Living High

VariEze N95BJ has spent a good amount of time above ten thousand feet. But mostly at cruise.
Several years ago I jumped at the chance to plan and try some high altitude takeoffs in the Rockies. The trips confirmed the importance for respect of high density altitude, and the probability of extremely limited performance with a very tight speed range during initial climb.

You hear about how a plane can sometimes lift off up there but not be able to climb out of ground effect. It’s not usually the local folks doing that.
The takeoffs also stirred the pot observing my canard’s performance at low versus higher speeds. Here we go-

Central Colorado Regional Airport, 7V1, Buena Vista, Colorado.
Elevation 7496.
Runway length 8300 feet.
32 aircraft based at the field, average of 80 operations a week.

It’s Thursday afternoon. The FBO manager just refused to fuel a Cessna 172. This is interesting. I decide to hang around a little longer.

The hangar office is rustic and warm. Several seasoned pilots sitting around make almost imperceptible nods of approval to each other. The manager tells the pilot and his two buddies to come back in the morning before 7 and he will fuel them, as long as they take off before 8. They walk out to the ramp and talk a couple of minutes and taxi out and depart, I’m guessing to one of the other airports not too far off.

The manager says that he routinely limits or refuses fuel to aircraft several times a day. Sometimes they have no choice but to stay overnight. He points out toward several “unintended landing sites” around the airport. The time with him is very instructive, observing him put the high altitude concepts to work in his daily environment here.

Part of the high altitude “red flags” I visualize include flying into a canyon and not being able to climb enough to get out, or not having room to turn around.
But here the relatively flat looking terrain can be deceiving. With no obvious obstacles in the pattern, you could just be trying and trying to climb out of ground effect and not be able to climb or turn enough to avoid a tree or a house or fence or the ground.

A few days earlier, my wife and I had arrived for the week. On the way into the valley between two fourteen thousand foot mountain ranges, we had to climb a little to get above some of the turbulence coming over the tops to the east. The approach and landing were uneventful. I felt no great solace in that downhill accomplishment.
I was watching for and observed seeing about the same indicated airspeed as normal, but with a faster actual touchdown speed.

Today I’m out to make a mid-week practice flight in the VariEze. Some friends are looking at the plane and one enthusiastically suggests how much better the prop would work if it was bigger! My head swims remembering tweaking it to the desired RPM.

The solo takeoff is fairly routine. Once over a hundred mph or so the plane flies pretty normal. Even mild maneuvers mostly end up lower than they are started. It would take more energy to be successful at more aggressive maneuvering, without using up all of the available ground clearance.

For the Saturday departure the challenge includes not only getting off the ground and climbing, but also getting enough altitude to trade off to get the speed up and over a hundred where banking was less painful. Even with the long runway there is little room for building energy like back home.

The departure with two of us was expected to be tight. It is. At 7:45 am the nose lift-off speed is obviously high. The plane breaks ground and accelerates in ground effect and eventually gets to 90 mph indicated. I accept the performance and continue. It climbs only at about 84 mph indicated. Any more or less and it levels off. This is a tighter speed range than on the solo flight, but at least I knew the ballpark speed before-hand.

Vulture’s Row at the FBO is full. It is a relief when a consistent climb rate is achieved and the rooftop satellite dish zone is escaped. During the deliberate climb I remember the manager and the several “unintended touchdown” sites around the area.

After reaching a thousand feet agl on the very straight climbout, a gentle push gets us over a hundred mph where breathing is easier. Climbing the next three thousand feet feels better at 120 than during the slower initial climbout. Thus my observations about my canard being happier here than at 85. We fly over our week’s hangout at Frontier Ranch just as the Young Life kids come out from breakfast.

Anyone would have to determine the climb personality and limitations of their own plane. A lot of days around here could result in a no-go decision.

The climb to 12.5 K is breathtaking. As is the whole flight. We depart Buena Vista with 2/3 fuel at 24 gallons, and make the four hours back to Fort Worth without refueling. There is the ever present headwind but it is all down hill. We stay within established fuel discipline, (to have some) and are on approach when down into the last five gallons.
The effortless sunset run the following day is vigorous and especially gratifying.

Angel Fire Airport, AXX, Angel Fire, New Mexico

Elevation 8380.
Runway length 8900 feet.
Two aircraft based at the field, average of 50 operations a week.

Jackpot is three hours behind. The southeast route to Angel Fire through the Rockies includes moderate course-swerving and leapfrogging over valleys and staying mostly within gliding distance to fairly level highways.

I hear a Long EZ call entering the pattern at Durango. He doesn’t respond to my call.

Hopefully Angel Fire will be over the next peak. Several years ago I heard that a Long EZ had done the first flight and part of the restricted period here. Made me appreciate our 700 foot elevation back home. I’m really interested in seeing how the plane will perform on takeoff later this afternoon. I won’t be disappointed.

There it is, a long runway running north and south. What can go wrong? Descending along the side of the valley I fly by our in-law’s Eagle Mountain Lodge and see some smiles and waves from the deck.

