Flight: Spain: A Tale of Two Airmasses

The time finally came to take a flight out of La Cerdanya. Suffice it to say, I am still human, have fears of the unknown, and generally have a reticence to blast into totally unfamiliar areas. One could try to make an argument that many of the areas of the United States that I traversed were unfamiliar, and that fails to factor untold decades of slow cultural data assimilation, map browsing, and probing the unknown. In effect, I started out small with the airplane in 1996 when I took lessons, and my world got bigger bit by bit. Getting thrust into Europe feels like starting all over again as a student; almost everything is new and scary.

I had been told that north wind days, previously disclosed as very bad in the mountains, were just fine to the south departing the Pyrenees toward the flatter sections of Catalonia, terminating eventually in in the Mediterranean. For that reason, I opted to head to Montserrat, this giant shrine of rock that I have wanted to see for some time.

On takeoff, I climbed from 3,609’ MSL field elevation to about 6,500’ MSL to clear the Cadí-Moixeró ridgeline and descend beneath a few clouds that were stationary near the ridgeline. As I descended on the other side to avoid the clouds, I was immediately captivated with the intensity of the rock formations on the south side of the range. I had seen them before; I just hadn’t gotten low enough to appreciate their sheer size and magnitude.

Continuing to descend, I took note of the fact that the air suddenly seemed to be smoggy and disgusting. Puzzled, I continued flying, as it was just clear as a whistle on the other side of the ridge. “Maybe its because I am so high above the ground,” I thought to myself.

Five minutes later, it was evident that I was flying in filthy, rotten, disgusting air. I aborted Montserrat and turned toward the farmland east of Lleida, intent on comparing what I saw from satellite imagery. When that turned out to be dry, and the air still vile, I turned to the north to head home via La Seu d’Urgell. Reaching a small ridgeline, the air suddenly became intensely clear, like when I had left. Literally, I was looking at the border of filthy, poor visibility, and clear glorious mountain air.

I spoke to a few pilots and apparently, that is quite normal around here. Catalonia is home to many microclimates, which I suppose makes sense, given that it is a semi-arid region with massive mountains and Mediterranean coastline. The air out of the north was clear, as is usual, and the moist coastal air was stationary in the lee of the mountains, with the north wind riding on top. I would presume that the north wind would eventually scour out the coastal air, though the weather information I have isn’t nerdlike enough to satisfy my compulsive obsession with weather factoids; therefore, I don’t know what happened to it.

Cadí-Moixeró ridgeline. Note clean air to the left, filthy to the right. I was too concerned with getting between the clouds and the ridge to notice.
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And then there was this rock, further distracting my attention by its magnitude.
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A temporary illusion that things weren’t so bad.
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Shortening the total distance looking through hazy air reduces the visual impact of it. 
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There is no escaping this visual. Look at the clean air mass sneering at me from above the clouds!
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An interesting building, though I wouldn’t want to stick around for the next earthquake.
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Flag of Catalonia.
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This speaks for itself.
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Make hay while the sun shines (or is obscured by haze). Looking downward at whatever I can make look decent given the circumstances.
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Day-to-day activities can look quite amusing from above.
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Dilapidated tower of some sort. Who put it there, and why did they let it fall apart but not everything else? Then again, redneckism knows no bounds….
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I have a picture that looks like this taken in southwest Montana a year ago….flying the same airplane.
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Haze letting up a bit, though I am not impressed.
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Clearly, it is rather dry down here.
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Irrigation does wonders.
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Who would let a house of this size go to waste? One of the many mysteries uncovered from the air.
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There is a terrain feature that looks a lot like this in southwest Virginia, deep in hillbilly Appalachia. One can only hope that this section of Spain is more civilized.
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Terrain features very similar in color and form to what I have seen in western Colorado and central Utah.
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The transition from Midwestern style farmlands to East Coast deciduous to Western terrain happens within 30 miles. Note clearer air starting to show up in the upper left.
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Airmass boundary.
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Suddenly in clean air.
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There is a similar feature to this west of Kremmling, Colorado along the Colorado River.
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Logging.
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There is a red feature like this outside of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
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Cadí-Moixeró again. I don’t tire of this mountain range.
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Mountain waves over La Cerdanya, hence the reason I went south instead of north.
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Western edge of La Cerdanya.
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Ridgeline that I snuck under in the first place, air mass boundary still in place, now with mountain waves overhead.
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Clean air left, skank air right.
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Mountain waves coming in from France, left downwind for runway 25.
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Flight: Spain: Soaring Above the Fog

It didn’t take long to figure out that the weather here in the Pyrenees operates on a daily cycle. Some mornings, there is fog, though many mornings, there is an overcast layer. The overcast layer is usually shallow, and in many ways substitutes as fog. Somewhere up on one of the mountains around here above the cloud layer, it looks like a thick bank of fog below.

