Flight: Switzerland (VD, BE, VS): Mixing the Alps With Clouds

Note: Abbreviations in parenthesis are the Swiss cantons overflown. In this case Vaud, Bern, and Valais.

There is an essence of Switzerland that I struggle to understand from the air. While one can fly from point to point in measurable and often small distances, it is not often the point itself but the altitude that defines the nature of the destination. To visit the famous village of Interlaken or to go the Jungfraujoch are separated by less than 10 miles in distance and roughly 12,000 feet in elevation. Interlaken is a temperate habitable climate zone, whereas the Jungfraujoch sits on an ice cap. Both are places that can be visited on the ground, with understandably varying complication. The situation in the air is similar.

Because the Cub is powered by a small engine, and fuel range is three hours at normal cruise, with even less if one is climbing at full power for most of it, when a destination in Switzerland is chosen, one must do some altitude planning, largely restricting the flight to the altitude of the destination in question.  If said locale is high up, then I am obligated to find something useful to do for 90+ minutes of climb and descent. If it is low and remains anywhere near terrain, then one must plan how to get there and work around obstructions.

The plan for this flight was something different. Since I am on the Oberland side this time, weather is usually more questionable, though terrain is more varied that Sion. Sion, where I was based for last year’s Swiss adventure, is in the Rhône valley, which runs east-west for most of its time in the Alps. That puts it in a different climate zone, which is more favorable, though otherwise sets the tone for each flight, by putting 9,000’ terrain north and south. Any flight of any reasonable objective involved climbing over that terrain.

That was particularly discouraging toward doing flights like I intended on this day. To climb to 10,000’ only to descend to 6,000’ to play around the base of the Jungfrau, then climb back up, and descend down to 1,582’ was both a bit silly and rather consumptive of fuel. Thus, it was not an event that took place last year. Since I am on the north side of the Alps, there is a lot of variety to see on the way, and things like this make more sense.

The problem, which I am still working on fully understanding, is the weather. While there is a nice orb of yellow sunshine on the forecast map, that holds true over various towns and airports. Merely a few miles from these valley destinations, Oberland elevations can shoot up to rather steep heights (valleys 1500’ to 3500’ – summits 7000’ to 8500’), which means that weather varies significantly over a short distance.

That was proven after takeoff. Clouds were forming off of ridges, and much denser toward the Bernese Alps. I found some gaps in Oberland terrain and weaseled my way around towering clouds, eventually getting above them as I worked along the ridge from west to east. It didn’t take long to make the determination that I would not be flying far beneath the Jungfrau. Whatever I did would require getting above the clouds, which I determined was fine in light of the fact that scenery was stunningly beautiful.

There was a moderate north breeze at altitude, which meant that clouds dried out on the south side of the first Alps ridge. That meant an escape path to Sion should it be necessary, though such winds did discourage wandering over to that side just for fun. Generally, there is a downslope component with rotors on the lee side, and it makes for a fight to get back.

Eventually, I got partially above the clouds at 11,500’, and finished the job at 13,000’ realizing how futile my scheme to fly far below the Jungfrau was. Clouds were much thicker over Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, though it was extremely photogenic at altitude. I chuckle to myself as I reflected on the fact I told my wife that “I won’t be flying over glaciers at 13,000 feet.”

Over Sankt Stephan in the Oberland. Generally just a summer day.

Not so summery ten miles away. 

Found a way above it, now along the ridge of the Bernese Alps.

I don’t know that this is “classic,” though it does show a lot of elements of weather over the Oberland and Alps. Oberland is left, with typical haze in summer. Alps are to the right, and cloud formations are sometimes mysterious in the middle.

A breeze forming clouds at 10,000 feet.

Untertalgletscher, or something like that, trying to hide in the clouds. Its a pleasant sight in summer.

Now up at 12,000 feet, having scratched the idea of flying down there and looking back up.

Mönch with clouds forming on the lee side. I have a large collection of images like this from mountains all over the place.

Jungfraujoch, the place one can take a train to, is hiding in the cloud in the center right.

Jungfrau. I suppose I technically did get to fly below it and look up.

Looking down through a cloud layer to a glacier.

Looking toward Grindelwald. Cloud coverage, as measured by percentage, is not overcast, though its enough to thwart flying at that altitude.

Somewhere west of Stechtelberg. I confess to a simmering fatigue trying to figure out which exact peak it is. It would help if it wasn’t surrounded by illustrious, visually titillating cloud formations.

There are so many interesting glacial formations in Switzerland that one could get dizzy and literally engage in reverse peristalsis looking at them all. 

Working my way down the ridge toward the airport.

Found a hole and dropped in. I can’t shake the feeling that I am getting flipped off by the hill in the photo.

Above Lenk ski area.

The next hill over. German is spoken where lighting is black and brooding. French is spoken on the horizon where it is sunny. Curious….

Le Rubli. Its not exactly directly above the airport, though it does hang menacingly over the pattern entry point.

Gummfluh. This is part of the Pre-Alps/Oberland and not actually the Alps. Go figure.

If I don’t land the thing voluntarily, it will eventually run out of fuel. 

