Flying in a Snowy Cocoon

I was flying VFR at 16,500 feet not far above the clouds on my way home from Phoenix. Unfortunately as I approached Death Valley and the mountains surrounding that area the clouds got higher, so I had choice of ducking through a hole and flying under, or getting on an IFR flight plan and using an oxygen mask (I was wearing a cannula) to go higher. Flying in the clouds wasn’t an option as I was planning on crossing the Sierra mountains, a known ice making machine.

The METARs (automated airport weather) for Bishop and Mammoth showed a high ceiling so I went under just as the sun was setting. ATC soon said I was out of radar coverage and dropped me (wouldn’t follow me or talk to me) as I leveled out at 12,500 feet, just 500 feet under a cloud ceiling.

Soon it was dark and I noticed the strobe was picking up some snow. I realized at that point that forward visibility was zero although I could barely pick out the occasional car or house if looking straight down. I was legally VFR, but absolutely 100% on instruments. I would have been scared to death had I been a VFR only pilot. As it was I was only moderately anxious.

The snow became thicker and soon I was enveloped in it. I wasn’t in the clouds and the wings and windshield remained clear of ice. My plan should I enter a cloud, a distinct possibility, would be to descend and if required land at one of the small airports along the way. There are high ridges and mountains around so sneaking around down low in low visibility wasn’t a good idea.

However I was safe in my own little cocoon at 12,500 feet. The wing tip strobes were now brightly lighting up snow and I left them on because I liked the effect. I put WingX synthetic vision up on the iPad (using an iLevil device for attitude) so I had a backup to the attitude instrument in the panel. I also had a VFR chart up on the iPad, and at the same time I had a terrain map up on the Garmin 496 which would alert me to being below terrain.

I turned on my landing lights but like car highbeams in snow, the effect was too transfixing to leave on. I think you could hypnotize yourself staring at that – until perhaps a rock came into view.

The air was smooth, the instruments steady and the red terrain warning from the 14,000 peaks of the Sierra Nevada got closer and closer. I overflew Bishop and turned right towards my favorite airport Lee Vining. It was surprising, however, how darn close to high terrain that airport is as I avoided it to the right and away from the mountains.

Still in snow but south of the highest peaks I finally turned left to cross the Sierras and head towards my home field in Placerville, my GPS telling me to start my descent but my mind telling me not to dare. If I looked straight down I could barely see some eerily flashes of white and dark as snow and mountains flew past.

Soon the snow eased up, the lights of Sacramento valley came into view and I could see my way into a visual descent path. There was even another plane in the pattern which reminded me I was not alone and isolated any longer.

The best part? It was Friday night and I was able to make my weekly romantic rendezvous with Betsy for dinner in Placerville.

Wing tip strobe. I took about 10 photos and finally caught it flashing.
Wing tip strobe. I took about 10 photos and finally caught it flashing.
Maybe seems redundant to have three GPSs.  On this night - nice.
Maybe seems redundant to have three GPSs. On this night – nice.
Snow beam.  Now turn it off.
Snow beam. Now turn it off.

11 thoughts on “Flying in a Snowy Cocoon

  1. Sounds exciting! I recall flying into Camarillo several times from the south and how intimidating it could be at night to catch a glimpse of mountains to my left on the night VFR descent.

    I am debating a move to Reno, perhaps I will be having similar experiences over there.


    1. I’m not particularly fond of Reno itself, but there are some fantastic places nearby and lots of places to explore, both on the ground and in the air. So overall I like Reno. But yeah, it is right there in the lee of some big mountains and some nasty turbulence there at times. – Ney

  2. Always great reading another adventure…particularly when stuck at my desk. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Yikes. Flown all over this stuff in the daytime VFR. Yikes. Where did you cross the sierras? –Derek

    1. Hi Derek!

      I flew south to near Walker, then across. Definitely something I wouldn’t do with others in the plane which probably doesn’t sound quite right, but true. – Ney

  4. Loren Gallagher January, 2015 — 4:28 pm

    Your story conjured memories of similar flights in days past. No longer. The older I’ve grown, the less bold I’ve become. Single engine. Night. Snow. Sierra crossing! Wow! You be da man!! Hope you hugged your 210 before you put her away for the night!