In either case, I surmised on this particular morning that the clouds would burn off in their usual pattern: middle of the valley first, south side second, north side last. As the first gaps in the clouds materialized, I got in the car and headed to the airport, seeing the first glider of the day being towed heavenward, through a hole in the clouds. By the time I took off, cloud coverage had dropped to 60%, and by the time I came back, it was down to only 10%.

Much like my wanderings in the Star Valley of Wyoming, it was a transcendently spiritual experience to climb over the cloud layer and sail above them without mountains sticking up on both sides. It is a beautiful experience that feels as incredible as it looks.

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Favorite sunset viewing spot in bottom left.
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Martinet, Spain
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La Cerdanya
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Glider being towed.
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We live in the center right of the image, under a cloud. The village below is Das, Spain. I must confess that I have nothing to complain about when it comes to scenery.
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Flight: Spain, Andorra, France: First Assault on the Pyrenees

When I first moved here, I thought I would just barrel into the Pyrenees within a few days. The mountains have a maximum elevation of about 9,500 feet above sea level around the field, which is, dare I say it, nothing compared to the mountains of Wyoming, or even more so, the field elevation of 9,927 feet where I was based in Leadville, Colorado, the highest airport in North America.

Then there was the whole matter of mountain waves, north winds, and the rocky little episode getting the crap beaten out of me over Puigcerdá. I finally decided it was time to conquer the ridge to the north of the field, the one that stares at me in defiance all day long from my home office, taunting me to fly over it.

The locals have given me varying levels of drama regarding mountain flying. One has to remember that, as a general rule, information from locals, no matter where in the world it is, has historically been next to useless if it is related to aviation. Secondly, the information I am getting varies from “today is a good day to fly” to “you’ll die if you go up today,” on the same day at the same time from different people. There is also the matter that most pilots will err on the dramatic side when it comes to mountain flying, as most would just rather not bother.

There is also the other side of the equation, which is what I have learned from hundreds of hours of obscene mountain flying all over the world: most turbulence is down in valleys, the leeside is to be avoided, and some of the quietest air can be directly over top of and on the windward side of the summit. That runs counter to the emotionally-induced maxim held by most mountain flyers that “more altitude is bad in the mountains.” I am comfortable any day the higher I go, as there is less rock to fly into.

All of that is countered with the fact that, just because the above maxims hold true in the US Rockies, does not mean that it holds true in the Pyrenees. I learned the hard way, while upside down against my will in the Cub over some hills in Virginia that one must take into consideration the locale. Each place is different, and until a person has enough data to be an expert in that area, he or she is not an expert. Even then, no two days are the same in the mountains. Data is helpful. Blanket assumptions are downright deadly.

That all being said, I decided to do it. The wind was westerly, which satisfied local advice and personal common sense that I’d be ok. I climbed to 6,000 feet, snaked around foothills until I found some lift, and set the throttle to 2075 RPM (about 60% power, less than normal cruise), riding the updrafts all the way to 10,000 feet. I ventured into Andorra, above ski resorts and into some seriously rough terrain, which makes me happy as a lark. I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Finally getting some lift. Note the literal patchwork in the upper left.
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The Pyrenees have an interesting soft side to them.
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Finally getting somewhere. Looking at the border of Andorra.
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Andorra! It appears that there used to be a glacier here.
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Sovereign nation of Andorra (population: 84,000). Just think “minorly corrupt tax haven.” 
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This mountain range is why Andorra exists. Andorra left, France right. No ancient or modern army would bother to cross this terrain. The Spanish and French have used other outlets to beat on each other for centuries. 
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I consider it a good sign when I encounter soaring hawks. It usually means I have found the updrafts. They are generally annoyed when I come flying through.
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Border of Andorra, France, and Spain meet on the little hill in the bottom right. 
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This is the ridgeline that sneers at me from my office window. Now I can sneer back!
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Highest peak viewable from my office.
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After seeing the “road” below (its a bit rough), I decided to drive up to it with the wife, hoping to have a “sound of music” moment while prancing through a high mountain meadow. We got pelted with hailstones instead. 
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Curso de golf.
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Here we go again with the farm field addiction.
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Typical Cerdanya scene. The highest peak in the rear left is where I descended from. The border to France is the valley to the right.
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Puigcerdá. If there is anything related to capitalism that I need to handle, it is usually here. As one can imagine, the parking is a nightmare.
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Carrefour in Spain, with a giant phallus in the parking lot. Our shoppers club card from this grocery store does not work in Carrefour in France 3 miles away.
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Flight: France, Spain: La Cerdagne

