Two Miles High

The Penfound family's Challenger jumps over the moon on its maiden flight!

Audrey Mackey of Bancroft shot this very kewl picture of Bryan Quickmire on the initital test flight of the just completed Challenger II 582. She used a Canon EOS Digital Rebel with a telephoto zoom at a 400mm effective focal length.

Download medium 800x600 image. Download large 1024x768 image.

(Photo by Audrey Mackey)

Audrey's photo could have been titled "Challenger Jumps Over The Moon" however we chose "Two Miles High" from Bryan's diary of the ferry flight the next day when the aircraft was relocated to its new home. You will deduce that it was not his usual low and slow mission - max altitude was 12,000 feet!

    Two Miles High

    Earlier the sky was clear. Now at takeoff time it's overcast,
    not as much space between cloud and ground as I would like.
    This land is all trees and rocks and water,
    a harsh environment for a virginal plane on wheels.

    We launch, point the nose southwest.
    The plane wants to climb but must be held back,
    because of the gray-white barrier above.

    The overcast develops cracks, becomes broken.
    Soon scattered areas appear in the broken.

    Throttle forward and stick back - we loosen the reins and head up,
    intending only to get on top.
    The top comes and goes - the Challenger climbs eagerly,
    enjoying the lack of restraint.

    The ceiling of cloud is soon replaced by a ceiling of another kind,
    the glass ceiling where oxygen is required.
    There is no O2 on board, and this Challenger is not pressurized.
    We level off - up where altitudes are measured with five digits,
    over two miles high.

    Throttle back to cruise. Set the pitch trim for hands off.
    Position the louvres near closed. Turn the cabin heater on.

    On the ground it was +15C, a summer morning.
    Up here it's -5C, a winter afternoon.
    The cabin heater earns its keep.

    The radio monitors 121.5 which is silent.
    The engine too is silent, its monotonic purr filtered out by the brain.
    It's almost hypnotic. The zen of flight empties the mind of all else.
    The great escape.

    The route is a dogleg. First more south than west,
    the shortest path over the unlandable terrain.
    Then, jagging to the right, more westward,
    across the friendlier farmland, to the destination.

    The clouds are scattered here, broken there,
    sometimes placed randomly, sometimes lined up like soldiers.

    Most clouds top out well below, some reach up towards us,
    a few tower over us.

    Caught in glimpses between the white and gray of the clouds,
    the ground is green and blue - trees and water,
    mottled with dark gray - the rock of the Canadian Shield.

    The vista is constantly changing yet somehow remains the same.
    Below white and gray and green and blue. Above mostly blue.

    The GPS says the plane is moving over the ground at 100 mph,
    but there is no sense of motion here within.
    The clock says time is passing at the usual rate,
    but there is no sense of the day waning.

    We are suspended not just in space but in time as well.
    We are stationary and the world is rotating,
    scenery rolling by underneath. Silently.

    Our turn point lies on the southern edge of the Canadian Shield.
    The GPS signals we're there. We tilt right, more westward now,
    direct to the destination.

    Snippets visible of the ground below
    confirm we've left the Precambrian era,
    and are now over what was once
    the bottom of a giant inland sea.

    Still many blue splotches but now,
    instead of an unbroken green carpet of trees
    rooted on glacier-scraped granite,
    it is a patchwork quilt of fields,
    the varied crops each wearing their distinctive colours.

    Up here, two miles high, the tops of most clouds are a mile below.
    These clouds are in effect our surface, our ground.
    The Earth below them is more abstract than real.

    It occurs to me that this is like a glass bottomed boat.
    The openings in the cloud are the glass portholes,
    to see through the surface to the bottom of the sea.

    The bottom of this sea of air is lakes and rivers,
    and rocks and forests and fields, and roads.
    And microscopic cars and people,
    too small to see with the naked eye.

    Thirty miles from the destination, the GPS calls for attention,
    its VNAV commanding us to start our descent now.
    Why now, so far from the target?

    At 500 fpm it will take 20 minutes to get down to circuit altitude.
    20 minutes at 100 mph is 30 miles. Close enough for mental math.

    If we simply turned the engine off,
    and came down at our minimum sink rate of 350 fpm,
    it would take a half hour to get to the surface.

    In that half hour we could glide
    to any landing spot within a radius of 20 miles.
    A circle containing 1,256 square miles,
    lots of spots to choose from.

    I ignore the VNAV. It's far too grand up here
    to come down from on high just yet.

    Arriving over the destination we are still two miles high.
    To the north there's a miles long slit in the clouds,
    edges straight as if carved - a canyon of clear air to explore.
    We turn right 90 degrees fully intending to descend in this canyon.

    In spite of our best intentions though, at the the end of the canyon
    we are still two miles high. It's really, really too grand to come down.

    A one eighty to head south and we eventually arrive
    back over the destination, still two miles high.

    To the east a towering cumulus offers a better alternative
    than a straight and level descent.
    It's tall but thin, like a giant chimney stack.

    We head over and spiral down around it,
    a big, sweeping, descending spiral.

    Nearing the base we widen the circle, then head out and away,
    to clear the cloud's feet which are sticking out.

    Now down below 4,000 feet, less than one mile high,
    I start to reconnect with the earth below,
    to reacquaint myself with the notion
    of someday actually landing.

    Down, down we go, in a giant racetrack.
    Set the radio to the aerodrome frequency,
    listen, call our position and intentions.
    Join the circuit, track the pattern.

    A low and over to waggle the wings at the waiting masses.
    Waiting masses? Well the Penfound family is pretty large!

    Touch down, taxi in, shut down.

    No miles high.

    This coming back to earth is not an easy transition.
    Richard Bach coined the term "Stranger To The Ground".
    A truly succinct and artful description of this phenomena!

          (Text by Bryan Quickmire)

Most Challengers are flown primarily by one pilot, a few are flown by partners. This Challenger will be flown by three generations of the Penfound family - all at the same time! None were pilots before so five are training concurrently!

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