Trapped in a Cloud Cave
I push the throttle all the way forward to the airplane's instrument panel and begin rolling down Runway 31 at Fargo, North Dakota's Hector Field. The engine kicks in as my Cessna 172SP Skyhawk lurches forward and picks up power. At a speed of 60 knots, in response to a gentle pull on the yoke, the Cessna's wheels lift from the blacktop. I'm airborne.
Right away there's a bad omen.
Air traffic control says three National Guard F-15 jets are practicing touch-and-gos on the same runway, so I must keep a sharp lookout. A midair collision with a six-ton military kerosene burner capable of clipping along at Mach 2 would shatter my four-seat Skyhawk. The only thing left of me and my sorry encounter would be a four-paragraph story in tomorrow's edition of the local papers.
Ten minutes go by without incident, and finally I am out of harm's way. Across the Red River and into western Minnesota the air smooths out and I feel settled. First crisis averted.
What am I doing up here? That's a question I have asked myself countless times since taking up flying at age forty-five. Is this some kind of midlife crisis? Am I running away? Back on the ground, friends of my wife are asking the same question. What's he doing up there? I have left my wife and two young children for several weeks to fly a small airplane solo over the U.S. heartland.
Officially, there is a reason-an editorial mission. I'm looking for Americans who have fled high-priced cities and suburbs as a way of coping with a crummy stock market, a lousy economy, broken dreams, and post-9/11 terrorism fears. Americans "flying home" to their roots will constitute a major demographic trend of the early 2000s.
Or so I think.
Today, I'm en route from Fargo to Green Bay, Wisconsin, on an instrument flight plan. I have chosen a path that will take me north of Minneapolis by forty miles. This morning I heard a report on the Weather Channel predicting late-afternoon thunderstorms moving up from Iowa. I'm anxious to avoid these troublemakers. This storm-the product of a summer cold front moving northward at 20 miles per hour-will contain lightning, hail, and possibly tornadoes. Such meteorological chaos is typical in the Midwest in the spring and summer. A river of warm, moist air collides with a solid wall of cold air. The roiling begins and in minutes thick gray vertical cumulonimbus clouds (thunderheads, they're called) can rise 50,000 feet or more. Hail is not uncommon, while severe updrafts, downdrafts, and 100-mph bursts of wind can toss a small airplane around like a beer can on a stormy lake.
Summer cold fronts are not to be mucked with. These nasties can even bring down a commercial airliner. On August 2, 1985, Delta Airlines flight 191, an L-1011 widebody jet, crashed near Dallas, killing most aboard. Among the dead was Don Estridge, the inventor of the IBM personal computer.
Whoa. Today is August 2.
Let's just forget about that.
Soon I'm cruising 9,000 feet over the town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota-hometown of novelist Sinclair Lewis, America's first Nobel Prize winner in literature and a deadly satirist of small-town America. My window is filled with deep blue sky, the sky of the mountain West, not typical of Minnesota. Below are cumulus clouds that look like snowmen, whose tops rise to, I'm guessing, 7,000 feet-2,000 feet below me.
The cloud tops will rise and grow tall as the afternoon rolls along. Summer weather in the Midwest is notoriously fickle. One sure bet is that cumulus clouds, once they appear, will grow taller as an afternoon progresses. It's also a rule of thumb that small plane flight under or through such growing cumulus clouds is to be avoided. The sudden updrafts and downdrafts can be teeth-shattering. But since I'm currently cruising 2,000 feet above the clouds, that's no worry. All is serene. With any luck I'll be landing in Green Bay in an hour and a half.
Not so fast.
Thirty minutes west of Minneapolis the sky changes from azure blue to battleship gray. A huge wall of clouds appears twenty miles off the right wing-it's that big nasty cold front. Damn; it looks closer than it is supposed to be. The Weather Channel said it would stay well south of Minneapolis. I am right now forty miles north of Minneapolis, and this thing is a lot closer than that. It is massive, solid, and gray-it looks the way a great battleship must appear if you're floating by in a rubber raft.
I think about asking ask air traffic control for a diversion to the north. A no-brainer, except that to my north sits another menace-a rising, blackening cumulus cloud, the type of angry formation that can quickly build into an isolated thunderstorm. It looks like Devils Tower in Wyoming.
But straight ahead, there is a large gap-a gap between the gray battleship and the Devils Tower. I decide to stay on my route and shoot that gap, working out the math in my head. My Cessna Skyhawk cruises at 120 knots. Groundspeed according to the instrument panel's moving map reads 134 knots, or 154 miles per hour, thanks to a tailwind. The gray mass should be moving north at 20 miles an hour-isn't that what the Weather Channel said? If so, the math works. I'll easily shoot the gap. No problem, in theory.
In flying, you learn that the only weather forecast that matters is the one you see out the windshield. By the time I get to the gap a few minutes later, it has closed. Completely closed.
Suddenly I am in a big cloud cave!
Now I have to tell you, this is the oddest experience-terrifying and magical, like a scary children's book. I can't see daylight, and yet I can see in front of me for at least a half mile. A giant cloud cave! Swirling milkshake hues of yellow and purple. To the left is that ominous gray wall, the giant battleship, closing in. Lightning bolts fracture the darkening sky.
I swallow hard at the lightning. My hands start trembling because now I've got another problem. The clouds underneath me, the floor of this damnable cloud cave, are rising like boiling soapy water and beginning to swallow me. I push in maximum power, pull on the yoke to climb. That brings the voice of air traffic control in my earphones. The controller is pissed at me. When you fly on an instrument flight plan you are supposed stay on your assigned altitude, no matter what. Air traffic's job is to separate you from other traffic, but the controller can't do his job if some amateur pilot is in the clouds freelancing. On the other hand, it's my sorry ass up there in the boiling clouds.
North of Minneapolis, exactly where I will encounter the heaviest traffic en route, I'm crazily busting air traffic control's assigned altitude. I'm climbing as rapidly as the little 180-horsepower plane will allow to avoid being swallowed by the floor. I plead on the microphone for air traffic's indulgence. The controller grumbles. At this point I no longer care, because I'm in big trouble. So I keep going up . . . 9,000 feet, 9,500, 10,000, 10,500 . . . and the whole cloud cave is closing in on me and there's lightning and turbulence, and I'm thinking this is really stupid . . . what am I doing up here? . . . how am I going to get out of this jam?
Then I see a patch of mist below.
I key the microphone and tell Minneapolis Approach: Cancel my instrument flight plan! I must get out of this cloud! I pull the throttle back to idle and start diving at a steep 2,000 feet per minute. I do about three full diving circles down, slip through that small misty hole-is that the Mississippi River down there?-then level out at 3,500 feet. That's where I stay: flying under this mass, flying for my life, flying all the way to Green Bay.
On the ground, I check into the airport Sheraton, sit at the bar, slug down two Jack Daniel's shots with Corona Extra chasers, go to my room, and watch the Weather Channel. The announcer is talking about that nasty cold front I jousted with in Minnesota only an hour ago. It indeed contained the classic brew of lightning, hail, and tornadoes. The storm now was in central Wisconsin upending trailer parks, shoving power poles through windows, inflicting the usual midwestern summer . . . hell.
In a sober moment before the booze transported me to a sodden slumber, I tried to remember just how I had got myself into this mess.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Life 2.0 by Rich Karlgaard, Forbes Magazine's Flying Publisher. Copyright © 2004 by Rich Karlgaard. Excerpted by permission of Crown Business, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.