Flights: NC, VA: Shenandoah National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway

Yet again the weather was fickle, making the go/no-go decision a complicated one. The forecast called for one day of sunshine, with some drying air, though still a NE wind off the Atlantic, which had characteristically provided both terrible and nice air, from the same air mass. On Friday, I was at the airport handling some maintenance, and had some time to fly around the pattern for fun. While cloudy, the air was very nice beneath the cold air damming stratiform cloud deck. Saturday should work fine.

The evening forecast commentary called for 40% cloud cover in the Piedmont, though delightfully 0% in Charlottesville, VA, with comments in Virginia forecast discussions that the air coming in, although from the NE, was essentially mid-continent sourced and training in around a high pressure zone. Complex, though it looked doable. West Virginia and the NC mountains called for 31% to 49% cloud cover, so it would be Shenandoah. I am working on a book about the Blue Ridge Parkway, which terminates at Shenandoah National Park, so this was the obvious leg to pursue. Calculations indicated that I needed to be airborne by 9:30AM to have enough time for 8 hours of flying plus two fuel stops, in time for 7:15PM or so sunset.

I arrived a bit early at the airport, and get into the air a bit earlier than scheduled. The air was somewhat soupy, though to be expected in morning haze and quasi-fog layers. Takeoff was a bullseye through nascent clouds, where a gap in the rising fog presented itself perfectly over the takeoff path and I popped through in legal limits and above some stray puffy clouds, leveling off at 2,000 feet. It would be an hour to get to the starting point of photography: I-77 at the VA/NC border, where the Interstate makes a precipitous ascent into the VA Blue Ridge Plateau. On the way, I found some fields to photograph, something I do to stay occupied on long flights, and something that I will someday make a book out of. I have countless photographs of fields with stunning textures and visuals.

1-Field with Fog




5-Pumpkin Field
Pumpkin Patch

The Virginia section of the Blue Ridge was somewhat dull SW of Roanoke. It is the lowest section of the BRP, with the most trees, and least terrain features. I came across a religious castle, which looked oddly European, as well as a canyon. Yes, a canyon. Its not even a park, nor on the map as anything interesting. Who knew there was a canyon in Virginia?

7-Dull section of BRP
Dull Section of Blue Ridge Parkway

8-Religious Castle
Religious Castle

6-Canyon in Virginia
A Canyon in Virginia??

9-BRP SW of Roanoke
Pretty Section of BRP – SW of Roanoke

NE of Roanoke, the air cleared out, and the terrain was quite amazing. Right along a typical Appalachian ridge, the BRP ascended and ran along the summit, winding its way up to the Peaks of Otter and then the highest sections of the BRP in VA, with rather interesting views and terrain. The valley below is an extension of the Shenandoah Valley, something I have flown twice to NY and back, and its pretty every single time. By this point, I was getting low on fuel, and opted to descend into the valley and straight line to Eagles Nest Airport in Waynesboro, where I would catch some of the missed terrain on the way back. Eagles Nest was an airpark, where about 30 houses were connected to the airport, and residents were pilots. That is the way to live, hearing sounds of airplanes all day, and as was happening that day, good social interactions. There was quite a picnic going on with kids having fun and lots of food. Fuel prices were not as kind as the community there, $6.50 a gallon, and I broke my record for the most expensive tank of gas ever purchased. I opted for this little airport, not far from Shenandoah Regional, because the smaller ones are usually cheaper than the regional airports with large infrastructure. Sigh. I used to think avgas at $2.40 a gallon was sacrilegious in 1998……

10-BRP NE of Roanoke
BRP, NE of Roanoke

11-BRP E of Peaks of Otter
BRP, North of Peaks of Otter

Precipitous Section of BRP in Virginia

13-Descending into the valley
Descending Toward Shenandoah Valley, En Route to Fuel

After takeoff, it was straight into Shenandoah National Park for photos of Skyline Drive. Suffice it to say, the park is amazing. My wife and I went in April 2005, where it snowed near the summit, and it was simply beautiful, as it was on this flight. It is quite a long park, requiring 90 minutes to fly the length up and then back. Heading southbound into missed terrain, I found another castle, where I would not be surprised if it was actually guarded with cannons and guys with bows and arrows.

Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park
18-Leaves, SNP
Shenandoah National Park
19-Another Castle
Non-Religious Castle

Wintergreen ski resort was next, followed by some interesting terrain, and then a descent low into the valley. Sometimes the BRP traverses the literal summits of mountains, other times, it goes 2,000 feet lower and bypasses them. Obviously it had to do with engineering and land acquisition issues back when it was built, though it seems almost random sometimes.

