, but when the AWOS at the airport reported crosswinds gusting to 30 mph we changed our destination to nearby Reno/Tahoe International where, incomprehensibly, winds were reported as calm.

While Sierra Jet Center fueled the airplane we walked to Amelia’s, an oddly named Mexican restaurant on the field, and fueled ourselves with huevos rancheros.

Turbocharging showed its stuff on the departure procedure, which had us climbing in a holding pattern at Mustang VOR until reaching 10,000 feet before we were cleared on course. Climbing through 16,000 feet msl we encountered strong mountain waves. Our climb rate slowed, stopped, and turned into a descent. We alerted air traffic control, and were acknowledged with a grunt. They’d seen this before.

The waves persisted for the next 30 to 45 minutes, causing indicated airspeed to rise and fall as Mark alternately pushed in the updrafts and pulled in the downdrafts to maintain altitude. Once again I was glad for the turbocharged-enabled performance the 210 displayed at altitude.

The weather had improved prior to Reno, and we enjoyed clear skies and a panoramic view of the naked, grayish-brown Nevada moonscape as we flew southeasterly, paralleling the state’s straight-line southwestern border. After overflying the improbable Las Vegas desert megalopolis, we entered Arizona airspace and the land below acquired an attractive reddish hue.

We landed at Scottsdale late in the afternoon. I had a jacket on when we left Seattle; in Scottsdale the back of my shirt began to dampen from sweat before we had shut down on the ramp.

A day earlier I had crossed the country from southwest Florida to Seattle in a Boeing 737 at about 6.4 miles above sea level. Airliners are, of course, airplanes, but only the crewmembers up there in the closed-off cockpit can appreciate that fact. Back in coach I was able to see a wing and an engine when I looked out the little fuselage window, but it was like viewing a painting or photograph—a smallish, framed depiction of a surreal world. Like that view out the window, flying the airlines has become something of a surreal experience. I got to move about the country for an absurdly low fare, but it wasn’t flying, it was traveling.

Now Mark and I had just concluded a long but fascinating day flying in his turbocharged 210 at half the altitude and less than half the speed of the Boeing, putting 1,000 miles of some of the country’s most inhospitable terrain below and behind us. Given a choice, I’ll take flying over traveling every time.

E-mail the author at mrtwombly@gmail.com.