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.