Blue Ridge Parkway

After the terrain northwest of Lynchburg, it was time to head straight back to Lincolnton, NC, which took me over the VA and NC Piedmont. Refueling was at Smith Mountain Lake Airport, another airpark and then over Martinsville VA. Microsoft has a $348 million data center facility there, and I could not find obvious indications of it. Usually, there is high AC load relative to warehouse space, and I hadn’t planned on being there to look, so I passed on that option. The flight passed Hanging Rock State Park north of Winston-Salem NC, then straight back home. On the way, I got even more field photos. In all, it was 7.5 hours of flying, and I was less tired than 5 hours in the NC mountains. A big part of it has to do with this flight being far less perilous as the terrain was gentler. There were no clouds to worry about, either, and the blue skies and sun made photography easier. Those three factors, when all made worse, are very fatiguing. This was just plain fun.

Field – NC Piedmont

21-Yadkin River Valley
Yadkin River

Flights: NC, VA: Great Smokies, Linville Gorge, Blue Ridge, New River

The much promised dry cold front didn’t happen as promised, and a host of aggravating days went by before some nicer weather came in, or so I thought. The cold air damming regime finally was breaking up, and the forecast called for partly cloudy skies in Charlotte, mostly sunny in Asheville, and clear over the Great Smokies. Seeing that a front was responsible, I was sure we’d get some clear air.

It takes 2 hours to pick up ethanol-free gas, drive to the airport, move the airplanes around and out of the hangar, transfer the gas to the airplane, and put the other airplanes back. Add 20 minutes until takeoff, so now almost 3 hours invested into the process, and upon takeoff, it is clear that I am flying in partly cloudy soup. What gives? Since the mountains are often clearer than the Piedmont in situations like this, and since I am 3 hours into it, I headed west.South Mountains was sort of socked in clouds, with a little spot to hop over. I could of gone around, and did not. I queued up the GoPro to record squeezing between the peaks…..and the battery was dead. No problem, I have a spare. That too, was dead. Now between the haze and my toy not working, I was pissy.

I popped between two peaks and wedged between the cloud deck and came out above the clouds on the other side. Interesting. I traversed northwest toward Marion and then west toward the Blue Ridge, passing over a giant cross on the ground near the Continental Divide. I am surprised that thing doesn’t have to be registered on FAA maps. Getting a few pictures of the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Mt. Mitchell, I realized that while Asheville was sunny, it was also hazy, and the Balsams looked clouded in. I was now throwing an internal monologue temper tantrum. Oh well, I shall get more peaks with fog and clouds for the book, not expected in my plans, and accurate as this happens a lot in the Southeast. It is wet here, for those that missed the memo. Then, during my pissy whining, I flew over the Biltmore Estate, the largest house in the world. Now I was happier.

Giant Cross
Giant Cross

Some Lake
Some Lake on the Base of the Blue Ridge

Biltmore Estate
Biltmore Estate

Ascending toward Mt. Pisgah, the photographs were challenging, though had some interesting texture. As I got south of Mt. Pisgah, it was another situation where the clouds were over the peaks, yet a gap in the pass allowed me to skim through. Skim I did, and on the other side, the clouds were right at the crest of the Balsams, filling in on the leeward side and allowing enough room to pass by on the windward side. I was curious what the Balsam peaks would be like, as I was only around 5,000 feet at this point, and they top at over 6,000. Much to my glee, it was a similar situation, a cloud deck on the north side, and wispy cloud interactions on the south side. Photography was incredibly challenging with low light and a wide differential between bright and dark areas (that, and avoiding flying into a cloud or one of the mountains I was photographing). Still, I obtained photos I could not imagine.

BRP with Balsams
Blue Ridge Parkway with Black Balsams in Background

I've Had Easier Flying
There exists easier flying than this. Black Balsam crest with Blue Ridge Parkway.

Black Balsams
Black Balsams

Next up were the 6,000’ peaks west of Waynesville. I found yet another giant cross, this time on the top of a 6,000’ peak, and had to wonder what the exact point is of putting one there. I think people who build symbols like this don’t think of their intended effect on others, they just build them. Are they telling me they are Christian? Or that I should be Christian? That crosses exist? It’s a cross, just sitting there, and I am not sure what they are asking me to do about it, I suppose, other than flying into it.

