Invisible Front
"How about a stop at Oceano?" I asked Herb over coffee at the Van Nuys Airport. I had just flown in from Orange County. The chart was spread out before us in the pilot's lounge. "Our meeting in Santa Clara isn't until after lunch. Oceano is the only airport in California located right at the beach. We can ogle the chicks."

Herb had lost weight since last I saw him. His smile, usually quick to appear and slow to fade, was not to be seen. His studied affectation, the comic Bronx accent, was not to be heard. A strange, drawn expression held sway over his countenance. He absently examined the chart through his bifocals.

"I'm thinking of joining the Peace Corps," he said. Herb is one of those no-nonsense, straightforward people, the best type to manage a department in your company. Non sequiturs are out of character.

"I beg your pardon?"

Herb sipped from his cup. "My kids are raised," he said. "I can apply for a leave of absence." Herb looked at me with raised eyebrows. "They're taking guys my age, you know."

We sat quietly for a moment. I wanted to say something like, Herb, you have a whole new life before you. I folded the chart and slipped it into my flight bag. Herb picked up a heavy cardboard box. It was full of classical albums that had belonged to his wife. We would be delivering them to his son, a graduate student at Berkeley.

The two of us were on our way to a business meeting with a semiconductor vendor in what later came to be called Silicon Valley.  I helped Herb load the box into the luggage compartment, completed my pre-flight inspection and unchocked the wheels.

"I got to thinking," Herb said. "A guy my age ought to have something to teach -- to somebody in the world."

"Yeah. Meanwhile, let's fly."

Two-four Fox came alive. During the run-up, I entered the local barometer setting in the Kollsman window on the altimeter. Our altitude read 800 feet, which matched the Van Nuys field elevation listed on the chart, 799 feet MSL. Herb sat in the seat beside me, arms folded. He nodded with polite appreciation as I translated the radio chatter.

"'Position-and-hold' means we can move onto the runway but not take off," I explained. "As soon as we're airborne, we'll take up a heading for the coastline north of Ventura."

"How high will we be flying?" Herb asked.

"Until clearing the foothills, I plan 4,500 feet."

Over the cabin speaker came the official authorization for our entry into the realm of flight: "Cleared for takeoff. Right turn beyond the tower approved. Have a good trip."

"Two-Four Fox is rolling," said I into the microphone. Full throttle and check the engine instruments. Rotation and liftoff. I throttled back and listened to the engine settle into its cruise-climb settings. I turned to Herb and raised my voice over the sound of the engine. "Your house ought to be down there someplace. See it?"

Herb studied the landscape below. The West San Fernando Valley gradually lowered away beneath us. The plane's forward motion appears to slow as our altitude AGL increased. I told Herb that I often think back with amusement at my sister's first flight. "Why," she had asked during the climb, "are we stopping?"

Herb tapped my shoulder. "We're over our house now," he said. I banked the plane, and he made an OK sign. "Our house," he said again, then shook his head slowly. I leveled the wings.

"The sky conditions should be clear all the way to the San Francisco Bay Area," I exulted. "Our flight path will take us offshore past Carpinteria and Santa Barbara, then in a curve around Point Conception and Point Arguello."

People who know what they are talking about say that death of a loved one sets off a chain of emotional states, including denial, anger, whatever. I was glad Herb agreed to our flight in Two-Four Fox. I must have been hoping that the sensations of flight would vanquish all those supposedly essential phases of the grieving process.

I handed the chart to Herb, and he turned it sideways to match our westerly heading.

He peered through the windscreen and asked, "How can you be sure we'll clear those hills?"

"What hills?"

Herb pointed ahead. I pretended to see them for the first time. "They're below the horizon."


"For all practical purposes," I explained, "the horizon is still level with us. So anything that appears below the horizon, whatever its distance, has to be underneath us."

The horizon is one of those counter-intuitive aspects of flight, like 'adverse yaw' in a turn and pushing forward to break a stall. As you climb higher and higher, you expect the horizon to get lower and lower. It does not. 

At 4,500 feet, the farthest point on the horizon is 250 miles away, but it has descended less than a hundredth of a degree. Why, for the horizon to drop a full degree, you would have to climb to an altitude of more than 70,000 feet! 

I am always amazed by that. Herb was not amazed.

His eyes unblinking were trained on the hills. "They're getting closer," he said.

"Plenty of AGL," I hollered. Soon enough we passed over them and descended toward the ocean.

Herb nodded. Still no smile.

Sandy beaches line the coves that separate California's cliffs; Pacific breakers charge the rocks below; scrub-brush and trees on the coastal hills sweep past our eyes, then more ocean, more rocks. We bank left to subtend a small bay. Now pull up slightly to clear an outcropping and bank right again, easing down to 500 feet.

Our first leg completed, we wheeled low over the sand dunes and glided into Oceano Airport.

Herb gave me a thumbs-up sign. He was misty-eyed and still solemn.

"After Oceano, Herb, I intend to stay low like that over the water, maneuvering amongst a hundred miles of rugged cliffs. Our Skylane will carry us past Big Sur, San Simeon, then Carmel by the Sea. Some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, my friend."

Herb nodded and stared at the sand.

Eight airports, ten take-offs and landings. That is what my log book shows for the day's flying.

Besides Orange County, Van Nuys, and Oceano, there was San Carlos to pick up Malcolm, an engineer and reluctant flier. We flew to Half-Moon Bay for lunch and to San Jose for the meeting -- the purpose of the trip. On we flew, landing at Oakland to drop off the albums for Herb's son, thence across the Bay to Palo Alto to drop off one of the engineers we met in the meeting. He was stoked about flying and came along just for the hell of it. I forget his name. We hopped back to San Carlos and said good-bye to Malcolm. It was dark when Herb and I prepared to depart San Carlos for Van Nuys, non-stop.