The wind sock is straight out from the west. Unicom says a direct crosswind of 35 mph. This valley is notorious for interesting winds. Curving through the 90, the angle is just about right to hold for the crab into the direct crosswind. An extra ten mph certainly won’t be a factor with the 8900 foot runway. Wonder if they would be upset or even notice if I landed on that nice east/west road to Taos over there. The landing roll would be pretty short and I could pull into a parking lot and taxi to the airport later…

Worry about that later, right now just follow-through here. A firm but gentle touch on the stick for a gentle touch of the tire and swing it straight and full aileron and full rudder. Nothing to ittthh. Right.

Charles, my co-father-in-law is waiting and helps get the nose nuzzled down. Over a Texas-Burger I overcome his insistence on staying over night for a calmer tomorrow-morning departure. As we drive up to the airport the wind sock is even more straight out and rippling pretty good. Inside the FBO the gauge is showing 55 mph, right down the runway.

I’m smiling just envisioning the lift off. Charles helps by pointing to the last few accident sites. He is Chaplain for three local volunteer fire departments….

I tell him about the taxi tests in the wild Mojave winds. He’s not impressed. My explanations of the benefits of a headwind on takeoff only lead to more pointing.
On the ramp the biggest challenge is opening the canopy without losing all the charts. Fortunately the vortex takes them into floor of the back seat. A very exciting environment for start and saddle up.

The taxi out is blustery and long and deliberate. Wind is still ripping straight down the runway.
Ready to go, the elevator is positioned ¾ inch low. Adding power it rolls a couple of seconds and…liftoff!
From inside it makes what feels like a normal takeoff and 90 mph climb.
But outside it’s levitating—straight up! Looks like it anyway. I feel no need to speed up to generate energy, and just continue the exhilarating climb.

At 1000 feet agl and 120 mph, banked into the right turn I see the approach-end numbers directly below through the side window. The crosswind turn is a horizontal blur and takes about four seconds.

Wings level now and the airspeed indicator says about 165 and the GPS blinks up to 230. The canard should be plenty happy here! Climbing at 150 still has us zipping right along.
Charles later described his astonishment as the plane climbed like a rocket and then turned and just disappeared across the valley!

Passing over the summer-green ski resort complex I remind myself to get my well-worn “Ski Angel Fire” cap re-embroidered with “Plow” Angel Fire to more appropriately describe my excavations on the slopes there.
Over and away from Mount Baldy, the terrain begins the rapid drop to more civilized levels.
On the deck but still showing 7000 msl, several SUVs loaded with ski gear get a chance to point at a 185 mph gull whisk just legally over them. Normally an eleven hour drive for us, the GPS says three hours to home.

Half-way to Amarillo at 10K I’m deep in thought concerned about how they’re going to resolve the extreme over-population out here. Some stretches there isn’t even a dirt road. When you do come up on a house you wonder what the heck those folks are doing out here.

Up ahead a thin white-on-dark frontal system ropes out across from horizon to horizon. The long cloud layer looks to be laying in-between 10 and 12 K and maybe a couple of miles front to back. Lines of slanted rain slash down to the ground, some areas darker than others. On the far side it’s clear again.
Just to the right there’s a pretty clear spot with no rain below the cloud layer.

Checking for other options and noting a couple, I choose to push toward the clear opening below the cloud line. With both hands on the sectional, with a little rudder the plane hesitates for a half-second and then banks to fifteen degrees toward the opening.

After ten minutes of admiring this work of mother nature and triple-checking this choice to continue, am now a couple of thousand feet below the cloud layer. The approach to the opening in the veil is in slow motion until the whisk through the curtain of rain. Zipping along in the clear air under the fast moving long dark cloud layer is other-worldly.

Looks like it’s not going to take as long to pass under as I thought.
Just as it’s getting brighter blue and I’m thinking this is good, several jolts of turbulence measure their strength to ours. Steady at maneuvering speed and guessing this is probably rated moderate turbulence, am hoping not to be further impressed.

All clear blue above now and crossing into friendly home territory. Visibility unlimited! There’s another dirt road; it’s getting way too developed out here. Nothing for miles and miles but miles and miles.

Now passing over Amarillo, I can see the forecasted weather system developing on the east horizon. Getting home this afternoon is questionable.

An hour later, approaching Abilene, the frontal system has built up to an immense black wall, towering well above me and going all the way to the ground. Time for a right turn. Looks like I’ll be waiting this storm out.
There’s the airport, still in the clear. There was a NOTAM for an air show, wonder if it’s still going on. Yep, looks like an F-16 at the top of a loop.

Hey, how about a divert? Two hours till sunset. Plenty of fuel. If I’m going to stay overnight somewhere…wonder how Dad’s doing?

Let’s see, a few taps on the GPS to T89 San Antonio-Castroville…a turn to that course…a blink to 236 miles…shows only 1.3 hours at this rate to get there…good ole GPS. A quick glance at the sectional puts it all in perspective, including the zig-zag path I’ll follow to cheat toward the scattered airports along the way.

I think Dad will enjoy a surprise trip to Dairy Queen. Hopefully the hay barn is still full from last time. Nice to be self-employed! Sometimes.

Bill James, Fort Worth VariEze

Disclaimer: These articles are so confusing with all the numbers. Flying these planes is a do-it-yourself exercise!

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