Another Cross
Another Cross

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was quite pretty, with somewhat lessening clouds, though still the majority of the weather. So much for the forecast. The terrain in that park is rather severe, with evidence of mudslides on occasion, truly an unusual feature for the Appalachians. If someone were to expand the range 200%, they would be as epic as the Rockies. In the event of engine failure, it would be highly interesting, to say the least. There isn’t a place to land, except into trees, and its complete wilderness. The question is – land in short trees at the summit, and then hike to safety, assuming there is no injury, or glide down 3,000 feet into bigger trees, and do the same thing. Thankfully, the engine did its job.

Great Smokies
US 441 Into Newfound Gap – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smokies 2
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Max Patch
Max Patch – NC/TN Border – Appalachian Trail – On the Way to Fuel

Fueling was Greenville TN, followed by Roan High Knob, again in the same configuration with clouds, with some drizzle and more clouds over the northern parts of the NC mountains. The flight home was uneventful, though photographing thirty peaks over 6,000 feet with clouds around them as well as well over 100 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway was unbelievably mentally exhausting.

A few days later, we drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway east of Mt. Mitchell to hike Crabtree Falls. We were treated with an overlook at about 3,000’ showing a clear view of the Black Mountain Range, all over 6,000’, which was photographed on the prior flight and documented on the last blog post. Crabtree Falls was quite pretty followed by our favorite jaunt in Blowing Rock, Bass Lake. We topped it off with the buy one get one special at Starbucks in Boone and headed home.

Black Mountain Range From BRP
Black Mountain Range – View from Blue Ridge Parkway

Crabtree Falls
Crabtree Falls – Off Blue Ridge Parkway Milepost 339.5 – Near Little Switzerland, NC

Two days after that, I was back at it. The Canadian cold front had come, with blue skies and dry air. Visibility on takeoff was 60 miles (angels singing), and I could see Mt. Mitchell from the Lincolnton airport. The route of flight was Linville Gorge, BRP to Boone, then South Fork New River, North Fork New River, New River all of the way to Charleston WV, and back.

My GoPro was working this time, so I shot a video of passing by Linville Gorge. It was bumpy due to wind, so you can see that in the video as I pass by Table Rock and Hawksbill Mountain.

Table Rock
Table Rock – Linville Gorge

After Linville, it was a short haul to Grandfather Mountain, where I also videoed flying around the peaks. The summit is 5,946’ elevation, and it’s a rather long mountain, with a profound prominence being right on the Blue Ridge. I ran into a rotor on the lee side, with some involuntary descent, followed by the good old elevator pushing the plane back up.

Grandfather Mountain
Grandfather Mountain – Blue Ridge Parkway

New River
New River – Near VA/NC Border

The Virginia highlands were quite pretty, as they are from the car on I-77. The New River winds back and forth relentlessly through the terrain for an amazing amount of time, taking longer than I expected to set up the shots and document. Fuel was a necessity at Twin County airport in Hillsville, VA. A week prior, a friend from WV had called concerned I had crashed my Cub near Hillsville because “it was a yellow plane.” Right. Thinking of her as dramatic, I lectured how not all yellow airplanes are Cubs, and not all Cubs that crash would be me (I have never crashed). Talking with a guy at the airport, it was a Cub that crashed. He was scud running, trying to get from OH to NC, entered fog, and nosed into the trees. At least he is alive. Inside the airport, I looked at the wall map and realized there is no way I will make WV. To make best use of my time, I headed SW back to Blowing Rock to catch the BRP now, and the weather went to pot for photography. High clouds and haze rolled in, messing up the lighting, so it was a good decision to abort after Blowing Rock.

The weather was still supposed to be nice the next day, and going to bed, it was forecast to be 47% sky cover in CLT and 9% in AVL, so I planned on hitting up the BRP and the peaks over in the Smokies and Balsams again, this time in sun and clear sky. 10 hours later, CLT is 100% clouds and rain, and AVL is mostly cloudy. I do have to say that the weather in Colorado is much easier to work with than here. Nobody knows the next time some clear air will blow in.

Flight: Highest Point in East Coast

After two months of maintenance downtime, it is finally time to fly again! All of the problems I was battling out West culminated in a need to take the cylinders off the engine, replace rings, clean the entire valve system, replace a few parts here and there, and put the whole thing together. In the process, a host of parts get verified, repaired, replaced, or updated, culminating in the final product: a top engine overhaul. Some of the original magneto problems where made worse by flying above 12,000 feet for the entire winter, resulting in very cold temperatures on the top end of the combustion chamber. That left extra carbon, which messed with the valves, and that’s the story. It is amazing that I have had five months of maintenance downtime since January 1, yet I have flown more so far this calendar year than any in my flying career.