You can do that sometimes. Hoo-hah!

My prescription for Herb was a day spent airport hopping, flying low over the terrain with an ever expanding forward view. Let the feel of flight imbue him with a zest for new challenges. By the end of the day, I was beginning to weary of the effort and must have shown it. I made for a phone booth to call Flight Service.

"How 'bout giving me the next leg?" asked Herb with the beginning of a grin. "You look exhoo-asted."

I chuckled. "Whatever you say, Herb. I'll go ahead and get your weather briefing."

Said the voice on the phone: "Except for that invisible front across your course, you should get a pretty smooth ride." I put the phone on my shoulder and filed a flight plan, listing 5,500 feet as our cruise altitude.

"No sense going any higher than we have to," I told Herb as we strolled across the ramp. Two-Four Fox stood poised in the dark for yet another flight, this time the long trip south.

"What's an 'invisible froo-unt'?" asked Herb. I might have known he would want to know.

According to the books, I explained to Herb, a front is the boundary between two air masses. Usually one is advancing on the other. "That's how fronts are named," I said. "A cold front has cold air tunnelling under the warm stuff, lifting it and making clouds and interesting weather. Along a warm front, the advancing air, which is relatively warm, tends to flow up and over the colder air ahead, likewise forming clouds, usually higher up."

"Yeah, so what's 'invisible'?" Herb persisted.

I had already told Herb as much as I knew. "It probably just means air so dry that no clouds are formed."

"Proo-ubably," said Herb.

It was a moonless night. Two-Four Fox climbed patiently toward the stars. I dimmed the panel lights. After leveling off at 5,500 and trimming for cruise, I showed Herb how to operate the controls. He demonstrated a remarkable ability to perform the most difficult maneuver: straight and level flight. I reclined my seat.

Two hours went by, during which I coached Herb how to trim the forces out of the controls. Not a bump in the air. The lights that mark the coastline twinkled and drifted along below. North of Santa Maria, I gave Herb a heading of 126 degrees. That cut the corner above some low hills.

"Look at that, Herb," I remarked, breaking a long silence. "An updraft." I pointed at the vertical speed indicator. It showed our plane to be climbing at 400 feet-per-minute. We began to feel a light choppiness in the air. Herb was deftly working the control wheel. He nodded as we both watched the clock-like hands on the altimeter register the climb from our cruise altitude of 5,500 to over 6,000 feet MSL.

"Might as well take advantage of the situation," said I. "Go ahead and re-trim for a higher airspeed and let's get back down to where we belong."

During the next few minutes, our plane was balanced on the face of a gigantic wave in the sky, like a surfboard slicing toward the beach. I told Herb not to worry about the bumps. I handed him the mike and coached him through a position report as we passed abeam Solvang just inland of the coastal range.

"Two-Four Foxtrot, estimating Gaviota in five minutes. VFR to Van Nuys at about :25."

The radio crackled. "Roger your position report, Two-Four Fox. Santa Barbara altimeter: two-eight-niner-six. Good evening."

"Well done, Herb," I said. We were still riding the wave and getting an extra ten knots from the up-draft.

"What does that mean?" asked Herb.

"I beg your pardon?"

"What's the 'two-eight-...' -- whatever he said?"

"Barometer reading," I explained with a shrug. "We use it to correct our altimeter for the local atmospheric pressure." I reminded Herb of an earlier conversation, about all the things you need to know in order to determine your altitude above ground level. "Barometric pressure is just one of those things."

In all my flying before that night, I had never needed to make more than a slight adjustment in altimeter setting no matter how long the flight.

"Not a bad idea to enter it, though," I added with nonchalance. "What was it again -- 28.96, I believe." I reached for the knob on the altimeter.

At that moment, something did not seem right. The lights of Santa Barbara had disappeared behind the Gaviota Hills ahead. I checked the altimeter. Herb had us level at 5,500 feet, exactly where we wanted to be. I turned up the chart light and took a close look. The highest terrain between us and Santa Barbara was a brownish ridge, and the highest point on that hill was marked at 4,298 feet MSL. Nothing to worry about.

"See, Herb, you just 'tweak' the knob until 28.96 appears in this little window here, and..."

I twisted the knob, then twisted some more. More than a tweak! The numbers in the Kollsman window became smaller -- while the hands on the altimeter rotated counter-clockwise, indicating a lower elevation MSL. Further, then further.

Holy shit!

"I've got it, Herb!" I pulled Two-Four Fox up sharply into a steep climb, turning right -- toward the coastline and away from that goddam hill. The airspeed bled off, approaching a stall. I shoved everything into the panel and adjusted the elevator pressure for best angle-of-climb. Nothing to do but hold on and wait.

The lights of Santa Barbara gradually re-appeared beyond the hills, now on our left.

Herb folded his arms. He deserved an explanation. I had to think a moment.

"It was not an up-draft back there, after all," I rasped. "We went through a whopping drop in atmospheric pressure. Gave us an altimeter error of -- God almighty, hundreds of feet!"

We flew for long minutes without speaking. So much for my grandiose therapeutics, I thought to myself. Terror is hardly a remedy for grief.

Herb remembered the weather briefing before I did. "Invisible froo-unt, I'll bet."

I did not see Herb much after that night and soon moved to New England. Nineteen years went by.

Flying high above the San Fernando valley one night, I heard a familiar voice on the radio giving a position report.

"Niner-One Hotel, out of six thousand, for Van Noo-ise."

Herb and his new wife fly a Warrior. They met in the Peace Corps.

Home Page
Table of Contents
Contact Author