Flight: Spain, France, Switzerland: Back to Switzerland

With some excitement, another summer will be spent in Switzerland, so the plane had to get flown there. I wrote my in-flight musings in greater depth on last month’s AOPA post, so I will spare the details here. As usual, I presume that there is a mythological blog reader that reads every single piece of content I produce on all outlets, and I dutifully put photos here that were not on the AOPA post, lest said disciple be annoyed by looking at the same image twice. I also put them here as the flight covered ground I mostly had not visited, and in the spirit of my blog map (with lots of push pins), I like to include things in new areas to increase the percentage of planet earth that I have covered on a map. Let’s not get into the fact that I do not update said push pins but twice a year (and even then, I have years of flights missing) or talk about the original premise behind said push pins and how it has failed to live up to the plan. What is human existence but a serious of contradictory anachronisms…

Climbing out over Cerdanya. There is a smoky inversion below and a rare second layer at the summit of Pic Carlit, which was Saharan dust. 

Les Angles, France with haze layer at the summits.

Mediterranean hills north of Carcassonne, France. Like last year, it was hot and hazy.

Somewhere east of Rodez.

South of Lacalm. Terrain is somewhat higher here, though nothing too terribly crazy. There are some extinct volcanoes that impact soil and other conditions.

Cantal Mountains on the horizon. The shallow “cone” at the center is the biggest former volcano, which is 2,000 feet higher than my flight altitude.

Aerodrome de Saint Flour. 

Somewhere northwest of Le Puy.

Loire River.

Ridge before descending into the Rhône valley.

High speed train line in the Rhône valley.

Chirens, with the Pre-Alps on the horizon.

Lac de Paladru.

Chambéry. I landed for fuel at a different airport than last time and it was still infernally hot and inconvenient.

Combe de la Lance. In the Pre-Alps. Flight path is the valley to the right.

Lac d’Annecy.

Mont Lachat de Châtillon. Terrain is starting to look like the Bernese Oberland, though its very much still France.

Pointe de Grande Combe. Still not “in the Alps” yet.

Mt Blanc, highest mountain in the Alps, visible from the Pre-Alps. This image is going to be in my upcoming book on the highest peaks of the Alps.

France left, Switzerland right.

Looking out the other window while crossing the border and terrain is a bit more frisky.

Culan, on the western edge of the Bernese Alps, Switzerland.

Lining up to enter the circuit for Gstaad Airport in the Bernese Oberland (again, not the Alps, technically).

Flight: Spain: Flying in an Inferno

I had considered skipping over this flight, owing to my blogging laziness. I have been very busy attacking the largest peaks, glaciers, box canyons, and high-altitude fields I can find, filling my life with climactic bliss and complication to levels not seen in a while. However, I still retain a mental fixation on the subject, so off we go.

Before I get into the specifics of the flight, I must preface with a bit of my views on hot weather. I may have alluded to my “displeasure” (read: scathing, venomous, raging disdain) for weather in excess of air-conditioned room temperature. I could write vivid, almost poetic literary philosophies, bathing a reader in every shred of wafting perspirant-soaked misery, though I will not. There is a curiosity I have encountered, that there are some on this planet that love heat and humidity and could spin poetry about every shred of misery experienced when temperatures drop below 21 C / 70 F. It takes all kinds to make the world turn, apparently.

This flight took place on the day of the pinnacle of the European heatwave that cooked France and Spain. Just two weeks prior, it had snowed down to 6,000 feet. Now, it was over 100 degrees at nearly 4000 feet elevation, blowing past the hottest temperatures we had experienced. When it gets that bad, something curious happens: I hope it goes to 120 degrees. If it is going to boil over, then go for the gold and reach for the stars. Can I cook my breakfast egg on the sidewalk? Will my car dashboard melt? Will my liver overheat and fail? Most important….will the plane fly without hurling an expensive and necessary metal piece through the crankcase?

I flew the PA-11 with a passenger in North Carolina on an all-time record high day of 104 F. She’s a little sluggish and flies fine. I flew once possibly into the mid-100s in western Kansas, risking heatstroke as I was flying all day. I had to soak my clothes in water, including extra t-shirts, and drape them on my legs while in flight. While outside air may be 105 F or so, the engine blows atrocious heat into the cockpit, to the point where I am ready to puke, even with the window open. Ghetto rigging a pile of wet clothes into a swamp cooler does the trick.

Sadly, I could only get to the airport when the temps dropped to 98 F. It was a bit…toasty… outside, though the plane performed fine. That got me thinking….what is the worst density altitude I have taken off from?

La Cerdanya, Spain: Elevation 3609’, 98F = density altitude 7100’
Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Elevation 6250’, 95F = density altitude 10100’
Leadville, Colorado: Elevation 9927’, 66F = density altitude 13000’

All in all, it wasn’t bad, in line with density altitude calculations. Saharan dust was gross looking. One might look at my photos and note that they are not bad, which I agree that the final product is fine, though it takes a lot of filters, angles, post-processing and algorithms to get to what is produced. Interestingly, color temperatures with the haze veer strongly to the warm, despite anti-haze algorithms typically cooling them in laughably excessive ways.

In the traffic pattern.

Puigcerdà in the distance.

Das. Haze is less as distance to the horizon is shorter due to mountains. That is one trick to work around haze….get closer to the subject.

On long final along the Riu Segre. Fields went from lime green to golden pretty quickly with the heat, though soil moisture was good due to previous rains (and snow).