    My best for continued safe flights!!

    Love the BLOG.

    Regards, Loren HMT


    1. Hi Loren,

      I think I made it sound worse than it was. If someone said, “its snowing over the Sierra, let’s go”, I wouldn’t go. With a typical storm at 12,500 you would be in the clouds and really into it, so it wasn’t much of a storm. It didn’t leave any real snow on the ground. But I hear you, it was night and it was snowing and I only have one engine. I wouldn’t do it with anyone else in the plane, but I guess I’m willing to take the risk alone. – Ney

  5. Trying to get closer to home, which is San Francisco, without the expense. Seattle is just too far. Reno looks like it may be changing. Any particular bad things? Any tips for where to go or fly around there? I am nervous about it, Reno is small town but I can fly to SF pretty quickly.

    I look forward to being closer to the river, I grew up rafting on the American. Also hope to be flying with Flying Sams again. Used to go with San Luis Obispo group.

    Can email me at if you want to go off the forum.


  6. Instructor Joe January, 2015 — 4:50 pm

    Yikes! I love reading about your adventures – although you seem to be a one of a kind, mixing adventure stops with business trips all while using GA to its fullest advantage. Not many guys doing all three.

    The Yikes! part: Single engine, over the mountains, big tall mountains at that…ok.. but at night? with weather? Isn’t this stacking the deck against yourself?

    You obviously know the area well, so that is to your advantage.

    Remember Galen Rowell? Great Photographer. (I am also a photographer and CFII) I read his wife’s book, “Flying South”, by Barbara Cushman Rowell, which although it is a superb read, at every turn she is getting rattled by unseen risks, or weather, or issues of some kind.

    So it was somewhat ironic that while her South America trip was a success, they did not make it home while on a simple flight in good weather, also at night. Wasn’t that at Bishop, just down the valley?

    I remember attending a safety seminar by John and Martha King who said, “why take more risks when you are by yourself, are you chopped liver?” King style humor.

    1. Yes, I guess I’m chopped liver. I disagree with the Kings. The odds of engine failure are low and I myself am willing to take that risk (although much of the time I had an out as I do know the area, the valleys and the small airports well). But there were times I had no out, over the highest peaks and ridges. To lose an engine in that situation and descend into the night would not be that terrifying to me as I’ll be pretty busy. I would not want to subject anyone else to that. That is my opinion. I’ve also flown in the LA basin (day and night) where I’ve had the same feeling – an engine failure would be really bad – and in addition potentially put people on the ground at risk. Yet there are dozens of planes flying around, many I believe with pilots that would state they would never fly over mountains.

      I also think that (in daylight) landing in an alpine lake could be an option, and there are many around. I believe I have a good chance of getting out, but I think passengers less so, especially ones in the back – another example of where I may go alone into the mountains where I wouldn’t take passengers. Maybe I’m all wet on that thinking…

      I do know Galen Rowell’s work well, really admire it, and have talked to Barbara and read her book. I agree she took unnecessary risks in that book, as I recall she almost died a couple of times. I did fly right over the Bishop airport where they died on a black night. The pilot, new to that plane, apparently lost control turning base. I’m not sure you can find similarities in our flights or draw conclusions. Don’t fly around Bishop at night?

      Anyway, I appreciate the comment and your opinion I took on too much risk. I don’t take that lightly and I do spend time looking at the risks and trying to understand them. – Ney

      1. It’s refreshing to see a single-engine pilot accepting additional risk. Without it, we’d miss out on some unique and memorable perspectives. I recently discovered your blog, and its got me reflecting on some of my most memorable and adventurous flights – most of which were IMC, or turbulent, or something risky!

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