After the airplane was in one piece and inspected, the weather took a turn for the worse…….for a few weeks. The summer had featured a remarkable quantity of cold fronts and clear air, unlike anything I had seen in a decade of living in the Southeast prior. Once the airplane is together, the cold fronts stop and the 90+ degree weather with haze began. Sigh.

We finally had a cold air damming regime, where a mid-Atlantic high pressure zone pumps cold and damp air against the east side of the Appalachians, where the air is generally cool and clear with clouds. Except…. it wasn’t… it was misty and hazy. Today was supposed to be sunny and into the 80s, despite the morning cloud deck, so I was debating between going to the mountains or not, to see if I could see some of the peaks with clouds around them.

It was a debate between my intuition and my logical processing. My intuition strongly suggested flying, as it was a perfect scenario of receding moisture, quite likely to have an ideal mix of active, texturized clouds around the highest peaks in the East. Logically, I was not in the mood to spend 6 hours of my day for nothing. I set off with a solid cloud deck over the airport, and contented myself fiddling with my GoPro in the cockpit for the first time.

After 50 minutes of flying, it was evident that I may have made a mistake. The atmosphere was getting more opaque nearer to the mountains, and my hoped for clear mountain air did not seem to be a reality. The clouds looked to be wedged up against the terrain, terrain I assumed was the flanks of the Black Mountain Range (highest in the East Coast). I thought that was that, a dull day.

As I continued over Marion, NC, I noted some sunshine toward Linville. Knowing that weather reports indicated partly sunny conditions in Asheville, I began to turn toward the brighter areas, only to be greeted with a 2 mile wide hole that opened in the clouds above me, over Lake Tahoma. Unsure if I wanted to waste the gas climbing only to see nothing, I finally decided to make a go of it. Worse case, I see some pretty clouds and go back down.

VFR on Top
Its VFR on Top – Pilot Phrase Denoting Stupidity 

I began a steep climb, and had to do some canyon climbing maneuvers (a Chandelle, effectively) to maximize climb while turning to stay out of the clouds. It was legal, and it was tight. Two thousand feet later, I got to the tops at 4,000’ above sea level. With a grin on my face, I realized that clarity at 4,000’ meant that the Black Mountain Range, at 6,000’ to 6,674’ elevation, would be visible. I turned the GoPro on and headed west for a few miles until I could see what the conditions were.

Black Mountains Somewhere in There
Mt. Mitchell Is In There Somewhere 

It was perfect. I had confused the mountainside down in the soup as being the sides of the Black Mountain Range, when it was the side of the Blue Ridge Plateau. The outcome was unquestionably ideal, texturized clouds actively swirling around the peaks, coming and going, twisting and changing, sufficiently legal to wedge through and around yet complex enough to be interesting. I was unsure if the peaks themselves would be visible, or if I would merely be photographing the mountainsides. Either was fine with me, it was the story I wanted to record for two upcoming books: one on the 40 peaks over 6,000’ in the Southeast and one on America’s favorite drive, the Blue Ridge Parkway.

As I weaseled around the clouds and gained altitude, Mt. Mitchell and the other peaks in the Range were visible, and I could barely get to the other side. I wedged through, photographing the entire time, making multiple passes around the clouds and terrain, up and down both sides of the Range, and then over to Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Mt. Mitchell Is In There Somewhere
Mt. Mitchell Hiding

Mt. Mitchell
Found It! Mt. Mitchell, Highest Mountain in the US East Coast (6,674′ Elevation)

All of it was fantastic, a perfect representation of the fascinating weather a person is likely to encounter if they visit either the Parkway or Mt. Mitchell on the ground. Both are experiences easily doable most any time of year in the car, and many times a person leaves warm summery weather in Charlotte, only to find wickedly cold, windy, and foggy weather on the mountain ridges. These photos were better than I could have expected, and will make an excellent addition to both books.

Some very strong Canadian air is due to come in this weekend, so the typical “Carolina Blue” photography will commence in earnest as the fronts keep the air crystal clean going forward. The goal is to gather summer perspectives on the Blue Ridge, high Appalachian peaks, the New River, the Catawba River, and Carolina wine country. As the leaves turn, some of these places will be revisited for autumn views individually for those projects and also for another fall book under development.

West Side of Black Mountain Range
Pretty Terrain West of Black Mountain Range

Black Mountain Range - South to North
Black Mountain Range – South to North, West Side

Black Mountain Range - North to South
Black Mountain Range – North to South, West Side

Blue Ridge Parkway - Near Craggy Gardens
Blue Ridge Parkway, Near Craggy Gardens, Looking North