Pandora Moving Services, part 1
My friend @norintha has been in a rough living situation in Denver, CO for a while. The environment and situation wasn't working for her at all. She made arrangements to leave and move to Reno, NV, and her friends there were going to come get her.
And then their car broke down.
My friend was now trapped up there with no way out and few, if any, local friends who had the resources to help out.
That's where I come in.
One thought was that I could grab a Friday night commercial flight out to Denver, rent a big van for a 1 way drive, drive up into the mountains Saturday, pack her stuff, then spend 16+ hours driving her to Reno and another few hours driving myself home before turning in the car.
Another option... I own an airplane with an awesome amount of weight carrying capacity for a small plane. In less time, for actually less money... I could fly my plane out to Denver, pack the plane full of my friend's stuff, and fly her and her stuff to Reno, NV.
After careful review of weather forecasts, weight estimates, and more... I chose the latter.
The danger of the mission
So far in my flying adventures, I've only flown east of California once, out to the Grand Canyon. Prior to that, I've mostly flown around California and north to Oregon. Some of these have been excellent and long flight in their own right, but flying all the way to Denver, CO is unlike any of those from before.
Danger 1: High Altitude Flight
Most of my flying to date has been with the ground well below 3000 ft MSL (Median Sea Level). Most of the trip out to Denver has the ground well above 5000 ft. MSL, with considerable portions as high as 8000 ft. MSL. This changes a LOT about flying.
To give yourself enough distance above the ground to get things like nice glide distances in case of an engine out, cruising altitudes as high as 11,500 ft. MSL may be necessary. At that altitude, the airplane engine, airfoil, and pilot all find their performance levels reduced by the lower density of air that higher altitudes have.
Engines need to combust a mixture of fuel and air in order to produce a maximum output. As you reduce the air molecules available in a given volume, it gets harder and harder for the engine to produce that level of horsepower.
Wings, control surfaces, and propellors do their thing by interacting with air molecules that flow over them. Reduce the amount of air molecules around them, and you also reduce the effectiveness of all of these things. Landings, take offs, and more are all negatively affected, and careful calculation of how much runway will be necessary at a given altitude, as well as what kinds of climb rates to expect, are vital.
And last, but not least, human pilots need plenty of oxygen to enable their brain to function well. Reduced air density at high altitudes means reduced amount of oxygen available to the pilot. While FAA regulations don't require supplemental oxygen below 12,500 ft. MSL, pilots and passengers both can start to experience minor degrees of hypoxia well below that. Even a small reduction in blood oxygen levels can have significant effects on the ability of a pilot to process the information and make the decisions necessary for the accomplishment of a safe flight.
Danger 2: Desert Heat and Mountains
Most of the environment between here and Denver, CO consists of what we call “high desert” environments. Hot, high altitude areas with lots of mountainous terrain. This makes for some unique challenges.
Hot air tends to be less dense than cooler air. As a result, even if the airplane is flying at, say, 11,500 ft MSL, hotter air might make the airplane “feel” as though its flying even higher. This affects all of the same things that high altitude affects, including the engine, airfoils, and human pilots. The altitude that the air “feels like” is referred to as the “Density Altitude” and it is critical to calculate what that is when flying in high desert environments.
Heat is also one of the things that energizes air flow. Hotter air, in a sense, “gets excited.” As air gets heated up, it tends to rise, creating thermals, clouds, wind gusts, and more. Over the hot deserts in the afternoon, this can create turbulence that is virtually unbearable, or in some cases, downright dangerous.
All that hot air moving around gets even more exciting when it encounters mountains. In these scenarios air acts a lot like water does when traveling over the rapids. It splashes up over a mountain range, accelerates over the peaks, and rapidly drops off the other side. In valleys and narrow passes, it can accelerate to extremely high speeds. All of this can create extremely dangerous downdrafts that airplanes will struggle to get out of in the high density altitude around them.
Understanding the affects of heat, especially around mountains, is vital to navigating difficult environments like these.
Reason 3: Challenging Weather
Hot air causing air to rise and move around? Whatever could that result in? Oh yeah. Rain. More importantly, thunderstorms.
Thunderstorms are nobody's friend in the air. Flying within a thunderstorm's area of influence can result in turbulence so severe it can rip the wings off your airplane and hurtle you to the ground. Even the big commercial jets steer well clear of these powerful convective systems.
In California, where I've done most of my flying, the weather is almost always clear skies and sunny. The only clouds I have to deal with are the marine layer that comes in and blankets the city in a thin layer of cloud a thousand or so feet above the ground. On the rare occasion that we do get some “real weather” out here, it's easy to just cancel flying plans and stay on the ground and not worry about all of that.
Unfortunately, if you want to fly pretty much anywhere else in the country, especially over the high desert in the summer, you're going to have to contend with this kind of weather and figure out how to navigate it.
Preparing for the mission
Dangers of the flight loaded up in my mind, I began preparing for the flight several weeks in advance. I studied everything I could on thunderstorm avoidance. I watched air safety videos about people who flew into these monster storms and died. I reflected on mistakes I've made in the past myself. I studied the weather forecasts on many different sources, especially AccuWeather and Windy TV. It looked as though most of the worst weather was going to be out of our way, though the chaos of weather meant this could never be counted on entirely. I talked to fellow pilots about my plans and got their ideas of what I should and shouldn't do out there, especially ideas about routing.
Given the size of the stuff my friend was bringing back with us, I decided to pull out the seats in my airplane to make for extra room and give us a little more weight headroom.
I wrote up VFR flight plans, submitting them to the FAA, and prepared. The journey began Friday, August 9, 2019.