This flight was one of testing a few things out: how to fly around here on a north wind day without dying, and playing with my new lens. Important thing first: I was shooting before with an 18-55mm and 75-300mm lens, depending on the need. In the USA, I would revert to the big daddy zoom lens for Yellowstone hot springs and farm fields, and the wide-angle lens for everything else. Here in Europe, there are so many farm fields that are uninterrupted in their raw beauty that I find the 300mm to be cumbersome. That, and swapping lenses in the air is a real pain. I stuff the unused one in my jacket, close the zipper, and after binge photography and landing, step out the plane and hear a smacking sound, the glorious combination of Japanese lenses landing on the ground. It happens 50% of the time I lens swap. I needed something with a bit more zoom, though still wide angle.

So, I found a 18mm to 135mm lens, which gets the job done here in Europe. One lens (that weighs as much as a brick) and no more breaking them. I learned the hard part last year that the quality of an image is in the lens, not the camera, so it is imperative to test it out before going on a flying orgy, only to find disagreeable image results (my 10-18mm lens from last year had plenty of that).

Today wasn’t so pretty weather wise, which means it was a good day for a test photo shoot. And then there was the matter of staying alive.

As I have previously alluded, Spaniards have a flexible version of reality. Generally, when you’re considering purchasing something, optimism runs supreme, and after cash has been tendered, any advisories about safety are passively and delicately mentioned as a mere remote possibility. What was said: North wind days are not “ideal” in this neck of the woods. What I heard: “Only wimps find it a problem.” What the Spaniard meant: “Don’t go up on days like that or you’ll die. Please be sure to pay your monthly hangar rent bill in the office before going flying.”

Then there is the ongoing matter of the Spanish view of reality, sales notwithstanding. I asked one of the guys at the airport if a prior day was a good day for mountain winds. “Oh, its no problem!” So I head up, climbing toward Puigcerda, when I fly into some horrifying severe turbulence/mountain waves/rotors/God-knows-what, camera equipment flying around the cockpit and getting the snot beaten out of me. After landing, a separate, now more trustworthy airport guy advised that said day was extremely dangerous for flying. “Yeah, I just figured that out.” At least the dead moth that I couldn’t even vacuum out near the windshield seam dislodged. Look at the bright side….

So, today was another north wind day. It doesn’t mean flying is impossible, it just means that I can’t fly on the north side of the valley. I was given the detailed low down on which parts of the valley are kosher for north wind days, and I decided, with a dose of trepidation, to try it out. Other than some interesting and unsettling wind activity, it turned out ok. And I like my new lens.

Looking toward the summit of Puigmal. I am coming to understand that thick afternoon clouds are quite normal around here.
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Some ski resort in France.
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Despite late-season dull color above the timberline, there is some texture to work with.
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The last time I saw something like this was in the Salt River Range of Wyoming. This is a lee-side cloud formation, in constant motion, created by mountain wind.
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I tried to drive up here a few days ago. We were able to get above timberline, though farm paths were off limits. Herds of cattle and horses graze up here. After a difference of opinion with an obscenely enormous bull with a scrotum the size of my skull, my caution level is a bit higher.
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Closeups seem to work well with the new lens. Back in Spain.
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Village of Bor. Sit tight for a future blog post on three letter village names here in La Cerdanya.
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One of these days, I will take my wife up this road and make her carsick. Its a tradition of ours.
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