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Flying the Edge of America

Bellingham and the Cascade Mountains, Washington

When Julia and David left Victoria the weather was absolutely clear; except for a little low lying mist. It shrouded the many small islands dotting the waters between the USA and Canada. On landing back in the USA, at Bellingham International Airport, they were checked in by US customs. The check-in was a painless experience. David had worried a lot about leaving and returning to the United States in Matilda (their trusty aircraft). But the customs agents, both in Canada and the United States, were friendly and professional to them. Each agent was amazed as Julia and David explained their flight around America to them. The customs officer at Bellingham assured Julia that he felt comfortable their airplane would make the trip all the way around America, after Julia had voiced her concerns to him to the contrary. He was more worried whether their pocketbook would make it.

David was thankful the weather was clear as what lay before them was the awesome and mighty Cascade Mountain range. From the very earliest stages of planning the trip this flight filled David with the most trepidation. The highest volcanic peak, Mount Rainier at 14,411 feet, is much higher than Matilda can fly even if she is completely empty. They had tested Matilda up to 11,500 feet, so the plan had them flying no higher than this. Their route through the Cascades wiggled around the taller peaks following the lowest possible terrain. Matilda needs lots of time to climb up to 11,500 feet, so David factored this into the route. But they had the best possible weather, clear blue skies, and mild winds. David thought their luck with the clear weather was amazing given how awful it had been since leaving Oakland. He hoped their luck would hold out. Julia made sure she took her medication before this flight.

Wind can be a major problem while flying over and through high mountains. The jagged peaks and long high ridges create rotating air masses when fast moving winds blow over them. Airplanes caught in these rotors (as the winds are known) can gain and lose thousands of feet in minutes. The airplane can be sucked downward without enough engine power to resist the pull. Think of a feather blowing in the wind, how it jumps up and down and seems to be at the mercy of air currents. The size of Matilda was like a feather compared to the massive Cascade Mountains.

At first the flight was smooth and uneventful. Once at 11,500 feet David configured for cruise and took in the stupendous views of the snowcapped peaks that surrounded us. The uninhabited forests were amazing and at times were only 1,000 feet below them. If the engine had stopped while flying over the Cascade Mountains there would be no place to land, and they would be in wilderness a very long way away from any help; if they had been alive. These were the sobering thoughts going through David's mind and they caused him to scan constantly for a likely landing site. But his search was futile, as there was no place to land out there.

Then David noticed that Matilda was flying with her nose pointing downward. At first he was not sure what this was as they were maintaining altitude and not descending. He rechecked the instruments and everything seemed in order, except the speed over the ground was higher than expected. He realized that they were caught in a rotating air mass coming off one of the many ridgelines below. The autopilot, being very dogmatic, was doing the only thing it could do to keep Matilda at the programmed altitude; it pointed her nose towards the ground. It did this so some of her power could be used to fight against the forceful upwardly moving air mass. It took only a minute for David to remember that rotating air masses have two sides; one moving upwards and the other moving downwards. They were currently caught in the upward moving side so he expected to encounter the downward side soon, and they did.

With the air mass now moving down the autopilot pointed Matilda's nose up to try and resist the overwhelming downward force. Previously, while the air was moving up, Matilda could resist without too much trouble. But she simply did not have enough power, in the thin air at 11,500 feet, to oppose the downward flowing air combined with gravity. Their speed over the ground reduced as Matilda was now using engine power to slow their descent. This meant the autopilot immediately overcompensated, raising Matilda's nose too high. David had to disengage it and hand-fly her to keep them safe.

Julia was not sure how she made it over the Cascades. Probably valium was the answer. Thank you to her doctor at Kaiser Oakland for writing the prescription that got her through the ordeal. Mount Rainier is not only the biggest mountain in the Cascades; it is an active volcano too. They did not stop to visit Mount Rainier National Park, but looking at the amazing snow covered crags of the Cascades from the airplane made them feel confident enough to recommend it as a destination.

Continue the adventure, in my next excerpt from Flying the Edge of America.


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